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!
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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 that Atwah would have slept in was empty and the lack of personal effects was glaring. It 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. They were surrounded by CCTV cameras. There was no way to force an entry. To even get into Belmarsh prison there were fifteen gated doors and a fingerprint check. Then, to be allowed inside the 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 that Atwah could have escaped. And yet he had.
Nate slowly entered the cell, looking for anything irregular. Everything was in its place. There was no dust. The bed, that was little more than a cot, was neatly made. He checked under the mattress. Nothing. Not a picture or a piece of paper. Yet, 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. A four? Maybe two ones?
Nate pulled the bed over to the center of the room and crouched down to take a closer look. The numbers were a rusty brown and the last one was smudged. Were they written in blood?
“What did you find?"
The woman’s voice surprised him and Nate had to steel himself from reacting. He slowly turned and faced the blonde who was staring at him expectantly. He’d obviously taken too long to answer her question.
With a little huff of annoyance, she brushed by him without a glance and squatted down in the spot Nate had been moments ago. Her air of authority, the tight no-nonsense bun on top of her head, and tactical pants easily marked her as someone in the intelligence or military community. But her slight accent and obvious irritation at his lack of response reminded him of his Aunt Sue— only in combat boots. He raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. That was the one thing he’d learned from Aunt Sue— if you don’t know what to say, just listen.
She wasn’t talking, however, merely looking at the numbers on Atwah’s wall as though they’d switch positions if she looked away.
He decided to go the professional courtesy route and introduce himself. “I'm Nate Hughes, with Griffin Force. And you are?”
She didn’t answer him. Instead, she stood and walked over to the desk. After inspecting each corner and underneath it, she pulled it away from the wall and examined every inch behind it. By the frown on her face when she finally faced him, he knew she hadn’t found anything.
“I'm Abby.” She gave him a once-over, but the frown remained on her face. “Do you have any thoughts on what 411 means?"
She hadn’t said what organization she was with, and he couldn’t see any markings on her visitor’s badge, but Nate let it go. They were all on the same side. “Could be a lot of things. Maybe he picked up some American slang and was looking for information. Maybe it’s a date. Maybe it’s how many days he'd been at Belmarsh.”
Abby immediately shook her head. “No, he’d been here for 389 days.” She’d said that fast and confidently, as if she was 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.
“Like you said, it could be a lot of things." She brushed her hands together and started for the door.
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 I don’t need an escort.”
“Consider me a fellow investigator then. Do I detect a little southern accent? My gram is from Charleston.” The longer he’d listened, the more he’d bet good money 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 moved to Toronto. I grew up there.” They walked down the short hall, the fluorescent lights above them casting a yellow 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. Even their conversation had been short and to the point. She was a 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 briefly looked him in the eye. “You surprised me, and that doesn’t happen often, either.”
Nate watched her enter the exercise yard. She’d surprised him, too. Now he really wanted to know who she worked for now and regretted not pressing her earlier. But she didn’t give him the chance to remedy that and immediately began to walk the perimeter, looking up at the metal mesh that covered the roof. He quickly caught up and a guard from the prison joined them.
“Was Atwah in solitary or was he allowed any associations?” Abby asked the guard, 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 were something 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 roof, 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?” 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. There was something about his eyes. They were so empty and dark. Like he was looking right through you.” The guard shook his head. “He talked a lot 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, it 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 on his unit if his crimes bothered you?”
“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 then?” Abby tilted her head and watched the guard closely. Even Nate leaned in.
“I don’t think there are 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? It doesn’t seem possible without help.” Abby said the words softly, as if she was tiptoeing through a minefield and didn’t want to speak loud enough to set anything off.
But Nate was standing close enough that he could feel the 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 nervous.
“I’m sure I don’t know.” 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 a finger. “You were looking forward to him being gone from here, in fact. And you think he’s escaped, not merely hiding.” Another finger went up.
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. “I just wanted to help the investigation.”
“What’s your name?” Abby asked quietly, but her tone was firm. 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’ve done nothing wrong.”
“I’ll make a note of that, Officer Pillings.” Abby stepped forward and Pillings got out of her way and didn’t bother following her.
Nate, however, matched her stride, wishing he could read her mind. “What are you thinking?”
Abby glanced at him. “Atwah is a ghost. It took years to capture him because he never leaves behind a trace of himself. Those numbers aren’t just a coincidence. Atwah wanted us to find them.”
“Do you really think Officer Pillings is involved?” Nate watched the guard stare at them from the doorway. He clearly wasn’t pleased with Abby’s insinuations.
“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 using a helo, and failed. Three days later Atwah vanishes from one of the highest security prisons in the world. He had to have inside help.”
“Maybe 411 is a code of some sort. Initials, perhaps.” But that didn’t sit right with Nate, either. “It was written in blood and since he was in isolation, it was his own. I would think that makes it more significant.”
Abby looked him full in the face and her eyes held a grudging respect. “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. Nate knew the other prisoner that had been housed here was moved the moment Atwah was found missing. Just two prisoners in the entire wing and one was gone. It was hard to fathom, though he’d seen the emptiness 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 Porter’s people?” Colt asked.
Porter was the CIA station chief 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. It was almost imperceptible, but Nate was watching her so close he noticed. Did she not like her boss?
“Porter’s a good man to work for.” Colt didn’t wait 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?”
“We found 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 further down another hall, with Harry Barton, the new Chief at MI6 right in the middle of it. They were all looking at a device in Harry’s hand and a collective gasp arose from the crowd. Abby, Nate, and Colt looked at each other, then walked toward them.
Harry spotted them and disengaged from the crowd to meet them halfway. “We’ve just got word there have been four attacks.” He was breathless, as if he’d been running, but the look 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 the details. Now. He didn’t want to wait for Harry to give him a sanitized version or leave out any facts that MI6 wasn’t making public yet. He reached for his cell phone, but remembered they’d all been required to give them to security. “Where?”
For a second Harry’s fists clenched and his face belied his emotion. He looked stricken. “Suicide bombers. In the subway systems. London, Paris, New York, and Istanbul.” Harry’s eyes were bleak as he met Nate’s. “It’s bad. Dozens 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. On four of the countries that allied to fight against ISIS.” Nate’s pulse started to pound. The possible meaning for the bloody numbers in Atwah’s cell came to mind. 411. What if these four were the first wave and there could still could be two more coming? Bigger ones. Much bigger, if Atwah were really involved. He looked at Abby. “Were you thinking this was why Atwah left those numbers behind?”
Anger and sadness flitted across Abby’s face before she was able to draw that 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 happens.”
“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 left us a clue as to what is coming. I’ll let Nate fill you in.”
She motioned toward him before stepping away, but Nate caught her arm. “We figured out the numbers. Let’s keep working on this together. Porter won’t mind.” There was something about how driven she was that drew him to her. What was her stake in all this?
Colt looked between them and chimed in. “I can talk to Porter if you’d like, and we can start coordinating all our efforts. The more heads we can put together, the faster we can find Atwah.”
She gave Colt a polite smile. The first smile since Nate had met her, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “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 that were now demanding Harry’s attention.
Nate watched her go. She had to be intelligence. She 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. An opportunity that would probably never come.
Within seconds she’d disappeared as surely as Atwah had. He 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.