For fans of Lee Child, Terry Hayes, and Laura Lippman comes a blistering thriller in which Vanessa Michael Munroe faces the fight of her life
Vanessa Michael Munroe, chameleon and information hunter, has a reputation for getting things done: dangerous and not quite legal things that have taken her undercover into some of the world’s deadliest places. Still healing from a Somali hijacking gone wrong and a brutal attack that left her near death, Munroe joins her lover, Miles Bradford, in Japan where he’s working as a security consultant protecting high-value technology from industrial espionage. In the domesticity of their routine she finds long sought-after peace—until Bradford is arrested for murder, and the same interests who targeted him come after her, too.
Searching for answers and fighting to stay alive, Munroe will soon discover how far she’ll go to save Bradford from spending the next twenty years in locked-up isolation; how many laws she’ll break when the truth seems worse than his lies; and who to trust and who she must kill. Because she’s a strategist and hunter with a predator’s instincts, and the man she loves has just stabbed her in the back.
With break-neck pacing, incendiary prose, and an unforgettable cast of characters, The Mask features Vanessa Michael Munroe: a brilliant, lethal heroine who will stop at nothing to find the truth, no matter what it may cost.
“Stevens excels at depicting pulse-pounding danger, and her prose and plotting are spectacular. . . . Only Dan Brown and Lee Child come close.” —Dallas Morning News
“[Munroe is] a protagonist as deadly as she is irresistible.” —Vince Flynn
“If you are a fan of Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander, or Nina Zero, you need to check out Vanessa Michael Munroe!” —BookPage
“A winning series character who has the world at her beck and call.” —Los Angeles Times
“Munroe’s brooding personality and her ability to blend into her surroundings bring to mind the provocative Jason Bourne.” —USA Today
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
**This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof**
Copyright © 2015 Taylor Stevens
The attack, when it came, opened the floodgates of rage. Sound compressed. Time slowed to a water drip plonking into a puddle, echoing a musical note off concrete walls and floors; tires whooshing against the drizzle on the street outside as a car passed the parking garage exit; laughter pealing from the playground down the block. And footsteps, three sets of footsteps, moving in cautiously behind her back.
Vanessa Michael Munroe waited beside the motorcycle, one knee to the pavement, focused on the reflection in the bike’s red fairing. Behind her head, shadows against the evening’s light dropped hints of metal pipes protruding from raised hands, elongating and stretching as they drew nearer.
She counted heartbeats and felt the rhythm.
The muscles in her legs tensed and the chemical surge of adrenaline and anger loosed its addictive calm.
The metal bars came down hard into the empty space where she’d been a half-heartbeat before: metal against concrete ringing loud in the enclosed space, symphonic in the thunder of war.
She came up swinging, helmet chin-guard in hand, all her weight, her full momentum thrown into that backward strike. The man on the right ducked too slowly, moved too late.
The swing smashed helmet into head.
He stumbled. Munroe grabbed the pipe and tore it from his hand. She whipped up and downward, to the back of his knees. He hit the ground and became a barrier between her and the two other men. Boot to his shoulder, she shoved him prostrate and then boosted over him, swinging hard.
The attackers swung, too, and hit for hit she countered, connecting the pipe with their bodies in solid beats because speed was her ally and speed was her friend, in and out and around, until they separated, becoming not one target but two. They were cautious now, angry and, perhaps for the first time, fully aware of the strength of their enemy.
Movement from behind told her that the man on the concrete had pushed to his knees. Munroe rotated back, struck hard, and he collapsed.
She faced the other two again, predicting move against move, guarding the rate of her breathing, conserving strength for a battle that had only begun.
The men shifted, foot to foot, and tensed for the attack and parry. They gripped their weapons, fingers rising and falling along the pipes in slow motion like spiders’ legs along the ground.
She waited for them to come at her again.
Instead, they exchanged glances: nervous with the uncertainty of foot soldiers marching to someone else’s beat in an evening that had gone off script.
The pounding inside her chest groaned in understanding.
The drive for release, for pain, pushed her at them.
She pointed the metal bar at one, marking territory, intended pocket for the eight ball, then strode toward him in misdirection and distraction.
He took several steps in retreat.
A shadow moved in her peripheral vision: his partner flanking and closing in. Munroe pivoted, swung, and connected the metal bar to his shoulder: small pain, a half second of diversion. He retaliated and opened himself up like a fool. She dodged and dropped, then drove the metal bar across his shin: crippling pain, unbearable pain, she knew.
In the beat between his shock and agony, she wrenched the bar from his hand and with two pipes to his none struck his rib cage. He doubled over. She knocked him flat and rotated toward his companion, who, in those same seconds, had backed away another few steps.
She feinted toward him. His eyes darted from her to his partners, and then he turned and ran. The crippled one dragged himself backward, out of immediate reach. He put up a hand, shielding his face in a show of defeat, and Munroe stood in place, rocklike and solid, eyes tracking him, breathing past the urges that drove her to strike again, to move in for the kill and finish what he’d started.
He grimaced and struggled up. Never turning his back to her, arms wrapped protectively around his torso, he hobbled toward the garage opening and then, moving around the corner, he was gone.
The condensation dripped another plonk into the puddle, another musical note echoed along concrete walls; another set of tires whooshed against the pavement beyond the garage exit; laughter in the distance morphed into the squeals of multiple children; and, with long, slow breaths, the violence of the moment ebbed and faded.
Munroe hefted the pipes and checked her hands, and then her clothes and boots. No blood. That was progress. She walked toward the unconscious man and stood over him, then put a boot to his torso and shoved the body over so that his face turned upward.
He was in his very early twenties, maybe five foot seven, all bone and sinew and stylish hair. She stared out toward the daylight where the other two had gone. Boys like this, full of bravado and without a lot of skill, had no business coming after her. They were a piece of the puzzle that didn’t fit. She couldn’t guess who had sent them, and that raised questions she hadn’t begun to ask. This wasn’t the beginning.
Sometimes it was impossible to start at the beginning.
When the story was complicated and the origin far back in a seemingly mundane pattern of daily life, the only way to make sense of it was to go back to before the beginning, to before the first hint of trouble.
Munroe wiped down the pipes for prints.
In the echo of the garage, footsteps shuffled and clothing rustled:
movements small and cautious.
Munroe knelt and placed the pipes beside the body and, without turning, said, “You can come out now.”
DAY −63 8:00 P.M.
The opaque doors of Kansai International’s immigration hall opened to a wall of bodies and a polite crush of expectant faces: the international arrival’s rite of passage. Munroe scanned the crowd and, dragging the small carry-on around the metal rails, continued into the thick of the waiting throng.
Airport lights in the night sky winked through large plate-glass windows, marking another city and another time zone—this one a long, long stretch from the puddle jumps she’d made out of Djibouti, on the horn of Africa where the mouth of the Red Sea kissed the Gulf of Aden, then through the Middle East, and into Europe.
Frankfurt, Germany, to Osaka, Japan: sixteen hours in transit and now the traveling, the running, was finally over. Munroe shoved the backpack’s slipping strap up her shoulder and turned a slow circle, searching, seeking.
For more than ten years, through untold airports and arrival destinations, strangers had peered beyond her with the same hopeful expressions, ever eager to spot a glimpse through closing doors of loved ones still on the other side. Across five continents she’d come and gone, ghostlike and invisible, while others welcomed family home, but this time—this time—a home waited to welcome her.
Not the country, or the city, or the land, or things built upon it, no. If there could ever be such a thing as home for a person like her, Miles Bradford was that home, and her gaze passed over the crowd again, seeking him out.
She spotted him finally: a splash of white skin and red-tinged blond hair leaning against a window, his face toward his phone, framed by parking lights and tower lights and shadows. She paused, drinking in memories that laughed and babbled like a brook over pebbles of pain, then maneuvered forward through legs and shoulders, suitcases and luggage carts, and the melee of joy that inevitably accompanied reunions.
She was halfway to him when he glanced up. His eyes connected with hers and the volume of the arrivals area shushed into white noise.
He stood motionless for a full second, two, three, phone paused in its descent to his pocket, grinning as if he’d just unwrapped a much-longed-for Christmas gift. She continued in his direction and he strode toward her, and when he reached her, he scooped her up, spun her in a circle, and drowned her smile with a kiss. She laughed as he set her down and didn’t resist when he lifted the backpack off her shoulder and took the carry-on’s handle.
“Good flight?” he said.
She nodded, unwilling to speak lest she break the spells of touch and feel and smell that whispered against her senses. She breathed him in to make a permanent memory and breathed out the dirt and grime and lies and death that had brought her to him.
Bradford dropped the bags and wrapped his arms around her again. He held her for a long, long while, just as he’d held her in Dallas the night she’d walked away, when he’d known she was leaving and had spared her the agony of saying good-bye. He kissed her again, hoisted the backpack, grabbed the carry-on, then took her hand and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
She followed him to the elevator, fingers interlinked with his, and he glanced at her once, twice, matching her grin each time he did. He hadn’t changed much—a few gray hairs added to his temples, deeper wrinkles in the creases of his smile, and maybe more muscle mass beneath his shirt, though it was hard to tell. He looked good. Smelled good. And in a mockery of their eight-year age difference, she’d aged five years in their year apart—still bore the remnants of conflict that had prematurely ended a maritime security company at the hands of Somali pirates—hadn’t yet fully healed from the assault in Mombasa that had nearly killed her.
A four-day layover in Frankfurt had allowed a respite of hotel luxury; given her time to scrub away the worst of the weather wear, the dust, and the salt spray, and the effects of wide open spaces; and made it possible to trade sun-bleached clothes worn threadbare over the last year for new pieces, better suited to less demanding environments.
She’d come to Japan for him, because he’d asked her to. Because she’d known happiness with him, and loved him, and running from that terror had only brought more pain and death instead of the nothingness she’d sought.
They left the terminal for warm air, thick with the promise of coming rain. Bradford rolled the suitcase between endless rows of cars and finally stopped behind an off-white Daihatsu Mira so small it could have fit in the bed of his truck back in Dallas.
Munroe looked at him and then the car.
“Don’t laugh,” he said. “This is the country of itty-bitty things.”
She took a step back and, in an exaggerated motion, turned her head left and then right, where up and down the rows on either side were a vast number of vehicles much larger than the Mira.
Smiling, Bradford shook his head and opened the hatchback. He stuffed the bags into the tiny storage compartment and slammed the door to make sure it shut. “You think it’s funny now,” he said, “you’ll be grateful later.”
“It suits you,” she said.
“Trust me, I asked for something bigger.”
“No, really, it’s very cute.”
He nudged her left, toward the passenger side. He said, “Just keep stroking that masculine ego.”
Munroe sat and buckled, and when Bradford was behind the wheel with his seat pushed back as far as it would go, she stared at him.
“What?” he said.
“Cute,” she said, and then she laughed.
He smiled, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, kissed her lips, and then, palm cradling the back of her neck, rested his forehead against hers.
She breathed him in.
The parking garage, the bridge to the city, and the bright green neon on a giant Ferris wheel became a backdrop, and the last year a waning history, and it was as if no time apart had ever passed between them. This was contentment and peace. This was home.
That part never changed, in spite of everything else that would.