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James Rollins is the New York Times bestselling author of international adventure thrillers sold in over thirty countries. His latest novel, The Doomsday Key, is now available nationwide. For more information, visit www.jamesrollins.com.
Nick knew it was a dangerous gamble to contact his boss.
Koleson Fletcher’s name had been on the press release faxed to his friend Mike, a press release that claimed Nick and Ashleigh had died during the Palace Station explosion. But Nick also knew that he could not make any real headway in this investigation by himself. He needed a friend, someone on the inside he could trust.
But could he trust Kole?
Nick stared at the Sig Sauer on the bed.
Before a few hours ago, Nick would have staked his life on Kole’s friendship and loyalty. He now had to do just that, to risk his life by sticking his head out into the open. If Kole was working with the enemy, Nick would not survive until dawn.
Knowing that, he made a few last-minute preparations—then began to pace the room. It would be the longest twenty minutes of his life.
His only hope lay in one fact: the time stamped on that incriminating press release indicated the fax had been sent before the explosion. That meant that whoever had disseminated the press release already knew about the bomb and had made a stupid error by releasing the fax a few minutes early.
And Koleson Fletcher would never have done that. The man was too smart, too wily when it came to manipulating the press. It was why he had the job he did. He knew all the pitfalls to avoid. He would have never made such a blatant error in the paper trail.
Someone else had to have sent it. It would have been simple enough to forge the letterhead and toss that fax into the whirlwind of paperwork that must be flying throughout the halls of Washington and beyond.
But what if Nick was wrong? What if he was putting too much emphasis on this one detail? Anyone in the heat of the moment could make a mistake.
As he paced the room, his doubts grew. He examined and re-examined his life, searching for any clue about how and why he had been snared in this trap. The glow of the laptop drew his eye. He crossed to it, opened a browser, and logged into his e-mail account. It was a risky move. Someone could be monitoring traffic, but he needed as much information as possible. And besides, he’d already stuck his neck out in the real world; what harm could there be by doing the same in the cyber world?
He quickly ran down the list of his email subject lines, looking for any telltale clue about why his life had been hijacked. Nothing seemed amiss. Lots
of email shared the same "congrats!" subject line, wishing him and Ashleigh a happy honeymoon.
He stared at those in particular.
Their wedding seemed like ages ago, from another life. He pictured Ashleigh in her dress, an angel in silk. Their first dance, her breath on his cheek, her laughter… it all suddenly overwhelmed him. He found it difficult to breathe. He retreated until he was sitting on the bed. He flashed back to seeing her strapped to the metal table, bruised and beaten, a pistol poised at her temple.
He covered his face with his hands, trapped between bone-deep grief and raw fury. In that one moment, she died a thousand times, a thousand ways, each more bloody and brutal than the next. He dug his fingers into his face, knowing he had failed to protect her. His breathing grew ragged, but he slowly forced himself away from that brink.
He did not have the luxury of despair, not if he wanted to bring down those who’d taken Ashleigh away from him.
He lowered his hands, stood up, and crossed to the computer. He was about to close his email account when his eyes settled to the bottom of the list, to the last piece of email, dated an hour ago.
The logline read: Another way to INCREASE the size of your rod!
The email looked like any other piece of spam, but Nick studied it closer. After they’d first met, he had taught Ashleigh an easy and flexible way to communicate in private. Her father, well known for his prying and meddling ways, had not been keen on their relationship at first, so they’d developed this system to keep certain messages private. It was really mostly fun and games, two lovers whispering secrets in the dark, but it had occasionally proven useful.
He read the log line again. Another way to INCREASE the size of your rod! According to their code, the first and last word had to match the initials of the sender. In this case another and rod matched his wife’s new married name: Ashleigh Roberts.
But was he reading too much into this?
With his hand trembling, he opened the email. A photo appeared. It depicted Uncle Sam pointing at the recipient with a line below that stated:
We Need a Few Good Men
To test the latest in male
It appeared to be one of millions of spam emails sent around the world every second. And that is what made their secret code so perfect. Few people would delve any deeper. Even now Nick wasn’t sure if this was spam or a message from Ashleigh.
He refused to hope.
There was only one way to know for sure.
With his heart pounding through his chest, Nick dragged the picture of Uncle Sam from the email and onto the computer’s desktop. An icon bloomed there. He read the file name for the photo. I_escaped_ontherun_help7025552391.jpg
Nick stared, not sure whether to believe it or not. Could this really be a message from Ashleigh? Could she have escaped? He teetered between joy and terror. The last sequence had to be a phone number. All he had to do was call. But what if this was some trick to draw him out of hiding? What if Ashleigh’s captors had tortured this information out of her?
Before he could settle on an answer, someone knocked on the door. He checked his watch. Twenty minutes had passed. Lost in shock and grief, time had escaped him.
Twisting around, he snatched the pistol from the bed with trembling hands and retreated toward the bathroom. His heart thudded against his ribcage, pounding hard.
With Ashleigh dead, he had been willing to throw his life away in order to expose those who had killed her. But what if she was still alive? He stared over at the computer, then at the motel door. What had seemed a reasonable risk just minutes ago now struck him as foolhardy and dangerous.
A muffled voice called outside. "Nick? It’s me, Kole."
Nick hurried to the bathroom window. He’d left it open. He searched below for any strange cars or people down in the back alley. It looked clear. He moved to a spot by the bathroom door.
Had Kole come alone? Or was there an assassination team waiting to take him out?
He stared at the front door’s peephole. From his years with the O.S.I., he knew that such eyeholes were death traps. If someone wanted to murder you, they’d wait until your shadow passed over the hole, then shoot right through the door.
Nick kept to the far side of the room. He had an angled view to the outside through a part in the window curtain. By shifting slightly, he had a complete view of the upper balcony and the parking lot below.
In the reflection, a single figure stood outside his door.
The rest of the upper level appeared empty. The parking lot below looked the same as before. A few pimps and drug dealers plied their trade. Nick trusted the young men’s survival instincts, honed by the mean streets, to sense if anything was wrong. He also suspected they had eyes throughout the neighborhood. If any cops or suspicious vehicles were around, the crew would have cleared out by now.
Satisfied, Nick hurried to the door, swept it open, and planted his pistol into Kole’s belly.
"Get inside," Nick commanded, knowing with growing certainty that more than his own life now hung in the balance.
He had failed Ashleigh before—but never again.