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Headquarters, Traxton Biotechnologies
Manhattan, November 2008
"Tell me, Mr. Whittaker, what must I do to have you?" Randall Traxton, founder and CEO of Traxton Biotechnologies, Inc., turned away from the bank of floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking Madison Square Park, his steely stare striking Cole like a bullet between the eyes.
Standing on the other side of Traxton's glass-topped desk with hands folded behind his back, Cole let the question hang in the expensively filtered air. Ordinarily he would have appreciated, even admired, Traxton's directness. He'd never had much patience for shooting the bull, and riding the red-eye from Denver, even if his potential client had booked him into first-class, hadn't increased his inclination toward sociability.
Beyond the CEO's pin-striped shoulder lay the panorama of Manhattan skyline. Cole had never been a big "I love New York" guy, but he had to admit the view was spectacular. From a security standpoint, though, all that glass made Traxton an easy target. A sniper on stake-out would have a bird's-eye bead on the back of the CEO's immaculately coiffed dark head. Bang-bang! Cold zero! Gotcha!
Two years ago, Cole had joined with four other security professionals and set up shop as Guidepost International, a private security firm specializing in executive escort, asset protection and site security. Since nine-eleven, firms like his were cropping up like clover, but few if any of his competitors could match the collective expertise of the A-list team he'd amassed. He and his four partners, Mike, Sal, Lester and Jake, had successfully managed every domestic and international crisis involving U.S. citizens that had come their way over the past decade. Escorting one of Traxton's executives to Belize and back was meat-and-potatoes stuff. So why was Traxton so insistent that Cole staff the four-day trip personally?
Ever since he'd stepped inside the lavishly appointed art-deco office ten minutes before, Cole's bullshit barometer had shot to red alert. Traxton was withholding information about the assignment; Cole would bet his former badge on it.
Fortunately, silence wasn't only the oldest interrogation technique in the book, it was also the easiest to apply. The unrelenting quiet made most people so uncomfortable that oftentimes they confessed just to fill the void.
Predictably Traxton began to fidget, turning the band of his flashy gold watch around and around. "Well, Mr. Whittaker?"
"Any of my four associates will be more than capable of handling the assignment. I'm not available."
"And yet you're here."
"To meet with you and spec out the mission parameters period."
But there was more to his refusal than needing to hold the line on his travel. He didn't like Traxton. As an FBI field agent, he'd dealt with his share of egotistical assholes. The private sector didn't have a premium on pricks. And yet something about Traxton poked at him.
He mentally ran through the results of the preliminary background check he'd run on the CEO before accepting his invitation to a face-to-face. Born and bred in rural Pennsylvania to a family of dairy farmers, a bachelor's in Business Administration from Harvard. He'd dropped out of his last year in Harvard Law, which begged the question why. No kids, at least not legitimate ones. Never married, which, considering his age and position, was a little weird. Most guys playing at Traxton's level had the requisite wife on board to mug for the cameras and run their social calendars. Had there been a Mrs. Traxton, she would be a decade younger, a thirty-something blond socialite who favored expensive sweater sets and pearl chokers, absolutely "adored" tennis, especially if the club pro sported six-pack abs, and was on the board of any number of "worthy causes."
"Before I can answer yes or no I need to be clear on why you're sending your executive to Belize, what you expect him to accomplish there, and the nature of any anticipated threat."
Traxton's gaze veered away. "Of course, of course, but first won't you have a seat?" He gestured with one soft white hand toward a pair of scrupulously restored low-backed art-deco chairs in buttery soft leather and maple veneer.
Cole shook his head. "I'm fine standing, thanks."
After being captured in planes and airports for six solid hours, closer to eight counting the layover in Houston, Traxton could have offered him a throne, and Cole still would have turned it down. As soon as this meeting was over, he'd head back to the Roosevelt Hotel, go for a run and then order up room service before crashing in the king-size bed. He could look forward to a decadent six hours of sleep, twice the zees he normally logged in per night, before he had to get up and head for the airport and home, though his empty townhouse hardly seemed that. Other than a potted fern he forgot to water more often than he remembered, nothing and no one waited.
For a blink of time five years agomake that one fairytale perfect monthhe'd thought his life might turn out very differently. He'd imagined himself coming home to a house that was boisterous and busy. He'd imagined himself coming home to Alex. Even after five years of absolutely no contact, the memories cropped up at the oddest, most inconvenient times. To cope, he stayed as nonstop busy as a body could, short of crashing. If he ever caught up on his sleep, there'd be hell to pay.
Traxton broke the silence. "Six months ago Belize discovered a new and potentially very profitable natural resource. Unfortunately for the Belizeans, their country lacks the infrastructure and funds to develop and market the resulting product effectively. After soliciting proposals from a dozen biotechnologies firms in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe, the government culled the competition to two finalists, Traxton Biotech and our San Francisco-based rival, Sun Coast Biotechnical Laboratories. My Director of Research and Development is headed to Belize to make our final presentation to the Prime Minister and cabinet. Sun Coast Biotech, our competitor, will also have a representative there."
Cole mentally ran through what he knew about Belize, wondering what natural resource might be of interest to a biotech firm. There'd been some recent discoveries of petroleum deposits in the country's Cayo and Toledo districts, but so far the yield had been modest. Regardless, Traxton wasn't in the oil business. Sugar accounted for almost half of the country's exports, and the banana industry was the largest employer, at least officially. Unofficially, a growing involvement in the South American drug trade was a source of U.S. concern.
Illegal drugs had taken Cole to Belize seven years ago, albeit in a roundabout way. As a sniper on the Hostage Rescue Team, he'd spent three grueling weeks staking out a drug lord's jungle compound where the son of a Texas oil tycoon was being held for ransom. The kid, who'd come to Belize on a backpacking trip with some college buddies, had wandered beyond the main tourist area in Belize City and been snatched. When he didn't show up at the designated meet-up spot, his friends contacted the U.S. consul. The HRT had gotten the young man out unhurt, though the drug lord hadn't fared so well. Still, Belize was politically stable, English-speaking, and about as safe for westerners as the Developing World got. So long as visitors kept to the main streets and stayed in reputable resorts, they should be fine.
"You should know up front that if you're using your company as a cover for organized crime, anything illegal, our association ends here."
"Organized crime! What a vivid imagination you have, Mr. Whittaker. You really should try your hand at novel writing."
Cole felt a sharp fisting in the vicinity of his heart. Five years ago, Alex had been working on a novel. He wondered if she'd ever finished it and found a publisher. Unless she wrote under a pen name, he could find out easily enough the information would be only a mouse click awaybut not checking was part of the deal he'd made with himself to leave her be.
"At the end of four days, the Belizean cabinet will cast its definitive vote on which firm will receive the sole source contract to develop and market the resource. The result of the vote will be announced at a banquet on the final night. The Belizean government will, of course, provide its own security for all scheduled events. Hiring outside protection is likely unnecessary, but I've never been a man who welcomes surprises."
Cole understood completely. Hiring a bodyguard was often more about enhancing prestige than needing actual protection. Unless the principal was an A-list celebrity stalked by a fanatical fan or a high-profile tycoon in danger of being kidnapped for ransom, there usually wasn't much cause for worry. Movies and television to the contrary, not all that many people were important enough to attract targeted violence.
"You want the flash of your boy walking into the negotiations with a professional bullet catcher in tow, fair enough. But why fly me out here when there are at least a dozen comparable in-state security companies that offer travel escort?"
Traxton didn't hesitate, didn't miss a goddamned beat. "I don't settle for mediocre, Mr. Whittaker. Your professional reputation precedes you. You spent a decade in the FBI working virtually every high-profile domestic case to cross the news monitor. Your last assignment earned you the Agency's Medal of Honor."
Behind his back, Cole fisted his folded hands. His actions during the six-week siege of the Sons of Saul compound had won him the coveted honor, but his being there had lost him the woman he loved. It had lost him Alex. He'd ended up tossing the medal in the trash.
"Your record of service is more than unblemished. It's stellar."
Try expunged. Even after five years, he felt the old rancor burn like bile.
Traxton cocked his head and regarded him. "I'm curious as to why you chose to leave the Agency at the pinnacle of your career? Walking away from an FBI pension is all but unheard of."
It was a reasonable question and far from the first time he'd been asked. And yet coming as it did from Traxton, Cole felt himself bristling. "Would you believe I was feeling entrepreneurial?"
The break-up with Alex had wrecked him. If he could go back for a redo, he'd take his team leader up on his offer of two weeks' leave and use the time to get his shit together. Instead, he'd tried to be a tough guy and act like losing the woman he loved was no big deal. Looking back, he saw he'd been a walking time bomb, a loose cannon. Angry at the Agency but mostly at himself, he'd let some gang punk goad him into firing his weapon without authorization or backup.
These days, the government could export terrorist suspects to foreign countries for "interrogation," but a law-enforcement officer discharging his sidepiece improperly on U.S. soil brought the press raining down like locusts. Had he hung on, the Internal Affairs investigation would have severed his "stellar" career as surely as a bullet striking bone.
Shaking himself back to the present, Cole said, "Mike Stevens, one of my principals, is a former Chicago police commander. Your VP will be in good hands."
Traxton frowned. "I believe I've made it clear I want you." His voice wasn't particularly deep, but the tone was firm.
Cole shook his head. "I don't go into the field much these days. Unless the mission specifications warrant my direct involvement, my associates cover the hands-on operations."
Between them, Mike, Sal, Lester and Jake boasted a résumé of expertise in high-speed evasive driving, explosives detection, surveillance and counter-surveillance and threat analysis. Cole was a crack sniper and evasive driver, but he was also the only one among them with a business degree. That made him the logical choice to head up the financial end of the operation. Steering Guidepost to the next level meant spending more time as a CEO and less as an operative. How ironic was it that he'd left the Agency to avoid being warehoused in an administrative desk job, and yet these days writing proposals and business briefs and scoping out new projects was more or less all he did? Still, ferrying some white-bread senior exec around Belize's casinos, golf courses and beaches wasn't exactly how he envisioned getting his action fix.
The CEO's smile never slipped, but a telltale crease appeared dead center in his otherwise baby-smooth forehead. Botox? Cole wondered. At thirty-nine, he was nearly a decade younger than Traxton, but his face was starting to resemble a roadmap thanks to ten years' exposure to the elements while on stakeout and a lifetime of too little sleep.
"Mr. Whittaker, I'm prepared to pay you a great deal of money, triple your already exorbitant fee plus expenses, to have you personally staff this mission. Surely that merits your making an exception."
The man's hubris was as off the charts as his investment portfolio. Cole briefly considered walking out, but he'd learned the hard way that it didn't pay to be a loose cannon. Eventually the inevitable happened. You blew. Traxton was an egotistical asshole, no doubt about it, but dealing with his type was a big part of Cole's job description.
Guidepost was careening toward a crossroads. Mike and Sal wanted to branch out into global securities and see how big they could grow. Les and Jake wanted to keep the operation small, boutique and focused on executive protection. The deciding vote was Cole's. The organization's future depended more on what kinds of contracts he lined up in the next few months. Regardless of which direction he took, the cachet of adding a firm from Fortune 500's top one hundred to Guidepost's corporate client list would be a huge coup. So why was he hesitating? He couldn't afford to turn Traxton down. His back was to the wallmaybe not a glass wall, but a wall all the same.
"Before we go any further, I'm going to need to know just what kind of natural resource we're talking about. If it's not illegal, and the competition is sanctioned by the Belizean government, then you shouldn't have any difficulty telling me what it is in general terms."
Traxton's gaze shuttered. "The operations of Traxton Biotech are none of your business."
"On the contrary, Traxton, if you hire me, your business is my business."
Traxton threw back his dark head and laughed. Unlike Cole, who'd started going gray in his early twenties, he showed only a few silver strands at the temples. The rest of his hair was inky black. Cole suspected he colored it along with applying large quantities of mousse. It looked as sculpted and artificial as the rest of him.