The Gatekeeper


The Gatekeeper

Chapter One

JUNE 25th

Madison Grant leaned over the sink, careful not to get her jeans wet as she applied another coat of gloss. She rubbed her lips together, smacked them once, then dabbed up the excess with her fingertip. She examined the resulting pink sheen critically: perfect. Stepping back, she tossed the wand in her purse. It was actually her sister's knock-off Fendi. Bree would totally flip when she realized it was gone. Hopefully that would distract her from checking for other things that had gone missing, like her driver's license and social security card. Of course by that time the shit would have hit the fan anyway. Their mom would be so freaked out that Bree's complaints about a stolen purse would fall on deaf ears. At least that's what Madison was hoping.

She shrugged on the purse and grabbed the handle of her carry-on. It was their fault for basically ignoring her. Ever since the divorce Dad was only a voice on the phone, and Mom spent most of the day in her room, shades drawn. Bree was so busy with her friends, she barely bothered to talk to Madison. No, the only person who really cared about her now was Shane.

Madison flushed at the thought of him. They'd only known each other a few weeks, but she could already tell this was it, her one true love. They'd met online and instantly hit it off. She lived for the sweet texts he sent while she sat in class, bored out of her skull. They had these long, intense IM sessions where they talked about everything: what they wanted to be when they grew up, what their families were like. He was the only person Madison had confided in about how shitty things had gotten since the divorce, how awful it was be dumped in a new city across the country, how she hated school and everyone in it.

Shane was older, nineteen, in his first year of college at San Francisco State. But he said the age difference didn't matter since girls were more mature, and he was totally right. Madison was a lot older than sixteen in her mind. And with Bree's license and social security card, she could get a job. Shane had offered to let her crash with him for as long as she needed to. He hinted that since they'd be spending the rest of their lives together anyway, they might as well get started. When he sent the plane ticket she got so excited, dancing around her bedroom. Then she swiped some of the cash her mom hid around the house and lied about staying with a friend for the weekend. That gave her a few days before they'd realize she was missing. And now she had finally arrived.

It was hard to believe she was about to meet Shane in person. It was going to be perfect, just like in the movies. They'd kiss, he'd look into her eyes and tell her he loved her. She'd work while he finished school, at a cool cafe in the city. Maybe she'd take some classes herself, then eventually they'd get married. They'd have two kids, a boy named Max and a girl named Penelope. Someday she might even call her parents to tell them what a great job she'd done with her life. They'd forgive her for leaving, and everything would turn out the way it should have been all along.

On the other side of the security gate, a guy wearing a cap held a sign that read: GRANT. Madison's jaw almost dropped. Shane must have some serious cash—first the plane ticket, now a limo? Maybe his family was rich. He was probably keeping it a secret to see if she liked him for who he was, like in that movie where the prince pretended to be a normal guy. Which was silly, she'd love Shane even if he was totally poor. But she had to admit, the thought of living in a huge house was definitely appealing. Better yet she might not have to get a job, she could just hang out all day. Madison repressed a giggle, trying to look serious and adult as she approached the driver.

"Hi. Are you here for me?"

The chauffeur eyed her, and she drew herself up to her full five-seven. "Madison Grant?"

"Yeah. I mean, yes, that's me."

The chauffeur motioned for her bag. She followed him to a Lincoln town car. He popped the trunk, tucked the suitcase inside, then opened the passenger door. Madison climbed in, impressed by the plush surroundings. There was even a bottle of sparkling water in the cup caddy. She unscrewed the cap and took a swig, then belted herself in. The car eased into the steady stream of cars leaving the terminal, and Madison settled back against the seat.

"You know where we're going, right?" She asked after a minute.

The driver didn't turn his head, just nodded. Madison was self-conscious. She'd never been in a limo before, but thought there was supposed to be one of those panels between them. Without one, she felt obligated to make small talk.

"So where are you from?" She asked after a short pause.

The driver didn't respond, and she figured his English wasn't very good. He looked Russian, at least around the eyes. Madison sipped more of the water. It had a funny metallic aftertaste, probably because it was from France. Her eyelids drooped. The flight had only been six hours, but she'd spent the whole time amped up in what Dad called her "condensed matter" state. It wouldn't hurt to take a little nap, she decided. After all, she didn't want to be sleepy the first time she met Shane.

#

When she awoke it was dark. Madison felt drowsy, disoriented. She wasn't in the car anymore, and wondered if they'd arrived and the driver hadn't bothered waking her. If she had been asleep when Shane first saw her that would be totally embarrassing, she realized, mortification jolting her from a stupor. She was on some sort of bed, there was a rough blanket beneath her. Was she in his dorm room? She stood and felt her way across. It was pitch black, cold, and she shivered in her light sweater. Shane had warned her to pack layers, but she'd wanted to look cute so she'd kept her fleece jacket in her suitcase. She groped until she reached the wall. It was freezing and felt like metal. She rapped on it once, tentatively, then worked her way along it to a door. There was a handle but it was huge, also metal, and didn't respond to her tugs. Madison bit her lower lip, experiencing a tremor of fear. Something was seriously wrong.

"Shane?" She called out hesitantly. Her voice sounded squeaky. She tried to inject more assurance as she repeated, "Hey, Shane, are you out there? I think I'm stuck!"

There was no response. Madison felt a tear trickle down her face, followed quickly by another. As she slid to the floor and clasped her knees to her chest, she began sobbing in earnest. She was all alone, and no one even knew she was missing.

JUNE 28th

Jake Riley tilted back in his chair, crossing his feet on top of his new desk. It was solid oak, and according to the antiques dealer had once belonged to George Steinbrenner. Even if that was bullshit, it was a nice desk, he decided. And the Steinbrenner story would probably impress potential clients.

His office was still filled with boxes. It had taken longer than expected to find a suitable space, commercial rents in New York were through the roof. Even with the exorbitant severance package from Jake's previous employer, the new company would have to secure some contracts soon. But they'd made the right choice, he thought, gazing through the floor to ceiling windows. After searching the entire borough for an office with room to expand, they'd finally settled in one of the new skyscrapers jutting up around Columbus Circle. Central Park was across the street, and Jake was looking forward to eating lunch there, maybe strapping on his running shoes for a jog on slow days. Although hopefully there wouldn't be many of those.

He ignored the needling voice that questioned the decision to branch out on his own. Sure, Dmitri Christou had paid him well, but for the first time in his life he was his own boss. And hell, they'd be doing good work along the way. They'd decided to name the company The Longhorn Group, a nod to the fact that both he and his partner originally hailed from Texas. If Jake had his say, The Longhorn Group would quickly become the go-to company for K&R insurers.

K&R was shorthand for "Kidnap and Ransom." In recent years there had been a sharp uptick in the number of kidnappings of American executives abroad, some figures estimated as high as twenty percent. To secure the release of abducted employees, many companies hired private firms to either negotiate with kidnappers or, failing that, attempt a rescue. South American countries, particularly Colombia, were the most notorious for kidnappings, but plenty took place stateside. They just weren't widely publicized, since no corporation wanted to put ideas in someone's head. And despite the increased number of companies signing on for K&R insurance, most of operatives trained in negotiation and recovery were busy working security details in the Middle East. Jake was hoping The Longhorn Group would fill that void.

Eventually Kelly might come on board, and they'd be able to work together again. It was a nice thought. Jake picked up the sole item on his desk, a framed photo of her, and gazed at it. It showed her in profile, sitting on a beach, red hair reflecting the setting sun. She always griped about the angle, but then she hated every photo of herself. He thought it captured a side of her that was usually hidden, there was a vulnerability in the way she held her knees that always got him. He set the picture back on the desk. They were officially engaged now, had been for months, but hadn't set a date. She said work was keeping her too busy, but he knew better. Still, he didn't mind. She was worth waiting for.

He glanced up at a knock on his door. His new partner, Syd, stood grinning at him. Looking at her, compact in a well-tailored navy suit, every blond hair in place, you'd never guess she had single-handedly brought down one of the most dangerous terrorist cells in Yemen a few years back. Even though she was only in her mid-thirties, she'd been one of the CIA's best operatives. Lucky for him she'd become so disenchanted with the amoral aspects of Agency work, she jumped at his offer to partner up.

"I think we've got something," she said. Like him, over the years she'd managed to shed her drawl.

"Seriously?" They had just begun meeting with insurers to secure contracts. "That's great! Did Tennant Risk Services get back to us?"

Syd plopped down on the wing chair opposite his desk. "Nope, not yet. This is a private client." She paused a beat before continuing. "Actually, it's kind of a favor for a friend."

"Uh-oh. We talked about that."

Syd sighed and wound a strand of hair around her finger. "I know, I know. But this could be a good case to build on. He's a physicist for a lab that does Department of Defense work. It's worth considering, anyway."

"That sounds suspiciously like a pro-bono job."

"He'll pay us what he can afford. Probably not much, but it'll be something. Besides, it'll give us a chance to double-check our operations. Kind of like the soft opening of a restaurant."

"Uh-huh." Jake examined her closely. "Just how good a friend is this guy?"

"That's a long story." Syd kicked off her heels and set her bare feet on the desk opposite his, settling back in the chair.

"No nylons?" He teased.

She tossed a paperclip at him. "That's the main reason I'm doing this, so I won't have to stuff my legs in sausage casings anymore."

"Benefit of being the boss," Jake said. In spite of himself, his eyes trailed up to where the navy hem rode above her knees. He forced his focus back up to find her grinning.

Syd wiggled her toes, "See something you like?"

"I wasn't aware we had a dress code," he said, gesturing to her suit. Even he could tell it was pricey, Chanel or something like it.

"One of us has to dress like a grown-up, on the off-chance that a client comes calling."

"You kidding? These are my good jeans. And I have it on authority that Bono wears the same t-shirt."

"I'll bet. But then, Bono isn't exactly the first guy you call when a loved one goes missing."

"Speaking of which." Jake tapped his finger on the desk. "What's the story with this guy?"

"His name's Randall Grant. We met at a conference before I left the Agency."

Jake frowned. "You're dating him?"

"Dating is a strong word. Let's just say, we see each other when we can. Anyway, his kid got taken."

"His kid? Sounds like an FBI case to me."

"He can't call the FBI. Whoever took her wants information on his work."

"What's he do?"

"I don't know specifically, something high clearance. Nuclear stuff." Jake let out a low whistle.

"Exactly," Syd said. "So you can see why he doesn't want the FBI riding in and screwing things up, Ruby Ridge-style."

Jake raised an eyebrow at her last comment. She waved it off. "No offense. I'm sure your fiancée is great at her job. But you worked for the Bureau, you know how ass-backwards they can be. Bottom line, they care more about the secrets than the kid. And Randall doesn't trust them with her life."

"But he trusts us?"

Syd shrugged. "He trusts me."

Jake examined the ceiling, considering. His gut was saying this was a bad idea, and he knew better than to question that. Getting involved in a case where you had personal ties was always a mistake. Still, it was a job, and after months of inactivity he was itching to do something besides choosing office furniture.

"Get him on the phone." Jake finally responded.

"You sure?"

"Let's hear what he has to say. But he's got to give us more information, security clearance or not," He warned her. "And the minute I get a bad feeling, we pull out. Deal?"

"Deal," Syd said, tucking her feet back in her pumps. "You're a prince, Jake."

"Don't I know it." He grinned back at her. "Now let's call your boyfriend."

#

Kelly frowned as she took in the scene. Directly in front of her was a memorial to Arizona peace officers lost in the line of duty. The artist had made some interesting choices. The kneeling figure was straight out of a Spaghetti western: neckerchief in place of a tie, hat in one hand, revolver at his side. The metal base he perched on jutted out into the points of a star. And on each point rested a different piece of Senator Duke Morris.

A few smears of blood marred the base, but other than that it was clean. Police tape cordoned off the area. Stairs led from the small platform to the State Capitol building, which currently housed a museum. A sign described it as neo-Classical with Spanish influences, which explained the shade of salmon rarely seen on government facilities. At the top, a copper dome was dominated by a statue called, "Winged Victory." It was a strange choice for a body dump site.

As she waited for the crime scene techs to finish, Kelly pivoted. The capitol complex was sprawling. The statue was dead center in the middle of a pavilion, surrounded by modern buildings that currently housed the seat of power. Wide concrete paths penned in browning grass and scraggly bushes, all fighting to survive the onslaught of the desert sun. Late June, and at 10 a.m. it was already a hundred degrees. Kelly raised her arm, wiping a bead of sweat from her brow, and wished for the umpteenth time that the FBI dress code allowed shorts.

Agent Danny Rodriguez appeared at her elbow. "They're still canvassing, but so far no one saw anything. The locals set up a tip line for information, they're already flooded with people blaming everyone from the President to bin Laden."

"Great." Kelly sighed. A high profile murder always drew the crazies. "What about cameras? State Capitol building, there should be a surveillance net."

"You'd think so, but thanks to budget cuts security was axed. They've got cameras focused on the main buildings, but nothing on the plaza. Guess they figured vandals were their biggest threat."

"They figured wrong." Kelly squinted against the glare. A two lane road marked by a center divider faced the pavilion. On the opposite side, a park stretched off into the distance. Too much to hope for an ATM or liquor store camera nearby. "Where were the guards?"

"They got two guys, but the Diamondbacks were playing the Yankees." Rodriguez shrugged.

"So what, they were busy watching baseball?" Kelly eyed him. She was less than thrilled with her new partner. Rodriguez was just four years out of the Academy, young to have been assigned to the elite Behavioral Science Unit. Rumor had it his career was fast-tracked after he ratted out a former partner to the OPR, the FBI's internal affairs division. And Kelly had a sneaking suspicion he'd been assigned to spy on her. Ten months earlier one of her cases had turned into a debacle, and she knew some of the Bureau higher-ups were screaming for her head. Her boss had stood by her, so far at least. Being stuck with Rodriguez reminded her she was on shaky ground.

"Hey, don't take it out on me. I'm a Mets fan." Rodriguez joked. He shrunk slightly under her stare. "So what next, Chief?"

Kelly watched the Medical Examiner gingerly lift one of Morris's legs off the base of the statue. Senator Morris was popular in Arizona, but best known outside it for his draconian ideas about immigration reform. She'd seen him on the talk show circuit last week, railing about how America's borders needed to be closed entirely. The cop that led her past the tape mentioned that Morris had a good shot at President, then mumbled something about wetbacks before she cut him off. A man like that had probably made a few enemies over the years. And by gruesomely displaying his remains, someone was clearly sending a message.

The leg slipped from the ME's grasp and bounced along the ground as he fumbled for it. Kelly repressed the urge to roll her eyes. "Family has already been notified, right?"

Rodriguez nodded.

"Let's go ask them who hated the senator enough to hack him up with a machete."

Madison shivered. The thin blanket they'd left her barely made a dent in the chill, and she swore it grew colder by the hour. She had no idea how long she'd been here, she usually told time by her cell phone but that had been taken along with everything else. She hoped it was already Monday, and that her family had realized she wasn't at Cassidy's house. A tear snaked down her face as she berated herself again for being such an idiot. Everyone knew that creepy older guys had MySpace pages, people weren't always who they claimed to be. But she'd fallen for the whole Shane thing like a total moron. And now something horrible was going to happen to her.

The worst part was the waiting. She'd screamed for a while, becoming increasingly hysterical until the door had suddenly been thrown open. It was the driver, now dressed in jeans and a filthy sweatshirt. Madison hushed as he approached, shrinking back against the wall. She expected him to start tearing her clothes off, or worse, but he'd just injected her with something that knocked her out again. She'd learned pretty quickly that screaming brought the needle.

Madison couldn't figure out what they were waiting for. So far no one had hurt her, in fact they brought her food and water regularly, and cleaned out the bucket as soon as she used it. And they'd left her a blanket. Though the light only changed slightly, she could now differentiate between night and day, the room brightened enough that she could make out the dim edges of her surroundings by sight, and the rest by touch.

She was in a ship of some sort, military judging by the dull gray paint job. The room was a steel box, ten by ten, with a cot in one corner and a bucket in the other. Other than that there was no rug, chair, or other decoration. She guessed she was being held in the bowels of the ship, she could hear the occasional slap of a wave against the hull. They didn't appear to be moving, which she took as a hopeful sign. Maybe it was one of those white slavery rings, and they were planning to ship her off to Saudi Arabia. Madison shuddered at the thought. If she was lucky, they'd kidnapped her for ransom, confusing her with the daughter of someone rich. Maybe they'd realize the error and let her go—she'd only seen one guy's face, and she'd promise not to tell if they just let her go home.

She had tried to pry the door open, hauling the cot frame across the room to use as a lever. But the minute she exerted some force, the sound of a chair scraping against the floor on the other side sent her scampering back. A minute later the door creaked open. The driver came in and glanced at the cot on its side, shook his head, and gave her another shot. She hadn't tried again. Escape was clearly hopeless: there were no windows, and a guard was stationed at the only exit. She was screwed.

The door suddenly banged open. The driver still didn't speak, but something about the way he looked at her made Madison recoil. She protested as he crossed the room. Without breaking stride he yanked her up and flung her on the cot. She shrieked and clawed at him, "No, oh please God no..." then paused when he didn't do anything.

He was holding something inches from her face. A flash, then he left the room.

She sat up, puzzled. He'd taken her photo, so maybe this was about ransom. She couldn't decide if that made the situation better or worse. Madison pictured their reaction to the photo, and in spite of herself felt a spark of something like satisfaction. Served them right, the way they'd been ignoring her. If she ended up dying some sort of horrible death, it would their fault.

She dropped back on the cot and crossed her hands behind her head. There would probably be a huge funeral if she didn't make it out of here. Even her former best friend Jamie, who had totally screwed her over last year, would probably cry. Chris Dinsmore would be completely devastated that he'd never asked her out. They'd get a choir to sing Ave Maria, and hundreds of sobbing people would follow the casket through the streets. They'd all regret how they treated her.

But she really might not make it out of here. The guy had let her see his face, which wasn't a good sign. And her parents didn't have any money. The whole divorce had been a joke with them fighting over air miles, it wasn't like they had a fortune hidden somewhere. And once the kidnappers realized that... she'd watched enough cop shows to know what would happen. At the thought she started to shake, teeth chattering. Madison drew the blanket up to her neck and tucked the corners under her heels so her whole body was covered. But it did nothing to stop the uncontrollable shivering.

#

Jake rolled his head to work out a kink in his neck. He didn't generally mind flying, but the only seat available on such short notice had been in coach, and his body wasn't designed for middle seats at the rear of the plane. His knees were jammed against the seatback in front of him, high enough that they prevented him from lowering the tray table. He'd tried to work on his laptop, but the kid on the aisle was playing a handheld video game that bleated nonstop, and the woman in the window seat issued a heavy sigh every few minutes. Another kid hung over the seat in front of him, staring at him while she picked her nose. All in all, the experience was making him seriously reconsider starting a family. Maybe he and Kelly could get a puppy and call it quits.

As they taxied to the gate, the flight attendant announced information for connecting flights, and the woman beside him grumbled something unintelligible. Jake hunched over, waiting for the slow file off the plane to proceed far enough for him to grab his carry-on. Once out of the jet way he glanced at his watch and flipped open his cell phone.

"Frank? Yeah, sorry about that. My connecting flight at O'Hare was delayed. Where am I meeting you?"

#

Five minutes later Jake was stationed in front of a bank of monitors. Frank, an old Agency buddy of Syd's, shifted nervously at his elbow. Apparently he'd done something bad enough to get shuffled down the ranks of Homeland Security to airport detail. Jake couldn't imagine what kind of heinous act would result in such a re-assignment. Screwing the President's dog, maybe. Hard to believe anything less would matter to the CIA.

"I can give you a few more minutes, man, but that's it." Frank's eyes shifted from the screens to the door in a constant cadence, like he was watching a tennis match. "Shift change is in a half-hour, and I got plans tonight."

Jake jabbed a finger at the screen. "That's her right there. Pause and rewind five minutes, then go forward slowly."

Frank obliged, working the elaborate controls. A few other men were scattered around the room. After their initial appraisal they'd pointedly ignored Jake, which was fine by him. Although it didn't instill much faith in airport security, he thought, watching them peck away at phones and BlackBerries, periodically casting a token glance at the monitors.

They watched in silence as Madison Grant made her way from a restroom near the gate to baggage claim. The angle changed as Frank shifted from camera to camera. Jake had to admit, he was good at this. Had the tapes cued up and ready to go when he arrived, and despite the employees, the technology itself was state of the art, HD quality.

"Pretty girl," Frank said. "What'd she do?" Jake eyed him, not liking his tone. Maybe that's what the CIA had found so offensive. Syd had fed Frank some back story about a C.I. they were tracking. Not very plausible, but then Frank obviously wasn't the type to ask questions when enough money changed hands. That level of pliability was also not a good sign for air travel, Jake thought. Maybe he should take the train home.

"Zoom in," Jake said, as Madison approached someone. Big guy, looked yoked even from this angle, six-five easy. A cap obscured his eyes, and the hands holding the sign were large and meaty. Jake frowned as they exchanged a few words, then watched Madison follow him out of the building. The film switched to a line of cars stacked at the curb. Madison climbed into the rear of a sedan. Jake frowned as it drove off.

"Can you get me a printout of that guy, and of the plate?" Frank shrugged. "Yeah, no problem. Technology is a beautiful thing." Jake didn't respond. He leaned back against an empty console as Frank shuffled to the printer. So Madison Grant hadn't been snatched, she'd been lured. Not surprising, he'd done plenty of dumb shit himself at that age. And whoever she was meeting must have pretended to have money, Lincoln Town Cars didn't come cheap. He'd have Syd run the plates, but he doubted that would give them anything. This smelled professional. Someone had spent enough time developing a relationship with the girl that she didn't hesitate to jump on a plane. And if Syd was right about the dad's job, there were high stakes involved. Jake shook his head. He was liking this less and less by the minute.

"Here you go." Frank handed over a stack of pictures.

Jake flipped through them quickly. It didn't look like there was enough of the guy's face to run through facial recognition software, but there was a nice close-up of Madison. She was a pretty girl, light hair, big smile. She appeared sweet and trusting and more than a little naïve. And right now, she was probably in some shit-hole, scared to death.

"Crap." Jake said, shifting the photo to the bottom.

"What?" Frank asked.

"Nothing. Thanks for your help." They shook hands and Jake walked out, blinking in the fluorescent glare. Even without looking at it he could still picture the photo. It was as if Madison was challenging him to try and forget about her. Jake tucked the stack into the outside pocket of his carry-on and headed for the car rental courtesy shuttle. He already knew there was no walking away from those eyes.


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