Prologue

A Slight Detour on the Way to Destiny

 

FEAR.

That’s what Steve Dane saw in Nina’s eyes as they faced each other across the table. She swallowed more of her screwdriver, poured immediately after the departure of Number One, after the older man had provided Dane with the name of a man who possessed information about his father’s death.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Dane said.

Nina set down the glass.

“No.”

“Number One can sure drop a bomb, can’t he?”

“It would have been nice if you told him to get lost.”

Dane fingered the piece of paper in his hand, the one he wanted, on the one hand, to burn and forget; on the other, he wanted to leave everything in the hotel room as it was and confront the man right away.

[Click here to purchase Skills to Kill, the first novel in this series, on Amazon. And click here for book 2, Another Way to Kill. Book 3, Live to Kill, can be found here.]

“I need to know what happened to my father.”

Nina pressed her lips together. Dane raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t hide from me, Nina,” he said. “Communication is the key to any relationship.”

“And right now, I’m communicating that I don’t want to talk. Understand?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Stop bothering me,” she said. “Call McConn and find out where this man you want so desperately to find is hiding.”

“Nina.”

She looked at the carpet.

“What happened in Moscow?”

She shut her eyes and did not answer him. He waited, quietly, but then rose from the chair and took out his cell phone. He dialed Todd McConn, who had a room elsewhere in the hotel. McConn answered on the third ring.

“Already?”

“Just some background this time, Todd,” Dane said, turning his back to Nina. “Daniel Gallagher. He’s either still with the CIA or retired, I’m not sure.”

“Okay, hang on.”

The line went quiet as McConn researched the inquiry. Dane did not turn to look at Nina. If she wanted to pout about whatever mind bomb Number One had triggered, let her. He wasn’t going to beg. If she didn’t want to talk, he understood, but he couldn’t help but feel she wasn’t talking because she didn’t trust him. After all they’d been through together? It didn’t make sense why she’d clam up. All the woman did every other moment of the day was run her mouth.

He finally turned when he heard liquid being poured. Nina refilled her glass. No orange juice this time. Straight vodka.

Of course. Why talk like a normal person when you can pickle your liver instead? A mental cloud settled over Dane. Suddenly her excessive drinking made sense. What was she hiding?

“You there, Steve?”

“Standing by,” he said.

“Gallagher’s retired and living in Virginia. Got something to write on?”

Dane moved to the nightstand, where he grabbed a cheap pen and a piece of the hotel stationery. “Go.”

McConn provided the address. “You gonna need me?” he said.

“Not sure yet.” Dane finished writing. “I’ll let you know.”

“What’s the deal with this guy?”

“He knows the truth about my father.”

“Are you serious?”

“The time for joking is over, Todd. Thanks for your help.”

“Of course.”

 

 

NINA SWALLOWED a mouthful of vodka and stared at Dane’s back.

Some things simply couldn’t be spoken out loud, but she didn’t know how to explain that.

“We know what happened in Moscow, Ms. Talikova. You might say the two of you are on a collision course with what made you.”

Number One. The smug bastard. Fat son of a bitch. She could have shot him for saying that.

Her past was nobody’s business but hers.

She swallowed another mouthful of vodka.

Dane knelt at the nightstand to note the address McConn had provided. She didn’t know what he saw in her eyes, but she was well aware of what she saw in his. Hope. Number One had done more than offer a name; he’d offered the young boy still within Dane’s adult body the hope he needed that his father hadn’t betrayed his country.

She looked into her glass. The clear vodka shimmered in the overhead light.

She never wanted to see Moscow again. The only thing waiting for her there was death..

But if they were indeed on the collision course described by Number One, she’d have to eventually face her own demons the way Dane was so bravely—or eagerly?—facing his own. He’d dive into the fire with his usual attitude while she sat drinking to make the world go away.

And that was no way to live.

Dane ended his call and finally turned to look at her. She offered half a smile.

“When do we leave?” she said.

 

 

IT SEEMED to Dane like they were always packing and unpacking suitcases. He wondered what it might be like to have his clothes in a closet for a change.

As he zipped his suitcase closed, Nina packed the last of her items and closed her bags.

“I don’t feel like flying,” he told her.

“Okay.”

“I’ve done enough flying for a while.”

“Fine.”

“I’ll get us a car.” He started for the door.

“You’re only delaying the inevitable,” she said.

“Look who’s talking.”

“Hey!”

He didn’t look back. The door shut behind him.

 

 

DANE SLAMMED the trunk lid. Déjà vu gripped him.

Every family vacation, when he was a boy, had been a road trip. A long road trip complete with chorus after chorus of “Are we there yet?” from Dane and his brother.

And here he was loading a car for another such trip.

His father had always said they drove because it was fun, but Dane wondered either if they couldn’t afford to fly places or if the old man, in his constant on-and-off-an-airplane routine in his work with the U.S. Army, was so sick of airplanes that the last thing he wanted to do was board one for a vacation.

Was there a reason he was reflecting on the old days? Some sort of spiritual connection with his father that he wasn’t aware of? They were questions Dane didn’t want to think about.

Nina was already in the passenger seat. She hadn’t said a word since he’d left the hotel room to arrange the rental. To hell with her. He wasn’t delaying anything. He wanted time to think. He didn’t want to deal with a crowded airplane and its associated issues. Nina had no leg to stand on. She could sit and stew for the whole drive as far as he was concerned.

He knew her too well. She wasn’t going anywhere without him.

 

 

THEY DROVE in shifts, which gave them both time to nap, since neither said much. Dane kept to the coastal highway as much as possible to get a glimpse of the ocean. He didn’t mind seeing the water; he just didn’t want to end up submerged in it anytime soon. Their most recent adventure had provided enough swimming for a while.

Two days and a total of ten hours later, Dane pulled into a motel in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Motel Wilmington on South 17th Street was a basic building, nothing fancy, but looked comfortable. Bright lights lit the building on all sides. Dane checked his watch. Almost 11 p.m. He hoped it wasn’t too late to get a room.

Nina finally broke the silence that had stayed with them most of the ride.

“We’re not staying here,” she said.

Dane popped the trunk. “Just overnight.”

“They won’t have room service.”

“We won’t be here that long, Nina.”

“This is beneath us.”

“They do probably offer a continental breakfast in the morning, so it’s almost the same thing,” Dane said.

“A Svenhard’s role and bad coffee are hardly my idea of breakfast.”

“Hey, it won’t be that bad. They probably have a Keurig.”

Dane left the car with Nina still stewing inside. He pulled their luggage out of the trunk, leaving the trunk open as he walked past the car and into the motel office. He didn’t look back but figured Nina wasn’t smiling at him.

The large room contained one king bed, a large-screen TV, a coffeemaker (indeed a Keurig, which made Dane laugh and Nina frown), and the usual amenities provided by such motels. Street noises were well muffled, which pleased Dane. Right now, all he wanted was quiet.

But Nina was knocking around in the bathroom creating a racket. She exited in a huff.

“The towels don’t feel right.”

“Nina.”

“Also we’re out of booze.”

“You drank it already?”

“The vodka was the last bottle we had.”

Dane looked out the window at the night sky. It might be nice to get away from her for a few minutes.

“What do you want?” he said.

 

 

DANE LEFT the building and started for the rental car, then decided to walk. The exercise would be nice after sitting for so long. He looked up the area on his phone and found a liquor store two blocks away. For all his resistance to cell phones and new technology, he had to admit the devices did come in handy. He started walking.

Somebody had to extend the peace offering soon. He was forgetting what they were arguing about, and that didn’t bode well. A state of conflict with Nina wasn’t something Dane wished on his worst enemy. He would ask her one more time about what had happened in Moscow, and then drop the subject. When she was ready to talk, she’d begin the conversation. Dane knew very well that there were some topics that couldn’t be brought up. He had his share of war stories he never wanted to relive. But to him, his relationship with Nina meant sharing the hard stuff. Of course, she’d never asked about the ghosts of battles past that Dane carried with him. Maybe she knew he wouldn’t want to talk about them.

Or maybe their relationship simply existed beneath a very shallow surface.

Dane didn’t like that idea at all.

He immediately dismissed the thought from his mind. Their relationship went much deeper. They’d been through too much together, and she, more than he wanted to admit, was basically his conscience. How many times had her counsel helped him figure out the solutions to the problems they faced?

She needed time. He had to allow her that time.

The chilly night air felt good on his skin, and Dane kicked himself for a major lack of situational awareness. He was walking without checking for threats behind, in front, or on either side. Scattered vehicular traffic on the street appeared normal; no boogeymen sneaking up behind. Dane shook his head. They needed a long break. He had a home in Austria and couldn’t remember the shade of the carpet. It might be time to head home for a while, after they finished their business in Virginia.

If there was an after.

Presently Dane stepped off the sidewalk and into the nearly empty parking lot of an Ernie’s Liquor, the ubiquitous liquor store chain. Whoever Ernie was, Dane thought as he pulled open the door, he knew how to run a business. Maybe Dane and Nina could retire and open their own liquor store. He nixed the idea when he realized Nina would drink the stock.

A flower shop would be safer.

Either way, they could set up the back room as an apartment and shoot anybody who tried to break in and steal stuff, although Dane wasn’t sure there was a market for stolen flowers. He would hate to see domestication affect their body count.

The clerk behind the counter didn’t take his eyes from a small television as Dane strolled up and down the spirits aisle, bottles large and small crammed close together on narrow shelves. He grabbed a bottle of Russian Standard vodka, paid without getting any eye contact from the clerk and gripped the paper bag tightly as he exited the store.

He started walking and this time focused on enjoying the exercise rather than letting his mind wander. It certainly was a nice night for a walk.

Until a woman screamed.

Dane turned around sharply. A woman, running toward him, crossed the street against the light and almost stumbled as she gained the sidewalk. There was no mistaking the fear in her wide eyes as she continued straight for Dane, and he stepped aside lest she crash into him.

And then he saw the man chasing her. A man with a stainless steel pistol in one hand.

Dane had no gun of his own, but he did have a rather stout bottle of vodka.

He pulled the bottle out of the brown paper bag, holding it by the neck. The woman didn’t continue by when she reached him. She stopped short, grabbing the front of his shirt, and let out a rush of unintelligible syllables, but the gist was that she needed help and needed it bad.

The man with the gun did not look like a cop. He was too heavy, with a thick beard. The possibility did exist, however, that he was undercover, that the woman who felt quite frail as Dane moved her aside was a suspect in a crime. But the man was not shouting, “Stop, police,” or any of the usual law enforcement commands.

So all bets were off.

The woman landed in the bushes off to the left and kicked up a ruckus crawling to the pavement on the other side, but Dane didn’t see where she went. He closed in on the gunman, lifting the bottle high. The man stopped and tried to bring up his pistol, but Dane’s swing caught him on the side of the head. The bottle hit hard, the shock of the impact against the man’s hard skull sending a stinging sensation up Dane’s right arm, but the man dropped like a puppet with cut strings, collapsing in a heap on the sidewalk.

The bottle didn’t break. Dane raised an eyebrow in admiration. Only a smear of blood indicated that the bottle had been used for purposes not intended by the manufacturer.

He knelt quickly and checked the man’s pockets, along his belt. No badge. Wallet full of cash and an ID. Dane tossed it aside. He stood, collecting the bottle again, and looked for the woman. She was on hands and knees behind the bushes, and when Dane reached her, he said, “What’s this about?”

“Are you a cop?”

Dane stayed where he was. The woman was thin, wearing only a loose tank top and jeans, and the streetlamps allowed him to see the bruises on her neck and arms. Her long hair looked stringy, dirty. She looked like a feral cat.

“I can get you a cop if you need one.”

“Can you get me out of here? There’s more of them!”

“Follow me,” Dane said.

He didn’t reach for her. He just started walking. She fell in step behind him. “I can’t believe I found you,” she said, still breathless but understandable now.

“What happened?”

“I’ve been kidnapped,” she said. “I was hitchhiking across the country and these guys grabbed me at a bar somewhere in Ohio. They threw me in a van with a few other girls. We were all tied up and drugged.”

Dane frowned. He had a feeling he knew where this story was going.

“They said they were going to ship us overseas somewhere,” she continued.

“But you got away.”

“There are four girls still back at the house!” she said.

“What house?”

“I don’t know, couple miles from here? I broke out and just ran.”

“Are these men American, foreigners?”

“American.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Where are we going?”

“Back to my motel room. My girlfriend is there. You can get cleaned up and eat something while we call the cops.”

“No, no, skip all that, just get me to the cops. We were going to move on in a few hours.”

“Where?”

“A ship at the Port of Wilmington. Do you know where that is?”

“You’re in Wilmington, honey.”

She gasped.

“What’s your name?”

“Wanda.”

“Wanda,” he said, “I’m Steve Dane.”

“And you’re not a cop?”

“No, just somebody who knows how to fight the kind of guys you’re talking about.”

“I loved the way you hit that guy!”

Dane grinned. Cold-cocking the punk had indeed felt very good.

And hopefully his prolonged absence would buy them some time.

There were four other women, just like Wanda, to rescue.

 

 

DANE SHUT the door. Nina was already in bed, on her side, with her back to Dane.

A portable cot sat at the head of the bed.

“I got you a cot,” Nina said, without turning to look at him or their guest.

Dane let out a sigh. Now he knew why her Russian intelligence colleagues had called her “Nina the Bitch.”

“Get up,” he said.

“What did you just say?”

She finally rolled over, and sat up and stared at the new arrival. She pulled the neck of her nightgown closed.

“Who is this?”

“Wanda.”

“You’re picking up strays now?”

“Get up and get dressed, Nina. I’m not telling you again.”

“Don’t talk to me that way.”

He set the bottle down hard on the dresser and quickly explained the situation, glancing at Wanda as he spoke, poor Wanda standing by the door with her arms folded, her eyes darting around, as if she’d escaped the frying pan and ended up in the proverbial fire.

Nina’s expression changed. She threw the covers off and crossed to the girl, hugging her close. Wanda actually responded, almost melting into Nina, as if a weight had been lifted off her.

“It’s okay, honey,” she said. “We’ll get this straightened out.”

Nina looked Wanda up and down, decided she had a clean outfit that would fit, and quickly tended to the girl, getting her into the bathroom and shower. When Nina emerged, she folded her arms and gave Dane a hard look.

“What’s the plan?”

“We call the cops.”

“No.”

“You have another idea?”

“We find the house and kill some rats. Then we call the cops.”

“We only have pistols.”

“When has that ever stopped us?”

She pushed past him to take the vodka from the dresser, wiping the blood off on her nightgown. She pulled off the cap and took a long drink.

Dane watched her. Her eyes were alert, but far away.

He said, “What happened in Moscow, Nina?”

She looked at him.

“I’m no stranger to women being smuggled around the world,” she said, “and something I did once made the problem worse.”

“Really?”

“I didn’t know it at the time. I thought what I’d done helped.”

Dane waited.

“That’s all I’m saying for now,” Nina said. “Shouldn’t we get the guns out?”

They did.

 

 

Using Google Maps, Wanda helped Dane and Nina pinpoint the house she’d escaped from. It was only a few miles away in a suburban neighborhood, where the bigger homes sat in front of a forest area sectioned off from the homes to provide the illusion that the owners lived in the quiet countryside.

Presently Dane switched off the lights and guided the car to the curb a few doors down from the target house. The traffickers used a single-level at the end of the street as their safe house, the open space and trees behind the home. In other words, the perfect escape route. It was also the perfect infiltration point.

Dane and Nina walked along the sidewalk. They’d eschewed their usual black combat garb to better blend in, but they were still ready for a fight, Dane with his Detonics ScoreMaster .45 stuffed with a ten-round extension magazine, spares behind his back, and a leftover flash-bang stun grenade. Nina packed her compact Smith & Wesson 9-millimeter M&P Shield, having replaced her nightgown with tight jeans and tennis shoes for ease of movement.

Streetlamps lit the way. The houses on either side showed no signs of life at this hour—until Dane passed one fence and woke a dog. Dane and Nina ignored the barking and strode on. When they came abreast of the target house, both dropped behind a car parked on the street. The dog kept barking. The house showed as little life as the rest of the neighborhood. Until the front curtain moved.

A subtle movement, sure, but the kind of quick check a sentry would make in case the barking signaled the arrival of somebody the crew in the house was waiting for, or a police strike team. Which meant something in the house might be worth rescuing.

Two vehicles sat in the driveway, one a small passenger car and the other a large SUV. Crew wagons. Dane and Nina advanced, slid into the shadows on the side of the house and climbed over a gate, the old wood wobbling a little. Landing hard on a concrete path with yard tools to their left, Dane moved forward, staying low, with Nina behind him.

Darkened windows lined the side of the house. When Dane reached the corner, he stopped and scanned the yard. Swimming pool, garden, some trees. A pool of light spilled across a portion of the patio. Shadows moved across the light.

A shovel, rake and smaller pieces of garden equipment lay against the fence to Dane’s right. He signaled to Nina, handing her the flash-bang grenade, and grabbed the shovel. He rounded the corner to see the sliding glass doors that provided a partial view of the family room and adjacent kitchen. A man holding a stubby submachine gun was focusing his attention on the family room.

Dane launched the shovel like a spear. He threw high to compensate for the heavy front end. As the shovel arced and began to descend toward the glass, Dane hauled out the Detonics .45. The metal blade struck the glass low but achieved the desired result. The glass shattered, first in the middle, then spider cracks weakened the rest of the pane. The glass cascaded across the pool of light. Nina pitched the flash-bang, and it exploded within the house, the bright flash and loud bang creating a blinding distraction as the armed man turned with his weapon up. Dane detached the gunman’s jaw from his face with a .45 slug.

A woman screamed. Dane and Nina charged through the opening, more glass crunching under them. Dane swung left, right. In the corner of the living room, tied and gagged on the carpet, were four women not unlike Wanda, their wide eyes zeroed in on Dane and Nina.

Nina ran to one, pulled the gag from her mouth.

“Where are the others?”

“It’s just us!”

“I mean the bad guys.”

Rubber soles squeaked on the kitchen tile. Dane spun and fired at the gunman, who ducked back. The slug tore a hole in the wall.

“Stay down!” Dane snatched the dead gunner’s automatic weapon and jammed the stock into his shoulder. He watched the kitchen and the hallway to the left that led to the front door and living room.

The second gunman rounded the corner ahead, attempting to come down the dark hall, but stopped short. Dane stitched him stomach to chest. The gunman decorated the wall with crimson flecks as he flopped forward onto the carpet.

Dane ran to Nina. Neither she nor the other four women were hurt.

 

 

THE NEXT part was the hard part, because they had to leave the women at the house. With no fake identification to show they were Justice Department agents or affiliated with any other U.S. federal law enforcement, all they could do was find a cell phone on one of the dead men and have one of the women call the police.

Dane and Nina did manage to watch from the car, albeit parked far enough away that arriving emergency crews didn’t notice them. Presently an ambulance joined the police cruisers, and the women were led out of the house. Paramedics began checking their condition.

That’s when Dane turned to Nina.

“What happened in Moscow?”

“You’re like a broken record,” she said.

“You aren’t responsible for whatever happened.”

“You weren’t there.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“It’s not that.” She looked at him. “It’s hard to talk about.”

Dane waited.

Nina sighed.

“Some gangsters killed my boyfriend, okay? I was eighteen. When I was old enough, I joined FSB. I wanted to find out who did it and put them away. Well, I found out he was part of an investigation into human trafficking and was on the trail of some big shots who didn’t want to be exposed. Remember Alec Savelev? He helped me track down the killers, and I ambushed them one night. Killed all three before they knew what hit them. Problem? They were part of the smuggling ring, and their removal let a third party fill the gaps. So my little bit of revenge let the Moscow end of the network connect with a link in the Balkans to form one of the biggest human trafficking circuits in the world.”

Dane let out a breath. “I can see why that would bother you.”

“Can you … really? I’m soglad to hear that.”

Dane didn’t swallow her sarcastic bait. He said, “And after that?”

“You don’t want to know about after that,” she said.

“Uh-huh.”

“So now what?”

Dane tapped a finger on the steering wheel and watched the flashing cherry lights at the house up the street. The cops would be there until way past sunrise. Once the gunmen were identified, the police would summon the FBI. Hopefully then, Dane thought, they could unravel some of the unanswered questions, find the ship Wanda had referred to, maybe save some others already on the ship or arrest the men aboard. But if this incident was part of a bigger network, a global problem, all he and Nina had done was free a couple of victims without really changing the situation.

The thought burned a hole in his belly.

“We continue on to Virginia,” Dane said, “and deal with my problem. After that, we need to take up Number One’s offer and address your situation.”

“I’m not going back to Moscow.”

“And I never thought I’d come back to the United States,” Dane said, “but it happened. We can’t run forever.”

“Usually it’s me giving lines like that.”

“Perhaps you’ve been a good influence on me.”

“Hopefully more than that.”

“Of course.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

“I understand.”

Dane started the car.

When they returned to the motel, Wanda was gone.

Dane figured it was for the best, and silently wished her luck as he crawled into bed beside Nina. The rollaway cot remained unused.

*****