It was cold in the rough little hut. Despite the blankets hung over the one window and the ill-fitting door, to block the escape of any telltale light, frigid air still seeped through. Niema Burdock blew on her fingers to warm them, her breath fogging slightly in the one dim battery-operated light that was all Tucker, the team leader, allowed.
Her husband, Dallas, seemed perfectly comfortable in his T-shirt as he calmly packed the Semtex blocks into secure sections of his web gear. Niema watched him, trying to hide her anxiety. It wasn't the explosive she worried about; plastique was so stable soldiers in Vietnam had burned it as fuel. But Dallas and Sayyed had to plant the explosives in the manufacturing facility, and that was the most dangerous part of a job that was already hair-raising enough. Though her husband was as matter-of-fact about it as he would be about crossing the street, Niema wasn't that blasé about the job. The radio detonator wasn't state-of-the art; far from it. This was deliberate, a precaution in case any of their equipment fell into the wrong hands. Nothing they were using could be traced to the United States, which was why Dallas was using Semtex instead of C-4. But because their equipment wasn't the best available, Niema had gone to great pains to make sure it was reliable. It was her husband's finger, after all, that would be on the switch.
Dallas caught her gaze on him and winked at her, his strong face relaxing from its normal impassiveness into a warm smile that he reserved only for her. "Hey," he said mildly, "I'm good at this. Don't worry."
So much for trying to hide her anxiety. The other three men turned to look at her. Not wanting them to think she couldn't handle the stress of the job, she shrugged. "So sue me. I'm new at this wife business. I thought I was supposed to worry."
Sayyed laughed as he packed his own gear. "Heck of a way to spend your honeymoon." He was a native Iranian who was now an American citizen, a tough, wiry man in his late forties. He spoke English with a Midwestern accent, the result of both hard work and almost thirty years in the United States. "Personally, I'd have picked Hawaii for my wedding trip. At least it would be warm there."
"Or Australia," Hadi said wistfully. "It's summer there now." Hadi Santana was of Arabic and Mexican heritage, but an American by birth. He had grown up in the heat of southern Arizona and didn't like the cold Iranian mountains in mid-winter any better than did Niema. He would stand guard while Dallas and Sayyed planted the charges and was occupying himself by checking and rechecking his rifle and ammunition.
"We spent two weeks in Aruba after we got married," Dallas said. "Great place." He winked at Niema again, and she had to smile. Unless Dallas had been to Aruba another time, he hadn't seen much of it during their honeymoon, three months before. They had spent the entire two weeks lost in each other's company, making love, sleeping late. Bliss.
Tucker didn't join in the conversation, but his cool, dark eyes lingered on Niema as if assessing her; wondering if he had made a mistake including her on the team. She wasn't as experienced as the others, but neither was she a novice. Not only that, she could put a bug on a telephone line with her eyes closed. If Tucker had any doubts about her ability, she wished he would just come out and say so.
But if Tucker had doubts about her, then turnabout was fair play, she thought wryly, because she sure as hell wasn't certain about him. Not that he'd said or done anything wrong; the uneasiness that kept her on edge around him was instinctive, without any concrete reason. She wished he was one of the three men going into the plant, rather than remaining behind with her. The thought of spending the hours alone with him wasn't nearly as nerve-racking as knowing Dallas would be in danger, but she didn't need the added tension when her nerves already felt stretched and raw.
Copyright © 1999 by Linda Howington. Published by permission of the publisher, Pocket Books.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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