Anderson Gratney does odd jobs that usually involve a gun and covert ops for the CIA. His latest assignment? Kidnap a CIA analyst in order to keep her safe. Easy. Except there's nothing simple about the beautiful, careful Carol Sark, who tempts him the more he learns about her.
Coming face to face with a masked man in her home is the most terrifying experience of Carol's life-until he kidnaps her. He claims he's there to keep her safe, but she doesn't know who to trust. And until they can figure out who the threat is, she's forced to take him at his word.
Time is ticking, and even though she drives him nuts, Anderson very much wants to keep her alive. Unfortunately, the assassins have other ideas...
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Friday, outside DC
Anderson Gratney stood in the middle of the crowded room, eyes closed, her face filling his mind. She didn't know him. Probably hadn't ever heard his name, and yet she was now the center of his world.
He was doing this for her, the woman with the eyes so dark they matched Andy's soul. She was a good person. She didn't deserve to be marked for death, which meant he was going to put it all on the line to save her.
And she might just hate him for it.
"All right, people, let's get started. We have fifteen minutes to decide our fates." Irene Drummond had chosen to stand with her back to a corner, arms crossed over her chest. Defensive.
Across the room from her was the golden boy darling of the CIA, Mitch McConnel. His right foot was forward and he kept darting glances at Irene, after which he'd glance at the rest of them, as though it would hide the fact he couldn't stop staring at her.
There was something going on between the handlers. A power struggle? Irene, Mitch, and the absent Hector were constantly butting heads over what the best course of action was. Andy was just about sick of their talk. They were biased and their judgments suspect. Each wanted to cover their own ass, which meant that despite their best intentions, they couldn't be trusted. At least not entirely.
But they were unified on one point at the moment.
"Andy?" Irene nodded at him.
He tapped the laptop, projecting his screen onto the wall. A small video feed took up the lower corner.
"Rand, Sarah, you with us?" he asked the two faces squeezed into the frame.
"Reading you loud and clear," Rand said.
Their background was dark, and both of them wore headsets. The better to mask their location. No identifying markers of the room, no ambient sounds. Good. Sarah had been the target of a mole by the name of Charlie trying to sell CIA secrets that were in her care. They didn't think either was still in immediate danger, but it was better to be safe. Sarah was no longer as valuable a resource as she'd been during the China issue, but she still knew enough to make her a target, and their lives were still in danger. Loose ends always had to be tied. And in the event their team discovered who else was responsible for the leaked intel, Sarah would be a star witness. Protecting her was Rand's full-time job.
"I don't have a lot of time for this circle jerk," Noah drawled. He was the only other CIA contract operative present.
Andy ignored the other man and began. Their time was limited, and they had a lot to cover.
"The word on the dark net isn't good for us." Andy braced his hands on the folding table and brought a flow chart onto the screen. "Using Charlie's old laptop, I've been piecing together who he was working for, with, and why. Each bubble represents a different entity known by a handle. You can see here, King Kong was Charlie, probably since he was stationed in Hong Kong. From the looks of how small this net is, I'd say he was a minor player." "Have you been able to connect these other handles to anyone?" Irene asked.
"Nothing definitive." Andy gestured to the bottom of the screen where he'd populated a list of notes. "Carol's work is proving valuable in creating a pool of possible suspects, but these people are good. They're careful. For every handle we have dozens of potential suspects."
"They have to be. These are our people. A secret organization within the CIA selling our secrets. Putting our people at risk." Irene shook her head.
It was a blow to each of them. They were patriots, some to a fault. They'd done things in the name of their country that would forever stain their souls. When the hard, no-win decisions had to be made, they were the people who made things right. To save innocent lives. But those decisions came at a price. Andy had long since accepted that his life, his very person, was forfeit for the greater good, which made him uniquely qualified for this kind of work.
"What about the memo?" Mitch asked.
"You are right. Management is discussing Carol's work." Andy toggled to a different screen, showing the damning memo.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION MEMORANDUM FOR: [redacted]
At this time we are following leads pertaining to the sensitive leak of documents being transported to our [redacted] offices. During the discovery process it has come to light that one [redacted] has accessed almost every file in question. This leads us to believe that this employee may be involved. It is our recommendation that a detailed evaluation be conducted without [redacted] knowledge so that we may ascertain if intel was passed along illegally.
Andy didn't have to know the redacted parts to read between the lines.
This memo was about the events around Rand and Sarah, and how Andy got caught up in everything.
"I know we were hoping that Carol's algorithm project would fly under the radar, but whoever these people are, they've flagged her research as suspect. Which means there's someone watching Carol directly, likely within her own department, someone she thinks she can trust, and someone in management. Probably someone in IT or field tech as well."
Andy had made it a priority to familiarize himself with everyone working on this. He hadn't met Carol, but out of everyone, she was the person who fascinated him the most. She was a brilliant analyst focusing on the greater Asian area. Her work with Irene had uncovered many of their leads on Charlie. Carol had been working on an algorithm to search out similarly failed missions to create a pool to work from. Ops where agents had died or things went inexplicably wrong. Something to help them identify who the leak could be. Andy was jealous he hadn't thought of it first. But the project wasn't done yet, and now she was drawing the wrong kind of attention. Which was where he came in.
"How close is the algorithm to being done?" Mitch stared at Irene. Following the China fiasco with Rand and Sarah, they'd been careful about who interacted with whom. By keeping Carol on the outside with her only contact being Irene, they'd hoped to protect her.
"There's still a ways to go." Irene shook her head, but didn't return Mitch's gaze. "Coding isn't her specialty. It would go a lot faster if Andy could work with her directly."
Andy swallowed. His computer acumen was one of his skills that made him uniquely gifted for this line of work. He knew that he and Carol could knock this out, but the instant they started working together was when she'd lose her freedom. Someone like her, who followed every rule, would come under scrutiny if she began working with him. What he did came at a price.
"Putting Andy and Carol in the same room is signing her death warrant. You know as soon as whoever instigated this memo finds out they're working together they'll be on the hunt for her head," Noah said.
"I know that." Irene's voice dripped with irritation.
Rand, Noah, and Andy were all private CIA contractors with different skill sets. Rand was a sleeper agent, capable of long-haul missions — at least before Sarah. Noah moved in white-collar circles; his charm could open doors it shouldn't. Andy not only stalked his prey, he knew their every analog and online move. He was a finisher. He made problems disappear.
"We need Carol's predictive algorithm online. Once it's active it will do the work for us. We'll have a leg up on them and then we can take them out." Irene was preaching to the choir.
Andy had looked over Carol's work a few times at Irene's request. It was some brilliant coding, even if it wasn't her strength. Once the algorithm was operational, it would correlate those same failed missions to people and places associated with them, weeding out the good guys and leaving them with a pool of people who could potentially be the true moles working against the Company — wolves among the sheep.
"If this memo is to be believed, they think Carol was working with Charlie." Mitch gestured to the screen.
"Carol is at risk, that's why she's not here with us." Irene still wasn't looking at Mitch.
Interesting. Mitch was staring at Irene, while she seemed to prefer to pretend like he wasn't there.
"Someone's setting Carol up," Andy said, bringing his attention back to the present. It was the most obvious play with their insight.
"It's what I'd do," Noah said. "What? I'm being honest. You two are upper management, you have years of fieldwork. You're harder to oust. Carol is young, and her daddy's reputation as a bang-up agent is only going to protect her so much. She's the low-hanging fruit in this scenario. They're picking off the weaker targets, thinning out the herd. You may not want to hear this, but what if we cut her loose? Andy could finish the — " "No," Irene snapped.
"I can't finish it," Andy said.
"Why not?" Noah would opt for the easiest path.
The simple reason was that he didn't want to kill Carol. She was good. But that wasn't enough of a reason for Noah.
"She's an analyst. She sees things differently. She's got access to files and data the rest of us don't. Besides, without her help it would take me weeks to figure out the project, and by then who will they be onto next? Hm? You?"
"We aren't hanging Carol out to dry, and that's final." Irene folded her arms over her chest. "What do we think they'd do to make her go away? How can we keep her safe?"
"They'll try to kill her," Andy said.
"You think?" Irene's mouth twisted up. She didn't like that answer.
"No loose ends. They killed Charlie while in custody; that shows they have reach. There's no reason to believe they haven't killed CIA employees in the past who were getting too close. They'll make it look like she ran or disappeared, or outright kill her and it'll be an accident." Andy had quietly drawn up a list of deaths for agents, contract workers, assets, and informants going back five years that he knew of. Unless they were outsourcing the jobs to someone besides an employee or a contractor, there'd be a pattern. They all had it, a signature, that thing that made their work different. If Andy could determine who'd been ordered dead, he could find a signature.
"They won't outsource right now. Too much risk," Irene said. "There are currently six active operatives — "
"Five," Rand interjected.
"Five active operatives who could do this job. Two of them are in this room." Irene stared at Andy. "We need to make sure Andy is the only one who can take the gig." "What am I doing here, then?" Noah sighed and checked the time.
"Moral support," Mitch said.
"If we need backup, you're our closest asset." Irene spared Noah a momentary glance.
"We could come back," Rand said.
"No, you need to stay wherever it is you are." Irene shook her head. "Protect Sarah. If we figure out who is behind this and it comes to a trial, she's an important part of it. We need to think big picture here, no short-term goals." Andy clenched his teeth. He'd thought it might come to this.
"Andy's MO will give us time to figure out who is behind trying to get Carol out of the way. Everyone knows he insists on vetting his targets before carrying through with a kill order. Andy, I'd like for you to circle in Noah on what you're doing so he can act as support. Begin planning your extraction and where you'll take Carol."
"How do you know they won't pull someone from the field to do this? Or ask me to do it?" Noah grimaced. He'd hate being holed up in one spot, sitting on his hands.
"You're too valuable where you are," Irene said. "Rand is nonactive. Andy is technically still on the Istanbul assignment, but we can mark that as 'complete' tomorrow. That leaves three other assets, all of whom are on long-term assignments."
It made sense. It was what Andy had predicted Irene would suggest.
He still didn't have to like it.
"We must be prepared that they won't want me based on the reasons why you do," he said.
"Our time's almost up, guys," Noah announced.
They could only set aside a half hour for these meets. Anything more was too risky. Too much time spent together could tip off the wrong people.
"What do you suggest?" Irene ignored Noah.
"I'll prepare a safe house, somewhere remote, out of the country. Off the grid. Either I'll wait for instructions for the hit, or when I see someone moving in on her, I'll move. She and I will disappear. On one condition." Andy didn't look away from Irene. Mitch and Hector might like to throw their weight around, but it was Irene who was in charge. "I do a soft meet. Carol doesn't know me. She's an office girl. This is going to be traumatizing to her even if I do this as gently as I can. Being familiar with my face could make it better."
"You run the risk of getting caught on surveillance," Mitch said.
Andy ignored that.
He'd been at this game longer than Mitch had been with the CIA, back when his aspirations were political. If Andy got caught on camera, he'd fucked up and deserved it.
"If that's what you think is best, I trust your judgment," Irene said.
"Time's up," Noah announced.
Andy cut the video feed, shut the laptop, and yanked the plug out. They filed out of the door with no further words spoken. Noah killed the lights, leaving them in pitch darkness.
The construction site was dark and deserted at this hour. An easy spot to identify surveillance on the basis that there was nothing around them. No vantage points, no cover, and no way to keep tabs on them.
Andy hesitated for half a moment while he blinked away the white spots left by the lights floating in his vision.
No one spoke. No one said goodbyes. They all knew their lives were on the line, and none greater than Carol Sark.
Andy understood Irene's judgment call to extract Carol even if it was treacherous.
One of the reasons Andy had preferred to be a contract employee was the ability to say no. He wasn't a good yes man. Never had been. If a target didn't deserve to die, if their soul wasn't as black as Andy's own, he didn't do a job. That might have been an issue, except he was very good at what he did. Maybe better than the others.
Killing was in his blood, but this time, he'd protect Carol, or die trying.
* * *
Carol Sark took a deep breath, braced herself for the tide of anxiety, and stepped out of her front door.
The hair on the back of her neck rose, and her stomach knotted up. She clenched her purse to her chest and glanced in both directions.
It was a normal, if chilly, Saturday morning.
She still couldn't shake the dark cloud hovering over her.
It'd begun as furtive glances at the office, people looking at her behind her back when they thought she wasn't looking. Catching someone staring at her in the reflection of a window or her sunglasses. Ever since she'd laid out what she knew of Charlie to Director Scott, things had been different.
Irene wouldn't comment on it, but Carol didn't have to be a master at reading people to notice the signs. Irene knew more than she was letting on. A lot more. And she was no longer confiding in Carol.
She sucked down a deep breath, the cold air freezing her lungs for half a second.
She'd never thought a paper-pushing job at the CIA would become so stressful. She wasn't a field agent, she didn't have a gun, and it wasn't her job to face down the bad guys. She looked at numbers, information, trends, and picked out the important bits, framed it in the context of history, and presented it.
Carol forced herself to shut her front door. She wanted to dive back inside and stay there. Instead, she crept down the stairs to the sidewalk. Her neighbor had been kind enough to throw some salt on the ice so her footing wasn't quite so treacherous.
She fell into step behind a family with sleds thrown over their shoulders, probably headed for the park. Like any normal family might on a brisk, sunny winter day.
The assignment she'd made for herself was simple. A quick walk around the park, stop into the market, and then home again. An easy foray out into the world to show herself things were fine. Everything was okay.
Except nothing had been right since the fall.
It'd begun early last year, when Carol started seeing trends. She worked with a division that monitored Asian activity. Her specialty was China. She was a walking encyclopedia of their economic and political power, their history, their methods. It was her job to remain informed and pass along noteworthy information to the operational department so they could decide how to act, what to do.
That's how it'd started.
Carol had seen a few anomalies. Missions that shouldn't have gone sideways, enemies knowing things they should have had no way of knowing. So she'd reported it, only to be brushed off by everyone.
Except Irene Drummond.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Assassin Games"
Copyright © 2018 Sidney Bristol.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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