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By Cindy Dees
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNew York City
It took her three tense passes by the mouth of the cul-de-sac, but finally, the street was empty of other pedestrians as she approached the alley that was her target. Amanda McClintock slipped into the shadows.
Inky blackness wrapped around her as she peered into the dripping bowels of the city block. Come on, eyes, adapt already. The behemoth just ahead resolved into an overflowing trash Dumpster. Farther ahead, a pair of fire escapes dangled, rusty portcullises of modern decay. Farther still, her goal - Carnegie Hall's backstage entrance - floated in a disembodied pool of light. She eased forward cautiously, every sense on high alert.
It had stopped raining, but the brick walls on either side of her shone greasily. Puddles marked potholes in tired asphalt, and she stepped around them with catlike distaste for water. As she drew near the radius of light, faint echoes of music became audible. It was more a subliminal pulsing than actual sound, but the tempo of her heartbeat increased to match the rhythm vibrating through the air.
Four crumbling cement steps up to the porch. A last check over her shoulder. With quick twists, she unscrewed the single light bulb overhead. The alley went completely black. Slowly, it faded back into view as her eyes adjusted to the dark. She paused until the details took form and checked for any signs of movement. All clear.
She drew in a calming breath that smelled of oil and car exhaust. Releasing the fouled air slowly, she flexed her fingers. Then, with a delicate touch born of experience, she went to work on the lock of the heavy steel door before her. The double-cylinder dead bolt required double tension bars and raking both cylinders simultaneously - a tricky bit of work. She crouched down, her ear inches from the lock as she manipulated the thin metal rods inside its mechanism. A satisfying snick. Bingo. She stood up and stowed her picks.
She brushed back her cuff and glanced at the glowing face of her watch. Half a minute ahead of schedule. While she counted to thirty in her head, she searched the darkness of the alley, alert for anything unusual. Still quiet. In a detached corner of her mind, she wondered idly how much Devereaux had paid the security guard who was usually stationed here to be absent from his post. She'd bet it was a bundle. Her employer was obscenely rich and didn't hesitate to pay big to see private justice prevail.
Twenty-eight ... Twenty-nine ... Thirty.
Time to go. The familiar tingle of adrenaline seeped into her bloodstream and raced across her skin. Her pulse increased sharply, and her body felt light and fast. She pushed the door open and stepped inside.
A fanfare of trumpets resounded arrogantly, heralding the entrance of the violins. The strings wove mesmerizing, snake-charmer's strains, while slowly, implacably, they were over-taken and drowned by the swelling notes of brass horns. Timpani rolled forth and broke over the orchestra like an angry ocean, crashing down and sending powerful echoes across the sea of uplifted faces. Wave after wave of music descended upon the audience, pummeling it in its grandeur. The woman seated at the grand piano seemed lifted from the bench by the sheer force of the sound, compelled to batter the ivory keys. The music swelled louder and louder until the edifice was consumed by it, the very air alive and vibrating. With a final apocalyptic crash, the symphony ended.
Time froze while echoes reverberated in the void. The audience roused itself slowly from its breathless trance and applause thundered.
A dozen rows back from the stage of Carnegie Hall, Taylor Roberts squirmed uneasily in his seat, overwhelmed and unsettled by the performance. He tugged at the black bow tie pinching his neck and shifted his tall frame uncomfortably. Biting back a curse as he banged his knees on the back of the seat before him, he murmured an apology to the patron in the seat and gazed around the auditorium. What in the hell was he supposed to be watching?
It made no sense that his very first field assignment entailed nothing more than sitting in a concert hall watching a Russian debutante pound on a piano. Why would Devereaux pay good money for him to waste his time like this?
The strains of music swelled more loudly inside the building, and the detached corner of Amanda's mind recognized the piece as Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1. One of her favorites. Concentrate, you idiot! You've got a job to do. She paused for a moment, forcing herself back into the emotionless state of readiness necessary in her line of work.
She glanced around as the theater's blueprints came alive before her. Orienting herself briefly, she moved off briskly down a corridor and arrived in a few moments at a door bearing a white, handwritten nameplate. In Cyrillic and English lettering was the name Marina Subova.
She pulled her silk cuff down over her hand, reached for the doorknob and slipped into the pianist's dressing room. It was spacious and well lit, strewn with clothes, sheet music, full ashtrays and empty cigarette wrappers. Across the room, Amanda spied a man on his hands and knees. His head was hidden under the dressing table, and he was clearly searching for something.
"Ah-ha!" he crowed.
He grabbed something too small for her to see from her vantage point. He backed up awkwardly until his head emerged, then grabbed on to the edge of the dressing table and hauled himself to his feet. Whatever he'd been searching for went into a pants pocket.
His hair was coarse and gray, cut in a short, military style. His shoulders, although massive, stooped heavily, and his spine curved as though he'd carried an enormous weight for far too long. He still easily topped six feet, although in his prime, Amanda recalled he hadn't passed through the seven-foot doorways of her school with much room to spare. Grigorii Kriskin had once been a giant bear of a man. Age might have whittled away much of his bulk, but he was still formidable. She pushed down a tickle of doubt about this mission. And cleared her throat politely.
At the sound, Kriskin whirled around with remarkable agility for his age. His look of caution was replaced by one of pleased surprise as recognition dawned. "Amanda! Amanda McClintock. It is very long since I see you." His English was heavily accented with Russian gutturals. "And what carries you behind stage? You are tired to listen of Marina play, or she not do good tonight?"
"Grisha!" Amanda smiled in feigned surprise. "So, Marina's bear still guards her wherever she goes. Actually, I came back early to beat the crush of fans who will be fighting to get a moment with our star." While she spoke, she eased open the plastic zipper bag concealed in the pocket of her flowing skirt. She palmed the soggy gauze pad inside and stepped toward the man as if to hug him. She held his gaze steadily. Doubt registered in the old man's faded eyes.
Man, he was good. Astonishing that his instincts were still so sharp. He sensed the danger, even though only a long-time acquaintance of the petite, nonthreatening, female persuasion was in the room. As she closed the small distance between them, the old man drew back slightly. To her trained eye, he coiled like a cat preparing to spring. His gaze flickered for the barest instant to his left. A mistake, that. She stepped nimbly to her right, cutting off his escape route, and lunged at him. Lightning fast, her hand shot out and slapped him wetly across the face with the gauze pad.
Excerpted from Killer Instinct by Cindy Dees Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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