In Too Deep
Sometimes trust can get you killed.
Deep Del Toro, an Iniquus Special Operative on the Strike Force Team, listened to the radio as the announcer gave details of Lacey Stuart's upcoming press-conference. He had watched video of her fighting off the FBI agent and escaping from a murder scene the night before, and now she was turning herself over to the police. What Deep's practiced eye saw in the video was a highly-choreographed crime. But somehow Lacey had thwarted the professionals' plans. She was in imminent danger.
When Deep saves Lacey from a sniper's bullet at the press conference, he becomes enmeshed in a mystery that includes the FBI, the CIA, and a tangle of interconnected international crimes.
Deep and Lacey work as a team to discover who plays the good guy and who plays the bad guy in a gray world where right and wrong easily overlap.
Release date: November 29, 2017
Publisher: Fiona Quinn
Print pages: 517
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In Too Deep
Lacey — Thursday Night
Lacey Stuart’s muscles tightened as irritation prickled through her nervous system. She gave her phone yet another check. No new messages. A swirl of frustration blew past her lips, as she pushed the phone farther back on the bar. It didn’t look like Steve was going to show. Emergencies pop up, she thought, trying to be generous. But really, what could have stopped him from sending a quick text? She slid her thigh farther up her crossed legs, trying not to skate off the ultra-modern, ultra-awkward bar stool made for someone much taller than she. Lacey caught the server’s eye and tapped the rim of her empty Cosmo glass, signaling that another one was in order. She decided to take a taxi back to her apartment after she finished this drink – with or without Steve.
She should probably be worried about Steve. It wasn’t like him to stand her up. But honestly, the only thing she felt was aggravation. It had been a long, miserable day at work. All Lacey wanted was to be back in her apartment curled up with a cup of hot tea, and her book. Lacey glanced down at the winter coat she’d thrown across the stool beside hers to save a place for Steve — a good thirty minutes ago. She couldn’t understand why he’d been so insistent on meeting her here, and then not being courteous enough to give her a heads up that he was running late.
As the server set a fresh drink in front of her, Lacey caught scotch-on-the-rocks guy staring at her mouth. Again. She wondered if he had a thing for bright red lipstick or if she had a strand of spinach from her afternoon snack caught in her teeth. Lacey held her hand over her mouth, lowering her head to stare at her lap while her tongue foraged in the crevices and along the gum line, hoping to excavate any residue.
As she raised her eyes, they caught on a man by the door. He was staring at her as if he knew her and was trying to make a decision. She didn’t recognize him, but his attention made a tingle of apprehension skitter across her scalp. Lacey hated living with this pervasive paranoia. Fear and hypervigilance had made her find demons in the shadows. After everything that had happened to her last fall, she no longer trusted her ability to tell the difference between some guy checking her out and some guy who meant to hurt her. I need to find a therapist, she told herself. Lacey reached out to touch the base of the pink girly drink in front of her. An anchor. A reason for her to be sitting alone at the bar. Her shaking fingers encircled the delicate stem, and she lifted the glass for a sip.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lacey watched the man by the door take another step forward into the room. As his interest pulled her focus back over to him, he tipped his head as if asking her a question. The stranger’s eyes didn’t move from hers, even as he eased his shoulder against the wall, letting a boisterous girl-group push past him in a cloud of perfume and shiny fabrics.
The man was tall; his sports jacket looked tailored to his athletic body. He bunched his brow into a wrinkled knot as they looked at each other. His face might have been handsome in a rugged Marlboro-man kind of way in his earlier years, but now he was weathered and balding, and there was something vicious about the slash of his mouth and the way he held his shoulders.
Lacey stopped breathing. Vulnerability swept up from her stomach and stuck in her throat. She forced her eyes away from his and scanned the screen on her phone. No, Steve still hadn’t texted with a reason for not showing, or a time he’d arrive. She tapped the app to call a cab. She glanced at scotch-on-the rocks guy, who dangled his glass from his fingertips in such a way as to hide his attention. But his gaze was firmly on her mouth. Lacey felt threats everywhere. She worked at being reasonable. She was a woman alone in a bar. Of course she had attracted attention. Though, neither of these men was giving off the usual bar signals – there was no hoping-for-a-hook-up vibe. These guys seemed a different kind of predatory. And she felt trapped. Panicked.
Lacey leaned into the bar. “Hey there, I think I’m going to take my check, please.” She pushed her almost-full glass away from her to signal that she was finished.
As the bartender slid her tab into a leather folder and placed it in front of her, Lacey jerked her credit card from her phone case. She wished she could ask the manager to let her slip out the back door of the kitchen rather than make her skitter past the guy spooking her at the front. While she signed the bottom of the receipt, Lacey peeked past the long layers of her hair over to the man at the entrance. He was fishing in his pocket, then pulled something out.
Lacey jolted as a crack of thunder erupted violently, causing a wave of gasps and startled giggles from around the room. The lights flickered, and Lacey slid off her stool to leave. As her feet touched the ground, the doors crashed open and a group of festively dressed couples surged in, laughing and shaking off the sudden rain. With the noise and commotion as a backdrop, the man made his move. In an instant, he towered in front of her, blocking Lacey’s retreat.
“Danika?” he said quietly.
Even though the room was loud, Lacey could hear him clearly. When she heard that name, her joints solidified, and she couldn’t move or speak. Her dark brown eyes, heavy with mascara, pulled wide as they filled with shock. Another clap of thunder worked its way across the sky; the sound held Lacey in place, sucking the oxygen from her lungs.
The man bent his head closer to her ear. “Danika, you’re in danger.” His last word became a sharp sucking sound as he arched backward. His fingers curled into the pewter satin of Lacey’s blouse. He pulled her sideways, reeling to the left, hitting the floor first with his shoulder, then with his head, taking her with him.
Lacey tried to scramble up, to pull her skirt back down below her hips, to regain some decorum now that she had flashed the bar with her pink silk panties. But the stranger tightened his grip and locked her to him with a tight fist. “They know who you are. Trust no one. Run.” His words bubbled out with red spittle and the visual made Lacey’s mind go numb. She worked hard at processing what was happening, but her brain snagged on the red froth at the corners of his lips, and she couldn’t think past it.
As the man exhaled the word “run,” he unwound his right hand from the fabric of her blouse. He shoved something cold and hard down into her bra. Lacey tried to pull free. She dropped her jaw to scream, but Lacey couldn’t make any air pass by her vocal cords, so her mouth hung open and empty.
Someone gripped Lacey’s upper arms, lifted her, questioned her, was she all right?
All right? Lacey stared down at the stranger, trying to process the fact that he had called her Danika. That he was there to warn her. And now, a red puddle pooled from under his shoulders.
The bartender rolled the man on to his stomach as the well-clad patrons fished out their phones. Lacey prayed that someone was calling 911. But the bright strobe of flashes meant that most were grabbing pictures to post on Instagram and Snapchat to show what dangerous and exciting lives they led. The flashing lights turned the scene into an impressionist’s painting where the eye only took in and defined certain aspects, the outline of a leg, the hem of a skirt, the swirl of burgundy leaching across the floor.
Lacey pinned her focus on the knife handle protruding from the man’s herringbone jacket. Someone had stabbed into his lungs, and now he was gasping like a trout lugged from the river. That doesn’t belong there, was all Lacey’s shocked mind could manage. She reached down and yanked the blade from the stranger’s back. Blood dripped from the sharp edge. Lacey dropped the weapon to the ground in disgust. She held her hands wide and let the wine colored droplets trickle from the webbing of her fingers.
Hands now pulled Lacey backward, away from the stranger’s flailing legs. A linen napkin rubbed over her fingers. Lacey twisted to see over her shoulder where she found scotch-on-the rocks guy.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, dropping the napkin to the floor. “He’s a good friend of yours?” His voice was kind and solicitous. With a solid grip, he moved Lacey away from the dying man, around the back of the fascinated crowd, and toward the front door.
It wasn’t until she was propelled out of the bar and a shot of cold, wet air hit her face that Lacey registered the dying man’s warning. “Trust no one. Run.” She hadn’t a clue what he could have meant. All she knew was that Scotch-on-the-rocks had tightened his grip and was herding her toward a black car with its back door gaping open.
Lacey set her high heels into the mortar of the rain-slicked brick sidewalk. She snaked her body and protested, but she made no progress in freeing herself. Without forethought, Lacey’s knee slammed into the man’s groin. He collapsed with a grunt. As he hit the ground, he stretched out a hand, shackling her ankle with an iron grasp. Lacey freaked.
She kicked at his face with her free foot, yelling for help. Swinging her head, she searched the crowd for a hero. She spotted two men clambering from the black sedan and knew she had seconds to get herself free. Lacey aimed her stiletto at her captor’s chest. He blocked it with his free arm. Releasing her ankle, he reached into his jacket. Lacey felt sure he was going for a gun.
Her scream should have cut through the bar patrons’ glee at tonight’s horrific adventure, should have brought someone to her rescue. But the scream was masked by an EMS truck, speeding up the street, sirens wailing. Lacey reeled back into the bar and ran as fast as her high heels and tight skirt would allow, pushing people out of the way, clambering past chairs. She had to find another way out–a back exit–some way to escape.
Lacey burst out of the kitchen door, stumbling head long into a pile of black trash bags, lining the alleyway. The downpour stung her upturned face as headlights caught her in their abrupt illumination. Car doors popped open.
Pushing herself up—her shoes left behind—Lacey sprinted down the alley, down the road, down the Metro stairs, and into the late-evening crowd. Away from the men’s angry shouting.
Sopping wet and garbage streaked, Lacey slid behind a Metro System’s construction curtain. She panted behind the plastic yellow fabric, replaying the scene of her alley escape from the second car of scary men.
Lacey was sure she had heard a man bark, “Secret Service.” But the dead man had said, “Trust no one.”
Was he dead? Lacey had never seen anyone blow blood bubbles before and couldn’t imagine coming back from that. It was the stuff of horror flicks and midnight campfire stories – the kind of imagery that ruined sleep for nights, maybe even for years, to come. Lacey lifted her hands, crusty with flaked blood where she had squeezed her fists as she pumped her arms and fled. She rubbed her palms together in disbelief.
It was possible that the man was alive, she tried to reason. Surely someone had gotten to him with medical help in time. If he lived, Lacey would like to talk to him and find out what was going on. And while she wanted the information, she also never wanted to be near that guy again. Ever. But still. . . Lacey’s head danced with questions like pointillist dots on a canvas all blending together to paint a picture of absolute terror. Lacey was terrified. This was what the word meant. She had used the word so many times when it was just silly – rollercoasters, and exam grades. Lacey pushed the strands of her damp hair back off her face and bit at her lip to stop its trembling.
Did the man really mean trust no one? Lacey sat on an overturned bucket, propping her elbows on her knees and holding her head, trying hard to calm her shaking. Secret Service seemed like reasonable people to trust. Maybe the police? “They know who you are.” Suddenly, Lacey wondered why scary people would know who she was. Her mind slipped to her great uncle, Bartholomew Winslow, who owned the art gallery she managed. He was hiding out at his home in Bali, and wouldn’t be coming back to the United States until things settled down – until the arrest warrant went away. Did this have something to do with him and his affiliation with the Assembly? She reached into her blouse to retrieve what the dying man had thrust into her bra.
A flash drive.
She sat there, staring at it.
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