The men and women of Last Chance, Inc. are back in another heart-stopping tale!
British special agent Nigel Ferris has devoted his life to working covert operations, and avoiding relationships. Until he’s called upon to help foil an International terrorist plot, and comes face to face with the one woman who ever came close to scaling his emotional walls.
Photojournalist Melissa Pope knows that the intelligence she’s been gathering is invaluable – so much so that someone’s willing to kill to her for it. But the man assigned by Last Chance to protect her is another kind of threat altogether…
Drawn into the heart of a dangerous game of International intrigue Melissa and Nigel are soon fighting for their lives… and for the chance to explore the long-denied passion that still burns between them.
Excerpt from Exposure
“I need more expression. Something that makes it look as though you’re enjoying your work here.” Melissa Pope adjusted her camera lens, the shot going wide over the woman’s shoulder, focusing on the charts on the far wall.
The UN logistics officer beamed for the camera, her smile luminous. The photograph would have been wonderful, except that Melissa had gotten the shot she needed a half hour ago, and was now concentrating on the more inanimate parts of the office.
The last of the autumn sun beamed through the windows of the United Nations Secretariat, the glistening East river rolling placidly by. Each office here was very much like the next, cubicles and tiny offices fronted with metal dividers and standard issue 1950’s furniture. The only thing that seemed to have changed from Cary Grant’s North by Northwest days was the addition of computer equipment. In this case, a state of the art Think Pad with seventeen inch flat screen monitor.
Clearly the IT department was intent on dragging the UN into the new millennium despite the dismal décor.
What Melissa needed was five minutes alone with the computer. But that wasn’t going to be easy with this woman. Despite her glowing smile, she was, in fact, quite territorial. Every time Melissa moved too close to the desk or the information tacked on the walls behind it, Idina Meloski shot her ‘the look’.
Of course the camera lens was impervious to that sort of thing, but it also wasn’t able to turn on a computer and search through the files. What Melissa needed was a diversion. She scanned the office looking for coffee or water and found no beverages of any kind. Not even a cup. It wasn’t exactly Sydney Bristow, but she had a hunch it would work.
Sucking in a breath, she began to cough, pulling all the way from her diaphragm for effect. Bending over for theatrical impact, she shot a look at the woman through her hair. Idina had risen to her feet, her eyebrows raised in alarm.
“Miss Pope, are you all right?”
Melissa nodded, but continued to cough, straightening enough to hold out a hand gesturing that she needed water.
Idina swallowed the whole act, rushing from the office with the assurance that she’d be right back. Hopefully, it would take a little while to find a cup and water.
Melissa moved quickly around the desk to the computer, tapping instructions to bring up the woman’s data directory. She’d already learned that most UN staff logged onto their computers first thing in the morning and stayed connected for the rest of the day, which meant that daytime was her best chance for access, averting the need to secure passwords, or try to end run past them.
Unfortunately, Idina’s files looked pretty pedestrian. Not that she expected the woman to have labeled something Subversive Efforts to Undermine the UN. Still, there could be a clue, it was just a matter of finding it. With a couple of key strokes she changed directories, again with nothing interesting to report. Standard requisition forms, labeled sequentially, and a bunch of letters applying for various other UN positions. Apparently Idina wasn’t all that satisfied with her job.
Popping a CD into the appropriate drive, Melissa ordered the computer to copy a series of files relating to Idina’s most recent operations just in case there was a pattern there Melissa was missing. If nothing else she could compare it to similar files of other UN employees with the means to be a part of the smuggling operation.
While the files were copying, she entered a code her handler had given her, the mini-program designed to find and open any encrypted files, but the resulting search came up empty. If Idina was working with terrorists, she certainly hadn’t left a paper trail. Not that Melissa had really expected to find anything.
Although Idina’s job as a junior logistics officer for UN Peacekeeping Operations gave her the necessary access to information that could be useful in the illegal transport of arms and munitions, she really didn’t fit the profile of a woman on the take. And more importantly, she didn’t have the necessary skill set to pull off a scam of this magnitude.
But Melissa had learned the hard way that acting on assumption alone was never enough in this business. It was the kind of mistake that could get a girl killed actually, so she ran the program again, just to be certain. No hidden files. No secrets stashed handily on the office computer. Which meant either Idina was smarter than she looked, or she wasn’t the one.
Melissa was betting on the latter.
Grabbing the CD, she slipped it into her pocket and was just rounding the desk summoning up a renewed chorus of coughing when Idina returned, water glass in hand, Alexi Kirov, her boss, following right on her heels.
If Idina was territorial, Alexi was expansive. He’d practically given her the key to the proverbial front door, partly, she suspected, because he didn’t seem to care a whole lot about his job. Despite the fact that he was senior staff, his motivation had been left behind in his native Russia. Still, he was on the list, and sooner or later she intended to have a look at his files as well.
Right now, however, she needed to do her best Camille. Coughing to beat the band, she took the water, and gulped it, gasping for breath in a way she hoped signaled the choking was at an end. “Thank you,” she panted. “I’m not sure what happened. Something went down the wrong way, I guess.”
Idina fluttered around her, patting her back and mumbling what sounded a hell of a lot like Czech endearments. Melissa choked down some more water, and lifted her gaze to meet Alexi’s. As always, it was difficult to read his expression. Amusement surely, but just for a moment she thought she saw something else in his eyes.
Melissa shook her head, and smiled, patting the still flustered Idina. “I’m fine now. Honestly. Sorry to have frightened you.”
“Maybe you’d better call it a day.” Alexi was still watching under hooded eyes.
“I can’t.” Melissa shook her head, patting her camera. “Deadlines. There are proof sheets to go over, film to develop, and I’d still like to get a few more shots before this light is gone.” She waved absently at the window, wondering what in hell had made her think this assignment would be less stressful than her usual fare. Give her a war zone any day. At least there, you were dodging bullets not people.
“Surely you’re allowed to take a break now and then?” Alexi sounded just a bit too interested for Melissa’s taste, but she’d learned a long time ago never to say never when opportunity presented itself.
“Now and then.” She grudgingly admitted. “In fact tonight I’m actually attending a party as a guest and not a photographer.”
“What kind of party?” Idina asked, her mask of composure firmly back in place.
“It’s in honor of the Swiss delegation. I’m going as the guest of my brother-in-law.”
“Your brother-in-law?” Alexi asked, one eyebrow raising with curiosity.
“Yes, he’s with the diplomatic corps. Assigned to Brazil at the moment, but he and my sister are here on leave.”
“Not much of a holiday,” Alexi snorted. “The Swiss minister is a noted bore.”
“So tell me what you really think.” The words were out before she realized what she’d said. Europeans, especially eastern ones were often slow to get American humor, and she usually tried to restrain from making flippant comments in case she was misunderstood.
She need not have worried with Alexi, though. His laughter erupted in full force. “I’m sorry, I spoke out of turn, but then that is, how do you say, par for the course for me.”
“Well done.” Obviously Alexi had a solid grasp on American slang. Part and parcel of a permanent assignment to New York, no doubt. “Anyway, regardless of the host’s personality flaws, it’ll be nice to leave the camera at home for once.”
“And I’m sure you’ll clean up beautifully.” Again with the innuendo, and this time there was no mistaking the appreciative glint in Alexi’s eyes.
Idina made a noise somewhere between a snort and a harrumph, making a play of moving the stacks of paper on her desk, her expression even more forbidding than usual. Melissa toyed with the idea that the woman was jealous, and then dismissed it. Idina wasn’t the jealous type. And especially over Alexi Kirov. There was certainly still no love lost between the Czech Republic and the remnants of the Soviet Union. So despite the fact that he was good looking in a blonde and blue-eyed kind of way, Melissa doubted Idina was pining away for him.
Anyway, he had a weak chin and his handshake was a lot like a limp noodle. Not that a handshake was the be all and end all of a man, but it was a good indication of where he was coming from. And besides, Idina probably had the handshake of a national league linebacker.
Shaking her head at her own folly, Melissa drank the last of her water, and handed the glass back to Idina. “Let me just get a last shot of you at your desk and then I really ought to be going.” After all there was a CD burning a hole in her pocket, and the longer she stood there chatting, the more likely it was she’d be discovered.
She’d been doing this kind of thing a long time, but sometimes she wondered how the hell anyone in the Company ever managed to take themselves seriously. Clandestine work was fodder for situation comedy, Get Smart being a lot closer to the truth than some of the more frightening flicks people thought of as tributes to the kind of work she did.
“Will you be back tomorrow?” Idina asked with about as much enthusiasm as if Melissa were a dentist holding a drill. Melissa clicked the shutter and then lowered her camera.
“No.” She shook her head for emphasis, and the other woman immediately relaxed. “I think I’ve got everything I need from you. I might be back in a week or so for re-shoots. But in the meantime, Alexi, I do still need to get some shots of you.”
The Russian smiled, the gesture transforming his expression into something that bordered on charm, but then he frowned, and looked down at his watch. “I’m swamped with detail work at the moment, everything due at once. So I’ll have to check my calendar and then get back to you.” She waited for him to click his heels and bow, but instead he tipped his head, his expression quizzical. “Why don’t I phone you and we’ll set a time?”
“Of course,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to do anything to interrupt your schedule. I can always shoot background rolls in the meantime.”
“Wonderful.” He seemed distracted now, as if his mind had preceded him from the room. “We’ll talk tomorrow?”
“Absolutely.” She nodded, shivering as his chilly gaze swept over her one last time. Maybe she’d been too flip earlier in dismissing the dangers of her job. Fingering the CD in her pocket, she nodded good-bye to Idina, and turned to go, suddenly wanting nothing more than to get the hell out of Dodge.
“Look what the cat dragged in.” Madison Roarke contradicted her words with the warmth of her hug, as she embraced first Nigel and then Payton. Madison was a new mother, a profiler with the FBI and the wife of Nigel’s friend Gabe. All three were difficult roles, but together they probably qualified Madison for sainthood.
“How’s the baby?” The last time Nigel had seen Andrea Roarke she was about three months old, chubby, cheerful and very fond of tugging on his mustache.
“Not so much a baby anymore. She’s pulling up, and crawling everywhere in sight. And Gabriel swears she said daddy. Although I’m pretty sure it was only a burp.” Madison’s smile was beautifully maternal, and Nigel felt an absurd sense of longing. Fortunately, it never lasted long.
“How was the flight in?” she asked.
“Bumpy.” Nigel hated flying and Cullen’s private jet only made it slightly more palatable. “But as usual Cullen’s accommodations were top notch.”
At the mention of his name, Cullen Pulaski looked up from the document he was examining and smiled at the assembled company. “Nice to all be together again.”
Cullen was a king-maker of sorts, the kind of man who stayed behind the scenes but still managed to control almost everything he touched. Last Chance was no exception. His idea from conception, he left the dirty work to the team, but was always there for moral support and to provide an endless bankroll, which helped immeasurably when it came to cutting corners and actually getting things done.
“Almost all,” Harrison Blake corrected, glancing up from his laptop. Harrison was a genius when it came to bits and bytes, his ability to manipulate a computer taking on more legendary proportions with each operation. He’d never met a puzzle he couldn’t solve, and his tenacity had bailed them out on more then one occasion. “Gabe’s flying in later today.”
“And Sam won’t be here for another day or so. She’s trying to close out a case.” There was a note of dejection in Payton’s voice. For all practical purposes he was still a newlywed, but between his wife’s job as an ATF explosives officer and his work for the CIA, the two of them were often separated for long stretches at a time, making Last Chance operations that much more attractive for the both of them.
“Well, since we’ve got a majority, why don’t I go ahead and fill you in on what we know? Payton, you and Madison can brief your spouses when they arrive.”
Payton nodded, his expression as usual guarded, his scar shining white in the fluorescent light.
“Works for me,” Madison agreed.
Cullen laid down the sheaf of papers he was holding and crossed his arms. “Four days ago three canisters of R-VX were stolen from the storage facility in Shchuch'ye, Russia.”
“R-VX?” Madison queried.
“Nerve agent.” Payton’s tone was grim. “One of the most deadly. VX can kill within minutes if inhaled or deposited on the skin.”
“It was accidentally released in Utah in 1968, killing thousands of sheep, some of them as far as 40 miles from where the gas escaped,” Cullen said. “Imagine what that would mean in a crowded city.”
“And worse still, it contaminates everything it touches, and remains dangerous for several days,” Nigel added. “It was created by British scientists in the ‘50s. The only verified sources for its existence today are in the US and Russia.”
“Has it ever been used on humans?” Madison shuddered, rubbing her swollen belly.
“Nothing verified,” Nigel answered. “But there are stories.”
“There was a village in Kampuchea,” Payton said, his face hardening. “Everyone dead. Men, women and children. A couple hundred of them. The looked like macabre rag dolls littering the muddy streets, lying in their own excrement.”
“Oh God.” Madison had obviously turned inward, her profiler’s mind recreating the scene.
“It’s bad stuff,” Payton nodded. “Like smothering to death, only before it kills you, you sweat and salivate like a pig, your bowels releasing at whim, your muscles twisting and cramping until you’re most likely praying for death. Basically, your central nervous system goes AWOL right before your respiratory system shuts down completely -- paralysis, coma and then death.”
“And all of it almost before you even have time to realize what’s happened.” Nigel concurred with a sigh. “It’s pretty frightening what humanity creates in the name of war.”
“The R in R-VX is for the Russian variety, I take it.” Harrison interjected pulling them away from the horror, as he typed the name into his computer.
“Exactly. The chemical make-up is apparently somewhat different,” Cullen leaned forward, his palms pressed to the table, “but the effect is every bit as deadly.”
“So why is it still in existence?” Madison asked. “I thought there were agreements to get rid of the stuff.”
“There are,” Cullen said. “But unfortunately chemical weapons aren’t easy to destroy safely. And it can be quite costly. The deadline for destroying stockpiles is 2007, but there’s little likelihood that either side will be able to meet that deadline.”
“Which means that places like Shchuch'ye serve as one stop shopping for terrorists.” Payton’s voice was filled with contempt. “The place is practically falling down, and the binary weapons are just laying on shelves waiting for someone to come along and pick them up.”
“You’ve been there?” Cullen queried, his eyes sparkling with interest.
“Once.” As usual Payton chose not to elaborate. Not that Nigel doubted him. He’d never been to Shchuch’ye but he’d seen similar facilities.
“But surely there’s security?” Harrison frowned.
“Not much,” Nigel answered. “The truth of the matter is that the new Russia simply doesn’t have the money or personnel to deal with Soviet stockpiles, whether we’re talking about conventional weaponry or chemical and biological ones.”
“So someone just walked into the facility at Shchuch’ye and helped themselves?” Harrison had stopped typing his brows drawn together in frustration.
“More or less,” Cullen agreed. “They had help. A man named Yuri Dynkin. He’d worked as a guard at the facility months earlier, and was fired for insubordination of some kind. Apparently, the man held a grudge.”
“Or was looking to make a quick buck,” Payton said, ever the pessimist.
“I’m afraid we’ll never know for certain. Dynkin was killed on-site. A bullet in the back.”
“From which side?” Nigel quipped. “Not that it matters.”
“No way to know.” Cullen shrugged. “And unfortunately the rest of the party got away, along with three canisters of R-VX.”
“Just the nerve agent?” Payton asked, his eyes narrowing in thought.
“No.” Cullen shook his head. “The canisters are actually binary warheads.”
“I’m not sure I’m following.” Madison leaned forward, elbows propped on the table.
“Basically the warhead acts as a chemical reactor,” Nigel explained. “Two substances are stored inside in separate containers. When the thing is detonated the wall between the two canisters collapses and substances mix and the nerve agent is formed.”
“So all someone has to do is shoot the thing?” Harrison asked.
“Or blow it up. There are really any number of ways it can be used.” Nigel sighed, the reality of the situation beginning to sink in. “Do we have any idea who took it?”
“No,” Cullen said, tipping back his head and rolling his shoulders. “No particular group has claimed credit. But they had help from Hamas, so we’re guessing Islamic extremists. And the chatter internationally seems to support the idea.”
“So why were we called in?” Madison asked. “Surely there are international groups more equipped to handle something like this.”
“There are.” Cullen nodded to emphasize the point. “But despite the fact that no one is claiming responsibility, we’ve got very credible intel that the stolen R-VX is headed for the US. Most probably here in New York. We believe the canisters are being routed through the Black Sea. I’ve got sources trying to confirm the fact now. But if we’re right about the US being the target, then we’ve got to move fast.”
“It’ll be like finding a bloody needle in a haystack,” Nigel’s frustration was echoed on the other team member’s faces.
“Maybe not quite that bad.” Cullen actually smiled. “The CIA has an ongoing covert investigation into the possibility that someone at the UN, specifically someone working for UN Peacekeeping Operations, has been using Peacekeeping transports to smuggle weapons and other illegal goods.”
“Do they have proof?”
“Nothing verifiable, of course, or they’d have taken action. But I’m told they’re getting close. They have someone working on the inside now. And I’ve arranged a meet. Her position is, as you can imagine, very vulnerable. So there’s no way to just call her in. But her handler has arranged for one of you to connect at a diplomatic party.”
“So who’s going?” Harrison asked, looking like he’d rather eat nails than attend. Not that Nigel felt all that differently. Social dos weren’t really his cup of tea, although in his line of work they were often unavoidable.
Cullen’s gaze settled on Nigel.
“Not me,” he groaned.
Madison laughed, although she at least had the good sense to hide it behind her hands.
“Unfortunately, you’re the perfect choice,” Cullen said. “It’s unlikely that anyone will connect you with us, and you’re certainly not American, which is a plus.” He actually said it as if in normal circumstances being a non-American was a detriment. To date, Nigel had found the opposite far more likely to be true, unless one happened to reside in Nebraska. “Gabriel and Madison will accompany you. Madison’s father will be there, so that gives them legitimacy.”
“You knew about this?” Nigel asked.
“About the party?” she quipped with a debutante smile. “Yes.”
“I didn’t bring a tux.” He sounded sulky and he knew it. But, bloody hell, he hated getting trussed up like an overstuffed pheasant.
“Not a problem,” Payton said with a rare smile. “We’re about the same size. You can wear mine.”
“Wonderful.” Nigel sighed, accepting the inevitable. “You said my contact is a woman?”
“Yes, but I don’t know much other than that. As I said, they’re trying to keep her exposure to a minimum. Anyway, she’ll have a description of you. And there’ll be a signal of some sort.”
“The red salmon are running in Peru?” Payton’s smile had turned to a grin. “Hell, why don’t you just have her carry a neon sign or something?”
“Look, there wasn’t much time to get this all arranged. And the thought was that the easiest way to deal with this was for her to find you, give you the signal -- and then you can talk.” Cullen waved his hand through the air in dismissal. “I’ll leave the details up to you.”
“So what is the signal?” Nigel asked.
Cullen actually had the decency to look embarrassed. “She’ll ask how you like the weather in New York, and you’ll respond that it’s much colder than Spain.”
“You’ll be a regular Eliza Doolittle,” Payton said with a laugh and Nigel shot him a look, wondering what the bloody hell he’d been thinking agreeing to help out. This operation had disaster written all over it. He hated tuxedos, he hated society parties, and he hated playing James Bond.
Excerpt from EXPOSURE by Dee Davis, Copyright ©2005 by Dee Davis. All rights reserved. Reprint only with permission from author. Please contact .