COME FOR THE ADVENTURE...STAY FOR THE ROMANCE!
Wednesday, March 27th, 5:21 p.m., the estate of Darren Merritt, St. George, Utah:
No! This can’t be happening!
The last thing Andi expected to encounter on the grounds of her father’s estate was an ambush. Headed to the stables for her rendezvous with Donald, she’d had her mind on romance and her fingers toying with the beautiful opal pendant he’d given her last night. Can I trust him? she wondered. Or was he just another gold digger after her father’s money? Lost in her thoughts, she paid little attention to the stranger approaching her.
Until he spoke.
“Excuse me, Miss.”
His rough voice grated on her ears. Nerves tingling, she backed away. He followed. Big, muscular, and hulking.
God, he looks like a thug. Incongruous in his three-piece, navy-blue suit with its tiny white pinstripes, he made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She stuffed the opal necklace under the neck of her T-shirt and continued backing away.
“Who are you?” Chills skittered up her spine. The man oozed violence and malicious intent. “You’re t--trespassing,” she stammered. “This is private property!”
Focused on the guy in front of her, she didn’t notice the other two come up behind her until she felt a hand on her shoulder--and the prick of a needle in her arm.
Vomit rose in her throat. Hot and bitter, it choked off her breath. She swallowed hard, forcing the vile mess back down so she could scream.
She fought them. Rage and panic poured strength into her muscles as she twisted, scratched, and kicked. But it did her no good. The men overpowered her and stuffed her into a cloth bag reeking of dirty socks and stale cigarettes. The thick, heavy material muffled her cries for help, echoing them back on her. Screams turned into sobs then into hysterical giggling as the drug took effect.
The world dimmed. Faded to gray. And went black.
8:10 p.m., the Sydarian Embassy, Washington, DC:
“Did you get the package?” The words, calm and quiet, displayed none of the seething tension Ambassador Jamar Farahani held inside. He hated working with scum like this--dirty, violent. Uneducated. But that was the only kind of man who would undertake this type of job.
“Yeah, we got her,” replied the rough voice on the other end of the line. “When are you coming to pick her up?”
“Tomorrow. Maybe. It depends on the weather. Right now, they will not let any planes take off from the airport. Not even private jets.” Jamar’s hand tightened on the phone as he watched the snowstorm outside his windows. “There is supposed to be a break in the morning. So hopefully, I can get out then.”
“If that’s the best you can do, I’ll just have to sit on her for a while. But get here as soon as you can. My guys are getting restless.”
“Just make sure nothing happens to her, Johnson.” Jamar’s voice turned cold and hard. “If she is raped, beaten, or even scratched, you and your men will not get paid. Understand?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll make sure nothing happens. But the sooner she’s out of here, the better. She’s such a looker, it’s hard to control my men.”
“If she was not ‘such a looker,’ she would not be worth as much money, and you would not be getting paid your over-inflated fee.” Jamar turned away from the windows. And the storm. Damn it! The goal had been within his reach, then this happened. “Tell your men I will examine the package thoroughly when I get there. If there is a mark on her, they will not only lose the money, they will not live long enough to regret it.” He paused to let that sink in. “I hope I have made myself clear.”
“Yeah, I got it.” Johnson’s voice had risen nearly an octave. “Nobody’ll touch her.”
“See that they do not.” Jamar disconnected, fighting the urge to throw the phone against the wall. If Johnson’s men did what kidnappers of young women normally did, the buyer would not pay full price. A knock at the door jerked him out of his dark thoughts. “Come in.”
Basaam brought in a tray of coffee and pastries. “Did they get the package, sir?”
Jamar scowled at his assistant. “Yes, they got her. But I do not know what kind of shape she will be in when I finally pick her up.” Still frowning, he took the coffee Bas handed him. “If Johnson cannot control his men, she may not be worth very much to the buyer.”
“Surely, for what you are paying them, they should be able to control their...urges.” Bas put a chocolate éclair on a small plate and handed it over. “Shall I call Ahasama and give him the good news?”
“Not yet. I do not want to report success until the package is safe in our hands. Ahasama tends to deal harshly with disappointment. Very harshly.”
Jamar looked at his watch then out the window at the storm. He hoped it did not last much longer. Both he and the package were running out of time.
Thursday, March 28th, 4:04 a.m., the apartment of Levi Komakov, Salt Lake City, Utah:
“Bloody hell, what now?” Still more than half asleep, Levi fumbled for the ringing phone. “This had better be good.”
“Jonas?” Levi bolted up into a sitting position. His friend and employer, Jonas McKenzie, never called him at home unless there was trouble. “How bad?”
“Bad enough. Son, I need you here.” Jonas sounded tired. “Will you come?”
“Of course, I’ll come, old man. You should know that by now.”
A weak chuckle came down the line. “Actually, I do. But it’s still more polite to ask.”
“Nothing’s polite at four in the morning,” Levi argued, glancing at the clock. “I’m on my way.”
“How soon can you get here?”
“If you want me awake and functioning, it’ll take me an hour. Otherwise, thirty minutes.” Levi could hear Jonas conferring with someone else but couldn’t tell who.
“An hour will do.”
“I’ll be there.”
Levi hung up the phone. So it was urgent, but not life or death. Still, whatever it was, it was bad.
He reached across the bed for the hand that wasn’t there and groaned. His wife Leanne had been dead for over two years, but he still reached for her every morning, after dreaming of her each night.
Murdered--when she was six months pregnant--by a drunk driving the wrong way on the freeway, her death had left a hole in Levi’s soul that he couldn’t seem to fill.
A former sergeant in the British SAS, he was a man who would have killed, if necessary, to protect his wife and unborn child. But he couldn’t even go after the bastard who’d murdered her. The bugger had died in the crash, along with Leanne.
Levi had always known that life wasn’t fair--he’d just never realized how bloody unfair it could be.
He threw off the covers, rolled out of bed, and stretched. He’d have to forego his morning run, he realized, then he closed his eyes, disappointed at the flash of relief he felt. He was getting older, slowing down.
Losing his edge.
At thirty-four, he could still do most of the things he’d done at twenty-four, but running a six-minute mile now took seven and a half.
He went into the kitchen, flipped the switch on the coffee pot, and headed for the shower. Maybe the trouble waiting for him at Jonas’s estate would be big enough to get his mind off his own problems.
Yeah, and maybe I should be careful what I wish for.
4:11 a.m., a cabin in the Cascade Mountains on the Yakima Indian Reservation in southern Washington:
Fear and rage. They seemed to be the only emotions Andi had left. The only ones she remembered, anyway. As if she had never known anything else, they filled and consumed her.
When she’d awakened from her drugged sleep, the sack she’d been shoved into was gone. Now she lay, bound and gagged, on a lumpy double bed. Her mouth tasted like muddy cotton. The ropes around her wrists and ankles bit into her skin.
For hours she’d lain here, watching the sky outside the barred windows grow lighter--as day one of her abduction passed into day two. She’d stopped struggling, defeated by the emotional and physical pain. The ropes were too tight, freedom impossible.
What did they want with her? She shuddered as thoughts of what men usually wanted from women flashed through her mind. No. Oh, God, no. Panic flared up again, and she fought the ropes until she lay curled into a ball, sobbing and exhausted.
Would anyone come to help her? No one had seen her being abducted. Had Donald reported her missing when she hadn’t shown up for their date? Or was he in on it?
From what she’d overheard the men in the next room say, someone close to her had arranged her kidnapping. Her father? Donald? Could it really be true? But who else could have given the kidnappers her picture, her schedule, and the best time to ambush her? Not many people had known exactly where she’d be and when.
Jonas McKenzie, head of the crime family her father belonged to, might send someone to help. The rumors in the Family said he didn’t allow innocent people to be hurt. Then again, he might not even know she’d been abducted. If her father had tipped off the kidnappers, he wouldn’t have called Jonas for help.
Damn, if only she could get to a computer! She was an expert hacker and had broken into the FBI’s database more than once for her father, checking for arrest warrants on his men. Only this time, she’d put out an abduction alert on herself. But she doubted the kidnappers would loan her a laptop, even if she asked.
Exhausted from the effects of the drug, her ordeal, and the questions she couldn’t answer, Andi drifted back to sleep, praying that someone out there--somewhere--would come to her aid.
4:53 a.m., the country estate of Jonas McKenzie, outside Salt Lake City, Utah:
Levi walked into Jonas’s study and found a surprise waiting for him. “Special Agent Wilson,” he said warmly, shaking the FBI agent’s hand. “What brings you here?”
“Mr. Komakov.” Wilson looked relieved to see him. “We need your expertise,” he said, picking up a manila file folder from a stack of papers on Jonas’s Desk and handing it over.
With a twinge of unease, Levi sat down, opened the folder, and scanned it. “Anderson Merritt,” he read out loud. “Goes by Andi.”
But he saw nothing in the file that would explain why he’d been called in. There was a brief dossier and a color photo, showing an exquisite young woman--probably mid-twenties--with auburn hair to her mid-back; ivory skin; and striking, almond-shaped, honey-colored eyes. According to the file, she was five feet, eight inches tall, one-hundred-thirty pounds. Just about perfect.
He whistled. “Nice. Very nice. She’s a bloody beautiful girl. And if your informant’s correct, she’s also intelligent, stubborn, very sheltered, and a bit of a handful.” He looked from Wilson to Jonas. “But other than wondering who I’d have to kill to have her, I don’t see what the problem is. Is the FBI after her for something?”
Jonas cleared his throat. “Andi is Darren Merritt’s daughter, Levi. She’s been kidnapped.”
“Oh, Christ! Sorry.” Levi winced, appalled by his thoughtless comment. “By Darren Merritt, I assume you mean your guy in St. George.” He remembered meeting the underboss once but hadn’t been impressed with him. “Did he ask for your help?”
“No. I knew nothing about this until Wilson called me early this morning.”
Levi rubbed a hand over his face. “You’ve lost me, guys,” he confessed, handing the file folder back. “You said you needed my expertise, which I assume means my particular brand of skills.” Jonas and Wilson both nodded, so Levi continued. “The FBI has a whole team of professionals who handle this kind of stuff--all younger and in better shape than me. If the young lady’s been kidnapped and you guys are involved, what can I do?”
Wilson didn’t answer directly. Instead, he said, “I’ve checked out your background, the part that’s not classified, anyway. You’re experienced in covert operations--or should I say ‘black ops’--and you’ve had paramilitary training with the British SAS. After you emigrated to the U.S. from England, you worked in some capacity with the CIA for a while, but nobody there will say what you did.” When Levi said nothing, Wilson smiled. “Mr. McKenzie tells me you’re a dangerous man to your enemies but a savior to your friends. He also says you could out-stalk a leopard.”
“What does my background have to do with anything?”
“Are you willing to work in an unofficial capacity?”
Levi couldn’t stop his snort. “You mean more unofficially than I usually do?” He looked from Wilson to Jonas and back again. “Look, just tell me what the situation is and what you want me to do. Then I’ll tell you if I can do it. Fair enough?”
“The girl’s being held in a cabin on the Yakima Indian Reservation in southern Washington,” Wilson told him. “We know exactly which cabin, even which room.”
“Exactly? How the bloody hell did you manage that?”
“Technology,” Wilson said with a tight smile. “The problem is there’s a conflict between the tribal authorities and the FBI. We won’t reveal the source of the information on the girl’s whereabouts, so the tribal authorities won’t accept that the girl’s there. Unless we can show them some concrete proof that she is, other than claiming we have a confidential informant, the tribal authorities won’t allow our hostage rescue team to come in and retrieve her. And we can’t just go up and knock on the door to get the necessary proof, or the girl will likely become collateral damage.”
He sighed and shook his head. “The bottom line is the bosses are all sitting around playing with their dicks while the victim suffers.”
“So what you’re telling me,” Levi said, remembering why he’d left the CIA, “is that politics is interfering with the rescue of a kidnap victim?” He studied the man. “That doesn’t sound like the Special Agent Wilson I know.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Wilson admitted without apology. “The Powers That Be have decided to negotiate with the tribal authorities rather than take any direct action. So my hands are tied.”
“And you remembered that I don’t like innocents getting hurt any more than you do, right?”
“That’s right. I also remembered how effective you were in rescuing Tess Horton in Mexico a few years ago. So when I got the word that the victim wasn’t the Higher Ups’ first priority, I--” When Levi raised his eyebrows, Wilson shrugged. “That’s not what they said, but it’s what they meant. Anyway, I thought of you, so I called Mr. McKenzie and--”
A knock on the door interrupted them. Jeff, one of Jonas’s attorney advisors, came into the room, followed closely by Garry, his assistant, carrying a tray loaded with coffee cups and pastries. “We were passing, saw the light under the door, and heard voices, so we assumed there was a meeting going on.” He gestured for Garry to set the tray on the coffee table in front of the couch. “We thought you could use an eye opener.”
“Thank you, Jeff,” Jonas said. “And you, too, Garry. That was very considerate of you.”
Jeff looked at the three men, the file in Wilson’s hand, and the stack of papers on the desk. “Is there anything I need to know, Jonas?”
“Not at the moment, Jeff,” Jonas said dryly. “You normally don’t need an attorney until after the crime’s been committed.”
“Right.” Jeff eyed all three men again then beckoned to Garry and left, closing the door behind them.
Levi passed around the coffee before grabbing a cup for himself. “So let me see if I understand what you’re saying. You can’t do jack shit to get this girl out of there, so you want me to go onto federal property, by myself, armed and unauthorized, and unofficially rescue her. Correct?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Can you do it?” Jonas asked. “I’ll get you whatever gear you want and anything else you need.”
“You’re just a sucker for a pretty girl, aren’t you, old man?”
But Levi knew it was more than that. Jonas hated to see innocents suffer as much as Levi and Wilson did. The fact that Jonas focused on “victimless crimes” and didn’t allow his organization to hurt non-combatants was the only reason Levi had agreed to work for him in the first place.
“To answer your question, yes, I can probably do it,” he confirmed. “I’ll know more when I see the layout of where she’s being held.” He turned to Wilson. “My question is, how unofficial is this operation going to be?” When the man gave him a blank look, Levi clarified. “If I get in and get out with the girl, am I going to be in trouble with your troops for breaking the law?”
“If you get in and out without getting caught, then no--I don’t know you and have no idea that you’re even involved.”
“Gee, that sounds just like what I used to hear from the SAS and the CIA. And if I get caught?”
“If you get caught, you were not acting with any official authorization, but I will do whatever I can for you,” Wilson assured him. “I strongly recommend, however, that you not get caught.”
“That sounds familiar, too.” Levi thought for a moment, wondering how to broach his next question. Hell, might as well be blunt. “To do this as covertly as you seem to want, I’m going to have to kill any hostiles, whether they pose a direct threat or not.” He paused, sipped his coffee. “I don’t normally like to do that. But in my book, kidnappers rate right up there with terrorists and don’t deserve any mercy. So I’m okay with it this time. But are you?”
“As far as I’m concerned, you can kill every one of the bastards.”
“Good. That’s settled.” How could he not go? A woman or child in danger was a call to action no honorable man could ignore. And Wilson had known he’d go even before he asked. So what hasn’t he told me? “I’ll do it, but I have one more question,” he told the FBI agent. “What don’t you want to tell me?”
Wilson averted his eyes. “As of yet, there hasn’t been any ransom demand.”
7:23 a.m., the Sudarian Embassy, Washington, DC:
Jamar stood at the window, cursing the snow. From the looks of it, there wouldn’t be a break anytime soon. He’d thought about taking the train south, out of the storm, then chartering a plane once he’d left the bad weather behind, but that would leave witnesses as well as a paper trail.
Bas poked his head through the doorway. “Salt Lake City on line one for you, sir.”
Jamar nodded then stomped over to the phone on his desk. “Why the hell did you not call me on my cell phone?”
“Because the feds can eavesdrop on cell phones, you idiot,” said a familiar voice. “I’ve worked for a crime family long enough to know not to give out sensitive information on anything but a land line. As a matter of fact, I’m calling from a payphone in town, since I don’t know if the phones on the estate are bugged.”
“I see. So why did you call?”
“We have a problem. McKenzie may be sending someone to rescue the package.”
“How do you know?”
“An FBI agent showed up at the estate very early this morning. About an hour after he got there, McKenzie’s trouble shooter, Levi Komakov, came in. Almost three hours earlier than normal. They were still holed up in the study when I left to call you. What else could they be planning?”
“I have six guards on her, and it is in a very remote location,” Jamar said. “Do you think we really need to worry?”
“If they send Komakov, we do. The guy’s a freaking ghost. Trained by the British SAS and the CIA--if you believe even half of the rumors about him. He’s no joke.”
“How much do they know?”
“I won’t know for sure until I check the tapes. But someone must have called the FBI. It wasn’t her father, so we’ve probably got a mole, which means they must have some idea of where she is, or they wouldn’t have called in Komakov.”
“Great. That is just what we do not need.” Jamar sighed. “I will call Johnson and warn him. I will also send him some more men. Though, depending on the roads, they probably won’t get there before late tonight or early tomorrow. Meanwhile, you try to find out how much they know and what they intend to do about it.” Jamar considered the man at the other end of the line for a moment. “Is there any way you can take out this Komakov?”
“Not a chance.” A dark chuckle traveled down the line from Utah. “Even with my training, he’d gut me like a fish. Unless I managed to shoot him in the back. But I’m not sure he doesn’t have eyes in the back of his head. What do you think about moving the package?”
“I do not trust Johnson to do it safely and I am stuck here. I could not get my plane out of the airport last night as I had planned. I probably will not be able to leave until tomorrow from the look of things.” Jamar scowled at the snowflakes whipping past his window. “I cannot drive. The snow has closed too many roads. So I was considering taking the train south out of the storm first thing in the morning and chartering a plane.”
“Why can’t you do it now?”
“I have a meeting this afternoon that I cannot afford to miss. If I could have gotten out last night, I would have been back in time for the meeting, but it is too late now. It will have to be tomorrow.” Jamar massaged the back of his neck to ease the tension. “If I leave first thing in the morning, I could be there by tomorrow afternoon. But I do not like the idea of witnesses and an untrusted flight crew. Or a paper trail, for that matter.”
“Dope the package and put her in a box, for Christ’s sake. Then she’s just cargo to any witness or flight crew. All any paperwork will say is whatever you write on it.”
“Yes, good. An excellent idea.” Jamar played the scenario in his head but saw no downside. “I will be on the first train south in the morning. You see what else you can come up with and let me know. If this Komakov is going to attempt a rescue, he will have to be good.”
“He is. So just make sure Johnson’s expecting him. And get him some help.”
© 2014 by Pepper O’Neal