PROLOGUE / OPENING OF CHAPTER ONE
Friday, 6:10 A.M.
Shelton, North Dakota
There was a bounty on Darcy St. James’ life, and in the world of people where she had once worked, someone coming after her was still more likely than not. She rested a booted foot against the fence rail she’d replaced the day before and ran an experienced eye along the length of triple rail fence judging how much paint she was going to need to finish the task while she wondered if this was the day she would be interrupted by unwanted company.
The line of evergreens that provided a wind and snow break for the house had an orderly look to their shape after weeks of clearing out the dead branches and undergrowth. At least the grounds of the place she called home would return to some semblance of being lived in before winter came, even if the house itself was still torn apart. She loved this place. It was just proving to be a multi-year repair project.
She sipped her coffee, and then reached down for the rifle resting against the fence railing. For those who bothered to ask, it was for the prowling coyote that had killed her neighbor’s chickens, but in reality it was for her own security. It would be good to see snow out there; it would be much harder for someone to approach the house with a few feet of snow to wade through.
A patrol car slowed on the nearby road and Darcy lifted her hand to her sister. Amy and her husband Jacob Bond lived down the road. There were worse things than an older sister with a protective streak who happened to be the town sheriff. And if Darcy did a little quiet watching out of her own for her sister’s safety she kept it to herself. There were some benefits to working for the government that lasted past an early retirement at thirty-five.
Jesus, I like this place. It’s different, living in one place and setting down roots, but I can feel myself relaxing deep inside. I didn’t realize how much stress had built up in my life until I was able to fully stop. I just want to say thanks once again. The passage in my diary this morning was from Psalms 54. Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. I’ve appreciated your help these last months making this into a place that feels like home. The puzzle for this morning — how do I take out that dying evergreen without taking out part of the garage roof?
The phone in her jacket pocket broke the silence. She was tempted to ignore it. The morning was peaceful, and hers to schedule. There hadn’t been enough such days in her life. She reached for the sheepskin-lined jacket inherited from her grandfather she’d draped over the fence post and tugged out the phone. “You found me.”
She smiled at the Louisiana drawl that made the words sing. “Does your wife know you still call me that, Kyle?”
“Marla knows I reserve it for my one and only partner who saved my life.”
It hadn’t been much of a rescue. Someone had driven by and shot at them in Bulgaria three years ago and she’d shoved him back into the hotel, picking up a bruised elbow for her efforts. “Flattery this early in the morning?”
“You live too far away. What’s North Dakota got that Virginia doesn’t? You move all the way out there and I never get to enjoy your funny face anymore.”
She rested her back against the railing and enjoyed the rising sun in her face. “I miss you too.” There wasn’t much she missed of her former life, but Kyle she did. “The world blowing up somewhere, friend?” The Central Intelligence Agency had fingers everywhere and Kyle owned the globe from Europe to the farthest time zone in Russia. He wasn’t calling to shoot the breeze, not when he would have just taken the overnight update from the national security operations center.
“Have you seen a paper lately?”
“Can’t say I have. I try to avoid such things as news these days.”
“I can’t believe you’ve been able to go cold turkey.”
“It’s not that hard when its no longer my responsibility to know what, where, when and how to fix it.” She’d retired from the CIA two years ago with an Intelligence Star for Valor. She felt like she’d solved enough of the world’s problems for one person to tackle in a lifetime.
“I need you.”
She finished her coffee. “Now, did you have to go and say that?”
“Sergey wants to talk, and he asked for you.”
What did Sergey Alexandrov have to share that could only be done in person? He was many things: a former KGB station chief in London, a decorated cold war veteran, a spymaster. He’d advanced to number three in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service before his own retirement last year. He was a worthy adversary. After a decade of competition between them, she’d call it a draw. She straightened; a smidgen interested. “Is he going to defect?”
“Doubtful. He’s got a nice place in Spain and he winters in the British Virgin Islands.”
“Anyone missing on our side?”
She leaned back against the fence again. “Then I really don’t want to fly halfway across the country to hear about a coming coup, a missing weapon, a renegade agent, or something else equally nasty that means I’m going to be working for more than a weekend.”
“Darcy, you should see some of the new crowd around here. There’s no way I’m going to send one of them to see Sergey. He would laugh and send them back to daycare. If you can’t go, I will, but this request came through their embassy, and Sergey asked for you by name.”
And that meant there were...rules for want of a better description. The spy agencies of both countries were designed to distrust each other. They built trust on the procedures they agreed to follow even if they didn’t always trust the contents of the passed message. If possible, the agency needed to honor this request, even if it meant asking her to come out of retirement.
Sergey understood how to handle sensitive information. He wouldn’t make an extraordinary request for a face-to-face meeting without good reason. The Russian president trusted him. It could be a private message that needed confidential delivery. It could be information that unless delivered through trustworthy hands would be discounted as not credible because of its unusual contents. He too had been called out of retirement. The message was something significant. “One weekend? I’m back by Monday?”
“He asked to meet Sunday night at a hotel in Florida. I’ve got a typed sheet of details. He did his usual meticulous job on laying out when and where.”
She accepted her answer was going to be yes and shifted to logistics. “Let’s keep this low key. I’d rather not advertise I’m going to be on the east coast. Courier me the information and send a guy to check the hotel the day before. I’ll make my own travel arrangements between here and Florida. Given Sergey’s news may be time sensitive, see if there’s a military flight that can be arranged from Florida, say out of Eglin Air Force Base, on Sunday night so I can bring whatever Sergey has straight to the agency.”
“You want a backup team?”
“I don’t think so. Sergey will follow protocols and be coming alone. I’ll get to the hotel early enough to look around, make sure I’ve got a bolt hole, and if it looks like I need company I’ll make a call to the Miami office. I’d rather not have my name in the system unless it’s really necessary.”
“It’s nice having you back on the job, Darcy.”
She’d promised to give it five years before she wrapped up her cover identity and presence on the east coast and made North Dakota a permanent retirement; she was only surprised Kyle had given her two years before he called for something more than a question, her opinion, and an hour chat to shoot the breeze. “Let’s see what Sergey has to say. I’ll see you in a few days, Kyle.”
Sunday, 8:20 P.M.
Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Sam Houston strolled toward the hotel outdoor pool and patio carrying a soft drink and tugging at his tie, leaving behind the laughter of the banquet room. His buddy Tom was married and the reception was breaking up now that the bride and groom were safely away for their honeymoon. A huge weight had just lifted from Sam’s shoulders.
The breeze from the gulf brought the smell of sand and sea. Sam paused at the steps going down to the boardwalk. Florida was good to its visitors: Miles of beach and luxury hotels stretched to either side. He smiled as he contemplated the upcoming days off. Maybe deep sea diving and some treasure hunting…something daring, challenging, adventurous…it wouldn’t compete with the last months of deployment and getting shot at for adrenalin, but it would do.
The last few months peacekeeping in Turkey had put him near a shooting war and turned him a little too serious for his own good. His temporary homeport with Navy SEAL Team Nine was Little Creek Naval Base, Norfolk, Virginia and while the diving in the Atlantic could be fascinating, it couldn’t compare to the vast treasures around the gulf. A little diving, a little getting his priorities back in sync — he planned to enjoy life, not just live it.
“Now you look like a man at the end of a good day.”
He glanced to his right and felt a spark of interest. A lady sitting alone by the hotel pool was watching him. He didn’t think she’d been a guest at the wedding, he had tried to meet everyone, but Tom and Jill had more friends than he could hope to keep straight. The thick closed book in her lap, the plate set aside on the nearby table, suggested she had been comfortable there for some time. Another hotel guest not ready to face four walls he speculated as he turned and walked her direction. “Good food, good friends: the definition of a very good evening.”
She tipped her head back as he approached. He liked her smile. The glasses were interesting, ovals with gold frames and a little star in the corner. She slid them off and set them on the table as he walked over. He could see through the glass without distortion to read the print on the magazine cover. They were for show. She must use them and that little star to distract attention from her eyes because no one would forget those blue eyes if they got a good look at them.
“You’re with the wedding party? I heard the music.”
“That explains the tux and the too tight tie.”
He tugged it the rest of the way free with a rueful smile. “Hazards of the day.” Making a decision, he dumped the jacket on an empty chair and took a seat on a lounge chair near her. He turned up the cuffs of his white shirt. There should be an instruction book for how to give advice to the groom, keep rambunctious friends in line, troubleshoot problems, and keep track of more guests under the age of ten than he could remember names for. It felt good to be done and be able to consider time his own again. Blue lights shimmered up through the water in the pool, inviting a late night swim. “It’s a little dark for reading.”
She clicked on a penlight. “Five hundred ninety six pages — I’m going to finish it tonight and find out whodunit if it kills me.”
He laughed softly. “A committed reader.” He liked the sound of her voice, and the relaxed humor in her answer.
“Recently retired and trying to make up for all the books I missed,” she explained.
The ice in her drink had melted. His drink was getting low. “Like a refill?” He caught the attention of a hotel employee. He requested a second coke for himself and she added a request for a pineapple ice slush.
It was odd that she thought of herself as retired. He put her age at maybe thirty-five, forty. A glance showed a ring on her right hand, but her left was bare. The watch looked expensive, as did the dress. This wasn’t a cheap place to vacation. A lady who had made it in life and retired early to enjoy her wealth.
“I’d ask, but that looked like a private thought.”
“It was.” He was single, no kids, with life insurance from the military to bury him: he had a lifelong habit of giving extra money away. Buying stuff just meant it had to be packed and shipped to the next base. But he admired the effort it suggested to be able to retire young. She’d had a plan for catching up on her reading, and he idly wondered what other plans she had made for herself now that she set her schedule.
Their drinks arrived. He signed the slip, putting them on his room tab.
She sipped hers. “Thanks. I love these fruit things.”
“My pleasure,” Sam replied, meaning it. “The only place where you can get a better one of those is Hawaii.”
“Really? You’ve been there?”
He nodded. “With work. They’re beautiful islands.”
“I’m going to have to go someday. I want to see the fish along the coral reefs, the greenery that goes forever. I hear it’s good honeymoon country.” She lifted an eyebrow.
“They went to the Caribbean on a cruise. Tom and I are Navy buddies. He married a sweetheart in Jill.”
She tilted her head. “Did you send them off with a walk under raised swords?”
She had some knowledge of military life; he tucked that observation away to come back to later, even as he smiled. “Our full platoon of SEALs did the honors.” The last man had slapped Jill’s behind with the flat of his sword in the best tradition of Navy weddings.
“She’ll have great wedding pictures.”
“I hope so. There were certainly enough of them.”
She laughed and the sound was rich, warm, and bubbled. In her words he heard a trace of the west and home. He wished he had met her years before. “I’m Sam by the way. Sam Houston.” He offered his hand, belatedly realizing the oversight.
“Darcy St. James.”
He was careful as he took her hand. His bore the calluses of the work he did, and the strength to crush the bones in hers. He found her hand had an unexpected strength. “Pretty name.”
She smiled and let the compliment pass, not breaking eye contact but merely not reacting beyond that slight smile. That simple fact had him slow to release her hand. Those eyes were the unfathomable kind, as clear and deep a pool of blue as the ocean when it both welcomed and yet hide its treasures. He had never been one to miss a treasure hunt. “Listen, would you like to get a piece of wedding cake? There’s plenty left.”
“Actually I’ve been waiting for someone, but he’s running late.”
That was either a gentle not interested before he could say something that would require her to tactfully say no, or a simple statement of fact to explain why she didn’t want to leave her location by the poolside. He held her gaze with his and what he saw convinced him it was worth taking the optimistic view. Besides, he admired the loyalty and patience it showed that she was waiting for her date. Too many people in life were impatient and he’d long ago learned the best things in life often involved an indefinite wait. “Have a number you could try him?”
“I wish I did.”
“Then while you wait, let me bring the cake to you.” He got to his feet. “White or chocolate? A lot or little icing?”
Her hesitation was so slight as to be barely noticeable. “White with lots of icing.”
“I guessed that.”
This time her smile came closer to a grin and he got the feeling he’d just made a unexpected friend. Sam walked back toward the ballroom to get the cake, intrigued with her and that tantalizing hint of west in her voice. If her date didn’t show up, he’d enjoy an hour of conversation. And if she was interested in learning to dive...the company would be welcome. He could hang with the guys anytime; Darcy would be much more interesting.
More of chapter one in the book…..
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