Authors: Wendy Byrne
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HARD TO TRUST
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Copyright © 2014 by Wendy Byrne
Cover design by Janet Holmes
Gemma Halliday Publishing
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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Cleo clutched Jake Shaw's arm and whispered against his ear. "They are keeping Monsieur Lang in there." She pointed toward one of the twisted alleyways outside the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
"Are you sure he's alive?" Even though he should be better at reading deceit, her almond-shaped eyes revealed nothing when they stared back at him.
"Yes." She planted a soft but memorable kiss on his lips. "I'll let them know you've paid the ransom, and they'll release him as promised. Look for the red door." With those final words, she urged him forward while clutching the money he'd given her.
That infamous Shaw itch crawled up his back despite her reassurances. Between the late hour and the narrow space shielded by buildings on both sides, only a sliver of moonlight made its way below.
He pulled the gun from beneath his shirt and considered his options. Several doors lined both sides. In the dark, it was impossible to spot any color, even red. While he ached to get out his penlight, drawing attention to his presence wasn't a recipe for success. Instead, he listened at each door, hoping he'd hear something to give him a clue.
By the time he got to the fifth door the itch wouldn't let up, warning him trouble had morphed to a higher level. Something wasn't right. Disaster hung in the air, commingling with the humidity, bringing an oppressive feeling to an oppressive situation.
He glanced behind him. Nothing. Still his chest constricted. This felt all kinds of wrong.
Even at this time of night, the pervasive silence shouldn't be this…dead calm. The hair on his forearms stood at attention as if confirming his suspicions.
A breeze filtered inside the tight confines seconds before the rat-tat-tat of gunfire kicked up bits of cobblestone. As he drew back inside the nearest doorframe and waited for the next assault, he scanned the top of the adjacent buildings. But every time he peeked his head out of the safety of the vestibule, another round pinged the walls around him.
You've done it again, Jacov
. Petrovich's words echoed through his brain like a broken record. Once again, he'd been duped by the assurances of a beautiful woman—one he'd gifted with a substantial sum of money—only to be shot at. Instead of retrieving Trevor Lang, he'd walked straight into a trap. Chances were Trevor Lang was long dead, and Jake would be next.
He should have known better than to trust Cleo.
Sifting through a paltry list of options, he tried to think of a way out of the mess he'd made for himself. Alone in the middle of nowhere with no one for backup. Yep, he was pretty much screwed.
The gunfire stopped, but each time he made a move, it started up again. The Shaw itch resurged with a vengeance. After all this time he knew better than to ignore an instinct that had served him well many times in the past.
When he leaned against the frame of the alcove, the door behind him creaked open as if beckoning him inside. Somebody wanted him in here for a reason. He used the penlight he kept in the pocket of his fatigues to illuminate the interior.
Clothes were strewn about the dirt floor, while what looked like blood marred the walls. Jake drew his fingers through the marks and held them up to the light. Only a hint of blood colored his fingers. Not fresh. But not too old, either.
He bent to examine the clothes. Based on the quality and the labels, they appeared to be those of a Westerner, more than likely an American. Not good.
The bad feeling persisted, raising the hairs on his neck as he made his way out of the main room and into a hallway.
Drip, drip, drip.
The sound increased as he inched toward the door in back.
Trepidation seemed to be his new BFF as he hesitated outside the door, listening. Nothing. If there were people inside, they were either extremely quiet or dead.
He sucked in a breath and eased open the door a sliver at a time. The stench of a dead or dying human overcame him immediately.
Please do not be Trevor Lang. Please do not be Trevor Lang.
The mantra circled his brain even while common sense told him otherwise. Cleo had promised she'd arranged for Trevor's unscathed release. But trust was one of those concepts he'd never been able to pin down. And unless he was mistaken, putting his trust in the wrong person had once again come to bite him in the ass.
The beam of the flashlight bounced around the room. At first, everything seemed to be normal, but the stench…nearly overpowering now…was ominous.
He stepped further into the room even while his hand remained on his gun. The smell got even stronger. He pulled up his shirt to cover his nose and mouth while he illuminated the walls, the floors, and the corners, looking for signs of its origin, hoping he'd find none. Trevor was here. He knew that with a certainty born from years of experience he'd rather not dwell on.
There was only one possible location—a door positioned in the back of the room. His tentative steps toward it brought a fresh wash of inevitability along as well.
The door had no knob, so he used his fingertips to pry between the edges as he slowly pulled it open. The aroma of decaying human brought bile to his throat even before the beam of his flashlight landed on the body.
Oh, hell no.
Trevor Lang hung by the neck from a rod between the walls of the small closet. Based on the blood pooled at his feet and the marks on the body, his death hadn't come quickly or easily.
Emotion roared inside as Jake fought to maintain control. He should have been quicker, faster, better. He couldn't help but wonder if his brother Max would have saved Trevor's life. Petrovich had always told him Maxim was the true professional, and Jake was a wannabe, desperate to live up to his brother's always-get-the-job-done reputation.
Instead of dwelling on useless self-flagellation, he yanked the knife from his pocket and cut the rope before laying Trevor down as gently as he could on the blood-soaked floor. The closet he'd been housed in was barren except for a photo pinned to the wall with the blade of a knife.
While he couldn't say for sure, Jake guessed the photo was of Trevor's wife and children decked out in their finest clothes and ready for Christmas. Jake knew what it felt like to lose a parent, having lost both of his at a young age. He knew all about the fear, depression, and hopelessness that went along with it.
Absorbed in remembrances, he didn't hear her approach. When he looked up, Cleo, a smile hinting at the corners of her mouth, a machine gun strapped across her shoulder, stood in the center of the room. In that second he had no doubt she'd been the one shooting at him, egging him on in the fruitless journey to find an already dead man. The proverbial "trail of bread crumbs" approach ensuring he'd figure it out and be humiliated by his failure.
Her smile turned gleeful, sending shivers down his spine. This woman showed her true colors and displayed the opposite of the sultry and shy come-on she'd greeted him with the day before yesterday when she'd pretended to broker a deal for Trevor's release.
She tsked. "I guess you were too late once again, Jacov." Her mirthful laugh echoed as she walked away.
It took him a couple of seconds to process that she'd used his Serbian name, like she'd known him from another time. Another life.
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Soaked in sweat, Jake startled awake as the scene from a month ago overtook his dreams. How could he forget? Because of him, a man would never go home to his family. Two children would never see their father again.
He rubbed his hands down his stubbled cheeks, slid out of bed, and padded to the shower. His meeting with Jennings this morning would no doubt bring about another round of misgivings, as he had to once again relive the fact that he'd failed.
Instead of shaving, he threw some moisturizer on his dry cheeks, brushed his teeth, and ran his fingers through his wavy hair. He yanked on his tattered jeans, pulled a Henley over his head, slipped into his boots, and walked out the door. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket and started toward the deli for his midmorning meeting.
The man's name still caused a jolt of pain to sear Jake's chest. Would he ever be able to forget seeing that photo of the man's wife and kids tacked to the wall next to the poor guy's tortured body?
Being fired from The Alliance was the least of Jake's problems. And he wouldn't blame Jennings for doing what he had to do. Getting the guy killed he'd been sent to rescue was not what the client paid for.
No doubt about it, Jake was on a losing streak. If he were a gambler he could live with it, knowing that sooner or later his luck would change. But not when his job was protecting people's lives.
The worst part was that every time he failed, he felt like he fell behind in the karmic body count. In order to redeem himself for past misdeeds he needed to be successful at his current profession. And saving people was the way to do it.
Willing away nagging thoughts, he entered the café. While Jake had tried to prepare himself, he didn't quite know what to expect from Jennings. Unlike his legacy with Petrovich who was always predictably harsh when things didn't go his way, Jake never knew where Jennings would fall when he failed.
After sucking in a deep breath and willing the knot in his stomach to disappear, he spotted Jennings at a booth in the corner with his back to the wall. Jake stopped at the counter to order some coffee before he slid into the bench seat. "Good morning."
Jennings glanced from his paper. "Glad you could make it."
"What's up?" He forced himself to sound casual, like the weight of the world wasn't pressing down on his shoulders.
"Things didn't go well with Trevor Lang."
That was putting it mildly. "I expected to be able to extract him without trouble, but it didn't work out that way."
"I'm not going to lie. His employers at Bain aren't happy, but they understood the risks when we agreed to take on the assignment. Lang's widow wrote you a note." He slid a small manila envelope across the table toward Jake.
Jake fingered the envelope as he swallowed back the bile clogging his throat. No doubt the smiling family picture he'd seen attached to the wall in Trevor Lang's torture chamber had morphed into something quite different now. Guilt and remorse tunneled through his body until he wanted to scream to let it out.
Instead of giving voice to the mix of emotions stored inside, he stuck the envelope into the inside pocket of his coat and tried to forget the grisly scene. "I hate to—"
. "I could give you all kinds of excuses, but I won't."
"I appreciate that about you, Jake." Jennings grasped a folder from inside his briefcase. "Which is why I'd like you to take on an assignment that's"—he cleared his throat—"fraught with difficulty."
This guy had to be nuts. Or maybe he thought Jake was. "Coming from you, that brings about a whole different connotation. I'm not sure I can rise to the challenge right now." Or ever. Trevor Lang's death and Jake's naiveté at trusting Cleo had combined to make a lethal mix. He'd yet to figure out how she'd known his Serbian name. And was at a loss as to how he could find out. Even the facial-recognition software at The Alliance hadn't come up with a match.
"I have faith in you." Jennings opened the file. "It's about securing a CIA operative. There are some questions about what happened on her last assignment in Afghanistan. They want you to make sure she's safe then see if you can figure out if she knows more about what happened than she's saying. Most times they tend to handle this type of situation internally, but due to sensitive circumstances they feel that's not in their best interest."
Oh, hell no.
Keeping somebody safe was easy. It was the other part of the equation he had difficulty with. If it were a man, he'd have a halfway decent chance of getting a straightforward answer from him. But a woman? Didn't anyone from The Alliance get the memo on his track record?
"Sensitive circumstances?" Somehow he managed to spit out the words even while he was making up excuses for why he shouldn't be involved in this assignment, besides the obvious.
"She is one of two survivors of an attack in Afghanistan a little over a month ago. That tends to make people suspicious."
"Let me get this straight. Because she survived, that makes them believe she's working with Afghan rebels? There's got to be more than that." He and his siblings had survived more attacks than he cared to think about, including the double-cross that nearly cost his brother Max's life.