THE CELL

NEWSFLASH:  THE CELL was the winner of the Finally a Bride contest, as well as a finalist in the Kiss of Death Daphne du Maurier Award, Hot Prospects, Cleveland Rocks, Fab Five, Southern Heat, Touch of Magic, and The Catherine contests!

THE CELL is a 93,500-word, romantic thriller. This story is the second in the San Diego FBI series.

THE CELL is about a female FBI agent who infiltrates a local terrorist cell to stop a dirty bomb plot.

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EXCERPT

Chapter 1

     Night had fallen when Samir parked the truck as close as possible to the front of the dilapidated house in the drug-infested Tijuana slum. Once he killed the headlights, the moon provided the only illumination along the crumbling asphalt road. Wedged between Samir and Omar on the seat, Marissa scanned the neighborhood of decaying buildings, hoping to catch a reassuring glimpse of the two agents who were out there—somewhere—following her, watching her back.

On five previous occasions, the terrorists had brought her to their hideout in Mexico, just across the border from San Diego. Marauding drug gangs ruled the area where crackling gunfire was as common as barking dogs. The constant smell of weed permeated the air and stung her nostrils. The residents were rarely visible, preferring relative safety behind walls.

Marissa’s gaze swept over the run-down house, checking for any signs of change or trouble. Boards protected the windows from prying eyes, and a padlock secured the door against thieves. The electrical connection dangling from the sagging overhead lines was one of the few in the slum, and the satellite phone antenna on the roof was definitely unique.

After an anxious look around, Omar jumped out to unlock the door before all three darted inside. Samir switched on the lamp that sat on the floor by the door. Ignoring the stench, they hurried past the barely functioning bathroom and bedroom on the left. A narrow archway separated the front room from the larger back room, which included a rudimentary kitchen along one wall. The furnishings consisted of six metal folding chairs, a wooden table, and three tall lamps. Several boxes of electronic parts were lined up near the rear door. The place was filthy, but no one cared.

The stifling heat in the closed-up house stole Marissa’s breath. Sweat dampened her skin beneath the long, black abaya and niqab, the Muslim robe and veil she wore over her other clothes. While the men turned on the lights, she sank onto one of the flimsy chairs, morbidly wondering if she was more likely to die from heat stroke than at the hands of the terrorists.

Holding the niqab away from her face, she drew slow, deep breaths and grimaced at the pain in her lungs and stomach. The stress of impersonating Baheera Abbas, of pretending to be the female terrorist previously unknown to the U.S. intelligence community, gnawed at Marissa’s nerves. If only she could determine Baheera’s role in the planned attack, she might be able to finish the covert operation, might be able to survive. Every passing minute diminished that possibility.

Wiping the sweat from her face, Marissa watched the two men admire the sword-like knife Samir had purchased in a shop along Avenida Revolucion on their way through Tijuana. On previous visits, Samir’s first priority had been to unlock the metal gun cabinet bolted to the floor in the bedroom closet and to confirm the delivery of additional bomb components. But tonight, the cell’s leader and Omar were distracted by the massive blade, which they took turns brandishing menacingly at each other.

The satellite phone that never left Samir’s sight lay on the table. The phone represented the cell’s umbilical cord to the Middle East, the only method of communication between the terrorists here and those at home. Homeland Security couldn’t fathom why just one means of contact existed, why no alternate options were in place. They suspected the men in charge didn’t trust anyone except Samir and wanted to minimize the risk of the plot being traced back to the source. Unable to definitely determine the terrorists’ reasons, U.S. officials decided the terrorist mind was impossible to understand and worked to exploit the obvious weakness in the cell’s strategy. So, they had simply taken advantage of the inexplicable situation and monitored the calls with ease.

Until two weeks ago, Marissa had listened to and translated many long distance conversations between Samir and his bosses. Discovering the true identities of those people had been a frustrating, and often futile, process. No one used a last name, and even the first names were suspect as they were frequently aliases. Husaam was the name used by the man who seemed to be at the top, but the common Arab name made it impossible to positively identify or trace him.

The sat phone rang, and everyone froze.

Samir shot it a startled glance. The call seemed to unnerve him for a moment, suggesting he did not expect to be contacted tonight. He grabbed the phone, answering warily in Arabic. His face tensed, and his tone turned respectful when he launched into a detailed status report. As usual, he lowered his voice and walked into the front room so neither Omar nor Marissa could hear. She prayed that someone in Washington was listening.

Five minutes later, wearing a Cheshire cat grin, Samir strolled back through the doorway and held out the phone to her. Her stomach knotted. Only Samir talked on the sat phone.

Saying nothing, he thrust it at her again.

Hesitantly, she put the phone to her ear and spoke in precise Arabic. “Allahu Akbar.”

The man on the phone greeted her affectionately as his wife. Marissa held back a gasp while her mind raced. After only a few words, she recognized the voice of the one who called himself Husaam. The passport of the female terrorist whose identity she had assumed read “Baheera Abbas.” But no one knew if the name was real or fake. Was Baheera Abbas really the wife of Husaam…Abbas? Marissa almost dropped the phone. Could she be talking to the Husaam Abbas, leader of al-Qaeda in Syria?

Fighting to steady her voice, she responded briefly to his endearments, expecting with each word for him to realize hers was not his wife’s voice. But the conversation continued and turned serious.

“Baheera, have you seen the doctor?” Husaam asked.

     Doctor? What doctor? Damn. No one briefed me on anything about a doctor. Marissa stalled. “The phone reception is bad. I cannot hear you.”

“The doctor. Have you seen the doctor?” he repeated loudly.

“No, Husaam, not yet.” She swallowed hard.

A grunt communicated his impatience and displeasure even before he spoke. “You were told to see the doctor immediately. You have not followed orders, Baheera. Why have you disobeyed me?”

     Oh, God, why would the real Baheera not go to the doctor? Think.

“I am afraid,” the fake Baheera guessed.

“Do not delay any longer. It could be dangerous. Take care of it tomorrow. You must obey me,” he snapped.

He paused and then said something she couldn’t translate. A private joke or maybe a nickname. She sensed he was waiting for a specific response.

“I cannot hear you, Husaam,” she shouted.

A longer silence this time. Longer…and ominous. Despite the heat, a violent shiver shook her.

“The children send their love. They are asking for their mother. Would you like me to give them a message from you?” he said in a booming voice.

“I love them and miss them so much. Reassure them that I will be home as soon as—”

“Samir,” Husaam yelled. “Get Samir!”

Marissa offered a parting endearment. There was no response. She froze. What just happened? Damn. Something’s wrong, terribly wrong. Oh, God, does Husaam know?

Instinctively, she assessed the situation in a heartbeat and knew she had to escape. Omar had stepped out the back door to seek relief from the heat inside the house. Samir slouched on one of the metal chairs, twirling the knife and watching her closely. Her gaze darted across the room to her purse, then back to him. Panic gripped her when she realized she couldn’t grab the purse containing her concealed Glock.

If she turned off the phone, she was sure Samir would get suspicious, so she just disconnected the call. Heart pounding, she set the phone on the table with trembling fingers.

“I need to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back,” Marissa called over her shoulder, hurrying through the archway. She jumped when the sat phone rang and flinched when Samir’s chair scraped as he stood up. After yanking the bathroom door shut loudly as a decoy, she rushed to the front door. She stepped out into the night and closed that door silently behind her.

Deciding the men would search for her on the roads that led back to the border crossing, she ran in the opposite direction. She sprinted down the narrow street, glancing from side-to-side, searching for the agents who always tailed her. Where are they?

Her abaya tangled between her legs and almost tripped her. Her feet stumbled on the broken chunks of asphalt. As she fought to draw air into her laboring lungs, she clutched the niqab clinging to her gaping mouth and pushed the fabric back over her head.

She gave up hope of finding her back-up agents and banged on doors. But none opened.

Minutes later, shouting obscenities, Samir and Omar flew out of the house and into the street.

Marissa slipped around the corner of a building and held her breath. She inched backwards. When her foot came down on the paw of a dog sleeping against the wall, the mutt yelped and sprang to its feet. It growled, and then barked ferociously.

“Hush. No bark. Quiet,” she scolded in Spanish to no avail.

She scooted back to the corner and peered down the road. As she had anticipated, the men were searching for her in the direction of the border crossing. But hearing the barking, they stopped, turned, and raced back in her direction. Marissa spun around, ran several steps, and stopped with a gasp.

The short alley was a dead end. And she couldn’t return to the road because Samir and Omar would definitely see her.

She was trapped.

With the dog biting at her heels, she tried to pry open the door of the building on the right side of the alley. The door refused to budge. Rushing across to the building on the left, she slammed both hands into the door. It shuddered open a crack. She rammed her shoulder into the wood, and the door gave way. Ignoring the pain that shot through her arm, she swung inside the abandoned building, pushed the dog back outside with her foot, and shoved the door shut.

Minimal moonlight filtered in through dirty, broken windows. She strained to see as she felt along the grimy walls until she found a doorway. Repeating the pattern, she worked her way back through six rooms. Where’s another exit? There can’t be only one.

The dog’s blood-curdling yelp stopped her in her tracks. Oh, God. Samir’s knife.

When the two terrorists shouted and barged into the building, Marissa slipped into another room and flattened herself against the wall beside the door. Her eyes desperately sought a way out. No more doors. Only two windows, four feet above the floor, shattered in the center. Could she dive through one without ripping herself open? Was there time?

Not bothering with stealth, the men cursed as they separated, searched, room by room. Closer and closer. When Omar stepped through the doorway, Marissa slammed the door into his face, her bulky clothes hampering her efforts.

She dashed toward the windows. But Omar recovered before she reached them. Grabbing her abaya from behind, he yelled to Samir. Viciously, he kicked the backs of her legs, buckling her knees.

She collapsed to the floor.

Samir charged through the doorway, brandishing the knife in front of him.

As she scrambled up onto her hands and knees, Omar yanked off the veil. He grabbed handfuls of her long hair, exposing the back of her neck and dragging her forward. She cursed and clawed at her attackers, but both stayed just out of reach.

Samir grunted as he raised the massive knife high over her neck.

“Benja! Miláčku,” Marissa screamed.

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