CHAPTER 2 MARIA
Maria parked in the building’s underground garage and took the elevator to their eleventh-story apartment. She tossed her keys in the brass bowl on the foyer table as she walked toward the living room and called out, “Carmella, it’s me. Just want you to know I’m home.”
“Sí, Señora, can I do anything for you?”
“Nothing comes to mind. Has Mr. Stephens called?”
“No, Señora, will you want me to prepare dinner this evening?”
“Don’t know; let me call and see if Mr. Stephens will be home.”
Maria went into the master suite and kicked off her shoes and sat on the edge of the king-sized bed and picked up the phone. She dialed Walt’s office number and a pleasant female voice said, “Stephens and Associates, Claudia speaking, how may I direct your call?”
“Hi, Claudia, it’s Maria. Is Walt in?”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Stephens. I’m afraid he is not.”
“Do you expect him back this afternoon?”
“I really don’t know. He did not leave me any instructions regarding this afternoon.”
“I see. Well, if you talk to him, please ask him to call me at home.”
“Yes, I’ll let him know if he calls in. Have a nice day.”
Yeah, you little bitch, have a nice day. At least you have to wonder where the bastard is now that you’re not boffing him every chance you get, Maria thought. We both know where the little shit is, we just don’t know the current address of his little love nest. I ought to call him on his cell just in the event I might cause coitus interruptus. He has enough problems getting it up, and a phone call might undo a big dose of Cialis.
Maria considered the thought of sidetracking Walt’s Big Bang efforts and smiled at the prospect, then decided that it really wasn’t worth the effort. Any sexual activity with his current mistress would be one less session she would have to fake her way through.
Better the slut du jour than moi, she mused.
Actually, it had been some time since she and Walt had touched each other, and while she did not miss his attention, she did miss the relief and release. Lately, she had begun to think of other possible lovers, but her common sense prevailed and she always reminded herself that it was more important to stick to her original plan than it was to seek a quickie with some nameless guy. There would be plenty of time for men when she was free.
That thought triggered another one. It was getting to be time to move on to the next phase of her master plan. She decided to make the call she had been anticipating for so long. She went to her computer and hit the “on” button. Soon she entered her passcode and booted up her private files. She opened the files for Operation Eunuch. She wanted Walt’s balls on a platter and she planned to launch her plan today. Let the games begin.
Maria dialed the number her brother had given her and listened as the number rang. A male voice answered.
“Good evening, this is Final Solutions, Royce speaking. How may I help you?”
SHIVA – THE GODDESS OF DEATH
CHAPTER 3 SATURDAY, APRIL 30–SUNDAY, MAY 1
The twin-engine Cessna King Air 90 reached twenty-two thousand feet and leveled off. The pilots and the single passenger were all on oxygen because the door had been removed and there was no way to pressurize the cabin. It was a clear summer night, and from this height the lights of Mobile, Pensacola, and the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast were twinkling below.
The passenger was carefully monitoring a small laptop computer as the plane made a lazy circle above the Gulf of Mexico. She spoke into the small radio built into her helmet.
“We should be right on target on the next pass. I’m moving to the exit position and closing my computer. Give me the signal when we are over the exit point.”
“Roger, that. You are forty-five seconds from exit point.”
The passenger moved to the open door and assumed the exit position, feet on the edge of the deck and hands on the sides of the door. She had unplugged from the aircraft’s oxygen and was on her internal supply. She was dressed in a black jumpsuit, boots, gloves, and a black Kevlar helmet with a tinted faceplate. She was wearing two small parachutes, one on her back and the other on her chest. A black equipment bag was attached to her left leg by a black nylon cord.
The pilot gave her the ten-second warning and she tensed in the doorway. The pilot gave the go command and the passenger left the plane. After clearing the aircraft, she easily moved into the classic free-fall position and checked the altimeter on her wrist. This little instrument displayed the elapsed time since her exit, her current altitude, and the external temperature. It indicated that she was fifteen seconds into her descent, was passing through twenty thousand feet, and the temp was minus twelve.
The black-clad figure plummeted toward the ground at a hundred and twenty miles an hour, but there was no sensation of speed, just the hissing of the passing air and a panoramic view of the Gulf Coast. She would open her chute at around fifteen hundred feet in order to give her maneuvering room to find and land on a tiny five-acre island about a half mile off the mouth of Bayou LaBatre. God, this was beautiful. She had always enjoyed HALO1 jumps and now she remembered just why.
She checked her instruments and saw that she was nearing five thousand feet. The moon was bright tonight and she was able to see the wave action on the Mississippi Sound, a part of the Gulf that was protected by the off-shore barrier islands. Soon she saw the opening into Bayou LaBatre and her landing target, the tiny Isle aux Herbes. She began to guide her descent in that general direction.
1 High Altitude, Low Opening.
At fifteen hundred feet her black canopy deployed with a jerk and she was floating on the square-shaped ram-air chute. The ram air acted almost like a hang glider and was highly maneuverable. She guided it to the windward side of the little patch of sea grasses and came to an easy upright landing in mid island. A perfect jump. She quickly folded her chute and stowed it in the equipment bag attached to her leg and then clicked on her radio.
“Papa bird, Shiva has landed. Thanks for the lift. See you guys later.”
“That’s a big 10-4, Shiva, nicely done. Keep in touch.”
After signing off to the King Air, she changed channels on her radio and called, “Cyclone, this is Shiva, do you read me?”
“10-4, Shiva, loud and clear. What’s your forty?”
“Where do you think, right on target awaiting your pickup. Get off your ass and come get me.”
“10-4, Shiva, we’re on the way, ETA in about ten minutes. Don’t leave before we get there.”
The woman pulled a high candle-power hand lantern from the equipment bag and waited until she could hear the beating of the helicopter’s rotors before she flashed the lamp three quick times in the general direction of Mobile. She saw the answering flash of the copter’s landing lights. She guided the craft into a hover right above her head and a knotted rope dropped. She shinnied up to the landing skid and strong hands pulled her into the cabin.
She removed her helmet and a cascade of shiny black hair spilled around her shoulders. She pushed her hair back and gave the helicopter crew the thumbs-up sign and settled into her seat. They landed at the general aviation terminal at Brookley Field, just outside of Mobile, Alabama, and she trotted into the waiting room and spoke to the duty guy behind the counter
“Hi, Doug. Things seem pretty quiet tonight.”
“Yeah, with the exceptions of nutso ex-SEALs who can’t kick their adrenaline habit.”
“I can’t imagine what you are talking about. I was never here tonight.”
“Roger that,” he said with a smile.
She entered the women’s section of the crew room and opened her locker. She peeled out of her jump gear and carefully hung it in its proper place. She looked at her naked body in the full-length mirror and thought, Not bad, not bad at all, Mary Jo. You still look pretty good for an old dame of 31.
She admired her slim figure and shapely breasts. Her waist size was the same as it was when she enlisted in the Marine Corps at seventeen, just after high school graduation. She’d always had great legs and they were still her pride and joy. She also knew that her ass could still turn heads. All-in-all she was holding together pretty well. She smiled when she saw the globe and fouled anchor with Semper Fi tattooed on her left thigh, courtesy of a night on the town in Naples when she was an enlisted Marine. Later she had added the SEAL insignia to her right thigh just to provide balance.
Of course she worked out regularly, could still run twenty miles with a full pack, and could swim to Panama and back if she had to. Tonight was her quarterly HALO jump, just to make sure she didn’t lose her edge. She had left the SEALs over two years ago, but in her line of work you just never knew. She intended to be ready in the event she needed any of her hard-earned special ops skills. Her livelihood and her life might depend on her ability to get in and out of some tight situations.
She pulled on a pair of jeans and a USMC sweatshirt out of her locker, put on her tennis shoes, and walked into the lobby. She waved goodbye to Doug and headed to the parking lot. She remotely started her black BMW M6 convertible. The five-hundred horsepower V-10 rumbled to life and idled like an Indy car about to leave the pits. She got settled into her bucket seat, fastened the seat belt, and lowered the convertible top. She slipped the six-speed manual transmission into first and eased out of the parking lot.
The car could accelerate from zero to sixty in about four seconds and was electronically limited to a top end of a hundred and fifty eight miles per hour. Shiva actually was a very careful driver and didn’t especially relish high speeds, but again, in her line of work it was nice to have it, if you needed it. Shiva lived quietly, but very well. In addition to the BMW, she also owned a Cessna Mustang twin-jet aircraft which she piloted herself. Her work often called for extensive travel without leaving a paper trail and the jet had proved invaluable.
She had just pulled onto I-10 when her Bluetooth chimed the Marine Corps Hymn.
“Mary Jo LeBeaux,” she answered.
A raspy male voice said, “Shiva, this is your Uncle Edward. We need to talk.”
“Okay, Uncle Ed, give me about ten minutes and I’ll call you back. I’m almost home.”
“We’ll talk in ten,” and the line went dead.
She exited I-10 at the Water Street ramp and soon turned onto Government Street in downtown Mobile. She skirted the entrance to the old Bankhead Tunnel and turned right onto Claiborne, then took a left on St. Louis. She drove up to a heavy wooden gate in a ten-foot-high brick wall and pushed her opener. The gate slid open and she pulled into a three-car garage built into the side of 737 St. Louis Street. The steel-reinforced gate closed behind her with a satisfying “thunk” and she lowered the garage door and left the car.
The three-story brick town house at 737 St. Louis had been built as a family home in the 1840s. It had seen many renovations and commercial uses since the original family sold it in 1953. Mary Jo had bought the building from the estate of an attorney and she had completely restored it, along with adding many modern conveniences such as an elevator. She opened the door leading from the garage, turned her state-of-the-art security system to HOME, and walked into her kitchen.
Strategically selected lights were automatically turned on when she deactivated the security system and the kitchen was brightly lit. She placed her car keys in a pottery bowl by the door and walked into the hallway that separated the kitchen from the main living area of the first floor. She pushed the button for level two and the elevator doors quietly opened. She exited the elevator and stepped into her office, a large room filled with computer equipment, communications gear, and wall-to-wall bookshelves. She sat down behind a huge mahogany desk and picked up a red phone. She hit the speed dial and there were a series of mechanical clicks followed by a raspy voice.
“Edward. May I help you?”
“I believe I have a case that will tickle your fancy, not to mention make us a pile of money. Want to meet next week and talk it over?”
“Absolutely. I can do it anytime next week. When do you want me to be there?”
“If you decide that you want to take this one on, we’ll have to move fairly quickly. Why don’t you come to the bookstore on Monday morning and we’ll go over the details and if you are interested we can go visit with the client that afternoon.”
“Sounds like a plan to me. How much can we make if we pull this off?”
“Our side could run into millions, somewhere between five and ten, maybe a little more.”
“Well, now you’ve really got my attention. Will you meet me at the Spirit of St. Louis or do you want me to come into Lambert?”
“See you at the Spirit of St. Louis at ten o’clock,” Edward said, and the phone went dead.
A new operation always jazzed her. Her old boss in SEAL Team 3, Major Alan Brooks, had said that he could see the transformation taking place as 1st Lt. Mary Jo LeBeaux morphed into Shiva, the Goddess of Death. Alan had hung the code name Shiva on her despite her very vocal protestations. It was easy to question how a pretty, petite little girl-next-door could become a virtual killing machine in twenty minutes. Easy to question and easier to underestimate. There were dozens of Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors being entertained by their virgins who could attest to this.
Before turning in for the night, she called the duty desk at Carson Air Service and Doug picked up.
“Doug Hastings, may I help you?”
“Hey, Doug, Mary Jo here. I’ll be needing the Mustang on Monday. I’m planning to leave at seven in the morning and I may be gone for a couple of days.”
“You flying yourself?”
“Yeah, I’ll file a flight plan just before I leave.”
“No problem, we’ll have her ready to go.”
On Sunday morning she showered and dressed in jeans and a plain white tee. She rolled her ten-speed from its place in the garage, picked up her New York Times, and rode the seven blocks to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Claiborne Street. After eight o’clock Mass, she rode the bike across the shady square to A Spot of Tea. As she entered the little restaurant the hostess said, “Mornin’, Mary Jo,” and then picked up a menu and seated her at a table for two looking out on the sidewalk and the square across the street.
“Mornin’, Lucy. You can bring me orange juice, coffee, and an order of croissants.”
She leisurely ate her breakfast, sipped on her third cup of rich, dark New Orleans coffee and chicory, and read the entire newspaper. By the time she had worked the crossword puzzle it was eleven thirty, and by noon she was back at her townhouse. She paid a few bills and put them in the mailbox on the front of the building. She made a pitcher of iced tea, grabbed James Lee Burke’s latest book, opened the French doors that led to her courtyard, and settled into Dave and Cletus’s latest adventure in the bayou country where she had grown up.
The courtyard had been sorely neglected when she purchased the property, but she hired a local lady that specialized in New Orleans–style landscaping, and the cool shady space had been completely redone. There were fountains, brick pathways, and succulent and blooming plants wherever the eyed turned. Mary Jo spent as much time as she could on her chaise lounge reading and napping.
In the late afternoon she called Allie Blake, her office manager, and left a message that she would be going to see Edward for a day or two and to keep in touch by cell and email. She also called Laurie, her cook and housekeeper, and left the same message. She ate a light snack before bed and was fast asleep by nine.
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