Gun Metal Heart: New Excerpt

Gun Metal Heart by Dana Haynes is an international thriller featuring the deadly freelance operative Daria Gibron (available August 19, 2014).

Daria Gibron, a freelance operative with a long and deadly history, has been slowly recovering from the injuries sustained from her last case. Hiding out in a town in rural Italy, she has been staying as far off the map as she can—until she’s tracked down by an old colleague. Diego had been a bodyguard in Florence, protecting an engineer and her invention, when they were attacked by a highly trained paramilitary group. Diego alone escaped and the White Scorpions, a Serbian mercenary group known for their indiscriminate violence, are now after him. Well, after him and Daria, now that he’s dragged her into the picture.

At the same time, a small group of disgraced CIA agents have been waiting for their chance to exact revenge on the person they blame for their discharge—Daria Gibron. When they learn she’s in contact with Diego, they get the okay from their former bosses to take her out. With several highly trained teams out to get her, a partner withholding critical information, and a missing invention around which everything turns, Daria is in the worst danger of her life. And she couldn’t be having more fun.

One

Caladri, the Coast of Italy

The quiet man stood in the entrance to the taverna. The regulars didn’t remember seeing him enter. They hadn’t noticed the flash of too harsh, too white sunlight when the door opened. They hadn’t smelled the tang of salt and seaweed invade the tobacco and hashish funk of the bar.

But there he stood.

He wore a cowboy hat, a denim shirt, jeans, and boots. The shirt was unbuttoned to reveal an off-white undershirt, and the sleeves were rolled up past tattoos and well-defined biceps.

One by one the patrons of the taverna noticed him, then went back to their beer and their boredom.

The quiet man walked to the bar, removed the cowboy hat—old and badly sweat-stained—and set it on the bar. His hair was black, almost shoulder length, and swept back. His face was leathery, tight, and deeply pocked. He had a thin, lipless mouth, exceedingly flat planes along his cheeks and forehead, and a nose that had been badly broken and poorly mended.

The old bartender, a pipe cleaner of a man, rubbed a filthy rag on the filthy bar and took his time looking up. When he did, he flinched at the sight of the customer’s face.

Birra, signore?”

The quiet man nodded.

The manager limped to the tap and returned with a pint. The quiet man reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a much-bent photo. He set it on the sticky bar and slid it across.

It was a photo of Daria Gibron.

The old man peered at it, squinted, made a point of scratching his thin patch of hair. He looked up and shrugged.

“Seen her?” He spoke English.

“No.”

“Sure?”

“Sì.”

The quiet man reached into the back pocket of his jeans and withdrew a folding knife, the handle carved of bone. He kept the knife closed.

The bartender peered at the knife, then up into the flat, reflectionless eyes, then back at the knife.

“Signorina Randagia?”

The quiet man looked skeptical. As if the name were unfamiliar.

“Gatta Randagia. It is what she calls herself, signore. Yes. I know her.”

“She’s here?”

The old man shrugged. “She’s out.”

The quiet man nodded solemnly and picked up his dirty stein with his left hand and sipped. “Out where?”

“Cimitario.”

“Graveyard?”

Sì. For, ah old things, not people. Pieces…?”

“Junkyard?”

“Sì!”

The manager grabbed a beer mat, turned it over to the blank side, and drew a map. He’d begun to sweat now. It wasn’t just the unspoken threat of the closed knife. It was something intractable and menacing on the man’s scarred face.

That, plus the signorina. The old man had feared her from day one. She was radiant, yet somehow she carried that exact same menacing air as this man.

The quiet man studied the beer mat. “Junkyard?”

“Sì. For aircraft. Old aeroplanes, signore.”

“Why there?”

The old man wet his lips. “Running.”

“From what?”

The bartender shrugged. “Who can say? The devil, maybe.”

The quiet man drained his beer. He seemed to contemplate that.

“The devil.”

“Sì.”

He pocketed the bone knife, shook his head. “Can’t be two of us.”

* * *

The bartender wasted no time in alerting the people in Caladri. The residents detested strangers. In a town in which the two main industries were the importation of illegal immigrants from Africa and illegal drugs from South America, a snooping foreigner is no friend.

Within minutes the grapevine spread the word that the stranger was looking for Signora Gatta Randagia.

Nobody could remember if the town had named her or if she’d coined the nickname for herself. Gatta randagia—stray cat.

* * *

The stray cat crouched in the shadows, fingertips on the ground, slightly forward of her hunched shoulders, the heels of both sneakers up off the dirt, and surveyed the battlefield.

It was only mid-July but already the weather had turned nasty on the Mediterranean coast. Where much of the region is sun-swept and touristy, Daria Gibron had picked a spit of land shoved uncomfortably between a barren strip of rocky coast and the Trenitalia railroad tracks, wedged like a broken rib up against the rest of northeastern Italy. The villages to the west were rich fishing waters and the villages to the east catered to a trendy, moneyed set. But on this rocky gouge of land, almost nobody had made an honest living in decades.

It suited Daria to a T.

The temperature was in the nineties and the humidity matched it. Yellow-white clouds filled the sky and turned the sea a mottled green, the kind of clouds that promise rain, just to taunt you.

Daria was hunched like a sprinter in a starting block. She squinted against the white glare and the painfully glinting metal all around her. Everywhere she looked Daria saw bits of things that once had been aircraft but which would never again have the word air associated with them. They were ground things now. Warped wings here, rusted fuselages there, piles of tread-bare tires and desiccated cockpits strewn about. The debris were dated between the 1950s and the 1990s. Some military aircraft, some civilian.

Daria’s dark skin glowed with sweat. She wore ratty cutoffs and a short Violent Femmes T-shirt, sleeves ripped off and neckline badly and unevenly stretched out. Some boy had left it in her bed, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember his face. Her sneakers were new. Her straight black hair was pulled into a ponytail. She wore fingerless black gloves with golden zippers that ran halfway up each palm: “borrowed” from a Parisian drug dealer the year before. Her only other accessories were bandages here and there, stretch tape wrapped around both wrists, and a red/purple swoosh of a lovely new bruise on her flank, under her left arm.

The junkyard had been built in the remnants of a mercury mine in a valley between scrubby hills. Almost no plants beyond weeds grew in the narrow valley. A flicker of a smile ghosted across Daria’s parched lips. What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing running in a place like this?

She heard the squeak of shoe tread on aluminum and knew that the Kavlek brothers were on the move.

Daria bolted.

She pushed off with her right foot from beneath the truncated wing of a Phantom F-4F fighter. Her first goal was the stubby, roof-gutted Tornado dead ahead. Its cockpit had been blown out, avionics rusting in the thin haze and sun. A whacking great hole had been torn out of the top of the fuselage, likely from a midair collision or a missile rather than a crash landing.

The final goal wasn’t the snub-nosed Tornado but the huge, mothballed Airbus A-320, just beyond. The narrow-body airliner was about 120 feet long, providing plenty of running room. It sat flat on the rocky ground, sans landing gear. If she could get inside that beast, she could buy herself some advantages.

An Israeli Army drill sergeant had once ragged her: “In an open-field flight, your advantages are eyesight, space, and liberty! Rob the enemy of them, and it’s advantage you!”

Daria leaped from her cover, sneakers hitting the hard earth, legs and arms pumping.

A flash of skin to her left and above her. Mehmet Kavlek, the sturdier of the brothers, diving off the fuselage of the Phantom. He’d been above her all along.

Daria guessed that the husky Turk couldn’t leap from atop the Phantom to the wing of the Tornado. He’d either land on the ground between … or atop Daria.

She threw herself forward in midair, ending with a tumble, shoulders first, then her back, her ass, her sneakers. Once her shoes hit the packed soil, she used her momentum and her bunched legs to leap.

Mehmet Kavlek thumped to the ground a meter behind her.

Where was the other brother?

Still running, Daria caught hold of the wing of the grounded fighter craft and swung her body up and to the left, one knee clearing the airlift surface of the wing. She grunted and used her momentum to roll along the surface, completing the roll on one knee and one foot.

She glanced back. Mehmet’s meaty hands appeared before her eyes as he leaped for the wing.

Daria turned and ran, springing for the front half of the fuselage.

Ismael Kavlek made his appearance. Lighter than his brother, he sprang like a gazelle onto the horizontal elevator of the Tornado’s tail section. A normal human would have smacked into the vertical stabilizer and rudder, but the whip-thin man raised one foot, kicked at the stabilizer, rerouted his momentum 90 degrees, and deftly surfaced atop the fuselage with Daria.

The roof was holed—too great a distance for even Ismael to reach her directly—but the bigger Turk had hauled himself up onto the port wing behind her, so there was nowhere for Daria to go but forward, toward the starboard wing.

She landed, knees bent, and hauled ass down the length of the wing, which sprang under her weight like a pirate ship’s plank.

Behind her, Ismael Kavlek leaped—not over the hole in the fuselage but through it, head first, into the aircraft, landing in a somersault, springing to his feet, shoulder slamming open the flight-deck door. He was running perpendicular to Daria now.

The windshield was long gone. Ismael hit the pilot’s seat with one boot, threw himself forward, out through the missing windshield, his right hand snapping onto a still-firm support post. His grip, plus his momentum, spun him clockwise. He let go in midair and landed deftly outside the aircraft, on the starboard wing.

Damn it! Daria gritted her teeth.

She dove off the end of the wing, using it like a springboard, and hit the ground. Ahead of her lay an aged, gray barrel of an obstacle: the remains of a Rolls-Royce Deutschland turbofan engine.

She could sprint around it, but that would take time. Daria sprang forward in a headfirst dive, hitting the top of the hot metal with both gloved hands, tucking her bent legs tight against her abdomen, and leapfrogged over it.

The Airbus now was five meters away.

Daria caught blurs of movement from the dumping ground’s flag, from the squat African palm trees, from the sagebrush hillsides. Her mind shut out the irrelevant and reached for the stunted forward landing gear of the A-320 and climbed like a monkey through sharp, rusty holes up into the underbelly storage section of the airliner.

It was filthy inside, and rats scampered away from this strange, sweat-drenched alley cat.

Daria duck walked as fast as she could, forward to a service hatch. She used her legs for strength, shoulder to the hatch, and heaved it open.

Ismael Kavlek appeared behind her, through the landing-gear opening.

Daria hauled herself up into the single-aisle fuselage of the airliner, near the nose one. The passenger section gave her almost 150 meters of straight running space, and she dashed aft, leaping over debris where she could. She had spotted a blown-out starboard window, back near the bathrooms.

She heard Ismael’s boots behind her and, simultaneously, Mehmet’s boots thumped against the roof of the fuselage, over her head.

Daria dove headfirst through the smashed-open window.

Beneath her lay long weeds and rusty, razor-sharp bits of iron. She twisted in midair, landed on one shoulder, the banged-up rib punishing her. She rolled and was up again, as the bigger Turk jumped from atop the plane onto the tail, and from there to the ground.

He landed badly, skidding on his side into the weeds.

Daria caught sight of a Bell helicopter, a bubble-domed dragonfly, Korean War era. She angled for it. She heard Ismael mimic her mad dive through the starboard window and land right where she had.

Mehmet was on his feet, but huffing, and now it was a straightaway foot chase. The longer she could draw this out, the better.

The tail of the Bell was an open-air scaffolding affair, and Daria reached for it like it was a playground monkey bar, swinging beneath it, letting go, arcing five meters in the air, and landing on her feet, running, gasping for air.

The big Mehmet ducked and ran under the tail.

The lighter Ismael grabbed it with one hand and catapulted over it.

She hadn’t gained a half second on them.

Daria reached a corridor between two gutted fuselages. She attempted a difficult, full-speed, right-angle turn, caroming off one of the aluminum frames, running full tilt, until her left leg simply gave out, her knee buckling in the turn.

She landed clumsily, face-first in the dirt, her chest taking the brunt of the impact, a mouth full of caked dirt. She tried to stop her momentum, but that only resulted in a tumbling roll that landed her, crumpled, against the gutted fuselage.

Ismael Kavlek rounded the corner but, unlike Daria, didn’t try the right-angle turn. He leaped like a dancer, hit the fuselage with his boots, and ran two steps along the wall, literally running sideways parallel with the earth, his momentum defying gravity, until he pivoted in midair and landed, knees bent, in front of her.

Daria sat up against the curved aluminum, unable to catch her breath, chest on fire, now bleeding from her right cheek.

Mehmet Kavlek rounded the corner and, unlike either of them, simply let himself hit the fuselage with his shoulder, bleeding off his momentum. He was moving at only a jog as he reached his brother’s side.

Daria squinted up into the white haze at the two men who loomed above her. She realized her hand rested next to a rusted spanner.

Ismael Kavlek grinned down at her. “Did you think—?”

The three of them were so intent on each other that the man in the cowboy hat and dusty boots seemed to appear as if by a conjurer’s trick. One second later the butt of a sturdy Colt Python thudded into Mehmet Kavlek’s temple and he dropped.

The quiet man turned the gun on Ismael, whose eyes bulged.

Daria grabbed the spanner and grunted, throwing it with her waning strength. It slammed into the raised arm of the newcomer, his aim shifting 10 degrees, and the .45 boomed, the bullet missing Ismael by inches, the sound deafening, echoing and reechoing back at them through the jungle of metal skeletons.

MercifulGodWhatInHell…” Ismael yelped in Turkish.

Daria sprang to her feet, hoping to fake any remaining strength. Once up, she peered up into the ragged face of the newcomer.

“What th— You!”

The quiet man looked at her. If his arm hurt from being hit by a wrench, he didn’t show it.

“Diego?”

Mehmet, on the ground, groaned.

The flat-planed face took in the three people. He turned back to Daria and nodded.

Daria huffed for air. One hand stole to the badly bruised rib under her left arm. “What—the hell—are you doing?!”

“Saving you.”

She began to see red. “Saving me? Sav—” She ground her teeth. “Diego, you idiot! You almost killed this man!”

The quiet man mulled that for a second. He still hadn’t lowered his Colt. “Yeah.”

Daria wiped sweat from her eyes, tried to calm her beating heart. “Put away the gun. Do it now.”

He did.

“I’m going to ask you again: What are you doing here?”

The man called Diego said, “I’m here to hire you.”

 

Two

Belgrade, Serbia

Dragan Petrovic had three meetings slated before noon.

He was on a committee that was hammering out a trade deal with Hungary regarding winter wheat. He was meeting with two ministers from the Pristina region regarding assigning more border officers to the road crossings into Bosnia. And he was part of the team crafting a bid for a European wine expo. It was going to be one of those days in the marble halls of the Serbian Parliament.

But before Petrovic did any of it, even before he got a chance to polish his wing tips or tie his tie, he was called upon to resolve a crisis inside his three-story Tudor home.

His eldest daughter, Sofija, had her driver’s permit and wanted to drive to Novi Sad with her girlfriends. There were many things in Novi Sad to draw the attention of a gaggle of sixteen-year-old girls. All of them involved boys.

This, of course, led to an apocalyptic meltdown by Ana, the middle daughter, who suffered inequities the likes of which the writers of the Old Testament never imagined. The very idea of her sister driving to Novi Sad was a calamity of national importance. Then again, the same could be said of three events each day.

The youngest daughter, Ljubica, recently had discovered football. A ragamuffin with perpetually skinned knees and grass stains around her cherubic grin, she rarely spoke more than twenty words per day to her father. Which was fine by Dragan.

The member of Parliament did his level best to placate daughters number one and two, without countermanding his wife, Adrijana. He considered himself a decent father; certainly better than the abusive drunk he, himself, had run away from at the age of nine. He had found a surprising level of joy in helping to raise daughters. It was like gardening: he always assumed he’d hate it until he actually tried it.

Adrijana helped with his tie and Dragan checked the contents of his ubiquitous attaché case. He had everything he’d need for the day. His wife—lovely and lithe at forty—cast a critical eye over his suit and pronounced him acceptable for governing Serbia. As if any living soul could govern Serbia! They air-kissed at the door to their home.

Teodore, Dragan Petrovic’s driver-bodyguard, had the armored Escalade waiting in front of the house. One of Teodore’s soldiers would ride ahead on a motorcycle, eyes peeled for trouble.

Dragan sat in the back and read the London Times and Le Monde, translated on his iPad. Outside the smoked windows Belgrade looked dusty and dry, the citizens struggling to get started on another long, hot July day.

The SUV swung powerfully onto the bustling Kneza Milosa, wending deftly around the slower traffic. The neighborhood leading up to the Parliament building was embassy row.

Teodore took this route every morning. And, as every morning, Dragan Petrovic subconsciously looked up from his e-reader to observe the smashed edifice of the old Chinese Embassy as they passed by.

The building stood tall and devastated. Half of the building lay to the north of a side street, the other half to the south. No windows remained. The Americans had bombed the embassy in 1999. The rockets had landed at night. Five JDAM missiles, fired from the U.S. 509th bomber wing. Three missiles had landed on the north side of avenue Nemanjina, two on the south side.

The embassy was across the street from the Serbian Parliament building. The Americans had targeted a diplomatic building that was literally a stone’s throw from the heart of the people’s capitol. The affront had been unthinkable.

The Escalade glided past and Dragan kept his eyes locked on the devastation. He had been among the lawmakers who had lobbied, long and hard, not to tear down the lifeless hulk of a building. Better to leave it standing as a testament to the evil of America. Dragan Petrovic wanted to force his fellow lawmakers to drive past the shrine of Western aggression every single morning.

Most days, the Escalade slowed down to let the minister off in front of Parliament. But today Teodore followed orders and drove straight past the elegant building. The Kawasaki knew the new route and stayed ahead of them. First the motorcycle, then the SUV, turned into the entrance of a half-finished garage. An unmarked Crown Victoria sat in front, two men in civilian clothes and Ray-Bans, watching patiently.

The SUV glided into the inky black interior of the unfinished structure. One other car waited inside: an unremarkable Audi sedan. Teodore parked the Escalade ten meters from the Audi, hauled on the hand brake, unclipped his seat belt, and slid out of the car. As he did, the driver’s-side door of the Audi opened. The sedan’s interior lights had been disabled.

A woman stepped out of the sedan. She wore her hair pulled tightly back in a chignon. She had chosen a midnight-blue trench coat, finely pressed trousers, and boots with tall heels.

She crossed to the Escalade, her heels echoing in the parking lot. Teodore held open the rear left-side door, and she climbed in to sit next to Dragan Petrovic.

Her hair was so shockingly blond as to be nearly white. Her eyes were a silver blue, the lightest color eyes he had ever seen. And when she smiled, she seemed to light up the interior of the car.

Dragan straightened his cuffs.

“Minister.” He noted that she spoke Serbian with an urban, Beograd accent.

He smiled stiffly. “Major Arcana.”

The blonde nodded and continued to smile.

“Some would find your nom de guerre in poor taste,” Dragan informed her. “I knew the real Arcan. I fought with him in Bosnia and Kosovo. He was a great man; a great military leader.”

“Yes,” the tall woman nodded. Dragan had difficulty placing her age. Late twenties? Early forties? “He also was a bank robber and a car thief and a thug. But some men rise to match the times, yes?”

Dragan ignored the dig against his long-dead friend and fellow freedom fighter. He willed himself to remain calm.

“Can you deliver?” he abruptly asked the smiling blonde.

She nodded. Her hair was held tightly in place; not a strand bobbed as she nodded. Her silvery eyes locked onto his.

“You are sure?”

Again, she nodded. And smiled.

A small leather pouch rested on the floorboard at Dragan’s feet. He leaned forward now and retrieved the pouch. It was long and thin, twice the size of a number ten envelope. The flap was held down by a leather thong wrapped around a grommet.

He handed it over. The blonde took it, undid the string, pulled back the flap. She did not count the euros. She did not need to.

She resealed the bag.

“Thank you, Minister. You will hear back from me within three days.”

With that she opened the passenger door of the SUV and climbed out. She strode purposefully across the empty parking structure and got into her Audi.

The car sat, windows darkened, as Minister Dragan Petrovic and his military escort left the unfinished building.

Outside Florence, Italy

The two Serb soldiers had a pretty good idea how long Vince Guzman would stay unconscious after being hit by the Taser. Still, they followed that up with a tranquilizer shot.

They moved him to an abandoned warehouse in Quinto, near Aeroporto Amerigo Vespucci. It was well built and sturdy enough to keep out kids and transients. It also lay under the approach vector for the airport, so the sound of descending jets helped mask noises.

It was dusk, and the road outside the warehouse was little used. Guzman sat in a metal chair, wrists flex-cuffed to the straight arms, ankles to the legs. His head lolled, and he’d drooled on his T-shirt. Adhesive pads were pressed against the insides of both elbows and both knees. All four pads bulged around thin tubes.

The Serbs were called Kostic and Lazarevic. Both had seen military duty and the insides of Yugoslav prisons. Both knew their jobs exquisitely.

Guzman moaned and came around. He raised his head and hissed painfully at the crick in his neck, which came from his head hanging loose for almost two hours.

The senior soldier, Kostic, had brought a thick, hardback Serb–English dictionary. It wasn’t a simple tourist’s dictionary; the conversation he was anticipating needed a broader range of words.

Kostic spoke in English. “Hallo.”

“Hey. Hey!” Guzman jostled his beefy arms, straining against the white plastic cuffs. He peered around, teary eyes trying to focus on the warehouse, the metal chair, the brawny men in polo shirts. He really shook the chair now, putting his weight into it. The metal legs scraped on the rough cement floor, the sound echoing.

“The fuck is this! Hey!”

Kostic said, again, “Hallo.”

Lazarevic said nothing.

Guzman struggled. “Get this fucking shit off me!”

Kostic ignored him. “You are hired. Are bodyguard. In Florence.”

“What? Hey, I don’t know what you guys are talking about. Get me the fuck outta this and let’s talk. All right?”

Kostic said, “We do not have much time. Time is very bad.”

“Time is bad? My time is bad, motherfucker! Let me up!”

Kostic said, “You enjoy American movies? Bruce Willis. Sylvester Stallone.”

Guzman shot glares from one to the other.

“Action,” Kostic said, then made a gun of his finger. “Bang bang.”

“The fuck are you talking about?”

Lazarevic, his biceps and mustache bulging equally, stood with arms crossed and said nothing. Kostic said, “The hero is running, running. Always. Bad guys fire bullets. But they don’t hit him. They hit walls, they hit street. Not Bruce Willis.”

Lazarevic, unspeaking, uncrossed his arms and touched each of his elbows with his opposite hand.

Guzman didn’t know the Serbian word for elbow but understood. He glanced down and noticed the square, white adhesive bandages on the insides of both elbows. Similar pads were adhered to the insides of both knees. Those plasters were adhered to his jeans, not to his skin. He blinked at the completely unfamiliar things.

“What the hell…?”

Kostic was leaning against a metal worktable. He twisted at the waist and picked up something that looked, from Guzman’s angle, like a multioutlet power strip. Wires and shiny silver tape dangled from it.

“You have interrogation before, we think. You are tough guy. It goes: You don’t talk. We beat you. You don’t talk. We beat you. Tonight, tomorrow, next day. Yes? You tell us what we need to know.”

“Look, you bastard! I don’t know—”

Kostic rode over him. “Hero in movies. Bruce Willis? Is not dodging bullets. There are no bullets.” He waggled the long, narrow electric device in his right hand. He changed its angle. Guzman could see it was a cobbled together remote control with four toggle switches and a battery pack. “Are…”

He frowned, turned to Lazarevic. Lazarevic picked up the hardback dictionary. They had marked a page with a nude torn out of a girlie magazine.

The silent Lazarevic showed him the word.

Kostic said, “Squib. Yes. Small bomb. Very small. Goes boom in movie, it looks like bullet hits wall.”

Guzman didn’t have to act confused. “What?”

Kostic held the remote in his right hand and casually used his thumbnail to flip one of the toggles.

The small explosive squib adhered to Vince Guzman’s left elbow exploded.

The small charge—the size, shape, and color of a cinnamon stick—smashed the elbow, sending bone chips up into Guzman’s arm. The explosive, plus the bone chips, combined to shred Guzman’s collateral ligaments.

In the blink of an eye, his left elbow became a permanently crippled bag of blood and sinew and floating bone fragments. The sleeve of skin, mostly unruptured by the directed explosive, acted like a sausage casing, holding his lower arm connected to his body.

Vince Guzman screamed. He flailed as best a bound man can, the chair shaking, metal legs beating a random tattoo on the cement. Every long muscle in his body went rigid. His head snapped backward and forward quickly, as if he were listening to a thrash-metal band.

He screamed until he puked, then screamed some more.

Kostic and Lazarevic watched. Kostic held the remote with the remaining three toggles. He didn’t believe he would need to flip them.

* * *

Six minutes later, Vince Guzman sat quietly, head down, shirt stained with vomit and sweat, his trousers soiled, his left arm a soggy, seeping bag of morbid flesh. His bloodshot eyes locked onto the unfeeling mannequin’s arm and hand flex-cuffed to the chair.

“Diego,” he gasped, “… the job … Florence…”

Kostic nodded, pleased not to have wasted hours on an interrogation. “Diego. Is alone?”

A thick rope of drool and puke hung from Guzman’s lips. “In trouble, he’ll … go find Daria … always does…”

Kostic turned to his partner and translated. Lazarevic frowned. “Daria?” He went down on his haunches, attempting to make eye contact with Vince Guzman. Guzman just stared at the plastic-looking, gray-white hand cuffed to the chair. “Is woman? Daria? Is trouble?”

“Y-yeah … she’s all high and mighty but … yeah.” He sniveled snot. “She’s trouble.”

“Her name?”

“Gibron. Daria Gibron.”

Kostic stood straight. Vince Guzman, a lifelong tough guy, spat out a sob. His eyes never left the lifeless handlike thing attached to his arm.

Lazarevic drew a Russian-made .9 auto and waited for the next jetliner to roar overhead.

Sandpoint, Idaho

Todd Brevidge thought the three worst ideas of the past decade had to be: trading Jeremy Linn to the Houston Rockets, a Broadway musical based on the Spice Girls, and moving the Research and Development Division of American Citadel Technologies to Sandpoint Freaking Idaho. And not in that order.

Brevidge guided his Ferrari F430 through the streets of the sleepy town.

Todd Brevidge stood out, in his Hong Kong suits, seven-hundred-dollar Tom Ford shades, and his Ferrari, for which he’d paid extra to make sure the hot-hot red was the exact color of his favorite escort’s lingerie. At thirty he was considered a prime shaker and mover in the high-tech industry; in five years he’d be an elder statesman.

And here he was. In Idaho. The Siberia of the West.

Brevidge made nine hundred grand a year after stock options. He’d been with American Citadel since it was a three-room office suite behind an AM/PM Mini Mart in Modesto. Since before the four international buyouts. He’d been loyal from the start. For which he’d been exiled to this gulag of country music and Big Gulps and mud flaps.

Brevidge roared into the five-space parking lot, the Ferrari purring, and climbed out.

He understood moving research and development away from Silicon Valley, away from the prying eyes of the competition and the high-tech media and the various federal government oversight agencies. Special Projects was on the verge of some incredible breakthroughs. Not the least of which were Mercutio and Hotspur. It was time American Citadel got to sit at the grown-up table, and Todd Brevidge had been instrumental in making that happen.

He walked into the entirely unassuming office with its entirely unassuming lobby. The only people present were the morning guard, who nodded his greeting, and the chief engineer for the Hotspur and Mercutio projects, Bryan Snow.

Snow looked, as usual, like a guy in costume playing Buddy Holly, with black plastic frames and a maroon cardigan and—literally—blue suede shoes. He wore jeans with the cuffs rolled up, and Brevidge wondered when that trend had reappeared.

Snow adjusted his retro glasses. “Good morning.”

“It will be,” Brevidge said, “if engineering holds up its end of things.”

Snow shrugged and smiled sheepishly. “We will.”

Brevidge glanced around, then stepped to the elevator. He hit the retrieval button. Above the elevator, only three floors were marked. Brevidge checked his watch and waited. The elevator dinged open. Snow stood with his fingers sheathed in the rear pockets of his jeans.

“You guys have no idea what’s at stake.” Brevidge appeared to be addressing the digital readout of floors on the panel over the elevator door.

“I think we do,” Bryan Snow replied softly.

Brevidge spat out a mirthless laugh and adjusted the Bluetooth earpiece he wore at all hours, even when he wasn’t taking calls. He stepped into the elevator and Snow followed. The controls inside included three large, round plastic buttons, beside three numbers, 1, 2, and 3. Next to the 1 was a star, which denoted the lobby. Brevidge didn’t hit any of the number buttons. Instead he pressed the knuckle of his forefinger against the star. He applied pressure.

After a second’s delay, the star depressed.

The door slid closed and the elevator descended to a basement that was not represented on the elevator controls, on the building schematics, or in the blueprints on file at the Sandpoint Fire Department.

“This demo is make or break, man.” Brevidge shook his head ruefully. “I mean it. Make or fucking break. No third option. Besides the buyers, do you know we’ve got brass here?”

Snow toed the floor of the elevator, as if trying to draw a line in the sand. “Yes.”

“You know that? You know we’ve got actual management in the building today? Really, Bryan? See, I don’t think you did know that. I don’t think you’re cleared to know that the guys who sign the paychecks are actually here in—”

The door hissed open and revealed the gaunt and spectral form of Cyrus Acton. Of the American Citadel board of directors.

Snow looked down at his suede bucks and cleared his throat. “Todd, you know Mr. Acton? He got here about an hour ago.”

Cyrus Acton was pale and bald and appeared to have been manufactured by the process of stretching human skin over chicken wire. He wore a somber suit, a plain black tie on a plain white shirt. No Bluetooth for him.

He said, “Todd.” His voice had been bled of all emotion. “Good morning.”

“Mr. Acton.” Todd ginned up a grin. He couldn’t believe that geek Snow hadn’t warned him! Asshole! “Good to see you, sir! Your flight was okay?”

Mr. Acton nodded. The overhead lights glinted on his liver-spotted pate.

“Outstanding, sir. Well, we’re ready for the demonstration.”

“You’re sure?”

Brevidge grinned. “Oh, hell yes, sir. I was just telling Snow here, we’re absolutely gonna knock their socks off. The minute the buyers get here, have we got a show for them!”

“They are not,” Mr. Acton intoned.

“Ah … not … here?”

“Buyers,” Mr. Acton said. “They are not yet buyers, Todd. They have examined the merchandise. They have weighed their options. And they have chosen not to invest in the American Citadel product. They continue to cite these utterly outrageous sanctions from the State Department.” Mr. Acton looked like the word sanctions tasted chalky.

“Ah. Right. Of course.”

“The people who sanctioned our company are the kind that have kept America weak,” Cyrus Acton continued. “They would put onerous regulations ahead of American jobs. It’s our responsibility to convince our guests to look beyond the sanctions.”

Brevidge beamed. Convincing people to do otherwise was as good a description of the art of the sell as any he’d ever heard. And when it came to that, Todd Brevidge was the Beatles of sales.

“When they see what we can do, they’ll change their minds. Guaranteed!”

Mr. Acton smiled. His face was long, his cheekbones prominent, his chin pointed. “Guaranteed?”

Todd felt his underarms begin to perspire. “Absolutely. Positively. Completely.”

Mr. Acton smiled. “That’s what we in management like about you, Todd. We appreciate your uncompromising faith in the product.”

Brevidge grinned and shot the engineer, Snow, a look. “Then give me twenty-four hours, sir. And I think I can make wholehearted believers out of the buyers. You could stake your life on it, sir!”

Mr. Acton smiled. He patted the young salesman on the shoulder.

“Oh gosh, no, Todd.” He laughed. “We’ll stake yours.”

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Dana Haynes spent more than twenty years as a journalist and editor at several newspapers in Oregon before working as the Public Affairs Manager for Portland Community College. He is the author of the acclaimed thrillers Crashers, Breaking Point, Ice Cold Kill, and Gun Metal Heart. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the communications director for the city’s mayor.

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