A well-crafted romance thriller from Johansen (Long After Midnight, 1997, etc.), whose hardcover adventures for women are much more fun than her paperback bodice-rippers. There are monsters in the world, and somebody has to get rid of them. Photographer Bess Grady spends her professional life shooting the results of their carnage with her camera, and CIA superhero Kaldak (one name only, please) shoots the bad guys with his gun (that is, when he's not breaking their necks). The dynamic duo meet in the small Mexican town of Tenajo (``in the back of beyond''), where Bess has gone for a vacation and where Esteban, the villain, has just used a mutant form of anthrax to annihilate everyone in the village--in a sort of beta test for a much larger hit in the US. Bess's sister Emily--a wife, mother, and gifted pediatrician--succumbs to the disease, but Bess herself, it turns out, is immune. In fact, she's the CIA's, the CDC's, not to mention all America's, best hope of developing a vaccine against the deadly infection. Kaldak helps Bess and an infant girl, the only other survivor of the Tenajo tragedy, to escape. (Just in case you don't think Esteban is a stinker, the cute little infant is shot in the side.) Without telling Bess why he's helping her, Kaldak takes her to Atlanta, and then to New Orleans, to lure Esteban into the open. Sharing her apartment with him in the French Quarter, Bess finds that inside the assassin with the harsh face of a gargoyle lies David Gardiner, a tormented ex-doctor with the heart of a pussycat. Johansen continues the trend of creating female leads whose physical strength and personal courage are as well developed as the moral fiber they share with heroines of old. Heroes are crucial, of course. But in Johansen's fiction, the girl tied to the railroad tracks would have a Swiss Army knife at the ready.