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  New York Times Bestselling Author Tara Janzen  

Excerpt: Loose Ends

Chapter One

Ketamine hydrochloride. Special K. Monkey Morphine delivered in an automatic syringe shot out of a .22 caliber rimfire rifle. He knew the drill.

Yeah.

Conroy Farrel rubbed the side of his neck where he’d been darted two months ago in Paraguay. With all the cutting edge psychopharmaceuticals pumping through his blood stream, he would have thought he could handle a few cc’s of the date-rape drug.

Think again, Con old boy.

The ketamine, a hallucinogenic animal tranquilizer, had damn near twisted him up and tranquilized him into the fifth dimension for weeks, and the guys who had doped him lived across the street from where he was standing in a Denver, Colorado alley. Worse, far worse than the doping, they’d stolen his girl, his Scout.

He’d come six thousand miles to get her back.

Con let his gaze slide up the length of the wildest, most contraption-like freight elevator he’d ever seen. It crawled up the side of the building at 738 Steele Street, all iron and steel, looking like a gothic suspension bridge set on end, and somehow, oddly, looking familiar – damned familiar. Shrouded in the shadows cast by the setting sun, all he could think was that the elevator reminded him of the bridge that spanned the Mae Klong River just outside Kanchanaburi in Central Thailand – not that he liked to think about Thailand too often. Bangkok had been nothing short of brutal on him, half a breath away from the deep sleep. Or maybe less than half a breath. Resurrection, he was sure, was the only thing standing between him and eternity.

And the only thing standing between him and Scout was the building across the street. If she was in there, he was going to get her, and if she wasn’t in there, he was going to get whoever was and ask them once where they’d taken his girl – only once. Scout was tough, as tough as she’d needed to be to survive alone in Southeast Asia, before he’d finally tracked her down on the streets of Bangkok. They’d celebrated her eighteenth birthday in Rangoon, her nineteenth in Vientiane, her twentieth in Phnom Penh, her twenty-first in Da Nang, and her twenty-second in Paris – a promise he’d made her father, Garret Leesom, a soldier like him, one of the world’s warriors whose last breath had been wrung out of him in the same hellhole that had all but killed Con.

Yeah, Scout was tough, like her father. These thugs on Steele Street wouldn’t have what it took to break her. But he had what it took to break them, and it would all come to bear on every single one of them, until he had Garret’s daughter back, starting with a guy named Dylan Hart.

He reached into his pocket, felt the business card there, but didn’t pull it out. He didn’t need to pull it out. The words on the card had been burned into his memory the instant he’d seen them: DYLAN HART, UPTOWN AUTOS, WE ONLY SELL THE BEST, 738 STEELE STREET, DENVER, COLORADO. He’d found the card on his kitchen table in Paraguay the day they’d taken Scout.

These boys knew he was coming. Hell, they’d left him an engraved invitation – and they weren’t car salesmen. He didn’t give a damn what the card said.

No. They were operators of the highest order. They’d done what no one else had come close to accomplishing in six years. They’d gotten the drop on him. He hoped they’d enjoyed their momentary success. He hoped it had gone straight to their heads.

He shifted his attention to the roof of the building opposite the alley to 738 Steele Street, the Bruso-Campbell Building. The Bruso was a story taller than 738, a good vantage point.

Con couldn’t see him, but he knew Jack Traeger was up there on top of the Bruso, manning the listening post they’d set up, a laser mic sighted on one of the banks of windows fronting 738. No one could see Jack, and no one would, not until it was too late.

Con checked his watch – 6:30 p.m. – then glanced back to the building. Right on cue, a classic piece of Sublime Green American muscle from 1971, a Dodge Challenger R/T, rolled out of the seventh floor onto the sleekly modern freight elevator on the opposite side of the building from the gothic contraption. Or, actually, rolled wasn’t quite the word. Lurched was more like it. He and Jack had been watching 738 for four days, and the list of rare iron they’d accumulated was nothing short of amazing. These Steele Street assholes knew their cars. He had to give them that.

What he didn’t know was why anyone with a car like the Challenger would let some ditzy looking redhead abuse it every day at 6:30 p.m. She was pretty, sure, in a skinny sort of way, but she couldn’t drive worth beans. Fortunately, she never went more than three blocks to the closest convenience store where she bought a pack of cigarettes, a couple of candy bars, and a machine-brewed double-shot latte. Then she’d get back in the Challenger and lurch her way the three blocks back to 738.

Her name was Cherie.

He’d followed her into the Quick Mart once, and had Jack follow her in a couple of times. The clerk and she were on a first name basis, and from their chatter, he and Jack had figured out that she was some kind of computer tech.

She was also predictable.

Dangerously predictable.

The weak link in the Steele Street chain.

For the last four days, she’d exited the building at 6:30 p.m. and returned within a half an hour. Con had only needed her to do it one more time.

While the Challenger made its descent to the street, he turned and started walking toward the convenience store, turning south on Wazee St. and making his way through all the folks leaving work late and hitting the bars early. This section of the city was called LoDo, for lower downtown. It had remnants of industry and a bit of ghetto to the north and enough restored old buildings to the south to qualify as a historical district, all of them renovated into restaurants, boutiques, bars, bookstores, cafes, art galleries, and architectural antique shops. On a late spring evening, it was crowded with cars and people, office people, city people...beautiful people.

He slowed his steps for a second, and then another, his gaze locking on a woman a block away – very beautiful people.

He’d always had a soft spot for slinky brunettes, and this one moved like a cat, her long, straight hair tossed over her shoulder, lifting in the light breeze.

Always had a soft spot for slinky women, from way back when.

Yeah, always. That was a definite skip in his cylinders. A man with no more than six years worth of memories to fill out his scorecard had a damn sketchy concept of always.

Sketchy or not, though, she fit the bill, all legs and silky dark hair, slender curves wrapped in a short, golden sheath of a dress, very short. A leopard print belt cinched the dress in at her waist, and she had jungle bangles on her left wrist, three of them: zebra print, tiger striped, and ebony. Wild girl. All the way. A short-cropped black leather jacket, very sleek, very stylish topped the outfit, and each of her strides was taken in a pair of ankle-high, high-heeled, black suede boots. Large, black designer sunglasses covered half her face, and she had a big, slouchy, zebra-striped purse slung over her shoulder.

She looked like a model and walked like she owned the street, and there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that she did.

As she crossed 19th, the clouds broke behind her and a shaft of sunlight caught the gold hoops in her ears, throwing glinting sparks of light into the shadows behind the lenses of her glasses. For a split tenth of a second, he could see her eyes, not the color, but the shape, the slight tilt of the outside edges and the thick sweep of her lashes. It made her even more exotic, that her eyes were almond-shaped.

No one else could have seen so much with so little, but his senses were ramped up, awareness hard-wired into his every cell the same way the muscles in his body were ramped up and hard-wired for speed and strength and reaction times that could be measured in hundredths of a second.

He didn’t take any personal credit for being so ripped. That was the way they’d made him, to be damn near indestructible, and he was. Dr. Souk had been the mechanic, but the orders for the torture he and Garret had suffered in the name of demented science and the never-ending search for the perfect warrior had come down from a man in Washington, D. C., the brains behind some of the blackest operations to ever come out of the CIA and the Department of Defense, Con’s nemesis, the spymaster, a man who pulled strings across half a dozen of the United States’ most clandestine agencies. He had a lot of names, but his given name was Randolph Lancaster and getting it had cost more than one man his life.

Con had no regrets. Everyone in the game was playing on the same field, and everyone knew their life was at stake. Politics and war were just different names for power, and the price of power was predictably high and could be precisely measured – in dollars, yen, euros, rubles, riyals, and blood.

Keeping his pace steady, he allowed himself the luxury of letting his gaze travel over the Jungle Girl – urban jungle. She was “city” from the top of her head to the discreet black leather straps wrapped around the ankles of her boots. If beauty had an edge, she was it, the gloss of sophistication highlighting her attitude and the toughness he saw in the way she carried herself, in her awareness of her space. The sidewalk was crowded, but she had a way of not letting anybody get too close. He knew it wasn’t an accident, the way she kept herself apart, because he had the same skill, the same instinct.

Thirty yards and closing, twenty yards, ten yards and he caught her scent, picking it out of the thousands in the air, exotic, sensual, female, and yes, feral – a kindred spirit. The smallest smile curved a corner of his mouth.

Wild Thing.

Five yards and something shifted in her stride, a hesitation. Her next step came slower, and then she stopped, her mouth opening on a soft gasp. She was looking straight at him. He could feel her gaze, felt her awareness of him spike and redline. He was scarred – on his face, on his arms, his hands, his chest, hell, everywhere – but it wasn’t horror reaching out to him from her. It was something...something...something else.

She reached up, lowered her sunglasses, and took a step closer as he started to pass, nearly brushing against him, her other hand lifting ever so slightly, as if she might touch him, but all he felt was the intensity of her pale green-eyed gaze, the heat of it holding him captive for the brief moment of their encounter.

He kept moving, kept heading toward the Quick Mart, but for the space of a breath, the street disappeared, the people, the buildings, the cars, and all he could see was her face, the angles and curves, the slight dusting of freckles and the small white scar across the bridge of her nose, another scar across her left cheekbone, the sheer wild beauty of golden skin with the wind blowing her dark hair across it like a veil. She was mystery and enthrallment. She was unexpected.

She was trouble, but easily avoidable. All he had to do was keep walking, and he did.

His pulse was racing, though – not a good sign. He never lacked for women, but there had never been anyone like this urban jungle girl, not on any street in the world, a chance encounter that set off a dangerous mix of lust and warning bells. She’d broken his concentration, and he hadn’t thought that was possible. His concentration had not faltered in six years, not since the day he’d woken up, and always it was focused on the mission. Always.

He glanced back, and she was still standing in the middle of the sidewalk, watching him.

Trouble – that’s what she was, and he didn’t need it. He was in Denver to get Scout, not to get laid. Forcing his attention away from her, he continued south on Wazee St. and ignored the siren call he felt running through his veins – that maybe, just maybe, with the right timing, the right circumstances, the city girl could be his.

But probably not. If all went as he and Jack had planned, they’d be out of Denver by midnight – but he wouldn’t forget her scent. It had melted into him. He lengthened his strides, focusing back on the mission. He’d timed the route to the convenience store half a dozen times, and when he reached the Quick Mart, the Challenger was parked out front and weak-link Cherie was still inside buying candy and cigarettes.

He didn’t hesitate. Stepping up to the rear of the Challenger, a lock pick in his hand, he popped the trunk, climbed inside, and pulled the lid closed on top of him. The whole operation took less than seven seconds. He knew his cars, too, especially old iron, though he didn’t remember ever owning a muscle car. Of course, truth be told, he didn’t remember much of anything before awakening in the Bangkok prison laboratory of the long dead, never missed, demented Dr. Souk.

The trunk space was a little on the shy side, but not unpleasantly so. He’d been in worse places, smaller spaces, but never in one that smelled like baby powder.

Baby powder – what the hell? he wondered. He’d gone through the car a couple of times during the skinny redhead’s forays into the Quick Mart, and he knew the Challenger had header extensions and a race-ready 426 cid Hemi under the hood, a power plant with the well-earned nickname of King Kong, the biggest production engine to ever come off a line in Detroit. Nothing about the 1971 Mopar street machine said “baby powder,” but that was exactly what it smelled like in the trunk.

He sniffed the air again, then reached toward the front right corner and found a diaper bag. He’d never actually seen a diaper bag, but he’d heard about them, and he knew this soft, padded cotton satchel he’d found was one, because it had diapers in it, and baby powder, and lotion, and wipes.

That set him back a bit.

The Challenger, one of the toughest, meanest, most unbeatable pieces of Mopar muscle to ever hit the streets, was a family car.

He didn’t see much of that in his line of work, families. He and Scout had cobbled together a family of sorts, but he never fooled himself into thinking he could ever take the place of her real father. He’d kept her safe, and kept her out of trouble as best he could, and so far, in a battle he knew he was bound to lose, he’d kept her out of Jack Traeger’s bed. The wild boy had come far more than six thousand miles to get her back, though, and this time Con figured Jack had come to take her for good.

He’d barely set the bag back in the corner, when just like clockwork, the car door was opened and Cherie the computer tech got back inside. He felt the slight shift of her weight and knew she was lighting a cigarette before she started the engine. When she turned the key, the Challenger came to life, and it was a beast, just like him, all rumble and roar with that badass 426 Hemi under the hood. The chassis rocked with the power she was feeding it through the gas pedal, and then, with a lurch, she pulled into traffic and they were heading back to Steele Street.

Game time.