On Thanksgiving morning, we gathered in darkness in an abandoned Sears parking lot. When I exited my ancient Pontiac, I didn’t bother to lock it. Hey, if a thief wanted it, more power to him. My defroster had stopped working last week, so—after scratching a clear patch on my iced-over windshield with the edge of a CD case because I couldn’t find the scraper—I’d spent the twenty-minute drive scrubbing the fog off the inside windshield with my sleeve, squinting at the road, and trying not to breathe. Rubbing my hands together, I moved toward the black van. Other agents drifted from the shadows like ghosts. In the predawn hours, the cold November sky cast everything in a strange, monochrome gray tint, making me feel like I was caught in a black-and-white movie. Our dark clothing only added to the effect. We entered the van in a somber procession that made my throat ache, because this wasn’t like any raid I’d ever been on.
There was no AC/DC Back in Black blasting from the speakers, none of the pumped-up, adrenaline-laced chatter. No Johnny Angel asking if I wanted to sit on his lap. “Hey, Chief, I’m askin’, not harassin’,” he’d joke when Bill shot him a stern look. Today, the inside of the van was utterly silent. Pale, worried faces gazed at me and nodded in greeting, all except one. With his head in his hands, Cougar hunched forward on the edge of the bench that lined the sides of the van. His unruly brown hair peeked from beneath the edge of his black knit cap. I slid in beside him and squeezed his arm. He glanced at me with bloodshot blue eyes, then leaned back. His gloved hand grasped mine, a gesture that would’ve normally inspired any number of rude comments and catcalls. But not today.
BRADY SIMMS SAT QUIETLY WHILE THE MAYOR AND county sheriff argued. The stiff collar of his dress blues made his neck itch, but he felt the eyes of the town council members upon him and tried not to fidget. So far, he hadn’t been asked to comment. How had he let Mike talk him into this? Brady wasn’t sure he wanted to be tied to this town, but the thought of putting chief of police on his resume was tempting. He wouldn’t find this opportunity in a larger town. In two weeks, he would be twenty-three, the minimum age to apply to the FBI, but he knew he was probably years away from an appointment. Despite the minimum listed, the average age of new agents was twenty-nine. Anything he could do to add to his work history might shave a few years off that. “He’s too young, Mike. You can’t put a kid like that in charge of your police department.” The sheriff, Pete Richards, hitched up his pants and paced in front of the handful of citizens who’d gathered in the cramped city hall for the special meeting. His beefy face reddened when Mike smiled. “Sheriff Richards, we’re lucky to have a man like Simms.” Mike tapped the bulging folder in front of Council woman Clark. “I think his record speaks for itself.”
Monday August 1 6:02 p.m. Gary Vandergriff paused with his hand on the doorknob, trying to compose his expression into a mask of pleasant neutrality. It would not do for Father to read the wrong thing in his expression. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door to the darkened bedchamber. Th e room reeked of pine cleanser; it made his eyes water when he crossed the threshold and approached his father’s bed. Perhaps the maid had made an overzealous attempt to mask the second, more subtle scent in the room. Death. It lingered in the periphery like a spectator in a boxing arena, awaiting the results of the bout between the crusty old diplomat and the pancreatic cancer that had slowly decimated his body for the past six months. Continue reading
If he looked up, she was as good as dead. Jessica was afraid to move, afraid to breathe, afraid he would hear her heart slamming into her chest from across the room. How had Cole found her? She watched him eat his hamburger and marveled at his casualness as he sipped his iced tea. Was it possible that he didnʼt know? It had taken five years for her to stop looking over her shoulder. Five years to reach the place where a ringing phone or a knock at the door didnʼt terrify her. The idea that he mightʼve crossed her path again by mere chance staggered her. But the late Mrs. Cole Ramsey, as she humorlessly considered herself, had never been much of a believer in chance. Fear coiled in her stomach like a thick, cold serpent. She wiped her sweaty palms on her slacks and clutched her purse. As she gauged the distance between herself and the door, Jessica tried to suppress the whimper that rose in her throat. Her habit of always seeking a back table may have gotten her killed. To get out, sheʼd have to walk right by him, and she didnʼt think she could do it. She looked around the room, searching for any means of escape, any help. Nothing. Then she glanced back at Cole and nearly screamed. He was staring at her. Her furiously pounding heart nearly skidded to a stop as his pale blue eyes locked on hers.
Then Cole did something extraordinary, something that frightened her more than if heʼd pulled a gun. He smiled. With a strangled cry, Jessica jumped up and toppled her chair. It banged against the gray marble floor like a gunshot. Conversation at the neighboring tables ceased, and the other customers seemed to fade away until there was nothing left but Cole and her and the ragged sound of her own breathing. Coleʼs smile flickered and died and was replaced by a look of confusion. Was it possible he hadnʼt recognized her? The thought seemed ridiculous, even though sheʼd tried to alter her appearance. Her long blond hair was now short and mousy brown; her green eyes were hidden beneath a pair of brown contact lenses. She no longer looked like Jessica Ramsey, the trophy wife of a wealthy businessman. She was Emily Jackson, a shy woman who worked at Mid-Tennessee Realty and hid behind thick bangs. Cole looked over his shoulder, then back at her, as if trying to spot the cause of her distress. Jessicaʼs stomach lurched. He hadnʼt recognized her. Sheʼd just blown it. Cole wiped his mouth with a napkin and pushed away from the table. Continue reading
Light from the computer screen spilled over the darkened offi ce, glowing through a spreadsheet’s grids. A mosquito buzzed the monitor. Where had it come from? Th e insects rarely swarmed in April, at least not in Kentucky. Batting away the mosquito, Leo Desalvo released his pent-up breath in a loud groan. He lowered his head and dug his thumbs into his temples to massage a growing headache. Condensation slid down the can of his forgotten soda, forming a wet circle on his month-at-a-glance calendar. Earlier, to stretch his tired muscles, he’d made the short trip to the customer waiting area,where the vending machines off ered the room’s only light. The dealership’s new commercial carpet silenced his footsteps. Th inking the cold caff eine of a Coke would ease his fatigue, he’d taken one long drink before returning to his offi ce. But there was no cure for what plagued him tonight.
The assassin known only as Conger switched on the voice synthesizer and digital recorder then spoke into the telephone. A contract killer couldn’t be too careful. “I received the packet.” “Good. Then you know where to make the delivery.” Conger mentally translated: You know where the assassination target has been located. “Yes. It’ll take time because of the small-town factor.” “You know the timetable.” Translation: Prevent the target from appearing when the case comes to trial. “I’ll make the deadline—don’t worry.” “We know of someone in place who may help you fit in.” Conger worked alone but wasn’t above using others to complete the contract. “Send me the details with half the package.” Translation: Send information about the contact, along with half the fee. “Just remember, if you’re exposed, you’re on your own.” “I don’t get caught. That’s why I’m the best.” “At your rates, you better be.” If the Feds had a wiretap, they’d have no trouble identifying the voice of the client, Lexington’s most prominent surgeon-turned-murderer-and-racketeer. Desperate to eliminate the eye witness who could send him to death row, Frank Sullivan, MD, needed the contract regardless of the price or the time it took to execute it. The slow legal process would give Conger plenty of time. “I’m a perfectionist, which is why I won’t be rushed.” Besides, Conger had a number of other contracts to be fulfilled in the interim. Overlapping hits guaranteed a healthy cash flow. “Agreed. Just get it handled.” Conger merely smiled, stopped the recorder, and disconnected. Read more. . .
Her running shoes striking the pavement in sync with her breathing, Ashley Adams navigated the predawn mist with nothing but the overhead streetlamps to guide her. She and Marvin Jones, her self-appointed coach, hoped to get a jump on the Florida heat by starting out before sunrise. A hint of a breeze brought little relief from the warm October air, unseasonable even for Jacksonville. Serenaded by crickets and bullfrogs along the banks of the nearby St. Johns River, she was reluctant to interrupt the peacefulness by speaking. Marv broke the silence. “So how do you feel now that it’s finally over?” Although conversation passed the time during their morning run and helped them to gauge their pace, his question was more than idle chatter. She knew he’d been worried about her and with good reason. How did she feel now that the divorce was final? She wanted to reassure him, but she’d need more than court papers to feel safe again.
The sun was a beast, a curse. He was used to it. But today, at this time, it was hard even for him. Too hot for thought, too hot for sweat. The desert air parched his throat and seared his lungs. It seemed impossible that the dust and sand under his feet should not fuse into glass, that the mess of limp tents and abandoned vehicles ahead should not have simply melted away under the sun’s attack. Here, off course, deep into Western Sahara, there were three tents, two Land Rovers. He’d noted that at a distance, then thrown a camo net over his own vehicle while the dust was still settling, and jogged in on foot. It was too hot for haste, too, but he had no choice. The light wind turned a collapsed awning into a banner. A broken tent whipped like a loose sail. The yellow dust streamed around rocks scattered like broken pottery on the flat ground. No dunes here. No glimmering oasis, no lone camel, no robed figures. Only three tents, two Land Rovers, and five bodies. They were staked out in front of the largest of the tents—two locals, three Westerners. English, to be precise. He knew their names, the names of their families. The name of their employer, tucked away demurely in rural Kent. The security guards there, he knew, stopped the traffic on the main road for the ducklings to cross. It was a world away. He knew their faces, too, but the file photos weren’t much use. They’d been beaten before they were tortured, and he approximated their identities from details of height, weight. Even their hair colour was indistinguishable, becoming the yellow-grey-brown of the desert here. He didn’t stop. There was no point searching them. He looked, instead, for the sixth man. The man their enemies had missed. A rapid search located him some two hundred yards away, curled up on his side behind a cluster of rocks that might have offered a little shade for a few hours in the morning at least. The heat of the last two weeks had baked him dry, but he was largely untouched. The scavengers in this part of the Sahara were mostly human. The dead man was holding a laptop, clutched to his chest, his whole body curled around it protectively. The laptop itself was fried, but that didn’t matter. What he was looking for was still in the drive, just like they’d said it would be. Read more. . . Continue reading
The video footage was from a CCTV camera perched above a courtyard. It gave a perfect view of the square yard, with the office buildings around the edges. They were new buildings, with little logos by the doors; a few businesses in rented premises. Only one logo was really recognizable, indicating a small office of the local National Park Service. The film was black and white. In the corner of the courtyard grey geraniums flowered in grey pots. In the middle of the scene was a knot of people. A row of people on their knees, hands behind their back. Four men and three women. One of the men was shaking so violently it was plainly visible; one of the women was sobbing. In front of the kneeling line were three other men. They were dressed in dark clothes, with ski masks. The man in front was tall, huge, holding a massive handgun, and waving it at the kneeling people, in their suits and office haircuts. His body language was taut, violent, and he stepped back and forth jerkily, shoulders heaving, mouth working. Behind him, to the left and to the right, were two others. One was smaller than the others, and slight. He held another pistol and looked around rapidly and nervously. Th e last man stood still, holding a semiautomatic across his chest.
I headed to the chief’s office a little excited and a little afraid. I’d admit to being responsible formore than my fair share of citizen complaints, but the chief usually didn’t concern himself with me unless I ticketed him, his wife, or the mayor. I’d learned my lesson and would never do that again. I scanned my ticket book just in case. Nothing.