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Authors: Leslie Jones

Bait

BOOK: Bait
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Dedication

To my husband, Kim, and our wonderful son, Scott.

Thank you for believing in me.

 

Acknowledgments

I
AM
SO
grateful to my wonderful husband and our amazing son. They are the sun shining through the gloom to light my way home. Thank you for supporting me unswervingly from the very beginning. Many thanks to my critique partners and beta readers—­because of you, my books are tighter, stronger, and more interesting. To my wonderful agent and fabulous editor, I simply could not have done this without you. Thank you for your encouragement, support, and knowledge. And lastly, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to the men and women of our military forces, who keep us safe and warm in our beds both domestically and around the world.

 

Prologue

S
OMETHING
HAD
GONE
awry. Christina could feel it in the air, in the looks Yuri gave her. She fought the impulse to clear her throat, gluing her palms to the desk and forcing her body to relax as Yuri searched her for weapons. Wires. Anything that didn't belong. His hands slid under her shirt, across her ribs, and up to the base of her breasts.

“We came to terms yesterday, Yuri. What the hell's changed?”
Be aggressive
, she chanted to herself. Impatient. “Bobby's overseeing the shipment. I don't have time to waste on shit like this. But you said you wanted me here, so I'm here.”

The warehouse swallowed her voice. It wasn't more than fifteen hundred square feet, but it was packed with merchandise of all kinds. Yuri's two bodyguards lounged nearby. She looked up at the ceiling as though striving for patience. In actuality, she searched the shadows for more armed men.

“Patience, Chris.”

She narrowed her eyes, but her heart sank. The way he said her name . . . he knew. Somehow he knew she was here undercover. How? The CIA had crafted solid covers for all of them. How had he made her?

“I want your merchandise,” she said, going for the bluff. Why the hell was Bobby so far from her? She needed him by her side, ready to back her play. “But there are other suppliers. Ones who won't try to hit me up for more cash at the nth hour.”

Fedyenka came up through the central pathway and sauntered to the desk. His sagging, florid face looked yellow in the artificial lighting. A cockatoo rode on one heavy shoulder, wings half spread for balance. She recognized the parrot from their visit to the warehouse the previous day. It leaned forward to grab the chunk of papaya in Fedyenka's thick fingers, then settled back and tore into the sweet treat. Bobby followed more slowly, flanked by the elder Osinov's bodyguard, Stas Noskov, and another thug. Christina evened out her breathing.
Don't let on you know.

Did Bobby know they'd been made? Did he have a plan? She watched him, ready to follow his lead.

Bobby stabbed a finger at Fedyenka. “We made a deal. You can't go back on it. That's unprofessional, and I'll make sure everyone knows it.”

Bobby Roberts had no sense of teamwork.

She cringed inwardly. Whoever had decided he should be in charge of this operation should be shot.

“I'm a simple man,” Fedyenka said. His double chin bobbed as he spoke. “Ten percent across the board. Delivery as promised.”

Bobby blustered. “A ten percent increase cuts our profit by half. What the fuck?”

Fedyenka's voice grew hard. “Take it or leave it.”

“Fuck you. Let's go, Chris.” Bobby turned, and she prepared to follow him. Did he, too, sense danger in the air, or was he bluffing, hoping the Osinovs would back down?

A pistol appeared in Yuri's hand. “I don't believe you're going anywhere just yet.”

The four goons also drew weapons. Fedyenka folded his arms across his massive chest.

“It's a funny thing,” Fedyenka said. “We're cautious businessmen. So we asked around about you. Guess what we found? Nobody knows you. Bobby Hansen and Chris Barlow from Chicago. Specialized importers for specialized customers.”

“We're still building our clientele,” she said. Damn it! Their cover stories had been carefully crafted. What had gone wrong?

Bobby edged away from the desk. Stas Noskov swung his Ruger to cover him.

“No.” Stas had a thick, guttural accent and virtually no English. Bobby understood well enough, though, and halted. Christina felt a wash of relief. Stas loved violence the way some men loved football. He'd've shot Bobby, simply for the pleasure of watching him bleed.

Yuri laughed. “Bet you can't guess what we did find—­.”

“Bobby Roberts of US Customs,” his older brother snapped, cutting him off. Fedyenka jerked his chin at Stas, who stepped to Bobby's side and pressed the barrel of the Ruger to the base of his neck as he twisted his arm up behind his back. “And brand-­new operative Christina Madison, joining us from the United States Central Intelligence Agency.”

“I'm told this is her very first field assignment,” Yuri added. “Good job, Chris. Christina.”

Fedyenka rolled his eyes toward Yuri. “Do you think I give two fucks about her experience? She's about to become a corpse.”

She'd known this was a possibility. Undercover work was the most dangerous assignment a field officer could have. She'd asked—­no, begged—­her boss for this chance. For what? To prove what? Her eagerness was going to get Bobby and her both killed. She forced her body into stillness, though she couldn't control her shivers.

Stas turned his dead fish eyes toward her and twitched the gun barrel, tacitly ordering her to join Bobby. Instead, she edged toward Yuri.

“Come here,” Stas growled, glaring at her.

In the half-­second Stas took his attention from Bobby, the customs agent shoved him as hard as he could and raced down the central pathway, past the first rows of cages, disappearing into the dimness of the warehouse. Christina's heart stuttered.

He'd left her.

Did he know of another way out?

At the same time as those two thoughts flashed through her mind, all four guards began firing at Bobby. The rounds pinged off the metal cages or bit deep into the wood of the crates.

Fedyenka ducked down behind the desk, cursing at his men. “Be careful of the merchandise!”

The shooting stopped. The noise level skyrocketed as the inhabitants of the cages began to shriek in protest.

Yuri hadn't moved. For a precious few seconds, Christina and he looked at one another. The pistol in his hand trembled.

She launched herself at him. He stumbled back, waving the pistol at her, but his finger wasn't on the trigger. She slammed one palm against his left shoulder, yanking on his right sleeve to force him around. Sliding an arm under his neck, she clamped the other onto the barrel of the pistol, immobilizing it.

“Let him go! Fucking let my brother go right fucking now,” Fedyenka screamed.

Heart thundering, she pulled Yuri back the way Bobby had run. He must have found another way out. Surely, he would be waiting for her outside?

Christina pressed close to Yuri, pulling him back and forth slightly to create a moving target. It would take an expert marksman and a steady hand to shoot her without harming Yuri.

“Put down your weapons,” she called. “Tell them to drop them. Or I'll strangle Yuri.”

“And you'll die.” Malevolence glittered in Fedyenka's eyes. “Slowly. Painfully. Stas enjoys his work.”

“But your brother will be dead. Is that what you want?” She tightened her hold on Yuri's neck.

Fedyenka waved his arms at the guards. “Shoot her!”

The Osinovs' men raised their weapons, looking for a clear shot. She dragged her captive past the first row of cages. The racket had eased somewhat.

Stas sighted down his barrel. One look in his eyes told her he didn't care whether or not he hit Yuri, as long as he nailed her. Her only chance was to get out of the warehouse and run. She backed up as quickly as she dared.

“Shoot the bitch now!”

Stas was the first to pull the trigger. A river of fire flashed across her upper arm. The shock of it robbed her of breath. She lost her hold on Yuri as she stumbled. He yanked himself free, turning to her with clenched fist raised. She didn't hesitate as she ducked inside his guard, driving the heel of her palm up under his chin. His head rocked back. Two more strikes to his face, and she was able to snatch the pistol and reverse it, pointing it at him. He flinched. Three more shots rang out. Yuri jerked as a round caught him in the thigh.

“What the fuck!” he roared. “You shot me.”

Fedyenka grabbed Stas by the sleeve and yanked him around so they were face-­to-­face. “Yuri dies, you die, asshole.”

Stas shrugged. “She moved.”

“Shoot the bitch, or I shoot you.”

Christina grabbed Yuri's sleeve and dragged him with her to the back of the warehouse. The guards followed but did not fire. The door appeared in front of her like a miracle. She wasted no time pushing it open, blinking a little in the harsh sunlight.

Bobby wasn't there. Dammit! He really had run and left her behind to die. She didn't want to believe it, but the evidence was there in his absence.

Rather than waste time cursing, she released Yuri. No clever quip or pithy saying popped into her head, so she simply aimed the pistol at him until she was twenty feet away, then turned and ran for her life.

T
HE
HOTEL
ROOM
had been stripped clean; not a shred of their equipment remained. Jack and Nanette, two US Customs cops, the third and fourth members of the team, had followed Bobby and Christina from the Osinovs' import/export business to the warehouse. Jack and Nanette's job was to scope out the security in the holding area, then report back to their Interpol liaison, Shay Boyle. He was supposed to connect them with the local police, who would then go in and arrest the lot of them.

But that was before everything had gone to shit.

Shay Boyle had vanished. Bobby had vanished. Had Jack and Nanette seen the firefight? If so, they would have made their way back here. Or had already. Her arm bled freely and burned like nothing she'd ever experienced. Blood soaked through the arm of the jacket she'd liberated from an unsuspecting woman drinking tea at an outside café. She stripped it off and took one of the hotel's towels, pressing it to the wound to try to stanch the bleeding. The bullet had plowed through about two inches of skin but, fortunately, had not lodged in her flesh. After a few minutes, she tore apart another threadbare towel, using a small hole and her fingers. Folding one half, she used the other to tie an awkward bandage around her arm. She cleaned the blood off as best she could, feeling the beginnings of fatigue and dizziness from blood loss.

As she waited for Jack or Nanette, or even Bobby, to show up, she paced the room like a caged fox. Twelve steps to the window. Quick peeps through the thin cotton curtains. Twelve steps to the bathroom door. Back again to the window. The events of the past two days whirled around and around in her head. Where had they gone wrong? Other than Bobby being a blustering pain in the ass, everything had gone as designed. Each of them knew their function. Each of them was a dedicated law enforcement professional. Except her—­the CIA was an intelligence-­gathering agency, not a law enforcement one. Still, there had been no reason to suspect anything.

A black SUV pulled up to the front door of the hotel and idled there. If she hadn't already been at the window, she would have missed it. As it was, she had to strain to see it. Through the open passenger window, she saw Fedyenka drumming restless fingers. The driver's door opened, and Stas Noskov went inside the hotel.

Shit
. How had the Osinovs known where they'd set up their headquarters? Had they captured one of the others? Had they somehow followed her? No, if they'd followed her, they'd've come in to grab her fifteen minutes ago. She needed to disappear, and fast.

Plan A in an emergency said to meet back here, then head to the airport as a group for extraction. If the hotel had been compromised, they were to head straight to the airstrip, making sure they weren't followed. The pilot would wait exactly one hour for any stragglers before he took off. After that, she was on her own to make her way to the CIA office in Kuwait City, 560 kilometers away.

It was time. No one was coming back here.

Unlike a lot of hotels in Baghdad, this nameless, faceless tourist lodging rose only three stories, each level jutting farther and farther out over the street. Its sand-­colored walls had no personality; it was merely old and decrepit. Perfect for their needs. The narrow lane at the rear of the hotel dead-­ended at an orchard of orange trees. That's where she needed to be.

The small window in the bathroom was her only option. With some luck, she could escape through it before one of the thugs came around back. Shoving Yuri's handgun into the small of her back, she opened the bathroom window, her heart sinking. From the second story, the ground seemed very far away. Still, there were ways.

The window was smaller than she'd have liked. Still, she stepped onto the toilet and hooked her hands over the sill. Wriggling and squirming, feeling her hair and clothing catching on the rough wooden sill, she cried out as her bullet wound collided with the latch. She didn't need to look to know it had started bleeding again.

As she forced her hips through the too-­tight space, she felt something jamming into her back. Yuri's pistol had snagged against the frame. She tried reaching back to pry it loose, but there was no room. She twisted, feeling dread rise inside her. An anxious glance up and down the narrow street assured her Fedyenka's men hadn't made it around the building yet.

Christina inched back until she felt the handgun loosen, then propelled herself forward. Before she could fall, she grabbed on to the external air-­conditioning unit, praying it would hold her weight. She eased the rest of her body through the opening. When her legs dangled beneath her and the metal unit started to groan, she grabbed a handful of cables running from the roof to various windows, bringing in electricity, phone, and air-­conditioning. Hand over hand, she lowered herself as far as she could, then swung her legs up and onto the ser­vice entrance sign above the back door. Maneuvering onto the sign was tricky. She swallowed a yelp as a sharp piece of metal sliced her palm. Blood smeared the metal struts anchoring the sign to the building, making them slippery as she climbed down. When she hit the last strut, she spared a look down. Still ten feet to go.

Of the dozen or so ­people on the street, only a few had stopped to watch her, no doubt wondering what the crazy American was doing. Hopefully, they would have moved on by the time the inevitable “Have you seen this woman?” started.

BOOK: Bait
5.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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