Last Chance Series, Book 1
original paperback 2005, HQN
e-book 2023, Oliver Heber Books
They both know the games killers play...
FBI criminal profiler Madison Harper understands dangerous minds. Tough, tenacious, with nerves of steel, she’s the best of the best. So is her new partner, Gabriel Roarke, a crack CIA operative who likes to do things his way. When the two are forced to jointly head up a task force investigating murder in high places – it’s no surprise that sparks begin to fly.
As they race through a shadow world of power, politics and deadly secrets, the passion that simmers between Madison and Gabriel soon ignites. But a clever killer at the top of his game has challenged Madison to play to the very end. Now all she can trust is her instincts—and Gabriel, the one man reckless enough to keep her alive...
"Conflicting motives and high-stakes politics add extra flavor to this intriguing and complex thriller. As a suspense novelist, Davis just keeps lifting the bar."
~ Romantic Times, 4 1/2 stars, TOP PICK
"I believe Dee Davis is one of the best authors writing romantic suspense today...ENDGAME is part of a trilogy and I know I'm eagerly awaiting the next two."
~ The Best Reviews
"Dee Davis is masterful at keeping her readers on the edge of their seats. EXCELLENT!"
~ Huntress Reviews, 5 stars
New York City
Interrogation rooms ranked only slightly above gas station restrooms in the stench and cleanliness department. Which was too bad, considering the amount of time Madison Harper spent in them. Sucking in a final breath of semi-clean air, she opened the door and walked into the room, immediately commanding the attention of the detective in the corner and the perp at the table.
The latter looked to be at odds with his surroundings, although he was showing some signs of wear and tear. His white button down was starting to wilt, and the creases in his khaki’s weren’t as pristine as they’d once been. With a little luck, she’d soon be responsible for adding some sweat to the ensemble.
With a subtle nod at the detective, she lifted the bag she held onto the table, making a play of pulling out a blood-spattered pipe. Still without breaking the silence, she carefully laid the pipe on a battered bookshelf, and then, just as carefully, turned her back on it.
“Mr. Jackson.” She held her hand out to the man at the table, ignoring the flash of surprise in the detective’s eyes. It was always the same. Derision, surprise, skepticism, and then ultimately resentful admiration. Profiler’s lot in life.
“Who the hell are you?” Paul Jackson glared up at her through bloodshot eyes. She waited a beat, and then another, delighted to see him shooting a sideways glance at the pipe. So far so good.
“My name is Madison Harper.” They shook hands as if they were at a business meeting, and then she sat across from him at the table. Detective Barton shifted, leaning back against the window sill, eyes narrowed, arms crossed.
Madison bit back a smile.
“You another detective?” Jackson was studying her now, trying to figure out who the hell she was, and more importantly if he could use her to his advantage. It was there in the tilt of his head, and the twist of his brows.
“No.” She shook her head, pulling a stack of files out of the case and dropping them on the table. “FBI. We’ve been working with the police. Trying to solve Connie Weston’s murder.”
Murder was in fact a kind word for the act. A vivacious fifth grader, Connie had disappeared on a walk to the corner grocery, only to be discovered dead in an abandoned warehouse five days later. The child had been raped, sodomized, and then beaten in the head with the pipe on the bookshelf. There were no finger prints, and no trace elements to tie Jackson to the murder, but Madison was nevertheless certain of his guilt.
The trick was to get him to admit as much.
“I already told Barney Fife there,” Jackson inclined his head toward Barton, but his gaze was back on the pipe, “I didn’t do it.”
Barton shifted again, looking a lot like he wanted to tear into Jackson, but he had his orders, and to his credit, despite his obvious disapproval he didn’t attempt to interfere. They’d been round and round their approach, and only when his lieutenant had insisted had Barton agreed to play it her way. But apparently he lived by his word.
“Maybe not on purpose,” she said, noting that Jackson had indeed started to sweat, his hands clenched in an attempt to hold onto control.
Jackson worked for the local cable company and had been in the area the day Connie disappeared. He was newly divorced, and recently discharged from the army. His sheet included, a suspected rape and a couple of arson charges from his youth. And he’d been the primary suspect in a New Jersey rape a couple of years back. A hooker named Belinda Markham.
Until today he’d been the picture of helpful, cocky and confident. Even volunteered to take a lie detector test. He was definitely the kind of man who could have approached Connie without scaring her. The vivacious eleven-year old would never have seen it coming. Not when she was so close to home. Even in New York there was a comfort zone.
“We know you did it, you sick bastard. Just tell us how.” Barton evidently had lost whatever willpower he’d summoned, and he stepped menacingly toward Jackson, his face twisted in anger.
Jackson immediately regained some of his former bravado, glaring up at the detective through narrowed eyes. “I didn’t do nothing.”
Madison swallowed a rebuke, settling instead for a visual one, and then smiled at Jackson, reaching out to touch his hand, her skin crawling with the action, her body held in tight control so that her revulsion was not apparent. “We’re not blaming you, Paul. I’ve seen the pictures.” She made a play of pulling them out of an envelope.
She let her gaze sweep over the tiny form clad only in the plaid skirt from her school uniform, keeping focus instead on Jackson, who was staring at the photograph with something akin to a hypnotic trance. It was as if he simply couldn’t pull his eyes away.
“The man who killed her obviously felt remorse, Paul. See how he laid her jacket over her face. It’s a protective move. Meant to shield her from harm. Whoever did this obviously had a heart.”
She swallowed the bile rising in her throat, and looked up to meet Detective Barton’s eyes. His skepticism was fading.
“She was a pretty little girl.” Jackson’s voice was soft now, all traces of contentiousness gone. “Really sweet.”
Madison grabbed onto the adjective. To call someone sweet you had to know them. Or at least have met them. She felt a flash of triumph, she was getting close. “Not so sweet, surely?” She looked up to meet Jackson’s eyes, only to find he was again staring at the pipe, his breathing uneven.
“I mean girls that age--they don’t know what they’ve got, do they?” She waited a moment making sure she had his full attention. “Wearing their skirts so short. Their legs all tanned and bare. They hardly leave anything to the imagination. And girls like that hardly ever wear bras. It’s enough to drive a man crazy, isn’t it?”
Jackson nodded slightly, his gaze now alternating between the pipe and the photograph. There were circles of sweat under his arms now, and beads of it on his forehead. With a slight nod, Madison indicated that it was time for the final act.
Barton pushed off of the window sill and walked over to pull out the chair beside Jackson. “Did you know that when a person is bludgeoned to death, like Connie here,” he poked a finger at the photograph, “ blood flies everywhere?”
Unconsciously, Jackson looked down at his hands.
“All we have to do, Paul, is test you for trace.” It was far to late for that, but the man had no way of knowing, besides he’d turned the corner, found his out. He’d never meant to kill Connie. He’d only wanted to seduce her. In his mind, her friendlessness equated with wanting him. It was only afterward, when he realized the reality was nothing like the fantasy--that Connie was frightened and hurt--that he knew he had to kill her. To cover up what he’d done.
Madison knew it all. She could see it. See it with his mind. Feel his impotence. His building rage. She could smell Connie’s fear as it filled the room, surrounding him, robbing him of his fantasy -- of his triumph. She could feel his hand as it closed around the steel of the pipe. All he wanted was to erase his mistake. Stop the crying. Make it go away. He’d been wrong. She wasn’t the one. And for that she had to pay. Remorse and anger twisted in his gut, until there was nothing left to do but hit her, and hit her, and hit her….
“ I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
Madison jerked back to the present, her breath coming in gasps. Jackson was looking at her, his eyes begging her to understand.
“Of course not,” she whispered, her hand still on his, not daring to break eye contact.
“It’s just that she kept coming on to me.” The words came out on a sigh.
Again Madison swallowed bile. “It’s not your fault, Paul. How could you have known she’d fight you?”
“She did.” He was earnest now, intent on explaining. “She screamed and she screamed, and she kicked me. I didn’t know what to do. Then she tried to run away.”
“And so you killed her.” Madison kept her voice soft, non-condemning, almost as if she were consoling a friend.
He shot a look at the pipe again, and then buried his head in his hands. “I only meant to make her stop screaming.” He looked up, nothing left of the confident man. “I just wanted to touch her. To show her what it was like to be with a man. I just wanted to make her feel good.”
Madison refrained from voicing her real thoughts, there was one more hurdle to jump first. “And Belinda Markham? Did you want to make her feel good, too?”
Jackson looked startled for a moment, and then suddenly dead calm. “No. She was a whore. I just wanted to fuck her.”
With a sigh, she stood up and, without looking at Jackson or Barton, walked out of the interrogation room.
“Good work in there.” Walter Blythe turned from the two-way mirror. Blythe was the director of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, and for all practical purposes he’d written the book on profiling. Furthermore, he had no business here, and her skin crawled with the premonition that something bad was about to happen. “You managed to solve a case that’s been dangling over the NYPD for more than a year now.”
“I did my job.” It was a non-answer, but it was the best she could do. Graciously receiving compliments had never been a long suit. “Why are you here?”
Blythe smiled. “You don’t beat around the bush, do you?”
“Not much purpose in it.” She leaned back against the desk, watching through the mirror as Barton placed handcuffs on Jackson.
“I got a call today from the Director. And his call came from the White House. It seems your godfather’s got a problem, and he needs you.”
“Something is wrong with Cullen?” Madison frowned. Cullen Pulaski wasn’t the type of man to need anyone’s help.
“He’s fine. But he believes several colleagues of his have been murdered.”
“And the FBI is getting involved?” Curiosity tinged with worry surged through her, cresting on a note of resentment. Whatever her godfather wanted--she wasn’t going to like it.
“No, Madison.” Blythe’s expression was forbidding. “You’re going to be involved. He wants you to head up a task force he’s forming. And he’s got the backing to do it. As of now you’re relieved of your normal duties.”
“But my cases…”
Blythe waved a hand through the air, cutting her off. “Will be handed over to another profiler. As of now, you’re off the job.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but Barton chose that moment to bring Jackson out of the interrogation room. It was as if he were a different man. Instead of jovial and cocksure his demeanor was hang-dog and defeated.
She’d won and Jackson knew it.
They walked past, Detective Barton’s gaze colliding with hers.
She’d danced with the devil and made him pay his due, but still she was being punished. She shot a look at Blythe, who shrugged in answer.
Hell of a world.
The Florida Keys diner was seedy at best, decrepit at worst, and nothing new in the long line of places he’d frequented of late. Decorated with gator heads, Formica and table juke boxes in various states of disrepair, there was an odd fusion of swamp rat and Buddy Holly.
It suited his purpose. Hell, he blended right in. Which was more than he could say for the suits in the corner. Stoking his anger, Gabriel Roarke strode across the room, his movements calculated to go unnoticed. Odds were, his cover was blown, but old habits died hard.
His pace slowed automatically, a vague sense of unease mixing with his irritation as he recognized the men at the table. Something big was coming down if the director was here. Something Gabe had the distinct feeling he wouldn’t like.
Especially if it involved Cullen Pulaski.
The second man was recognizable if for no other reason than his face was plastered across the country’s newspapers on an almost daily basis. It had been said on more than one occasion that the U.S. was run by the nouveau rich, and Cullen Pulaski was a card carrying member. A renowned mathematician with a nose for business, Cullen had scored big during the technical revolution, placing him at the top of the industrial elite. His company Dreamscape was a permanent fixture on the Fortune 500, and that was just icing on the cake. Gabriel had worked with him years ago, and despite their differences, the two men had gotten along.
Gabe was a loner, and Cullen was as outgoing as they come, a politicians’ politician. Only he preferred pulling the strings from a distance. And for the most part, what he wanted he got. Which somehow only made Gabe angrier. To hell with the business of the CIA, when Cullen Pulaski called, everyone had damn well better come running.
“So, what the hell’s this all about?” Gabe barked, sliding into the booth, his jaw locked in anger. “You’re compromising my operation.”
“It couldn’t be helped.” Cullen shrugged, dismissing Gabe’s anger as if it were of no accord. “I needed you.”
“And that was worth blowing a two year investigation?” An equal amount of incredulity and outrage washed through Gabe as he glared at the older man.
Evan Jensen lifted a hand, the motion demanding silence. Not more than forty-five, Jensen was the CIA’s youngest Deputy Director. But what he didn’t have in seniority, he more than made up for with sheer presence. “I wouldn’t have called you in, if it wasn’t important.”
Gabe looked first to Pulaski and then to Evan, an eyebrow raised in question. It was a calculated look he’d practiced as a child, and once learned had never abandoned. “When I got the word, I assumed I’d been made.”
‘The operation hasn’t been jeopardized.” Jensen’s voice was soft, but it was tempered with steel. “It’s just been handed over to another operative.”
Gabe opened his mouth to protest, and then shut it again. There was no point in antagonizing Jensen. Whatever was happening was obviously beyond his control. To hell with the fact that he’d sweated blood over this one. His was not to question why or some such shit.
“All right then, beyond Cullen’s needing me, why don’t you tell me what this is about?” There was cynicism in his voice, the overlay part and parcel of his personality. In the fourteen years he’d been with the company, he’d seen just about everything.
A waitress stopped at the table, set a cup of coffee in front of Gabe, and pulled out a pad, but Evan waved her away. So much for breakfast. Gabe reached for the coffee, sipping the acidic brew, the action soothing in its familiarity.
“What do you know about the American Business Consortium?”
“Not much.” Gabe frowned. “It was formed in the wake of 9/11. An attempt at communication and cooperation among leading industrial bigwigs. If I remember right, the FTC had a field day, until the President stepped in and gave the consortium a get out of jail free card. All’s fair in the fight against terrorism, I guess. Even collusion.”
“There is such a thing as the greater good, Gabriel. You of all people should recognize that fact.” Cullen leaned forward, his eyes sharp with intelligence. “The idea behind the consortium is really two-fold. First, on a reactive front, it provides a communication base, and a set of standard operating procedures, should something or someone try to bring down American commerce. And, on the proactive front, it allows for increased leverage in the international market. An opportunity to forge alliances that strengthens the United State’s position worldwide, both economically and politically.”
“A noble cause.” Gabe said the words, but didn’t for a moment believe them. As far as he was concerned, patriotism couched in economic gain was suspect from the get go.
Evan’s eyes narrowed in warning, but Cullen only shrugged. “There are two sides to every coin. But in this case I honestly believe the primary beneficiary is the country.”
“Gentlemen,” Evan cut in, “we can discuss economic philosophy until we’re blue in the face and never come to agreement. The fact of the matter is that the consortium exists, and if you’re correct, Cullen, under possible attack.”
It was Gabe’s turn to frown. “From whom?”
“I don’t know.” Cullen shook his head, and took a sip of coffee. “I’m not even certain there’s really a threat. I don’t have anything definitive. Just a pattern. But in my business patterns are everything, and I can’t ignore this one.” He paused for a moment, studying them both, leaving Gabe feeling as if he’d been found wanting. “A close friend of mine passed away recently. He met with an accident in a subway tunnel.”
“Inelegant way to go.” Gabe mumbled. “Was there an investigation?”
Cullen nodded. “He fell onto the tracks in front of a train, so there was of course suspicion of foul play, but the autopsy indicated a massive heart attack.”
“Which would explain the tumble onto the tracks.”
“Yes, but the more relevant fact is that he was in perfect health.”
“People have heart attacks all the time, Cullen. So what makes you think this one is questionable?”
“Cullen’s friend is Bingham Smith, and he was on his way to a meeting with the Chinese delegation,” Evan said, his tone solemn, ominous. Bingham Smith made Cullen Pulaski look like chump change. The man was notorious for leveraging takeovers of even the most unavailable companies.
“The consortium has been working on a trade deal with China for almost three years now. And we were close to success. But Bing was our lead man. He’d built a relationship with his Chinese counterpart that can’t easily be replaced.”
“And you think someone purposefully took him out to queer the deal?”
“I think it’s a possibility.”
“But surely this is something the police should be handling.” Gabe looked from Cullen to Evan in confusion.
“There’s more,” Evan said, shooting a sideways look at Cullen.
“I mentioned patterns. The fact is that two other consortium members have died recently.”
“More subway problems?”
“No.” Cullen’s smile was terse at best. “Totally unrelated as far as cause. Jacob Dashal was electrocuted, and Robert Barnes was killed when one of his warehouses burned to the ground. Both deaths were ruled accidental.”
“So what’s the pattern, other than the fact that they were also members of the consortium?”
“Nothing concrete. It’s more of a feeling I have. But each man was significant in the effort to reach economic accord with China. And their deaths caused setbacks that have been difficult to overcome.”
“How many people are in this consortium?” Gabe asked, setting his now cold coffee on the table.
“There are about fifty member companies, headed by an eleven member board, of which I’m now the acting chairman.”
“Bingham served as chairman until his death. And both Barnes and Dashal were key players in the negotiations.” Evan added for clarity.
Gabe nodded, trying to assimilate the information. “So you believe that someone out there wants the trade agreement to fail. And that your friends’ deaths have been an attempt to stop things from moving forward.”
“Yes. But I’ve had trouble convincing local authorities of the same. All three men died in different states, which means different jurisdictions and varying degree of interest in pursuing anything more.”
“What about the Feds?”
“Same reaction. They gave it cursory attention. I demanded that much, but the conclusion was that although it was an unfortunate coincidence, there was no evidence to support a conspiracy of any kind.”
“So he’s brought it to the CIA?” Gabe frowned at Evan.
“No, Gabriel,” Cullen said, forcing Gabe’s attention back to him. “I went to the President. And once I’d explained my concerns, he authorized a task force. A group of experts to investigate the situation and report directly back to me. I’ve got carte blanche to pull the members from wherever I see fit.”
“Our tax dollars at work.” Gabe tried but couldn’t keep the cynicism from his voice.
“Cullen wants you to head up the task force, Gabe. That’s why I called you in.”
“You risked my operation to send me on a wild goose chase trying to find some illusive conspiracy dreamed up by an over-moneyed, highly imaginative computer magnate?” Gabe glared at Evan through narrowed eyes, purposefully ignoring Cullen.
“Your job, Roarke,” Evan hissed, “is to go where I tell you to go. And while your operative skills are unimpeachable, your attitude is not. The President gave the order, and wild goose chase or no, you will head up the task force, or find a job in the private sector. Am I making myself clear?”
“Yes.” Gabe allowed his tone to border on subservient. If he hadn’t been so tired he’d have never let his anger show, but he’d been undercover for months now, and the strain was obviously taking its toll. “I didn’t mean offense, Cullen.”
“None taken.” Cullen waved off the apology. “I realize this is out of the ordinary. And the only thing I can say to reassure you is that this accord, if successful, has the power to change the face of international commerce. Which means it’s as important as whatever you’re doing now.”
“If there’s a conspiracy.”
Cullen’s eyes narrowed to slits, all geniality vanishing. “There is. I’m certain of it. A good deal of successful business is based on intuition, Gabriel. And I can feel this in my gut. Something’s afoot. And I need you to figure out what it is.” He leaned forward, his hand gripping the edge of the table, adding a feeling of urgency to his words. “You’ll of course have all the funding you need. And any personnel you desire.”
“I can pull together my own team?” The idea had a certain appeal, and since the assignment was inevitable, he might as well enjoy it.
“More or less. I am asking someone from the FBI to work with you. And I suspect she’ll have some ideas as to the make-up of the task force.”
“She?” His eyebrow shot up again, this time of its own accord.
“Madison Harper. She’s with the Investigative Support Unit.”
“A profiler?” The other eyebrow rose to meet its partner, his voice breaking on his surprise.
“An excellent one.” Cullen nodded, ignoring Gabe’s reaction. “She’s also a friend. I trust her implicitly. And more importantly, I think she’ll be the perfect compliment to your more tumultuous style.”
Gabe decided to let it pass. There was enough to deal with without further antagonizing the man who was, apparently, his new boss. “How soon do you want to get started?”
“As soon as possible. Evan has agreed to let you have anyone you need, and I have similar permission from other agencies. I want the best. And I trust that you can get them for me. Of course you’ll probably want to meet Madison first.”
Actually she was the last person he wanted to meet. He wasn’t a share command kind of guy, and quite frankly the prospect of sharing it with some quasi-cerebral FBI guru made the idea that much more loathsome.
Especially when said guru was a woman.
Excerpt from ENDGAME by Dee Davis, Copyright ©2005 by Dee Davis. All rights reserved. Reprint only with permission from author. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.