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By CATE NOBLE
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Kathleen Holzapfel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBangkok, Thailand September 13
Rocco Taylor stood in front of the one-way glass and studied the young Thai male seated alone in the CIA interrogation room; the illiterate, sharp-eyed grifter who claimed to be the son of the missing prison orderly, Ping Skihawtra.
Ping had helped Rocco's best friend and fellow CIA operative Dante Johnson escape a jungle prison six months ago. Since Dante still recalled little about his own imprisonment, the Agency was eager-scratch that, desperate-to interview Ping in hopes he knew something about the other missing operatives, Harry Gambrel and Max Duncan.
Especially Max. Max had saved Rocco's life once.
Rocco would kill to return the favor.
So when he received word a week ago that Ping's son had surfaced, he'd busted his ass to get here-no small feat considering his star billing on the Thai government's official shit list.
He stared at the memo he'd just received. According to the document, Ping's only child had supposedly died after leaving home ten years ago. Talk about a total suckfest.
"Why did it take so long to uncover this little fact?"
"I'll work that issue later," Travis Franks, his boss, said. "Supposedly isn't fact. Stick with what we know. Ping had one son, Luc. Agetwenty-four. What's this kid's ID say?"
"He claims producing it would endanger his life. Translation: He doesn't have any."
Which in this part of the world wasn't too unusual. Births and deaths frequently went unannounced and unrecorded. A person's heritage was word of mouth.
And in this case, the word of mouth wasn't good. According to Diego Marques, a reliable-slash-controversial contact of Rocco's, this kid-who used street names like Deuce Wild-had dabbled in everything from running numbers to running meth. In fact ol' Deucey boy was on the wrong side of two different loan sharks, which probably explained why he'd shown up today demanding a face-to-face with Travis Franks, plus a ten-thousand-dollar retainer as a show of goodwill.
After seeing this memo, Rocco's show would have included tossing the little con artist out.
Except the kid had produced the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card: a copy of the homemade blood chit Dante had given Ping for his help.
"He's still a link, albeit a crooked one, to Ping. And our best shot at finding Max and Harry." Travis handed the photocopy of the chit back to Rocco. "Find out how he got this."
"That won't take long." Rocco had dealt with enough backwater snitches to know their game. They'd demand outrageous sums, but in the end they caved for chump change. A hundred bucks bought their life history.
"Grimes and Pike will go in with you," Travis said.
Grimes and Pike were analysts that Travis had commandeered. Since the conversation was being recorded, their role was simple: intimidation. Travis would stay here, out of sight, watching and listening.
"At least he speaks English." Moving toward the door, Rocco cracked his knuckles. He'd play bad cop, an easy role considering how pissed and tired he was. "Let's get on with it."
The interrogation room was standard-issue Hollywood. Western film images set certain expectations, after all. Dingy gray walls, a rectangular table, seven mismatched plastic chairs. The obvious one-way glass mirror-Hi, Travis-drew the eye since the other walls were bare.
The kid didn't react to their entrance, pretending to nap, his feet up, arms folded across his chest. Joe Cool. Right. Except Joe never napped with neck muscles that tense.
Turning his back to Deuce-you're neither important nor scary, kid-Rocco directed the analysts toward two chairs closest to the door.
When he looked back, the kid's eyes were open, black and shining with intelligence. Recognition flashed then disappeared with a blink. This kid thought he knew Rocco. Except Rocco never forgot a face.
They'd never met.
Rocco pulled out a chair, but didn't sit. Propping one foot up, he pretended to flip through the papers he'd carried in.
"So you're Luke Skywalker." Rocco purposely mispronounced the name. "Mind telling me how you got this?" He waved a copy of the chit.
The kid yawned and stretched. "I told them I'd only speak with Travis Franks."
"I am Travis Franks."
Snorting, the kid unfolded from the chair, moving with that barely leashed grace of a Mack Daddy black belt who'd lived too long on the streets.
While the kid was taller than most Thai males-five eleven or so-Rocco had four inches on him. And eighty pounds. In a street fight, the kid could probably hold his own, but this was about posturing, throwing it out on the table. And Rocco ruled that game. He straightened, forcing the kid to look up.
"You are not Travis Franks," the kid sneered. "And you are wasting my valuable time."
The kid stealing his line irritated Rocco. "So you've met Mr. Franks before?" He knew Travis would be listening intently.
The kid met his gaze. "No."
There it was again. Recognition. He knows me. How? Photograph? Surveillance video? Rocco gave his mental Rolodex a whirl. One name popped out: an enemy.
Did this kid work for Minh Tran?
Tran was a particularly nasty drug lord whose men had almost killed Rocco once. Rocco wanted Tran out of business, and it was a decidedly mutual feeling.
"Let's start over." Sitting, Rocco forced nonchalance and waited until the kid sat, too. "Here's the deal. I work with Travis Franks, but he's a busy man. Now you tell me how you got this copy and I'll tell you how quickly I can get Travis on the phone."
"I possess the original chit, which I will only produce for Mr. Franks."
"And how did you get the original?"
The kid opened and then shut his mouth, going mute with a single shake of his head.
"No speakie English all of a sudden, huh? Fine. Here's my theory for the report they'll forward back to headquarters." Rocco tilted his head toward Grimes and Pike. "You heard the rightful owner of the chit, Ping Skihawtra, was seeking to make contact with Mr. Franks to collect a reward. You decided to steal the chit and cash it out yourself. Seeing as Mr. Skihawtra and his wife haven't been seen in a number of months, I'm guessing you got rid of them and took on the identity of their dead son."
Bingo. The kid's cheeks flushed angry scarlet.
Rocco knew he'd hit a nerve and pushed ahead. "Unfortunately, the chit is only good for Mr. Skihawtra. So this"-he waved the paper-"is virtually useless. Unless you have something else to offer?" Something I can use to find my friends.
Disgust flashed across the kid's face as he climbed back to his feet, holding Rocco's gaze the entire time. "Fuck you. That good enough English for you, Mr. Daniels? Oh, wait. Perhaps today it is 'Fuck you, Mr. Pierce.'"
It was a struggle not to react. The two names, Matt Daniels and Franklin Pierce, were aliases Rocco had traveled under during some of the covert trips he'd made to Thailand searching for Max and Harry. Aliases the Agency didn't even know about.
Clearly, Deuce knew more than he should. And he dared Rocco to correct him in front of the others.
"Hold that thought." Dismissing the two analysts, Rocco waited until they were alone before playing his hunch. "If Minh Tran is behind this, you can give him a message for me: Tell him I've booked his one-way ticket. To hell."
The kid's mouth fished open. "You think ... get your own message to Tran. I came to offer Mr. Franks a deal regarding my father, but ..." Muttering the rest beneath his breath, the kid headed toward the door, bristling with indignation.
Rocco was baffled. What the hell was going on here? Genuine dislike had lit up the kid's demeanor at the mention of Minh Tran, as if the kid hated Tran every bit as much as Rocco did.
"Wait." Rocco's bullshit meter suddenly quieted. Uh-oh. Was the kid telling the truth? "Can you prove you're really Luc Skihawtra?"
"What does it matter? You just said the chit was worthless. Or are you interested in those other things I might know?" The kid paused to allow an imaginary ka-ching! to register. "Like your recent travel agenda?"
The kid flicked his wrist. There was a flash of silver, followed by the slish of a switchblade ejecting. Christ!
Rocco drew his own weapon and chambered a round in a nanosecond. How had the kid smuggled that past the metal detectors? "Glock, paper, scissors. I win."
The kid's gaze skipped upward from the gun, dismissing it. "If I had intended harm, it would be done. This is-what do you call it-show and tell?"
Luc flipped the knife and caught the tip of the bare blade between this thumb and index finger, displaying the knife.
It's called showing off. And yes, Rocco recognized the black market Italian Beltrame switchblade he'd bought during his last trip to Bangkok. Unless officially authorized, he never entered another country armed. Which meant his first task on foreign soil was securing a blade-a decent one.
He knew exactly where and when he'd dumped that piece. The question was how did Deuce know?
"Kid? I don't need this." Deuce-Luc-dismissed Rocco with a derisive snort. "Tell Mr. Franks that when he is ready to get serious-"
The door opened just then, and to Rocco's surprise, Travis entered, carrying the bulging case file on the missing agents. Travis pointed a remote control at one of the ceiling panels before turning to Luc.
"I'm Travis Franks. And the rest of this conversation is off the record." He slid a leather ID holder across the table.
Rocco lowered his weapon, but kept a close eye on the kid. The switchblade had disappeared up his left sleeve.
"I'm interested in talking with your father. I also want to hear how you know so much about my friend here." Travis nodded toward Rocco. "And how you came to hear the names Daniels and Pierce. If your info is really good, I'll pay well."
Luc studied the ID then handed it back. "How many zeroes in well?"
"Enough to cover your debt to Mongkut and Pham." Travis mentioning the loan sharks seeking Luc was both a trump and a threat. "But the real money rides on questions I have for your uncle."
Nodding, Luc sat down once more, gesturing to chairs as if bidding Travis and Rocco to take their places. As if he were running things. This damn kid reminded Rocco of himself. His younger, cockier self. Christ, when had he gotten so freakin' old?
To be perverse, Rocco stood, but Travis sat. Good cop.
"For starters, we need to establish you are indeed Ping Skihawtra's son," Travis said.
Luc appeared to have anticipated the question. "I have no ID, but I can tell you some key information about the American who gave my father this chit. A Mr. Dante. I can also tell you names of two prison guards that this Mr. Dante particularly disliked. They were brothers, Som and Aroon. And they called Mr. Dante by a number: 703."
Rocco already had his cell phone out and was waiting while the international connection went through. Silence hung in the air, thick and familiar. He realized the tension he felt was hope. The hope of finding Max. Harry.
Dante answered on the third ring.
"Quick question-I'll explain later," Rocco said. "Name the prison guards you hated most and what did they call you?"
"Tell me you found those bastards, Som and Aroon. They were twins," Dante said. "But I'm drawing a blank on names. Shithead? Dirtbag? Prisoners had numbers there and-"
"Yours was 703. I'll call you back." Rocco closed his phone and nodded to Travis.
"Let's start with your father," Travis said. "Where is he?"
Rocco and Travis exchanged glances. The news wasn't completely unexpected since no one connected with the prison had been located. Still it was disappointing.
"My father was killed at the prison the morning after the escape," Luc went on. "What your Mr. Dante probably didn't realize is that the warden had recruited my father to help him escape. My uncle said my father had gone back to the prison to collect his pay."
"Wasn't your father required to turn over the chit in exchange for his thirty pieces of silver?" Rocco asked.
Luc ignored Rocco's taunt and directed his response to Travis. "The chit was a secret between my father and Mr. Dante. Apparently, my father thought he was being clever, collecting from the warden as well. And I am not defending him. His greed and stupidity cost my mother her life when she went to identify his body."
"How did you learn about your parents' fate?" Travis asked.
"From my uncle," Luc said. "But he just found me two months ago. My parents were killed back in March. I have since returned to their village, but everything-my parents' home, my uncle's home, even the prison-are gone. Destroyed."
"I want you to look at something." Travis tugged at the file he'd brought in. Part of it split open and spilled onto the floor. Not missing a beat, he quickly snatched it up and grabbed a stack of eight-by-ten photos. Riffling through them, he pulled out several aerial shots and a topo map of Thailand then shoved the rest aside.
Travis laid the photos out on the table. "This is where your father's village is. And the prison was here. Correct?"
Luc moved closer and frowned. "How old are these satellite shots?"
"December of last year," Travis said.
Luc pointed to a spot several inches from where Travis had. "Actually the prison was here." He moved his hand again. "And my parents and uncle lived here. Did I pass your test?"
"For now. Did your uncle work at the prison, too?" Travis asked.
"No. But he and my father had no secrets." Luc's nostrils flared. "My father gave my uncle the chit and all his notes and sent him ahead. He was supposed to meet my parents later in Bangkok. When my father didn't show up, my uncle returned to their village and saw the damage. He's been hiding ever since."
"I want to speak directly with your uncle," Travis said. "In addition to seeing all your father's papers."
Luc nodded. "You do understand those are two separate negotiating points? That means two retainers."
Rocco couldn't believe the kid's gall. He was also tired of being ignored. "It sounds like we can get everything we need from your uncle."
"Perhaps. But try finding my uncle without my help."
"It's premature to talk money," Travis interrupted. "Until we've established you, or your uncle, have something significant. Something I want."
"And how do we do that-quickly?"
"Do your father's papers mention the others who were held at the prison?" Travis asked.
Rocco held his breath, silently willing Luc to say yes. Two prisoners. Max. Harry.
Luc paused, squinting. "As far as other prisoners, my father's notes say nothing. However ..." He waited until both Travis and Rocco looked at him before going on. "I know where the new prison is. But that will cost even more zeroes. Immediate zeroes."
New prison? Rocco bent forward and slapped his open palms on the table in front of Luc. "Where is it?"
Clearly unwilling to give up anything for free, Luc held his ground, going mute again.
"Your rush for fast money destroys your credibility," Rocco snapped. "Afraid Mongkut's men will get you? Believe me, we have the same concern-that they'll slit your throat before our deal is complete."
"My rush is my business. And you are not the only potential buyer." Luc tilted his head toward the jumbled mess of photos that Travis had shoved aside. "I bet I could find plenty of others who would pay for information on him. People who hate Westerners."
Rocco looked at the topmost visible photo. A group shot, the file folder covered all of the men pictured except one: Dante.
Biting back disappointment, Rocco rapped the photo with his knuckle. "Him? He's safe and sound. Game over."
"No." Slanting Rocco a you idiot look, Luc tugged the photo completely out into full view. "I mean him."
The man Luc pointed to was Max Duncan.
Rocco shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet. "So help me God, if you're screwing with us-"
Travis held up his hand. The eternal referee. "Trust me, Luc, if that man is alive, it's worth a lot of zeroes." Tugging out his phone, he used the push-to-talk. "Bring it in."
Moments later, the door opened. Grimes came in and set a briefcase on the table, then exited. Travis spun the locks, opening the case before swinging it around for Luc to see.
Rocco knew there was fifty grand, U.S., inside. More than enough to pay off both loan sharks. To this kid, fifty grand probably felt like a million.
Excerpted from DEADLY SEDUCTION by CATE NOBLE Copyright © 2010 by Kathleen Holzapfel. Excerpted by permission.
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