Wednesday. Aegis Group Headquarters, Seattle, WA.
Isaac Cohen balled his hands into fists and stared at the glass door twenty yards ahead of him. He fought against the urge to lengthen his stride and put as much distance between him and his problems as quickly as possible. Work was a haven, a place he didn’t have to think about the real world, so when he passed through the doors of the Seattle Aegis Group headquarters, he needed to have a cooler mindset. People’s lives depended on the work they did.
He planted his right foot and pivoted, following the path around the building. The skies reflected his mood—stormy, gray, and brooding.
How could Ruth do this? Just surprise him like that?
Isaac strode around the covered patio and the picnic tables. He stopped at the edge of the concrete slab and stared at the undisturbed surface of the reflecting pool.
When Ruth had asked Isaac to come over and help her move into her new place, he’d never once suspected she’d had ulterior motives. She was just—Ruth. His dead brother’s fiancée. Family, as far as he was concerned. Which was why he’d expected some sort of warning. Instead, he’d nearly face planted into the pint-sized, soft-spoken man who was trying to take Joshua’s place in Ruth’s life and their family.
It’d been—what? Three years since Joshua’s death? It was too soon to move on, to lay his memory to rest, and yet that’s what Ruth was trying to do.
“You coming inside?”
Isaac turned at the sound of the other man’s voice.
“We’re waiting on you.” Shane gestured at the doors.
“I’ve got five minutes.”
“All right.” Shane shrugged and took a step back.
Isaac entertained the idea of throwing a punch at Shane, but discarded it. He’d already been busted once for landing a cheap shot on the guy after one too many beers. Besides, Shane had a head like concrete. That punch would hurt Isaac more than Shane, and they had a gig. Which brought Isaac back to the problem at hand.
He stared at the water, raindrops rippling the surface of the pool.
Nothing stayed the same.
Deep down he’d always known Ruth would find someone else. She was too much of a good soul to not be loved. Even Isaac’s parents had mourned and moved on. But Isaac had never stopped being angry. Never properly grieved or gotten over it. While everyone else had been gripped with grief, Isaac had needed to hold it all together for them. The anger management counselor he’d had to see after the bar altercation had gone on at length about how his failure to deal with losing his brother impacted him.
Tell me something I don’t know.
He sucked in a deep breath and blew it out.
Joshua was dead. Isaac wasn’t.
Everyone else had adjusted to those two facts, their functional lives moving on.
Did Mom and Dad ever wish it had been him who’d died? Did Ruth?
Joshua had always been the favorite, the darling of the family. He hadn’t needed to go into the SEALs, but it’d been a challenge, and Joshua could never say no to that. With his brains, he could have gone far, but he’d wanted to be in the thick of it, boots on the ground and all that. In the end, that was what’d killed him. And Isaac had been there, the little brother without an ounce of direction, following in Joshua’s footsteps. And now Joshua was dead, and Isaac wasn’t.
His phone buzzed, interrupting the common refrain. He pulled it out and glanced at the screen, wincing at Mom’s face. She always did have great timing.
He could ignore it. The time was ticking down to the emergency briefing. And yet, if he did that, she’d have one more thing to guilt him over. She didn’t set out to make him feel remorse for his actions, but damn if his choices didn’t gnaw at him a little more whenever they spoke. She was like a second, more tenacious conscience outside of his body.
“Hello, dear. Ruth said you had to leave in a hurry?”
“Yeah, got called into work. You know how it is.”
“Did you get a chance to meet—?”
“You knew?” Isaac stared at the reflecting pool, the shifting surface bearing some resemblance to his thoughts. He’d assumed that if Ruth hadn’t told him, she hadn’t told anyone in the family.
“Of course.” Mom huffed. “I introduced them.”
Everyone was so ready to move on, to lay Joshua to rest and continue their lives. What about the life Joshua should have lived? The children he and Ruth were going to have? What about that?
“Got to go, Mom. Briefing starts in a moment.”
“Give Ruth the chance to be happy. She wants you to like him,” Mom pleaded.
“We’ll see. Love you.”
Isaac hung up before Mom could get another word in edgewise.
Ruth had become part of their family. She and Joshua were sweethearts from the moment they’d met. The perfect love story. It should have had a better ending. If Mom had her way, Ruth and Isaac would have comforted each other’s grief and begun to love in a non-sibling manner.
Isaac didn’t know how to break it to Mom that that was never going to happen. Ruth was a sweet, nice girl. She really was. Her and Joshua were perfect for each other. They’d met in the local library, fallen in love over history and coffee. Which was another reason why it should have been Isaac. He couldn’t take Joshua’s place in Ruth’s life, just like he couldn’t make himself love his brother’s widow.
He sucked down a deep breath, closed his eyes and exhaled.
There was a briefing to get to, an important one, if his supervisor’s tone had been any indication when he’d called. For that he’d need to put his personal problems aside and focus on the job. Besides, that meant being away a few days. He could process his thoughts better in the field where feelings didn’t get in the way.
Isaac did one more breathing exercise, grounding himself for what was coming. Only when he could draw an easy breath did he head for the door.
Work couldn’t wait, not for them.
He nodded at the receptionist manning the desk. Her tight smile was a bit unsettling. The Big Boss had hired her the moment she didn’t re-up. She’d worked with generals and the like before entering the private sector. Things should not rattle her. If whatever they’d been called in for was that bad, Isaac would have a lot more on his plate before the hour was up.
The conference room was quiet and grim. Isaac stepped over the threshold and glanced around at the assembled team.
“Take a seat.” Zain, the Seattle office supervisor, nodded at Isaac’s usual spot. “Thanks for coming in so quick, guys. This is a highly-sensitive job. Now, before I begin, yes, this is normally a gig Troy Team would take on. Those guys went on leave two days ago. Getting everyone called back and on their way would take too long, and we need to be wheels up this afternoon. Before I go any further, this is a security-clearance-level briefing. Nothing said here can be repeated. That’s why it had to be you guys. I’m sorry.”
What shit-storm were they being sent into?
Troy Team specialized in government gigs. The sort of thing that couldn’t be done through normal means.
“Meet our asset, Tanya Graham.” Zain turned toward the wall where the image of a young woman of mixed ethnicity and a seductive smile stared back. “She is the girlfriend of a very important informant for the US government, and she has gone missing. Her boyfriend has some solid leads for where she is and who might be holding her. This is where it all gets tricky. The man hiring us is a major source of intel for the US. I can reasonably say that during everyone’s career, this man’s work has helped you. Because of who—and where—Tanya is being held, the government can’t help. And they can’t be connected to this job. That’s where we come in. Any questions so far?”
“What do we know about her?” Isaac leaned his elbows on the table.
“This is where it gets interesting.” Zain grimaced. “Tanya is the daughter of Wilson Graham. Fourteen years ago, he was a big-time cult leader from the UK who moved his group to South America and set up shop in a commune. Pretty run-of-the-mill theology. It was mostly a bunch of rich men buying their way in and getting a harem of wives. To supply enough women, Graham started bringing in unwilling women and marrying off the girls who were thirteen and up. Tanya was part of the group relocated to America after a joint task force shut them down. She was granted joint US and UK citizenship, grew up in the foster system, went through college, top percentile of her class and then...nothing. As far as we can tell, she’s been bumming off Sugar Daddies since then. Several agencies have her listed as a person of interest, but to date she hasn’t been charged or wanted for anything.”
“Professional girlfriend?” Isaac stared at the DMV photo of Tanya. If she was that smart, if she worked that hard, why slum it?
“No, we didn’t find her listed with any agencies.” Zain gestured at the screen. “Okay, Tanya was last seen departing Chicago O’Hare airport. Here is security video of her walking toward the taxi line.”
Isaac squinted at the low-quality security footage. He’d have expected something better from such a busy travel hub.
Tanya was easy to pick out from the crowd. It was the way she moved, her height, how she carried herself. It was as though the world were her runway. Her long legs ate up the ground, her hips swayed. A woman like that would have all eyes on her. At a glance he could tell she was of mixed ethnicity, but what was hard to tell. Her skin coloring was darker, her brown eyes narrow and slightly slanted. If he had to guess, an Asian and maybe Spanish or some African country gifted her with a touch of their genes. She was striking, from the way she moved, how she held her head—everything about her piqued interest.
Someone must have seen her. If Isaac met her in a bar, he’d be hard-pressed to look anywhere else. Still, there was something behind her eyes, an intelligence that made this whole story sit wrong with him.
The woman crossed out of one camera’s field of vision.
Zain directed everyone at the next camera. The two views were positioned so they were almost an extension of the larger picture.
“There’s a column here that blocks the cameras. She steps behind this blind spot and disappears off all footage. No one can place her in any vehicle in an hour window before or after that sighting. She was simply gone. Now, working off the intel given to us, we have possibly found Tanya in the UK. Confirmation should happen within the hour. As far as the rest, it’s better if we get it straight from the horse’s mouth. Before we go any farther, I cannot stress enough how sensitive this matter is. We will not be addressing the client by name.”
“Got it.” Isaac nodded and leaned forward.
Zain turned toward the screen and tapped a few buttons on the remote. A video chat window popped up. The screen flickered from black, to the image of a man’s face.
Isaac’s stomach knotted up.
He knew that face.
He’d met the man a handful of times while in the SEALs. The missions had always been covert and odd. The do-not-ask-questions kind of thing.
“Thanks for making time for us,” Zain said.
“Thank you for helping me.” Orlando Steiner spread his hands in front of him. His accent was lighter than it used to be, his English was better. He was still too pretty, too smooth. Isaac couldn’t trust a man like him, but trusting him had never been Isaac’s job.
“Can you tell us about the people who have her and place she’s being kept?”
“Of course. Of course. I have many enemies doing what I do, you understand? Tanya is a sweet girl. She doesn’t deserve this.” Orlando’s face creased and he did all the things a worried man would do, but there was something missing. A connection. Emotion. Orlando didn’t feel. He was a slippery serpent of a person.
“What can you tell us about the place she’s being held? The men holding her?” Kyle asked, prompting Orlando to speak to the heart of the matter.
“If my contact is to be believed, she passed through UK customs under a false identity—Sasha Iradokovia. The Patrol have a particularly distaste for me. I disrupted some of their business a number of years ago, and they have wanted to get back at me for some time. They have several properties throughout London and other cities. I’m working on narrowing it down, but I think they’ve taken her outside the city.”
“Didn’t you tell me you thought you knew where?” Zain asked.
“Yes, yes. Boston.”
“Boston?” Kyle parroted back.
“UK. Boston, UK.”
“Why don’t we synch up our people and get this team in the air?” Zain suggested.
“Fine. Good. Yes.”
“Okay, I’ll call you back in about ten, once I see these guys out,” Zain said.
The screen flickered dark.
Isaac glanced around the table, skipping Shane and directing his stare at the other two, Adam and Felix.
“Anyone else smell a rat?” Isaac asked.
“We are not getting the full story,” Kyle said.
“No, we’re not, but that’s how this one is going to be.” Zain crossed his arms over his chest.
“Anyone else in this room ever worked with him directly?” Isaac asked.
“No,” Kyle said slowly.
“You have?” Zain asked.
“I have, and I never liked it.”
“What can you tell us about him?” Kyle pushed to his feet.
“Hold this conversation until later.” Zain stood and gestured at the door. “Given the nature of what he does for the government, we are taking this, regardless if we don’t know everything that’s going on. The job is simple, get in, get the girl, get out.”
“Sounds familiar enough,” Isaac drawled.
Wasn’t it always about a girl?
Thursday. Boston, United Kingdom.
Tanya took three slow steps into the garden behind the quaint little cottage. She clenched her fist, trying her best to control the tremor shaking her hand.
It’d begun last night.
The moment after she’d drawn her first, easy breath. She’d closed the door on the car and thought herself a free woman. Except this was the hard part. Getting away from Orlando was relatively simple. All she had to do was leverage his many enemies against him. There were enough ready and willing to stick it to him, but they all had a price.
“You goin’ out?”
Tanya’s spine straightened. She swallowed and took a deep breath.
So much for casually wandering out the back door.
She turned toward the man, her features schooled into a calm mask, while underneath she wanted to cry, scream and rock in the corner.
“No, just needed some air,” she said.
“Boss says it’s not a good idea for you to go out.” The man ambled toward her, a frown permanently etched into his face.
“The neighbors are all at work, their homes empty. No security footage. And twelve-foot walls. I think I’ll be fine. Five minutes, okay?”
The man continued to scowl at her for a moment. She stared right back, refusing to give in. She hadn’t survived as one of Orlando’s girls without a spine of steel. The leader of The Patrol might have leapt at the chance to help her betray Orlando, but that didn’t mean she was in any way protected. Tanya was leverage. The Patrol wanted her for their own purposes. For the moment, she was happy enough to play along because it got her out of the frying pan, but soon the fire would heat up.
“Five minutes,” he said.
Tanya turned and strolled down the path and around the little water feature in the middle of the backyard.
Earlier, when she’d first checked the visibility from the back windows, she’d identified a blind spot in the right-hand corner, thanks to the fountain and a small tree with widely-spread limbs. That would be her spot for as long as she was trapped here. Five minutes was enough time for her to send up a signal.
She veered to the left, tipping her head up as though to enjoy the rare glimpse of blue skies and sunshine. This time of year it, was an unusual enough sight for England that most people would be remarking about it. Hopefully the men from The Patrol were distracted enough that they weren’t watching her as closely as they should.
The old, flagstone path wound toward a pretty bench under the tree. She meandered toward it, her heart thumping against her ribs with every step.
Everything was going wrong, and she didn’t know why.
She sank down onto the bench, bracing her hands on the slats. After a moment with no one coming to investigate what she was doing, she bent and grasped the edge of a stone. Part of the corner stuck up, making it easy to pry it from its earthly habitat.
A burner phone lay in a dug out patch wrapped inside a plastic bag. Scraping the dirt from under her nails had been a chore, but worth it to secure the phone. She picked it up and pressed the unlock key. Powering it off wasn’t an option because it would make too much noise and take too much time.
She stared at the screen.
No missed calls.
Nothing made sense.
Did she dare try again?
Tanya bit her lip.
How much time did she have to wait? It’d already been several days and she still wasn’t getting any sort of instructions.
What was she going to do?
She’d avoided the truth, but she couldn’t any longer. The one person who should have been in her corner was most likely the one who’d betrayed her.
There was no chill, no goose flesh or sense of dread with the thought. Fear had blinded her to the truth she didn’t want to accept, that she was truly fucked and alone in this.
Or was she?
She glanced over her shoulder.
Tanya had two options: she could accept the hand she’d been dealt, or she could fight back. Running was easy. All she had to do was stay one step ahead of the man she’d learned inside and out. She could anticipate his actions because she’d been doing it for almost two years.
Fighting back was harder.
She chewed her lip.
When had she ever taken the easy way out?
Tanya plugged in a number by memory and prayed it was still in service. This could bite her in the ass, or it could be her magic bullet. Either way, she had to do something. She finished the message and hit the send button.
The unmistakable sound of the ancient door knob sliding against the jamb turned her stomach. She needed to give them something, but what?
Tanya tucked the phone into its grave and pushed the stone back into its place. With any luck, she’d be able to take another walk in the garden after dark and check for a reply then. She stood, smoothing the ground with her feet and dusting her hands on her sweater dress.
Everything would be fine.
She had to cling to that lie or else she would fall apart. Quade’s death couldn’t be without purpose. It all had to mean something. And if that meant that for a little while she had to play the role of a scared stupid woman with only one bargaining chip, she’d make it count. She just couldn’t overplay her hand.
“It’s going to be okay,” she whispered to herself.
“Time to come inside,” a deep voice called out.
One of her pseudo guards must have tattled on her. The guy in charge wasn’t as much of an idiot as she’d hoped. She had to be careful or she’d raise further suspicion.
I was just taking a breather in the garden. That’s it.
She could do this. She was trained for deep cover. All she was doing was putting her training to use. She’d hoped it would never come to this, that everything would go according to plan, but it hadn’t.
There was still no explanation for why Orlando had killed Quade. None at all.
That moment, the three of them eating dinner on the terrace, would be forever burned into Tanya’s mind. She should have known something was wrong when it had been just the three of them. Orlando liked an audience, but this had been a show for one. Her. Somehow Orlando had found out the truth, and everything was unraveling.
“Coming,” she called out.
She wiped her hands on the top of her leggings, and tugged the sweater lower, covering the evidence of her activity.
I can do this.
Tanya set her gaze on the house and ignored the internal tremor that said, no, you can’t do this. A plan would come to her. Someone would finally pick up the other end of the phone. It would all be okay. It had to be. She needed to believe that. It was how she’d survived childhood and adolescence, it could get her through this as well.
The garden gate squeaked.
The hair on the back of her neck rose.
Everyone was in the house, so who was at the back gate?
The man’s eyes staring at her went wide and his mouth opened on a shout she never heard.
Too late, Tanya pushed her weight forward.
Arms wrapped around her, hauling her up and off her feet.
She sucked down a deep breath and drove her elbow back into the person’s ribs. Pain shot up her arm. She’d hit something hard enough her hand went numb. The man holding her grunted, but otherwise hauled her through the gate.
Two other men flanking the first took steps forward, their tactical rifles aimed at the back of the cottage.
“I’ve got her,” an American man said.
She hadn’t had the chance to do anything, warn anyone.
Tanya twisted, thrashing against the man. All her training, the time spent learning how to defend herself, flew out the window. In her state of sheer panic, she reacted on a base level, using her feet, nails and hands to fight back against his iron grip.
“Two more coming around the side,” another of the men said.
Tanya threw her head back and screamed.
“Fuck, we’re on your side. We were sent to rescue you,” the man said against her ear.
The only people she wanted to hear from wouldn’t send armed men after her, which meant they were from Orlando.
He picked her up under one arm, each step jarring her.
“Go, man, go!”
A bullet ricocheted off the ancient, stone wall around the garden, sending shards flying every which way.
“Help! Someone help me,” Tanya yelled.
The man holding her tossed her none-too-gently into the back of an idling van.
“We are here to help you,” he said.
She locked gazes with the dark eyed stranger.
“Orlando sent us,” he said.
Tanya was a dead woman. Quade had died for nothing.