Read an Excerpt
Chicago, October 10, 10:15p.m.
Lucas Camp waited in the shadows for his contact to show. Fog had rolled in along with the darkness, but that wasn't the catalyst propelling his tension to such a frustrating level. He shook his head. Nearly three decades of the cloak-and-dagger gig had jaded him, particularly when it came to the atmospheric musings of spy thrillers. Lucas had never feared what he could see and analyze. It was the unknown variable that set a man like him on edge, which was where he squarely stood now.
This business was more often brutal than romantic. He thought of his wife Victoria and he smiled. Yet there were moments when the unforgiving world of undercover operations proved worth every ounce of the relentless determination and nail-biting uncertainty one encountered. He and Victoria had survived much uncertainty and pain and no small amount of fear during more than two of those decades. Lucas would not trade a single second of his life now with his beloved Victoria to escape an eternity of the worst he had suffered to arrive at this place in their lives.
He shrugged off the creeping chill prompted more by what he'd come here to do than by the night's sharp warning that an early winter was imminent. Anger unfolded deep in his gut. For almost a year now he had sensed a simmering threat to his world. Endless digging had unearthed practically nothing on the source he suspected. And yet he understood that the truth was out there somewhere. The nagging instinct would not be assuaged.
Slade Keaton watched Lucas's every move. More disturbing, he had wormed his way into Victoria's good graces despite Lucas's persistent warnings. Even Jim, Victoria's son, had decided Keaton was perhaps not the potential risk both he and Lucas had speculated. Since the Colby Agency's Fourth of July picnic just a few months ago, Keaton had become a frequent visitor at the agency as well as a guest at countless family functions.
Lucas intended to uncover the truth about Keaton no matter the measures required. He would not permit this enigma to permeate their lives any deeper without learning and understanding the precise threat. And there was a looming threat. No matter that the accused perpetrator behind the assassination attempt on his and Victoria's lives in Mexico just three weeks ago had been identified and brought to justice, Lucas knew deep in his gut that Keaton was somehow involved and that meant the case was still unsolved. The real perpetrator still out there. Lucas intended to prove his theory and stop the man. Victoria would be most unhappy if she were to discover Lucas's ongoing efforts to corroborate what she now perceived as a groundless theory.
In all their years together as a couple and as close friends before that, he had never set out to deceive or mislead his wife before; but he had little choice at this point. She insisted that they stop looking for trouble as far as Keaton was concerned. A man with an agenda would certainly have acted by now, she contended.
Victoria's attitude in terms of the passage of time without a substantiated incident linked to Keaton was not lost on Lucas. The mounting coincidences loosely involving Keaton, such as Victoria's abduction this past summer, no longer carried any weight in her opinion. Their years of investigating wrongdoing and protecting the innocent were to blame. She insisted they both needed to accept that undeniable fact. Lucas agreed to a degree.
Still, something was off with Keaton, and Lucas intended to ferret out its root and the man's intent. Lucas would not rest until he had the facts.
As if his building impatience had telegraphed that urgency to his contact, a shadowy figure emerged from the fog. She wore the same dark attire as Lucas, from the leather jacket to the rubber-soled shoes designed for stealth. Some cliches simply worked in the real world as well as the make-believe one. Blending in to one's environment proved essential for many reasons, not the least of which was survival.
"My uncle warned me that you still practice that old-school methodology," the young woman said as she approached Lucas. The long, lush blond hair that had helped mark her as a true beauty since she was a teenager had been neatly tucked beneath an elegant fedora. "He wasn't wrong."
"Is he ever?" Lucas smiled as he opened his arms for a hug from his goddaughter.
Casey Manning hugged him hard and fast. "Lucas, it's good to see you." A broad smile spread across her lips. "As much as I love my uncle, you must know you've always been my idol."
He chuckled. "We won't tell Thomas about that."
Casey Manning was the niece of Thomas Casey, one of Lucas's oldest friends in the intelligence business. He, too, was a super spook, only he hadn't retired just yet. Since Thomas didn't have children of his own, his niece was like a daughter to him. As hard as he'd tried to dissuade her from joining the Central Intelligence Agency, she, like her uncle and her father, had been far too stubborn to listen. The government had gained another top-notch operative from the Casey lineage for that reason.
"So." Casey surveyed the deserted street then studied Lucas's face. "What's this covert rendezvous about? Uncle Thomas says you're worried that you've lost your objectivity on a mark."
Lucas had no intention of admitting any such thing, but Thomas Casey was nothing if not perceptive and honest in his analysis of a situation. "How about we go for a drive?" Lucas gestured to the sedan parked at the curb a few feet away. During business hours a curbside parking spot in downtown Chicago was about as easy to find as a taxi in a rainstorm. Fortunately at this hour the only traffic on the street one might encounter was the regularly scheduled patrol of Chicago P.D. or the occasional vagrant searching for lost and discarded treasures.
"As long as the route includes an all-night coffee shop you've got a deal." Casey crossed the sidewalk in three long strides.
"Already arranged." Lucas opened the passenger door of his sedan. "Skinny, white chocolate mocha, if I recall correctly." The flavored coffee, tall size with fat-free milk, sat in the console's cup holder next to his own tall, Colombian roast, black coffee.
"A perfect example of what sets the men of your generation apart from mine." She dropped into the passenger seat and flashed Lucas another of those wide, completely uninhibited smiles. "You know how to treat a lady."
Lucas cast her a speculative look. "Is there a particular young man I need to teach a thing or two on your behalf?"
"Not necessary." She winked, mischief glittering in her blue eyes. "I've already taught him more than he wanted to know."
Lucas chuckled as he closed the car door. He doubted this young woman took any grief from men of any generation. Which was both a blessing and a curse. Her uncle worried that her jaded attitude toward relationships would leave her sad and alone. Like Thomas himself, he had admitted to Lucas over a few drinks not so long ago. Lucas knew that place all too well. Victoria had rescued him from a life of loneliness.
Once Lucas settled behind the steering wheel and started the engine, Casey cut to the chase.
"What's going on with this mark that you don't want Victoria to know about?" Casey cradled her cup of flavored coffee close to her face, allowing the warmth and rich aroma to infuse her senses.
His goddaughter knew him almost as well as her uncle. "He goes by the name Slade Keaton. He's been watching the Colby Agencyprimarily Victoria and mefor almost a year. Maybe longer. I can't ignore my instincts on this guy."
"No overt threats?"
"Nothing I can pin down," Lucas admitted grudgingly. "There have been a number of incidents to which he has, one way or another, appeared connected, however vaguely." Lucas shook his head, frustrated that even as he made the statement he possessed not one specific event he could name as absolute. "The coincidences keep stacking up. Somehow he's involved."
"Victoria believes otherwise."
Lucas nodded. "He keeps drawing closer, always finding a way to be of assistance rather than the contrary. But it's wrong. I can feel it. I believe Victoria still has reservations but she wants peace. I don't want Keaton stealing another moment of that peace."
"You almost sound jealous, Lucas."
She studied him more closely, as if the meager glow of the street lamp would help her to confirm that perhaps on some level she was correct. The fact was, Keaton seemed to be in competition with Lucas for Victoria's attention. "Not jealous, just worried," he insisted. And that was the bottom line.
"What do you need me to do?"
"Three weeks ago Victoria and I were in Mexico for a second honeymoon. Despite the considerable security precautions we took we were attacked in the small village of Pozos."
"K and R?"
Kidnap-and-ransom attacks were a growing concern worldwide and Mexico remained a hotbed of that particular criminal activity. "Mexico's federal police suggested as much, but the incident didn't feel like a K and R attempt. It felt personal."
Casey snorted a laugh. "I'm sure the investigation conducted by the federates was very thorough. Their attempts are a joke most of the time. I'd put my money on your instincts."
He always did. "The Colby Agency followed up with its own investigation." For all the good it had done. Lucas continued to be amazed that his resources as well as the Colby Agency's consistently came up empty-handed where Keaton was concerned.
"You found nothing?"
Until this last time. "I discovered something," he allowed cautiously, "though it may be nothing." He wasn't prepared to discuss the woman he thought he'd seen in the crowd that morning in Puerto Val-larta. Lucas had found no indication that she was in the region. Nearly thirty years had passed since he'd seen her. They'd had no contact in that time. He had to have been mistaken. Besides, that part of his past was irrelevant. "A former member of the Colby Agency, Trevor Sloan, found a local who recognized Slade Keaton. Unfortunately, the man couldn't recall when he'd last seen Keaton."
"So you couldn't place him in the area during the ordeal."
Regrettably that was correct. "Just another of those loose threads." There had been far too many over the past year.
"Can Keaton account for his whereabouts during that time?"
"He claims he was on the West coast." Lucas had conducted his own investigation. The airline's paperwork confirmed that a man identified as Keaton had boarded each flight, and the hotel validated that person's five-day stay.
"Doesn't mean he wasn't involved," Casey offered, distracted. Like Lucas she would be mulling over the possibilities.
Exactly the argument Lucas had used with Victoria. "Finding that local who claimed to recognize Keaton is the first break I've had in my investigation into this man's history." Casey would understand just how profound that statement was.
"He's that good?"
"Or that bad," Lucas countered. "I want to know who he is." Lucas allowed a beat of silence to emphasize his request. "I want to know what he wants." Not once in his career had Lucas felt so helpless. None of his resources had been able to provide the first inkling of intelligence on Keaton. His gut clenched at the memory of Jennifer Ashton taking her own life apparently because she couldn't help where Keaton was concerned. Or because what she had found had proven lethal to the messenger. That painful fact haunted Lucas every day.
"This is completely off the record with Victoria," he reminded Casey, guilt nipping at his insides. "I don't want her to worry." Or to be annoyed. Victoria didn't want Lucas stressing over this issue any longer.
"I got it," Casey assured him. "Mission classified. You have what I need to move forward?"
Lucas withdrew an envelope from his interior jacket pocket and passed it to her. "There's a photo of Keaton, along with his fingerprints and the shallow history he boasts as truth. And the name and location of the local in Pozos who claimed to know him. And, of course, the travel arrangements and adequate funds." Doubt swelled in his chest. "Your uncle explained that your safety is paramount. I don't want you taking any unnecessary risks. Find what you can without compromising your safety."
"You kidding?" she scoffed at his warning. "Didn't Uncle Thomas tell you? I'm bulletproof."
Lucas resisted the compulsion to caution her a second time but the effort would be wasted and unappreciated. Casey Manning had survived three near-death experiences in her young life. Lucas was thankful for her survival in each instance, but those same lucky breaks made her feel invincible. That was not a good thing in this business. In truth, Thomas was glad the Agency had taken her out of the field. With the worldwide political climate so volatile just now, having loved ones in the field was troubling. Casey, however, was most unhappy. This mission would be a stroll in the park for her. Maybe give her some perspective away from the danger of her typical CIA missions.
Lucas considered the threats and attempts he and Victoria had endured this last year and decided he might very well be wrong. This whole quest could be a terrible mistake for all involved.
He prayed he was wrong and that this mission wouldn't prove the most dangerous of his goddaughter's career.