Magnus Oswin jimmied his shoulders under the Camaro to bolt in the new electronic engine he’d designed. Brains and power—a Special Forces car if he ever saw one. A loud country tune wailed on the classic muscle car’s speaker system.
The musical tribute to baseball bats and windshields abruptly cut off.
HELP ME, the car cried.
Magnus sat up so fast that he whacked his head against the undercarriage. Rubbing the bruise, he slid the platform from under the car and grabbed the cell phone he’d synched with the car’s new Bluetooth.
Unknown was all the caller ID displayed. But he knew who it was. He’d spent weeks of sleepless nights attempting to track the mysterious Librarian’s entreaties.
He was a mechanic, not a computer technician. But even his computer genius brother Conan couldn’t trace these pleas.
Magnus tried dialing back but only reached a disconnect message. He thought about shoving the phone in his pocket and forgetting about it, but he couldn’t. Whether she was liar, traitor, or bait, the Librarian was his key to getting his hands on General Adams—his latest obsession.
No man tricked him, locked him up, and attempted to steal his hard work without paying the consequences. The general had to be insane to have even considered something as whacko as hijacking a military experiment. Insane men should not be allowed access to military channels—even generals who’d disappeared into the desert and fallen off the radar.
Growling, he closed the garage door and set the security locks through the car’s dashboard—his latest experiment. It needed more work, but the Librarian was higher on his agenda.
He carried the phone past his brother’s flashy Mercedes sports coupe and into the ground floor space of Conan’s beach house. Unlike his brother, Magnus had never needed much of a roof over his head. The beach house was a nice perk, but he would be content to live in a tent if that’s what it took to find the general.
The Librarian’s pleas were scraping his nerves raw. She’d helped save a bunch of people, including himself, from the general’s plots. If she needed help, they owed it to her to provide it.
Magnus entered the spacious open area that was Conan’s office. His younger brother glanced up from one of his many monitors.
“Librarian?” Conan asked, turning his screen around so Magnus could see the same message texting across the screen.
“Still no coordinates on the messages?” Magnus asked, handing over his phone so the call could be traced.
“Her computer may be stationary, but the calls are bouncing off satellites. I’m getting closer to finding an epicenter with each call, but as we all know, the desert is a big place.”
Dorrie—Dorothea Franklin—arrived bearing a tray of sandwiches from the local deli. “Francesca just called. She’s receiving fragmented numbers that strike her as frantic, but she can’t decipher them.” She dropped a paper of coded numbers on the desk.
Half Chinese, half Irish, with wild black curls she hadn’t bothered taming today, Conan’s fiancée was related to a family with admittedly weird abilities.
“Receiving?” Magnus asked warily. “By phone, text, or ether?”
“Ether,” she retorted, meaning Francesca’s psychic claims.
Magnus ignored the psychic fantasy and studied Dorrie’s numbers as Conan fed them into his computer. They had a pattern. “We need military code software. These aren’t coordinates,” Magnus told them. “What are the chances this is some play to exchange a hostage for the ’copter?”
“Paranoia doesn’t suit you,” Dorrie told him. “It’s confusing your chi.”
Snorting in amusement at his fiancée’s comment, Conan hit the keyboard. “I’m on the code.” Looking more like a long-haired, blond surfer than a computer whiz, Conan tapped his keyboard faster than seemed humanly possible, accessing dozens of websites that he probably had no business knowing existed.
“How would the Librarian know military code if the general isn’t feeding it to her?” Magnus demanded. “What if she’s leading us into a trap?” He examined the food, found a sandwich not dripping bean sprouts and greenery, and sampled it before nearly gulping it whole and looking for another.
“You may be big tall manly man, but you need to eat your veggies. Sprouts and spinach are good for you,” Dorrie pointed out, before settling cross-legged on a floor pillow to munch her lunch.
She was too damned observant, but he shrugged off the criticism. He had been quarterback on his college team. He wasn’t small. He’d inhale anything. But he preferred meat. He helped himself to another.
“The Librarian is smart,” Dorrie continued. “If she’s figured out that we have ex-military working to find her, she’ll use anything she can. I don’t like the sound of it if she’s growing frantic. She’s never asked for help for herself before. The General may suspect that she’s been aiding us.”
Magnus felt his gut grind. He’d left Special Forces because he didn’t feel capable of carrying the world on his shoulders. His fiancée’s death had proved that he lacked good judgment. He didn’t want to be responsible for saving the Librarian, but he didn’t want to be responsible for her death either.
Scarfing the second sandwich, he helped himself to a laptop, took the couch, and connected with several old Marine buddies. His big fingers didn’t fit the keys as expertly as Conan’s, but coordination, he could do.
Dorrie sipped her drink and murmured, “My, I like watching strong silent men work. Scintillating conversation.”
“Got it,” Magnus said without satisfaction some hours later, staring at the laptop screen. “Psychic mumbo-jumbo doesn’t mean squat.”
Returned from a design consultation and wearing her hair tamed into a knot at her nape, Dorrie took the machine away from him. “Psychic readings aren’t always spelled out, you realize.”
Conan was already studying the de-coded message Magnus had sent to his e-mail. “Starwood. Dollar Lake. We use psychics and secret code and we get a hiking trail?”
“Hiking trail?” Magnus Googled the names and came up with reviews of trails. “No Starwood related to Dollar Lake. If someone has the Librarian tied to a tree, she could scream to one of these industrious hikers texting from a damned mountain.”
“Starwood.” Dorrie pounced on an iPad. “Starwood. I know that name. Have you sent the message to the whole family?”
“Done.” Conan hit a button. “Including Pippa and Oz, although they’re probably out stargazing or doing yoga at this hour.”
“Oz takes his phone to bed with him, and Pippa’s waiting for final arrangements on our wedding. They’ll answer.” Dorrie went back to poking the iPad. “All I’m getting is hotels,” she complained a few minutes later.
“I’ll guarantee there are no four diamond hotels in Dollar Lake,” Conan muttered from his desk.
Magnus rubbed his crooked nose in frustration, then kept typing, digging deeper, not joining the discussion. He studied the terrain around Dollar Lake but saw no indication of permanent habitation. It was a national forest, deep in the mountains outside of San Bernardino. They could fly low over most of it, but without a direction, it would be useless. Campers could be hidden in the trees and they’d never know.
Would crazy hikers name a particular grove of trees Starwood?
“Francesca says try scrambling the words or letters. She can’t promise she got the numbers in correct order,” Dorrie reported, clicking off her phone. “Psychic reception is not a science.”
Conan shut down his computer in disgust and stood up, stretching his back. “This is nuts. Let’s go get some Thai and think about it.”
Magnus didn’t move. “Bring some back for me.”
He tuned out the protests. This was the best clue they’d had. The general could be moving the Librarian from location to location. If he didn’t act now, he’d lose this chance. Whatever the source, the code had been translatable. It had to mean something.
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