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First pages

Chapter one

Tracy said, “I don’t like the look on your face, sir.”

“Sit down, Tracy,” the General said.

Tracy felt a hot flush creep up her neck as she crossed the office to the General’s desk. She sat and crossed her legs. Her boss looked pale, his eyes worried, the wrinkles on his face a little more pronounced than normal.

Tall, trim, pale-skinned, late 20s, a soft edge to her jaw, Tracy Pike was a hair taller than most of the men on the Special Actions Group roster. She’d been a C.I.A. agent for three years, rising from the analyst ranks of the Eastern European desk to the coveted covert section of SAG.

The last few weeks had been tough for the whole department. One of their own was missing. Worse, the missing man was Tracy’s father, John.

The air conditioner rattled above; Tracy cleared her throat.

The man across from her was General Ike Fleming, not just the head of her section but also a close friend of her father’s.

Fleming said, “Any word from your father?”

Tracy balled her right hand into a fist. “No, sir.”

The General remained silent.

“What’s wrong, sir?”

Fleming leaned back and his chair squeaked. He made a tent of his hands.

“Billy Strong has been on vacation, and saw your father in San Francisco.”

“The hell is he doing there?”

The General held up a hand and Tracy bit off her next sentence. Her outbursts were almost legendary around the office, and she tried to keep those outbursts to a minimum but this problem with her father made that tough.

“Billy made visual contact and signaled for a drop. Your father passed a note agreeing to meet. Later the police found Billy shot twice in the head.”

“No way.”

Tracy clenched her jaw tight. Her eyes never left the General’s.

He said, “This started out with us wondering why your father vanished, and now one of our agents is dead after reporting contact.”

“What if he’s been set up?”

“That’s why I wanted to know if he’s been in touch with you.”

“No.”

“No email? Snail mail?”

“Nothing.”

Tracy took a deep breath.

“I want you to go to San Francisco,” Fleming said.

“Isn’t that against regulations? The 7th Floor won’t like that.”

“The 7th Floor only knows what I tell them, and right now they don’t know about your father’s connection to Billy’s murder. They think you’re going out there to make sure he hasn’t left behind anything that can expose his work. A routine case.”

Tracy tried to nod but couldn’t.

“We have an F.B.I. contact in the city that owes us a favor,” he said, “so the Bureau has taken over the investigation and they’re keeping Billy’s Agency affiliation quiet.”

Tracy stared.

“I don’t know how much longer I can keep the internal security people from getting involved,” Fleming said.

She knew what that meant. John Pike would be placed on a list of high-priority targets. Ideally they’d find him, grab him, and throw him in a cell for interrogation. Worse case: termination.

“That’s all, Tracy. Good luck.”

She uncoiled from the chair and started for the door.

“Tracy?”

She turned.

“Everything’s going to be okay.” It was his best fatherly tone, but she wasn’t quite convinced. There was no truth in his eyes. When the liar doesn’t believe his own lies, he has a problem.

Tracy barely nodded.

 

 

TRACY passed through security at Reagan National and realized that she was starving.

She found a booth at a small burger place in the terminal and, as she ordered, decided that she would be no help to her father if she didn’t take care of herself first. She had to stay focused and that meant staying hydrated and fed.

She sat in a booth in a back corner, her back to the wall, the other tables and booths occupied and quiet conversation filling the space. Most of the words were drowned out by the music from wall-mounted speakers. The hardwood booth made Tracy’s rear end hurt, the seat as comfortable as a rock. She figured people weren’t expected to stay long so perhaps there had been some method to the madness in the design.

She washed the meal down with a Coke. With still two hours to go before her flight, she wandered to the bar across from the burger place and nursed a martini while she watched people come and go, mostly tired business travelers who had the same faraway stare on their faces as she did, but for a different reason. A cleaning crew ran a polishing machine over the walkway tiles, the grind of the motor sounding vaguely like a washing machine.

They didn’t hold her interest and she stared into her drink. The vodka shimmered a little as the overhead light reflected in the glass.

Her father had had his work cut out for him after Tracy’s mother died. They’d been in Belfast, something related to the job, she was never sure exactly what, when a car bomb exploded outside a post office. Tracy’s mother died in the blast. They’d been rushed back to the U.S. after that, and her father did his best to take care of her with assistance from her aunt and grandmother, and Tracy had no complaints. Her aunt and grandmother were long gone. It was just her and Dad now.

She finished her drink and ordered another.

Tracy and her father had never really talked about her mother, and she often wondered why. One of them was too afraid to bring it up, she supposed, and thought maybe she was the one. She was sure her father was just as haunted by Belfast as she was. She’d dug into the files now and then, hoping for some clues, but all she learned was that the area had been swarming with IRA at the time, and no individual suspects ever came to light. One couldn’t declare war against the entire Irish Republican Army, so she’d never entertained thoughts of anything like vengeance. She figured the person responsible was already dead. The British SAS had been very efficient in dealing with those people, long before the “peace accord” that ended the conflict.

Tracy finished her second martini, decided against a third, and went to wait at the gate. When her plane finally boarded, she fell into her seat, strapped in, and promptly dozed off.

 

 

Cyrus Kasson steered the bright red Pontiac Solstice around a tight corner and pressed the gas, then stomped the brakes to avoid crashing into a slow-moving minivan. He weaved around the van, the engine responding with a low grumble that made him smile. The wind skimmed over the windshield and brushed his crew-cut hair. He felt the heat of the sun on the top of his head, the short haircut exposing enough of his skull that he often risked a burn, but he had too much fun driving with the top down to care. He wore a custom-fitted blue Savile Row suit and aviator shades. Flash and dash.

He downshifted to get more grunt out of the motor for the last straight stretch. After that final burst of power, he slowed and turned the low-slung roadster into the gated entry of the steel-and-glass skyscraper that housed his company, Kasson Water Sports, the preeminent builder of sport boats, racing gear, and parts. He flashed a two-fingered peace sign at the young guard in the hut, who waved him through, and Kasson powered into the underground garage where he swung into his reserved parking slot. The two empty slots next to his car were also reserved--for him. Nobody would be scratching his baby.

He checked his watch. Two p.m. His people should be seated around the table by now. If any arrived late there’d be hell to pay.

A short elevator ride brought him to the main lobby, bright sunlight blasting through the glass front. Two security guards sat behind a desk. They rose and said hello and Kasson headed for the elevators.

Near the elevators stood the third guard, an older man, his blue blazer buttoned and ID badge pinned straight. He said, “Good afternoon, sir,” as Kasson pressed the call button.

“Mr. Reed, you should be sitting at the desk.”

The older man smiled. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

“Indeed.”

The elevator opened and Kasson stepped in. The doors slid shut.

Kasson rode up to the 20th floor. He left the elevator and his soft leather Oxfords pressed lightly on the beige carpet. He stopped at the receptionist’s desk and removed his shades. The young woman behind the desk smiled. “Everyone is waiting, Mr. Kasson.”

He looked at her eyes, not the peek-a-boo neckline of her blouse. “Did anybody arrive late?”

“The last one got here five minutes before two, sir.”

Kasson looked at his watch. Three minutes after two. “Thank you, Rosa.”

He walked to the door of the meeting room and entered.

Kasson surveyed the high-ceilinged boardroom, bright from sunlight streaming through very clean windows. The twelve men seated around the oval table ceased their chatter as Kasson crossed the room and sat at the head of the table, his back to the glass wall. The bright light obscured his features, but all twelve men were familiar with his playboy lifestyle and acne-scarred face. He hadn’t always been rich. He could have had his face fixed via laser surgery, but he liked to remember where he came from. He liked showing people he’d come up rough. It sent a message.

Kasson said, “Thank you for being here.” He scanned the faces, all of which were turned his way. Astute members of the public would recognize some of the twelve from industrial and corporate enterprises. The rest were unknown because of their criminal endeavors. To Kasson it was a good mix of minds.

The Circle, as they called themselves, existed from the philosophy that chaos equaled profits for knowledgeable men who knew how to take advantage of such chaos. They did not wait for turbulent events; they created them.

Kasson said, “Let’s talk about the latest doings. Mr. Grunberg?”

A bald man midway down the left side, his round belly partially concealed by the table, consulted notes in front of him.

“The Baden-Solitron merger is not yet resolved, but negotiations continue on both sides.”

“What’s holding things up? Did the U.S. representatives not raise their offer?”

“They did, but Baden’s owner is reluctant to merge despite the benefits.”

“Are we persuading him?”

“We have pictures of him with a woman who is not his wife. He will do whatever it takes to keep those pictures hidden. The merger should yield a dividend of ten million dollars.”

“Good,” Kasson said. “Mr. Frye?”

Another man, he with pasty-white skin and wire-framed specs, spoke. “Our sabotage of the Alaskan oil pipeline resulted in a longer delay than we expected. The pipeline will be down for six weeks, and crude oil prices should rise to around eighty-five dollars a barrel as a result.”

“Estimated dividend?” Kasson said.

“Four million dollars.”

“Not bad for six weeks’ work,” Kasson said. “That’s very good, Mr. Frye.” He cleared his throat. “Now we talk about our most ambitious project yet, and it is already well underway. Much must remain secret for now, but I can tell you that the new project concerns a chemical weapon strike against a target we will decide later by simple vote. We expect the dividends from clean-up, decontamination, and increased military spending around the world to be huge. Mr. Bell, the latest, please.”

A stocky man near Kasson’s chair said, “I met personally with Mr. Mustafa in North Africa, and he will deliver two chemical warheads that can be placed inside the missiles tubes designed by Mr. DeSoto.”

Kasson again. “Excellent. We are on schedule. The auction invitations, by the way, have gone out, and we are expecting a high turnout. That’s all for now.”

Kasson remained seated as the other men rose to leave. He asked Bell and Frye to remain. Arnold Bell stayed in his seat. As Frye sat down once again, his hands started to shake.

The others, talking amongst themselves, cleared the room. Kasson smiled. The smile did not brighten his blue eyes.

“Stand up, Mr. Frye.”

The man with the wire-framed specs, sweat now covering his pale skin, stood. The door opened. A man in black with a barrel torso entered and approached the table. Bell and Kasson watched the new arrival. Frye did not. Frye’s face stayed on Kasson.

“Mr. Frye,” Kasson said, “I don’t mind you making money on the side, but I do mind when you do it by selling me out.”

“But—”

The rest of Frye’s words stopped in his throat as the barrel-chested man snapped a wire garrote around the pale man’s neck and pulled tight. Frye gurgled and struggled; the big man grunted with effort and pulled tighter; presently Frye’s body slackened with one last, choked rattle.

“Remove him,” Kasson said.

The big man hoisted Frye over his shoulders and carried him out of the room.

Bell said, “What did he do?”

“He sold information to a team of I.R.A. men regarding the missile project. We have to warn our people.”

“Do they want the Delta Nine?”

“No, the detonators. Without those, we can have a pair of chemical missiles but they won’t explode without the detonators.”

“I’ll get the message out.”

“How’s the new man?” Kasson said.

“Very good,” Bell said. “His charms have had an effect on Elsa, I hear.”

“He’s old enough to be her father.”

“Story is she likes his experience.”

“I’m going to have to meet him eventually. I’d like to see what it took to charm Elsa because apparently that’s one thing the rest of us don’t possess. What’s his name?”

“John Pike.”

CHAPTER TWO

TRACY HOPPED in a cab after deplaning at San Francisco International Airport and told the driver to take her to the Embarcadero Hyatt. The driver raced up 101 North and into downtown where street noise combined with traffic to produce a crushing sensation that Tracy hadn’t before experienced, not even in the worst of the Beltway. Streets were narrow, construction seemingly on every corner, and many pedestrians apparently decided hoofing it was better than burning gas while not going anywhere. Tracy didn’t blame them one bit.

She checked in and, once in her room, undressed, showered, and sat on the edge of the bed. Details of the room were lost on her. She was focused only on what was in front of her, the plastic white telephone with stickers listing which phone numbers to call for room service or an emergency, TV remote beside it, a touch-activated lamp a nice touch. She didn’t want any calls traced back to her personal phone, so she dialed the F.B.I. man the General had recommended. Special Agent Gino Vicini answered on the third ring.

“Yes?”

He had a smooth, deep voice. He sounded older. She pictured him with graying hair. He was probably as tall as she was.

She said, “We have a mutual friend in Virginia.”

“Meet me at the morgue in two hours. Got something to write with?”

She grabbed the cheap ballpoint and stationary from drawer of the night stand. The Gideon Bible was also in the drawer; somebody had used a Sharpie to draw a penis on the cover.

“Go ahead.”

Vicini gave her the address.

When the cab dropped her off in front of San Francisco General, she hiked up a flight of long and low steps that led her to the main entrance. She followed the directions from a nurse at the front desk and made her way down into the basement where the city maintained the morgue. She had to sign in, showing her ID to a young intern in a white coat. Shoes shuffled behind her. She turned. “Mr. Vicini?”

He was indeed as tall as her, and was also indeed older, but no gray hair showed. His Italian features were evident even if she hadn’t known his surname, the darker skin and high cheekbones almost hypnotic. They shook hands.

He showed her his F.B.I. badge. She thought that was cute. “Sorry we have to meet under these circumstances. Follow me.”

He led her through a pair of slate gray swinging double doors, scuffed and dented in the center from being banged open by so many gurneys. The chill hit Tracy right away, a smack in the face, but it didn’t seem to phase Vicini. Cooler drawers lined the walls; steel tables, some unoccupied, others covered with a sheet, were spaced out on the open floor. No M.E. in sight.

Vicini stopped at Cooler #52550 and grabbed the lever. He pulled the drawer open with a grunt. It slid open on tracks, the wheels squealing, a cloud of frost hanging in the air for a moment. And there was Billy Strong, his body half open, laying as if he were asleep.

Tracy tilted her head as she examined the dead man’s face. She hadn’t known him well. They had never worked together; had only crossed paths in the hallway and at the coffee machine. But he was a colleague. Somebody had murdered him. She didn’t think her father was guilty, but whoever had pulled the trigger deserved the kind of justice only somebody like Tracy could deliver.

Billy Strong had been well-built, his hair shaggy. She couldn’t remember his eye color, but the scar on his chin was evidence enough.

“That him?”

“That’s Billy,” she said. “Any progress?”

“Cops canvassed the area where the shooting happened, and then my people went through a second time, but we didn’t get any clear picture of the suspect. A lot of homeless move through the area, so some of the people we talked to weren’t even there the night the shooting took place.”

“What about his personal effects?”

“They’re locked up,” Vicini said.

“Where was he staying?”

“The Marriott on 4th and Mission. The room’s still sealed.”

“Can you take me there please?”

Vicini pushed the drawer shut. The intern collected the envelope full of Strong’s personal items from a locker corresponding with the cooler. Wallet, keys, cell phone, pack of Spearmint; the miscellaneous things one keeps in pockets. Tracy took the cell phone. The intern started to protest. Vicini told him it was okay and he’d be back to file the papers to send the body home to his family.

Vicini wasn’t very talkative during the drive to the Marriott and traffic made silence a little louder than it should have been. A passing car had a 49ers sticker in the window. Tracy knew they were the local football team. She asked Vicini if he was a fan. He said he liked baseball instead. She didn’t know anything about the local baseball action, so he filled her in as they drove.

Turning onto 4th Street, they passed a trail of cabs parked curbside leading to the front entrance of the Marriott where doormen in gray suits and tall top hats helped guests into one cab after another, the line growing shorter with each departure. Vicini parked in the garage in a space reserved for Maintenance. He tossed his Law Enforcement tag onto the dash and they found a doorway into the lobby.

The lobby was divided into several sections, one for check-in, the other a bar/restaurant, with another sitting and dining area at the far end. The hardwood floor wasn’t polished very brightly, but still looked good; the bar/restaurant was sectioned off by matching wooden floor-to-ceiling pillars. Large-screen televisions on the walls showed local news and CNN. Music played over ceiling speakers as guests and hotel workers rushed about, a dozen foreign languages assaulting Tracy’s ears. Vicini spoke with somebody at the check-in desk who brought out the manager, and after a few words where Vicini explained his visit, the F.B.I. man led Tracy to the elevators.

The tenth floor was quiet. They found Billy Strong’s sealed room at the end of the hallway. The crime scene tape had not been disturbed. Vicini slit the tape with a pocket knife and used a key card to pop the locks. He pushed open the door and held it for Tracy. She entered and stopped to look around. Strong being in the morgue made this an unusual visit. She was about to rifle through his personal effects. It had to be done, but it gave her a strange feeling. Someday somebody might do the same with her. If she was respectful to Billy, perhaps she’d be shown the same concern.

“I suppose you know what you’re looking for,” Vicini said, stepping aside.

“Not really.”

She didn’t want him to know what was important and what wasn’t, so it was best to stay vague. The first thing she spotted was the laptop on the writing table. She didn’t go for that right away. She pawed through the nightstand, clothes in the dresser drawers, found two suitcases in the closet. She looked through the storage pockets. Finally, she looked at the computer as if she’d seen it for the first time. If Vicini recognized the ruse for what it was, he didn’t comment. He stood near the door scrolling through his phone. She unplugged the laptop and wrapped up the power cord, holding the lightweight machine under one arm. She scanned the room again.

Tracy didn’t think there was any real information anywhere except on the computer. Maybe he wrote a report. Maybe all they knew is what he’d told the General. He was on vacation, for heaven’s sake, he wouldn’t have gone operational in the full sense.

“I think this is all I need,” Tracy said.

Vicini held the door for her and they left the room.

 

 

TRACY PLACED the computer on the writing table in her room and stared at the machine, letting out a breath. She needed something to be on that hard drive that could help.

For the first time she really saw her room. It was cleaner than her apartment. Her place always had clutter in the corners no matter how hard she worked to keep the place tidy. She often joked that she could quit the Agency and open a second-hand shop called Corner Clutter. She removed her shoes and socks and felt the soft carpet under her feet. The bed called to her, but she needed to work. Rising from the chair, Tracy opened the curtains and the window, letting in the salt-scented air. They were close to the bay waters. Street noises filled the room. She ordered up a patty melt, French fries, and a pot of coffee. After eating, she finally turned on the laptop and stared at the password prompt.

She called General Ike and put him on speaker.

“What’s the latest?” he said.

She gave him the rundown. “I need to get into this computer.”

“One moment while I get the password from I.T.”

The General put her on hold. She picked at a leftover French fry that was now cold.

“Okay,” the General said, “here’s Billy’s log-in.”

She typed the necessary passwords and found the home screen. An icon at the bottom left corner connected to the C.I.A.’s classified server. The hotel had free Wi-Fi. Unsecured Wi-Fi but Tracy didn’t care. Everything was locked so tight on the Agency’s end, a speck of dust couldn’t fit through the net.

She clicked on the icon and the web browser loaded. The seal of the United States filled the center of the screen, followed by a warning about information on the server having the same classified rules as every other piece of information. She minimized that window after telling the General she was connected.

She started clicking through Billy’s personal files, and in the My Pictures folder found a file marked SF.

She clicked that.

Digital pictures filled the screen.

“He took a lot of touristy photos,” she said, scrolling through.

“Anything featuring your father?”

She clicked one picture and activated the slide show, clicking through each one. It wasn’t until she neared the end where she found a picture that froze her in place.

“Tracy?”

“I have something, sir.”

“Tell me.”

“He has two pictures of my father. There’s a blonde woman with him. She’s wearing a white pantsuit in both of them and carrying a diamond-studded mini-purse.”

“Only the important stuff, Tracy.”

“That purse must have cost a fortune.”

“Tracy?”

“I need the distraction, sir.”

“What else is there?”

“There’s a third shot at a sidewalk restaurant. Billy aimed the camera under the table, but I think this is where he messed up. The woman’s looking right at him.”

“Upload those. We’ll identify the woman.”

She closed the slide show, dragged the files over to the classified server, and watched the status bar cross left to right.

“Uploading to you, sir.”

“Anything else?”

Tracy closed the pictures and examined the home screen. A text file marked Log jumped out at her. She clicked on that.

“I found a log,” she said. “Billy only made a few notes. Initial sighting, contact with you. Sir, they stayed at the same hotel I’m at.”

“Where was first contact made?”

“Cupid’s Arrow.”

“Where’s that?”

“Down the street. It’s a huge arrow on the Embarcadero, sort of embedded into the cement. That’s where Billy says he was supposed to meet my father. I’ll call you back.”

Tracy hung up before the General answered.

CHAPTER THREE

HALFWAY AROUND the world, Michael Dodge, up to his neck in cold weather, scanned snow-capped peaks and powdered valleys from the deck of a restaurant in the Swiss Alps. From where he stood on the deck of the outdoor café, close to the rail, he felt like he had reached the end of civilization and had nowhere to go but forward into an eternal frontier.

His parka shielded him from the morning chill, but he felt it on the tip of his nose. Shouts below. Dodge looked over the rail at the trio of skiers racing along the flat ground, aiming for a downward slope. He didn’t want to be among them. Skiing did not excite him at all. He avoided winter climates at all costs; today, he had no choice.

“Hello, my friend.”

Dodge turned to the man who stepped up beside him, a stocky fellow bundled in a thick parka not unlike the one Dodge wore. A fur cap covered the other man’s bald head. The patrons of the outdoor café, chattering away at tables ten feet away from the two men, paid no attention.

“Hello, Vlad,” Dodge said. “It’s been a long time.”

They shook hands, Dodge slapping the other man’s arm.

Vlad Rashkov let out a stream of breath.

“So you brought me out to the snow for. . .?” Dodge said.

“It’s not good news, Michael,” the former Russian agent said. “What do you know about Delta Nine nerve gas?”

“I know the Soviets developed it during the ‘70s and later destroyed it under one treaty or another. It was before my time.”

Rashkov shook his head. “Correct on most of that, but not all of it was destroyed. Some was hidden and only recently discovered. It’s on the market. Rumor is the point of contact is in Milan.”

“We have a contact there, a smuggler. I’ll see if I can talk to him.” Dodge shook his head. “I don’t like the picture you paint, Vlad.”

“That’s why I needed to see you. A coded message didn’t seem appropriate.”

“I appreciate this very much. Consider us even for that misunderstanding in Costa Rica.” Dodge smiled.

Rashkov smiled back. “We’ll never be even for that, my friend.”

Dodge pulled some paper money out of his parka and handed the notes to the other man. “Lunch on me. I won’t be able to stay.”

The Russian held up a hand. “Another time, Michael. Go now. Good luck. I have a feeling you will need it.”

 

 

Dodge returned to his hotel, shutting the door and securing the locks. The drapes were already closed. He shed his parka, tossing it on the bed, and sat at the table. Removing his secure cell phone from a shirt pocket, he dialed headquarters.

“How did the meeting go?” General Ike said.

Dodge recounted his conversation with Rashkov, adding, “I’d like to go to Milan and see if our friend Miller is available.”

“Do it,” Fleming said.

“You don’t have to tell me twice, sir. I leave in one hour.”

“First class?”

“Part of the perks of the job, right?”

General Ike made a grumble sound as Dodge ended the call.

 

 

Dodge welcomed the long flight. It gave him time to think. He hoped Miller, the smuggler who fed the C.I.A. morsels of information now and then, would have something useful to share, and realized his larger responsibility lay with actually tracking down the Delta Nine nerve gas.

After deplaning in Milan, Dodge found a seat in the traveler’s lounge and spent the next half hour on the phone trying to locate Brendan Miller to arrange a meeting. They agreed to meet for dinner that evening at a pizza restaurant which Miller said had good food but lousy service.

Dodge found the smuggler in a back booth later that night. Miller stood and greeted Dodge with a limp handshake. Miller had a smooth face with a large nose, black hair slicked back. His blue eyes scanned Dodge’s face with a gleam that Dodge did not like. They scooted into the booth.

“And how may I be of service to you-know-who today?” Miller’s Irish accent had softened since Dodge last dealt with him.

Their waitress arrived, a girl with very black hair and a sliver stud in her nose. She asked what they wanted to drink with a haughty tone to her voice. Miller asked for Bushmills while Dodge ordered rum-and-Coke. The waitress, who did not write either order down, turned on her heel and departed.

“We’ll never see her again,” Miller said, smiling. “So, you were saying?”

“Who’s selling the Delta Nine nerve gas?”

“To the point so quickly?” Miller laughed. Dodge did not. He found Miller’s very existence offensive. A former bomb maker for the Provisional I.R.A., Miller now operated a smuggling operation throughout Europe, moving everything from guns to cigarettes to heroine, but mostly heroine as it turned the largest profit. Dodge would have loved a chance to put a bullet in Miller’s head, but to get the bigger bad guys, sometimes one had to make alliances with smaller bad guys. Dodge understood that reality but did not have to like it.

The waitress actually did return and placed their drinks before them, but mixed them up. She left before either could correct her. Dodge handed the Bushmills to Miller and took his rum-and-Coke.

Dodge sipped his drink. The strong taste of Captain Morgan, mixed with the Coke, made Dodge frown. He preferred a lighter mix, but decided dealing with Brendan Miller might be easier if he had a buzz going.

Miller said, “I’ve only just started identifying the players moving the item you mentioned. The main player is here in Milan.”

“Lucky for me. Who is he?”

Miller opened his mouth to answer but the waitress returned, smacking gum this time. They ordered a large meat-topped pizza. She again did not write the order down and left them alone.

Miller said, “Ever hear of Devlin Stone?”

“No.”

“American hot shot. Throws his money around, chases women, you know the drill. He’s a smuggler, too. Has connections with the Russian mafia, so that’s why he was selected to help them move the nerve gas.”

“The Russian mob is behind all this?”

Miller blinked, shifted in his chair. He sipped whiskey. “I don’t know the full background, but there’s no other reason why Stone is doing their work.”

“How do you know all this?” Dodge said.

“I have my sources of intelligence. One must protect his interests. Stone and I have a rivalry that goes back about a decade. We’ve clashed in the past.”

They finished their first round of drinks and looked for the waitress, but she was nowhere to be seen. Other wait staff cruised by their table without a second glance.

“What did I tell you about the service?” Miller said.

Presently they waved down the girl with the stud in her nose and she stopped and asked what they wanted. They asked for a second round. She smacked her gum and walked away.

“When did you learn that the nerve gas was for sale?”

“Other day, from another source. I figured that with your connections, you’d know a few things.”

The waitress brought their drinks and mixed them up again. Dodge and Miller exchanged glasses.

A moment later the girl brought the steaming pizza and placed it on the table. She placed two white plates before each man as well, popped a bubble, walked away.

The conversation faded as they ate. Dodge watched Miller. The smuggler leaned over his plate, chewing and breathing loudly through his nose, as if his sinuses were plugged.

Dodge downed more of his drink. His head started to feel the effect.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Briana Cain is actually Brian Drake, author of the Steve Dane thrillers. Drake is now branching out into the exciting field of romantic suspense, delivering not only thrills and chills, but a breathtaking love story of two people, meant to be together, who must overcome incredible obstacles.

Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
I was inspired to write Bulletproof Hearts by none other than Lisa Hughey, who wrote a series of incredible romantic thrillers with her Black Cipher Files trilogy.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I'm more interested in characters than plot, and the idea of somebody desperately trying to learn the truth about a family member was irresistible.

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