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Jagger Holtz crouched in the dark as the helicopter overhead peeled away, ostensibly to continue tracking traffic jams on the highways below. They'd hovered over the AbaCo building a total of twenty-eight seconds. Just long enough to drop him on a zip line to the roof of the twenty-story-tall glass-and-steel tower. And hopefully not long enough to trigger the intense security of AbaCo Inc., one of the largest—and most shadowy—shipping firms in the world.
Bent over at the waist, he ran for cover, ducking behind a giant air-conditioning vent and taking a quick time check. He'd give AbaCo's goons three minutes to respond. Then, barring any company on the roof, he'd move on to phase two: infiltrating the building proper. He didn't expect to find his missing colleagues tonight—Hanson and MacGillicutty were fellow government agents sent into AbaCo undercover months ago. And both of them had disappeared. No messages. No distress signals. No evidence of foul play. They were just…gone. When his superiors had approached him, he'd leaped at the chance to do this risky mission.
It was starting to look as though his rooftop landing had gone unnoticed. He tied off a rope to a sturdy steel grille and checked his rappelling harness one more time. Down the side of the building, in through an office window and then they'd see if the password they'd bought from the snitch worked.
Without warning, all hell broke loose. The heavy steel doors on each of the four stairwells leading to the roof burst open with a deafening crash. Armed men rushed out, sweeping the roof with automatic weapons. They sprinted forward, quartering the roof with brutal efficiency.
Holy crap. Commandos for a helicopter overhead for twenty-eight seconds?
He slammed to the ground just as a high-intensity flashlight beam passed over his position, barely missing lighting him up like a Christmas tree. He was trapped. He gripped the metal grille in front of his face in frustration as they closed in on him. Warm, moist air blew at him like an incongruous sea breeze on this frigid Denver night.
Air. An air vent. It might be a dead end, but it was better than lying here and getting captured or killed in the next few seconds. He grabbed his pocketknife and used the blade to unscrew the nearest fastener holding the vent shut. He lobbed the thumb-sized screw as hard as he could across the roof. It clattered loudly, and shouting and a scramble of men reacted instantly.
The second screw popped loose. It went flying in another direction.
C'mon, c'mon. The last screw finally popped free. He grabbed the bottom of the grille and yanked. Someone was shouting irritably at the guards in German to quit running around like chickens, to form up and to search the roof methodically. Not good. AbaCo's serious security team was up here if they were speaking German.
Working fast, he slapped the clip from the rope he'd already tied off onto his climbing harness and rolled over the edge. He fell into space, fetching up hard as the rope caught. He bit back a gasp of pain as his groin took a hit from the harness that all but permanently unmanned him. Oww. So much for the glory of being a special agent.
The vent was about six by six feet square. Twisting until his feet braced against the side, he walked backward down the galvanized aluminum wall, doing his damnedest to be as silent as possible. The echo of any noise in here would be magnified a dozen times.
How far down the black shaft he descended, blind and lost, he had no idea. He counted steps and tried to estimate how far he'd gone. But it was hard to focus with periodic bursts of air from below knocking him off the wall and sending him spinning wildly in space, hanging on for dear life at the end of his single, skinny rope.
Hopefully, the AbaCo powers that be would declare the whole thing a false alarm and satisfy themselves with complaining to the radio station about its helicopter parking in their airspace. Otherwise, guards were probably waiting for him at the other end of this shaft, licking their chops at the prospect of nabbing themselves a third hapless federal agent. The idea of failing galled him, not only because he never failed, but also because it would mean Hanson and MacGil-licutty were no closer to being found, their families no closer to any answers. Both of them had wives. Kids. Christmas last week had been hard on them all.
He guessed he was about halfway to the ground floor when the main shaft narrowed enough that he was forced to stop using his feet. He lowered himself hand over hand down the rope until his arms went so numb he could no longer feel them. His watch said the descent took twenty-four minutes. It felt like twenty-four hours.
Plenty of time to ponder the symbolism of his descent. Into darkness and silence and utter isolation. The hell he so richly deserved. He pushed away the encroaching panic. He could not afford to lose it now. He was a long way from out of this mess.
The air rushing up at him began to smell of car exhaust. The underground parking garage, maybe? Hmm. It had possibilities. Light began to glow faintly from below. Between his feet, he made out what looked like a metal grille. It was a miniature version of the big one on the roof.
The screws holding it in place were unfortunately on the other side, out of reach. He paused, listening carefully for any sound of humans nearby. Nothing. He damn well didn't intend to climb all the way back up that rope, some twenty stories. He slammed both feet into the metal panel, jumping on it with his full body weight. The slats bent slightly. He jumped again. And again. After a few more tries, a tiny gap showed at the edge of the grille as the metal began to buckle. He kicked again.
Crud. It sounded like Godzilla tearing a car apart with his teeth. Metal screeched, protesting harshly. This had to be drawing the entire cavalry to the garage. His only hope was to break through fast and get away from here before they arrived.
The grille's fasteners gave way all at once. He tumbled to the floor below, landing hard on the concrete. He grunted and rolled fast toward the nearest large object, a sedan parked on the slanting ramp, pulling his sidearm as he went. He scrambled under the car, then paused, scanning the area carefully for any feet. The goons weren't here yet.
He froze as a car drove past his position, winding its way out of sight into the bowels of the parking garage. Hurrying, he unzipped his backpack and pulled out a dark gray tweed suit coat before he stuffed the pack behind a concrete pillar. He donned the jacket over his black turtleneck and black slacks. A quick tug into place, and he was instantly transformed from commando to party crasher.
Now to find a patsy. A single female to walk him past the inevitable security. He glanced around at the cars. Mostly modest domestic cars and the occasional junker. Perfect. The worker bees' parking level.
The party was scheduled to start at eight o'clock. His watch said it was 8:05 p.m. The guests should be arriving in quantity right about now. He stood in a shadow near the elevator and settled in to wait. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes in case he needed a quick excuse to be loitering here. He didn't smoke, but the many other handy uses of cigarettes—including convenient cover story—made them a staple in his arsenal of secret-agent equipment.
In a few minutes, he spotted a vaguely human shape coming down the ramp toward him. Pink parka. Scarf wrapped around the face. Mittens. Ski hat under the parka hood. Fleece-lined suede boots. The apparition looked like a four-year-old kid bundled up by Mom to go out in the first big snow of the year to play. But more importantly, the apparition was alone.
Bingo. He had target acquisition. Or at least a way into the party.
Emily Grainger looked up, alarmed, as a tall man stepped out of the shadows next to the elevator. He stopped beside her, staring at the elevator door for a moment before surprising her by speaking. Men didn't usually speak to her. "Cold night, eh?"
She had to turn her whole upper body to see him out of her deep hood, and she did so awkwardly. She caught her first good look at him and started. Men like him definitely didn't speak to her. "Oh!" she exclaimed softly. "Uh, yes. I guess it is. Cold, that is."
She looked away, embarrassed at the way she was staring. He wasn't so much handsome as he was intense. His cheeks were deeply carved, his skin tanned as though he spent most of his time outdoors. His eyes were pale blue, nearly colorless, and as intense as the rest of him. His mouth was a little bit too wide, his nose a little too big. But still, it was a face a person would struggle to look away from. The man looking out through those intelligent, all-too-observant eyes was captivating.
He looked ready to explode into motion at the slightest provocation, just like… just like James Bond. He gave off that same restless, devil-may-care charm guaranteed to sweep a girl right off her feet. And he'd just said hello to her! Well, then.
She stared straight ahead at the stainless-steel elevator door. It threw back at her a blurry reflection of a pink whale.
Her entire life, she'd dreamed of meeting a man like this. Of becoming a different kind of woman—adventurous, bold and sexy—the kind of woman a man like this would fall for. And here he was. Her dream man in the flesh. She wasn't fool enough to believe a man like this would come along twice in her lifetime. This was it. Now or never.
"I don't think we've met before," he murmured. "What department do you work in?"
"Uh, I'm in accounting," she managed to mumble in spite of her sudden inability to draw a complete breath. The elevator dinged and the steel panel started to slide open.
"Accounting. That's interesting."
Liar. Accounting wasn't interesting at all. It was boring. Safe and predictable and orderly. She couldn't count how often she wanted to jump up from her desk in her neat, bland little cubicle and scream. What she wouldn't give to be a sexy international spy like James Bond courteously holding the elevator door open for her now.
Her imagination took off. He had no idea who she was. She could be that other woman with him tonight. Flirtatious. Aggressive. The kind of woman who went after men like him and seduced them with a snap of her fingers. She envisioned ritzy casinos, champagne flutes and diamonds. Lots of flashy diamonds.
"What's your name?" James Bond murmured.
"Uh, Emily. Emily Grainger." Lord. Even her name sounded boring and safe. And it was too late to lie and call herself something exotic and alluring.
He smiled at her.
Stunned, she turned to face the elevator's front and about fell over her own feet. Ho. Lee. Cow. He had the greatest smile she'd ever seen. It was intimate and sexy and dangerous—all the things she imagined Bond's smile would be and more. It drew her in. Made her part of his secret double life. Promised things that no nice girl dared to think of.
"I'm Jagger," he murmured. "Jagger Holtz."
The name startled her. He didn't look like one of the Germans of the heavy contingent of them within AbaCo. And yet she probably shouldn't have been surprised. He had that same leashed energy, the same self-contained confidence that all the German security types within the firm had. But the way he'd pronounced it had been strange. Her understanding of the German language was that Js were pronounced like Americans pronounced a K So shouldn't his name have been Yagger? Why would he Americanize the name when none of the other Germans in the company bothered to do so?
She turned her whole upper body to look at him again. "What nationality is that name?"
He grinned self-deprecatingly, a lopsided, boyish thing that charmed the socks right off her. "I'd like to say it's a German name, but the truth is my mother was a Rolling Stones groupie. I think I'm actually named after Mick Jagger."
Her laughter startled her. A girl wasn't supposed to laugh at James Bond, was she?
The door opened, and she jumped when he reached out to steady her elbow. "Watch your step," he murmured.
Electricity shot down, or rather up, her arm, skittered across the back of her neck and exploded low in her belly. Whoa. Did James Bond have this effect on all the girls? No wonder he landed whoever he set his cap for! One touch from him and the women were putty in his hands!
Breathe, Emily. Breathe. Or more accurately, stop hyperventilating, Emily.
How she made it out of the elevator without falling over her feet, she had no idea. Her lower body had come completely unhinged from her central nervous system thanks to that devastating touch on her elbow. Not to mention that clutzy was her middle name. Particularly when she was flustered. And Jagger Holtz definitely flustered her.
"Maybe you'd better just take my arm," he said.
Good call. Give James credit for knowing a damsel in distress when he saw one. Or maybe he just knew he had that effect on all women.
She'd have been embarrassed, except he offered her his forearm with such obvious pleasure at the prospect of her touching him that she was more stunned than anything else. Was he blind? Or so hopelessly nearsighted he didn't realize how plain she was? How… completely average?
Of course, he hadn't actually seen much of her, truth be told. She was wrapped up like a mummy and only her eyes and the tip of her nose were visible. She sighed. He'd figure out soon enough that she was a mousy little thing and not even close to flashy enough to be seen with him. He was the sort of man who would look at home with a supermodel on his arm. The fantasy had been fun while it lasted, at any rate.
They stepped into the lobby of the AbaCo building. The soaring atrium, nearly eight stories tall, was decorated from top to bottom with metallic silver Christmas decorations. Personally, she didn't like them. They seemed too cold and impersonal. Hard, even. But then, that wasn't a bad approximation of the personality of her employer, she supposed.
The shipping firm was intensely German, although it had offices in a dozen major cities around the world. But AbaCo took its Teutonic persona very seriously. There were rules for everything, the rules got followed and the cargo got where it was going on time. Or else heads rolled.