Excerpt: The Phoenix Law

Book Three of the Strongbox Chronicles

Outnumbered, five to one. A single woman, standing against the enemy. Alisha darted to the left, as much to gauge her opponents’ actions as to gain ground. They were women, all of them, unusual in Alisha’s line of experience. A decade’s experience as a CIA agent had exposed her to facets of the world most people never saw, and those who did see it tended to be the male part of the population. Maybe it was the thrill of the chase, or that the underworld she’d seen so much of was often violent, and men were fonder of danger.

But not today. Today it was just the girls, as if the agencies behind Mr. & Mrs. Smith had come out of the woodwork to play in the real world. There was a certain exhilaration to it, pitting herself against trained warriors of her own gender. The only disappointment was being unable to use her own secret weapon, an upper body strength that outstripped many women and men alike.

Get your mind in the game, Leesh.

The group around her surged and closed in, as if hearing Alisha’s silent admission that she wasn’t paying as much attention as she should. A broad-shouldered redhead smashed into her path, and Alisha cursed, stomach muscles clenching as she slid in mud and grass, searching for escape.

A quick glance around told her it was fruitless. The only way out was retreat, and under the circumstances, Alisha couldn’t bring herself to do it. Voices bellowed in the background, carried on the wind. Preternatural hearing, the honed result of years of combat training, allowed her to pick out individuals from the cacophany, but the words and phrases all came down to the same need that drove her: go!

A possible escape route opened up, two of her opponents spreading out further than was wise. Alisha feinted, crashing her shoulder into another woman’s, forcing her to close the escape route that had opened. It gave Alisha rebound: she bounced off the closing wall and dove in the opposite direction, hands leading as if she’d break the earth like it was water. A whistle blew somewhere in the distance, shrill reminder that time was growing short.

Mud spattered between her fingers and a yell sounded above her, muscular calves and muddy shins suddenly everywhere as she slid through the redhead’s legs. Cleated shoes danced around her, instinct preventing their wearers from stepping on her, and then Alisha was on her feet again, one giant mud slick from chin to knees. It was a matter of yards now, less than ten. Eight; five. My life, Alisha thought, not for the first time, is a series of countdowns.

A projectile flew at her head. She whipped toward it, pushing all the strength in her body downward so she could shove herself skyward. Airborne velocity met the thing flying at her and she smashed her forehead against it, driving it toward the earth. Through brightness brought on by the impact she saw first startlement, then dismay cross her last opponent’s face.

The ball hit the ground with a wet splat, and Alisha dropped after it, bringing her foot around in a roundhouse kick that smashed its checkered surface past the goalie and into the net behind her.

Cheers and laughter and good-natured grumbling erupted around her. The goalie climbed to her feet, shins covered in muck from hitting the ground a moment too late to stop the ball. “Anybody ever mention you’ve got a competitive streak, Ali? Good game.”

“Thanks.” Alisha wiped a muddy arm across her face, compounding the damage done by the soccer ball, then put a hand up for help in rising. Three hands closed around her wrist and forearm and she was pulled to her feet as if she weighed nothing. “You played a good game, too.”

“Ali doesn’t think it’s a game.” The big redhead came up beside her, panting for air as she grinned down at Alisha. “It’s all life and death with you, isn’t it?”

Alisha tilted her head toward the goalie. “Like Kendra said, I’ve got a competitive streak. Keeps me young. Or maybe it’s the yoga. I get confused. Whoop, incoming.” She stepped away from the gathering teams to brace herself for impact: three boys crashed into her, wrapping their arms around her ribs, hips and thigh, as could be easily reached according to their height. Alisha laughed, ruffling muddy hands through their hair. “Your mother’s going to kill me. You guys are filthy now.”

“You can hose us off before we get in the car. That was cool, Aunt Alisha! You totally kicked their butts!” The oldest boy looked up with sheer adoration in his eyes, making Alisha laugh again.

“I had a little help, Timothy. I wasn’t the only one on the field.” Alisha nodded toward her teammates, reaching over Timothy’s head to shake hands with the losing scrimmage team.

“You were the best,” he said with an eight-year-old’s loyalty.

“You’re just saying that because you hope I’ll bring you out for ice cream once we’re all cleaned up.”

“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!” The clamor rose up like the trio were boy-shaped bells, jumping up and down around her. Alisha laughed and swatted at Timothy’s backside.

“Go get yourselves washed up, and promise not to tell your mother I’ve ruined your dinners, okay? Timothy, hold Anthony’s hand, all right? I don’t want him near the cars without someone big keeping an eye on him.”

Timothy puffed up with the responsibility and took not just Anthony, the littlest’s, hand, but the middle boy, Rodney’s, as well. They charged across the field, Timothy’s longer legs giving him enough of a lead that he all but dragged the other two in his wake. Alisha grinned broadly, watching them go.

“Surprised you don’t have any of your own, the way you dote on those three.” The big redhead knocked her shoulder against Alisha’s, smiling. “You could take mine, if you wanted.”

“The best part is being able to give them back to their mother when they’re all wound up and I’m tired, Val.” Alisha winked and offered a hand. “Great game. That was a blast.”

Val huffed a laugh and shook hands. “Nice dodge. Yeah, good game. Will you and Eva be at the barbeque on Saturday?”

“Along with the whole crew,” Alisha said with a nod. “I’d better catch up with them. See you Saturday.”

Val waved her off and Alisha strode across the field, watching her nephews slide in the mud and spatter themselves further. An unfamiliar burble welled up inside her, bursting into bubbles of delight she allowed to come forth as laughter. No, she corrected herself, not entirely unfamiliar. Just new. Contentment. A young adulthood spent as a spy had given her many things–adventure, excitement, thrills beyond belief, but even as she’d completed missions successfully, she’d rarely, if ever, felt the ease of contentment. It had been a high-stakes job, and the feeling associated with doing it well had been pride and–Alisha twisted her mouth in a wry smile. Arrogance, she admitted. Arrogance, if that’s what being better than the bad guys was. Satisfaction, but there wasn’t anything relaxing about the life she’d left behind, and after ten months away from that world, even moments of missing it could be soothed by a good soccer game.

Keep telling yourself that, Leesh.

“Aunt Ali, hurry up!”

Alisha smiled, glad for the distraction. She’d thought the old habit of her own nickname was something that would fade away as she took part in a civilian life, but even now the dichotomy struck her. To everyone–her family, her friends, even her former coworkers, who should have known better–she was Ali, a soft-sounding name that went with heart-shaped features and tawny curls that were growing out after being burned away in the adventure that had forced her to walk away from the Agency. But Alisha thought of herself as Leesh, the combat-trained tough girl who out-thought and out-fought her opponents in the field. Ali was useful, superficially frothy, the sort of delicate-seeming woman that a man might hold a door for, but Leesh would kick the door down and never look back. That was the woman Alisha MacAleer knew herself to be, and the facade that everyone else seemed to see never failed to surprise her.

Not everyone. The thought intruded, semi-welcome. One man had hit on her secret nickname, seeing her the way Alisha saw herself. His insight into her psyche had been part of Frank Reichart’s appeal, though the long legs and dark, knowing gaze hadn’t hurt either. Nor had the untamed intelligence mercenary lifestyle he’d chosen, for that matter. He had been things Alisha’d thought she’d wanted–until their engagement had ended with him putting a bullet in her shoulder.

Alisha twisted a smile at herself and picked up her pace. “I’m old!” she yelled at her nephew. “Old people are slow!”

“You’re not old,” Timothy shouted in disgust. “Mom is old!”

Alisha burst out laughing as she caught up with the muddy trio. “Your mom’s younger than I am, Timmy.”

Consternation wrinkled the boy’s forehead. “My name’s Timothy, Aunt Ali, I told you that a zillion times.”

“A zillion, huh? Were you counting?”

“Yeah.” Timothy looked affronted and Alisha lifted her hands in acquiesence, grinning.

“Okay. Timothy. Help your brothers wash their hands and faces, Timothy.” Alisha pulled the steel cord on the closest shower, sending a deluge of sun-warm water over her outstretched hands. It hit the ground already brown with mud, and she splashed the cooling liquid over her face, removing the worst of her game scars.

Scars. A funny choice of words, she thought. She pushed water through her hair, letting her fingers come to rest at the base of her spine for just an instant. A tiny block of real scar tissue lay there, remenant of one of her narrowest escapes. Testament, too, to having trusted the wrong man, though it hadn’t been Reichart that time. It’d been a man she wanted badly to trust, in part because he shared none of Reichart’s bad-boy appeal. Brandon Parker.

Alisha barely let herself form the name even in her thoughts, aware that her lips wanted to shape the words and make them real. Parker–it was safer to think of him as Parker, removing herself from the intimacy of first names–had been her CIA handler’s son, and the semi-willing agent of a deadly secret organization that had nearly cost Alisha her life more than once. Alisha breathed a laugh and turned the water off. Her inutterably lousy taste in men would be the stuff of enormous teasing at her sister’s hands, if she dared share the stories of her history with her family.

“Everybody clean? Jer, you have a mud stripe on your nose.” Alisha reached across the shower to wipe her hand over the littlest boy’s nose, leaving a wet streak of muddy water there. He squealed indignantly, rubbing his face, and glowered up at her with such enthusiasm that she laughed and scooped him up. “Mean ol’ Aunt Ali. Should I buy ice cream to make up for it?”

“Chess,” he said with satisfaction. Alisha grinned and turned him upside-down, ignoring his happy howls of protest as she lugged him toward the car.

Car. It’s a mini-van, Leesh. How far the studly have fallen. The only thing saving her dignity was that the vehicle belonged to her sister, borrowed for the purposes of driving three children around. Alisha strapped Rodney into his car seat with the ease of long practice, though she couldn’t remember doing it more than half a dozen times. Body memory was a wonderful thing, honed both through years of yoga and a decade’s training to physical action that could save her life if performed without a thought.

“I wanna sit in front, Aunt Ali!” Timothy turned a hopeful, guileless gaze on her, expression turning to evident heart-felt devastation when she snorted and pointed toward the seat behind Jeremy’s.

“I’m not getting a ticket just so you can prove you’re a big boy, Timothy. What kind of ice cream do you want?” The question led to cheerful bickering all the way to the ice cream shop, with Timothy making up flavors of ice cream and Anthony, usually quiet, adamantly repeating, “Vanilla,” without regard to Timothy’s increasingly exotic suggestions. Alisha, still smiling at the boys, pulled up to a drive-through window she was grateful for, and leaned out. “A scoop of anything with “mud” in the name,” she requested, “a scoop of vanilla, a scoop of chocolate, and a scoop of pralines and cream. All kid-sized and all on sugar cones, please.”

“But I want a big cone!” Timothy objected. Alisha arched an eyebrow at him in the rear-view mirror.

“You can have a kid-sized scoop or nothing, Charlie. Take your pick.”

“Kid sized,” he said promptly. Alisha nodded in an I-thought-so and paid for the ice cream, handing the cones back as they came in and keeping the last for herself. “Try not to get ice cream all over yourselves,” she pleaded. “Or all over your mom’s car. Okay?”

One out of two wasn’t bad, she decided several minutes later, as the boys tumbled out of the mini-van and thundered into her house. The car, at least, was more or les unscathed, though the children were shedding dried mud and drips of ice cream as they went. “So this is a normal life,” she said out loud, garnering a wry enjoyment from the words.

“I’d say it suits you.”

Ten months, two weeks, four days. The numbers sprang to Alisha’s mind without thought: the length of time since she’d heard the voice that spoke the words. A man’s tenor, wearier than she’d ever heard it. Brandon Parker, whose easy laughter and all-American athletic look had almost seduced her to her death. Brandon Parker, whose genius had created the artificially intelligent drones and gliders that had more than once hunted Alisha down, considering her a worthy enemy of the Sicarii organization.

She hadn’t felt the muscles in her stomach tighten, but became aware of their strain, a tremble that was precursor to fight-or-flight. Fight was her choice of preference, though Alisha deliberately loosened her fingers from the fists they curled themselves into. It took conscious thought to turn toward the line of trees that shadowed the side of her house, picking Brandon’s form out of the semi-darkness there.

His hair had grown out of the usual sharp, preppy style he wore, falling to his cheekbones in shags that made him look more skater boy than scientist. He’d lost weight, until his fine cheekbones were hollowed, making him look haggard instead of handsome, and the smile he offered clearly cost him in energy.

“I’d say it suits you,” Brandon said again, “but I hope to God it doesn’t.”

“What are you doing here, Brandon?” The question came out before Alisha could stop it, though even as she spoke she lifted a hand sharply, cutting off the reply. “You can’t be here,” she said instead, keeping her voice low. “This is my life, Brandon. My family is here. Whatever your reason for being here, it can’t be good for them. You need to go.” She could hear the steel in her words, overriding curiosity without mercy.

“I have nowhere to go, Alisha. You’re the only person I can trust.”

Alisha took a few quick steps away from the car, both glad for the snap of cleats against concrete and wishing the shoes were silent. “You’re not hearing me, Parker. Those are my nephews in there. I don’t give a damn who you can’t trust. You need to go.”

“Alisha.” Her name broke as he said it, desperation coloring the single word. “Alisha, I did it. Or she did it. Christ, I barely even know. I’ve got all the paperwork, the research and the files, but they’re hunting me–us–and we have nowhere else to go.”

Alisha thrust her jaw out, taking one more step toward the blond scientist. “You’re not making any sense, and I don’t want you here.”

“Alisha, I created an AI.”

The fists Alisha had deliberately loosened re-formed. “I know, Brandon,” she said through her teeth. “I’ve been chased down by half a dozen of them.” She flickered a hand at her hair, forcing her fingers to open again. “Remember?” The scent of singeing curls came back to her, and the pain of skin blistering. Laser blasts from a Firebird, one of Brandon’s air-born death fliders, had cost Alisha her hair, though it had just barely spared her life. The still-short locks were a reminder of the world she’d walked away from ten months earlier.

“You don’t understand,” Brandon blurted. “She’s sentient.”

From THE PHOENIX LAW

The Phoenix Law

Cate Dermody

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