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Colby Agency, Chicago Monday,January 20, 7:45 a.m.
Victoria Colby-Camp looked up from the Monday-morning briefing agenda she had prepared and smiled for the investigator waiting in her open door. "Good morning, Nicole. Did you have a nice weekend?"
Nicole Reed-Michaels moved across the office and settled into a chair in front of Victoria's desk. "I did, indeed." Nicole's lips slid into a pleasant upward tilt. "Ian and I discussed the possibility of a vacation this year." Her gaze searched Victoria's. "One that doesn't include the children."
"Ah," Victoria said, understanding now, "a second honeymoon." Ian and Nicole had been married for nine years. Two children, both school age, and their work had been the couple's focus for nearly a decade. It was past time the two took some alone time for themselves. Victoria was more than a little pleased to learn this news. "No one deserves it more." She didn't have to say that she knew this from experience. Victoria had long denied her own needs for her work and her family. "That's excellent news. Do you have a particular destination or time frame in mind?"
Nicole relaxed fully into her chair. Before coming to work at the Colby Agency she had served with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. No one should be fooled by her silky blond hair or that tall, runway physique. Nicole Reed-Michaels was not only extremely intelligent, but she was also an expert marksman and she knew how to take down an assailant with her bare hands. She was one of the agency's very best investigators. Not to mention she was married to Ian Michaels, Victoria's longtime second-in-command.
Another of those warm smiles appeared, emphasizing the tiny laugh lines that were the only indicators of age on Nicole's otherwise flawless face. "The Caribbean, I think. We're still discussing when and for how long."
"Two weeks," Victoria suggested, "at least." Before long she and Lucas would need to take a nice, indulgent vacation. They'd celebrated their sixth anniversary recently. It was time.
Last summer Victoria's son, Jim, had taken an exciting vacation to Africa with his wife, Tasha. It seemed everyone was taking vacations… except Victoria.
Yes, it was well past time.
A stifled scream echoed beyond Victoria's open door, hauling her attention there. Both she and Nicole were on their feet immediately.
"What was that?" Nicole whirled toward the sound.
Before Victoria could round her desk, Mildred burst into the office. "You've forgotten your salon appointment," she urged Victoria. "You must go now!" Her eyes were wide with fear.
Nicole and Victoria's gazes met briefly even as they rushed across the room.
Both knew what that seemingly silly phrase meant.
Danger had descended upon the Colby Agency. Victoria had to leave via the stairwell next to her office.
But what about Nicole? Mildred? And the others?
"Go," Nicole reaffirmed as she paused in the doorway. "I'll take care of things here."
"Go," Mildred repeated.
Fear expanded in Victoria's throat even as her heart threatened to rupture from her chest. She hurried through the small private lobby where Mildred greeted Victoria's appointments, opened the door to the stairwell in the narrow corridor beyond and flung herself through it.
Dear God. How could she leave everyone else behind? She should go back…assess the threat.
What was happening?
Don't think, Victoria ordered.
Her staff would need her to get through this. She couldn't help anyone with whatever situation was unfolding if she allowed herself to be overtaken. Whatever was going on… she had to escape.
Victoria hurried downward as fast as she dared. She ticked off a mental list of what she would do as soon as she was clear of the building.
Call Ian. He was off duty today. Having just completed an assignment, he had the mandatory forty-eight hours off.
Of course she would call Lucas. He had arrived home only last night from a four-day-long business trip to D.C. An hour ago she'd left him poring over the newspaper and drinking coffee. He might even be on his way here by now. He usually dropped by the agency every day that he was home.
And Jim. Dear God, she had to call her son.
Then the police.
Victoria couldn't be sure if Mildred had had time to activate the silent alarm system that would notify the authorities.
The agency's security system was state-of-the-art. As was the entire building's for that matter. Why hadn't the security guards alerted her to the threat? Both men had been at their posts in the lobby when she arrived half an hour ago. Good morning, ma am.
Victoria drew up short as she reached the landing on the second floor. Only one more floor to go… but she wouldn't make it.
Dread congealed in her stomach.
The man dressed in black, including a ski-type mask to keep his face hidden, held a weapon aimed directly at her chest.
"We should return to your office, Mrs. Colby-Camp," he said quite cordially. "I'd hate for you to miss the opening act of the show."
Fury whipped through Victoria, taming her fear and stiffening her spine. "What the hell do you want?"
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves now." He gestured with the weapon for her to get moving. "Back up the stairs, ma'am."
Determination instantly replaced the dread, fueling the fury building inside her. "Not until you tell me what you want and who you are."
The evil bastard had the gall to laugh. "You've been in this business a long time, Victoria. I'm certain you've been faced with all kinds of situations and all sorts of people." Those vile lips split into a grin. "I'll bet that on occasion you've even run in to someone you really wish you hadn't messed with…." His gaze bored into hers, relaying just how little he cared whether she lived or died. "Well, that someone is me."
HE was going to be late this morning.
Slade Convoy didn't actually have to be at work today but the excitement of closing another case had to be shared. And no one understood that better than his colleagues at the Colby Agency.
His last case had been a tough one. A missing child and dysfunctional parents. The agency had been contacted by the child's paternal grandparents. Seven days missing, the child was presumed by many to be dead. Slade himself had had his doubts about finding her alive.
A triumphant smile slid across his lips. But he'd found her, very much alive. Right where her bipolar mother had hidden her.
The child was back with her father under the supervision of loving grandparents. All was right in their world once more.
The story had to be shared. He had to bask in the glory of victory with the folks who had become his family. The only family he'd ever had, really.
Slade shook off the ugly thoughts and focused on maneuvering the Magnificent Mile. As a kid he'd never imagined that one day he would work in the area. He'd considered himself lucky to have a decent meal before bedtime each night.
Life was good… now.
He appreciated every single moment.
His cell vibrated as he slowed for a traffic signal. He tucked his fingers into his pocket and fished out the phone.
He glanced at the screen and immediately recognized Ian Michaels's number. Ian was his boss. One of them anyway. Ian and Simon Ruhl were at the top of the Colby Agency food chain. Victoria ran the show, but never without the input of those two.
Slade slid the phone open. "What's up?" Strange, Slade thought, that Ian would call at this hour. Ian had bragged that today he intended to do something special with his kids.
"We have a situation."
Ian Michaels wasn't one to mince words and his tone was always calm and reserved. The man never lost his cool. Never raised his voice. And never, ever backed down or sugarcoated anything. He was about as soft as an eight-pound sledgehammer. But Slade could tell from Ian's tone something was wrong.
Slade shifted his foot to the accelerator as the light changed to green. Whatever the situation, it was bad. Very bad.
"A situation?" Slade returned.
"Meet me at Maggie's across the street from the agency. I'll be waiting on the second floor."
"I'm close. Be there in a sec," Slade assured him. The connection ended so he slid the phone closed and tucked it back into the pocket of his jeans as he scouted for a parking slot on a side street. Maggie's Coffee House had once been a ritzy restaurant that had slowly shifted focus over the years to become a street-level café. The second floor of the artsy coffeehouse that had once been a private dining room was now used mainly for storage.
Why the hell would Ian be waiting there?
After parking his four-wheel-drive truck, Slade double-timed it up the sidewalk toward the front entrance of Maggie's. He hesitated when he saw a familiar face heading in the same direction from the street.
Lucas Camp stopped, one hand on the door leading into Maggie's. "Convoy," the older man acknowledged, obviously not surprised.
This was getting more bizarre by the moment. Lucas was Victoria's husband, but he wasn't on the staff of the Colby Agency. Slade hustled over to the door. "What's going on?"
Lucas shook his head. "I don't know the details yet. Ian asked that I meet him here ASAP." A glimpse of worry flashed in the man's eyes before he moved forward, leading the way through the door. At the hostess's questioning look, Lucas gestured toward the stairs beyond the serving counter. She nodded as if she understood exactly what was going on.
Slade sure as hell wished he knew what was going on as he climbed the stairs behind Lucas. Well into his sixties, Lucas was damned fit, but he'd lost a leg in a long-ago war and the prosthesis he wore slowed him down a bit. But Lucas Camp didn't need any sympathy from Slade or anyone else. The man could be lethal when the need arose. He'd worked numerous deep-cover operations with the CIA for years. Even since retiring
he still returned to D.C. monthly to advise the agency on the best way to conduct upcoming operations.
On the second floor, the big single room was cluttered with boxes of paper goods. Across the room near the windows overlooking the Mag Mile, Ian Michaels waited. He turned to face the new arrivals and there was no mistaking the grim expression he wore.
Whatever was going down, it was bad.
"What's going on, Ian?" Lucas demanded as he and Slade weaved their way through the stacks of boxes.
"Jim is on his way," Ian advised, avoiding a direct answer to the question.
Slade stared at the building across the street as he neared Ian's position. His gaze zeroed in on the windows of the floor where the Colby Agency suite of offices should have been buzzing with activity. It was Monday morning after all. From the outside the situation appeared to be like any other snowy January day. No smoke billowing, no shattered glass, no official emergency vehicles in the vicinity of the building. What could be wrong?
"That's good," Lucas said in response to Ian's statement regarding Jim, "but that doesn't answer my question."
Ian shifted his attention to the windows of the Colby Agency offices Slade still surveyed. "At seven forty-five this morning, a group of armed men dressed as SWAT agents laid siege to the agency and everyone inside."
"That's…crazy…." A chill penetrated deep into Slade's bones. Mondays were early days. The weekly briefing. Not only was Victoria—Lucas's wife and the head of the agency—in there, but so was every single member of the staff except for Slade and Ian… including Ian's wife, Nicole.
"How many men?" Lucas asked the question before Slade could gather his wits and utter the same.
With an uncharacteristic shake of his head, Ian turned once more to face them. "I don't know for certain. Nicole managed to get a call through to my cell but she was cut off before…" He swallowed with difficulty. "Before she could fully assess the situation. She mentioned five, then seven. But there could be more."
The same terror humming beneath Ian's tone had claimed the usually unreadable expression on Lucas's face. "Was Nicole aware of any injuries?"
"She didn't get a chance to relay anything more."
"The security guards on duty have most likely been neutralized," Slade suggested, now visually measuring the front entrance. He hoped no one had been killed but there was always that possibility. Anyone else from the businesses housed on the other floors who might have opted to go into work early that morning had likely been taken prisoner or were dead. "We should call LSS and have them issue a warning to stay clear of the building."
LSS, Lockdown Security Systems, were the folks in charge of the building's physical security.
"That was going to be my next—"
"That was the first call I received this morning," Ian said, cutting off Lucas. "LSS called to inform me that the building was in lockdown mode due to a gas leak and no one was to enter until the all clear was given. Before I could question the directive or pass along that the agency already had people inside, Nicole's call came in."
Lucas surveyed the building in question once more. "I don't see any official vehicles. No city maintenance crews."