Excerpt: Deadly Games

CHAPTER ONE

Arlington, VA
October 3, 11:50 p.m., EST

Rocco Taylor eyed the tiny digital clock on the video player, the only source of light in the townhouses’ shadowy living room. Ten more minutes?

No way.

He checked his watch. Way. His Tag Heuer was never wrong.

Damn Sam. It felt like it had been ten more minutes an hour ago. The couch springs groaned as he rocked forward and raked fingers through his hair.

God, he hated waiting, doing nothing.

Let him belly crawl across a minefield into an enemy stronghold. Or give him an MP5 and a load of clips and let him shoot his way in. Hell, hand-to-hand combat was better. Anything was better than this: Playing along while being fucked with.

Oh, like you’re really suffering. Compared to what Maddy was enduring right now—

Jesus. Maddy. The gravity of her situation mingled with the molten guilt in his stomach.

After three days of nada in the search for missing CIA analyst Madison Kohlmeyer, the Agency had scored deuces today, even if they only knew half of it.

Earlier that afternoon, while busting his ass to get to Dulles airport, he’d gotten word that Maddy’s BMW convertible had been pulled from the backwaters of Chesapeake Bay, a two-by-four still jammed against the gas pedal.

Hearing this from a friend who’d picked the story up off a newswire had infuriated Rocco. After being shut out of the Agency’s official investigation into Maddy’s disappearance on grounds of “emotional involvement,” Rocco had been promised that every stone would be turned, every angle examined, and that he would be notified personally of any big breaks. That he wasn’t should have been clue one.

An illegal U-turn on the Interstate had Rocco racing back to the CIA complex that housed his office, dreading the word that would come once they pried open the BMW’s trunk. The relief he’d felt upon learning that the vehicle was empty eroded as the truth of how little else had been done to locate Maddy surfaced.

The Agency genius heading up the investigation had decided to let the police complete their missing person investigation first. Except the locals had back-burnered the case as a low-priority after an interview with Maddy’s roommate revealed that Maddy had seemed preoccupied.

Rocco would have jumped all over that. Preoccupied could mean scared, nervous. Upset. Had she been bullied? Threatened?

But to the jaded Virginia police detective, who claimed he’d worked “dozens of cases just like this,” Maddy’s failure to show for an all-girl weekend at Virginia Beach three days ago, meant she had something better planned.

To the detective, preoccupied was code for she’d met someone. “I figured she’d turn up for work on Monday, embarrassed to find people worried,” the detective told Rocco by phone. “Happens all the time.”

Yeah, well, as Rocco’s grandfather used to say, the road to hell was paved with bad assumptions.

In the end, Rocco had stormed out of his office in disgust after picking a fight with one of the supervisors. The official excuse offered, that Armageddon had broken loose at the Agency, was a crock. When was it normal these days, given the ever-expanding war on terror? The war on drugs? The war on wars?

“Hard choices call for tough sacrifices,” the supervisor had parroted.

“You’re saying Maddy was sacrificed?” Rocco had been livid. Did they really think that sounded better than the truth? That Maddy’s case had slipped between the cracks as everyone assumed someone else handled it?

And even though recovering Maddy’s drowned car had escalated her case to foul play suspected, it made little difference in light of the email Rocco had opened just two hours ago. A game-changing email that had languished in his SPAM folder – for an entire bleeping day – before he’d found it.

The message included a high-res photograph of Maddy, bound hand and foot, wearing nothing but bra and panties. She was curled in a fetal position in a nest of soiled straw at the bottom of what appeared to be a nondescript wooden shipping crate.

Foul play confirmed.

In the photographs, Maddy’s eyes were closed tightly, as if she were wincing. Her upper arms bore bruises from a cruel grip. Someone would pay for hurting her, Rocco had vowed as he noted the slender, bloody cut that creased Maddy’s ribcage. While a knife blade had likely scored her skin when her clothes were cut away, the inferred subtext of the wound was clear. Future snapshots would be more horrific.

But it was the tears on Maddy’s cheek, visible in the enlarged photograph, that haunted Rocco. The good news was corpses didn’t cry. She’d been alive when the picture was taken.

Unfortunately, bad news was also visible. Blowing up the photograph exposed a symbol branded into the plank just above her head. The tell-tale revealed the sender’s identity more succinctly than any signature line. A triple-headed dragon. The symbol of Southeast Asia’s most notorious drug lord and Rocco’s arch enemy, Minh Tran.

That Maddy had been targeted because of her association to Rocco was clear. I’m sorry, Maddy.

YOUR EYES ONLY, the photo’s caption had read. CALL THIS NUMBER OR YOUR GIRLFRIEND DIES.

That Tran mistakenly thought Maddy and Rocco were still a couple was a moot point. She was a colleague and a friend. And she was in trouble because of Rocco.

A quick search revealed that the publicly listed, international phone number belonged to a popular commercial messaging service based out of Latvia. For two Euros, typically paid with untraceable gift or stolen credit cards, a forty-five second message could be left. With layers of high-tech-scrambling security, across multiple servers, the system was virtually impenetrable, making it popular with illicit lovers and criminals alike.

The access PIN provided allowed Rocco to retrieve the recording and then punch in a call back number. The short and succinct voice message, playable only once, had been left by one of Minh Tran’s English-speaking minions.

“We will trade this female for you and one other.” The message went on to outline the two-for-one swap.

In recompense for the death of Tran’s youngest son, a trigger-happy punk Rocco had killed during a recent mission in Bangkok, Minh Tran demanded Rocco’s surrender. No surprise there. Rocco and Minh Tran had been stepping on each other’s toes for years.

But it was the second part of Minh Tran’s demand that was the kicker. In order to secure Maddy’s release, Rocco had to bring along Dr. Rufin, the scientist Tran’s dead son had shot during that same mission.

As the developer of the designer drug SugarCane, Dr. Rufin was key to Minh Tran’s financial future. The sole distributor of SugarCane, Tran’s empire threatened to crumble as his supply of ‘Cane dwindled.

Tran fed a growing segment of the illicit drug market in the U.S. The Agency got involved when Tran started wholesaling dope to terrorist groups who used the profits to fund their attacks on allied troops in the Middle East.

Rocco couldn’t have dreamt up a more hopeless situation. If he honestly believed that Maddy’s safety could be secured with such a swap, he’d have had Rufin hog-tied on the couch, awaiting further instructions. Except it was never that neat, that easy.

The truth was Rufin was recuperating on Uncle Sam’s dime at a top secret location, unknown even to Rocco.

As the perceived repository of the works of the late Russian scientist, Viktor Zadovsky, Dr. Rufin was wanted by every country on the planet. His value was off the charts.

Though Rufin had been covertly granted asylum in the U.S., the Agency denied the fact and employed counter measures ranging from offering rewards for Rufin’s capture, to planting rumors of his demise.

While those tactics were fooling others, Minh Tran seemed to know better. Precisely how Tran had linked Rocco to Rufin, and Maddy to Rocco, were questions for another time.

Within minutes of retrieving the voice message and leaving a call back number, Rocco’s cell phone had rang. The conversation lasted less than twenty seconds. Rocco had demanded to speak with Maddy, proof of life as well as an opportunity to buy time.

The reply, “she is not available,” had rattled him. Please let her be alive. As difficult as it had been, Rocco stuck to his guns, refusing to negotiate until he spoke with Maddy. They had promptly disconnected, only to call back a few seconds later with a promise to have Maddy available at 11:30.

But at 11:25, a different man called, changing the time to midnight. Rocco looked at the clock again. Seven more minutes. Would someone call at 11:55 and blow him off again?

Needing to move, dying to take action, Rocco pushed to his feet. Two steps brought him to the front window. The blinds were drawn, but the slight gaps at either edge allowed him to peer out. Beneath the moth-infested street lights, the night appeared normal. Which didn’t mean squat.

Living in a so-called gated community might give most residents a false sense of security but Rocco had exploited that same blind trust more than once. Simply giving the gate attendant a name and address earned you a visitor’s permit.

Turning away from the window, Rocco let his eyes readjust to the townhouse’s darkened interior. Then he began to pace.

Like a tiger prowling, he moved by instinct, focused. He had the layout of the sparsely furnished townhouse memorized. Five steps put the coffee table to his left, the pole lamp to the right. A ninety degree turn brought him to the hulking shape that was a recliner. The one Maddy had openly mocked, calling it “too awful for the junk yard.”

On the end table beside the chair was the long-dead cactus Maddy had brought over during the I’m-gonna-put-my-mark-here phase of their relationship. Neither the plant nor the phase had lasted long.

The two-year course of their on-again, off-again relationship had been mostly off. The fact that deep down Rocco still cared for someone else had been the death knell.

Maddy, I– The apology lodged in his throat.

“If you say ‘I’m sorry’ one more time, I’ll kill you,” Maddy had threatened more than once. “It’s not what I want to hear and you know it!”

Yeah, he knew. All she’d ever wanted was a sincere I love you. The same three words Rocco had permanently stricken from his vocabulary. Oh, sure, he was always upfront about it, with Maddy and any other woman he’d dated for more than a week.

And in the beginning, Maddy had seemed okay with it, had even thanked him for being honest. Until she pieced together the why after Rocco called her by another woman’s name. Dumb ass, dumb ass, dumb ass. The Freudian slip became a noose.

“You still love Gena, don’t you?” Maddy had accused.

He wasn’t going there. Not now. Who he did or didn’t love in no way diminished his responsibility to Maddy.

Reaching out, Rocco stroked the desiccated cactus. The dead spire was smooth, the last of the prickly spines having finally dropped off. The symbolism hit like a baseball bat to the head. Rocco killed relationships with the same callous lack of attention he offed houseplants.

Maddy deserved better. But had she found it? Was there a Mr. Right lurking off stage, some new guy that had prompted Maddy’s roommate to label her preoccupied?

Rocco had heard she was dating and had left her alone. Or tried. The problem was he genuinely liked Maddy, would call her just to talk. They’d agreed to be friends, and that’s what friends did.

Except not everyone got that memo. Which was also Rocco’s fault.

He recalled the party in Key West they’d attended as “friends” not too long ago. Everyone assumed they were still a couple and Rocco had done nothing to assuage those assumptions. Maybe the path to hell was also paved with ego gratifications.

The bottom line was Maddy was in danger because of him. And Rocco was willing to attempt the impossible to save her. Because if not him, who?

The Agency’s response would be one-hundred-percent predictable. There were policies for this type of scenario, a set of procedures to minimize the fall-out of lose-lose situations.

Plainly stated, from the Agency’s perspective, Maddy wasn’t worth as much as Rufin. Sure, they’d try to save her. But not at the risk of revealing that Rufin was in U.S. custody.

And if Maddy was aware of the demand, she’d deduce that for herself. She knew the score. How many times had she and Rocco joked about how the Agency’s unwritten Good-of-The-Many-weighted hierarchy sucked when you were The Few on the bottom layer.

Don’t worry, Maddy. I won’t forget you.

He moved his black rucksack closer to the door, mentally inventorying the contents. It was difficult to plan an offense at this stage, so he’d stuck to basics. Lots of cash stashed in hidden pockets, two sets of fake IDs and passports for himself and Maddy.

While the packing crate wasn’t proof positive that she’d been smuggled out of the country, Rocco felt certain that Maddy was being held at one of Minh Tran’s strongholds in Thailand. Talk about a home-field advantage.

Frustrated, Rocco looked at the clock again. One minute, forty-five seconds. Call now, damn you. Let’s do this.

To his surprise, his cell phone started vibrating, the ringtone delayed. Rocco hurried back to the coffee table and activated the digital recorder he’d wired to his cell phone, simultaneously praying this wasn’t another delay tactic on Tran’s part. If the caller said Maddy still wasn’t available, Rocco would have to assume the worst.

Picking up his phone, Rocco groaned when he saw the number illuminated on caller ID. His former boss: Travis Franks. That Travis called this late meant little. The man never slept. Travis had most likely just gotten wind of the fiasco at the office.

Rocco hit IGNORE and watched the screen fade to black. He would call Travis back in a few. For now, this line had to stay open.

Hell, Rocco had even ignored his sister’s call earlier. If Adele needed money, Rocco would send it tomorrow. But if she’d broken up with another boyfriend and wanted a sober shoulder to cry on, she needed to look elsewhere. Rocco’s sympathy for drunks had declined since their mother died of alcohol induced cirrhosis last year.

He checked time.

Fifteen seconds.

Ten seconds.

Five.

Two.

One.

“Blast it, ring,” Rocco muttered.

Nothing. Then…vibration. Buzz. PRIVATE CALLER the display read. He snapped the recorder on.

“Taylor,” he answered.

At first no sound came across.

“Rocco?” Maddy’s faint voice hit him like a battering ram in the spleen.

“Maddy! Oh, Jesus, honey! Are you okay?” She sounded sick. Drugged most likely. “Tell me—“

“Silence!” Heavily accented English came across the line.

“Put Maddy back on the phone.” Scumbag.

“You got your proof of life. Here are your instructions.”

“I don’t consider one word proof of life.” Rocco struggled to control his temper. Antagonizing the man might make circumstances harder for Maddy. “That could have been a recording.”

The man exhaled noisily. Static sawed at the connection causing Rocco to worry the man had hung up. A second later the line cleared with a faint beep, confirming that electronic jammers were being employed to thwart tracing.

Rocco could hear the man shouting in an indistinct Thai dialect. There were other sounds, other voices, but he couldn’t catch the words.

Then Maddy’s voice came back across the phone, but at a distance. As if the phone were being held out.

“No!” she shouted. “Nooooo.” She was sobbing now. “Rocco…make…them—“

Maddy’s words broke off as she started to scream.