The First Cut Is The Deepest
Covert operations are what Val Janos is all about. The man is mysterious and sinister, and lethally hot. Only Tamara can understand the strange intensity that drives him to win at all costs--and only she can match it.
Val has one weak spot: Imre, the frail old man who befriended him when he was a scared, hungry kid abandoned on the streets of Budapest. But Daddy Novak knows about Imre, and Imre's head is on the block if Val doesn't deliver Tam up to Novak's tender mercies...
A white-hot passion explodes when Tam and Val get too close. They both have too much to be afraid of, too much to hide. And now, for the first time, too much to lose...
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Kensington Publishing Corporation
March 29, 2011
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Excerpt from Ultimate Weapon by Shannon McKenna
Find the weak spot. Then exploit it. The brutally simple directive repeated in Val's head until it was meaningless babble. Val pushed the white noise to the back of his mind and clicked "play" on the footage he'd collected that day.
For the twentieth time, he watched the woman unload the wriggling toddler from the SUV and head toward the waterfront park playground. He had memorized their every move--the swings, then the slide, the merry-go-round, the jungle gym. Then came a horsie ride on the woman's shoulders through the trees. And the moment when she held the child up to swipe and grab the brown leaves that clung to the branches. He had memorized every nod, every smile, every hug.
The jeans, hiking boots, and shapeless down jacket the woman wore did nothing to hide the feline grace of her slender body. Her brown hair was twisted into a loose, thick dark braid. She wore no makeup. The child reached higher to grab for the leaves, giggling.
Children were always a weak spot--but not one he could bring himself to exploit. He hated when there was a child involved. It made him tense, anxious. It destroyed the hard-won professional calm that usually rendered him such an effective operative. Had he known about the existence of the child, he would have refused the job, no matter how Hegel blustered and threatened. The worst they could do to him was kill him, no? Let them try. Others had already, several times. Eventually someone would succeed. It wouldn't matter a damn who had done the deed after he was dead.
The job had seemed straightforward when Hegel presented it to him. Locate this woman who was in hiding--one of Val's specialties, considering his hacking abilities and his skills at social engineering. Deliver her to Georg Luksch, willingly, if possible, under false pretenses if not. Failing that, by any means necessary. Coercion. Abduction.
He did not like working for Luksch or having any dealings with the mafiya. Too much history, too many ugly memories. But Hegel had pulled rank, yanked strings. And Val had convinced himself that he could stay cool and just get the job done. Wrong.
The first thing he had done was to send out feelers to all of the best sources for fake identities. Using a judicious blend of threats and bribes, he had obtained a list of the passports that Steele had procured for herself and her daughter. A few telephone calls and some discreet hacking into Homeland Security databases had ensured that Steele was never going to be traveling with any of those documents, at least the ones he knew about. Now he wished he had not been so efficient.
He wanted her to escape. Damned unprofessional of him.
The room was cold, growing dark with the onset of the early January sunset. He wore nothing but a pair of baggy sweat pants, but he stayed motionless on the floor in a meditative position in front of the computer monitor, trying in vain to settle his mind down to the stillness necessary to perform his personal technique of data processing.
It was based on the way Imre had taught him to play chess years ago as a boy. Deceptively simple, but requiring profound concentration. He put the information, no matter how irrelevant or superficial, into a floating construct in his mind that Imre had named "the matrix" and held them suspended in a transparent form that he could rotate, turn inside out, disassemble, reassemble, contemplate from every side. Then he detached from it, floated away, and quietly observed.
Take three steps back and breathe, Imre had said.
That distance was the key element. It kept his mind loose, soft and open, leaving space for insights, solutions, realizations to arise.
Not tonight. He'd sat there motionless for hours while dark fell, and muscles cramped in protest. Solutions and insights were not forthcoming. He could not take three steps back. He was distracted. Angry that there was a child. Anger derailed the process. He had to stay cool.
And God knows, staring at Tamara Steele for days on end was no way to get or stay cool. He had never seen a woman so vividly beautiful. Her beauty was intensified by something burning inside her, a bright light, a driving force. She disturbed his dreams, unsettled his thoughts, stirred his body. And utterly destroyed his concentration.
Imre had earnestly explained that the matrix process worked for solving ethical problems, too, but that sermon had been wasted on the young Vajda, cynical, thieving hoodlum that he'd been.
Hmmph. An irrelevant thought. It had no place. It would not serve. He dismissed it, waving it away in his mind like a stinging insect.
He knew every detail of Steele's schedule, all centered on the child. Weekly visits to the pediatrician and child psychologist, trips to the Children's Museum, story hour for toddlers at the library, the Mommy & Me swim class, the playground at the riverside park. No variations to speak of, except for that unwary visit to Conor McCloud's house that had given him his opening.
She had her groceries delivered. No doubt she did her personal shopping via Internet. She spoke to no one but her daughter's doctors, visited no one, never went to a coffee shop or restaurant. He did not blame her. The child's schedule was already a dangerous level of exposure for her. As demonstrated by the amount of data he'd gathered on her in the two weeks since he'd finally pinpointed her residence.
It had taken weeks of data analysis and tedious waiting before the passive surveillance he'd been conducting upon the McClouds had paid off. Steele showed up one day on the long-range telecamera mounted to a tree in the park across the street from Connor and Erin McCloud's residence. With a toddler on her hip, to his blank astonishment.
The tech who was monitoring had called him, and by chance, he'd been near enough to hand tag her SUV with an RF device while she was still on the back porch having barbecue with her friends.
He had not mentioned the child in his reports. He was not sure why. There was no hiding her. Once the satellite had trained its cold eye on the woman's residence, everyone at PSS who was interested knew that the woman was caring for a child. They could see her with their own eyes, loading the kid into the car, playing with her on the beach.
Now that he'd found Steele's mountaintop home outside the small coastal town of Cray's Cove, his challenges were different. It would have been easier to conduct surveillance in a bustling city, although he'd need a team. But no one could follow her undetected in a place like Cray's Cove. Which was, he supposed, the whole point of hiding there.
As soon as he had tagged her SUV with the nearly undetectable RF device, things had proceeded smoothly. He analyzed her schedule, installed tiny surveillance cameras at key points in her trajectory. A wireless receiver in a series of rental cars parked a discreet distance from the establishments in question, and he could watch and listen to her in real time on his laptop, or even his Palm Pilot.
He'd forgone tech support, being as competent with the electronic equipment as any of PSS's tech specialists. He wanted no one breathing down his neck on this job. No spectators, suggestions, criticism. He preferred to work alone whenever humanly possible.
In fact, he preferred to do almost everything alone. It was easier to take those crucial three steps back without the noise and the chatter.
It had been an easy matter to breach security at the psychologist and pediatrician's offices to obtain copies of the child's clinical charts. He'd hacked into the database of the agency handling the adoption proceedings. He knew the entire dramatic story of the child who was soon to become Rachel Steele, and thanks to the remotely activated bugs under the psychiatrist's and pediatrician's desks, he now knew more than he had ever cared to know about the child's bowel habits, food allergies, rashes, hip and ankle malformations, vision problems, chronic ear infections, sinus problems, and sleep disruptions.
And he knew a great deal more than he was comfortable knowing about how much Steele cared about the child. It was important information for the matrix, but he resisted it. It disturbed him.
He knew what his target wanted the world to know about Tamara Steele, which wasn't much nor was it true. Her multilayered identity held up well to prolonged scrutiny. He would have had no reason to question it had he not already known that the woman was a con artist, thief, and killer. Skilled at bank fraud, real estate scams, money laundering, and various other criminal enterprises too numerous to count. And a talented liar.
Then again, what was truth? He was not judging her. His own life was a tissue of lies so thick and complex he no longer had any idea what personality traits he could actually claim as his own. It was all false scaffolding and beneath, blankness. Paper and cardboard.
He batted the distracting thought away, irritated. This kind of self-pitying reflection was stupid and irrelevant. He had no time for useless philosophical musing.
If the doctor's and psychologist's security was inadequate, Steele's own fortress was not. He knew the layout of her property from satellite images provided by Prime Security Solutions, the private security company for which he worked as a covert operative, but he could get no closer to her state-of-the-art security systems without being nailed.
What he needed now was a pretext for approaching her. With someone so paranoid and reclusive, that was impossible to devise.
He wondered what had possessed a career criminal like Steele to adopt a toddler. If it was a cover, it was a cumbersome, inefficient one, and the woman presently calling herself Tamara Steele had never shown herself to be anything but ruthlessly efficient in the past.
He let out a sigh, acknowledging defeat, and got up, bending his knees and shaking his bare feet to get blood moving. He snapped his fingers under the sound-sensitive lamp, illuminating the hotel suite. Val padded silently into the kitchenette and pressed the hot spigot of the water machine over his cup to brew a cup of smoky Lapsang Souchong tea. It occurred to him as he fished the tea bag out that he'd bought the same brand as he had last week, having liked it. The detail was seemingly banal, but lapses like these could kill a man.
He had to stay rigorous. He should have bought coffee, fruit juice, Red Bull. Anything else. No habits. It was one of the first lessons he'd learned as an operative. Habits were deadly. They soon became needs. An operative could not afford needs or even preferences. He had to be a blank slate, ready to be anyone, anything. Light and empty, flexible as a gymnast. Ready to jump in any direction. Imre's training helped.
But Imre had never meant for him to be a man made out of blank paper and cardboard. An empty man who could call nothing his own.
He breathed in fragrant steam, feeling oddly rebellious. So he was getting sloppy, but no one was watching. He was just a fly on the wall in the ass end of nowhere, watching Steele play with her new daughter, and inexplicably fascinated by it. If not for the fact that she would almost certainly kill him if she knew what PSS wanted from her, and that he might be required to abduct either her or her little daughter, he might almost have been enjoying himself.
That was the most alarming development of all.
Detach, he reminded himself. The woman was deadly dangerous. Some years ago, Steele had become involved with Kurt Novak, Daddy Novak's son and heir to his mafiya empire. During that period, which had led up to Kurt Novak's spectacular and theatrical death, Georg Luksch, Kurt's lieutenant, had developed a burning obsession for her.
Steele had not returned his regard. In fact, she had vanished like smoke on that bloody day and had shown no desire to be found.
Val had found her, but now he wished he had not. He didn't want to deliver her to Luksch, who was at best a criminal grown rich by trafficking in drugs, humans, and everything else, and at worst, a psychotic freak. But PSS was not inclined to criticize a client so immensely rich.
Val carried the cup back to the laptop glowing in the middle of the wood floor and sank down in front of it. His naked chest was covered with goosebumps, but the tea would warm him, and he didn't want to bother finding a shirt or turning on the heat.
He clicked the footage he'd obtained yesterday. The toddler's swim class. He took a sip of the hot, bitter tea and skipped through the footage to his favorite part. Here he was again, allowing himself to have favorites. Like the tea. An uncharacteristic indulgence.
From one moment to the next, it would distort into a need. And from that, an obsession. He had always wondered what an obsession would feel like. It would seem that he no longer had to wonder.
She came out of the women's dressing room, silent and graceful as a slant-eyed female panther among the crowd of chubby, chattering women with their squealing offspring. She led the wobbly- legged, huge-eyed little girl carefully by the hand.
Her body was stunning in the black maillot. He always watched the exit from the dressing room, having grown addicted to the hot rush of delighted surprise that it gave him no matter how many times he saw it. He skipped through the class, which he had already watched ad nauseam, to the moment that she lifted the dripping child out of the water and vaulted out in turn onto the pool's edge, poised in the perfect equilibrium of a predator's crouch. The curves and hollows, the highlights and shadows of her wet body. High, lush breasts, the discreet mandolin curve of hips and ass. Endlessly long, strong, shapely legs.
He'd seduced many women in his career, and some of them had been very beautiful, but he'd never reacted like this to mere visual stimuli. Or any stimuli, in truth, visual or otherwise. He liked sex, but he took his usual three steps back from it--particularly in the context of a professional operation. From the beginning of his career with PSS, they had required him to use his looks and body as a means to an end. His sexual technique was flawless, but he stayed cool. Always.