Excerpt: Project Eve

PROLOGUE

Lampang, Thailand

The man rubbed himself through his trousers as he watched the video. Off camera, a whip cracked. Once. Twice.

A naked woman, her wrists manacled to a stone wall, writhed when the slender leather braid finally lashed her flesh. She moaned in what appeared to be ecstasy, head rolling gracefully to one side as she glanced over her delicate shoulder and begged for more. Working the camera.

He closed his eyes as she pleaded for more of the punishment being meted out. He stroked harder, perilously close to a climax that had nothing to do with the video. He’d seen movies like this so often he was immune to the violence, to the sex. To the marred beauty of the blond women who populated them.

A different perversion heated his blood: obscene wealth…and the influence it gave him over people. Over governments. His enemies had no idea what his true power even was.

He sucked air through clenched teeth unwilling to allow himself release. It really was all about control.

On the video, the woman had been unchained. As he watched, she crawled across the floor, straight toward the camera asking for the privilege of performing fellatio, in hopes her punisher would reward her with more of the torture she craved.

For a few seconds, her face filled the screen. It was the face of an angel. An angel with shattered wings. He drank in the sight of her dilated eyes, her trembling lips. Lips he knew well. She’d been one of the few he’d actually liked.

Abruptly, the man shut it off. He knew the ending. It wasn’t happy. Of course, her death would be edited out. Saved for his growing private collection. This wasn’t the first time his men had become carried away. Further proof the drugs had yet to be perfected.

Unfortunately, coming so quickly after the last incident, it had meant shutting down production until additional talent could be procured. Which meant another unscheduled delay. And time was money.

Picking up the phone, he punched out a string of numbers. The call was answered on the third ring.

“Do you know what time it is?” a sleep-graveled voice asked.

He didn’t bother checking his watch, accustomed to having his desires met regardless of the time. Or the need, for that matter. “I require two replacements. Now.”

There was silence as the man on the other end of the line figured out the events that precipitated the call. Then he started swearing.

The caller chose to ignore the tirade, waiting as the other man sorted through his infantile emotions.

“You promised to do better,” the other man accused.

He held his temper. For a short time, he still had need for this partnership. And when he didn’t…

“The men responsible have been rebuked,” he said calmly.

“That’s not good enough. I warned you that this would happen again if the protocols weren’t followed exactly. Let’s end it here. Do the best you can with whatever you’ve got on film.”

“We will not end it here! You agreed to continue our arrangement for another sixty days. And I made certain commitments based upon that time frame. I expect you to live up to your word.”

“It was also agreed that the stock on hand, and already in your possession, would be sufficient for the remainder of our contract.”

In spite of his mood, the man smiled at the phrasing. While they were always careful to disguise their words – for even with precautions, one never knew who was listening – it was an accurate description of these women. Stock. Cattle. Chattel.

He narrowed his eyes and ran a finger back and forth, tracing the scar at his temple. He could force compliance with a threat, but in this case it benefited him to prolong their affiliation amiably. So the other man would keep his defenses low.

With practiced ease, he kept his voice friendly. “I regret that I underestimated the requirements. How soon can I expect another shipment?”

The sound of shuffled papers came over the line. “It will be at least two weeks.”

“That’s unacceptable.”

“Take it, or leave it. There are issues beyond my control here.”

He cursed, unused to being denied.

A woman had entered as he’d been on the phone. He glared at her. She wasn’t the one he’d wanted, but as a vessel for his anger, she’d do.

He snapped his fingers twice. As he watched, she stepped out of her robing and, dropping onto all fours, crawled toward him. As her lips closed around his erection, he shut his eyes.

“Two women, two weeks,” he snarled and hung up.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Richmond, Virginia

“You have to take this job, Rach. Pleeease. For me!” Jimmy Parsell, Rachel Anderson’s younger cousin, kept his voice whiney and low as he escorted her down a hall to the private office of U.S. Senator Thurston Benjamin IV.

Jimmy looked even more desperate than he sounded, his spiky hair poking out in twelve directions, its bright red color contrasting sharply with Rachel’s fairer blond.

She grabbed his fidgeting hands. “I agreed to meet with him. For you. And until I know more, that’s all I’ll commit to.”

It was a small lie. When Jimmy called yesterday, asking for this favor, Rachel had flat-out refused. Then his mom called. Jimmy, the little weasel, knew damn good and well Rachel couldn’t say no to Aunt Laura.

Still, there was no way in hell she’d accept this case. She knew from experience that celebrities and public officials were pains in the ass to work for. Every move first had to be weighed for its impact on the client’s image, then maximized for publicity.

Worse, if anyone came up with mud on their face, it was always the hired help. And the fact that a U.S. senator needed a private investigator – a discreet private investigator, Jimmy had emphasized – signaled a potential mudslide.

As a courtesy to her aunt, Rachel would listen to the senator, suggest a course of action, then recommend another firm. She planned to be back in Atlanta by ten tonight.

“Before this, the senator didn’t even know I was one of his aides.” Jimmy turned at the end of the hall. “Now he’s hinting that I have a shot at a higher position after graduation. Do you know what a leg up that is?”

“I realize this means a lot, but don’t pin your hopes of promotion on me.”

“A lot? It means everything!” Jimmy wailed. “Look, the man’s had a hellacious year. He lost his daughter and now his wife is seriously ill.”

Rachel scowled. “Don’t play the sympathy card, Jimmy. I’m not in the mood. I dropped everything to come here

and-”

“Shh!” They had reached the senator’s office and had to stop talking.

Giving her one last beseeching look, Jimmy straightened the lapels of her suit before adjusting his own tie.

“By the way, I told him you were a Republican,” he hissed as he knocked.

If the door hadn’t opened just then, Rachel would have decked her cousin. Instead, she gritted her teeth as Senator Benjamin greeted Jimmy enthusiastically.

A distinguished-looking man with piercing blue eyes, the senator was shorter than she expected. Perhaps only an inch taller than her own five-six. And he exuded a sense of energy that belied his age.

He held out a hand. “You must be Rachel. Jimmy’s spoken highly of you.”

“I could say the same. It’s nice to meet you.”

Smiling, the senator dismissed Jimmy with a curt nod. Rachel caught a brief glimpse of her cousin’s crestfallen face as the door shut. Had he honestly expected to be included in their meeting? The kid had a lot to learn.

Benjamin motioned Rachel toward his desk, an oversized mahogany barge. The matching credenza was loaded with expensive Steuben glass sculptures. One piece, a crystal eagle poised for flight, was spotlighted from above, a fitting symbol of devotion to country.

Rachel recalled what she knew about the man. In his early fifties, Benjamin was in the midst of his fifth term in office. His marriage to an oil heiress made him the second wealthiest member of the Senate. And the second most powerful.

Coincidence? Hardly. Money and power went hand in hand, especially in the Capitol.

“I appreciate your coming on such short notice,” the senator said.

“Jimmy mentioned you were preparing to leave with an overseas delegation.” While still pissed about the Republican thing, Rachel tried to make certain her cousin got some of the credit.

“The timing for this trip isn’t ideal, but it’s not every day we get invited to China to discuss international banking security issues.”

Rachel took a chair in front of the desk.

“Coffee? Or perhaps something a bit stronger?” the senator offered.

She settled back. “Not for me.”

“I’m afraid caffeine is one of my true vices.”

Rachel raised a brow as he turned away. The fact that he needed a discreet investigator suggested it wasn’t the only one.

Having poured a cup, Benjamin started to take a seat behind the desk, but at the last minute took the chair across from hers. She recognized the maneuver for what it was – an attempt to lower barriers between them. Which made hers rise.

The whole time, he continued making small talk. Small talk with a point. “Jimmy’s a fine young man. He has a bright future here.”

“That’s good to hear. Of course, I’m prejudiced since we’re related.”

“Which brings up a delicate point.” The senator reached across the desk and slid a single sheet of paper toward her. “Do you mind signing a confidentiality agreement? The matters we’ll be discussing are highly personal. None of my staff here or in DC are aware of these issues and I want to keep it that way.”

“I have no objection to signing one, though I always treat any disclosures by prospective clients as confidential.”

“So I’ve heard. Your firm’s name in the field is sterling.”

As confidentiality agreements went, this one was straightforward and blessedly short.

It wasn’t the first time Rachel had been asked to sign one, and as always, it piqued her curiosity. Particularly the subject line: Cindy Benjamin. After scribbling her name, Rachel pushed the sheet and pen back.

The senator looked relieved. “I’ll get right to the point. You’re aware my stepdaughter, Cindy, died in an automobile accident seven months ago?”

Rachel nodded. The tragic story had garnered headlines. It had been Christmas Eve and Cindy had been on her way home from college when her car plunged down an embankment after being struck by a hit-and-run driver. Twenty-two hours later, she was found. She was estimated to have been alive for ten of those hours.

Was that what this meeting was about? Did Senator Benjamin want what the Virginia Highway Patrol hadn’t been able to give him? The person responsible for his stepdaughter’s death?

She relaxed slightly, beginning to see the man in a different light. What father wouldn’t want justice for his child? She understood the need for answers, for without them, closure was incomplete.

But why the secrecy? Unless there was more to the accident. Something he didn’t want publicized. God knew politicians were notoriously paranoid when it came to the press.

“If I remember correctly, the other driver was never found,” Rachel said. “Is that what you’re seeking?”

“No.” The senator glanced away as if gathering his thoughts. “The police have exhausted all leads. It was snowing and dark the night of the accident. Witnesses saw only the taillights of a speeding vehicle. Road conditions were so slippery it wouldn’t have taken much to trigger the accident. So it may not even have been a hit-and-run. The other car could have simply passed Cindy, causing her to swerve and lose control. At least that’s what the police are now suggesting.”

Uncertain what to say, Rachel nodded again and waited for him to continue.

“You’re also aware my wife has been diagnosed with leukemia.” He cleared his throat. “While we’ve tried to keep the news releases about her illness positive, the truth is…” He glanced down at the cup he held, his mouth tightening. “Well, the truth is she hasn’t responded well to treatment.”

“I’m sorry,” Rachel offered, feeling guilty that she’d misread the senator’s actions at the beginning. Perhaps his decision to sit opposite her instead of behind the desk hadn’t been calculated.

Looking up, Benjamin nodded and took a sip of coffee. “My wife’s doctors have expressed serious concern over her will to live. On top of everything else, she’s suffering with deep depression. We, ah, got her diagnosis just two days after Cindy’s funeral. Not many people know that at the time of the accident, my wife and I were estranged from Cindy. We hadn’t seen her in nearly eighteen months. So her coming home – what we assumed was to be the first step in mending our differences – was a total surprise to us. And it made her loss that much more difficult.”

Several questions about why they had been on bad terms came to mind, but Rachel stopped herself from voicing them. No matter how sorry she was for the senator’s loss, she wasn’t changing her mind. “I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been.”

The senator grimaced. “Yes, well, in hopes of finding proof that Cindy had indeed had a change of heart, I did something I probably shouldn’t have.”

He stood, crossed to warm his coffee. “Shortly after her death, I received some of her belongings. The college had done as I asked with her clothes and furniture, donating them to charity, but they had boxed up some of what they viewed as more personal items. I went through them last week for the first time and found a diary. Much of it was what I expected to find. An outpouring of frustration with us. With her professors. With her classmates.”

He looked at Rachel. “Even as a child, Cindy was incapable of accepting love. As she grew older, she became more so. Nothing her mother or I did seemed to help. I suppose my chosen life path, the demands of public office played a part.”

Rachel sensed he was stalling, mentally justifying his behavior in violating his stepdaughter’s privacy. “What else did you find?” she pressed. “In Cindy’s journal?”

“That she claimed to be pregnant.”

“Claimed?” The senator’s choice of words struck her as odd.

“Unfortunately, Cindy occasionally…” He paused as if considering his words again. “Let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time she’d played with the truth.”

“But certainly a pregnancy would have shown up in the autopsy.”

His rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry. I guess I wasn’t making myself clear. The entry was made back in February of last year and on the final page of the diary.” Frustration cracked his voice. “If she began a new diary after that one, it wasn’t in what was sent to us.”

Rachel’s middle tightened as she recognized the direction the conversation was taking. Given her firm’s reputation for finding missing children, she now knew why the senator had wanted her to take the job. “So you want to know if she was pregnant? And, if she was, what became of the baby?”

“If Lenore thought she had a grandchild out there.” Again his voice faded. “Well, I think it’s about the only thing that will make her continue with treatment.” He looked Rachel in the eye. “To be completely truthful, it’s not the child that matters so much to me as my wife. I’ll do just about anything to keep Lenore alive.”

He glanced down at his cup again. “And that’s hard for me to admit because if there is a child, the press will have a damn free-for-all with the story. It won’t exactly end my career, but it certainly won’t put me in the White House either.”

As he spoke, Rachel had found herself leaning toward him, but with the last she sat back. For a moment, she had actually started to warm to the man. Until he had revealed his true motive.

Bottom line, the reason he’d chosen Rachel – an outsider on the DC scene – was because he was concerned about his damn political image. Her skill in the field had nothing to do with it.

He was afraid the scandal of having a stepdaughter who had become pregnant out of wedlock and given up the child, before then getting herself killed, might keep his name out of the presidential hat come next election. Which made him just another self-serving politician.

Rachel was suddenly anxious to end the interview, but recognized that because of Jimmy – or rather, her aunt – she needed to be tactful. She’d ask a few more questions and tell him she needed to think over the case. In the morning she’d make a call to the senator, declining.

“You’re convinced, solely on this diary entry, that Cindy had a child?” Rachel asked.

“Coupled with the fact we hadn’t seen her in so long, yes. And while the diary entry rambled, Cindy mentioned being counseled against abortion, though she seemed to consider adoption an alternative. She was also worried her mother would disown her – which Lenore would never do. My wife would be crushed to know that. In spite of their ups and downs, Lenore truly loved Cindy.”

“Have you checked with her boyfriend?”

“She, ah…wasn’t dating anyone that we know of.” His tone held mild censure.

“How about her other friends at college? Do you know who counseled her? And what about her medical records?”

The senator drew a deep breath and briefly held it. “I’ve done what I could, but there are extenuating circumstances you should be aware of. Cindy had a troubled past that we’ve worked hard to hide. She had been treated for drug abuse, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity. There were also a couple of incidents where she falsely accused young men of date rape, causing one psychologist to label her a pathological liar. As much as I want to believe for my wife’s sake that Cindy might have had a child, I have to remember the entry could have been fabricated.”

Rachel gave herself a moment to process all he’d just said. It was evident Cindy had been a troubled young woman. Their estrangement made more sense now.

“Still, her giving birth should be easy to ascertain. Cindy would have had to deliver somewhere. There are computerized records that can be inconspicuously searched.” She stopped herself from saying hacked.

Shaking his head, the senator stood and paced toward a window. “Believe me, I thought of that. But searching the records of Shepherd’s Cross College is impossible from outside the campus. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but Shepherd’s Cross is a small divinity college in rural West Virginia, and they brag about how they’re Internet free. I understand their parent church had an incident where their database was stolen. Afterward, both the church and campus simply disconnected from the Internet – formed their own network or something. Sounds rather rash to me, but darn if they haven’t put a remarkable spin on it. Several other campuses are considering doing the same thing.”

Rachel was aware of the incident, as it had made the cover of Newsweek. While the college was small and obscure, the church was anything but. Thousands of credit-card holders, mostly elderly, who had ordered videos, CDs, tapes, and books had been ripped off for hundreds of thousands. And the church had reimbursed every dollar.

Subsequently, Shepherd’s Cross had for all intents and purposes disconnected from the Internet, allowing a third party to handle Web site sales. None of their data mainframes had modems, making it a hack-proof system.

Overreaction? Yes. But with their trademark positive-thinking flair, the college instead boasted that their private intranet was a model of brilliance. Well, brilliant or not, it meant someone had to physically go to the campus to snoop their database.

“Have you considered a back-door approach, contacting someone from the church instead of the college?” she asked.

“I looked into that, but grew even more concerned after hearing about intrachurch adoptions. Apparently couples seeking to adopt have joined Shepherd’s Cross Church, made sizeable donations, and been able to adopt shortly thereafter. Of course, the church’s legal staff handles everything. For both parties.”

The implication chilled Rachel. “Are you saying the church is running a black-market adoption scam?”

The senator shook his head vigorously. “I’m trying very hard not to say that. Are you familiar with the church’s founder, William Hanson?”

“I’ve seen his books, though I haven’t read any.” Rachel knew William Hanson was a prolific author whose books dominated both the religious and secular best seller lists. “And who hasn’t seen his church on television?”

Everyone with cable had seen Shepherd’s Cross’s elaborate wall-to-wall-people-filled church at some point in their channel-surfing life. The soaring, pink granite edifice, with its three carillon towers was enormous and beautiful.

A recent poll had listed the church as the third most recognizable structure in North America. Only the White House and Cinderella’s castle had managed to outrank it. Even the Washington Monument had come in a distant fourth.

“Actually,” the senator said, “I was referring to Hanson’s political connections. The man’s been spiritual advisor to three of the last five presidents and has probably baptized half the Republicans on Capitol Hill.”

It was Rachel’s turn to read between the lines. Obviously, William Hanson was widely revered in DC, as much an icon as his church. Meaning his political clout was probably stronger than Benjamin’s.

The senator moved back toward her and sat on the edge of his desk. “I wouldn’t dream of accusing Hanson’s church without solid proof. Which brings me to the reason I want to hire you, Rachel. I need to know if the diary entry was the truth or a lie, and I need to have it done discreetly.”

He clasped his hands in front of him before continuing. “The college virtually shuts down during the summer, while the students volunteer at their missions, but fall classes begin in less than two weeks. I need someone who can pass as a student and enroll at Shepherd’s Cross College. A female who will be able to get close to Cindy’s girlfriends and teachers without arousing suspicions. Someone skilled at getting into the woodwork, without leaving a trace. It goes without saying that money’s no object.”

Rachel decided to level with him, end it here and now. “Unfortunately, I have several ongoing cases that I can’t ignore. I can, however, put you in touch with another investigator who would be perfect for the job. She’s trustworthy and could pass as a student.” The woman wasn’t as adept as Rachel at getting into computer systems – few PI’s were – but she’d manage.

The senator leaned forward slightly. “Jimmy warned me that you’re booked solid. So let me add I’m prepared to offer a special bonus.”

Frowning, she shook her head. “Money doesn’t enter the equation. My word is everything, and I always meet my professional commitments to clients.”

“Your brother died in Afghanistan several years ago, didn’t he? While working for the CIA?” Silence stretched, grew brittle as the senator walked around his desk and sat. “Jimmy told me his body was not recovered and that the family was never given a satisfactory explanation for his death.”

Her pulse became ragged with a mixture of dread and hope as she squeezed the wooden arms of her chair. By the family, he meant Rachel. “What are you suggesting?”

“I have some contacts with the State Department. If you take this case, I’ll make sure you get the answers you’ve been looking for.”

Intentionally or not, the senator had touched a raw nerve. Rachel’s brother had died five years ago while overseas. All they’d found was a tiny bone fragment that matched his DNA. Had blabbermouth Jimmy also told the senator she’d buried an empty coffin because even that precious fragment had been lost?

To this day she had no idea of how her brother died. Oh, she’d heard whispered conjectures, which the Company neither denied nor confirmed. And the little they had told her, she had reason to doubt. All of which simply prolonged her grief.

Now to have a chance to learn what actually happened…

“You can access CIA data?” she asked.

“Me? No. But I have well-placed friends who owe me favors. I can’t promise the exact results; however, it would, of course, be in addition to your normal fees.”

Rachel swallowed against a swell of bitter disappointment as she forced herself to focus on three words: I can’t promise. With that, Benjamin had effectively presented a blueprint for failure; a ready excuse. Been there; done that.

But what if it were true? What if he could get answers? Any answers. How could she not take this job, not take the chance?

The senator smiled, as if certain they’d struck a deal. “At least think it over. Thoroughly.” He handed her a calling card. “That has my personal cell phone as well as my private home number. Let’s talk in the morning.”

Rachel took the card and slid it into her pocket without a glance. Whatever she had expected when she’d entered Benjamin’s office, it hadn’t been this. The senator had, with Jimmy’s help, come up with the only thing that might make her consider taking his case.

Benjamin escorted her to the door, then held out his hand. “In some ways we’re very much in the same boat.”

“How’s that?” she asked as they shook hands.

“We both lost people we love. You a brother. Me a daughter and maybe even a grandchild. You of all people must understand just how important it is to have resolution.”

She nodded, then realized her hand was still held in the senator’s. She withdrew it and raised her chin. “I’ll give it some thought.”

“That’s all I’m asking.” He pulled the door open behind her. “We’ll discuss it again tomorrow.”

Rachel left the senator’s office and was escorted back to the lobby by his secretary. Jimmy had left a message that he was tied up in a meeting and would call later.

She crumpled the note. It was probably just as well she didn’t see her cousin right now. She’d scalp the little twit.

When she reached her rental car, she peeled off her suit jacket and turned the air conditioner on high. The late-July weather had heat indexes registering above one-ten. The interior of the car felt twenty degrees higher. And still it felt cooler than the inside of her skull as the low throb of a headache spiked with the heat.

Damn it, she didn’t like being pressured. Into anything.

Pulling onto the expressway, Rachel headed toward her downtown hotel. Since her flight back to Atlanta wasn’t until evening, she had arranged a late checkout, which meant she had several hours to kill.

Time to think about the carrot the senator had dangled. Time to repack her emotional baggage. And time for a reality check.

As much as she wanted to believe Senator Benjamin could furnish answers, he was a politician. By definition that meant he was highly skilled in the art of promising the undeliverable.

Rachel would do almost anything to learn more about how her brother had died. Her mentor and good friend, Chase Scoggs, had suggested that was because Nick’s remains had never been recovered and that subconsciously, she hoped her brother was still alive.

She knew better. She’d spent years as a preteen, furtively hoping her parents would turn up alive. That the bodies found in a tragic motel-room fire hadn’t belonged to them. That their perfect, happy family hadn’t been forever shattered.

But Nick had forced her to accept reality. Their parents were dead. Just as Nick was.

Some days, the knowledge that she was the only person left in her family was unbearable. Sure, she had extended family, but aunts, uncles, and cousins weren’t the same.

As traffic grew heavier, Rachel slowed, her mind already weighing and discarding ways to get answers for the senator without having it interfere with her current obligations. And without having to go to West Virginia and enroll in classes.

She glanced at her reflection. Though she was twenty-nine, she could still pass herself off as a student on most college campuses. But a divinity college? Where there were probably more virgins per capita than dishonest politicians in Washington?

The thought made her wince. Chase Scoggs’s cynicism was rubbing off on her, a sure sign she needed a life.

Rachel’s eyes flicked back to the rearview mirror. Two cars behind hers, a black Ford changed lanes. For the second time. She checked the side mirrors, unable to get a better view.

She mentally ticked off recent cases. Two perps came to mind, the most likely one the son of a mobster. But following her to Richmond didn’t make sense. If he wanted to pay her a visit, he could do so in Atlanta.

And since she wasn’t working here, there was no reason for her to have picked up a local tail. Unless the senator was having her followed.

But for what reason?

She changed lanes again, and after several seconds the other car did the same. As it did, another, even less appealing scenario presented itself.

Perhaps the senator hadn’t hired whoever was following her. Perhaps the senator himself was under surveillance, whether by friend or foe didn’t matter. By default, she had gotten involved. A situation she knew just how to rectify.

As soon as she exited to downtown, she turned right without a signal, then sped ahead and turned right again, brakes squealing as the car in front of her stopped short at a traffic light.

She watched her mirrors as the Ford barreled around the corner and slid to a stop, having no choice but to pull up directly behind her.

Neither the driver nor the man riding shotgun looked like anyone she’d seen before. And given Rachel’s near-photographic memory, she’d remember. She made eye contact in the rearview with the driver, letting him know she’d made him.

Rachel knew he’d break off the tail now, which part of her didn’t want. At least, not until she knew who they were and why they were following her.

The driver used his cell phone, trying to act nonchalant. Just as nonchalant, Rachel reached over and opened the glove box. She’d stashed her weapon before meeting with the senator.

These days, going anywhere armed was a hassle, but at times like this, it was worth it. She placed her holstered handgun on the seat next to her thigh and loosened the strap.

When the light turned green, she accelerated slowly, hoping the tail car would pass so she could get a tag number. If the man turned off at the corner, she’d double back and try to catch him.

Instead, the Ford went even slower than she did, allowing another car to slip between them.

Rachel circled away from her hotel. Finally she caught a light and sped off ahead of them. But instead of continuing to floor it, she pulled into the closest parking garage in plain view of the Ford. “Come on, boys.”

Inside the multilevel garage, she took the first empty slot. She was out of the car almost as soon as the wheels stopped, dashing toward a white Escalade three cars away.

She ducked behind the left rear fender and dropped into a crouch to wait, holding her breath against the exhaust fumes and smog.

A red Miata raced up the incline, windows open and radio blaring. A white van followed, tailed closely by a Corvette. Over a course of minutes, four more cars passed by, none of them the black Ford.

Whoever the tail was, she seemed to have lost them, which made them pretty inept. Maybe they were just media types looking for a story on the senator. Had someone already learned about Cindy? Rachel climbed back into the rental and immediately flicked on the air conditioner.

As she turned the ignition key, she noticed the Corvette and the white van coming back down. Upper floors must be full.

“Hurry up,” she muttered, dropping the car into reverse, her foot on the brake.

The Corvette sped off, but at the last second, the van’s driver gunned the engine and pulled in behind, blocking her car. Shit! Two men jumped out. They were too well dressed for street thugs and moving too fast for press vultures.

As the first man approached, Rachel wrapped her left hand around the door handle, her right reaching for her weapon.

When he leaned down to window level to look at her, she smiled, waiting half a beat before she threw all her weight against the door.

Surprised by the maneuver, the man grunted in pain as he fell to the ground. She leaped over him, keeping both men in her sights.

The second man took one look at her Walther PPK and froze.

“Smart move,” Rachel said. She glanced at the first man aware that, though he was down at the moment, he still posed a very real threat. “Keep your hands where I can see them. Who are you and why the hell are you following me?”

The man on the ground groaned and rolled up enough to prop himself against the rear tire. “Tell her.”

“Dwight Davis sent us,” the second man said.

Rachel didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. Dwight Davis was CIA. They’d clashed on several occasions, mostly over her attempts to gain information on her brother. Small, small world.

While they’d had no contact in years, she’d heard Davis had pole-vaulted up the ranks at the Company, but he must have really been up there to pull a stunt like this.

“Tell Dwight he can kiss my ass.”

“Tell him yourself.” Still rubbing his shoulder, the first man started to reach inside his jacket. Rachel swung her gun toward him.

He paused midmotion. “Just going for my cell phone.”

She gave a sharp nod and watched as he pulled the phone out. The guy was decent looking. Clean cut, like most domestic Company guys. She should have known.

He nodded to her gun. “We both know you’re not going to shoot, so why don’t you put that away before another car comes by. The last thing either of us wants is cops asking questions.”

She waited a few seconds before dropping her hand to her side. He was right. Few cops were understanding about civilians brandishing handguns, but why would these two worry about that? Unless Dwight told them not to attract attention.

The man punched in a few numbers, then handed her the phone.

She barely pressed it to her ear before a man answered.

“Davis.”

“Your men suggested I tell you personally to go to hell.”

“Rachel. Welcome to Richmond. We need to talk.”

She glanced at the two men. “So call my office and book an appointment.”

“Like I could get past that bulldog you call a secretary.”

Rachel made a mental note to give Sheila a raise. “We have nothing to discuss, Dwight. Good-bye.”

“Wait! I can help you find information on Cindy Benjamin.”

She tightened her grip on the phone. There was only one way Dwight could know about that. “You’ve got the senator’s office bugged.”

“Like I said, we need to talk.”

“No, we don’t. I’m not taking the senator’s job.” Her mind hadn’t been made up until now.

“Look, I know what the senator promised you. Info on Nick. Trust me, nothing he can get will come close to what I can access.”

Irritation climbed Rachel’s spine. Dwight was playing games. “Replay your tapes, Einstein. Benjamin promised nothing. He said he’d try. Even Yoda wouldn’t accept try.”

“I can do better.”

“Right. That’s pretty much what you told me five years ago. I might have believed you then, but even I learn from my mistakes.” She glanced at the man on the ground and offered an insincere smile. “So I guess this is good-bye. Hopefully, for the last time.”

“I know you have every reason to doubt me, Rachel-”

“Finally. Something we can agree on. Now if you’ll just admit what a sleaze you are, we’ll have made real progress.”

Dwight exhaled noisily into the phone. The fact he remained on the line while she insulted him was revealing.

“Tell Franklin to give you the envelope,” Dwight said.

Exasperated, Rachel looked at the two men, not even sure why she was still standing there. Except that, no matter how much she wanted to tell Dwight to fuck off, she wanted answers about Nick more.

“Which one of you is Franklin?” she snapped.

The one on the ground half raised his right hand.

“It seems you have an envelope for me.”

He pulled it from his pocket and held it up.

Rachel took it, pausing to slip her weapon back into the holster on the seat before opening the envelope.

Inside was a black-and-white photograph. The shot was so fuzzy she couldn’t make out any features. It was a crowd shot that had been cropped until only one face stood out.

Nick?

She cleared her throat before pressing the phone back to her ear. “The photo is blurred.”

“But I’ve got others that aren’t. Now get in the van with my men.”