She was too busy flashing hot and cold.
Great glorious God, she was being given a chance to work a long-term assignment under the command of a living legend. His exploits in Vietnam were legendary—along with his more recent creation of the Gray Group. Robinson’s Gray Group was so highly classified, so top secret, she could only guess the type of assignments he handed out. But she could guess. Dangerous. Covert. Intensely important to national security.
And she was going to be part of one.
Zoe’s heart was pounding as if she had just run five miles. She took a deep breath, calming herself as the admiral introduced her to the rest of the room. By the time fourteen pairs of very male eyes focused on her, she was completely back in control. Calm. Cool. Collected. Positively serene.
Except thirteen of those fourteen pairs of very male eyes didn’t seem to notice how absolutely serene she was. Instead, they all focused on her ponytail and her little blue flowers. She could read their speculation quite clearly. She was the secretary, right? Sent in to take notes while the big strong men talked.
Guess again, boys.
“Dr. Zoe Lange is one of the top experts in the country—possibly in the world—in biological and chemical weapons,” Jake Robinson told them in his husky baritone voice.
Around the room, eyebrows went up. Zoe could almost smell the skepticism. Across the table, the admiral’s eyes were sparkling with amusement. Clearly, the skepticism’s stench was strong enough for him to smell it, as well.
“Dr. Lange works for Pat Sullivan,” he added matter-of-factly, and the mood in the room instantly changed. The Agency. He didn’t even need to say the name of the organization. They all knew what it was—and what she did for a living. Admiral Robinson had known exactly what to say to make them all sit up and take notice of her, little blue flowers or not. She sent him a smile of thanks.
“I truly appreciate your being able to join us here today, Doctor.” The admiral smiled at her, and it was all Zoe could do not to melt at his feet.
It was true. Everything she’d ever read or heard about Jake Robinson’s smile was absolutely true. It was warm and genuine. It was completely inclusive. It lit him from within, made his eyes even more blue. It made her want to follow him anywhere. Anywhere.
“It’s my pleasure, Admiral,” she murmured. “I’m honored that you invited me. I hope I can be of assistance.”
“Actually—” his face sobered “—it’s unfortunate that we need your assistance.” He looked around the table, all amusement gone from his eyes. “Two weeks ago, there was a break-in at the Arches military testing lab just outside of Boulder, Colorado.”
Zoe stopped watching the man’s eyes and started paying attention to his words. A break-in. At Arches. Holy Mike.
She wasn’t the only one shifting uneasily in her seat. Beside her, Senior Chief Becker was downright uncomfortable, as were most of the other SEALs. Like Zoe, they all knew what was tested at Arches. They all knew what was stored there, as well. Anthrax. Botulinum toxin. Sarin. The lethal nerve gas VX. And the newest manmade tool of death and chemical destruction, Triple X.
The last time Zoe had been in Arches, she’d written a hundred-and-fifty-page report on the weaknesses in their security system. She wondered now if anyone at all had bothered to read it.
“The break-in was done without force, without forced entry, even,” the admiral continued. “Six canisters of a deadly nerve agent were removed and replaced—it was only by dumb luck we discovered the switch.”
Zoe couldn’t stand it a minute longer. “Admiral, what exactly was taken?”
Stonegate and several of the other high-ranking officers were looking at her as if she deserved to get her mouth washed for speaking out of order. But she didn’t give a damn. She needed to know. And Jake Robinson didn’t seem to mind.
He met her gaze steadily, and she saw the answer in his eyes even before he opened his mouth to speak. It was the worst possible scenario she could imagine.
Trip X. Six canisters? Oh, God.
She realized she’d said the words aloud as he nodded. “Oh, God is right,” he agreed with rather grim humor.
“Dr. Lange, perhaps I could impose upon you to explain exactly what Triple X is, as well as our options for dealing with this little problem.”
Little problem? Holy Mike, this was no little problem. “Our options for dealing with it are extremely simple, sir,” she said. “We have only one option—there are no choices here. We need to find and regain possession of the missing canisters. Believe me, gentlemen, Triple X is not something we want floating around out there. And particularly not six canisters’ worth.” She looked at the admiral. “How in God’s name did this happen?”
“How’s not important right now,” he told her almost gently. “Right now we need to focus on what. Please continue, Doctor.”
Zoe nodded. The thought of six canisters of Triple X set loose on the unsuspecting world made her blood feel like ice water as it flowed through her veins. It was terrifying. And she wasn’t used to feeling terrified, even though her job was a frightening one most of the time. She spent hours upon hours learning the awful details of all the different weapons of mass destruction that were out there, ready to wreak havoc on the planet. But she’d learned to sleep dreamlessly at night, untouched by nightmares. She’d learned to sit impassively while reading reports of countries that tested chemical weapons on prisoners and the infirm. Women and children.
But six missing canisters of Trip X …
That scared her to death.
Still, she took a deep breath and stood up, because she’d also learned how to give tight, to-the-point, emotionless information even when she was badly shaken.
“Triple X is currently the nastiest chemical weapon in the world,” she reported. “It’s twenty times more potent than the nerve agent VX, and like VX, it kills by paralysis. Get a noseful of Triple X, gentlemen, and you choke to death, because your lungs, like the other muscles in your body, slowly seize up. Trip X or Tri X or T-X. It’s all the same thing—airborne death.”
Zoe moved around the table to the whiteboard that was on the wall behind Admiral Robinson. She picked up a marker and scribbled the two chemical components on the board, labeling them A and B.
“Trip X is a triple compound, which makes it far more stable to store and transport. It also makes it far more adaptable as a weapon.” She pointed to the board. “These two compounds are stored dry, in powder forms that are, on their own, relatively harmless. But just like Betty Crocker’s dromedary gingerbread mix, just add water. And then it’s time to put your gas mask on. Instant poison. It’s that easy, boys. You get me two balloons, about a teaspoonful each of Trip X compounds A and B, both harmless in dried form, remember, and a little H2O laced with some acid or lye, and I can make a weapon that will take out this entire building—the entire Pentagon—as well as a good number of people on the street. Water sealed in one balloon, which is tucked inside of the other, which is also filled with air and that little bit of compounds A and B. A little acid or lye in the water eats through the rubber. Balloon springs a leak, water hits old A and B. It causes a chemical reaction that creates both a liquid and a gaseous form of Triple X, sending it out into the air, and eventually through the building’s ventilation system, killing everyone who comes into contact with it.”
The room was dead silent as she put the marker down.
Jake Robinson had taken his seat as she’d started her little lecture, turning to face her as she’d