Tuesday, October 2, 2018

First Chapter of My New Romantic Suspense Second Look!

I cannot wait to share this story with you all next month! Here's the first chapter to give you a little peek at what's happening in Nate's life and what Griffin Force is up to!

Second Look

Chapter One
All Rights Reserved
Copyrighted Material

Nate Hughes stared into the six-foot-wide and ten-foot-long prison cell that had once housed Mahmoud Atwah. The yellowish paint on the walls had chipped away in places, and the tiny window covered in metal mesh didn't provide enough sunlight to even make shadows on the floor. One corner held a plastic desk, the other a metal toilet. The bed Atwah would have slept in was empty, and the lack of personal effects was glaring. The cell looked like it had been cleaned and was ready for its next occupant, but Atwah should have still been inside. He’d once been dubbed “The Ghost” and he'd used his skill to disappear.

But how had he done it?

Nate looked down the hall. Every inch of the prison seemed surrounded by CCTV cameras. No one could force an entry. To even get into Belmarsh prison there were fifteen gated doors and a fingerprint check. Then, to be allowed inside this high-security unit where Atwah had been held, every person, including the guards, was subjected to a metal detector and body search, another gated door, and then facial recognition. There was no way Atwah could have escaped. And yet he had.

Nate slowly entered the cell, looking for anything irregular. As sparsely furnished as it was, everything was in its place. There was no dust. The bed, which was little more than a cot, was neatly made. He checked under the mattress. Nothing. Not a picture or a scrap of paper. Since a chair wasn't provided, this bed had been where Atwah had spent the majority of his time.

Pulling the cot partially away from the wall, Nate noticed a small, discolored spot in the corner, just below where Atwah's head would have been if he’d had a pillow. On closer inspection, Nate could see the spot was actually three small numbers about a half an inch in height. Was that a four? Then maybe two ones?

Nate pulled the bed to the center of the room and crouched down by the wall to take a closer look. The numbers were a rusty brown, and the last one was smudged. Were they written in blood?

“Find something interesting?"

The woman’s voice cut through the quiet and jolted him out of his musing. He steeled himself from visibly reacting and instead calmly stood and turned to face her. She had taken a step inside the cell, and was watching him expectantly.

“Is there some code of silence no one told me about?” she finally said, as she brushed by him with a little huff of what sounded like repressed laughter.

Nate drew his brows together and watched her squat down in the spot he had moments ago. Her relaxed, but obvious, air of authority, the tight, no-nonsense bun on top of her head, and basic black tactical pants easily marked her as someone in the intelligence or military community. But her slight southern accent and straightforward manner reminded him of his Aunt Sue. She was also a very direct woman— only Aunt Sue wouldn’t look as good in combat boots.

He watched as the woman frowned and bent closer to the wall. Was there something wrong? He didn’t voice his question. Not yet. Even though she’d joked about his silence, sometimes it helped collect information because the focus was less on talking and more on observation. And Aunt Sue always said, if you don’t know what to say, just listen.

But she wasn’t talking anymore either, merely looking at the numbers on Atwah’s wall as though they’d switch positions if she looked away.

It was time to speak up. “I don’t think you understand the rules of the quiet game,” he said, closing the distance between them. “But since you’ve already lost, I’ll go ahead and introduce myself. I'm Nate Hughes, with Griffin Force. And you are?”

“I think the rules give you one pass when you walk into a game without knowing, so wouldn’t that make me the winner?” She straightened and walked over to the desk. After inspecting each corner and underneath it, she easily pulled the small piece of furniture away from the wall and examined every inch behind it. By the deepening frown on her face when she finally faced him, he knew she hadn’t found anything.

“No, the only rule is sneezing doesn’t count. So I’m still the reigning champion as far as you know.” He smiled and held out his hand expectantly. “Like I said, I’m Nate.”

“Abby.” She shook his hand and gave him a quick once-over and a smile. “Forgive me for not realizing I was in the presence of quiet-game royalty.” She motioned toward the numbers on the wall. “Since you’ve had a bit more time to contemplate the evidence, do you have any thoughts on what 411 means?" she asked, folding her arms and leaning her hip against the desk.

He liked her. She had the military edge, but balanced it with easygoing charm. Not many intelligence officers could pull that off. “Could be a lot of things. Maybe Atwah picked up some American slang and was looking for information. Maybe it’s a date or how many days he'd been at Belmarsh.”

Abby immediately shook her head. “No, he’d been here for 389 days.” She said it fast and confidently, as if she were the front row teacher’s pet answering a question.

“What do you think the number stands for, then?” Nate narrowed his gaze, trying to get a read on her. She wasn’t giving anything away in body language or facial expression.

Definitely in intelligence, he thought.

She didn’t answer immediately, and he could feel her pulling away. “Like you said, it could mean a lot of things." She brushed her hands together and started for the door, putting distance between them.

What had happened? Had he said something?

Nate matched her pace. “Where are we going next?”

Abby didn’t slow down or meet his eye as she left the cell. “I’m going to the exercise yard. And don’t feel like you have to escort me. I can find my way.”

“I don’t mind. I was headed there myself.” He didn’t want to let the easy rapport they’d had from the beginning slip away. And she might have a fresh perspective on the case. “As a fellow investigator, I have to ask, is that a Southern accent I detect? My gram is from Charleston.” The longer he’d listened, the more he’d bet good money that Abby was from the Southern United States. Her accent was faint, but still there.

“My, my, aren't you a curious one?” Abby gave him a speculative glance. “Where are you from, Nate? Are you a Charleston native, as well?”

“No. My mom was from South Carolina, but she married a Canadian, and they settled in Toronto. I grew up there.” They walked down the short hall, the fluorescent lights above them casting a glaring white glow over the floors and walls.

She gave him a decisive nod, as if a puzzle piece had clicked into place. “That makes more sense.”

“What makes sense?” Nate asked. She hadn’t slowed down at all and walked with a purpose while keeping their conversation short and to the point. She was a practical woman on a mission, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

“Your polite introduction. I don’t get that a lot in this business.” She looked him in the eye, and her smile was back, albeit a brief one. “You surprised me, and that doesn’t happen often, either.”

Nate’s pulse sped up a bit. He liked the way she looked at him, as if she’d seen his potential and believed he could live up to it. He’d love to surprise her again just to see that look one more time, but Abby had quickened her pace after her comment. Did she feel awkward about her straightforwardness?

Nate lengthened his stride until his steps matched hers again. She’d surprised him, too. Now he really wanted to know who she worked for and regretted not pressing her about that earlier. But when they got to the exercise yard, she didn’t give him the chance to remedy that. Abby immediately began to walk the perimeter, looking up at the metal mesh that covered what served as the roof. He stayed at her side, and a guard from the prison joined them.

She acknowledged the guard with a nod. “Was Atwah in solitary or was he allowed any associations?” Abby asked him, keeping her tone casual while she scrutinized the mesh roof as if it held the secrets to the case.

“He’d been in the segregation unit for a week, but before that, he was categorized as ‘exceptional risk’ and not allowed to mix with anyone but guards.” The man grimaced, as if that had been distasteful. “In segregation, though, he’d get twenty-three hours in his cell and one hour in the yard to walk around, and he wasn’t pleased. We were all breathing a sigh of relief that he was going to be transferred to the specialized isolation unit in Frankland Prison.” The guard followed Abby’s gaze to the mesh, his brows drawn together as if trying to figure out what she was looking at.

“Why were you looking forward to his transfer? Were there problems guarding him?” Abby glanced over at him briefly before moving to the nearest wall and looking it up and down.

The guard shifted nervously. “We see a lot of prisoners here, and we’re trained to spot manipulation and conditioning. But Atwah didn’t even have to speak to give you the feeling that he’d kill you and your family if he had the chance. There was something about his eyes. They were so empty and dark. Like he was looking right through you.” The guard shook his head. “When he did talk, it was always about how it felt to be part of a greater good. That joining the fight against the Great Satan was an honor and a privilege. I let all that roll off my back, but when he started describing how some women and children had been maimed during his attacks, and it was a mercy to kill them, he got to me.” He hung his head. “No training prepares you for that.”

Abby turned her complete attention to him. “Why did you continue to work in his unit if his crimes bothered you? You could have asked for a transfer.”

“The pay is higher here,” he admitted. “I handled him all right, but reading about his crimes is different than being in the same room listening to him gloating about them.” The guard faced her, blocking her path so she couldn’t move away. “But no matter how I felt, if there’s anything I can do to help recapture him, I will.”

“You think he’s escaped from the entire complex, then?” Abby tilted her head and watched the guard closely. Even Nate leaned in to hear his answer.

“He can’t still be here. There aren’t many places to hide at Belmarsh.” The guard shifted from foot to foot, but kept his eyes on Abby.

“How could someone just walk out of a high security prison? Even he couldn’t have done it without help.” Abby said the words softly, as if she were tiptoeing through a minefield and didn’t want to set anything off.

But Nate was standing close enough that he could feel tension radiating from Abby and knew she was trying to elicit a reaction from the guard. Nate watched the man for any movement. More often than not, someone’s body language would give away what they didn’t want to say. The guard shuffled his feet, subconsciously putting some distance between them. He definitely seemed more nervous with every question.

“I don’t know anyone that would help him.” The guard backed up a step, and Abby followed, closing the distance between them.

“The way he talked about his crimes bothered you, and you were glad to see him being transferred.” She held up two fingers and continued counting off her points. “You were looking forward to him being gone from here, in fact. And you’re sure he’s escaped from the complex, not merely hiding.” All five fingers on her hand accused him.

The guard’s eyes were wide now. “You don’t think I had anything to do with any of this, do you?” He backed up another step.

“What’s your name?” Abby asked quietly, but firmly. She wasn’t leaving without an answer.

“Grant Pillings.” He took a breath and pointed to his ID badge. “You can check my background. I don’t know anything about his escape.”

“We’ll make a note of that, Officer Pillings.” Nate stepped forward. “Make sure your supervisor knows where we can find you if we have any more questions.”

Pillings lips were pinched together in a frown, but he didn’t say anything more, only gave Nate a brief bob of his head.

Abby started back toward the entrance and Pillings quickly got out of her way. He didn’t bother following her.

Nate, however, matched her stride once more, wishing he could read her mind. “What are you thinking?”

Abby glanced at him. “Atwah never leaves evidence behind. He’s a ghost. It took years to capture him because he didn’t leave a trail.” She smoothed the sides of her hair back. The small breeze in the exercise yard had produced a few flyaways that were getting in her face. “Those numbers behind the bed aren’t just a coincidence. Atwah wanted us to find them.”

“Agreed.” Nate watched the guard stare at them from the doorway. He clearly wasn’t pleased with Abby’s insinuations. “Do you really think Officer Pillings is involved?”

“Everyone here is a suspect at the moment, wouldn’t you say?” She stopped at the far end of the exercise yard and looked up at the sky. “Nazer attempted to break him out of here using a helo, and failed. This is one of the highest security prisons in the world and three days after the escape attempt, Atwah vanishes. He had to have inside help. What have they found so far?”

“I haven’t gotten the latest updates, but the world’s best security and intelligence people are on it, so I’m sure they’ll figure it out.” He stood next to her and glanced up, but his eyes quickly returned to her. “Maybe 411 is a code of some sort. Initials, perhaps.” But that didn’t sit right with Nate. “The numbers look written in blood, and since he was in isolation, it was his own. I would think that makes the message more significant.”

Abby looked him full in the face, and her eyes lit with appreciation. “I agree.” She started walking back toward the entrance to the prison cells. “Now we just have to figure out what it does mean.”

They walked back toward Atwah’s cell, the halls empty and their footsteps echoing hollowly. The other prisoner who had been housed here was moved the moment Atwah was found missing. Just two prisoners in the entire wing and one had escaped. It was hard to fathom, though he’d seen the unoccupied cell with his own eyes.

When they neared the guard station at the far end of the hall, Colt Mitchell, the new head of the Griffin Force, strode toward them. He eyed Abby curiously, then stuck out his hand. “I’m Captain Mitchell.”

“Abby Caldwell,” she said as she gave him a firm handshake.

Nate quickly committed her last name to memory. She hadn’t given up very many details about herself, and he wanted to remember every last one.

“I haven’t heard an American accent for a while. Are you one of Rick Porter’s people?” Colt asked.

Porter was the CIA station chief here in London. Nate had only met him once, and all he could recall about the man was that he’d had brown hair and brown eyes. Nothing stood out. Which was probably good for a CIA guy.

Abby nodded, but the skin around her eyes tightened— almost imperceptibly, but Nate was watching her so close, he noticed. Did she not like working for Porter?

“Porter’s a good man to work for.” Colt hadn’t waited for her response, but Nate would have liked to hear if Abby had anything to say. Instead, Colt turned to Nate. “Did you find anything?”

“Three numbers written in blood on the wall of his cell. 411.” Nate gestured toward Abby. “We were just discussing what they could mean.”

Several heads of intelligence were clustered a little farther down another hall, with Harry Barton, the new Chief at MI6, right in the middle of it. They were all looking at video footage on an iPad in Harry’s hand, which was strange. No devices were to have been allowed inside the prison. But when a collective gasp rose from those watching, it was obvious something was happening. Abby, Nate, and Colt looked at each other, then walked toward the group.

Harry spotted them and disengaged from the crowd to meet them halfway. “We’re just getting confirmation of four attacks.” He was breathless, as if he’d been running, but the expression on his face was all business. Nate knew that look. When the news was bad, every intelligence officer had a blank go-to look.

“What kind of attacks?” Colt asked, stepping closer to Harry.

Nate wanted details. Now. He didn’t want to wait for Harry to give a sanitized version without facts that MI6 wasn’t making public yet. He reached for his cell phone, but remembered he’d been required to give it to security. “Where?”

For a second Harry’s fists clenched and his control cracked. He looked stricken. “Suicide bombers. In the subway systems of London, Paris, New York, and Istanbul.” Harry’s eyes were bleak as he met Nate’s. “It’s bad. Hundred of people killed or injured. And since they all took place within a few minutes of each other, we believe they were coordinated.”

“Four coordinated attacks. In four countries that allied to fight ISIS.” Nate’s pulse started to pound. Another possible meaning for the bloody numbers in Atwah’s cell came to mind. 411. What if these attacks were a first wave, and there were two more coming? Bigger ones. Much bigger, if Atwah were directly involved. He looked at Abby. “Four. One. One.”

Anger and sadness flitted across Abby’s face before she was able to draw a curtain over her emotions. “It’s likely.” She took a breath and let it out slow. “We’ve definitely got work to do if we’re going to find Atwah before the next attack.”

“What do you mean?” Harry asked. Several people were trying to get his attention, but he held up a hand.

Abby looked at Colt, then Nate. “Atwah may have left us a clue as to what is coming. I’ll let Nate fill you in.”

She gave him a little wave before starting to walk away. Nate didn’t want to see her go so he reached out to touch her arm as she passed. The moment he did, a frisson of awareness flared through him from the point of contact. He pulled his hand back, trying to remember what he’d been about to say.

“Hey, we figured out the numbers. Why don’t we keep working on this case together? Porter won’t mind.” There was something about her that he couldn’t let go, and he wanted to know more.

“Working together. You and me.” She drew the words out as if she’d never considered the idea.

“Well, and Griffin Force. We’re working pretty closely with MI6, the CIA, CSIS, pretty much all of the alphabet soups.” He smiled, but Abby wasn’t looking at him. Her hands were clenched, and when she finally tilted her head up, their eyes locked. For just a moment her emotional defenses were down, and Nate could see a mountain of pain in their depths. It shook him and while he wanted to draw her close, comfort her somehow, he couldn’t. Instead, he stepped back.

Colt looked between them before he chimed in. “I can talk to Porter if you’d like, and we can start coordinating our efforts. The more heads we put together, the faster we can find Atwah.”

She pivoted away from Nate, and he could almost hear the blank look every CIA case officer perfected click into place on her face like a protector on a screen. He was proven right when she offered Colt a polite, neutral smile.

“Thanks for the offer, but I won’t be able to accept. I’ll let you know if that changes or if I need any help, Captain.” Without even a backward glance she melted into the crowd of intelligence heads demanding Harry’s attention.

Nate watched her go. With that one small slip, he knew that smile and her emotional distance were only a cover, masking raw feelings just beneath the surface. Something about this case had really struck a chord in her, and Nate wanted to know why.

She had to be intelligence. Maybe something was going on that the CIA hadn’t shared. It was the only explanation he could think of at the moment. Abby hadn’t given away anything but the barest details about herself. She’d been thorough in searching Atwah’s last known locations and had even given a light interrogation to a guard. She had skills. And he wanted the opportunity to know more about her. But, if he was being honest, it was an opportunity that would probably never come.

Within seconds she’d disappeared as completely as Atwah had. Nate didn’t even see her blonde bun bobbing among the crowd. With an inward sigh, he turned his mind back to the mission at hand. Find Atwah and stop the attacks he’d obviously been planning from his cell. All 389 days he’d been there.

And Nate knew he didn’t have much time.

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