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Authors: Paula Graves

Tags: #Suspense

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BOOK: Secret Identity
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Bitterness rose in Rick’s throat as he reversed course, striding toward the Dodge Charger parked at the curb near the bistro. Screw the phone number. Alexander Quinn had mucked up his life enough already.
He unlocked the door and slid into the hot interior of the car. The jacket went to the passenger seat, followed by his tie. Starting the car, he cranked the air up a notch, struck, not for the first time, by how good people in this country had it. Clean water. Beautiful homes. Big, shiny cars with air conditioning. He’d been in places where those luxuries would have been as out of reach as a trip to the moon.
The Charger’s engine growled to life under him as he pulled out into the moderate midday traffic on Summer Street. Stopping at a red light, he pulled out his phone and punched in his brother’s direct line. Jesse Cooper answered on the first ring.
“Meeting was a bust,” Rick said. “I’m headed back. I’ll be in the office first thing in the morning.”
“Guy was a no-show?”
“He showed. But it’s nothing we want to handle.”
“Are you sure?” Jesse asked.
Rick’s mouth tightened. “You said my experience would be an asset to Cooper Security. Do you trust it or not?”
“I trust it. You know I do. I’ve got to go. Isabel’s back with a prospective client.” Jesse hung up.
Rick looked at the cell-phone display. Pressing the back button, he took a look at the previous caller’s number. It would be easy to hit Redial and see who answered, just to satisfy his curiosity.
“Sigurd,” he muttered.
The traffic light turned green, forcing the issue. He laid the phone atop his jacket and accelerated through the intersection, forcing his focus back on navigating the unfamiliar Knoxville streets.
He’d been back stateside only a year now, after almost a decade in a dozen different trouble spots in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Kaziristan hadn’t been the first, nor the last, but it had been the one that made him start thinking long and hard about his choice of occupations.
He was what some people would call a mercenary, though he didn’t think of himself that way. He had been a private-security contractor, working for a company called MacLear Enterprises, until MacLear had gone belly up in a scandal last year—a scandal exposed by his own cousin Luke Cooper, who’d been protecting a woman being terrorized by MacLear’s corrupt secret army-for-hire.
Learning the company he’d given a decade of his life to was corrupt to the bone had been a pretty hard hit for Rick’s confidence. Why hadn’t he seen the truth?
Had he turned a blind eye because he was too in love with the adrenaline and adventure of his job?
After the exciting life he’d led, going home to Chickasaw County again had been a daunting proposition. He’d fielded offers from other security agencies, had considered taking a few of them, but in the end, the call of home and family had proved a stronger pull than he’d anticipated.
Not that there weren’t problems. A guy didn’t leave his family behind and turn into a virtual ghost for ten years without creating a little interfamily tension. And he knew his brother Jesse, in particular, resented that Rick had gone with a civilian security unit rather than serving his country the way Jesse had.
Fat bit of irony, that, given that Jesse’s first act upon leaving the Marines was to open his own security agency. And even Jesse couldn’t deny that Rick had skills the security agency needed. He hoped in time they’d work through the old resentments and come out stronger for it.
Plus, he admired the hell out of his brother for the kind of company he was building. Cooper Security was a for-profit company, but profit wasn’t the bottom line with Jesse. He was in this work to do the kinds of jobs the government couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do.
Few who drove past the low-slung stucco office building on Jones Street in Maybridge knew what went on inside, what sort of men and women staffed the agency’s headquarters. Most of the operatives formerly worked for an alphabet soup of U.S. government agencies—CIA, FBI, DSS, ATF, DEA, military special forces.
Most of the Cooper Security agents—even Rick—shared one thing in common: a connection to Kaziristan, a former Soviet satellite located in the midst of some of the world’s hottest hot spots. Some had worked embassy security or run covert operations. Others had tracked Kaziri terrorists worldwide or interdicted their funding. His sister Megan had lost her husband in combat in Kaziristan.
For Rick, the Kaziristan connection had started with a blonde bombshell from the CIA.



IT HADN’T BEEN RICK. The voice was similar—deep and smooth, with a Southern drawl—but it couldn’t belong to Rick Cooper. He was probably half a world away, tracking down suicide bombers in Karachi or running a scam on Russian mobsters—anywhere but Alabama, answering a number Alexander Quinn had put a lot of effort into sending to her. Quinn wouldn’t have gone to such trouble to reunite two people he’d worked so hard to separate.
We don’t fraternize with mercs. Ever.
She closed her eyes, tucking her knees to her chin. She’d always known Quinn was a manipulative bastard, but he generally had a good reason. What was his reason this time?
She looked down at the matchbox beside her on the front porch. It lay partly open, the fake nails peeking from inside, a vivid reminder of a past she wanted to bury.
Quinn knew what happened in Tablis. He’d been the first agent to reach her after she’d escaped the rat hole where the al Adar militants had kept her for almost two weeks. He’d seen the full picture of her ordeal, painted in the rainbow hues of bruises, welts and slashes all over her body. In the bloody nubs where her fingernails had been.
She’d been overjoyed to see him that day. She’d thought the nightmare was over.
She’d been so wrong.
Tears burned her eyes like acid. She dashed them away, angry at herself for the show of weakness. Her time would be better spent trying to figure out just what Quinn was trying to tell her with the matchbox and the mysterious voice on the other end of the phone number he’d given her.
To make her earlier call, she’d used the pay phone at the gas station down the road, hoping it would offer her a semblance of anonymity. Maybe she should go back there and call the number again. Say something this time, rather than hanging up like a scared teenager too chicken to finish a prank call.
She tucked the matchbox in her pocket and started the half-mile walk to the gas station down Dewberry Road. Heat rose in shimmery waves off the blacktop, fragrant with the odor of gasoline and melting tar. The afternoon sun stung her bare arms, bringing with it a sense of déjà vu that caught her by surprise. She hadn’t thought of home in a long time, of the lazy Southern summers of her childhood, when the sun couldn’t get too hot or the day too long.
She’d taken a risk by choosing another tiny Southern town to escape to, but after Kaziristan and the aftermath, she’d needed that sense of familiarity. Small Southern towns were all alike in fundamental ways. Ways that made it a little easier to sleep at night.
She reached the gas station within ten minutes and pulled the matchbox from her pocket, although by now she had the number memorized, having stared at it so long before she got up the nerve to call the first time. She crossed to the phone set into the station’s brick facade, sparing a glance at the lanky attendant teetering on the back legs of a metal folding chair and fanning himself with a folded piece of cardboard with a motor-oil logo peeking out of one end.
“Sure is hot for March,” he muttered halfheartedly and closed his eyes, showing no signs of wanting to start a conversation.
She murmured agreement and reached for the pay phone. But before her fingers touched the receiver, it began to ring. She grabbed it on instinct. “Hello?”
There was no answer, just the sound of a car’s engine. The caller must be in a car.
“Hello?” she repeated.
“Who’s speaking?” a familiar voice asked.
The voice that sounded like Rick Cooper’s.
Her hand trembled. “Who’s calling?”
After a pause, the caller said, “Sigurd.”
Amanda slammed the receiver back on the hook, the tremor in her hand spreading like wildfire to the rest of her body.
The gas station attendant looked her way, his expression mildly curious.
“Wrong number,” she managed to rasp out. She wheeled and started walking away, her stride fast and purposeful.
The man’s last word echoed in her head.
The phone behind her started ringing again.
“Hey, it’s ringing again,” the attendant called out.
She ignored him, walking faster. She heard the scrape of the attendant’s chair against the cement, and a moment later, the phone stopped ringing.
She kept going, her mind racing.
If the call was a message from Quinn, it made no sense. The CIA cut her off almost three years ago. She had no operational value to anyone, friend or foe.
Surely she’d misunderstood the caller. He’d said something else. Anything but “Sigurd.”
After all, who would send an assassin after

Chapter Two


As Rick passed through Maryville, heading east, he checked his phone to make sure it was still working. He’d left a message earlier to let Jesse know about his change in plans, but so far, his brother hadn’t called back for any details.
Not that Rick had any details to give him.
Thurlow Gap didn’t even show up on the map he’d looked up on his phone, but the drawling local who’d answered the phone the second time gave him directions from Knoxville. He’d also shared what he knew about the woman who’d answered Rick’s earlier call. She was a freelance artist named Amanda Caldwell. At least, that was the name she was going by now. But after hearing her voice on the phone, Rick knew better.
She was the woman he’d known as Tara Brady.
Tara had been a dry-witted, leggy blonde working out of the U.S. embassy in Tablis, Kaziristan. He’d been in the Kaziristan capital supporting a joint force investigating allegations of American citizens of Kaziri descent fighting with anti-government rebels north of Tablis.
Tara had never told him she was CIA, but he knew it, and she knew he knew it. It should have kept their interactions limited and circumspect—mercs and spooks didn’t get involved.
But he and Tara had.
Their affair had been brief but torrid. Lingering glances led to stolen moments of intimacy, then a few nights of frantic, amazing sex in a flea-bitten hotel on the outskirts of the city. He’d never fallen for a woman so fast or so hard in his life.
But of course, it had to come to an end.
He put the memories out of his mind and concentrated on the winding drive east through the rolling foothills of the Appalachian chain. Ahead, the expansive cloud-tipped peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread before him in hues of jade, turquoise and sapphire.
Tara loved mountains. She’d hoped one day to cross the Timrhan Mountains, the craggy, unforgiving border between Kaziristan and Russia to the north. He’d laughed at her bravado. She’d told him not to underestimate her.
That had been their last night together.
He reached the Thurlow Gap city limits around four-thirty. Though the sun was still high in the sky, nightfall hours away, the town already looked buttoned up for the evening. The gas station was still open, but the only person around was a buxom woman behind the cashier’s counter near the front window.
BOOK: Secret Identity
7.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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