There were three things of which Thaddeus Ryder was absolutely certain. One, the art tube strapped to his back held a multi-million-dollar painting by Edgar Degas. Two, he’d stolen said painting from a wealthy businessman the night before. And three, he was being followed.
Thad casually darted his gaze left then right, surveying the somewhat empty Brooklyn streets around him. Three blocks away, the beach was undoubtedly crowded, full of people in bikinis and board shorts, basking in the summer heat. But here, a little deeper into town, the vibe was different. The main language on the shop awnings was Russian. Instead of hipsters wearing tight jeans, there were women in full black skirts and men with long sleeves buttoned at the wrists. New York City was a diamond with a thousand different facets, and this small section at the southern edge of Brooklyn was one of the few that operated outside of the law. The NYPD knew better than to patrol. The local government turned a blind eye. A different set of rules was at work. But he’d been in worse neighborhoods before, and none of them had stood the hairs at the back of his neck on end.
Stay cool. Stay casual, he thought as he adjusted the strap on his shoulder and forced his grip to loosen. He kept his steps light and his pace even. A whistle came to his lips. He smiled and nodded to a woman walking past him with a sleeping baby wrapped snugly to her chest. But inside, his mind whirled.
Who was his tail?
It couldn’t be the Feds. He had incriminating evidence strapped to his back. If they knew where he was, they would’ve grabbed him, forced him to sign a plea, and made him wear a wire before the exchange. Which left one option—the Russians.
He’d met with his contacts in the mob plenty of times over the past few years, and they’d never had him followed before. The meetings were always quick. Thad upheld his end of the bargain—in this case, a stolen painting, in others a forgery of some kind. And they upheld theirs—a little money, a pat on the back, and assurances everyone he loved would live to see another day. Thad always did his best to block his ears, to blind his eyes, to ignore whatever other criminal activity might be happening around him, and then he left. Exchange complete.
But this meeting was different. It was special.
It’s my last one.
A tingle zipped down his spine, making his shoulders writhe. Thad glanced to the left, catching his reflection in a store window, but that wasn’t all he saw. A large man stepped out from behind a stone wall and fell in line behind him, both hands stuffed in deep, full pockets.
Okay, yup. Definitely being followed.
Definitely by the Russians.
And they definitely have guns.
Thad turned his face forward, forcing his gaze straight ahead as he rewound a few hours, reviewing every detail of the heist. The operation had gone entirely to plan.
There was that whole thing where I caught Jo making out with a Fed… After they took the painting, Thad had hurried to his escape route on the roof of the businessman’s townhouse. As he climbed over the divider into the neighbor’s private terrace, he saw his partner, Jolene Carter, and the agent who had been following the two of them all week, Nate Parker, alone in the alley below. Even drenched in shadow, their locked lips were undeniable. The sight had almost sent him reeling over the edge to the pavement five stories below, but Thad had held on, gaping in disbelief. To his further shock, a few moments later, the Fed let his partner go. He let her run. Thad spent the next few hours huddled in the dark, watching from a few roofs over as a team of agents cased the townhome for evidence before leaving empty-handed, completely unaware of the illicit exchange. And there’s no way the Russians could possibly know about it either. Hell, I wish I didn’t know about it.
His contacts had seen Jo cozying up to Agent Parker earlier in the week, but Thad had convinced them it was part of the plan—that Jo was seducing the man for information. Then he reminded the Russians that she was completely ignorant of their arrangement, so she had no incentive to talk to the Feds. To Jo, the Degas was the endgame. She had no idea about his work with the Russians and the debt he owed them. The only thing he’d probably done right in his entire life was make sure that if they were ever caught, her hands at least would be clean.
Of course, the Fed could’ve told her the truth.
The thought made Thad trip over his feet, stumbling in the middle of the sidewalk as his heart flipped. He righted himself and kept walking, smooth and in control, but his pulse raced.
If Jo knows—
If that asshole told her—
Thad pushed the panic down and took a deep breath. She and the Fed might have kissed, but it could’ve been part of Jo’s con. Parker had let her go. She’d never disclosed Thad’s hiding place on the roof. The game was still afoot. Right now, he needed to focus. Because he’d arrived at the apartment building where the exchange was taking place, and his every instinct was screaming at him to run.
Thad pressed the intercom, waiting for a buzz to signal the door was unlocked, and tried to ignore the unease. This is it. My last job for the Russians. After this, I’m free. I just have to get through one final—
A grunt came through the intercom as the front door buzzed. Thad lifted his fingers, palm hovering over the knob. His intuition whispered, Run, run, run, now while you still can. He hated going against his gut. Everything about it felt unnatural. As soon as he stepped inside, escape would be ten times more difficult, but he was so close to freedom he could almost taste it. He couldn’t leave now. Not yet.
A shadow fell over his wrist, making the decision for him.
Heavy breathing drowned out the noise of the street. Two sets of lungs, one clogged with a summer cold and one more out of breath—probably the large man he’d seen in the window—which meant at least two men loomed behind him.
Don’t look over your shoulder.
Thad pushed open the door and marched inside, keeping his head straight as his gaze danced, moving up and down, side to side, jumping across every surface, cataloguing what he saw. He stepped slowly down the hall toward the winding staircase, all the while drawing an exit route in his mind. There’d been a fire escape over the front door. The building was old, pre-war he suspected, and the windows were dirty, certainly not new, probably easy to break if needed. Two new mobsters waited inside, though there were no doubt more he couldn’t see hidden behind the many closed doors around him. He’d want to get out as soon as possible—preferably before the bullets started flying.
Thad took the stairs slowly, carefully counting the steps, remembering the height as he sauntered toward apartment 304, the meeting spot. He’d been there before, but never so heavily surrounded and never so highly surveilled. Everything about this felt wrong. His instincts were screaming. His nerves vibrated. As Thad crested the stairs to the third floor, he ran through every scenario, weighing a thousand different possibilities against each other in a matter of seconds. It was, after all, his specialty. The getaway. The escape. Art was his passion, but danger was where he thrived.
If I run, they’ll try to kill me, and they won’t stop there once I’ve set off their alarms. They’ll try to kill Jo, to kill everyone I love—anything to bring me back.
But if I don’t run…
If I keep walking…
If I step through that door…
I’m dead anyway.
The certainty hit Thad like a punch to the gut.
I’ve seen their faces.
I can identify them.
I’m a witness to their crimes.
I was never going to get out alive.
Thad swallowed and kept walking toward door 304, one step in front of the other, eerily calm as he marched toward his death. Freedom and the Russian mafia were two ideas that didn’t mix. They were oil and water—opposites. The only liberty mobsters knew was in death. On some level, he’d probably always known this would be his end, that it was the only ending he deserved.
At least Jo was safe.
She was at this very moment on a flight from New York to the Bahamas, on her way back to the private island home she shared with her father. Robert would be waiting—
Thad frowned. His steps slowed. Robert was Thad’s mentor. He was also the only other person who knew about this arrangement with the Russians. They’d approached Robert five years before with the same threats, the same extortion. At the time, the two of them had made a silent pact to do whatever was necessary to keep the woman they both loved safe. To Robert, a beloved daughter. To Thad, a best friend and the sibling he’d never had. If Thad was going down, Robert would be going down with him.
What would Jo find when she got to the island? Her father’s body bleeding out? A whole troop of mobsters waiting to take her down too? The Russians had questions about Jo—about how friendly she’d seemed with that Fed all week, about what exactly she knew—and they didn’t like those types of questions. They usually answered them with a bullet to the head.
Jo isn’t safe.
Thad froze. Of course Jo wasn’t safe. She was part of this—she’d always been part of this. He’d been an idiot to think otherwise. And right now, she was walking into a trap.
She’s in mortal danger. Which means I can’t give up, I can’t give in.
Not until I know she’s all right.
One of the Russians shoved him forward from behind. Not thinking, running on pure reflex, he acted. Thad dug his heels into the carpet and pivoted his weight, twisting to the side. Surprise was his greatest weapon. Before the two men behind him had time to act, Thad’s hand was already snaking into one of their full pockets. His finger slid against a trigger. He pulled. Bam! The gun sounded impossibly loud as it fired, the bang reverberating around the narrow hall, bouncing from surface to surface, deafening. The bullet shot down, right into the Russian’s foot. The man hollered, pain making him release his tentative hold on the weapon. Thad tugged it free and kneed the already injured man in the groin. He went down, but his comrade was already pulling his weapon free, pointing it at Thad. Ten years of hand-to-hand training was the only thing that kept him alive. Thad straightened his fingers and slashed at the man’s jugular, crushing his windpipe in one swift blow.
Deep grunts came from the other end of the hall and from the floor below. Boots pounded. Thud. Thud. Thud. The men they’d passed on their way up the stairs were coming. The apartment door ahead banged open. Thad shot once down the hall and once down the stairs, then emptied the remainder of the weapon into the window at the end of the hall. He leapt, throwing his forearms up to protect his face as his body sailed full-force into the glass, shattering the already weakened surface completely. He slammed into a metal rail and dropped onto a metal grate, broken glass tinkling like rain in his wake. Despite the pain, Thad grinned and released a quick breath.
Thank you, fire escape.
The celebration was short lived. A spray of bullets sailed overhead—machine-gun fire. The pop! pop! pop! was unmistakable. Thad slithered over the metal, ignoring how the broken glass cut into his skin, and jumped to his feet as soon as he was beyond the opening of the window. Taking the steps two at a time, he descended, breath coming fast. Bullets pinged off the metal around him as the machine guns sprayed. Boots thundered overhead. Two bodies spilled from the front door below, running into the street. Thad had no choice but to jump the final flight, landing on one of the henchmen to break his fall and buy himself time. He rolled to his feet, never stopping, never pausing. He made it around the corner milliseconds before a round of gunfire slammed into brick.
Even though it would slow him down, Thad reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He didn’t care what happened to him, so long as Jo went free. Seeing as he was running for his life, there was only one way to ensure that happened, only one person who could give her the protection she needed.
Thad snarled as he opened the burner phone, only two numbers programed into the contacts—the number for Jo’s phone, useless since she was on a plane, and the number he’d stolen from her when she wasn’t looking, the number for the Fed. He didn’t know at the time why he’d taken it, what he’d possibly use it for. Thad had no noble intentions to turn himself in. He wasn’t under any false hope that the Feds would treat him as anything but exactly what he was—a dangerous criminal. Everyone in his life eventually left him or got hurt. He knew Jo would never leave, which meant he knew, on some level, she was always in danger. That must’ve been why he’d swiped the number. Thad made messes, he didn’t clean them up. He wasn’t a hero. He never believed he’d be the one to save her.
He pressed send.
The phone rang.
“Parker here,” the Fed answered, voice gruff, edged with frustration.
Before Thad could speak, he heard shots fire and he swerved around a bend. Bullets pinged like pinballs behind him, ricocheting off stone, too close. His feet slapped concrete. The art tube bounced between his shoulder blades. Somehow the thought of that beautiful painting being damaged, being destroyed, was more motivating than the threat of losing his own life.
The Fed must have heard the gunfire. His tone changed.
“Hello? Hello?” he urged, almost frantic, a complete shift in sound. “Who is it?”
Panic. Fear. Alarm.
Thad could read it all, and he knew what it meant—concern.
Concern for Jo.
“Agent Parker,” Thad said, racing toward another intersection. If he went left, he’d be at the beach. Public enough to maybe discourage the Russians from firing. But also public enough to put innocent lives at risk. He turned right. Deeper into Russian territory, deeper into danger, but he wasn’t too concerned for his own safety, not even with bullets peppering the pavement behind him.
“Yes, this is Agent Parker. To whom am I speaking?” Fast words, eager words.
Before Thad could answer, two men turned a corner in front of him, machine guns held aloft. No time to think, Thad dove into a shop at his side, bursting through the front door, slamming it so hard the glass shattered. A local hardware store. The man behind the register froze, eyes going wide. He pointed deeper into the shop. Thad had no choice but to trust there would be a back door. He raced down the aisle, hearing guttural shouts in a foreign tongue behind him. The Russians were close. Too close.
“Hello?” The Fed again, voice staticky. “This is Agent Nate Parker. To whom am I speaking?”
Thad stormed past the bathrooms and into a back hall, praying the call didn’t drop. “I think you know.”
His voice came out smooth as butter, not at all concerned.
Never let them see you sweat.
“Ryder?” the Fed demanded through the phone. “Ryder, is that you?”
Why, yes. It is. But Thad would never give the man the satisfaction. One common denominator, Jo, did not make them allies.
Footsteps echoed behind him, growing louder and louder.
A door loomed ahead.
“Ryder!” the Fed shouted, desperation obvious, fear obvious. “Where—”
“Jo is in danger,” Thad interrupted as he ran into the door at full speed, forcing it open, and spilled into an alley lined with trash. “I can’t get to her in time. You need to save her.”
And then he hung up.
The call was short enough they’d never be able to trace it, which meant the Feds would have no reason to go after Thad. Parker would be free to go after Jo, the way the panic in his voice made it obvious he would.
Thad dove to the ground just as the metal door he’d exited slammed open. He rolled, wincing as the art tube crunched beneath his weight, and slid underneath a car parked in the alley. Then he held his breath and listened.
Boots stomped past.
One set. Then two. Then three.
Deep voices spoke low enough he couldn’t hear. Thad strained his neck but couldn’t see what the men were doing or where they were going.
If I make it out of this—
He broke off the thought. It was dangerous to question, to doubt.
He would live.
He would find a way to contact Jo.
Then he would get her out of this mess.
Because he was Thaddeus Ryder. Forger. Professional thief. Escape artist extraordinaire. And there was no situation so dire, so hopeless, he couldn’t lie, cheat, or steal his way free. Not yet. Not now. Not ever.