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The silence in his bedroom was eerie, enveloping him like a black embrace. He sat there for a moment, listening to the sound of his own heartbeat. The sound of his own breathing.
It wasn't often that he woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Sweat was for people who had things to lose. Home, family, possessions they treasured, a reputation they couldn't rebuild. But Corbett Lazlo had long since left all of that behind.
There were no ties.
In general, he spent most of his time in the offices of the organization he had created fourteen years ago and presided over like a benevolent god. For the most part, although there were flesh-and-blood people who shared his last name, his organization was his family, his child.
But even that, although he took pride in it, was expendable.
Long ago he'd learned that nothing was permanent, that no one thing could actually be thought of as his lifeline to the world. He did not allow himself to indulge in the emotions that both plagued and regaled other men. Emotions, he firmly believed, more often than not could spell a man's downfall.
The way his had almost destroyed him. It was a dream of Cassandra that had him bolting upright in his solitary bed, perspiring when the temperature in his current Paris apartment was kept a constant sixty-seven degrees. Not really a dream, more like a fragment of a memory, delivered to him across the rough sea of time. Cassandra, beckoning to him, devouring him. Honey-haired, green-eyed Cassandra, as young, as beautiful, as seductive as the first moment he laid eyes on her.
And just as evil.
There'd been a glint in her eyes, a murderous glint just as her embrace tightened, afraction of a second before her mouth came down on his, that warned him of what was to come.
Of death if he didn't flee.
Corbett sat up in his bed for a moment, his black silk sheets cool against his hot skin. He dragged a hand through his silver hair, slowly drawing air back into his lungs.
The memory…a warning?
He had not remained alive in this precarious, constant high-stakes, cat-and-mouse existence by ignoring his gut instinct. Just because he'd been asleep was no reason to doubt that something was reaching out to him, trying to warn him.
But about what?
Cassandra DuMont was long in his past. The daughter of a cold-blooded, heartless man, Maximilian DuMont, who had been the head of an organization that went to the highest bidder, no task too loathsome, no moral line left uncrossed. The agents at MI-6 had referred to it as Snake, but that was an inside joke. The organization had no name. It was evil, undefined.
There'd been a brother, too. Apollo. Groomed to take over his father's place when the time came. Dead by his hand, Corbett thought. Cassandra hadn't known that when she'd made love with him. If she had, she would have tried to slit his throat. And he would have been forced to slit hers.
Instead of sparing her the way he had.
He'd been soft then. And naive. Believing in justice, truth and all the hype he'd been sold when he was first inducted into Britain's Secret Intelligence Service—S.I.S., formerly MI-6. He and his comrades were protectors of the realm. He'd believed that they would stand by him and he by them.
Until the allegations came.
And then, suddenly, he was alone. Watching his entire world, his carefully crafted career, crash and burn. They'd called him a double agent and said they had the evidence to prove it.
The stillness continued.
Corbett took a long breath, as if the air in his lungs would place that period of time even further from him than the actual years did.
Before he could mount a defense, he was swiftly brought up on charges of treason and convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence. His father, a former Hungarian refugee who'd risen to some prominence in Parliament, turned from him, calling him a disgrace even though the old man had never wanted him to be part of S.I.S. in the first place. The words that cut deepest were the ones he'd heard from his mother, saying she was ashamed of him.
And then, out of the blue, Edward, his womanizing older brother, came to his rescue, providing money that allowed Adam Sinclair, Corbett's best friend and right-hand man, to bribe enough guards to bring about Corbett's escape from prison. There was no love lost between the brothers, but Edward said he knew Corbett to be a loyal man and loyal men did not sell out their country.
The words, more than the money, forever placed him in Edward's debt. And, somewhat ironically, Edward had become the financial handler for the Lazlo Group.
With Adam, Corbett had fled the country, coming to France. When he'd created the Lazlo Group, Adam was the first agent he recruited to join. Together, they oversaw the labor pains of its concrete formation. But if asked, Adam always gave him the credit for the group's inception. It was the Lazlo Group, not the Lazloâ€“Sinclair Group.
Originally, the agency had been created as a means to prove Corbett's innocence. His intention was to discover who had planted all the damning evidence against him. But even now, more than a decade later, he still had no answers.
He had, however, managed—thanks to the advances in forensic science and the introduction of DNA as a tool—to prove that he had never betrayed his country.
Apologies were issued. The S.I.S., saying all was forgiven, wanted him back. But he hadn't wanted it back. Because all was not forgiven, as far as he was concerned.
These days, he had little time to pursue a trail that was close to seventeen years cold. The Lazlo Group had grown from two to more than fifty. It was now an international team of highly trained agents with a myriad of talents and skills, not the least of which was discretion. Corbett's nephew, Edward's son Joshua, had surprised Corbett by becoming one of his best agents.
The Group was also perhaps the best-kept secret in the free world among the upper rungs of governments. Usually called in as a last resort, or when a situation was of such a delicate, discreet nature that no one else could be trusted to handle it, the ever-growing organization had more work than it knew what to do with. Consequently, there was no time to investigate a personal wrong done to him so many years ago.
But he would eventually solve the puzzle, Corbett promised himself. He didn't believe in loose ends.
Corbett had no idea how long he'd been in his office at the high-tech yet largely inconspicuous Lazlo Group headquarters before he heard the low, melodic sound that indicated he'd received another missive on his computer.
He swung his swivel chair around to face the state-of-the-art machine that Lucia, his wizard of all things computer, had insisted he get, and looked at the flat panel screen.
There was a single sentence on it.
The day of repentance draws near, Lazlo.
The moment he read it, his phone rang. Only a handful of his operatives and a select few heads of state had the direct number to his office. In the case of the latter, the signal was bounced and rerouted to several terminals throughout the world before it finally reached him. Just another device to protect his whereabouts and his people. Trust No One was more than just a once-popular cult saying. It was a credo that kept him alive and strong.
Picking up the receiver, he said, "Lazlo," in a calm, resonant voice. The same voice that had soothed distraught world leaders when they were confronted with the kidnapping of a loved one. The same voice that promised secrecy and a swift resolution above all else.
There was no hint of the disquiet that currently resided beneath his reserve.
After Sinclair, Wallace Henderson was the group's oldest operative. Even more than Sinclair, Henderson prided himself on remaining unruffled. But Corbett's trained ear detected a strain in the other man's voice.
He wasn't wrong. After a beat, Henderson said, "Lazlo, someone killed Jane Kiley."
The already military straight posture stiffened even more. Corbett's hand tightened on the receiver. His words of praise were few and he showed no signs of making emotional connections, but that didn't change the fact that he was very protective of his people.
"When?" he demanded. "How?"
Henderson recited the bare bones. "An hour ago. Lisbon. Car bomb."
Henderson's voice cracked. It wasn't the result of one agent's indignation over another's murder. Corbett knew about his people, knew without being directly informed by the parties involved that Henderson and Kiley had been lovers ever since they'd been partnered on a case a little more than a year ago. They probably thought they were being discreet enough to avoid detection. But few things escaped Corbett's notice.
"Do we know who?" he asked, already making notes to himself. When it came to keeping track of events, he reverted to paper and pencil. The old way. But this time around, he also didn't want to use the computer any more than he had to until Lucia took a look at it. There had to be a way to trace the sender of the message.
"No." Henderson ground out the word, frustration echoing in his voice. "She'd just wrapped up the case you sent her on. The munitions were safely returned to their original owner, as per instruction. She'd had the money wired to the Swiss account and verified the transaction." One tiny, shaky breath escaped before Henderson regained control. "She was coming home."
"Find the son of a bitch who did this," Corbett ordered. There was no emotion in his voice, only volume, but his people understood that was his way of coping. "And bring her back," he added more quietly.
He heard the bewilderment in Henderson's voice. They both knew what the end result of a car bombing one at worst.
"Whatever you can find, Henderson," Corbett told him, his voice less gruff despite the fact that he was having a difficult time coping with this news. They'd lost only one man on the job since the group came into being. Nathaniel O'Hara had been a demolitions expert trying to disarm a bomb strapped to a man's chest. Neither the man nor O'Hara made it out of that afternoon alive. But the bomber had been brought down a week later. Corbett had been in on the kill. "I'm sending Taggert to go over the scene."
He ended the call before Henderson could say anything more. The next moment, he called Taggert with instructions to take the first flight to Lisbon.
After that, he sent for Lucia. He wanted to know where the message on his screen had come from.
The perspiration forming along his hairline did not go unnoticed. There had to be a tie-in between what had happened to Kiley, the message on his screen and his nightmare. He didn't believe in coincidences, not even when they involved dreams.