Bait Excerpt

Prologue

Something had gone awry. Christina could feel it in the air, in the looks Yuri gave her. She fought the impulse to clear her throat, gluing her palms to the desk and forcing her body to relax as Yuri searched her for weapons. Wires. Anything that didn’t belong. His hands slid under her shirt, across her ribs, and up to the base of her breasts.

“We came to terms yesterday, Yuri. What the hell’s changed?” Be aggressive, she chanted to herself. Impatient. “Bobby’s overseeing the shipment. I don’t have time to waste on shit like this. But you said you wanted me here, so I’m here.”

The warehouse swallowed her voice. It wasn’t more than fifteen hundred square feet, but it was packed with merchandise of all kinds. Yuri’s two bodyguards lounged nearby. She looked up at the ceiling as though striving for patience. In actuality, she searched the shadows for more armed men.

“Patience, Chris.”

She narrowed her eyes, but her heart sank. The way he said her name … he knew. Somehow he knew she was here undercover. How? The CIA had crafted solid covers for all of them. How had he made her?

“I want your merchandise,” she said, going for the bluff. Why the hell was Bobby so far from her? She needed him by her side, ready to back her play. “But there are other suppliers. Ones who won’t try to hit me up for more cash at the nth hour.”

Fedyenka came up through the central pathway and sauntered to the desk. His sagging, florid face looked yellow in the artificial lighting. A cockatoo rode on one heavy shoulder, wings half spread for balance. She recognized the parrot from their visit to the warehouse the previous day. It leaned forward to grab the chunk of papaya in Fedyenka’s thick fingers, then settled back and tore into the sweet treat. Bobby followed more slowly, flanked by the elder Osinov’s bodyguard, Stas Noskov, and another thug. Christina evened out her breathing. Don’t let on you know.

Did Bobby know they’d been made? Did he have a plan? She watched him, ready to follow his lead.

Bobby stabbed a finger at Fedyenka. “We made a deal. You can’t go back on it. That’s unprofessional, and I’ll make sure everyone knows it.”

Bobby Roberts had no sense of teamwork.

She cringed inwardly. Whoever had decided he should be in charge of this operation should be shot.

“I’m a simple man,” Fedyenka said. His double chin bobbed as he spoke. “Ten percent across the board. Delivery as promised.”

Bobby blustered. “A ten percent increase cuts our profit by half. What the fuck?”

Fedyenka’s voice grew hard. “Take it or leave it.”

“Fuck you. Let’s go, Chris.” Bobby turned, and she prepared to follow him. Did he, too, sense danger in the air, or was he bluffing, hoping the Osinovs would back down?

A pistol appeared in Yuri’s hand. “I don’t believe you’re going anywhere just yet.”

“It’s a funny thing,” Fedyenka said. “We’re cautious businessmen. So we asked around about you. Guess what we found? Nobody knows you. Bobby Hansen and Chris Barlow from Chicago. Specialized importers for specialized customers.”

“We’re still building our clientele,” she said. Damn it! Their cover stories had been carefully crafted. What had gone wrong?

Bobby edged away from the desk. Stas Noskov swung his Ruger to cover him.

“No.” Stas had a thick, guttural accent and virtually no English. Bobby understood well enough, though, and halted. Christina felt a wash of relief. Stas loved violence the way some men loved football. He’d’ve shot Bobby, simply for the pleasure of watching him bleed.

Yuri laughed. “Bet you can’t guess what we did find—.”

“Bobby Roberts of US Customs,” his older brother snapped, cutting him off. Fedyenka jerked his chin at Stas, who stepped to Bobby’s side and pressed the barrel of the Ruger to the base of his neck as he twisted his arm up behind his back. “And brand-new operative Christina Madison, joining us from the United States Central Intelligence Agency.”

“I’m told this is her very first field assignment,” Yuri added. “Good job, Chris. Christina.”

Fedyenka rolled his eyes toward Yuri. “Do you think I give two fucks about her experience? She’s about to become a corpse.”

She’d known this was a possibility. Undercover work was the most dangerous assignment a field officer could have. She’d asked—no, begged—her boss for this chance. For what? To prove what? Her eagerness was going to get Bobby and her both killed. She forced her body into stillness, though she couldn’t control her shivers.

Stas turned his dead fish eyes toward her and twitched the gun barrel, tacitly ordering her to join Bobby. Instead, she edged toward Yuri.

“Come here,” Stas growled, glaring at her.

In the half-second Stas took his attention from Bobby, the customs agent shoved him as hard as he could and raced down the central pathway, past the first rows of cages, disappearing into the dimness of the warehouse. Christina’s heart stuttered.

He’d left her.

Did he know of another way out?

At the same time as those two thoughts flashed through her mind, all four guards began firing at Bobby. The rounds pinged off the metal cages or bit deep into the wood of the crates.

Fedyenka ducked down behind the desk, cursing at his men. “Be careful of the merchandise!”

The shooting stopped. The noise level skyrocketed as the inhabitants of the cages began to shriek in protest.

Yuri hadn’t moved. For a precious few seconds, Christina and he looked at one another. The pistol in his hand trembled.

She launched herself at him. He stumbled back, waving the pistol at her, but his finger wasn’t on the trigger. She slammed one palm against his left shoulder, yanking on his right sleeve to force him around. Sliding an arm under his neck, she clamped the other onto the barrel of the pistol, immobilizing it.

“Let him go! Fucking let my brother go right fucking now,” Fedyenka screamed.

Heart thundering, she pulled Yuri back the way Bobby had run. He must have found another way out. Surely, he would be waiting for her outside?

Christina pressed close to Yuri, pulling him back and forth slightly to create a moving target. It would take an expert marksman and a steady hand to shoot her without harming Yuri.

“Put down your weapons,” she called. “Tell them to drop them. Or I’ll strangle Yuri.”

“And you’ll die.” Malevolence glittered in Fedyenka’s eyes. “Slowly. Painfully. Stas enjoys his work.”

“But your brother will be dead. Is that what you want?” She tightened her hold on Yuri’s neck.

Fedyenka waved his arms at the guards. “Shoot her!”

The Osinovs’ men raised their weapons, looking for a clear shot. She dragged her captive past the first row of cages. The racket had eased somewhat.

Stas sighted down his barrel. One look in his eyes told her he didn’t care whether or not he hit Yuri, as long as he nailed her. Her only chance was to get out of the warehouse and run. She backed up as quickly as she dared.

“Shoot the bitch now!”

Stas was the first to pull the trigger. A river of fire flashed across her upper arm. The shock of it robbed her of breath. She lost her hold on Yuri as she stumbled. He yanked himself free, turning to her with clenched fist raised. She didn’t hesitate as she ducked inside his guard, driving the heel of her palm up under his chin. His head rocked back. Two more strikes to his face, and she was able to snatch the pistol and reverse it, pointing it at him. He flinched. Three more shots rang out. Yuri jerked as a round caught him in the thigh.

“What the fuck!” he roared. “You shot me.”

Fedyenka grabbed Stas by the sleeve and yanked him around so they were face-to-face. “Yuri dies, you die, asshole.”

Stas shrugged. “She moved.”

“Shoot the bitch, or I shoot you.”

Christina grabbed Yuri’s sleeve and dragged him with her to the back of the warehouse. The guards followed but did not fire. The door appeared in front of her like a miracle. She wasted no time pushing it open, blinking a little in the harsh sunlight.

Bobby wasn’t there. Dammit! He really had run and left her behind to die. She didn’t want to believe it, but the evidence was there in his absence.

Rather than waste time cursing, she released Yuri. No clever quip or pithy saying popped into her head, so she simply aimed the pistol at him until she was twenty feet away, then turned and ran for her life.


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