By Dawn's Early Lightby Philip Shelby
After she's blackballed by Wall Street for exposing a powerful banker's corruption, Sloane Ryder is recruited by a covert government agency to hunt down moles and spies within the corridors of power. It seems to be the perfect job for the straight-shooting Sloane -- until a suspicious tip leads her to uncover a shocking conspiracy wrought by some of the most prominent figures in government. Their aim: assassinate the first woman president of the United States, whose policies could endanger their shadowy activities.
As Sloane frantically pieces together a series of strange but seemingly unrelated events, the trail leads her to the Handyman, an enigmatic killer-for-hire whose reputation is built on his unerring tenacity. Now, she finds herself caught in a deadly game of high-stakes international intrigue, in which the wrong move may be her last.
- Pocket Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.20(w) x 6.60(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
Sloane Ryder stirred beneath the sheets. Dawn had not yet penetrated the bedroom windows of her "sliver" condo on 47th Street, between Second and Third Avenues.
She waited until she was fully awake, then tried to shift her leg out from under Peter Mack's. He was a light sleeper, something he attributed to his FBI training. Sloane knew that the slightest sound or movement could wake him.
She rolled slowly to the edge of her bed, her leg inching out from under his. In the blue wash of the room, she could make out the stack of clothes, set out the night before, on the credenza. Reach them and she'd be home free.
Her foot came loose and she was about to lift back the sheet when a hand clamped on her hip.
"Where do you think you're going?"
His voice was husky with sleep, his intention unmistakable as his hand slid over her hip.
Sloane shifted. "The office. I told you, remember?"
His fingers continued to travel along her leg. "It's Saturday," Mack muttered, trying to spoon up against her.
He groped for her breast and she felt his stubble prick the nape of her neck.
"Peter, aren't you supposed to be on duty at Dodge French's place today?"
"Not until later. Much later."
He shifted again, trying to pull her back into bed.
Sloane, twenty-eight, was a runner and a swimmer, deceptively strong beneath her slender frame. She pulled away from his grasp, the momentum taking most of the bedding with her. Standing naked, goose bumps creeping along her skin, she finger-brushed her wedge-style chestnut hair.
Peter Mack propped himself up against the pillows. At forty-one, he was in top physical condition, his arms and torso muscled from regular visits to the Bureau's gym. In the street, his coal-black hair and green eyes made women look twice -- and he knew it.
"Jesus, do you know how cold you've gone on me?" he said.
Sloane closed her eyes. There it was: Their tepid sex life was her fault, his inevitable frustration. It had been going on like this for the last few months: schedules and moods and desires clashing, bodies and needs out of sync, angry recriminations and stony silences. A relationship, once beautiful and passionate, being picked apart by crows.
And it is my fault, Sloane thought.
But as much as she wanted to, there was nothing she could change. After today, maybe. But not right now. She had managed to keep her secret this long, she could hold it for another few hours. Because if she didn't, Peter Mack would try to stop her, because he cared for her, and because it would be his duty as a law-enforcement officer. He would try to save her from herself and she couldn't afford that.
Sloane hurried into the bathroom, showered, then slipped on slacks, a denim blouse, and an old but treasured Escada jacket. She checked her sling bag to make sure it had the essentials, and looked at Peter.
"I gotta run," she said. "I'll call you."
Her heart fell when her kiss fell on unresponsive lips, and then she was gone.
It was the start of the Memorial Day weekend, and the bagel shop on the ground floor was closed, depriving Sloane of a much needed coffee. Her fix would have to wait until Grand Central station. Shouldering her sling and setting a long-stride pace, she was thinking about the man she'd left in her bed.
She'd met Peter Mack eleven months ago, shortly after she'd started at the investment banking firm of Young, Pullen. The occasion was a party her firm had hosted at the Plaza for its A-list clients. Sloane had spent the first hour being hit on by investors who professed to take more of an interest in her personal well-being than in their portfolios and was about to leave when a tall, quiet-spoken man approached and said, "You know, you can always press harassment charges."
The idea of Young, Pullen's cash cows being hauled off to the hoosegow made her laugh. Peter Mack had said a lot of things that made her laugh -- then and later. He'd told her he'd been on his way to the Oak Room for an after-shift drink when he'd caught a glimpse of her through the open doors of the salon.
"So I crashed your party."
Flattered, she had listened with interest as he briefly told her about his work as a special agent in the New York field office. She had said yes when he asked if he could see her again and yes again when, on their third date, she invited him up to her condo for what she knew would be an all-night nightcap.
Sloane's worst nightmare was a needy, demanding man. Someone equally busy, who understood the demands of her fledgling career, and still appreciated the time she had to give him -- that was the kind of man she could stay with. Sloane was not desperate but was keenly aware of the drought in her personal life before she'd met Peter Mack. Now it was comforting to see his shaving gear on the vanity, his change of clothes in the closet.
For a time, she and Peter had shared something good and simple and sweet: Sundays in Central Park or out on the waters off Long Island, late dinners in the West Village listening to the cool throb of jazz, Saturdays for themselves and their bodies. It had been enough for her, more than enough. Sloane came from a past that buried dreams and crushed hope. She understood the danger of wanting too much, how slippery the world could be.
Sloane turned down Park toward Grand Central station. She did not want to carry thoughts of what was happening between her and Peter to her appointment. She wanted nothing to intrude on what would happen when she reached the station -- and on what she was committed to do later, to end the hell that had been keeping her at the office night after night for the past two months. Things she couldn't talk about.
It'll be okay, she told herself. When I finally tell him, he'll understand.
Grand Central was a near empty catacomb of lost white-collar souls rushing to catch trains to join spouses and children who had already left for the holiday weekend. But the coffee shop was busy, being the only place in the vicinity open for business. Sloane's eyes roamed over the hollow-eyed husbands and fathers, the tourists trying to make sense of maps and train schedules, then found the one man she was looking for sitting at a corner table sipping coffee.
Frank Ryder was fifty-eight and looked fifteen years older than that. Cigarettes and a past problem with alcohol were responsible for some of the damage -- but not all.
Sloane approached him and said, "Hello, Dad."
When he looked up at her, his clear eyes and calm smile told Sloane that he'd been staying on his medication.
"Hello, Starbuck," Frank Ryder said. The childhood nickname that had always made Sloane feel special now saddened her, coming as it did from this husk of a man.
She sat across from him. "You look great, Dad."
He smiled lopsidedly. "I feel fine. The weather's good. I walk every day."
"That's good. How's Paulina?"
"Last week she brought me stew."
"That's great, Dad."
Paulina Sanchez was the middle-aged registered nurse whom Sloane had hired to look in on her father three times a week. Frank Ryder could clothe, feed, and generally look after himself. But he had bouts of confusion and memory loss, and it was imperative that he take his medication consistently.
Sipping her coffee, Sloane told her father about what had happened at work during the past week. The conversation was really a monologue, because Frank Ryder did little more than smile pleasantly and stare into space. Try as she might, Sloane could never get used to her father's silence. Once, he had been a gregarious, outgoing man, full of stories and blarney. Now he dwelled in self-imposed exile, his universe bounded by the walls of a small condo in a family neighborhood in Queens.
Her father had been a successful maritime engineer. In middle age, he had retired and poured his life's savings into opening his own firm. Two years later, he had developed a new process by which the metal hulls of oil supertankers could be strengthened without any adding of weight, which would help prevent spillage during a collision.
But when Frank Ryder applied for his patent, his former employer got a court injunction to stop him, claiming ownership of his process on the grounds that Frank Ryder had begun development of his process while its employee. Negotiations were initiated, stalled, lawyers entered the fray, and the financial bloodletting began.
Years later, when it was all over, Frank Ryder was a hollow man, broken, bankrupt, and ruined. He had also become a widower. In the fifth year of litigation, his wife had succumbed to a ten-year chronic depression and had jumped off the subway platform at the 34th Street/Herald Square subway stop, into the path of an incoming train.
Six months after the funeral, two Cambridge police officers came to Sloane's Harvard dorm to tell her that her father had been picked up on the streets by the New York police. When she arrived at Bellevue after a harrowing overnight drive, she did not recognize the man in the straitjacket, flanked by watchful attendants.
Sloane blinked hard and pushed away the image.
"Dad, there's something we need to talk about."
"Sure, Starbuck. Anything."
Sloane pulled a sheaf of papers from her sling bag and arranged them on the table. They included the paid-up mortgage on the small Queens condo, a receipt for the homeowners' dues for the next five years, and letters from a trust company that would deposit a guaranteed income into Frank Ryder's checking account every month.
Sloane walked her father through the details, keeping her tone light, her explanations simple. She was pleased that he seemed to grasp the mechanics of what she'd done. He did not ask where Sloane had gotten the money for all this. Nor did she volunteer that it had come from the signing bonus Young, Pullen's recruiter had promised her. In his childlike state, he simply accepted that his daughter was providing for him.
"Are you going away, Starbuck?"
The question caught Sloane by surprise. Reaching for his hand, she replied, "No, Dad. I'm not leaving."
His fingers tightened around hers and she found herself looking into his eyes. "Starbuck?"
Sloane collected herself. "It's just stuff at work. There may be some changes..."
"Are you in trouble?"
"No, Dad." Not yet.
Frank Ryder shuffled the paperwork. "Then why all this?"
Sloane took a breath. "There may be something wrong at work. If there is a problem, I might have to do something -- "
"Do you, Starbuck? Do you have to?"
His question cut to the dread Sloane had been living with these past months. It would have been so easy to ignore what she had come across, which some would say was none of her business. Except that ultimately it was her business, and her responsibility to the people who had invested both their faith and their money with her.
But doing the right thing could cost her so much...
Sloane covered her father's hand with hers. She knew that she could not walk away from this problem. She had never walked away from anything in her life. The man sitting across from her had taught her what it meant to take a stand -- and to keep standing even as the odds ground you into dust.
The offices of Young, Pullen took up the top ten floors of a building on Washington Street, a few blocks east of Battery Place. The partners' offices and the boardroom, where investment officers were invited the second Tuesday of each January to receive their bonus checks, had a spectacular view of the Hudson River.
Sloane got out of the cab at the New York Stock Exchange and walked the remaining two blocks. Not to the front doors, which were sealed and armed, but to a side entrance. It took three rings to wake up the guard. Through the thick glass, she watched him amble like a disgruntled bear, hitching up his pants by his gun belt.
There were no names on the sign-in sheet. Good. Sloane was fairly sure it would stay that way. During the past week, she'd eavesdropped on colleagues' conversations about their holiday plans, mentally crossing off names.
The elevators operated on key-coded cards. The ride to the thirty-second floor took less than a minute. Sloane walked briskly through the reception area, a designer's paean to Dickensian barristers' rooms, and into the warren where the investment officers had their suites. Befitting her one-year tenure, hers was in the center, toward the back, windowless.
Snapping on the halogen desk lamp, Sloane fired up her computer, calling up the profile of a client she had absolutely no interest in -- just something to make it look like she was busy, in case someone unexpectedly came by.
She had the guards' routine down pat. On weekends and holidays, they monitored the offices from an octagonal room in the basement of the building. During her visit to security to pick up her building pass, she had noted the three banks of monitors, twelve to each row. The video cameras hooked up to the monitors worked on a relay system, scanning designated parts of the ten floors at precise intervals. There was an override if the guards wanted to survey one particular area.
The week before, on the pretext of having lost her coded parking key, Sloane had visited security again. She had mentioned that she might be working over the long weekend and asked if there were any special details she should know about. None. The procedure was the same: Log in, go up, do your thing, go home.
It was time to do her thing.
Sloane could not know when or if the cameras would catch her movements. Bathroom key card in hand, she walked briskly back into the reception area, out the double doors, and made a sharp left into a hall. She slipped inside the bathroom, listened to the door sigh behind her, and leaned back against it. She counted off thirty seconds.
If a camera had picked her up, and if the guard had been watching, he would have seen her enter the bathroom. She would be accounted for and he would go back to his coffee.
She whispered "thirty" and stepped back into the hall. Twelve quick steps brought her to the stairwell door, for which no employee had a key. As long as there was someone in the suites, the fire exits had to be accessible. That was the law.
Sloane twisted the knob and stepped into the stairwell. It took her less than a minute to run up three stories to the partners' floor. She paused at the stairwell door to steady herself, then pushed it open.
The layout was plush: wood paneling, oriental rugs over thick carpeting, recessed lighting, spacious workstations for the secretaries. The partners' suites, especially the one belonging to H. Paul MacGregor, were opulent.
Sloane had met MacGregor only a few times. At forty-nine he was a senior partner, cold, driven, aloof, with an affected mid-Atlantic accent and a British tailor. On the credenza were pictures of a wife seldom seen and children he never spoke about. The rest were vanity shots of MacGregor with the rich and famous.
Sloane made her way around the slabs of mahogany and cherry wood, the leather chairs that smelled like a Jaguar dealership. MacGregor's taste ran to antiques and dark, grim portraits of men with whom he might or might not have a blood connection. His computer, however, was state of the art.
Sloane settled herself in his rich, black leather chair. Her hands performed as though with a will of their own and the computer was running, awaiting her command. But first it required the password.
Sloane had gotten her M.B.A. from Harvard, then spent two years at Ravenhurst, an elite business college in Pennsylvania where the courses included industrial and corporate espionage, examples of shady business practices, and other things that most business graduates never even dream of. Ravenhurst's instructors, former law-enforcement agents and corporate security officials, had lectured Sloane that most business executives chose a simple code. They also taught her where and how to find it.
Sloane had minimal contact with MacGregor, no reason to visit his suite, no common projects or clients that might have provided an excuse to be present when he logged on. So she waited for him to make a mistake and leave himself vulnerable.
Six weeks before, MacGregor had done just that -- by firing his secretary of ten years over a minor clerical error.
If MacGregor had done this by the book, he might have been safe. Instead, he had reduced the usual severance package and stripped the woman of her health insurance -- even though he knew her son was on kidney dialysis.
Sloane had visited the woman at her home, gently worked past her resentment and suspicion, and shown her a letter from Young, Pullen's legal department. Sloane had convinced the head counsel that it would be cheaper to fix MacGregor's actions before his actions resulted in a lawsuit. Legal had seen her point and quietly ordered that the insurance be reinstated.
The secretary was a sharp woman, grateful, but waiting for the other shoe to drop. When Sloane asked her for the password to MacGregor's computer, she gave it up with a laugh. "Use it to put a stake through his heart," had been her advice.
As Sloane typed in the letters olympus, she thought that was exactly what she was doing.
The Ravenhurst instructors had taught Sloane that virtually all executives failed to have traps set up beyond the password. Such precautions were considered irritants, impediments to getting on with the job. Sloane had no reason to suspect that H. Paul MacGregor was any different.
Had she known about the quality of information she was about to access, Sloane might have reconsidered. But she did not. She tripped the first electronic wire fifteen seconds after keying in the password.
Two phones began ringing at the same time, one in a guest bedroom of a Long Island estate, the second in the offices of a two-man scramble team belonging to Guardian Security, a private intelligence and corporate protection company. Founded by a retired CIA official, it was staffed by former government agents and ex-military personnel.
Three minutes after the call, a nondescript sedan was rolling out of what had once been a limousine company depot in Lower Manhattan.
What little Sloane knew about H. Paul MacGregor had been gleaned from business and society clippings and New York's Families Register.
He was to the manor born, the only son among five children. His family had provided legal services to the Street since the late nineteenth century, but MacGregor had turned out to be something of a rebel, eschewing the family business in favor of working in the investment banking community.
As a first-year associate, Sloane should not have had anything to do with MacGregor. It was a mistake in the firm's mailroom that had caused the package to be delivered to her. She remembered the moment vividly: being on the phone with a client, searching her desktop for notes she'd prepared, the mail boy coming by, handing her the package, she ripping it open without looking at the label.
All Sloane had seen was the cover letter, speed-reading it before she could stop herself. Later, when she was called up to the thirty-fifth to face a seething MacGregor and two other senior partners, she swore that she had not looked at the actual dossier the letter was attached to.
MacGregor had wanted her head, but the other two partners, noting that the seals on the dossier were intact and fearing a wrongful-dismissal suit, had talked him out of it. They had made Sloane promise that as far as she was concerned, she'd never seen any of this.
Sloane had agreed, but she couldn't get the details of the cover letter out of her mind. They were sufficiently alarming for her to ultimately break her word.
The details in the letter had to do with oil. In the early and mid-nineties, the Chinese government had embarked on a fast-track program to privatize and streamline bureaucracy-bound state industries. Among them was the East China Oil Company, overseen by an official named Mi Yang, the author of the cover letter. Its contents convinced Sloane that Yang and MacGregor had been in close touch for months. With careful digging, she realized why this was so: East China Oil was planning to go public, with MacGregor spearheading the effort on behalf of Young, Pullen, the lead underwriter.
It all seemed like standard deal making until, through one of her Houston clients, Sloane got hold of a geological report stating that the proven oil reserves where East China Oil had been drilling were minuscule -- one of the reasons the company was hemorrhaging money.
She couldn't stop wondering why Mi Yang, in his cover letter, had written of "new developments" and "the need for absolute secrecy," and "the special event on Thanksgiving Day."
Getting inside information on an oil company halfway around the world was a daunting task. Using her Houston client as a reference, Sloane slowly built up a network of oil-patch informants that stretched across the Pacific. Most of what came back was hearsay and gossip. It took a great deal of time to sift through it all. But slowly a stunning mosaic emerged.
East China Oil had in fact uncovered a vast pool of petroleum. It had been sitting quietly on the discovery as it slowly bought up adjacent fields that Mobil, Texaco, and Exxon were only too happy to unload to buyers they considered greenhorns. As of now, East China Oil had a patch the size of Oklahoma. No one had picked up on this or even suspected it because no one had bothered to do the spadework Sloane had done. Other oil companies and industry-related concerns only looked after their own interests. Sloane had strung together the facts and the rumors to make connections that everyone else had missed.
But the question remained: Why the overwhelming need for secrecy? And what was MacGregor's role in East China Oil's ambitions? The answer was as staggering as it was simple: MacGregor and Mi Yang were sitting on the mother lode because there was phenomenal money to be made after the news of the true reserves was released.
Given what was publicly known about East China Oil and its dim prospects, Sloane had calculated that when it was taken public, its shares would fetch between eleven and twelve dollars. MacGregor, Mi Yang, and whoever else they chose to favor could buy blocks of millions of shares, sit on them for a while, then watch as their value skyrocketed when the announcement about the vast reserves was made.
It was the purest form of insider trading -- simple, greedy, and totally illegal.
At the initial public offering, Sloane had tracked the big buyers of East China Oil. It had been easy enough to do because the stock was too speculative for conservative institutional buyers. Some of the more aggressive mutual-fund managers had scooped up hundred-thousand-share baskets and the gambling public had picked up the rest.
Except for a block of three million shares that had been purchased by a Netherlands Antilles offshore company.
Sloane knew that she'd never get beyond the front wall of the bankers and lawyers who nominally ran the company. The Antilles' banking-secrecy laws were among the toughest in the world. So she waited, listened to the announcement of East China Oil's huge "discovery" of new reserves, watched as the stock orbited to eighty dollars a share in less than three weeks.
That's when she began plotting a way to get around the Antilles company's walls. There was one way in: through MacGregor's computer. Somewhere in his private files would be a connection between him and the shell company. If she could find evidence that it was MacGregor who had bought those shares at the IPO, that, along with the rest of her carefully documented research, would be enough to prevent him from ruining tens of thousands of small investors, the kind she worked for.
Sloane felt a throbbing at her temples. The fifteen minutes she'd been there felt like hours. She prayed that the cameras hadn't caught her going into the bathroom. Or, if they had, that the guard wasn't watching, waiting for her to come out. She was counting on the male inclination not to inquire too closely about things that went on behind the doors of women's rest rooms.
Sloane leaned closer to the keyboard, as though that would somehow make her fingers fly faster. The number of files was dwindling rapidly. MacGregor was an anal retentive but he was also an arrogant son of a bitch. Sloane had been counting on those qualities -- that he would, first, keep files at all, and second, that he believed his inner sanctum to be inviolate. The Antilles connection had to be there.
The sedan hurtled down the ramp to the underground garage. The driver, a hatchet-faced former SEAL, braked hard in front of the electronic gate, thrust a key card into the slot, and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as the security gate rumbled up.
Beside him, his partner, a black man with a clean-shaven head, checked the load in his Magnum.
The driver left six feet of rubber on the concrete floor and wheeled the sedan around to the elevators. On his key chain was a small, round key for the elevator.
"What about the guard inside?" the driver asked.
His partner shook his head. "We don't need no rent-a-cop on this one."
He brought out a cellular phone and dialed the security desk, informing the guard that Young, Pullen investigators were on their way up. And by the way, who had come into the offices earlier this morning?
It was the third-to-last file, innocuously labeled "Vacation Planner."
"Vacation, right," Sloane muttered.
According to the office rumor mill, MacGregor hadn't taken a day off in three years.
It was all there, just as she had known it would be. Dates, meeting memos, signatures and countersignatures, buy orders, execution confirmations, and the amounts. Money. So much money...
"Why did you need to do it?" Sloane whispered, ramming in a disk and hitting the copy key.
MacGregor was a rich man in his own right. His family wealth was substantial. Yet, for some reason, he needed more. Was it greed, or the lure of getting away with it? His actions pointed to a character flaw that Sloane couldn't fathom.
Sloane popped out the copy disk and dropped it into her sling bag. Only then did she realize that she had been holding her breath. For a moment, she sat there staring at the screen. She had what she'd come for. Time to go.
She was half out of the chair when she heard the faint sounds of footsteps hurrying on the other side of the door. Her scalp prickled as heat flooded her face.
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
Glancing at the computer, Sloane realized that she must have triggered a silent alarm. Just as the door burst open, she keyed in a set of numbers.
Behind her, she heard a hard voice. "Take your hands off the machine and stand back."
Copyright © 2002 by by Philip Shelby
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >