Vanessa Michael Munroe is facing a moral dilemma. Snatched by the shadowy Doll Maker, head of an international sex trafficking organization, she must transport Hollywood starlet Neeva Eckridge, daughter of a Silicon Valley mogul and a U.S. senator, to an important client in order to protect the lives of people she loves, first among them her dear friend Logan. And the "package," who's furiously fighting her captivity, must be delivered unbruised, undrugged, and costumed as a doll. As Munroe sets out on her task, her lover and employer, Miles Bradford, head of high-tech Calypso Security in Dallas, works to find the kidnapped and brutalized Logan and determine who's behind the operation. VERDICT Prolific linguist and exquisitely honed killer Munroe is no less effective here for still suffering from past trauma as recounted in The Informationist and The Innocent. Stevens's third series outing is another brisk, adrenaline-fueled adventure with a trail of bodies and a damaged protagonist who may live to kill another day. For readers of suspense with a dark edge.—Michele Leber, Arlington, VA
Good and bad deeds alike have a high price, as dramatically shown in Stevens’s harrowing third Vanessa Michael Munroe novel (after 2012’s The Innocent). A sex trafficker known as the Doll Maker forces Munroe to deliver a nubile starlet to the starlet’s purchaser by taking Munroe’s best friend, Logan, hostage. Controlled at every step by the Doll Maker’s nephew, Valon Lumani, she transports the “doll” from Croatia to Monaco while trying to balance the lives in her hands. Back in Texas, Miles Bradford, Munroe’s lover and sometime employer, seeks Logan, Munroe, answers, and revenge as new hostages are targeted. At story’s end, none of the players is left unscathed. Trafficker-in-training Lumani is interestingly conflicted, and Munroe remains as compelling as ever: violent yet protective of innocence, imprisoned by not only her past but also the choices she has made in response to it, and painfully conscious of her closeness to sanity’s edge. 5-city author tour. Agent: Anne Hawkins, John Hawkins & Associates. (June)
From the Publisher
“I read The Doll in one frenzied, caffeine-fueled sitting, then re-read it slowly and luxuriantly, just for the sheer pleasure of it. Out of everything I’ve read ever, if I had to pick a fictional character to have dinner with, Michael Munroe would certainly make my Top 5. . . Stevens excels at depicting pulse-pounding danger, and her prose and plotting are spectacular, especially given her cult background. She was denied all but a sixth-grade education, but her writing places her heads above most authors working in the thriller genre. Only Dan Brown and Lee Child come close; not even the lauded Larsson could turn a phrase or twist a plotline like Stevens can. Really, my only complaint is that I’d like her to please write faster.” —Dallas Morning News
"Munroe is a sensational character and Stevens is a sensational writer, and together they put The Doll high on my books-of-the-year list." —Lee Child, New York Times bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series
“If you are a fan of Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander, or Nina Zero, you need to check out Vanessa Michael Munroe!” —BookPage
“If you can stand the heat, Stevens’ third thriller is a sizzler.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“If Lisbeth Salander…had special-ops training and a knack for languages, she'd be Vanessa Michael Munroe… [A] guilty-pleasure thrill ride.” —Winnipeg Free Press
“This New York Times Bestselling author is back...with a truly spellbinding story. . . Readers have finally found a ‘Bond girl’ that is actually Bond, himself. Vanessa is a heroine that will face the worst facets of humanity and will fight to the finish to save a soul from following in her blood-soaked footsteps.” —Suspense Magazine
“Now for some fun. If you are a thriller buff, and especially if you loved Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo you won’t want to miss Taylor Stevens newest novel The Doll….Her new novel takes readers on a cat-and-mouse trip through Central Europe as Vanessa tries to outrun a villain. And, let’s say, a villain you will never forget. Scary as hell!” —Hudson Valley News
“What a great gripping novel with a provocative heroine. Taylor Stevens has done it again. This is her third novel and it, too, should be an award winner.” —I Love A Mystery
“If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, The Doll and the two previous Vanessa Michale Munroe novels are pretty hard to beat.” —Huntington News
"Munroe, skilled at strategy, tactics, and languages, is a powerful and dangerous figure whose violent aspect is reminiscent of James Bond." —Criminal Elements
“Taylor Stevens treads where the faint-hearted dare not go: the land of violence, greed and opportunism, a vast underbelly of worldwide criminal enterprise—in this case human trafficking… From one frantic scene to another, Stevens creates unbearable tension. …Stevens uses her protagonist's ability to morph from female to male, her dexterity and her wits, to establish Michael as a viable heroine. She moves confidently through a man's world with impunity, but only her humanity stands between Michael and the monster she might become…Couched in a non-stop thriller, this larger-than-life revenge heroine never disappoints.” —CurledUp.com
“Prolific linguist and exquisitely honed killer Munroe is no less effective here for still suffering from past trauma…Stevens’s third series outing is another brisk, adrenaline-fueled adventure with a trail of bodies and a damaged protagonist who may live to kill another day.” —Library Journal
“Stevens’ third Munroe book is another international action-adventure with a Bourne-like avenging angel at the reins.” —Booklist
“Lean and mean thriller featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, an "informationist" with a scary dark streak… This book is strongly influenced by the existential bare-bones approach of Lee Child's Reacher books, and its brilliant but damaged heroine, the estranged daughter of missionaries, owes much to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But Stevens stamps the novel with her own bleak, punishing, bullet-flying outlook… Out of that gloomy intensity comes edgy suspense. In Stevens' powerfully contained follow-up to The Innocent, there is no release for the tormented heroine, only license to live another day.” —Kirkus
“Good and bad deeds alike have a high price, as dramatically shown in Stevens’s harrowing third Vanessa Michael Munroe novel…Munroe remains as compelling as ever: violent yet protective of innocence, imprisoned by not only her past but also the choices she has made in response to it, and painfully conscious of her closeness to sanity’s edge.” —Publishers Weekly
In Stevens' third lean and mean thriller featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, an "informationist" with a scary dark streak who specializes in recovering kidnapping victims, she is forced by an Eastern European sex trafficker to deliver an American teen to a European buyer. If Michael doesn't comply with the demands of the Doll Maker, so called because he has the kidnapped girls made up to look like dolls, he will kill her closest friend and partner in special ops, Logan, whom he also has abducted. As her boss and lover, Dallas security consultant Miles Bradford, orchestrates efforts to save her, Michael improvises a scheme to escape the Doll Maker's control and free the girl. That involves escaping the trafficker's surveillance of her every move as she drives from Croatia to Italy and thwarting his adopted son, who is following her and can kill her sniper-style at any time. She also must prevent the tiny but cocky girl, Neeva, an actress who has fallen under her influence, from putting herself in harm's way. This book is strongly influenced by the existential bare-bones approach of Lee Child's Reacher books, and its brilliant but damaged heroine, the estranged daughter of missionaries, owes much to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But Stevens stamps the novel with her own bleak, punishing, bullet-flying outlook. With the exception of a scene or two between Michael and Neeva, the tone is grim--no lighthearted relief here, especially from the stony Bradford. Out of that gloomy intensity comes edgy suspense. In Stevens' powerfully contained follow-up to The Innocent (2011), there is no release for the tormented heroine, only license to live another day.
Read an Excerpt
Palms to the glass, watching the lot from his office window, Miles Bradford saw her topple. The fall was a slow-motion sort of thing, the type of tilt and drop that made him hesitate, unsure for a long second whether to laugh or worry. He held his breath, urging her up. Any second now, knowing he was there, she'd turn toward the building and wave. They'd laugh about it later.
But she didn't move. Made no attempt to edge out from beneath the motorcycle that pinned her leg to the pavement. Didn't even raise her head.
Seeing though not understanding, moving as if treading water, Bradford backed away from the window. Then turned and bolted out of the office, down the hall, and past reception. Bypassed the elevators for the stairs, took the five floors at a run, and emerged from the stairwell into the lobby, where he pushed through the big glass doors only to find an ambulance blocking the northern lot access and Munroe on a stretcher, being lifted into its interior.
Bradford yelled, swung his arms to attract the attention of the paramedics so they would wait a moment longer, and allow him time to get across the lot so he could ride with her. But they never turned, never looked. The stretcher slid inward, the doors shut, and Bradford ran again, racing the distance, arriving seconds too late.
The ambulance, siren blaring, pulled out onto the service road.
The Ducati lay on its side, shoved slightly from where she'd been pulled from underneath, engine off and keys still in the ignition. He stooped and heaved the bike upright. Straddled the machine, hit neutral with his foot, punched his thumb into the starter button, and compressed the clutch handle only to find that the impact with the pavement had snapped it off.
He swore and stared in the direction the ambulance had traveled, frustrated and motionless, catching his breath, processing, while the wail faded and traffic began to flow again. Had he run directly for a car instead of the ambulance, he might have had a chance to chase it down, but he was too late for that now. Bradford glanced back toward the building, where the small crowd of onlookers had already begun to disperse.
Two decades of working in the line of fire, of watching his back and chasing images from shadows, and he still had the tendency to think like a civilian on his home turf. What were the odds that one of the people on the ground floor had made the call and an ambulance had been close by? Not impossible, but not highly likely, either.
Bradford dismounted and rolled the Ducati to the garage, to the out-of-the-way nook Munroe typically stashed it, and then jogged back to the lobby with the mental tape of her fall playing inside his head. Watched her jerk and then glance down, saw her pause and the way her left hand had wandered over her thigh, the long hesitation before she slumped and toppled. Hers weren't the motions--the sudden drop, the collapse--of someone passing out.
At the elevator he jammed a finger into the up arrow and ran through a list of possible alternatives--allergies, medical conditions, recent sicknesses--and drew one blank after another.
By the time Bradford returned to his floor, he'd gone through the replay a dozen times, more frustrated with each rewind. He pushed through the wide doors that separated Capstone Security Consulting from the hallway, crossed the plush reception area with its rich furnishings and oversize logo--corporate tokens that implied something other than the blood-and-guts outfit beyond the wood-paneled wall--and came to a full stop at the reception desk and Samantha Walker who sat behind it.
She stared up at him with her big brown eyes and the same give me the sitrep look she always got when his stress level soared. "What the hell was that all about?" she said. "You look like death paid a visit. Talk to me."
Bradford ignored her with a vacant half-smile and leaned across the desk for the Post-it stack. What else could he do? Tell her that based on his gut and a ten-second memory loop that wouldn't stop, he was pretty sure the woman he loved had just been tranqued and shoved into an ambulance?
He scribbled the few digits he'd caught off the plates when the vehicle had peeled out onto the service road and, with eyes still on the pad, said, "Where's the closest emergency room?"
"Medical City and Parkland."
"Call them, will you? Find out if Michael's there?"
She gave him that look again, then reached for the mouse and her monitor came alive. "Am I calling about Michael or some other name?" she asked.
"Michael," he said. Because unless Munroe was working, that's who her ID said she was, but the inquiry sent his mind bolting in two directions, and while Walker searched for numbers, he forced thought fragments and scattered images into a coherent question: He'd watched Vanessa Michael Munroe being lifted into the ambulance, but to those who'd done the lifting, was it Michael they'd taken or another of her incarnations?
He struggled to draw from the ether some sense of why, of who would have had the means and motive to put her into that ambulance, and, more important, how she'd been traced. Munroe had surely made enemies in her life, trading secrets and buying souls, but she'd worked with disguises and aliases, had stayed away from home for so many years, that there were few who knew who she truly was or how to find her.
Walker cleared her throat, picked up the phone, and gave Bradford a decided stare that said she'd make the calls but not while he stood there listening and micromanaging.
He moved to get out of her way, swiped a key card through a scanner.
A segment of wall to the right of the desk clicked open a sliver. Bradford pushed against it and stepped through. Beyond the paneling, the interior hallways and facing walls were glass, with privacy blinds kept open, giving the entire floor a sense of light and space. He moved past the offices to what most businesses would consider a conference area but which was to Capstone the war room, the nerve center, the place from which the business tendrils reached out for thousands of miles to support and supply the private security gigs running at any given time.
There was no door, only a frame where one used to be, and at one of the desks facing a wall of oversize monitors, Paul Jahan swiveled away from a keyboard.
Bradford nodded, said, "Hey, Jack," and handed him the Post-it. "Dallas Fire-Rescue plates. Can you run them?"
Jahan took the purple square with its three handwritten digits, gave it a look, and then stuck it to the nearest monitor. "Give me a minute," he said. "I'll see what I can get."
In the ensuing silence, Bradford strode to the marked-up whiteboards that functioned on the right wall as the monitors did on the left. He followed the note changes, minor updates on the two-man team in Peshawar, but read them without really seeing. His mind was elsewhere, still running, still torn in the two directions Walker's innocuous question about Munroe's identity had sent him.
Having nothing to answer the first, he shifted to the second: If something happened to Munroe, Logan's number was the emergency contact in her wallet. No first name, no last name, just Logan. He was her surrogate brother, soul mate, partner in crime, the man whose history was nearly as convoluted as her own and who guarded her back as fiercely as she guarded his.
Bradford checked his watch. Checked his phone. Ten minutes, if that, since he'd watched Munroe take the bike down with her fall. Still early if he meant to start tracking, but that didn't matter. He pulled from speed dial the number known to few, the phone Logan always carried and almost certainly answered.
Called and was sent directly to voice mail.
Bradford hung up without leaving a message.
Thumbed through the contacts for Tabitha, Munroe's eldest sister, hit call, and then ended it before the dialing began. No one in Munroe's family had any idea of the life she led off the grid and she took care to shield them and leave nothing that would trace back to them. It was still too soon for this kind of call, and he wasn't ready to step into the resulting quagmire of explanations if Tabitha should happen to pick up. Needed to script a plausible cover story first.
From across the room Jahan said, "Looks like those digits belong to valid Fire-Rescue plates. I can't say for sure with only half of them, but they seem to check out."
Bradford turned from the whiteboard wall. "Is it a stolen -vehicle?"
"Not that I'm showing, although it might not have been reported yet."
"What about a trace on the GPS? Can we figure out where the ambulance ended up, maybe where it's been?"
Jahan swiveled his chair around to face Bradford and then shifted a couple of inches to the right, then left, and back again in a maddening fidget. "I might be able to do that," he said, and stopped. "When do you plan to let us know what's going on?"
Bradford sighed. Walked to the nearest blank spot on the whiteboards, picked up a red marker, and drew the beginning of a diagram. Wrote: Michael--passed out or taken down?
He turned. "That's all I've got."
Jahan's mouth opened for a full second before he spoke. "You've gotta be kidding." And a beat later: "What did you see?"
Jahan's index finger moved toward the whiteboard. "But enough for that?"
Bradford's posture sagged and he glanced again at the diagram.
Given Munroe's lifestyle, it was more than enough, but there was nothing he could point to for confirmation. The nine months since the infiltration in Argentina had been quiet, her initial week in Dallas had turned into months, the occasional overnight stay at his place lengthening into more, until she, who had no home of her own, gradually grew comfortable in his. He'd offered her security contracts as a way to delay the inevitability of her leaving, but they'd been small and relatively inconsequential--the longest had been a month in Abuja, Nigeria, which had evolved into an adult baby-sitting gig--definitely nothing to write home about, nothing he could connect to today.
The intercom crackled. Walker said, "I've got a Michael Munroe at the emergency room at Medical City."
Jahan raised his eyebrows; Bradford shook his head.
"It's too soon," he said.
Jahan's head tilt was subtle, an acknowledgment of trust rather than agreement. Bradford reached for the key rack, lifted off a set, and moved toward the door space. "Keep an ear for the phones, will you? I'm closing down the front and taking Sam with me."
Bradford and Walker took the elevator down to the ground floor and crossed to the parking garage, to an Explorer, one of three -vehicles Capstone kept on hand. Bradford got in behind the wheel. Walker slid into the passenger seat, buckled up, and kept her focus beyond the windshield, biting back, he knew, questions she wouldn't ask.
Her silence now was part of the same dance of avoidance that had descended on most of the team when Munroe had first come onboard. Suspicions of preferential treatment tainted the waters. Bradford had brought Munroe into the company, it was no secret that he was sleeping with her, and he'd already dropped everything once before to watch her back. Until proven otherwise, this little jaunt to the hospital was Bradford's overly paranoid, overly protective private mission, and as such, a waste of company resources.
The emergency room at Medical City, like most emergency rooms, was harshly lit and filled with depression. Seating took up the bulk of the waiting area. The next-of-kin story got Bradford and Walker beyond the wide swinging doors that divided the helpless from the helped and into the hallway, where the smell of antiseptic filled the air and the glare of fluorescent tubing illuminated nothing Bradford wanted to see and everything he didn't.
He found the room and passed through the curtained entry, only to back out as quickly as he'd gone in.
Walker, close behind, nearly collided with him in the process. She jumped sideways to avoid impact.
"What the hell?" she said, and when his only response was to search out the room number again, she gave him that look and continued past.
The room held one bed, an assortment of medical equipment, and a small space to move about. Bradford joined Walker beside the bed, where, expression clouded over, she stared down at a stranger, bloodied, stitched up, and doped.
"You want me to check with the nurses?" she whispered. "Find out if there's been some mistake?"
Bradford drew the curtain fully around, and motioned for her to keep watch. Belongings lay to the side of the bed and he searched through them, rifling through clothing, shoes, and purse until he found a wallet.
There was nothing else to indicate who this person was--no notebook or gadgets, no phone or identifying items. Only the folded leather that had, until this morning, been in Munroe's back pocket. Bradford flipped through it and pulled out the ID, turning it toward Walker long enough for her to get a good look, then nodded his head toward the exit.
She turned and left.
He continued past the driver's license and credit cards, which were still there, searching for the emergency numbers and the cash, which should have also been there but were not. Bradford pocketed the wallet, lifted the sheets slightly to see what lay underneath--a violation of privacy to whoever was in that bed, but he needed to confirm what he already suspected--and then having done so, slipped out.
Walker waited for him at the Explorer, arms crossed and leaning against the hood, and when he was within hearing distance she straightened and said, "The woman was brought in at about ten-twenty this morning. Michael didn't leave till eleven-thirty. The timing doesn't work."
"Except Michael got to the office around ten," he said. "The timing works if they were waiting for her to arrive, if they knew they'd get her on her way out."
"They'd have to be watching your place," Walker said.
"Maybe they are."
Bradford opened the doors and slid in behind the wheel, a hundred questions charging through his head, all of them superseded by guilt. Munroe would never have been found if she hadn't been in Dallas, and she'd stayed in Dallas for him.