Near Teaneck, New Jersey
"You're hurting me!" Gigi struggled against the tight grip on her arms and fought to find her footing, but the two men flanking her dragged her up the stairs like her mother used to when she had to see the dentist.
The two johns had picked her up on a Manhattan street corner, but instead of taking her to a hotel, they'd brought her to a house in New Jersey without any furnishings. The half-hour journey itself was odd, too. Neither of the men said much or wanted to get down to business with her in the dark sedan.
"I'm a pro, I know the deal," she told the men as they pulled her along. "You don't have to fucking force me." She heard the tones of someone punching numbers into a cell phone.
"Put me through to Dario," a man behind her said. "I can deliver your order in forty minutes."
"What order?" Gigi craned to see him. A bald, buff, middle aged man-looked like Mr. Clean. "Where's the other girl?"
When they'd arrived at the house, she hadn't noticed him among the several men present, many also in business suits. Another working girl was there, too, an unfamiliar blonde. They'd had some drinks, but the party had barely started when the two guys who'd picked her up grabbed her and hauled her upstairs.
The bald guy ignored her and continued his conversation.
"Yo, Mr. Clean! I asked you something," she yelled.
The man paused and turned his attention on her for the first time. She couldn't remember ever having seen a look like that but was sure she'd never forget it. His dark eyes looked as empty as those of a dead fish. She'd been in scary, uncertain situations before; it was part of the job, especially when she was after a fast buck and the johns were dubious at best. But she'd never felt so terrified and helpless. God, were they going to kill her? She'd heard plenty of stories about working girls disappearing or found dead, but those tragedies happened to others, not her. Had she been too arrogant?
Was this a warning to change her life? Would she get that chance now?
"I want to go home. Where are you taking me?" She clawed at the walls as they dragged her down a long hallway with closed doors on either side. "Where's the other girl?" she asked again.
None of them responded. Being ignored scared her almost as much as the lifeless eyes of the man behind her.
They reached a door at the end of the corridor and the man on her left opened it. Without a word, they threw her forward, and she slid over the parquet like a bowling ball, hitting her head on the wall. "Please, let me go," she said as she got to her knees and whirled toward them. But the door was already closing. Gigi ran to it and tried the knob. Locked. "Let me out, you assholes!" She pounded on the thick wood with her fists, but their steps already sounded faint.
When she was sure they wouldn't return immediately, she studied her small, empty prison. The walls looked newly painted but didn't smell like it. Windows along one wall drew her and she tried to open one. "Goddamn it," she yelled when a fake nail broke off. She couldn't force any of them open. Not that it would have helped. She was on the second floor, too far up to drop without breaking something or killing herself. And the place was isolated- the nearest sign of civilization was too far away for anyone to hear her scream. She could see only a distant light, illuminating a rooftop that might be a house and, beyond that, a cell tower. The rest was dark woods, save for an abandoned swing set and kiddy pool below her window.
She had only one possible way to get out of there safely.
They'd taken her purse and cell, but she always hid a spare phone for emergencies. She pulled it from her boot and hazily hit the first number on her speed dial. Damn, why had she drunk so much?
Usually booze helped numb her, but now she couldn't think clearly.
When the line picked up, she gripped the phone tighter and a seed of hope sprouted against her panic. "Thank Jesus. You gotta help me, I'm fucked," she whispered loudly, in a rush. "Some guys picked me up and they've locked me in a room and I think they're gonna kill me."
The reassuring voice of her friend replied. "Gigi? Where are you? What are you talking about?"
"I'm in bumfuck Jersey somewhere. Near Teaneck, I think."
She kept an ear attuned to the hallway in case the men returned.
"Some big white house with empty rooms. It's just all creepy-ass wrong. I don't think they brought me here for sex, and they got some other girl here, too. One guy was talking to someone on the phone about making a delivery. I think they meant me."
"Are you drunk?"
"Are you even listening? I'm not drunk and I'm not crazy.
Something's very wrong here."
"If you really think you're in danger, hang up right now and call 911. Even if you don't know where you are, they can trace your cell and find you." "Yeah, right. Okay." She would rarely even consider calling the police, but this time she didn't hesitate. She mashed the disconnect button with shaking hands and dialed the number.
"911. What is the nature of your emergency?"
"Some guys have me locked up in a room and I think they're gonna kill me." She slurred her words.
"What is your name and location, ma'am?"
"I don't know where the fuck I am. A big white house. Near Teaneck, I think. There are trees and a swing set outside, and one of those blue kiddie pools, upside down. And I can see a cell tower."
"What is your name, ma'am?" the dispatcher repeated in a monotone.
"Gigi. Uh, no... uh, Francine Shelhorn. Look, that's not important, just get the cops out here. These guys are gonna do something to me, I know it. I think they're gonna kill me and deliver me to some guy named Dario."
"What makes you think your life is in danger, ma'am? Have they hurt you or threatened you?"
"I just know, okay? They've fucking locked me up, I said!"
"Have you been drinking, ma'am?"
Before she could reply, footsteps rang in the hall. They were coming back. In a panic, she shut the cell, disconnecting the call, and hurriedly tossed it toward a dark corner of the room. It slid across the smooth parquet floor and disappeared beneath the edge of the long curtain that ran along the far wall. Seconds later, the door opened, and Mr. Clean and the two guys who'd picked her up came back into the room. While the two goons held her down, the bald guy pulled out a syringe.
"What the fuck! No! Stop!" she screamed, as she tried unsuccessfully to pull free.
But they were far too strong, and Mr. Clean injected the contents of the syringe into her arm. Once he did, they released her and left without saying a word. This time, she clearly heard the sound of the lock being thrown.
She started to crawl toward the curtain to get her phone, but almost immediately her arms and legs began to go leaden, her muscles unresponsive. Whatever the hell they'd shot her up with was paralyzing her. Before she could go six feet, she lay prone on the floor, head to the side and unable to move, but still fully awake.
Gigi couldn't speak or feel anything but the faint, rapid pounding of her heart. She could only see and hear. Her total and complete helplessness terrified her more than anything she'd ever experienced.
After fifteen or twenty excruciating minutes, the two men returned. They carried her back to the sedan, dumped her in the rear seat, and took her for a short ride. Since she couldn't move her head, she stared at the sedan's floor mat during the journey, then saw a smattering of images that told her they were taking her into a medical clinic or doctor's office. The dark outer rooms they passed through gave way to their well-illuminated destination, where she saw a cabinet full of medicines, a tray of surgical instruments, and a plastic IV container on a stand before they laid her flat on her back on a bed or table of some sort. She heard them leave.
What in God's name were they planning? The sterile tray held neat rows of scalpels, clamps, and other shiny medical tools. She'd barely begun to imagine the possibilities when two new people entered her field of vision: a man and woman dressed in surgical gowns and matching caps. White masks concealed their faces and gloves covered their hands.
"Which first?" the woman asked.
"The blonde," the man answered as he moved farther away from Gigi until she could see only his head. The woman followed, and from the sound of it, she was wheeling over the tray of instruments.
The pair faced each other now, looking down at something. It was likely the platinum-haired girl she'd seen at the house.
"We'll take the kidneys first," the man said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Then the liver, corneas. The heart last. Same with the other."
He glanced at a clock on the wall. "Let's begin. Scalpel."
Gigi screamed but no sound left her mouth.
"Don't hesitate to ask for me again next time you're in need of... company." The beautiful brunette traced Landis Coolidge's bottom lip with her finger.
"There won't be a next time, Jade." Landis smiled and bit the finger playfully.
"I was under the impression you enjoyed my services." The call girl pouted in disappointment. "You're not the type to fake orgasms."
"I pay so I don't have to fake anything." Landis grabbed the envelope on the table near the door. "It has nothing to do with your performance. You were great; most of you are, but... repetition bores." She smiled sweetly and handed Jade the payment.
"Repetition also makes perfect." Jade caressed Landis's hand as she took the envelope.
"Unless you used the Lord's name in vain all evening. Then striving for better is redundant."
"Well, should you-"
"Thank you, Jade." Landis was already tired of this conversation, and a glance at her watch confirmed their interaction was running two minutes beyond its allotted time. "Good night," she added, and shut the door.
She stared at her PEZ collection in its custom glass case next to the door and smiled contentedly. "Why can't they all be beautiful and silent like you guys?" she asked the plastic faces.
Her prized three-hundred-plus collection was methodically organized according to date of issue, the first slot occupied by a rare 1958 bunny and the last by a 2011 Thor. Her favorite was the full set of 1965 candy shooters - nine small handguns in a variety of colors.
She routinely spent a half hour on eBay every morning over coffee, searching for new acquisitions. Price was not an issue. She looked for quirky releases that spoke to her and only went after those in pristine condition.
The rest of her spacious loft condo was as neat and obsessively arranged as her PEZ figures, and the unconventional open layout suited her personality. The three levels spread out in a fan-like arrangement, each separated by a few wide stairs. This largest bottom level held a corner kitchen with stainless-steel appliances and a granite-topped island, and a comfortable modern seating area that faced the floor-to-ceiling windows on one wall. The black leather couch held a pair of red pillows for color, but the matching chairs were devoid of adornment. The chrome-and-glass coffee and end tables and matching chrome lamps sparkled from obsessive polishing, as did the hardwood floors throughout.
Visitors often remarked about the sparse furnishings and lack of personal items, which suggested the loft's occupant was a recent arrival still settling in. But Landis had moved here directly from the Elite Operative Organization's Colorado campus more than two decades earlier, and she'd simply never abandoned the clean, uncluttered lifestyle that had comforted her during her adolescence in the dorms.
Scaling the wide steps, she walked past her work level to the third-level bedroom and with one swoop pulled the sheets off the bed. She could have waited for the cleaning lady in the morning, but she couldn't bear to sleep on sweaty, creased sheets. Once she'd changed the bedding with the kind of meticulous care that would put the best hotel to shame, Landis stripped off her rumpled button down shirt and slacks and tossed those into the hamper as well.
After a quick shower-two minutes shorter than usual to make up for the lost time with the call girl-she donned her work clothes: comfortable torn jeans and one of many T-shirts depicting Landor the Demon, the anti-hero protagonist of her popular graphic novels.
On her way to her drawing board, she inspected her surroundings to make sure nothing was out of place.
The second-floor workspace was as tidy as the rest of the loft. Her drawing table and stool faced the windows, giving her a panoramic view of Boston Harbor. Her pens and mechanical pencils lay arranged in a tray according to line width and color, and custom cabinets concealed her published work, files, and original drawings from view. The single back wall, covered with a massive mural she'd done herself, was the only artwork in the loft. A homage to Emily, her other main character, it depicted a beautiful goldenbrown- haired woman in a long white dress, her expression one of longing and regret.
Landis settled onto her padded stool. From here she could see all three of her digital clocks-the large wall display in the bedroom, the small one on her drawing board, and the glowing red numbers on the coffee table in the darkened living area below. She made sure all three were synched to the correct time before she picked up the remote to her music player and completed her routine.
Shuffling through a myriad of jazz selections, she selected a remixed assortment of John Coltrane classics and put the volume low.
Staring out at the twinkling lights of boats in the harbor from her thirty-second-floor perch, she absentmindedly plucked her posable Landor action figure from its Velcroed base atop her drawing table and bent it into a variety of positions as she searched for inspiration.
Her loyal friend and colleague Gianna Truman frequently made fun of her obsessive need to be meticulous about every aspect of her life and often said Landis was constantly trying to perfect perfection. Landis believed that the world and life in general were wrought with chaos and unnecessary emotional debris, and no one could change that. But if she could control and direct her personal environment, her own world, then it would sure as hell be perfect. Her idea of perfect, anyway. Her need for faultlessness had initially inspired her stories and drawings thirty years earlier. In Landor, she'd created an exceptionally flawed hero: a demon forever doomed to struggle between what he had to do and what he wanted to do-a conundrum familiar to all Elite Operatives.
Landor wanted a world free of pain and corruption, and one fateful day he fell from Lucifer's grace when, fed up, he decided to forego orders and stop hurting innocent people. In retaliation,
Lucifer doomed him to a life of unrest and internal struggle. He told Landor he would free him of his hold only if, when the time came, he made an unspecified "ultimate sacrifice" that would prove how badly he wanted his freedom.
Landor spent centuries doing Satan's dirty work, waiting for that opportunity, being who he was born to be but never who he was meant to be, until one day while in human form, he met and fell in love with the very beautiful and very mortal Emily. Then Lucifer spelled out the terms of the ultimate sacrifice: Kill her and you're free.
Enraged, Landor refused and struck Lucifer, and Lucifer lashed back, unleashing such uproar in hell the earth shook. He was about to kill Landor when he changed his mind.
"This is too easy. You are free, weakling," Satan declared. "Go, traitor, but should you ever speak to her, or love another mortal, I will kill them personally. Slowly, while you watch."
In the five years since, Landor roamed the earth, helping instead of hurting and finding pleasure in the arms of women he knew he could never love. He never again approached Emily, either as demon or human, but he kept watch on her from a distance, interceding when necessary to protect her from harm.
Landis, like her protagonist, was free to create her perfect, peaceful world-at least when she wasn't on assignment. But like Landor, she felt doomed to live in it alone. In order to do her job well, she had to free herself from any emotional attachments.
Commitments of any sort only clouded her judgment and got others hurt. The only time she had let anyone in her heart was years ago, and the woman ended up dying in her arms. Sighing, she replaced the action figure on his perch and plucked a pencil from the tray.
"Issue 53," she said out loud. "Let's see what Emily is up to."
She'd just finished the outline of Emily's face when her cell rang. The caller ID on her BlackBerry told her it was Montgomery Pierce, Chief Administrator of the Elite Operatives Organization, so she answered with her code name and identification number. "Chase 200967."
"I know it's late but-"
"Platitudes. What do you need?"
"Be here ASAP." Pierce waited for confirmation.
Here always meant the sixty-three-acre EOO facility, tucked into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Since she never wore a timepiece when she drew, Landis glanced up at each clock in turn.
All read 3:12 a.m. "ASAP can put me there at thirteen hundred hours," she replied, and hung up.
Jaclyn Harding woke up feeling drowsy, albeit surprisingly rested for the first time in months. She scanned the room and slowly rose from the narrow, white-sheeted cot. The security camera mounted in the far corner followed her as she walked over to the plastic chair where her jacket rested. She knew these cold, sparse rooms only too well. In another life, she'd been treated for cuts and concussions in the EOO infirmary. Nothing about the sterile, depressing rooms had changed.
She searched the inside jacket pocket for her Marlboros. She'd started smoking since Cassady's death; it seemed the only thing that could stop her hands from shaking. Though it was unhealthy and disgusting, she couldn't find the strength to care. Frustrated the pack wasn't there, she looked up at the cam. "Why the fuck am I here?"
Moments later, EOO Chief Administrator Montgomery Pierce entered with two cups of coffee and wordlessly offered her one.
"I want my cigarettes," she said as she accepted the steaming cup.
"You don't need them."
"Not in the mood to discuss my needs. Now, can I have my damn smokes?"
Pierce glanced up at the cam and nodded.
Director of Training David Arthur, another member of the EOO's governing trio, came in and tossed the pack to Jack. "Those'll kill you."
Jack snapped her fingers. "Damn, I knew I was forgetting something," she said with mock surprise. "In case you hadn't noticed,
I was doing a stellar job at exactly that before you interfered. Now, toss me the lighter, genius."
Arthur threw her the Bic and Jack immediately lit a cigarette.
She sat on the bed and sipped her coffee. Both men remained silent while they observed her.
"So, what's with the silent movie?" She flicked her ashes onto the floor. "You didn't have to bring me all the way here to off me.
Even Arthur isn't that dense."
Arthur took a step toward Jack and was about to say something when Pierce lifted his hand. "Don't let her push your buttons, David," he said without looking at his colleague.
Arthur's face and neck went beet red, clashing with his copper colored crew cut. "Ungrateful... " He clenched his fists. "If it wasn't for us-"
"If it wasn't for you, I'd be better off and Cass would be alive," Jack replied.
"Wait outside, David," Pierce ordered him. "I'll call you if necessary."
Arthur mumbled something and left the room.
"Why am I here?" Jack stared down at her burning cigarette.
"Do you remember anything?"
"Be more specific. I generally remember more than I'd like."
"We came to your house... or the remains of it," Pierce said, disgust evident in his voice.
"Yeah, I remember," Jack replied. "The three of you decided on an impromptu visit. Forgive me for not being the perfect hostess and neglecting my domestic chores. Had I known you were coming... "
She shrugged. "I'd at least have burned the place down."
Pierce dismissed her remark with a wave of his hand. "Do you remember why we were there?"
"Get to the point, Pierce." Jack stood to face him. "I clearly have gaps or I'd know why I'm here and how the fuck I got back to this hell. Oh, and by the way, thank you very fucking much for shooting me up." She rubbed the sore spot on her neck where the tranquilizer dart had hit her. "Slept like a baby."
"I'm sorry about that, but you didn't give us a choice. You were about to-"
"I know damn well what I was about to do." Despite her drunken condition, she did remember going for her gun, determined to end her misery. "What I don't know is, why the fuck you care."
Jack smiled and took a step closer to Pierce. "You'd think I'd be doing you a favor." She sucked on her cigarette.
Pierce never moved. "That's not the case." He looked directly in her eyes.
"What is?" Jack inched nearer until they were a foot apart. She took another deep drag on her cigarette and exhaled the smoke in his face.
He never flinched. "I... we don't want you dead, Jaclyn."
"What do you want?"
"We want your help."
"Finding Lynx... Cassady."
Jack's vision swam and for a moment she was dizzy on her feet as she replayed his words in her mind. She must have looked shocked because Pierce reached for her shoulder, but withdrew his hand when she flinched. "What the hell are you talking about? Cass is dead."
"She's alive. That's why we came to see you, but you didn't give me a chance to-"
"Cass is what?"
"Alive?" Jack hugged herself to steady her hands.
It couldn't be true. Either they had staged her death and lied to everyone at Cassady's memorial service, or they were lying now about her being alive. Irrational thoughts swamped her mind. None made sense. Furious, she lunged at Pierce, shoving him hard in the chest. He rocked on his heels but remained upright and didn't strike back.
"You planned this all along. Let me believe she was dead. What kind of a sick fuck are you?" she shouted.
"We hadn't planned any of this. Turns out Andor Rózsa kidnapped Cassady. He wants the money we took from his accounts in exchange for her. The moment we found out, we came to you."
Jack didn't know if she should cry from happiness or scream in frustration. It took all of her energy not to collapse. Even the cigarette couldn't stop her from shaking, so she dropped it in Pierce's coffee.
"Where is she?"
"We don't know."
Jack started for the door. "I have to find her."
He blocked her way. "I know, but-"
"Out of my way, Pierce."
He didn't move. "You're going to need our help, Jaclyn."
"Thanks but no the fuck way."
"Work with us."
"I don't need you to find her."
"Yes, you do." He replied with the same calm, placid demeanor that always infuriated her. "We have the means."
"I'll find the means."
"You can't. He could be anywhere, and finding him will mean using all of our resources. Even then... "
Jack willed herself not to push the old man aside. "I told you I-"
"Jaclyn, we're going after her with or without you. But I don't know anyone better suited for this mission."
"Don't talk to me about missions," she spat. "That's none of my business and I'm sure as hell not going to work for you. My priority is Cass. I don't give a shit about you or your organization.
It's your fault she's in this mess to begin with."
"I'm not asking you to work for us. I want you to work with us.
Help us. We already have enough intel to get us started."
"Let me guess. Unless I agree to join your puppet show you won't share the goods."
Jack stepped closer until their noses almost touched. "That's blackmail, you bastard."
His face remained expressionless, his tone professional.B "You're emotionally involved in this one, Jaclyn. You know what that means."
"It means it's none of your business."
"It means you'll be irrational. You'll jeopardize yourself."
"You send men and women out there daily to do exactly that," she said. "You've trained them to believe that dying for this organization is honorable. How is my dying for the woman I love less worthy?"
"It's not. But I'm saying you won't be able to think clearly. If you get yourself killed, you won't be any good to Cassady."
"And how will working for you lessen my odds of getting killed?"
"Special op Chase," he replied.
"Landis... Coolidge?" Jack mumbled. She was surprised to hear that name after so many years.
"Just you and her, with all the resources we can offer and money can buy."
"You want to assign me a babysitter?"
"A partner and friend. You've worked with her before. You used to be close and you know she's one of our best."
Jack took a step back and ran her hands through her hair. "I don't think I can accept these terms. I... "
Pierce started to reach for her again but stopped. "Jaclyn, listen to me. I know how you feel about us... about me. You feel betrayed and you have every right to. What we did to you was wrong, and I've never regretted anything more. If I could take it all back I would, but-"
"Don't push it, Pierce. I'm not buying a word of your heartfelt remorse. Nothing you say about what happened then will make a difference."
Pierce looked away. "I know," he said with an uncharacteristic tone, his voice breaking. "I know. But... " He looked at her. "This isn't about me or the organization. This is about Cassady, and I know how much you love her. I'm not asking you to do this for me. I'm asking you to do it for her. Do it because you want her back alive."
Jack flinched when Pierce suddenly put his hand on her shoulder.
"Do it because you know what it'll do to her if you get yourself killed," he said.
Jack pulled away and walked to the opposite side of the room.
With her back to him, she stared down at the familiar campus where she'd spent the first half of her life. The last time she'd been here was for Cassady's memorial service.
Damn. Pierce was right. She would need his help to find Cass sooner rather than later. Her own resources would take time and an exchange of favors with people she'd vowed never to contact again.
She'd left that life behind and doubted her less-than-honorable "friends" would help her, anyway. Unless she owed them, which she didn't, they conveniently forgot any previous favors or contracts she might have done for them. "Get Coolidge."
"We have a general meeting in an hour, and Coolidge will be there." Pierce frowned. She was in the same clothes they'd found her in after a three-day drinking binge. "Get yourself cleaned up.
I'll have someone bring you something to wear. You'll want to be there for this one."
"You mean sit with your puppets?"
"As what? Phantom's ghost? They all think I'm dead. Cass told me you never informed them about my resurrection."
"That's correct. You're about to do that yourself."
Jack wasn't sure she was up to this revelation. She knew how most ops regarded treason or running away. Although many had considered it, none ever actually did. Call it misplaced loyalty or plain cowardice. No one ever left.
"Fine. Now get the hell out of here."