Jack McClure and Alli Carson are back for another adventure through the shadows of power in this third installment of the New York Times bestselling series
It was once said that you must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible….
Alli Carson has been through her own personal hell. With her father, the President of the United States, recently dead and her mother in coma from a terrible accident, she has poured herself into her training to become one of the best FBI agents at the Fearington Institute. Her inspiration and solace comes from the one man with whom she has ever felt a kinship, National Security Adviser, Jack McClure. But when Alli becomes the prime suspect in a murder at Fearington, a wide ranging investigation is triggered, involving local homicide detectives, the secret service, the FBI itself, and Alli’s own uncle, the billionaire lobbyist, Henry Carson. And yet nothing is what it seems.
What follows is a treacherous journey that leads Jack and Alli into a complex web of lies and deceit. Using Jack’s unique gifts to see the through the labyrinth of manipulation, their investigation leads them into the dark heart of the international slave trade, tied to a powerful Albanian crime lord, whose ability and influence in global terrorism grows with each day.
The two find themselves in the crosshairs of vast global enterprise, one that lurks in the shadows of power and has infiltrated Washington and their lives in ways neither of them could ever have imagined. And hidden deep among it all sits a terrifying criminal mastermind, someone fueled by a hatred that can never be quenched, and a mind that knows neither feeling nor mercy.
“The master of the smart thriller.” —Nelson DeMille, New York Times bestselling author of The Gate House
“Lustbader is an automatic buy-today-read-tonight author for me–and should be for you.” —Lee Child, New York Times bestselling author of The Jack Reacher series
“One of the great thriller authors.” —Joseph Finder
“A master who knows how to manipulate the reader in fiendishly exciting ways.” —Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author of The Venetian Betrayal
Gunn regarded Naomi with a vaguely ironic smile. “It’s public knowledge that I’m an investor in InterPublic.”
Naomi didn’t like that smile. “A major investor.”
“What can I say? I have a facility for making money.”
“Uh- huh. And what other things have you and Mr. Carson cooked up?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Naomi shrugged. “Maybe InterPublic isn’t the extent of your dealings together. Maybe there are deals that aren’t public knowledge.”
Gunn sat looking at her for a moment. “I do believe you’re trying to piss me off .”
“Not at all.”
“For what reason I cannot imagine.”
Now that they were talking at cross- purposes, it was time for Naomi to go. But before she did, there was one item left remaining on her agenda. She rose and headed for the door, before turning back.
“I’d appreciate the dossiers on the three men who were assigned to guard Alli Carter.”
Gunn appeared unfazed. “Bennett will hand them to you on the way out.”
She smiled. “A pleasure, Mr. Gunn.” Her smile widened. “That macchiato was so good I promise I’ll be back.”
“The Izmaylovskaya recruit,” Thatë said when Jack had finished explaining his storied past. “Their representatives go far a field—Albania, Romania, all of Eastern Europe, so I’m told.” He looked down at his hands, their long fingers laced together. “That’s how they found me.” He looked up. “Why should I say no? They offered me a home, training, a steady job, security— none of the things I had. It was everything I wanted— and needed.”
“I thought the grupperovka were all Russian nationals.”
“Once, maybe.” Thatë rose, got them two more beers, and sat back down. “But these days the families are under a shitload of pressure from the Kremlin. They gotta expand beyond Russia in order to survive.” He shrugged as he snapped off the bottle cap. “They don’t like it, but what the fuck else can they do. The fucking writing’s on the wall.”
The day had wasted itself in gray rain and intermittent spurts of sleet that rattled on the concrete sidewalks. Now, exhausted, day had given way to night, a darkness muffled in low clouds and swirls of icy rain. Far above, the sky was dully phosphorescent with the lights of the far- off prosperous sections of the city, but the glow did little here. Streetlights worked only intermittently; illumination was at a premium, which was just how the roving gangs liked it.
Jack checked his watch. “It’s almost show time.”
“Time to go, no?” Thatë glanced over his shoulder. “The girl’s awake.”
Jack turned. Alli was standing in the doorway, dried blood all over her. She looked even smaller than usual, almost like a child.
Jack . . .” All at once, tears rolled down her cheeks.
He rose and went to her, held her while she shook and sobbed. “It’s always worst the first time.”
He felt her freeze, almost as if her breathing had come to a halt. “He’s dead?”
“I . . . I didn’t mean to, but he wouldn’t stop coming after me.”
“What happened?” Jack said gently.
After a shuddering breath, Alli described everything that had happened in her uncle’s study. How Rudy had waited until Uncle Hank and Harrison Jenkins had driven away before coming in and threatening her with the fire poker, how she had managed to get away and what had happened when she encountered the other two guards, how in her flight she had come across the cook lying on the floor of the kitchen, and how Rudy had followed her out of the house.
“There’s no doubt in your mind that his intent was to kill you?”
She shook her head. “When he came for me, he said, ‘There’s a fine spot for them to find you, curled in the fireplace with the soot and the ash.’ ”
“Was it just him, do you think, or were they all in on it?”
Alli, thinking back to how Conlon and the third guard had acted, said, “They were all in it together. I just think Rudy was the crew chief.”
The tears had dried on her cheeks, making tracks in the dirt. He could see that she had regained a good deal of her self- control. Just the fact that she could make these observations about her attackers was proof that she was heading for the right line of work at Fearington.
“It’s okay. You’ve done remarkably well.” He hugged her and gave her a gentle shove in the direction of the bathroom. “Now go wash up.”
He turned to see Thatë staring intently at him. “What?”
The kid lowered his head, stared at the fl oor between his feet. “Nothing.”
Jack sat down across from him and took a swig of his beer, which was now close to room temperature. “Spill it.”
Thatë gave a little laugh. He sounded like a hyena nervously cackling in the bush.
“How’d you get her to listen to you?” the kid asked. “You threaten her, or what?”
Jack considered the source of these questions. “I didn’t get her to do anything. Alli takes my advice.”
“So how you make her respectful?”
Jack tried not to show the alarm that sprang up inside him. “Thatë, she trusts me.”
“She trusts you?”
Behind the closed bathroom door, the water had begun to run in the shower.
Thatë frowned. “I don’t get it.”
“Why don’t you ask her?”
As the kid jumped up, Jack, laughing, reached over and pulled him back down.
“Why not now?”
“Because she’d find a way to obliterate your nuts.”
Thatë looked at him askance. “You’re fucking with me, right?”
Jack shook his head. “She killed a man today—a professional bodyguard—and maimed two others.” He let the kid go. “You still want to try?”
Thatë shook his head. “Man, I still don’t know about you.”
At that moment, the bathroom door opened a crack, and, through a small cloud of steam, Alli said, “I need clean clothes.”
Jack looked at the kid, who inadvertently gave a classic double-take before making for the bedroom. Jack heard some drawers being pulled out. He and Alli exchanged looks, but he was uncertain of either her mood or what she was thinking until she breathed: “Emma . . .”
“What is it?” he whispered back.
Alli gave a tiny, violent shiver. “I feel her.”
Thatë reappeared with a stack of clothes: a pair of black stovepipe jeans, a black-and-white T-shirt with wig-out emblazoned across the chest, a hoodie, and a pair of sweat socks.
Alli sniffed at them.
“They’re just washed,” the kid said. “I know how to take care of myself.” He led with his chin. “Couldn’t do anything ’bout underwear.”
“No problem,” Alli said, taking the pile from him. “I’ll go commando.”
Naomi stood just to one side of the entrance to the Fortress Securities building, between two columns, hidden from anyone who came and went. She was scanning the dossiers of the three guards, hoping to find some link, some anomaly that might make something click. It was chilly, the evening clanking onto the city streets like a spent shell. Lights sent smears of illumination across the sidewalk. Headlights rolled toward her, then away slowly in the mounting rush hour traffic.
She had done her best to rattle Gunn’s cage. If there was something to what she had intimated she wanted to know about it. She’d made a shot in the dark, to be sure, but she was waiting for Gunn to emerge. If he had become alarmed by what she had said he would go see Henry Holt Carson in person; he was too good at his job to risk a phone conversation.
But it had been over an hour since she had left the Fortress offices and still no sign of him. She went back to the dossiers, her eyes anxiously scanning the text while part of her attention was secured in the periphery of her vision, waiting for Gunn. There was nothing, nothing, nothing, so she returned to the beginning and started all over again.
Halfway through she caught herself wondering how Pete was faring. Digging out her phone, she punched in his speed- dial number. He answered at once. Nothing to report.
“I got the Fortress dossiers,” she said. “If you’re free, we ought to go over them together.”
“Right. Two pairs of eyes are better than one,” he said. “Meet you in twenty at the office.”
She severed the connection, read a little more, continuing to spin her wheels, and sighed. Still no sign of Gunn. She checked her watch. Shit, maybe she had been wrong about him. All at once, her attention shifted. She looked forward to meeting with Pete, hopeful he’d spot something she had missed. Besides, she hadn’t eaten a thing all day.
She was about to pack up the dossiers in preparation for heading back to the office when a familiar figure pushed through the doors of the building and came briskly down the stairs.
Pete McKinsey passed not ten feet from where she stood, frozen in dismay.
Thatë pointed with his chin. “What else is on your iPod?”
He held the iPod out and the kid took it, plugged Jack’s Monster earbuds in, and scrolled down.
“Don’t know any of this shit,” he said a little too loudly, as people will when they’re listening to music in their ears. Then, apparently finding a song he liked, he turned up the volume. His head began to nod rhythmically.
Jack watched him for a moment. He had to remind himself that the kid was only seventeen. He spoke American street slang almost perfectly; a first- rate mimic. He turned from this thought as Alli came out of the bathroom. She looked fairly comical with the bottoms of Thatë’s jeans turned up in oversized cuff s. The hoodie came down almost to her knees.
“Don’t laugh,” she warned.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Jack said.
She came and brought a chair over to sit beside him. Thatë’s eyes tracked her but he was too deep in the music to pay much attention.
“What’s with the Lost Boy?” she said.
“We’re in trouble, Alli. The Virginia State Police have a warrant out for your arrest and I have no doubt your uncle wants to get his hands on us as well. Thatë provided a safe haven where no one would think to look for us.”
“Any port in a storm.”
“This is more than a storm,” Jack said seriously.
Alli hitched her chair closer to him and lowered her voice even though it was impossible for Thatë to overhear them. “I don’t understand. Uncle Hank hired those men to guard me. Instead, they tried to kill me. I mean, what the fuck?”
“My thought exactly. That’s why I spirited you away, that’s why I don’t want you to turn yourself in. Nothing about this situation rings true and until I can understand what’s happening I don’t trust anyone, and that includes your Uncle Hank.”
“You don’t think he would—”
At this point, I don’t know what to think. But the fact is I trust this young criminal-in-waiting more than I do anyone else.”
“Then we really are in trouble.”
On the other hand, we can’t stay here forever.”
“I don’t plan to,” Jack said. He brought her up to date. He told her about the killings at Twilight, how he’d found physical evidence linking them to Billy Warren’s death. He showed her the octagonal badge and Thatë’s identical pendant.
“The writing on them is Albanian, the icon of an underground club whose business makes even Thatë nervous,” he concluded. “That’s where I’m hoping we’ll find some answers about who really killed Billy, and why.”
Thatë chose that moment to come out of his music- induced trance. “Very cool shit,” he said as he pulled out the earbuds. “Old- school roots, man. People put ’em down, but not me. The blues is where hip-hop came from, you know?” Then he grinned at Alli. “So, vajzë e bukur, how you doin’?”
Alli glanced at Jack, who said, “He thinks you’re beautiful.”
She bared her teeth at the kid.
According to Thatë, the Stem was located in Chinatown.
“Best cover in the city,” he said when he saw the look on his companions’ faces. “Tons of tourists, no one looks out of place, hey?”
The moment they turned onto H Street NW, Alli felt an odd thrill of déjà vu. As they passed Fifth Street, heading toward Fourth, she saw the big square sign of the restaurant toward which Thatë was leading them, and she gasped.
“What is it?” Jack said, bringing the three of them up short.
Alli shook her head. “I saw a take- out menu from this restaurant, First Won Ton, in Uncle Hank’s study.”
“His house is a long way from Chinatown,” Jack said.
Alli nodded. “I thought it curious myself.”
Jack turned to the kid. “The Stem?”
“In the basement, below the restaurant.”
Turning back to Alli, Jack said, “How well do you remember the menu? Was there anything written on it, anything circled, the way people do when they order?”
Alli concentrated. One of the things she’d been training toward at Fearington was full-memory recall of conversations and crime scenes. Clearly, her uncle’s study fit into neither category, but the item was so odd, so out of place that she had spent a moment staring at it. In fact, there was something that was circled.
“Spicy fragrant duck with cherry.”
Jack looked at the kid. “Mean anything to you?”
Thatë shook his head.
“Okay,” Jack said, “let’s move in.”
The restaurant, like many in Chinatown, was below street level. A flight of crumbling concrete stairs, dark with grease and city grime, led down to a glass door. A window to the right was filled with roasted ducks hanging by their necks on a series of metal hooks, mahogany-colored and glistening with fat. Below, metal trays held slabs of red-skinned spare ribs, ready for the fire.
Jack had thought about this foray long and hard; mainly whether or not he should take Alli. However, several factors were at play, all of them limiting his options. For one thing, he was reluctant to leave her behind in a strange house in a very bad neighborhood. Thatë was dealing in drugs. People like that were always targets of rivals or enemies. For another, he didn’t believe that Alli would allow him to leave her behind. Besides, she had proved herself in combat. He had to stop thinking of her as the introverted little girl he’d first met, incapable of taking care of herself. In the last year alone, she had grown by leaps and bounds. She needed to be taken seriously.
None of this, whether fact or rationalization, or some combination of the two, caused him to be any less concerned about her safety, but, for better or for worse, this was how it had to play out.
Inside, the restaurant was long and narrow, its Formica tables filled with Chinese families and a smattering of tourists busily consulting their travel guides for tips on what to order. No one paid them any attention, including the slim Chinese woman behind the cash register, who was drinking tea and sucking at her teeth. Waiters, exuding a cold frenzy, came and went between tables, laden with huge trays mounded with enormous dishes or piled high with platters of the dregs of murky, gelatinous substances.
“This way.” Thatë led them through the restaurant, into a narrow corridor that ended at the door to the toilet. Just before it, on the right, was a steep stairway that descended into the dank gloom of a subbasement.
The kid held out his hand and Jack gave him back his octagonal pendant, which he hung around his neck.
“You have the pin?” he said when Jack reached the head of the stairs.
Jack opened his hand. The pin he’d taken from Mathis, Twilight’s dead manager, gleamed dully in the center of his palm.
Thatë nodded. “You’ll have to show it.” As he began to descend, Jack reached forward and spun him around. “Don’t fuck with me, you understand?”
Thatë stared unblinkingly at him for a long, tense moment. Then he nodded curtly and continued his descent. His voice floated up from the semidarkness. “Keep the girl close to you at all times.”
“What the hell does he mean by that?” Alli said in a stage whisper.
They went down the stairs. Thatë was already at the bottom. He knocked on the door and, when it creaked open a crack, a gruff male voice said, “Hey, Flyboy.”
The kid had to show his pendant before the door opened wide enough to let him inside. The door had begun to close when Jack put his foot in the gap.
“Yeah? Whatta you want?” the voice said. It belonged to someone with a suspicious eye that looked him up and down.
Jack held up the pin with one hand, while with the other he held tight to Alli.
“I don’t know you.”
“Mathis sent me. He’s down with the flu,” Jack said.
“Fuckin’ flu.” He stared hard at Jack, then looked him up and down. “Mathis was going to bring Mbreti’s money. You got it?”
Mbreti meant “king” in Albanian. Jack tapped his breast pocket to indicate this was where he kept the cash.
“Then let your ass in here.” As with Thatë, the door opened just enough for Jack to slip in, Alli right on his heels.
The guard was a massive, dark- skinned man, Albanian or Macedonian, Jack suspected. His eyes opened wide the moment he saw Alli, and a huge smile played across his face.
“I approve of the form Mbreti’s money is in.” He waved them through with a hairy paw. His arms seemed as long as an ape’s. His low brow looked like an anvil.
Behind him, there was nothing and no one. Jack had been expecting a large ballroom teeming with people, but the space they traversed was as small and ill- lit as a dungeon. One bare bulb dangling from the end of a length of wire descended from the ceiling like a dripping stalactite. They passed beneath it, then came upon a shabby-looking door to what might be a broom closet. Instead, it opened onto a cavernous space that looked hewn out of the bedrock beneath the city. Gritty concrete steps led down to this space, which was loud with the shouting of male voices, blue- tinted with cigarette and cigar smoke, thick with the musk of human bodies. But gone were the crowds of people, the monster sound system blaring techno and trance. There were no outrageously dressed bodies slithering together. For that matter, where was the dance floor, the bar, the drugs?
Thatë had already gone down the short flight of steps, but Jack and Alli stood transfixed. In the center of the room, surrounded by perhaps a dozen men in shiny silk suits, a boxing ring had been erected. In the center of this, a mike descended from the ceiling. It was held by a young man, slim, well dressed, with slicked- back hair and the air of an entrepreneur. There were no boxers in the ring, no corner men handling their styptic pencils, buckets of ice water, and low stools.
Instead the atmosphere in the ring was woozy with sex, or, more accurately, bare female flesh. Lined up in front of the emcee were six girls—slim-hipped, small-breasted, blonde and brunette. All were naked. At least half of them, Jack estimated, were underage. They had their heads down, staring at the canvas between their feet. The slim young man started to speak in the rapid- fire jargon of all auctioneers, and that was when the actual business of the Stem sank in to Jack’s mind.
“Now, for our first cherry, we have a tender morsel indeed, fresh from the shores of Odessa.” The auctioneer stepped closer to the first girl on his right. “Only twelve years of age and guaranteed a virgin, good gentlemen, so with that premium in mind we’ll start the bidding at fifty thousand dollars.” He cupped the girl’s chin, lifting her head. “Just look at this cherry! Look into those blue eyes, regard that golden hair, the creamy skin. And, gentlemen, this cherry is guaranteed completely free of lice!” He continued on in this abominable and dehumanizing vein, as if he were selling Texas steers or Arabian horses.
In a trance, Jack descended the stairs, holding tight to Alli’s hand. Part of him wanted to get her out of here now, but another part knew that that choice was long past. Turning around now would only call unwanted attention to themselves. He reminded himself that they were here as part of a triple homicide investigation in which Alli was the prime suspect. They had to go forward.
At that moment, Alli whispered in his ear. Now that they were nearer to the action, he could see what had drawn her attention. All the girls had burns or welts marring their flesh. Some were clearly old, but others appeared quite new. The sight was almost too much to take in and, in fact, it was Alli’s presence that calmed him down.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said.
At that moment, the auctioneer yelled, “The bid is against you, Sergei. No? One hundred twenty, then, going once, twice. Sold!” and pointed to a man in sunglasses lounging in one corner, arms folded across his chest.
A man appeared, climbed into the ring, and led the girl out. The auctioneer was about to move to the next girl, when his eyes caught sight of Alli.
“And what have we here?”
Heads turned as he pointed. “Mathis’s sub is here with something fresh, and by the look of her, what a load of fresh she is.” He beckoned to Jack and raised his voice to fever pitch. “Come on, bring that next cherry up here! I have no doubt she’ll fetch a pretty penny, sir, a pretty penny, indeed!” He moved to the front of the ring, taking his mike with him.
Alli clung to Jack, but the man who had escorted the first cherry out of the ring now reappeared and gripped Alli’s free arm so hard she cried out. At once, Jack whirled and slammed an elbow into the man’s nose. Blood gushed as he went down. The auctioneer made a hand signal and two large men detached themselves from the shadows. One had drawn a Glock, the other was content with displaying his fists.
“She’s not going into the ring,” Jack said.
“The fuck she isn’t,” the gunman said.
Jack backed into him, trod on his instep with his heel and, at the same time, brought the edge of his hand down on the gunman’s wrist. The Glock fell to the floor as the gunman grunted in pain, but almost immediately, the second man wrapped his arm around Jack’s throat.
“Make a move and I’ll snap your neck.”
Alli bent down, but the gunman stopped her from reaching the Glock by grabbing the back of her hoodie and dragging her back to her feet. While Jack watched helplessly, the gunman pushed and shoved her toward the ring. The girls stared down at her, shivering and glassy eyed. But as the gunman began to manhandle Alli up the wooden steps, she tripped. As he reached down to pull her up, she delivered a backward kick to the pit of his stomach. He fell toward her and she twisted, taking the brunt of his weight on her right shoulder, which she twisted away and down, so that he fell against the metal rim of the canvas floor. She took his head and slammed the side of it down, then reached for his gun.
Turning, she aimed the Glock. The man tightened his arm around Jack’s throat.
“Let him go,” Alli said, “or so help me I’ll put a bullet into your brain.”
“By the time you do,” the man said, jerking Jack’s head around, “he’ll be dead.”
A deathly silence stole over the room. Even the glib auctioneer seemed struck dumb. Alli and the man continued to glare at one another. No one else so much as breathed. Jack had cause to wonder where Thatë was. The shock of being in the middle of a white slave trade ring had driven thoughts of the kid right out of his head. He could use him now.
Then, abruptly, a door in the rear of the room swung open and a voice said, “A Mexican standoff is to no one’s benefit.” A shadow filled the doorway. “Put up your gun and we’ll talk. No one’s going to get hurt, right, Evan?”
The big man nodded. “What ever you say.”
“Ease off , Evan, and the girl will put down the gun, are we clear?”
“I’m not putting down anything,” Alli said.
The shadow in the doorway sighed. “Thatë.”
The kid stepped to Alli’s side. “You don’t want to shoot anyone,” he said. “That’ll just get both of you dead.”
“Tell him to let Jack go and step away more than an arm’s length.”
Thatë turned to the shadow in the doorway.
“Do as she asks,” the shadow said.
Evan slid his arm away and Jack took a long, gasping breath, then began to cough.
“Go on,” Alli said, waggling the barrel of the Glock.
She tracked Evan with the gun as he backed up. When he was a sufficient distance from Jack, she turned the Glock on the shadow in the doorway. “Now we—”
The word froze in her throat as Thatë pressed the muzzle of a .25 to her temple. “Put it down.” When she didn’t move, he said, “It may be a little gun but it’s loaded with Tokarev brass- cased bullets, corrosive, Berdan-primed, 87- grain lead core. In other words, full metal jacket ammo that, at point- blank range, will blow half your head off .”
Alli sighed and, at the same time, glared at Jack, as if to say, Another betrayal. I told you so. She lowered the Glock until it was pointing at the floor. The kid took it from her.
“Thatë,” the voice said, “now bring them to me.”
“I must say I’m intrigued by you, yes, I am.”
The man who was now their host in the small, closeted room off the auction site was speaking directly to Alli in heavily accented English. He ignored Jack entirely, even though Jack and Alli were standing side by side. Thatë, the .25 handgun still in his hand, stood with his back pressed against the closed door.
The room, which seemed claustrophobic, held a heavy antique desk, a single chair, a task lamp. No telephone, nothing so much as a paper clip on the surface of the desk. On one wall hung a horizontal painting, far too large for the space, titled Korab, depicting in exacting detail the spine of ice-and snow-capped mountains beneath a piercing blue sky.
The man tapped an exceedingly long forefinger against his lips. “You’re a tiny slip of a thing, but you burn oh so brightly.”
He was tall, with square shoulders and the slim hips of a dancer. He leaned back against his desk, hands in the pockets of his striped trousers, but his torso was bent forward, his head at the end of its stalklike neck thrust forward. His eyes were huge, slow, and cunning, in the particular way of evil. Like a reptile’s eyes, they seemed to drink in everything with a single glance. He had a nose that looked as if it had been broken more than once, and ruddy skin like badly tanned leather. His priestly fringe of prematurely white hair was so out of place it was difficult to reconcile with the rest of his face.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Ah, well, I know that name.”
Alli shook her head. “How could you possibly?”
“A reasonable question.” He considered for a moment. “I believe you’ve earned the right to know. My name is Dardan.”
Alli gave a small, involuntary gasp.
“That’s right.” A smile like a scimitar curved his lips. “You’ve heard my name, as well.”
He walked to the wall with the painting and, taking it off its hooks, set it onto the floor. There was, incongruously, a window, which the painting had hidden. Dardan flipped a switch and hard light flooded the room on the other side of the window.
Alli cried out and put her hands against the glass. “Oh, my God!”
Through the window, Jack saw a young girl, blond and exquisite, her porcelain skin perfect and bloodless, laid out on a black bier. Her skin was pearl white, her bloodless lips bluish in the harsh illumination. Flecks of blood were strewn through her hair.
“Alli, you know this girl?” Jack said.
“Arjeta!” Alli cried.
“Arjeta Kraja?” The mystery girl who had been with Billy Warren at Twilight, the one everyone was searching for.
“I see you know her,” Dardan said. “She had been my plaything for some months, but then . . .” His voice trailed off and he shrugged.
Jack rounded on him. “Then what?”
At last, Dardan looked at Jack. “It was a bad idea to bring her.”
“Bad particularly for your men outside,” Jack said. He produced his ID. “This doesn’t look good for you.”
Dardan shrugged. “Thatë will not hesitate to shoot you in the back.” He craned his neck. “Isn’t that right, Thatë?”
“It certainly is,” the kid said, brandishing both the Glock and the .25.
Alli turned away from the window, and again her eyes cut to Jack to show her displeasure. They were red- rimmed, but she had not shed a tear.
“You wouldn’t harm a federal agent,” Jack said. “The glare of that spotlight would wrap up your dirty trade and put you permanently out of business.”
“But, no, I think not.” Dardan wagged his forefinger. “Because, you see, I’m protected, Mr. McClure. Even the death of a federal agent cannot harm me. The resulting investigation will be deflected . . . elsewhere.” He shrugged. “So you see, I can do with you what ever I wish. However”— he pushed off the edge of the desk—“it’s this little hellion—that’s the right word isn’t it?— that interests me.”
As he approached Alli, his hands came out of his pockets. He ran a finger down her cheek, tracing the jaw line, then plunging the tip between her lips. She made a sound in the back of her throat and pulled away.
“Don’t.” Dardan held a switchblade, which now swung open, its long blade gleaming. The edge approached Alli’s throat. “I propose to entertain myself with her, Mr. McClure, while you watch. Sounds like fun, no?”
Jack touched Alli on the right hip and she swung away from Dardan. Jack launched himself forward. Instinctively, Dardan swung the knife, aiming for Jack’s face. Jack came in under the blade, struck Dardan a powerful blow that rocked him back against the desk.
At once, Jack was on him, pinioning the wrist of his knife hand, bringing his knee up into Dardan’s groin.
Alli whirled around to confront Thatë, but to her astonishment, he hadn’t pulled the .25.
Still, she was compelled to say, “Don’t.”
Thatë held his empty hands up. He grinned at her.
Behind her, Dardan had managed to free the knife, which slashed through Jack’s jacket and shirt, questing to slide between his ribs. Jack felt the blood running hot down his side as he struck the inside of Dardan’s left knee. The knife blade missed its mark, but Dardan slammed his fist into Jack’s solar plexus, doubling him over. Dardan slammed him against the edge of the desk and Jack, dazed, slid to his knees. Dardan reached down and began to draw the blade across Jack’s throat. The pain cut through Jack’s wooziness and he jammed the heel of his right hand against Dardan’s wrist as he tilted his head back. The knife passed directly in front of his face. Jack, struggling for purchase, slipped and, in desperation, and grabbed the base of the blade. As the edge sliced into the meat of his palm, he shoved the point back and up. It passed just above Dardan’s cheek and punctured his eye. He screamed. Jack pushed the blade deeper, burying it in his head. Then he slumped down, his heart hammering in his throat, the adrenaline surging so strongly he thought he would retch.
Then Alli was prying the body off him, pulling him to his feet, drawing him away.
“Fuck me.” Thatë was staring at Dardan’s corpse.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Alli said without knowing who she was addressing.
A sudden hammering at the door brought the kid out of his trancelike state. “I know a way.” He came away from the door. “But you must promise to take me with you.”
His eyes were big around. Jack, regaining a semblance of composure, could tell that he was terrified. “What is it?” he said, as the hammering continued on the other side of the door.
They could hear shouts now— curses, imprecations.
“There’s no time.” The hammering was louder. “Without me you’re trapped. Will you take me with you?”
A gunshot splintered through the door. The angry shouts grew louder, more frenzied. The pounding increased in intensity until the door shuddered.
“Yes,” Jack said. “All right.”
Thatë nodded and, putting his shoulder to the desk, shoved it all the way to the door. In the area of the floor that was under where it had been was a trapdoor. Bending, he pulled an iron ring and the trapdoor swung up.
“Quickly,” he said. “Quickly, or we’ll die here!”
There was an iron ladder leading down into absolute blackness. Alli went first, then Jack. Thatë came last, pausing to lock the trapdoor from underneath. There was no light at all.
“Keep going.” Thatë’s voice floated through the void. They were enmeshed in damp, in sharp mineral smells, and the stench of dying things.
“Thatë,” Jack said when he reached the ground, “what happened back there?”
He could hear Thatë breathing. At last, the kid said, “Have you heard of a man by the name of Arian Xhafa?”
Jack felt a chill go through him.
Thatë took a breath. Jack could feel it on his cheek.
“Dardan, the man you killed? He was Arian Xhafa’s brother.”
Excerpted from Blood Trust. Copyright © 2011 by Eric Van Lustbader.