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Danger Zone

Danger Zone

The plane shimmied. Even with a ninety percent hearing loss, Benjamin Thigpen, special consultant to Homeland Security, detected a faint droning whine.

"Attention, please. We are experiencing severe turbulence. Please fasten your seatbelts as we begin our final descent into Milwaukee." Thiggy read the flight attendant's lips while the seatbelt sign at the front of the Boeing 757 seconded the motion to fasten up.

"This could be a rough one," he said, speaking to the young woman dressed in United States Air Force dress blues in the seat next to him.

She looked up from the book she'd been absorbed in since they'd left D.C., glanced out the window at the sea of white curtaining the window, and then turned a pair of extraordinary eyes on him. Eyes the color of a stormy ocean, perhaps the color of a tempest-tossed Lake Michigan if one could see Lake Michigan as they prepared to land at Mitchell International in a near blizzard.

The plane bucked. A vibration buzzed Thiggy's forearm where it pressed against the armrest. He sensed the reduction in thrust and a slight forward tilt as he watched the young woman's face to read her reply. It wasn't a hardship. Flawless creamy skin. Thick dark hair with golden highlights. And as if he hadn't noticed immediately, midnight black lashes framed her navy blue eyes.

"Don't worry, I'm sure the pilot knows what he's doing," she assured. The aircraft bobbled. When the woman with knock-out eyes shifted, he noticed the silver wings on her uniform. An Air Force pilot. Probably an Air Force Academy graduate, definitely a commissioned officer, who had toughed out training as extreme as Thiggy's basics--at least before he'd progressed to the ranks of Delta Force. This woman had endured land survival, water survival, and pilot training. Yeah, she'd been through hell, but she'd also touched heaven.

All of which probably accounted for her calm, deliberate movements when she slid the tray against the seat in front of her and moved her chair to the upright position. Her composure went a long way toward convincing him they weren't about to crash and burn.

But he hadn't been tossed around in the sky like this since the day his buddy had loaded him into a basket attached to a Pave Hawk, and he'd fled Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. It was the day he'd realized his world had gone silent.

Slightly less harrowing than evading surface to air missiles, today's descent was still a nail-biter. The passenger jet with one-hundred-and-eighty-two souls aboard rode out the storm, the air speed dropping, the rate of descent increasing. The speed brakes engaged. The flaps. The landing gear deployed and locked into place. Thiggy told himself the pilot would have preset the brakes for "max auto" to cope with the slick runway.

While they buffeted through the altitude changes into the land of horizontal snow and zero visibility, visions from the past flooded his mind. The sensation of whipping about like bait on a snagged fish line. A rocket's red glare lighting up the sky. The Pave chopper gyrating, bouncing, and wobbling like a toy piloted by a six-year-old with a remote control.

He slammed back to the present when the plane's wheels nicked the tarmac, clung to the snowy strip for a few seconds, thudded, and then hop scotched.

They slid at an angle, free style, probably for mere seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Runway lights streaked across the whiteout, creating glowing trails like time-lapse photography until streams of gold and green and red finally morphed into recognizable beacons lining the runway, and the 757 jerked to a halt.

The first lieutenant joined Thiggy in glancing around the cabin. The cargo storage doors had held. Like shell-shocked zombies, everyone aboard sat unmoving, still strapped into their seats. When he and the Air Force officer faced each other, he noticed her smooth, strong fingers were entwined with his.

"I think we ricocheted off a hunk of ice or something on the runway," she said. "That little maneuver wasn't the pilot's fault."

Thiggy nodded and concentrated on bringing his heart rate back to normal while the plane slowly taxied to the terminal.

He wondered if surviving the ordeal bound him to the first lieutenant in some celestial way. Were they now kindred souls? At the very least, surviving the rock-and-roll landing together should merit the exchange of email addresses.

Shaken passengers waited for the seatbelt sign to go off then scurried to retrieve their bags from the overhead bins. Thiggy waited while those in the front half of the plane jammed the aisle. He waited for the harried voyagers to push forward. Then he waited for an opportune moment to make his self-sanctioned move on the woman with navy blue eyes.

He stood, as did the airwoman. About to reach for both of their carry-ons, he found himself eye-to-eye with her. In her heels, she nearly matched his six-foot tall frame. He knew she didn't need his assistance with fetching her bag. The way she stood, tall and straight, said she didn't need assistance with anything.

Not that he was intimidated by independent, strong women who could fend for themselves. Which made the thought flit through his mind that she could probably hold her own in a little uno on uno combat. Again, something he tended not to worry about at the swap-email-address-stage, but maybe something he'd ponder at the swap-saliva-stage. Moot point, because his encounters with beautiful females seldom progressed to the deep, wet kisses phase.

But...hmm...was that drool he felt trickling down his chin?

Once he retrieved his bag, only one piece of luggage remained in the storage compartment. He slid it forward. "This must be yours...ah, ma'am?"

"Katrice. Katrice Kennedy. Thanks." She reached for the olive duffle. Sturdy zipper. Locked with a mini padlock. Unusually heavy for its size.

Their eyes held for a moment before she noticed the bag.

"Wait, this isn't mine." She stared at the nametag.

Thiggy looked up and down the aisle at the thinning crowd. "It's the only one left."

"Someone must have grabbed mine by mistake." Her glance shot toward the exiting passengers. "Oh--that man in the trench coat--" She raised her voice, "Sir--"

A look of panic tainted her until-now calm, cool, and collected face. She hurried toward the front, bringing along the duffle. Thiggy, not having succeeded in his email plan, decided to play shadow as they followed the guy who had mistakenly taken Katrice's bag. Get the bag, get the email. While they merged with the swarm of people filing out of the plane and into the concourse, he concentrated on how he'd execute his next move once they straightened out the bag mishap. Would you care to join me for a drink?

But wait a minute. He had an assignment at the Milwaukee Art Museum, not to peruse the Georgia O'Keeffe collection or a dazzling Impressionism display, but to follow up on the security operation he'd masterminded. He mentally sighed. Maybe he and the Air Force officer were destined to be merely ships that passed in the night after all.

On the other hand--he glanced at his watch--it was nineteen hundred. Even though he'd drafted Operation Safe Passage, he wasn't due at the debriefing with the Joint Terrorism Task Force until after the president of Shirakistan made his visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum and then safely departed. The "after" burned his butt, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it since he'd been relieved from active duty because of an injury he'd sustained on his previous assignment. On the bright side, he had an hour give or take.

"Hey--he's getting onto the escalator." Katrice craned her neck, pointing to the young man who stood out above the crowd. "That's got to be my bag."

"Excuse me, Sir!" Thiggy charged after the guy, whom he recognized as the college-age male who'd been seated in front of him during the flight. Caucasian, towering somewhere between six-and-a-half and seven feet tall, unruly reddish-blond shoulder-length hair secured in a ponytail, wearing an 80's style trench coat. Yeah, recognizing details was ingrained in Benjamin Thigpen's MO thanks not only to his Delta Force training, but to his life before the military as a Shadow Wolf.

Thiggy scrambled, and Katrice followed, pushing through a boisterous group of teenagers wearing Music for Youth badges, some carrying musical instruments.

By the time they squeezed through the mob and began their descent, Trench Coat Man had hit the ground floor and was shoving through the crowded lobby toward the exit.

****

As Katrice and the man who'd flown in from D.C. next to her raced toward the exit, an announcement spewed from the loudspeakers. "All departing flights have been cancelled." Great. Air travel had come to a halt. That would put her connecting flight in limbo, but it appeared automobiles were forging the storm. Through a set of glass doors, she noticed the guy in the trench coat disappear into a white vehicle that had been waiting by the curb.

Less than a minute later, she stood in the cold in front of the terminal building, shivering and watching the car's taillights shrink to small red dots as it skated away between parallel heaps of plowed snow. With her bag. A gnawing sensation riled her stomach. She glanced around and searched for a cab.

She couldn't lose that bag.

Her traveling companion followed her to the curb and stood shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He cleared his throat and said, "Just so you know, Katrice, I'm not some nutcase stalker." He held out his wallet, flashing Homeland Security I.D. and a timid smile. "Benjamin Thigpen."

"Whew..." She offered the best rendition of a smile she could muster at the moment and waved at an approaching taxi. "You had me worried there for a minute."

Then she took a moment to assess. Thigpen was almost, but not quite as tall as the scruffy bag-snatcher. His high cheekbones subtly indicated some measure of American Indian blood pumped through his veins. His dark, neatly trimmed hair suggested possible military background. His ripped physique said he was hot. And he definitely was not the stalker type.

Not only didn't she mind sharing her cab with the security specialist, under different circumstances she wouldn't have minded getting to know him a little better.

The cab she'd hailed pulled up, Thigpen whipped open the door, and Katrice climbed in. "Follow that car." It sounded like a line from a B movie. But she had to get her bag back.

While she scooted across the seat and plunked the olive carry-on down, Thigpen ducked his head and planted a large loafer-clad foot on the floor mat. He'd barely wedged his muscled frame into the back seat when the cabby took off.

They exited the airport grounds and merged into moderate to heavy traffic, slogging along the freeway in the post-blizzard twilight. Seven inches of snow didn't seem to faze Milwaukeeans. At least it didn't faze Fred Gonzolez, their driver, according to the picture I.D. attached to the visor. Fred merrily stomped the gas pedal and attempted to make fast tracks along I94 to 794, skidding here, sliding there, following the absconder into the heart of the city.

"I'm sorry. Where were you headed?" Katrice asked Thigpen.

He gently turned her face toward his. "I read lips, you'll have to face me when you speak."

She stared into his dark eyes, his statement taking her by surprise. Now she remembered how intently those eyes had held hers whenever she spoke. She repeated, "Where were you headed? And do you mind--"

"The Milwaukee Art Museum. But I'm not due there for awhile. So yeah, I can stick around until you catch up with your bag."

She nodded, then turned her attention toward the white car, which was fleeing into the night with her most precious possession.

"It's a Toyota Camry," Benjamin Thigpen said then joined her in visually tracking the car.

"Don't worry, this hombre won't get away." Tooling around cautious cars, Fred took to the role of NASCAR driver with gusto and quickly gained on the get-away vehicle. And yes, they were exceeding the optimum safe speed merited for the conditions, but as long as they didn't get pulled over by a cop, Katrice didn't mind.

Well, she didn't mind until twenty minutes into the chase, when they exited the freeway, attempted to merge onto North Lincoln Memorial Drive, and spun out.

Her heart sank. "Don't lose him."

By the time Fred shifted to reverse, back to drive, cranked the wheel, throttled the gas, and finally maneuvered the cab in the right direction, the Camry's rear lights were dragon's eyes in the distance.

"They don't call me Speedy Gonzoles for nothing." Fred gunned it and proved himself worthy of the title, once more gaining on the Toyota.

Katrice leaned forward. The thermometer on the dash said the subfreezing temperatures had deteriorated to subzero. Maybe the smoking tires would warm things up a bit. She glanced out the passenger side window. The sky had cleared to black velvet haloed by a rainbow of haze from the city lights. From that canvas, as they headed for the eastern edge of downtown Milwaukee, an illuminated ship-like structure rose above the snow-covered shore of Lake Michigan.

Just when they edged to within a couple car lengths of the Toyota, the cab started a sideways glide, the curb racing toward them. Fred spewed a litany in Spanish and turned the wheels into the slide. Horns honked, brakes squealed, and somehow the taxi returned to forward-advance-mode and locked in on their target as it turned onto North Art Museum Drive.

"Holy--" Thigpen's jaw dropped. "What are the odds? This is exactly where I was headed. The Quadracci Pavilion. The Milwaukee Art Museum."

While keeping tabs on the Toyota, Katrice marveled at the Gothic cathedral-inspired fortress. "It has wings."

"They're moveable sunscreens." Fred pumped the brakes and glanced into the rearview mirror, flashing a set of wide white teeth.

"Two hundred seventeen foot wingspan..." Thigpen added, then shrugged, his photogenic cheekbones lifting in a reserved smile. "I've been doing my homework."

"Wow..." Katrice curved a grin back at him. Something about Thigpen's obvious tough outer shell combined with a school-boy shyness appealed to her. "Very impressive," she said, turning her attention toward the Toyota.

"Designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava," Fred piped in.

The Camry pulled into the passenger drop-off area near the entrance of the ultra modern building and parked between a limo and a Jeep outfitted with a plow blade. Fred eased his foot onto the brake pedal and swerved into a spot several cars behind the Jeep. At the same moment, the front passenger door of the Camry opened, and the man in the trench coat shot out. Katrice immediately fumbled for taxi fare.

Thigpen leaned over, handed Fred a fifty, then ripped open the door. "Keep the change."

"Gracias." Fred beamed a huge smile.

While the man toting Katrice's bag scuttled away, hustling toward the entrance, she bolted out of the cab, Thigpen behind her with both his bag and the mistaken duffle in hand.

He yelled, "Sir, wait, you've got the wrong--"

The man ignored Thigpen and ran into the building.

Katrice jogged along with the HS agent toward a set of glass doors nestled in the shadows of a footbridge, sheltered beneath an arched concrete buttress.

Inside, she took the lead, dashing up white marble stairs to the admission desk, only to have the woman in charge say, "I'm sorry, the museum is closed to the public this evening."

Eyeing a sign posted on the counter, Katrice argued, "But the schedule says you're open until eight on Thursdays."

"Yes, Thursday usually is our late night, but the schedule is subject to change. There's a special program tonight. President Mohammad Mahid will be arriving shortly. Sorry, but our doors will be open to the public again tomorrow at ten a.m., at which time you can view the morning ritual, the opening of the wings--the Burke Brise Soleil."

Her chest knotting, Katrice looked around for the lanky man in the trench coat and tried to keep the irritated edge from her voice. "But I just saw someone enter, and he has my--"

"Oh, that was one of our wait staff. UWM art students are helping the Milwaukee Art Guild, which is hosting a reception for the dignitaries. Again, I'm sorry, but all patrons must vacate the premises now. Only authorized members of the staff are allowed to enter at this time."

Okay, don't panic. You are a trained officer of the United States Air Force. Katrice Kennedy had nerves of steel. She was capable of throttling an F-22 at supersonic speeds without a waiver of her pulse rate or a rise in her blood pressure. So why was she hyperventilating over losing the contents of her duffle? Was she slowly losing it? Her composure? Her self-control? Her stability?

But, she had to retrieve her bag.

In desperation, she glanced at Thigpen. He pulled her aside. "Let me handle this."

After a brief exchange with the gatekeeper, where Thigpen established that he was Homeland Security, and in which he and Katrice were given permission to enter, he directed her toward one of many strategically placed white marble benches and hefted the drab green satchel onto it. He flipped over the nametag. "Allen L. Ingers."

Katrice stared at the tag a moment and then steadied her gaze on Thigpen's and said, "Ingers, a college student, flew all the way in from D.C. to serve dinner at the Milwaukee Art Museum?"

"Nice to know I'm not the only one with a suspicious mind. I don't like this."

"I agree. Something's not right." But they could be barking up the wrong duffel bag. "All we've really got is a college kid, supposedly an art student, who mistakenly walked off with my duffle."

****

"So, I guess no one could accuse us of profiling." Thiggy turned the name Allen L. Ingers around in his mind. A.L.I. ...Ali?

"Whatever happens, I really need to get my bag back."

The desperate look on Katrice's face made Thiggy wonder what the hell she had stashed in her carry-on luggage. It didn't matter. He'd climb Mt. Everest to retrieve anything she treasured that much.

"Don't worry, we'll get it back. I promise. Come on, let's go find this guy." He nodded to the woman at the ticket counter when they walked by, and then he and Katrice ran down another set of white marble stairs that led to one of the lower levels, to Cafe Calatrava. "If he's a legitimate member of the wait staff, we should find him in the kitchen, right?"

Wrong. Ingers was not around. Not in the kitchen or the cafe. Not in the restrooms. Nor the locker room, where Thiggy noted two lockers with missing keys. Which meant they were in use--after hours--after the museum browsers had vacated the building. Visions of improvised explosive devices danced in his head. But then, he was a suspicious SOB, immersed in national security issues twenty-four-seven.

He headed for another marble bench in a hallway that ran between the stairs and the restaurant, tossed the bag down, and pulled a small lock pick from his pocket.

"Let's pop this sucker open and see what's inside." He sat on one side of the piece of luggage and Katrice on the other.

Short-sleeve shirts, khaki shorts, sandals, and books--five thick, heavy textbooks, subjects ranging from art history to architecture, from chemistry to electronics. A cell phone. And on the bottom, a hand-drawn set of floor plans for the Quadracci Pavilion. The muscles in his solar plexus tightened. He looked up. "Kinda seems like overkill for a waitering gig."

"And you're betting he's not an architectural design student?"

Thiggy liked the way she thought, the way her mind tracked like his. He nodded and continued to dig around in the satchel and found a leather wallet, brimming with cash. Two thousand dollars in American currency to be exact.

"He's not going to be a happy camper when he realizes he's got the wrong bag." Thiggy's gut muscles were working overtime, screaming W-A-R-N-I-N-G. An IED could be triggered remotely with a cell phone. And why didn't Ingers carry his phone on him like most folks?

He stared into Katrice's eyes and got sidetracked by irises so deep blue they could challenge an artist's palette, a delight he unfortunately didn't have time to dwell on.

Instead, he mentally reviewed the plans he'd devised for Operation Safe Passage before he'd suffered a concussion a week ago. Before the good old powers-that-be had pulled him from active duty until multiple doctors and multiple stacks of red-tape medical release forms were signed, deeming him to be a hundred-and-ten-percent good to go.

His gut shouldn't be clenching. A network of law enforcers, federal, state and local, were prepped to assure that Mohammad Mahid walked into and out of the Milwaukee Art Museum in one piece. And to assure that the Calatrava extravaganza remained standing.

Cluster cells, splinters of the Islamic Reform Movement who had declared a jihad against the U.S., would prefer the opposite. They'd like nothing more than to see President Mahid's demise on U. S. soil. What better way to strain the diplomacy between the two countries?

But was it reasonable to suspect this Anglo American college kid of having ties to jihad extremists? Hell, yes. Until he could prove otherwise, Thiggy would operate on the assumption the guy could be as screwed up as Timothy McVeigh.

Convinced he was not literally jumping the gun, he opened his black duffle bag and pulled out a Glock 22. "You're an officer in the Air Force. You know how to use one of these, right?"

"How'd you get that through security at the airport?"

"I am security."

"Oh, right." She nodded. "Yes...I know how to shoot. I've trained with everything from small handguns to an M16."

"Colt 223?"

"Yeah. But..." Her face turned the color of bleached sheets.

He put his sigh-of-relief on hold. "Okay, so we know you have the technical ability. But, can you use this pistol right now, tonight, if you have to?"

Her eyes squeezed shut. "I'm not sure...if I'm psychologically stable right now, tonight. My brother was just killed. Ten days ago...on some God-forsaken mountain along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border." She studied her feet, then looked up. "He would never have been there if I hadn't encouraged him to follow in my footsteps and join the Air Force."

Thiggy could relate to the shock of losing someone close. His Delta Force teammates hadn't been blood brothers, but at heart, all ten of his friends had been closer than siblings. He'd lost them in one horrific explosion and was left filled with agonizing questions and self-doubt. Why had he and Crazaniak survived the ambush and not the others? Had their cause justified the end?

"Jeez, I'm so sorry, Katrice...I've been there, too..." His gaze slid to the Glock. He checked the magazine.

"My parents are freaking out. They want me to quit the Air Force. They're afraid of losing both of their children. I don't even know what I want..."

Counting the seconds ticking by, Thiggy forced himself to keep quiet and let her talk.

"Air support wasn't enough to save Sergeant Brian Kennedy. His plane was hit, and he and his team parachuted. A Taliban launcher got them on the ground before they were rescued."

Thiggy swallowed hard. "Things are too raw right now. You shouldn't make a tough decision like that when your emotions are stretched so thin."

She toyed with the zipper on an outside pocket of Inger's bag.

While searching his belt, assuring himself that his extra magazine was where it was supposed to be, Thiggy said, "You know, if it hadn't been for air support, I would never have made it out of Afghanistan alive." He cupped his hand over hers.

"Really?"

"Yes, really. Someone just like you was there for me when I needed them." After his team had walked into an ambush.

"The sweetest words I ever lip-read were, 'We've got air support and we are inbound.'"

She swallowed and side-glanced him. "So that's when you lost your hearing?"

He nodded. "Don't you see, Katrice, if you give up, the enemy wins." He surged to a standing position and looked around, balancing the pistol in his palm.

"Maybe I need a psych evaluation."

"Maybe. And maybe you just need a little time to heal."

Her gaze suddenly focused on the bag. She slid open the zipper. "My bag has a hidden flap in the pocket. I bet this one does as well." She grappled around and finally pulled out an envelope and opened it. "A set of vouchers. Airplane tickets." Her gaze stalled on him. "Final destination, Tehran, Iran, and the first leg of the flight leaves Milwaukee at six a.m. tomorrow."

That cinched it. Thiggy whipped out his customized cell phone with a digital transcribing screen and punched in one number. "This is Benjamin Thigpen, Homeland Securities-Code 39102. We have a potential situation at the Quadracci Pavilion. We are in need of additional JTTF backup ASAP. Covert approach. Proceed with caution. No sirens."

After reading the response on the phone's screen, he said to Katrice, "Dispatch is alerting Mahid's security team."

His hand tightened around the Glock. "Back to my question. Can you shoot this baby if you have to?"

Her struggle within was palpable, anguish turning her eyes to glittering sapphires. But after she thought for measured seconds, she straightened and squared her shoulders. "Yes, I can do it."

A hollow sensation in Thiggy's chest made him wish he was sending her on a fast track out of the building. "Are you sure you want in on this? I don't know what's about to go down. We can always hope it's a false alarm. But it very well may not be."

"I want in."

"It's loaded." He nodded toward the pistol, his heart thudding when she reached for it.

Glock in hand, she double checked the magazine. Then she clasped the grip, placing her finger alongside the barrel, and held the weapon pointed toward the floor. "What's the modus operandi?"

"We go find Mr. Ingers." He slipped out the bigger, meaner semi-automatic he wore in his shoulder holster beneath his jacket. A Springfield Legend TGO .45 ACP complete with a Dawson fiber-optic front sight.

"But--we don't have just cause to shoot him--"

"No, but we have just cause to get his attention and to ask him a few questions."

If Thiggy's suspicions were spot on, and Ingers intended to create an international incident, the guy probably had accomplices. If that wasn't enough to worry about, there was always the probability that components of an improvised explosive device had been stashed in the building before any of them had arrived.

If--

In addition to the lockers, the Quadracci Pavilion offered 142,050 square feet of hiding space--including the grand entrance and reception hall, auditorium, cafe, gift shop, parking garage, and two promenades.

If--if--if.

And, hell, his call to dispatch had confirmed that Mahid was already in the building. He tore into Inger's bag one more time, focusing on the set of drawings. On the last page, the diagram of the parking level, a small yellow X highlighted a spot two levels beneath Windhover Hall.

Windhover Hall. The heart of the Quadracci building.

On the phone again, he informed dispatch to expect activity in the parking level. Then after riveting an anxious, second-long glance on Katrice, he took off. Despite the fact that she wore low pump heels, she followed like a locked-on missile. They sprinted, skidding down an alabaster-white stairway that led from the cafe level to the parking level.

At this very moment waiters in crisp jackets were serving hors d'oeuvres to President Mahid and several hundred guests in the chancel of the ninety-foot-high, glass-roofed cathedral directly above them.

Neither the ribbed vaults, nor the concrete buttresses, nor the steel fins of the Burke Brise Soleil could shelter the structure from PETN or whatever high explosives terrorists might use in a homemade bomb.

Leading with his pistol, Thiggy paused before he opened the door that led to the parking garage. Katrice tapped his shoulder, and when he glanced back and locked gazes with her, she said, "I've got your six."

His gut hitched, and he forced himself to nod, then he peered through the glass and focused on how he was going to get everyone out of the building alive. Then he spotted Ingers.

"There he is in the center of the garage," he mouthed the words, "I'll confront him. If he's got a bomb, I'll try to talk some sense into him." He ground his teeth until a muscle in his jaw ticked. "Stay out of sight. If we're faced with the worst case scenario, and things go south, stop him any way you can."

She nodded and gave him a thumbs up.

Thiggy inched open the door.

****

Voices echoed, the sound hollow, bouncing off the concrete walls as Thigpen chatted calmly with Ingers.

God, was this really happening?

Katrice dodged behind one of the arches in the brightly lit parking level. Lurking in the warm, climate-controlled shadows, she stopped to center her energy and listen to the Homeland Security specialist. He spoke with the serene modulated voice of a hostage negotiator and engaged Ingers in conversation.

She crouched, eased off her shoes, and scrambled as silently and efficiently as she could in a pencil-slim skirt, maneuvering between the wall and a row of parked cars. By the time she reached the center of the garage and poked her head around the front fender of a black SUV, she had a view, although not perfect, of the standoff.

Ingers, his back to her, stood less than fifteen feet away, his hand curved around some kind of detonator. The detonator was attached to a fuse, which was attached to a cylinder-shaped canister sitting next to him.

Weapon in hand, Thigpen stood beyond Ingers, twenty-five feet or more from Katrice. She knew as well as the Homeland Security specialist did that taking the terrorist down could cause a reflex reaction, and one slight twitch of a finger could blow the place to smithereens.

Thigpen edged a step closer to Ingers. "I don't think you're ready to die, Allen. I doubt you planned to take yourself out tonight. That's why you had the phone in your bag so you could detonate from a remote location. You're not one of those stupid suicide bombers."

"No, I'm not stupid."

"Right. You'd only be stupid if you set that thing off when you're standing next to it. You must be an electronic genius to have improvised a switch on the spur of the moment like this." Thigpen slid his right foot an inch closer.

Katrice breathed in, and the air stuck in her throat. No, Ingers, you're not stupid, and you're not a genius. You're a freaking nutcase.

"Back off, man. You're not taking me in." The bomber struck a pose, his free hand raised, trembling like a junky dying for a fix.

"You're jumping the gun, Allen. President Mahid isn't even on the premises yet...The snowy roads delayed his entourage. If you trigger the charge now, you screw up. Your mission fails."

Katrice could only hope this nut-job would fall for Thigpen's ploy. Or did he know Mahid was in the building and stood at this very moment in the receiving line two levels above them? She swallowed against her dry throat.

Scuttling on her hands and knees, praying Ingers wouldn't hear her, she crawled several feet closer to give herself a better angle on the target. The parched tension in her throat turned to a consuming prickle, a consuming urge to cough. She swallowed so loudly she feared he might have heard her.

The crazy man with the bomb glanced around, huffing in a breath. Heaving it out. Fidgeting. "You're lying."

"You saw what the roads were like."

This time when Thigpen edged closer, Ingers' hand shot forward, his index finger extending like a pointed gun. "Don't you dare take another step. I'll detonate. I swear I will."

"Whoa, take it easy, man." Thigpen raised his hands.

Ingers yelled, "Drop your gun, kafir."

Kafir. While Katrice searched her brain to come up with the translation--unbelieving infidel--Thigpen dropped his arms to his sides. But he didn't let go of the gun.

Slow and easy, Katrice. Inch by inch she raised herself off the concrete until she was standing upright, still fighting the tickle in her throat. Block it out.

Monitor. Process. Evaluate.

Using a two handed grip, wishing she had a sniper rifle and scope or Thigpen's Springfield with the fiber-optic front sight, she aimed the gun. Sighted her target and held the semi-automatic Glock unbelievably steady.

But to hit the fuse, she had to be unbelievably accurate. If she missed, she'd tip him off and he'd panic, which would result in the same scenario as would shooting him--they'd all end up at the bottom of a pile of mangled steel, crushed concrete, and pulverized marble and glass.

Thigpen kept talking in a calm even voice.

Katrice inhaled. Her throat burned. She froze. Sweat trickled down her forehead and stung her eyes. The world blurred. She blinked and lowered her aching arms, her muscles quivering. And reminded herself to exhale.

Thigpen slid his left foot a fraction of an inch closer to Ingers while moving himself out of Katrice's line of fire. He must have seen her.

Ingers shouted, "Stay back!"

"Whoa, I'm just trying to get close enough to read your lips, man." He gestured to his ear. "Lost my hearing a few years back. I just want to talk to you...Tell me, Allen, what's your beef? I'll bet no one's ever listened to you before."

"You're right." He swiped one hand through his hair then growled, "No one...ever...listens...to me," then jerked his hand forward, another warning for Thigpen to stay back.

Blinking...still blinking, Katrice sucked in a breath. She willed her eyes to clear. Willed away the urge to cough, and raised the Glock again, bracing her right wrist with her left hand.

Finally the impossibly narrow wire fuse came into focus. The fact that it was a cable similar to an electrical cord told her it wasn't a shock tube, which would detonate the bomb with a shock impulse, but rather an electrical detonator. If she could sever the cable, she would prevent the electrical charge from supplying the energy to ignite the explosives.

She closed her eyes. Opened them. Struggled to line up the sights.

One more time, she held her breath.

Touched her finger to the trigger.

Gently squeezed.

The sound of the exploding bullet thundered in her ears.

The fuse split in two.

Thigpen rushed Ingers, who picked up the cylinder and heaved it at him.

In a split second reaction, Thigpen caught the cylinder but lost his pistol. He lowered the bomb to the floor. Then launched his body at Ingers, slamming him downward toward the concrete. With an "oomph," Ingers toppled. The HS agent locked the man's arm behind his back, then dragged him to his feet. The would-be bomber wasn't going anywhere. Just the same, Katrice lurched forward, aiming the Glock at Ingers' chest.

Moments later, a small army of law enforcers descended on the parking level.

Through the glass doors, a half dozen Milwaukee Policemen stormed the lower level. An armored vehicle followed by four Milwaukee County Sheriff squad cars, as well as the bomb squad and the SWAT team, charged through the open entrance driveway and rushed into the underground parking facilities.

Katrice and Thigpen exchanged glances, silently communicating. Several hundred people in Windhover Hall had no idea the fate they'd just escaped.

****

At eight thirty civilian time, the rush of adrenaline started to dissipate from Katrice's bloodstream, and the ringing in her ears subsided. She walked alongside Benjamin Thigpen up the marble staircase to the empty reception hall and squeezed his hand so he'd know she was speaking. "It looks like President Mahid's party has vacated the building."

He nodded and gave her his signature reserved smile. "We've got the place to ourselves."

They sauntered to the deserted hull of Santiago Calatrava's masterpiece and stood at the windows. A wintry Lake Michigan basked quietly in the silver-gold light of a now clear, starry night.

Overhead, the wings began to fold. Moonbeams shot through parallel steel bars and vertical support beams, creating a crosshatch pattern on the face of a most incredible man.

She lacked adequate words to express what was in her heart. Gratitude for men like Benjamin who cared enough to risk their lives for others. Katrice smiled and simply said, "The Burke Brise Soleil is not on schedule."

****

"The museum's schedule is subject to change, remember?" Thiggy's throat tightened when he stared into the eyes of this amazing woman. They stood silently for exactly three minutes while the falcon wings folded over the cathedral to protect the priceless contents. None of which were more valuable than Katrice Kennedy, tonight's unsung heroine.

Thiggy slowly lowered his head. Hesitated.

His heart banged against the wall of his chest.

Then he touched his lips to hers.

She tasted like more.

Her arms came around his waist, and he felt a vibration in her throat, telling him she'd made some kind of noise, which he read as a good sign. Bringing his hands to her cheeks, he deepened the kiss, and every ounce of pent-up anxiety gave way to a different kind of tension.

The lights flickered as in a curtain call.

When they tentatively edged apart, he traced his thumb across her upper lip. Then he reached down and picked up her duffle.

"Here you go. The lost has been reclaimed."

"I can't believe you found it."

He cocked his head. "Do you mind telling me what's so significant about this bag?"

"It contains the most important thing in the world..." She looked away. Seconds ticked by before she turned dampened cheeks toward him. "My most precious possession, Sergeant Brian Kennedy's Silver Medal and the flag that covered his casket at the funeral in D.C. I have a ten day leave, and since my parents pretty much fell apart at the funeral, I'm bringing his belongings home for them."

She took the bag, gripping it securely in her right hand. "Thanks for helping me get it back, Thigpen."

"Yeah, like you owe me." He pulled a business card from his pocket and slipped it into her hand. "My email address."

Her mouth curved in a smile. A smile that caused his heart to thump. Then she started for the exit, and it struck him that she did that a lot--caused his heart to thump.

Shuffling backward on his way to meet with the JTTF, he watched her, slowly edging toward the door, slowly walking away.

"Katrice..."

She halted, still close enough for him to read her lips. "Yeah?"

Words stalled in his throat. "Uh..."

"FYI, Benjamin, my email address is air force lady at sonic mail dot com. I'll be back at my home base in ten days." She smiled. "For sure, I'll be back."

"Great, I'm glad to hear that. I'll be in touch. For sure."

"You know," she said, "there's a rumor that survivors of harrowing experiences often become kindred souls?"

His mouth automatically stretched in a smile. "That's not a rumor, Air Force Lady. That's fate. It's written in the stars."

With that, he quit back-pedaling and jerked forward, running until he collided with her. He tugged her soft curves against his chest. Her firm shoulders and biceps yielded to his touch and she melted in his arms. Then he brought his mouth down on hers, no tentativeness this time. The warmth or her lips pressed hard against his, causing a groan to escape his throat.

When they came up for air, he said, "Yeah, Air Force, it's definitely written in the stars."

~**~

Be sure to join Thiggy and his buddy, FBI Agent Tony Crazaniak, as they match wits, brawn, and weapons with blood diamond dealers and Mid Eastern terrorists while they race against time to keep a beautiful widow alive in Wisconsin's frozen tundra. Shadow of Deceit, a full-length romantic suspense novel by Mal Olson, author of adrenaline kicked romantic suspense. Available from The Wild Rose Press. Rating: Spicy.

~**~

Me and Brad

Me and Brad

Me and Brad

Liz didn't need a dog.

She didn't want a dog, and no way was Jenny going to con her into taking the pound's latest inmate.

"Dogs shed," she pointed out to her best friend, a Humane Society volunteer. "And you have to get up early and walk a dog." Not that the extra inch that had accumulated around her hips since Jason had betrayed her couldn't use a little help in the calorie-burning department. But, pent up inside her were at least six more months of moping, eating chocolate for breakfast, and crying jags before she would consider herself on the road to healing. And even then, a dog didn't fit into the picture.

"But you're lonely, and you have to get over You Know Who sometime."

"I will...sometime...maybe when he catches an STD and loses all of his hair."

"Can you lose your hair from that?"

"I don't know." Liz curved her mouth in a half grin. "But it'd serve him right...they say time wounds all heels." But as far as Liz's wounds healing... "No more serious relationships for me."

Jen cocked her eyebrow. "You need someone around."

"I thought we weren't going to talk about him."

"You know what I mean. It's been three years since your mom..."

Died. There had been no time to prepare for it. Her mom had up and died suddenly of a brain aneurysm when Liz was a senior in college. And since she had no siblings and the Gulf War had claimed her dad when she was an infant, she was alone in the world. "Some people are destined to live a solitary life." She pasted on a smile. "It's not so bad. You never have to host Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd."

"Anyway," Jenny segued as she led Liz past a row of cages holding puppies, kittens, and one with an iguana, "the dog I was telling you about is a Belgian Malinois. He's very intelligent. Probably a veteran police dog or military animal."

"An attack dog?" Liz stopped short. "Aren't they vicious? Really, Jen, do you want your best friend to be ravaged in her sleep by a ferocious animal?"

Jenny laughed as they came to a stop next to the last cage in the row. A handsome but forlorn, buff-colored dog lay moping in the corner. He barely acknowledged their presence.

"There's nothing like a pet to brighten your life and give you a sense of responsibility and purpose," Jen said.

"You think I have no purpose in my life?"

"I think you need companionship, something to brighten your perspective."

"I can see this guy's a glowing ray of sunshine. Just what the doctor ordered." Liz edged closer to the cage, eyeing his black-muzzled face resting between large paws on the bottom of the cage. "He's kind of big isn't he?"

"Give it a try, Liz. Just wait and see, he'll bring happiness into your life."

"Uh-huh...that sunny disposition's already cheering me up. Have you tried spiking his Alpo with Prozac?"

"The vet thinks all he needs is someone to take him under their wing. Um...you know...to snap him out of his depression. We can't really give him psychotherapy here--"

"Psychotherapy? They have that for dogs? I can't even afford psychotherapy for myself."

While Jenny rolled her eyes, Liz added, "You think he's a manic depressant?"

"Psychotherapy as in stuff like the dog whisperer does. Anyway, we don't have that option, and we're short on space." Jen reached down and opened the cage door, scratching the dog behind the ears. "If he becomes a problem, they'll have to...you know."

The dog perked one ear and glanced at Liz.

She sighed, and a twinge poked her in the stomach, a twinge she didn't want to feel. "What's his name?"

"I've been calling him Sparky."

It was Liz's turn to roll her eyes. "How apropos."

"You can name him anything you want if you agree to take him," Jenny said hopefully.

****

Half an hour later, bemoaning her ability to say "no," Liz found herself driving home with "Brad." She'd decided if she named the dog after a handsome movie star it might give him a lift. It certainly gave her a lift to think she'd be spending the lazy summer Friday evening--dateless Friday evening--with Brad Pitt.

She glanced over the seat. "So, Brad, how are Angie and the kids doing?"

The number one box office star's namesake ignored the comment.

She puffed out a breath. Really, Liz, you're going to name the dog Brad?

Fido? Rover? Benji? About as original as Spot. How about something macho like Terminator? She glanced once more at the apathetic blob curled up on the backseat of her Honda. A Terminator who couldn't scare a kitten.

When she turned her attention back to driving, blue and red lights swirled in her rearview mirror, and a sick uneasy feeling spread across her chest. Oh, Lord, had she been speeding? She certainly hadn't been concentrating on driving. Glaring at the dog, she said, "If I get a ticket, it's your fault."

He lifted his head and yawned.

****

Of course, the officer who pulled her over was wearing sunglasses like a daunting hard-nosed cop from the movies. The Camaro he drove was unmarked, but the words McCoy County Sheriff's Department was embroidered on the patch that stretched across his thick biceps.

Thump, thump, went her heart when he leaned over and placed his clean-shaven, perfectly chiseled face in full view.

"Ma'am," he said in a double-rich voice that flowed from full sexy lips like hot-fudge sauce oozing over Ben and Jerry's special delight.

"Did I do something wrong, Sir?" she managed to ask.

"You were swerving a little, and you were going ten miles over the limit. May I see your driver's license, please?" He straightened and made a note on his clipboard. She noticed a pair a handcuffs hanging from his belt. Wow, I wouldn't mind being cuffed to him for a night or three.

A grin tilted the corner of his mouth like he knew what she was thinking, and heat surged up Liz's neck and splotched her cheeks. When she handed over her driver's license, he examined it a few seconds and asked, "Is this address current?"

"Yes." And how about my phone number?

"And this car is registered to you?" He lowered his sunglasses, and met her gaze with startlingly blue eyes. His glance slid to her lips. Hers fell to his ringless left hand.

"Ah--" I think so. "Um...y-yes, it's registered to me."

Then, all stern and cop-like, he said, "You haven't been drinking have you?"

"No, of course not...I just turned around for a second to check on my dog."

Looking into the back seat, he locked his attention on the pooch, and his expression softened. Then he turned those Caribbean blue heartbreakers on Liz. Smiled again. "This'll just take a minute while I check the registration with DOT."

He was gone for five minutes. When he returned and handed back her driver's license, he settled his gaze directly into her eyes. "Miss Elizabeth Jorden, is it?"

"Y--yes." Liz to you.

"I'll let you off with a warning this time, but take it easy, okay, Miss Jorden?"

"Thank you--I sure will--take it easy...I mean."

Walking back to the Camaro, the deputy gave her one last glance over his shoulder.

"Woof," came a comment from the peanut gallery. Looking longingly out the side window, watching Sheriff Yummy climb back into the squad car, Brad pranced in a circle and started whining.

"What? You like men in uniform?"

As the handsome enforcer of the law drove off, Brad continued to whine.

"Hey, he's my X-rated fantasy, not yours. Watch it, Fido, your stay of execution is not official yet."

Brad's ears flattened, along with his body, as he plopped his belly on the seat, melancholia rolling off his back like a wave of fleas.

Oh, jeez, could the mutt understand her? "Just kidding, no one's going to take you for that long walk to you-know-where. The G, A, L, L, O, W, S," she spelled.

He woofed and laid his head between his paws, looking up at her with big, brown, and yes, sad, puppy-dog eyes.

Kachink went her heart.

****

When Liz got up Saturday morning, mellow from dreaming about cops and handcuffs, and...umm...she found Brad asleep outside her bedroom door, curled up with one of her slippers. The sight stirred up butterflies in her stomach. "You know how to work it, don't you, boy?"

He startled awake and shot up, standing in a tense pose until she nuzzled his head, her fingers gliding over silky fur. "Whoa, kind of jumpy aren't you?"

He followed her into the kitchen and stood patiently by the back door.

"Oh...you want to go out? You could have said something. I'm a newbie at this, you know?" She grabbed a sweatshirt, unlatched the door, and waited on the porch while he promptly took care of business and returned to the kitchen to curl up next to his bowl. She filled it with Crunchy Canine Delight, and he sat up and munched half-heartedly at the offering. Then it was back to his favorite pastime, lying on the floor unobtrusively, staring at her like a mooning cow.

It was surprising how well Brad fit into her routine. But then, how could a nearly comatose, undemanding dog not fit into my dull, undemanding routine?

Later that morning, she brushed him and checked him over for scars and injuries. His lean muscular body showed no signs of having been mistreated. But something had hurt him. "Who broke your heart anyway, fella? Huh?"

He whined a reply.

"I wish you could tell me about it." She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close. His warm silky tongue bathed her face from chin to ear.

"Someday, I'll tell you about Jason the Three-timing Rat Fink." When he whimpered, she vowed no one was ever going to hurt this dog again.

As she sat on the couch to watch her workout video, her dog curled up by her feet. He even seemed to take mild interest in the instructor who wore a drill sergeant getup as he flexed his muscles and barked out commands.

"You like exercise videos?"

A soft yip ensued.

"Or do you just like watching TV? Maybe we should rent a Lassie movie or something."

With a quiet moan, Brad looked at her and licked the potato chip salt residue from her hand. She got up and padded to the kitchen for another bag of goodies and returned with a bowl of chips for the dog. He sniffed, turned away, and rested his head on her foot.

"How about a Milk-Bone?" As she reached in her pocket, his ears half perked, and when she held out the biscuit he daintily took it. Something warm and fuzzy swelled inside her.

"Maybe we should go for a walk."

Brad rolled onto his side and closed his eyes.

"No you don't, Big Boy. You need some fresh air." And so did she.

She gathered up the new leash she'd bought after she'd left the Humane Society and attached it to Brad's new hand-tooled leather collar while he stayed stretched out on the hardwood floor.

With a bit of coaxing, she managed to lure him up and toward the door, but once they were outside, he sulked as he ambled along behind her all the way to the park.

Liz sat on a bench to watch a father pushing his son on one of the swings. Little girls giggling on the merry-go-round. Families having fun.

She sighed and turned her attention to the dog standing listlessly beside her. "Sit, Brad."

Man's best friend remained standing, sniffing the warm summer breeze until Liz patted him on the head. Then his hindquarters dropped to the ground and he pushed his nose against her hand. One Milk-Bone coming up.

After doling out his treat, she stood. "Okay, let's try this." She tugged on the leash. "Heel."

Dragging a team of mules could possibly have been easier. Hands on her hips, she gave up temporarily. "Sometimes I think you're playing me."

Several Milk-Bones later, Brad consented to following her, dawdling along, investigating dried twigs and soggy leaves until suddenly, on the other side of the park along the edge of a wooded area, a flurry of activity erupted. Brad's attention honed in on the commotion.

A voice screamed, "He's got my purse. Someone stop him!"

Brad took off like a NASA rocket, dragging Liz along as she fought to hold him back. Sprinting at a pace her muscles had forgotten existed, she sucked in a breath and sputtered, "Whoa!"

Like a thoroughbred on Kentucky Derby day, Brad charged onward, Liz still gripping the leash. As they closed in on the purse thief, she genuinely hoped the dog intended to do the dirty work of taking the robber down, because the six-foot-plus perpetrator sported more muscles than she wanted to tangle with. "Brad, stop!"

He lurched on.

A man in an army-olive T-shirt and desert fatigue style running shorts stepped in--rather ran
in--like a knight in shining armor.

Deputy McSexy commanded, "Stueten!" and her dog halted immediately.

Even out of uniform and unarmed, the deputy who had pulled her over yesterday was a force to be reckoned with as he tackled the purse-clutching robber. Within seconds, he had the thief pinned, his knee on the guy's back while Brad stood on alert nearby. The deputy dragged out a cell phone, called for backup, and that was that. A uniformed cop arrived on the scene and took care of things from there.

Liz watched in muted amazement, shaking slightly from the confrontation, from witnessing her dog's aggression, from the sight of the cute deputy sheriff with pumped biceps, who now stood looking her over while she smoothed her flyaway hair behind her ear.

Dressed in Saturday casual, McSexy looked every bit as yummy as he had the first time she'd seen him in the tan shirt with the star-shaped badge accenting his solid chest. For a guy like this, she'd give up fudge brownies forever.

"Nice dog," he said. "Um...didn't I almost give you a ticket the other day?"

Before she could reply, he held out his hand and said, "Dan Bartolotta." That same charming smile she remembered crossed his lips, and as she reached to shake hands her stomach twittered. "How'd you do that? Get him to follow your command."

His hand was big and solid. And hot. And when she realized she was holding onto him too long, she dropped his grip, suddenly unable to figure out what to do with the appendage attached to her wrist.

"A lot of service dogs are trained using German or Dutch commands. Is he your dog?"

"I just got him...from the Humane Society."

"Ah...I see...that explains...He's smart, and I can see he's very well-trained."

"You couldn't prove it by me."

Dan Bartolotta's gaze slid down Liz's body, and she wished she'd gotten started on working off those ten extra pounds a month ago. He grinned. "The dog must be doing something right to get himself adopted by such a pretty woman."

As a pickup line, it was kind of lame, but considering the mega hunk it originated from, she'd take it. Especially when it seemed Dan wasn't repelled by the generous curve of her hips.

Meanwhile, Brad wagged his tail and then sat on the ground next to the object of both of their fancies.

"So...Elizabeth...Liz...Is it all right if I call you Liz? Do you live around here?"

He remembered her name.

"Yes and yes." You can call me anything your little ol' heart desires.

"Me too, over on Jackson Street..." He shrugged, seemingly running out of words, which gave him an approachable, down-to-earth-appeal, this larger than life crusader for the common man. Besides, who needed words when a guy like him was looking at her the way he was?

His cell phone buzzed.

"Excuse me." He hiked a couple of steps away, the phone to his ear. Brad tagged after him, and the deputy absently reached down and stroked his head. Then Officer Bartolotta--Dan--stiffened and said, "Ten four. See you in five." With a look of almost regret on his face, he strode back toward Liz. "Duty calls...Sorry to run off like this...Maybe we'll run into each other again some time?"

Right. I've heard that one before.

When he took off jogging, Brad started to follow him, but Liz grabbed the leash and commanded, "Stueten."

Her dog halted, but his gaze followed the broad-shouldered hero until he disappeared from sight.

****

Sunday morning was a replay of Saturday. Liz and Brad watching exercise videos, Brad picking at Canine Crunchies, Liz scarfing down potato chips. But she went cold turkey on the a.m. brownies, a futile endeavor, considering no Deputy Bartolotta showed up during their walk in the park.

On Monday when she walked out the door for work, her parting words to her new roommate were, "It'd be nice if you started supper before I got home."

Brad rolled onto his back, legs in the air, and wriggled around, apparently scratching his back.

On the way home from work, Liz found herself looking forward to Brad's company, low-key that it was. She stopped at the grocery store and searched the pet food aisle. Maybe he preferred canned food since he hadn't taken a shine to the crunchy stuff. Perusing the shelves of hound chow proved daunting. Maybe something bacon flavored? Beef and gravy? In the end, she grabbed one can each of six different offerings, and on impulse snatched a squeaky rubber ball that lurked on a rack just waiting to lure that impetuous shopper.

Home at last, arms laden with grocery bags, she shoved the back door open with her hip, and yelled, "Honey, I'm home."

No response. Par for Brad's course.

"I've got a surprise." She rattled the bags, digging for the ball.

"Hey, sunshine? You want something to eat?"

Unease didn't begin to seep in until she called for Brad four times, thoroughly searched the limited square footage of her one-bedroom condo, and came up empty.

Back in her bedroom, she noticed the drapes swaying, and when she drew them back, every muscle in her body tightened. The screen had been pushed out of the frame.

A search of the neighborhood accomplished nothing. No one had seen a large, fawn-colored dog. Liz fought the urge to call 911. Instead, she checked with Jenny to see if anyone had hauled Brad back to the pound.

"No, he's not here," Jen replied. "Try waiting it out at home. I know he hasn't had much time to get familiar with his new location, but he might just turn up at your doorstop."

Time dragged on while Liz sat on the porch. For hours. At last, she heaved a sigh. Brad had ditched her.

Or, maybe he was in trouble.

What if he'd been hit by a car? Liz lived on a busy street. Her pulse clicked into overdrive. It was nine o'clock when real panic prompted her to jump into her Honda and drive. But, where? The Fire Department? The cop shop?

The sheriff's department was less than ten blocks away. At the receptionist's window, Liz had the presence of mind to ask the young uniformed woman on reception duty if Deputy Bartolotta happened to be around.

"He is."

"Could you tell him Elizabeth Jorden is here?"

"Let me ring him." After the woman's brief phone conversation, Liz found herself on the receiving end of a curious glance.

"He said I should bring you right in."

Liz followed the female deputy into the inner sanctum, through a door that required card access, down a long hallway past a complex of offices until they reached a door labeled Lieutenant Dan Bartolotta.

The minute Liz stepped into the office, Dan dropped a folder on the desk, jumped up, and greeted her with, "I've been trying to call you for over an hour."

"You have? I've been out, away from the phone, looking for--"

"Woof, woof."

"Your dog?" The deputy flipped his glance aside as Brad squiggled out from under the desk.

The sick nervous feeling in Liz's stomach instantly dissipated. "What's he doing here? I've been looking all over for him."

"When I checked in tonight, I found him in front of the building, hanging out with the guys switching shifts. For whatever reason, he seemed to take a shine to me, and he's been shadowing me ever since."

Brad made a squeaking noise and wagged his tail, then sauntered over to Liz and slobbered on her hand.

"Hey, Big Boy. You had me scared half to death." Before she could fall to her knees and throw her arms around him, the delinquent canine scurried back to Dan's side, tail tucked between his legs, and lowered himself to the floor, gazing at Liz sheepishly.

"I left you a message," Dan said. "I thought this might be your dog. You don't see a lot of Belgian Malinois around, and his collar looked familiar. Meanwhile, I started doing some checking. Something about this guy..." When he moved to a table and reached for some papers, Brad followed him like he was a magnet.

"Take a look at this." Dan held out a computer printout.

A dog named Soldier mourns his handler's death as Delta Operative Major Roger Huntington is put to rest. A picture of a casket draped with an American flag...A Belgian Malinois hunched on the floor nearby.

"Oh, my...I remember reading about this a while back." Liz scanned through the rest of the article. "You think this...is Brad? That he was part of a Delta team?"

Brad perked up and barked while Liz's eyes continued to speed over the page. "The dog in this article is a hero...look at all the missions he was a part of...Unbelievable."

"That's what I thought, too." Dan reached down and patted his furry shadow on the head.

A soft whine escaped the dog's throat as he tilted his head and looked from Dan to Liz.

The picture and stories about a dog that had risked his life dozens of times on military
missions--a canine's unfaltering devotion to his handler--all caused Liz's insides to ache.

Dan took the printout from her. "The article says he more or less fell apart when Major Huntington died during a raid in Afghanistan. After that, the military was forced to retire him. He came up missing shortly thereafter. That was six months ago."

"The funeral was in Washington D.C." Liz stared into Dan's face. "We're a thousand miles from D.C. He found his way here on his own?"

"Amazing, huh? He and Major Huntington were originally deployed from Camp McCoy, less than twenty miles from here."

"But...how do we know for sure this is really Major Huntington's dog?"

"By the way he's marked for one thing. I'm sure the army has a detailed description and identification information on file. And I made a couple of phone calls. When Soldier was retired, the Army released him to the Military Working Dog Foundation, which is an adoption agency for placing K-9s no longer capable of performing their military duties. It was a couple of days after he arrived at their facilities when he came up missing."

Liz searched Dan's face and wondered if he had noticed his obvious resemblance to the Delta operative in the photo, the fallen hero. No wonder her dog had taken to him.

"And watch this." He called out, "Soldier."

The dog perked his ears and cocked his head.

Dan knelt down. "Hier."

Fifty plus pounds of dog scampered toward the deputy, skidded to a stop, and lunged forward, placing his paws on Dan's shoulders.

"Wow." Liz beamed. A tear trickled down her cheek as she knelt beside them.

With his thumb, Dan reached past Soldier and wiped the moisture from Liz's skin. "You've got yourself a really nice dog, Lizzy. Just think, if you hadn't rescued him from the pound what might have happened to him."

She regarded the deputy and the dog. "Yeah...he is a really nice dog."

Liz and Brad were on their way out of the McCoy County Sheriff's Department when the deputy working the reception window said, "He sure does miss his partner."

"I beg your pardon?" Liz turned to her.

"Dan--he was part of a K-9 unit for three years. His dog was shot and killed on a drug bust. Guess that's why he and your dog hit it off so well."

Liz didn't even make it to the front door before she suddenly knew what she had to do. With a lump the size of a Milk-Bone in her throat, she said, "Soldier, come."

The dog stood gaping at her.

"Hier," she whispered the command Dan had given the canine earlier.

When he padded closer, she pulled the rubber ball from her pocket. He took it in his teeth, then sat beside her, dropped it to the floor, and looked up at her inquisitively.

She swallowed. The dog was crazy about Dan. Who wouldn't be crazy about him? And the deputy was fantastic with her dog. She heaved a sigh. The two of them belonged together...like peaches and cream, like fish and chips, like Ben and Jerry. Like...

There was no swallowing past the clog in her throat as she turned around.

As the receptionist led her and Soldier back to Deputy Bartolotta's office, Liz had the feeling she was headed for a double fudge brownie binge. She sucked in a breath and pushed open the door.

"Liz, what's going on?" Dan looked up.

She hesitated a second. "I think it's you who has gotten yourself a really nice dog, Lieutenant Bartolotta." Like overfilled balloons, her lungs threatened to pop, but she kept her lips pressed in a smile and fought to keep tears from squeezing out.

"Whoa--" Dan struggled with a response then croaked, "R-Really? Why would you give him up?"

She shrugged. "He's crazy about you...and...I heard what happened to your...partner. And my condo's really small. And I'm not really into dogs..."

He stared at her, then at the dog, finally returning his gaze to her. The glow on his handsome face was worth a thousand heartaches. "You're something else, Lizzy Jorden. You know I'll take really good care of him."

He stepped closer, reached out for her, but she shuffled backward. If she didn't get out of there immediately, she'd blow her facade.

****

Two days later on the way home from work, an all-too-familiar glare of blue and red pulsed in Liz's rearview mirror. Her nerve endings tingled. Dan? Highly unlikely. McCoy County was patrolled by hundreds of sheriff deputies.

Liz hadn't seen Lieutenant Bartolotta since the night she'd given up Brad, not even when she dropped off the box of dog paraphernalia at the sheriff's office, including her ratty old slipper, the one Brad seemed to take comfort in.

More likely, she was in trouble. She hadn't been paying attention, and she could have been speeding. For the second time in less than a week. Dread kept her nerves tingling. If warnings went down in the records, she'd probably just bought herself a ticket. Without looking up, she waited to be reprimanded by the law as the officer approached and loomed alongside her car.

"Do you mind stepping out of the vehicle, Miss?" a velvety, decadently rich voice crooned.

Dan stood towering next to her Honda. Soldier stood at his side, wagging his tail, sniffing in her direction.

Her breath caught.

"Elizabeth..."

"Sorry...I think I was speeding." She got out and stared up into eyes the color of Caribbean water.

"Really? I didn't have my radar turned on. Couldn't prove it by me."

"Then...why did you stop me?"

"You stole something from me, Liz."

"What?"

"Something intangible...something in here." He pressed his hand to his chest. "Soldier's not the only one with a new crush."

Heat swamped her cheeks, and she straightened to make herself look taller, and maybe make her hips look more proportioned to her waist.

Dan moved closer, and her knees started to sway.

"Maybe we have to work something out," he said.

"Like?"

"We need to think about Soldier's well-being," he said, his strong jaw now within millimeters of hers.

She closed her eyes.

And he kissed her--Deputy Dan Bartolotta--kissed her, a growl rumbling in his throat. Then he said against her lips, "Let's take this somewhere a little more private."

Inside her Honda, he settled in the passenger seat and placed his arm around her. She faced him and he pulled her closer until their lips met.

"Ummm..." She wrapped her arms around him and hoped she wasn't dreaming.

"Wow, Lizzy."

"Woof, woof," sounded from the back seat.

"Like I said," her real-life dream-man repeated, "we need to do what's best for Soldier."

"What do you mean?"

"He's become quite attached to your slipper."

Her eyes widened and her mouth pulled in a huge grin. "He has?" When she glanced at the mutt in question, Soldier leaned in and kissed her cheek.

"What do you think about joint custody?" he asked. "It would mean we'd have to spend a lot of time together."

"Anything for the sake of a veteran like Soldier."

"So, you're okay with ditching the name Brad? I mean...Soldier's what he's used to."

"Sure. It suits him." Soldier was the perfect name for their dog.

As Liz's glance settled on the perky, tail-wagging Belgian Malinois--his head on the back of the seat nestled between Dan and her--she could see a new beginning on her horizon. Healthy eating. Morning workouts. And maybe even some nighttime calisthenics.

Yeah, baby, her love affair with Brad Pitt just might lead to a fairytale ending.

The End