Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
â€śI have a visual confirmation of the target. Standby for my go.â€ť
Jack Donovan listened to the target toss his keys on the table and stood by as instructed instead of charging out and taking the guy down like he wanted. Almost two hours heâ€™d been sweltering in position, and it was so goddamn hot the pungent odors of his surroundings were infiltrating his pores.
A door closed.
â€śHold,â€ť Connor Oâ€™Brien said, his voice clear over the earpiece. He was monitoring the room via camera. â€śTarget has moved to interior room. Lost visual.â€ť
Jack tapped on his microphone to let Oâ€™Brien know he understood. Since Jack was currently in the targetâ€™s closet, a verbal confirmation wasnâ€™t a good idea.
The only thing separating him from the rest of the fleabag motel room was a thin, dirty curtain, and he could hear a faint shuffle of movement on the other side. With the target taking a piss, the only other person in play was Ty West, a.k.a. the Devlin Groupâ€™s new guy. Theyâ€™d flipped a coin and Jack won the closet. Ty was taking up space between a filthy wooden floor and the underside of a filthier mattress, probably wondering why heâ€™d given up riding an FBI desk to become a contract agent with the group.
What Ty West didnâ€™t know was that, no matter how the coin flip turned out, Jack wasnâ€™t going under that bed. He had seniority, and the coin toss had been his way of making nice. If it had gone the other way, Jack would have stopped being nice.
A toilet flushed. Pipes rattled. And Jackâ€™s fingers flexed and fisted as he readied himself to strike.
Herbert Scanlon was a very wanted man. So wanted, in fact, that both the good guys and the bad guys wanted to get their hands on him. The drug cartel he did some creative bookkeeping for didnâ€™t like the fact heâ€™d gotten caught by his own employee, and in desperation, Herbert had decided to shoot up his office building, drawing the attention of every major branch of law enforcement. The governments of Texas and the United States wanted all the dirt he had on his less savory associates before they exacted justice for six counts of homicide committed during the commission of a drug-related crime.
The good news for Herbertâ€”because he was eligible for the death penalty, Mexico was going to resist handing him back over to Texas. The bad newsâ€”a public servant whoâ€™d devoted his career to taking down the cartel, mostly in vain, had convinced the powers that be to call in the Devlin Group. Alex Rossiâ€™s agents didnâ€™t worry too much about jurisdiction and extradition.
Herbert was going to take a little nap, and when he woke up, heâ€™d be back in the great state of Texas, with well-armed guys wearing badges knocking on his door.
No, Your Honor, we donâ€™t know how he came to be back in the United States. We got an anonymous tip revealing his location and picked him up.
Just a simple kidnapping job, provided Jack, Oâ€™Brien and West didnâ€™t run afoul of the trouble that made Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world, the Mexican authorities, the drug cartel or even the US authorities. Kidnapping, even for a good reason, was illegal, so the home team would pretend theyâ€™d never heard of the Devlin Group if they got into trouble. There would be no naming of names.
A floorboard squeaked, and Oâ€™Brien came back over Jackâ€™s earpiece. â€śVisual confirmed. Stand by for my signal.â€ť
They would wait until his back was turned to the closet, giving Jack a very slight element of surprise. Not that heâ€™d need much. The accountant was shorter, softer and would probably assume the cartel had found him. If anything, heâ€™d cry and piss his pants.
Jack stepped out from behind the curtain and had Herbert in a choke hold with his right arm and had his left hand over his mouth before the guy could even react. He struggled, but Jack held tight while Ty scooted out from under the bed. The new guy held a syringe, and several long minutes of struggling passed between Ty injecting one hundred milligrams of ketamine into Herbert and the accountant slumping in Jackâ€™s arms.
â€śWeâ€™re good to go,â€ť Jack said into his microphone as the ketamine stupor kicked in.
The plan was for Herbert to look like just another American tourist whoâ€™d chased too many tequila shots with too much cheap Mexican beer. Drunks attracted a lot less attention than unconscious bodies wrapped in rugs.
They lowered him to the bed and gathered any identifying belongings they could find that would prove Herbert Scanlon had been in the room, along with their cameras. They couldnâ€™t take everything with themâ€”guys whoâ€™d had too good a time at happy hour didnâ€™t carry luggage aroundâ€”but a suitcase of clothes confiscated from Herbertâ€™s home was already in the motel theyâ€™d rented under his fake name in the States. Once they added a few toiletries and his wallet to the tableau, it would look like heâ€™d been there for days.
â€śWeâ€™re ready,â€ť he told Oâ€™Brien.
â€śHold up a few minutes. Thereâ€™s some activity on the street. Might draw a crowd or what passes for law enforcement around here.â€ť
Jack hated waiting. â€śWe canâ€™t wait too long. If weâ€™re late to the wedding, weâ€™ll never hear the end of it.â€ť
Charlotte Rhames, the Devlin Groupâ€™s executive administrator, and Tony Casavetti, one of the groupâ€™s top agents, were getting married on Casavettiâ€™s Texas ranch, and the timetable was tight. Deliver Herbert, get to San Antonio. Power nap, shower, don tuxedoes and be at the ranch by noon. The wedding had already been postponed three times over the last year due to work, and sheâ€™d made it clear it wasnâ€™t to happen again. And anybody who was late or sustained injuries that might ruin the wedding photos would be getting shit assignments for a good long time.
â€śLook at my hands,â€ť Herbert said in a low, awestruck voice. â€śMy fingers look like Fred Flintstoneâ€™s.â€ť
His whole body looked like Flintstoneâ€™s, though Jack didnâ€™t bother to tell him so. He hoped whoever kicked in Herbertâ€™s new motel room door in the morning brought the plastic zip-tie cuffs because standard issue might not cut it.
â€śOkay, the streetâ€™s as clear as itâ€™s going to get,â€ť Oâ€™Brien informed them. â€śTime to get the hell out.â€ť
Jack didnâ€™t need to hear that twice. He looped Herbertâ€™s arm around his shoulders and used his left arm to support him while Ty pulled open the door.
Thwap. The silenced bullet passed between Jackâ€™s head and Tyâ€™s, then continued through the cheap wall behind them.
Ty slammed the door while Jack hissed an oh shit update into his mic. The question was whether it was random robbery-related violence or if the cartel had found them. Random street thugs rarely used silencers, though. It was the cartel, and they were in serious trouble.
Jackâ€™s first instinct was to shove Herbert to the floor, but he was afraid, once the guy was down there, Jack wouldnâ€™t be able to get him back up. Instead he hauled him toward the bathroom, praying whoever was in the hall didnâ€™t open fire on the flimsy walls with automatic weapons because his accountant friend wasnâ€™t fast on his feet.
Looking back over his shoulder, he saw West was belly down on the floor with the lower half of his body folded up in the closetâ€”an uncomfortable position that allowed him to see both the door and the window while making him less likely to take any bullets coming through the wall. Not bad for a new guy, he thought as he convinced Herbert folding himself up in the bathtub was a good idea.
â€śI didnâ€™t see anybody go in,â€ť Oâ€™Brien said into his ear.
â€śMaybe whatever was going on in the street was a diversion.â€ť He kept his voice low so as not to give their shooter an audible target.
â€śIâ€™m not a rookie.â€ť
No, he wasnâ€™t. Theyâ€™d been partnered more often than not during their time with the group, and there was nobody Jack trusted more. â€śMaybe not, but somebody in that hallway took a shot at us, and we donâ€™t know who it was, how many there are or where they came from.â€ť
â€śI can come in behind them.â€ť
Jack thought about it for a second. â€śNegative. Itâ€™s better if they donâ€™t know youâ€™re here at all. Howâ€™s the fire escape look?â€ť
â€śLike the rest of the place. I wouldnâ€™t put money on it holding Herbert.â€ť
Shit. â€śHow about just me?â€ť
â€śCanâ€™t say from here.â€ť
â€śIs the window above ours open?â€ť
A couple seconds later, he got the affirmative. â€śNo movement, so the roomâ€™s either empty or the occupantâ€™s in bed.â€ť
Jack ducked behind the dubious shelter of the bathroom vanity as several bullets punched a line of holes in the wall about four feet up. Then nothing.
â€śIf we wait,â€ť West said, his voice carried to him from across the room by the communication system, â€śthey might get antsy and come in. We take them as they come through the door.â€ť
Or it was a spotter whoâ€™d keep them pinned down with random shots until the big guns showed up. Literally. â€śI hate fighting blindfolded. Iâ€™m going up a floor, and then Iâ€™ll see if I can scope out whatâ€™s going on out there. You got the door?â€ť
â€śUnless the situation goes to hell, Iâ€™ve got it.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll be quick. Oâ€™Brien, am I clear?â€ť
He gave the rickety fire escape a good shake before trusting it with his weight, and he was halfway up the ladder when movement below caught his eye. A man stepped out of the shadows, but not so far out he could get a good look at him. He got a good look at the glint of light on the gun in his hand, though.
â€śMy four,â€ť he said into the mic, but the thug was already falling to the ground with a hole in his head. â€śNice shot.â€ť
â€śThanks. Move your ass.â€ť
The room above Herbertâ€™s was empty, but Jack moved as silently as possible toward the door and into the hall because running footsteps might tip off their friends below. He would have preferred taking a staircase on the opposite side of the building rather than coming out into the same hallway, but he couldnâ€™t waste the time.
There was no door at the bottom, so he peeked out just enough for a quick surveillance. There were two of them, looking as relaxed as a pair of hunters sharing a beer in a tree stand. One was on the phone, though, talking in rapid-fire Spanish. The other lifted his gun, just as Jack pulled his head back in, and pumped a few more rounds into Herbertâ€™s room.
There was a good chance that guy was on the phone with some cartel higher-up, asking where their backup was, so Jack couldnâ€™t hesitate. The suppressor was already attached to his weapon, so he stepped into the hall and took them out with two quick shots.
â€śGet Herbert out of the tub,â€ť he hissed to West through his mic, â€śand letâ€™s blow this popcorn stand. Oâ€™Brien, be ready to roll because weâ€™re going to have company very soon.â€ť
As he stepped past the bodies to open the door, he saw a key fob hanging out of one guyâ€™s pocket, the name of the place they were in barely showing up on the ancient rubber. They hadnâ€™t gotten past Oâ€™Brien, then. Theyâ€™d been watching Herbert, probably waiting for confirmation he was the target, and were forced into making a move when somebody else threatened to beat them to the punch.
Oâ€™Brien pulled up in a nondescript but well-running sedan as Jack and West went out the side door, Herbert staggering between them. After shoving him into the backseat with the new guy, Jack went around to the shotgun seat. â€śGet the hell out of here.â€ť
Just as they were turning a corner in the maze of streets, a sedan as nondescript as theirs pulled up in front of the seedy motel and stopped.
It wasnâ€™t until theyâ€™d crossed the border with no more problems, thanks in part to the Devlin Groupâ€™s generous contribution to the border guardâ€™s retirement fund, that Jack relaxed in his seat and let out a deep breath. All that was left to do was dump Herbert off and call in the anonymous tip.
â€śCouldâ€™ve been worse,â€ť Oâ€™Brien said. â€śAt least weâ€™re all still pretty for the wedding photos.â€ť
â€śI am, anyway. Hopefully the photographerâ€™s got some program that can polish up your ugly mug.â€ť
While the other two trash talked, Jack leaned his head against the headrest and closed his eyes. Weddings he could take or leaveâ€”preferably leaveâ€”but he was looking forward to a little downtime.
A few laughs, a few drinks and maybe a pretty wedding guest who couldnâ€™t find a date to the wedding. Not a bad way to relax.
It wasnâ€™t the enormous emerald-cut diamond in the jewelry store window that caught Isabelle Arceneauâ€™s eye. It was the reflection of the man behind her.
It was the fourth window sheâ€™d seen him in, and since he was too far on the outer edge of the busy Manhattan sidewalk to see the merchandise, she got the uncomfortable impression she was the display he had his eye on. As paranoid as it seemed, the longer she walked, the more certain she became he was watching her.
This time she lingered a moment in front of the window, pretending to be entranced by the glittering display, so she saw him reach inside the coat it was really too warm to be wearing.
For reasons she couldnâ€™t consciously define, Isabelleâ€™s muscles tensed as he withdrew his hand.
He had a gun.
She dove to her left as the shot rang out. Cement burned her palms and her knees as she hit the ground, shattered glass showering her. People screamed, and she was scrambling, managing to kick off her high-heeled pumps, and then she was running.
There was chaos around her as people panicked, but she shoved her way through. She wasted no time or energy glancing over her shoulder for the man. Either a bullet would hit her in the back or it wouldnâ€™t, but she couldnâ€™t fight off a gun. There was no sense in wasting the time to look back.
It was tempting to duck down a side streetâ€”to find a place to hideâ€”but the crowd was her only protection. If she ended up in a dead-end alley with the man, sheâ€™d not only be defenseless, but sheâ€™d probably die alone, with no witnesses to her murder.
Murder. Oh God, why was somebody trying to kill her?
Her bare feet were rubbed raw by the sidewalk, and with each step, the impact bruised her heel bone, but she kept running. There wasnâ€™t a cop in sight, and her cell phone was probably bouncing its way to the bottom of her purse, which was slung messenger-style across her body.
It felt like she ran forever, until her lungs were burning as badly as her feet, before she spotted a coffee shop sheâ€™d frequented often enough in the past to know the layout.
She ducked inside, going directly down the narrow hall to the womenâ€™s restroom while ignoring the curious looks from the throng of customers. It was mercifully empty, and she closed the solid door behind her. There was a twist lock on the doorknob, as well as a deadbolt, and she engaged them both.
As her ragged breaths became sobs, she crawled as far under the porcelain sink as she couldâ€”away from the doorâ€”not caring about the dirty floor or the smudgy trail of blood her hands, knees and feet left on it.
She wanted Jack Donovan.
That was nothing new. Not a single day passed that she didnâ€™t think about Jackâ€”wondering what he was doing. Where he was. Sometimes, considering his job, she wondered if he was even still alive. For a while, after sheâ€™d first returned to the United States, sheâ€™d type his name into search engines, but nothing ever came up.
The number heâ€™d given her was programmed into her phoneâ€™s contacts. Sheâ€™d never called it, though sheâ€™d sometimes pulled it up on the screen and run her thumb over his name.
Isabelle, if you ever need me, you call. Day or night. No matter what Iâ€™m doing or where you are, Iâ€™ll be there.
Thatâ€™s what heâ€™d said to her in the airport in Gabon, before putting her on a plane back to the United States. She knew heâ€™d meant it at the time, but a year was a long time.
She should call 911. Rummaging in the bottom of her bag, she found her phone. After punching in the number, she gave the operator her name and location.
â€śSomebody tried to kill me. He shot at me.â€ť
â€śThe police are on their way, maâ€™am. I need you to stay on the line andâ€”â€ť
â€śI need Jack.â€ť
â€śWho is Jack?â€ť
â€śI have to call Jack.â€ť
â€śMaâ€™am, I need you to stay on the line soâ€”â€ť
But Isabelle had already disconnected. Jack knew about being shot at. He could help her. She pulled up his name and hit the call button. â€śPlease answer.â€ť
She needed Jack.