Shattered Duty (Deadly Ops Series #3)

Shattered Duty (Deadly Ops Series #3)

by Katie Reus

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A new novel from the author of Bound to Danger who “has the amazing ability of pulling the reader onto the front lines of the action and drama.” (The Reading Café)

When his wife was murdered two years ago, Special Agent Levi Lazaro turned his back on everything he cared about. Ever since, he has thought of nothing but vengeance. Now he's finally uncovered the identities of those who killed his wife—and he's ready to destroy them at any cost. He won’t let anything stand in his way—not even a beautiful NSA agent on a mission of her own.

Special Agent Selene Wolfe prides herself on being the best. Her fearlessness and quick-thinking make her the perfect person to take down a deadly terrorist cell. But she needs Levi’s help, and the moment he shows up, Selene knows her objectivity—and her heart—are in trouble.

As the two strike an uneasy alliance, Levi finds himself tormented by his desire for Selene—a feeling he thought long dead. But when their mission takes an unexpected turn, he finds himself at a crossroads. Can he put aside his need for revenge to save the woman who’s reawakened his soul?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101617755
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/02/2015
Series: Deadly Ops Series , #3
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 80,973
File size: 611 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Katie Reus is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Deadly Ops novels, which include Targeted and Bound to Danger, and the Moon Shifter novels. She has a degree in psychology, and lives near Biloxi, Mississippi, with her husband, who was a Marine scout/sniper and currently works as a police officer and SWAT team sniper.

Read an Excerpt


Tango: NATO Phonetic Alphabet representation of the letter T. In military and law enforcement operations, tango often means target/terrorist.

Seven years ago

Levi hated the fucking jungle. Give him the desert or mountains any day of the week over the wet, muddy, dangerous jungle. He eased out onto one of the branches of the tree he was currently hiding in, careful to ensure there weren’t any snakes waiting to strike.

Nature in this Colombian hellhole was just as deadly as the men he was about to kill. Venomous snakes, insects the size of your face, deranged flying termites—which weren’t actually deadly, just annoying as shit—and poisonous tree frogs were the tip of the spear for what he had to look out for. In addition to gun-toting assholes.

The branch was thick, sturdy, and because of Diego Jimenez’s stupidity in not trimming the foliage around his mansion, it was the perfect way to gain entrance into the piece of garbage’s house. Levi had very specific orders and for one of the few times in his career in the Marine Corps, he had authorization to kill on sight. Didn’t have to worry about being fired on first or other rules of engagement. Every single person in this house and on the grounds was the enemy.

Since Levi knew Jimenez was into the skin trade, he didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. Anyone working for the guy should die. No one had a right to own another human being, much less rape and degrade them.

It was close to three in the morning and even though there were guards on the twenty-acre property, Jimenez kept only a total of five outside and right around the exterior of the house. Since the skin trader had a secured wall around his property he thought he was safe. His arrogance would be one of the things that got him killed.

Somehow this guy had pissed off someone in the CIA; it was why Levi was here. All he knew at this point was that Jimenez had taken a teenage girl and was keeping her captive. No details about what she looked like or why she was important. Just that she was an asset to national security and he must retrieve her at all costs, killing whoever got in his way. A teenage girl was important to national security? He wasn’t sure he bought that—more likely she was the daughter of someone important—but he didn’t need a reason to help a female.

Below him one of the guards strolled by with an AK-47 held loosely at his side as he puffed on a cigarette. His laziness was offensive, making Levi want to drop down and kill the guy right now on principle.

Once the man had passed under him and rounded the corner of the home, Levi continued inching his way along the branch until he hovered five feet above a small stone balustrade balcony. After another visual sweep of the surrounding land, he dropped down, his boots making a soft thud barely audible over the sound of monkeys and birds. Still, he crouched low, peering through the opening of the stone columns, waiting to see if he’d been discovered. There was a video camera by the top corner of the French door of the balcony, pointing right at him.

Jimenez had security cameras all over the compound and Levi had avoided most of them. It had been impossible to remain completely invisible though. He wasn’t a ghost. He waited thirty seconds, counting down in anticipation of an alarm sounding.


Somehow, he was still undetected. He and the rest of his six-man team waiting in the jungle had been told that he’d have twenty minutes where the video feeds would fail. Until now he hadn’t been positive it was true, but there was no way he’d have made it this far without those things being disabled.

It was go time.

Turning toward the doors, he quickly jimmied the lock and slipped inside. Again, no alarm, as promised. He’d also been given instructions and a crude map for how to rescue the principal. The French doors were the entry point in what appeared to be an unused guest room. He wouldn’t be going out this way though. Hell, no. He’d be going right out the front gate.

Normally he had his M-4 carbine rifle for any mission, but not this one. It was too bulky for the close quarters and likely hand-to-hand combat he’d be facing. He was coming in with his silenced MP5 submachine gun, a KA-BAR knife for up close kills, grenades in case he had a hot exit, and enough Semtex to blow this place to the ground.

This job was too last minute and they didn’t have enough intel. Less than twenty-four hours ago he’d been at Camp Pendleton, debriefing his commander on his most recent mission and dreaming about a cold beer when two men in black suits—like a fucking cliché—walked in and ordered him out. Barely a half hour later he was gearing up again and headed out on an unmarked cargo plane to a vague destination with a team of guys just as in the dark as he was about the mission.

His commander had demanded he be on point for this since he had more experience and more kills. Now he was about to put his skills to good use.

Scanning the plush room, he made his way to the far door. First, he placed a small brick of explosive under one of the dressers, pushing it up against a wall. It was undetectable to the eye in case anyone peeked in the room in the next few minutes. Once it was in place, he paused at the door and listened intently before slowly pulling it open.

One of his sidearms drawn, he swept out into the hall. Empty. His rubber-soled boots were silent as he hurried down the hall, mindful of the damn video cameras.

Even though they were turned off, their presence made him feel like he had a bull’s-eye on his forehead. At the designated door he found the keypad entry system just as he’d been told. Levi typed in the code he’d memorized, wincing at the soft beeps each press of a button made. The door opened with a barely discernible click. The CIA must have a seriously deep mole in Jimenez’s organization for this kind of intel.

His boots were silent as he descended the flight of stairs. According to his information there might or might not be a guard waiting. He slung his MP5 over his shoulder, then pulled out his KA-BAR as he reached the bottom stair.

The stairs opened up into another hallway with three doors. A guard was leaning against the wall next to the middle door—where Levi needed entrance—looking at his cell phone. Probably texting.

Without pause Levi hauled back and threw the blade at the man. It hit its mark, sinking into his throat.

Eyes wide, the guard’s phone fell from his fingers, clattering against the wooden floor as he reached up for his neck, making choking sounds. Before the man’s knees had even hit the ground, Levi had closed the distance between them. He withdrew the blade, then cut the man’s throat. Quick and efficient. Unfortunately there was a shitload of blood.

Shoving the body to the side, he easily picked the lock. Adrenaline pumping, he withdrew one of his backup pistols. The back of his neck was tingling, his gut telling him the shit was about to hit the fan.

His instinct was never wrong.

Pushing out a slow breath, he eased the door open, weapon at the ready.

There was only one piece of furniture in the small room: a twin bed. A slim, hooded female was lying on her side on it. Her arms were bound in front of her with flex cuffs and she wore thin shorts and a tank top. Her breathing kicked up the slightest notch when he stepped into the room, so he knew she wasn’t asleep, but she also wasn’t calling attention to herself. Smart. She was tall and thin but he couldn’t tell if she was the teenager or not. She was a little more developed than he expected a teenager to be. Still, even if she wasn’t part of the mission he wasn’t leaving any woman here like this. He didn’t have the operational latitude to make that kind of decision but if the CIA didn’t like it, they could suck his dick. No one was getting left behind tonight and if he had to improvise, so be it.

“Scorpion?” he whispered, the only code word he had to give her.

At that she jolted upright. “Yes.” Her voice was raspy beneath the hood, as if she hadn’t used it lately.

There was a metallic collar around her neck, holding the hood in place. “I’m going to cut your hands free, so don’t move,” he whispered, moving to kneel in front of her. “Is the collar rigged?”

“No, but it’s impossible to take it off without tools. I can see well enough anyway. We need to leave,” she whispered as he sliced through the cuffs, her body shaking with tension.

“Do I need to carry you or can you really see with that thing?” It was a mesh material that looked breathable, just uncomfortable.

“I can see your face paint,” she said, standing. She reached out and touched his paint-covered cheek. She still sounded hoarse. He wondered if her throat had been injured but didn’t ask. First he needed to get her to safety.

He was surprised she’d touched him, but didn’t pull away. Poor kid, he hated imagining what she must have been through. He tapped his earpiece. “Scorpion acquired. Everyone in position?”

Once he received affirmations from the team, he pulled out another small explosive and placed it in a corner of the room. Then he nodded toward the door. “Your guard is dead. I’m going to carry you over him so you don’t step in blood.” There weren’t any shoes or clothes in the room, so she’d be leaving like this. “Whatever I say, you do it. Don’t question me and we’ll get out of here alive. Understood?”

“Yes. Can I have one of your guns?”

She surprised him again by the question but considering how scared she had to be, he figured she wanted a way to protect herself. “You won’t need it.” Without waiting for a response, he lifted her into his arms and hurried toward the door. He hadn’t heard anything, but he scanned the hallway before stepping over the body and back toward the stairs. At the foot of the stairs he placed her on her feet and glanced at his watch even though his internal clock told him how much time had passed since his infiltration. Keeping his voice low, he said, “We’ve got eleven minutes to get to the garage unseen. After that, we’re going to come under heavy fire, but that’s okay because we’ve got backup. You’re going to stay down and out of range. No matter what happens, you keep your head down. If something happens to me, my team will get you out of here.”

She nodded, the hood moving oddly over her face. “I promise. . . . Thank you.”

That was all the affirmation he needed. Moving swiftly, they ascended the stairs. The upper hallway was still empty. He was glad because he didn’t want to have to kill someone in front of the girl. She was likely already traumatized enough.

Two doors down on the right side he stopped. There was another keypad. As he typed in the code, he felt her tentative hand at his back.

When he turned, she leaned in close. “There will be at least two guards in the garage.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

He held a finger to his lips.

She nodded and wrapped her arms around herself, clearly nervous, but at least she was keeping it together. He didn’t have time for a hysterical principal. It would fuck up the entire op. When they reached the end of the stairs he glanced over his shoulder just to make sure she was still with him. Beyond the stairwell he could hear male voices. Multiple. More than two.


He peered around the corner before quickly ducking back. There were four men, all clustered together as they joked about tag-teaming some woman. His mother had been born in the United States but her parents had emigrated from Spain and she’d taught him what she considered pure Spanish. But he understood these fuckers perfectly well even with some of the different pronunciations. Oh yeah, these guys were going to die tonight. Levi took out another explosive and placed it on one of the stairs.

He motioned for the girl to stay put, then handed her his KA-BAR. Under normal circumstances he’d never give up a weapon, but he wanted her to have a way to defend herself. When she just nodded and clutched the knife tightly in her grip, he readied his MP5.

Envisioning the scene, he knew he’d have one chance to take these guys out in a single sweep. Their close proximity gave him a huge advantage. Finger on the trigger, he stepped from his position and opened fire.

Only one of the men managed to reach for his weapon before they all hit the ground, covered in blood, dead or dying. The MP5 was truly a masterpiece of weaponry. Unlike other submachine guns with silencers this beauty used standard ammo and was one of the most accurate of its kind. And he loved it. He tapped his earpiece as he peered back around the corner of the stairwell. As he waved at the girl to move, he said, “Exiting now. Watch for movement.”

“We’ve got eyes on the gate.”

While the girl stepped cautiously into the four-car garage, he quickly scanned for some sort of key holder. A pegged board or—

“They’re in the vehicles,” she said, reading his mind, still clutching his knife like her life depended on it. Not that he blamed her. What he wouldn’t give to kill Jimenez himself.

Nodding, Levi pointed at the biggest SUV. As she hurried toward the passenger side he placed Semtex under the other three vehicles: two cars that cost more than he made in a year and a custom-made ATV.

Moments later he was in the driver’s seat, his adrenaline flashing through him like lightning even though he was rock steady. He wanted to order her into the back, but didn’t bother. They wouldn’t be in the SUV very long. Just as she’d said, the key was in the visor.

“Moving out now,” he said as he started the engine. As it flared to life he pressed the garage door opener, barely waiting until it had cleared the SUV before reversing.

As he tore into the driveway he was surprised they weren’t fired on. But as he whipped around in a one-eighty, he heard shouts then pings against the SUV. Like rain on a tin roof, it splattered over them, but he’d already known the SUV was bulletproof.

“Blow it now,” he ordered as he raced down the long driveway. “And get down,” he said to the girl.

She immediately complied, ducking in her seat.

Less than fifty yards in front of them a giant explosion rent the air, orange flames lighting up the night sky as the heavy gate blew off its hinges, carving them a direct path to freedom.

“Tangos are down, you have a clean exit,” Ortiz, one of his teammates, said. “We’ll cover you. Get Scorpion to safety.”

Levi pulled out a detonator and pressed the button. A multitude of explosions rocked behind them as they flew through the gate.

“Holy crap,” she murmured, sitting up and turning around in her seat. “Do you think Jimenez is dead?” she asked, the hope lacing her voice clawing at him.

What kind of fucker kidnapped a teenager and assaulted her? Unfortunately there were too many men in the world like that and not enough bullets. “If he’s not now he will be in the next ten minutes. Trust me.” An airstrike would be called in as soon as he and the rest of the team were cleared.

A glance in the rearview mirror told him they weren’t being followed as they sped down the quiet road in the jungle. Jimenez’s place was out in the middle of nowhere but according to Levi’s exit plan, they were barely twenty minutes from what had to be the coast of Cartagena.

“All tangos are down and the main target has been eliminated,” Ortiz said.

“The principal is secure. We’ll be at the meet point in less than twenty. Going dark,” Levi responded.

“See you back home. Watch your six,” his teammate said before cutting off communication.

Levi glanced at the girl. “Jimenez and everyone in that compound are dead. You’re safe.”

She swallowed loud enough for him to hear as a shudder racked her entire body. “I wish I could have seen him die.”

Her statement wasn’t surprising. “From here we’re going to get on a small boat.” They’d be piggybacking on a naval special operations craft. Those on board wouldn’t know anything about this op other than he and the girl were to be taken to a drop point and the girl was top priority. “About a mile out to sea, you’ll be getting on a yacht and taken to safety.”

“You’re not coming with me?” she asked quietly.

“No, but you’ll be okay. They used a lot of fucking manpower to save you, so don’t worry.” The words were meaningless considering what she’d likely been through but he wanted to say something to soothe her.

She didn’t respond and by the time they reached the pick-up point, she was full-on trembling. He parked the SUV in a deserted parking lot right off a small public beach. When she nearly stumbled getting out of the SUV, he picked her up, holding her close. “Hang in there—we don’t have much longer,” he murmured.

Curling into him, she wrapped an arm around his shoulder, but didn’t respond. For all he knew she was going into shock. Waves crashed in the distance, the salty scent of the ocean tingeing the air. With sweat rolling down his face, he stuck to the shadows as he passed through a cluster of foliage and onto the soft sand. The beaches here weren’t like back in California. There weren’t any homes or shops around for miles.

The bright moon illuminated the waiting SOC, but he paused, scanning the beach. Two shadows moved near the coastline. When he saw the burst of a blue handheld flare light up, he finally allowed himself a sliver of relief. Holding up one hand, he silently hurried toward the two men as fast as he could move through the sand carrying the girl.

Less than sixty seconds later they were seated on the back of the vessel and though he’d tried to put the girl down, she wouldn’t let go of him. Sitting against the side of the boat, they hummed through the water at an impressive speed.

He held the young woman in his arms, hating how frail she felt. “Did they hurt you?” he murmured loud enough for only her to hear. The hum of the engine drowned out everything in a two-foot radius and the other men—SEALS, he guessed—were standing guard around the perimeter of the boat and armed to the teeth.

“I’ve got a hood over my head—what do you think?” she snapped, her voice shaky and watery sounding. As if she was crying under the hood.

But at least she was talking. He held back a curse, hating that he couldn’t take the thing off her. It just felt so wrong to sit there with her, taking her to safety and not being able to show her that freedom was close. She might be able to see a little, but it was likely difficult on the boat. “I mean . . . do you need special medical attention? Maybe a female doctor?” He wasn’t even sure how he’d get one for her, but he’d be damned if he didn’t try.

“They didn’t rape me if that’s what you mean,” she said so quietly he barely heard her. “Jimenez threatened me with it, but I’m way too valuable for that.”

He didn’t have much experience with fragile females, but he rubbed her back lightly, up and down, hoping the soothing action calmed her.

“What are you doing?” she shouted, sounding panicked as she tensed in his arms.

He immediately stilled but didn’t let go of her, not wanting her to lose her balance if they hit a rough wave. “I was trying to help you calm down.”

“As long as you don’t rub any lower.”

Despite the situation he laughed. “Shit, kid. Not everyone’s a fucking pervert.”

“In my experience they are. You sure like the F word.”

He chuckled again. “Sorry. Comes with the job.” Being a Marine meant he had a degree in cursing.

“What is your job exactly? Do you work for the CIA or NSA?”

He paused, surprised by the question. “Can’t tell you that.”

“Oh. What about your name?”

“Can’t tell you that either.”

She was silent for a long moment and he thought the conversation was over until she said, “Well, thank you for saving me. I wasn’t sure if my message got out.”

He had no clue what she meant by message and he wasn’t going to ask. Sometimes the less he knew, the better. He grunted and to his surprise, she laid her head on his shoulder and finally relaxed enough that his KA-BAR loosened in her grip. He grasped it, not wanting her to hurt herself, and sheathed it.

When the boat started to slow, she jerked against him with a short cry.

“You’re okay. Can you stand or do you need help?” he asked gently. He still couldn’t pinpoint her age with the hood on but he guessed fifteen or sixteen.

“I’m good, I think.” She placed a hand on his shoulder and pushed up, her legs shaky.

Looping an arm around her shoulders, he pulled her close as he took in the two waiting vessels: a huge yacht and a Donzi speedboat. He knew which one he was getting on.

She tensed beside him, so he looked down at her hooded face. “You’re safe now, I promise. They don’t send in guys like me unless the rescue is important, okay?”

She nodded, but didn’t respond.

“Come on, kid. Give me something. You’re going to be okay, right?” He wanted to hear her say it.

She nodded again. “Maybe I’ll feel better if I can have your knife.”

His KA-BAR? His first instinct was to say hell no, but he had no clue what this kid had been through and if it would make her feel safe, he’d do it. He unclipped the sheath and gave the whole thing to her, handle first. “Be careful with it.”

“I will.” Taking him off guard she lunged at him, pulling him into a big hug and sobbing against his chest as she murmured what sounded like “thank you.”

Embarrassed, he glanced around at the other men on the craft. They were looking anywhere but at them. Thank God.

Ah, hell, he tightened his grip around her and kissed the top of her hooded head. Something told him this was one op he’d never forget. He knew it’d be impossible to find out what happened to her after tonight but he really hoped she was going to be okay.

•   •   •

Eighteen hours later Levi rolled out of his warm bed, thankful to be back home on base. He’d gotten only a few hours of sleep but his schedule was all screwed up and he didn’t want to sleep the entire day. He scrubbed a hand over his face and decided not to bother shaving. His stubble was long enough that it was against regulations but, until a few hours ago, he hadn’t slept in almost three days and grooming wasn’t a priority now. He had a week’s leave coming and he planned to take full advantage. Already dreaming of a cold beer and a warm, willing woman, he made his way to the bathroom of his two-bedroom home.

A loud knock at his front door made him pause. He wasn’t expecting anyone, but he headed to the front and didn’t bother asking who it was. Probably a neighbor needing help with a broken lawn mower or something.

His heart rate kicked up a notch when he opened the door to find his commander, Colonel Harkin, standing there with a man in a suit who looked vaguely familiar. It took all of two seconds for him to recognize the other man: Lieutenant General Wesley Burkhart, new head of the NSA.

What. The. Hell.

Levi started to stand at attention until the colonel shook his head. “Lazaro, this is—”

“Lieutenant General Wesley Burkhart, I know. Am I in trouble?” Might as well get to the point. There was no good reason for these two highly decorated men to be standing on his front porch.

The colonel grunted in that dismissive way of his and shook his head. “No. And since you know who this is, I’m going to leave you two alone to talk. You already know he’s got the highest clearance in the country, so you can discuss anything with him.” Taking Levi by surprise, he reached out and shook his hand. “Good luck, son.”

Still waking up, Levi didn’t respond as his commander headed back down the walkway. He nodded inside his home. “I was just about to make some coffee.”

“Sounds good.” Burkhart stepped in after him, shutting the door behind them. The man was maybe fifty, with gray hair and in good shape for any age. And the man moved like a damn predator, each step calculated and efficient as he scanned the interior of Levi’s sparsely furnished home.

After he pulled down two mugs from the cabinet above his coffeemaker, he started filling the glass pot with water. “You might as well start since I have no clue why you’re here,” Levi said. Behind him he heard the slight scraping of one of the kitchen table chairs being moved.

“You did a good job on that last op. Why’d you give the girl your blade?”

The question and tone made him pause. It didn’t surprise him that Burkhart knew about the op, not since he was the new director of the NSA. Levi imagined the man carried more secrets than anyone had a right to know.

Levi finished preparing the pot before turning around and answering. “She was a scared kid and she wanted something to feel safe. Is she all right?”

Burkhart’s mouth curved up the tiniest fraction, almost a micro-expression, as he nodded. “Yeah, she’s good, thanks to you and your team.”

Levi just nodded, not certain if he should respond.

After a long moment, in which Burkhart was almost preternaturally still, watching him like a lion watches its prey, the man spoke. “How’d you know who I was at the door?”

“I read a couple of articles you wrote a few years ago when you were in the Navy.”

His head tilted to the side a fraction, as if he was surprised. “You read the Navy Times?”

Levi nodded. He read most military newspapers online.

“I’m going to cut to the chase then. I’m putting together a team of men and women for black ops stuff. Similar to what the CIA has, but not. Less rules, less bureaucratic tape, and more funding. You’re the first man I’m approaching about this and if you say no, I’ll expect you to forget we ever had this conversation—but I don’t think you’re going to say no. I could give you the whole spiel about how this country needs men like you, but you already know it. I’m asking you to help your country because you have a certain skill set and you’re highly intelligent. You won’t be able to jump out of planes forever and you’ll be doing a lot of good if you work for me.”

Levi watched the man, looking for telltale signs of bullshit, but Burkhart was impossible to read. Which was good considering his job. Levi had read enough on the man to understand his politics—which were middle-of-the-road, thank God; extremists on either side were dangerous—and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t interested so far.

The coffeemaker whirred quietly behind him as he digested what Burkhart was offering. “I’m skilled and highly trained.” He wasn’t being arrogant, it was just a fact. He wouldn’t be part of MARSOC if he wasn’t good. “But there are a lot of men like me. Why am I your first?”

“I could give you a long answer about your ridiculous number of medals or the fact that you take top honors for every class or training exercise or that every individual who’s ever worked with you has nothing but praise, but . . . you asked how the girl was doing. It was your first question. And you gave her your fucking KA-BAR because she needed to feel safe. You care, Levi.”

Levi rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable with the praise, hoping he wasn’t supposed to respond.

Burkhart continued, “I need men and women who give a shit about the people we’re going to help. I will almost always look at the big picture, about what’s best for the country as a whole. I need people working for me who will question my decisions and will remind me that the individual person helps make up our country.” Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a thin manila folder and laid it on the kitchen table. “If you read this and you’re not interested, we part ways and you never speak of this meeting. But if you are interested, you get an honorable discharge and start your training tomorrow.”

Beyond curious, Levi picked up the file and started reading. By the second paragraph, his decision was made. He’d miss the Marine Corps more than anything, but he couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Chapter 1

Terrorist: a person who uses extreme violence (terror or terrorism), as a weapon to send a message or for his own gain. Often a political weapon.

Tasev gave a brief nod to the guard standing by the reinforced metal door. Immediately the man moved, quickly averting his gaze to a spot over Tasev’s shoulder as he slid a foot to the side. He was smart not to meet his gaze. No one wanted to appear as if they were challenging him.

Ignoring the man, Tasev put his hand over the biometric scanner, then leaned forward so the retinal scanner could register his left eye. Out of the corner of his right eye he kept focus on the guard, ready for an attack, even though that was unlikely. He paid his men very well and rewarded them with other perks, including willing prostitutes, on a daily basis, but that didn’t mean he could buy their loyalty. No one was truly loyal and it was something he always remembered. A few moments later, the door opened with a soft snick.

As he stepped onto the metal walkway Tasev looked at the floor below where Dr. Claus Schmidt was busy writing letters and symbols on a giant dry-erase board at warp speed. The man used computers when it suited him but for the most part the eccentric genius preferred to write things out by hand.

Tasev didn’t care how the man worked as long as he provided results. For the past two years Schmidt had been making steady progress, using the live subjects Paul Hill—an international businessman who’d been involved in all sorts of illegal activities, including the skin trade—had been providing for him to test different toxins. Now that Hill was in prison for crimes unrelated to Tasev, he had lost his source of live human test subjects.

It was frustrating but at this point not much of a setback. Schmidt was zeroing in on the necessary antitoxin. Tasev could feel it in his bones how close they were. Now, after two years of tireless work, it was almost time to unleash hell on the United States.

Over five years ago he’d retired, knowing it was time to get out of the gun and slave trades. He’d made more than enough money and had two sons who’d stepped up to take over the family business. But after they’d been killed in Afghanistan by American troops, Tasev had come out of retirement with a slow burning rage building inside him every second of every day. His sons had simply been doing business and gotten caught up in the crossfire of a war that hadn’t concerned them.

He didn’t have time for politics or religion, though he found them useful for business. If fools wanted to kill one another in the name of their gods, he’d been happy to provide them with the weapons to do it. But the skin trade had proved much more lucrative. Unfortunately more and more governments had started cracking down. It was why his sons had gone back to reliable weapons trading.

His jaw clenched as he thought of them, of his loss, of the fact that his line wouldn’t continue. Finding the perfect female had been difficult too. Their mother had been British, cultured and while stupid, she hadn’t been a whore. He might fuck prostitutes but he would never procreate with any of them.

He’d wanted his children to be proud of where they came from and his sons’ mother had been good to them, though he’d gotten rid of her influence by the time his boys turned ten. They’d been turning too soft but he’d drilled it out of them by the time they were eleven. After a freak skiing “accident” had killed their mother, it had been easy to guide them.

No distractions made all the difference in the world. He’d thought the same would be true for Dr. Schmidt but the brilliant scientist seemed to be dragging his feet the last couple of weeks. It was nothing Tasev could prove—he barely understood when the man spoke—but he always trusted his gut. Now it was telling him that Schmidt was stalling.

Though he couldn’t figure out why. Tasev paid him well and while he didn’t let him leave the grounds of his Miami home, every need he requested was granted. He lived in opulence and was allowed to use live human subjects, something he would never have been allowed to do in his civilized scientific community. It should have been a dream for the doctor.

Heading down the walkway to the stairs, Tasev was aware of the moment Schmidt finally registered his presence. The man had absolutely no situational awareness. But he wasn’t a soldier so that was to be expected.

Schmidt jerked upright from his crouched position at the bottom of the dry-erase board. He had shadows under his eyes, his plaid button-down shirt was wrinkled under his lab coat, and he smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days. According to his guards’ reports, the doctor hadn’t. He also hadn’t been eating enough.

“How is your progress?” he asked in English, keeping his voice neutral. Tasev couldn’t yell or make demands with a man like Schmidt. It worked him into such a frenzy that he couldn’t work. Sometimes for days. He’d learned that early on in their working relationship. Luckily Tasev had found the man’s weakness. So far mere threats had worked against the genius but something told Tasev that it would take more than simple words now.

“One month,” he said, not looking at Tasev. Not because he was frightened in the way that his guards were, but because Schmidt didn’t look anyone in the eye. Whether it was a quirk or habit, Tasev wasn’t certain.

And he didn’t care.

“That’s what you told me four and a half weeks ago.” His jaw tightened, but he kept a lid on his rage. He had to play this the right way.

“You want results, you give me one more month.” It was said with absoluteness. And a little arrogance. The doctor knew he was irreplaceable.

“Seven days.”

The doctor shook his head before turning his back on Tasev. A death sentence should anyone else do that to him. Muttering to himself, Schmidt crouched in front of the board again and started back with his scribbling.

Sighing, Tasev pulled out his cell phone and sent off a text. “You leave me with no choice, Doctor.”

The man paused for only a second in his writing, but it was enough to let Tasev know he’d heard. Good.

A moment later the door above opened. Tasev didn’t have to look to see who was entering. Other than himself, only his second in command had the code. Vasily was a beast of a man with a scarred face and body. With tattoos covering the majority of his upper body, he terrified most people. Right now the trembling woman he held by the throat should be scared.

“I told you what would happen if you displeased me,” Tasev said quietly.

Something about his tone must have registered in that giant brain of Schmidt’s because he turned around. When he looked upward, the man paled. It was the second time Tasev had ever seen real fear in his gaze. The first had been when he’d simply threatened to do what he was doing now.

Tasev looked up at Vasily and nodded. The man released the woman’s throat then pinned her to the edge of the metal balcony, bending her over. Eyes wild, the dark-haired beauty screamed and fruitlessly struggled as he tore the back of her skirt from the hem to the top, ripping it completely apart and tossing it away. Her black panties were the only thing covering her bottom half.

“Enough!” Schmidt shouted, rage reverberating through that one word.

Vasily didn’t move until Tasev nodded. The woman continued sobbing and begging them to stop even after Vasily just held her in place. Tasev tuned her out and glanced back at the doctor.

He froze. The man was holding a pen to his carotid artery, the placement perfect for killing himself if he applied enough pressure.

Tasev had killed a man once by ripping into his carotid using his teeth, so he knew how deadly an injury there would be. And he couldn’t let the doctor die. He’d put too much time and money in the man to start over again.

There was a sharp gleam in Schmidt’s eyes as he held Tasev’s gaze for the first time. The intense way he stared was almost jarring. “You do this, I kill myself. Then you lose two years of work. Worse, you have no record of my notes.” He tapped his head with his free hand, a reminder that most of Schmidt’s work resided there, not on paper.

“I’m not letting her go,” Tasev said with resolve.

“I know. I will finish in seven days, but she stays with me the entire time in the lab. Never out of my sight. You or your men will not harm her. She will be fed and taken care of and you will bring her a soft bed to sleep in. And a television and books for her entertainment. One of those e-readers so she can purchase what she wants. If you agree, I do not kill myself and will give you the antitoxin.” As he spoke he glanced away again, as if losing the ability to hold eye contact. But his hand never wavered, the pen placed directly over his artery.

Tasev would never admit it, but the man’s resolve was impressive. He hadn’t thought Schmidt had it in him. He was too far away to stop the doctor and it didn’t matter anyway. Tasev’s threat had worked. Now he would gain what he wanted in the necessary time frame. “We have a deal. If you’d agreed to my time line initially I never would have needed to kidnap your sweet daughter.”

The girl gasped, clearly confused, but didn’t respond.

“Send her down. If you go back on our deal or try to stop me from killing myself it won’t matter. I won’t finish the work if she’s hurt.”

Gritting his teeth, Tasev nodded. He hated anyone ordering him around. It reminded him too much of his youth. But he was backed into a corner. As soon as Schmidt was done he’d be killing the doctor anyway. But first he’d make him watch as Vasily raped his daughter. Feeling better about the situation, he nodded at Vasily and gave a sharp command.

His second in command shoved the girl toward the stairs, grinning as he stared at her barely covered ass. He knew Tasev would give her to him soon. On trembling legs, the girl made her way to the stairs, most of her sobbing subsiding as she clutched the railing. When she was at the bottom of the stairs, Schmidt spoke again, his words so low that Tasev almost didn’t hear them.

“If you kill Vasily right now, I will make it five days.” A promise.

Excitement leaped inside him followed by a thin thread of regret. Vasily was a good commander, but like all of Tasev’s men, he was replaceable. The doctor was not. Withdrawing his gun, he aimed and shot Vasily between the eyes, dropping him on the spot.

•   •   •

“Why did you ask that man to kill the scarred one?” Aliyah asked Claus, the first words she’d spoken since he’d given her one of his lab coats and some of Tasev’s men had come to take away Vasily’s body and clean up the blood. There had been surprisingly little of it.

He looked at his daughter, trying to drink in every inch of her lovely face. He’d seen her only in pictures, her American mother telling him of Aliyah’s existence six years ago. And only because she’d needed to see if his kidney would be a match for Aliyah’s. He’d had a brief affair with Chaya, but she’d been married and had lied to her husband about Aliyah being his. The husband had been dead for a decade, though, so she could have come to Claus before that. She’d chosen not to until their daughter had needed something.

“Because he deserved it,” Claus said, realizing he needed to respond and stop staring at her. “Is that the only question you have?”

She shook her head, her pale green eyes a match to his own glimmering with tears. “You are my father,” she said.

He raised his eyebrows. “Yes.”

“Did you give me your kidney?”

Again he was surprised but perhaps he shouldn’t be. “How did you know?”

“My mother said it was a miracle that we found a donor but I knew she was lying. There was no way we’d gotten such a perfect match and moved up the list so quickly. And the mysterious money she left me when she died—I knew it wasn’t from her. And . . . I knew it was unlikely that my dad was my biological father from a young age.”

Claus frowned, but didn’t ask how she’d known.

She answered anyway and pointed to herself. “Simple genetics. If you’d ever seen him you’d understand. He was very fair-skinned and fair-haired. I’m not stupid and neither was my father. Besides, he said something once, when I was about ten . . .” She shrugged, trailing off. “It doesn’t matter. Why am I here? And what are you doing working for that monster, whoever he is?”

“I’m here because I’m an arrogant fool.” He’d written multiple papers on what could happen if certain toxins were altered. It had been interesting to speculate but he’d just been theorizing. He hadn’t actually planned to test his theories. No one outside his scientific circles paid attention to his ramblings anyway. Or so he’d thought. “I have altered what’s known as foodborne botulism into a stronger, deadlier strain.” And that in itself was a feat considering how deadly it already was. “Right now I’m working to create an antitoxin.” He already knew the formula but hadn’t put it into practice. Or on paper.

She stared at him as if he was a monster, something he’d expected. And something he deserved. But he wouldn’t be less than honest. Before he could continue the door opened again. Instinctively Claus stepped in front of Aliyah, knowing there was little he could do to protect her if Tasev decided Claus’s life wasn’t worth anything anymore.

Two men strode in carrying a mattress. Behind them another of the guards carried two bags. Claus was still as they strode down the stairs and placed the bed in the darker shadowed area underneath the stairs. His lab was huge and he tended to dim the lights only when he dozed on his cot, but he’d have to see about getting his daughter more privacy.

The guard carrying the bags tossed them onto the bed, then looked at Claus. In Russian he told him there were clothes for Aliyah and bedding. Tasev had also given her an iPad loaded with books, but it wasn’t connected to the Internet. When the guard looked past Claus, his gaze heated as he looked at Claus’s daughter. All the rage Claus had been bottling up for two years boiled to the surface.

“Maybe I ask Tasev to kill you too,” he murmured in Russian, not wanting his daughter to understand what he was saying. She was already horrified enough by him, he didn’t need to give her more reasons to hate him.

That snapped the man’s attention back to Claus for a moment. He gave him a look that promised death before turning on his heel and striding after the others.

Once they were gone, he turned to Aliyah to find her standing next to one of his many tables, her arms wrapped around herself. She looked so lost and vulnerable and though Claus had always thought himself a nonviolent man, he knew in that moment he would have no problem putting a bullet in Tasev’s head to save his daughter. For the past two years he’d done nothing but dream of killing the man who held him hostage and forced him to do unspeakable things.

He cleared his throat. “They brought you clothes, bedding, and an iPad. But you won’t have any Internet.” Or so that fool Tasev thought. Claus would have only one chance to contact outside help. For two long years he’d waited for something like this. He’d gotten a message to one of his friends—who worked for the NSA—two years ago but he’d been taken before they could meet up. She was smart but there was no way for anyone to track him when he’d been unable to communicate with the outside world.

Until now.

He was going to have to try again even with the risk. At this point he would risk death if he could just get a message to his friend Meghan Lazaro. If she knew he was still alive she’d help him. He had no doubt.

Chapter 2

FFP: final firing position (sniper term).

Selene Wolfe chewed on a piece of teriyaki beef jerky as she lay flat on her belly, looking through the glass of her Leupold Mark 4 scope. She’d been in position for only five hours waiting for her target to show his face. Ramsey Jurden, a freaking white supremacist terrorist. She hated these guys. Especially ones with a predilection for kids. Yeah, this job wasn’t going to sit heavy on her soul. Not like some of the others.

Normally Wesley didn’t give her anything he didn’t think she could handle anyway. Her specialty was computers, which made her a valuable asset to the NSA. It was the sole reason they’d recruited her at the age of sixteen. But when he’d hired her she’d insisted that he give her any training she asked for. After years spent living on her own she knew what it was to be helpless, and she’d sworn to herself that it would never happen again. Since she couldn’t very well train herself and anyone she hired wouldn’t have been nearly as good as someone Wesley could have recommended, she’d been quite insistent on her terms of employment. So he’d given her everything she wanted—because he’d have done pretty much anything to ensure she worked for him—which meant she’d gotten to train with the very best.

Her weapons mentor, as she liked to think of him, was a retired USMC sniper school instructor. He’d been a hard-ass and hadn’t cared that she was a woman. If anything, she guessed he pushed her harder than normal because of her gender. Which was fine with her. He’d given her a valuable gift, one nobody could ever take away from her.

Knowledge was the ultimate power. Something she never took for granted.

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