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St. Eldon’s Academy
And Sasha had seen the two bloody bodies of the security guards outside in the paddock when she’d released the horses a few minutes ago.
Her heart was beating hard as she ran back into the stable and down the long aisle toward the back stall. She dived into the shadowy dimness and pressed back against the wood, trying to catch her breath.
The screaming. She closed her eyes as terror and bewilderment washed over her. They must be hurting those girls, or they wouldn’t be screaming like that.
What else could she do to help? Sasha thought frantically. She’d tried to call the police but there was no signal. She’d even tried to reach Alisa on her satellite phone, hoping that even if a tower was down the satellite might somehow be working. Nothing. The attack had come out of nowhere and the school seemed to be entirely cut off.
And there was no telling when those men who had killed the security guards would decide to come into the stable.
Sasha crouched lower in the back stall where Thor had been quartered before she’d released him. A weapon. She should find some kind of weapon…
“Sasha?” Paul Boujois, the school’s head trainer, was ducking into the shadows of the stall beside her. His face was pale, and his voice was shaking. “I’d hoped you’d managed to get away yourself when you released the horses. It might be too late now.”
“I had to make sure the horses were heading toward the hills away from the all the gunfire. I’m responsible for them. But I need a weapon, Mr. Boujois. Do you have a weapon?”
He shook his head. “And what are you going to do with a weapon? We’re better off giving up as soon as they start pouring into this stable. They might let us live.”
“They killed the security guards. And those girls are still screaming outside.” She swallowed. “They’re all my friends and classmates. They might be killing them, too.”
He flinched. “I know.”
Then why wasn’t he doing something, she thought in frustration. She’d been working for the past four years as a volunteer at the school’s riding stable, and she respected Boujois’s expertise with the horses. She even liked him most of the time. But it was clear she was not going get any help from him in this situation. He was even more afraid than she was, and his solution was for her to bury her head and hide?
“I need a weapon,” she repeated, looking desperately around the stall. She saw a horseshoe in the far corner, grabbed it, and tore off her neck scarf. She twisted the horseshoe into the scarf, forming a makeshift sling. “Who are they? Do you know why they’re doing this?”
He shook his head. “I saw three trucks with machine guns mounted on them. The men are all wearing military camouflage fatigues. I’d guess it’s a raid on the school by some military guerrilla group who’ve heard there are fat pickings to be had here at St. Eldon’s with all you rich girls as students.”
“Ransom? Then maybe they’re not killing them. Maybe there’s some way we can save them.”
More shots. Someone was yelling outside the stable.
“Sasha. Let it go. Don’t fight them.” Boujois’s hands were shaking as he grabbed her shoulders. “You’ve done all you can. You’ve got to live through this.”
“You said she ran in here?” Cursing. A man’s strident voice as he strode into the stable and started down the aisle. “Find her, you asshole. If she got away, I’ll cut your throat, Baldwin.”
“I swear I caught a glimpse of her. She’s here somewhere.”
Run for the stable door. Take their attention away from this stall and give the trainer a chance. If Boujois was right about the ransom, she might be safe, but there was no way he would be.
She heard a shout as she dived past the two men walking toward her down the aisle. A tall, fair-haired man reached wildly out to grab her arm, but she swung her scarf at his head and heard him grunt with pain as the horseshoe struck his temple.
Just a few more feet and she’d reach the stable door—
She stumbled to her knees as the butt of the other man’s gun crashed against her temple. Then his hand was tangled painfully in her hair as he jerked her head up so that he could look into her eyes. Through the dizziness, she was only aware of brown, close-cut hair, dark skin, and savage anger. “You’re the one who released those horses?” he hissed. “Do you know how long it’s going to take my men to round them up and put them in horse trailers?”
“Too long,” she said hoarsely. “The police will be here by then and they’ll be safe. You won’t be able to hurt them.”
“The police won’t be here for more than an hour. I’ll be long gone by then.” He gave her a brutal backhand blow to her cheek. “I’ve taken down the cell tower.”
“I’ve found someone else, Masenak.” The fair-haired man she’d struck with the horseshoe was dragging Boujois out of the stall. “He’s wearing those same fancy English boots you wear sometimes. It’s probably that horse trainer you told me to look for. What do you want me to do with him?” Then he forgot about Boujois as he saw Sasha. “Can I have that bitch in my tent tonight?” His glare was venomous. “She needs to learn a few lessons from me before you give her to someone else.”
“We’ll talk about it later. She may be of use,” Masenak said absently as he looked down at Sasha. “We wouldn’t want to damage such a pretty little girl if she can help us get those horses back.” He let go of her hair, and his hand touched the nameplate on Sasha’s suede jacket. “I believe I’ve heard a few stories about you, Sasha Lawrence.” He turned to Boujois. “Is she really as good at training horses as the rumors have it?”
“She’s very good.”
“Better than good? What I’ve heard is she’s something of a horse whisperer. She can coax a horse to do almost anything for her?”
“I wouldn’t say that good. She’s only a student volunteer.” Sasha could tell he was searching desperately for what to say that would be safest for her. “I’ve always found her…efficient.”
“Let’s see how efficient.” He jerked Sasha to her feet. His face was suddenly only inches from her own, his eyes glittering. “I’ve no intention of hurting those horses. They all have excellent pedigrees. Which means they have enormous value for me. But there are dozens of young girls like you being put on those trucks out there who have very little value for me in comparison. So you will go with my friend Baldwin into the hills and you’ll capture every one of those horses you freed and place them into the horse trailers I brought. You’ll do it quickly and accurately because I will start killing those girls after the next thirty minutes. There were twelve horses. If you miss retrieving even one of those thoroughbreds, one of those sweet friends of yours will die because you weren’t efficient enough. Do you understand?”
He meant it. His lips were pulled back in a feral grimace, and she could see that he was enjoying every nuance of the terror she was feeling. “I might not be able to get all the horses back right away. I deliberately spooked them.”
“Then you’d best be better than Boujois was telling me. Because I don’t take excuses.” He looked at his watch. “Your thirty minutes starts now. Get her up in those hills, Baldwin.” He pushed Sasha toward the door. “You’d better hope the police don’t show up too soon or the carnage might have to start early. I’m looking forward to seeing you later, Sasha.”
“Don’t do this.” She was running toward the door in panic. “I’ll do whatever you say. Just don’t kill them. Give me time to get those horses back.”
“I’ll think about it.” Masenak chuckled. “But you should look on this as a challenge to prove your worth in case I decide not to be generous.” He paused. “On second thought, I really think you should be punished for causing me this much trouble.”
She stopped. She whirled to see Paul Boujois falling to the floor, his head blown off. Sickness. Shock. Horror.
“I do hope he was a good friend,” Masenak said softly. “Punishment should always be as thorough as possible.” He turned away. “Better hurry, Sasha. The clock is ticking.”
* * *
The dogs were barking!
Alisa Flynn froze on the top of the wall as the howls of the Doberman guard dogs broke the silence.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. She’d planned it all down to the last detail, even to keeping those dogs silent for the time she’d needed to break into the palace and reach Gabe Korgan’s study. She’d been told that the dogs had to be given just the right amount of sedation so that they’d be quiet but not appear to be sluggish or drugged. She couldn’t believe she’d screwed up that dosage.
The dogs had stopped barking. Their handlers had probably gone to check on them and found nothing suspicious. She might be okay.
Or she might not.
No sign of the sentries who usually patrolled the veranda area of the palace grounds at this time of night. But then they weren’t due to make their rounds for another fifteen minutes. She’d counted on that fifteen minutes to get in and out of Korgan’s study and back over the wall. But now she was sitting here trying to decide if that damn barking would cause those sentries to change their schedule.
And she couldn’t hesitate much longer or that brief window would disappear. Go for it? Or cancel and try again tomorrow night? She knew what she should do, what she’d been taught to do.
But that twenty-four hours could make a difference, and she didn’t know if she could live with that difference.
So screw it, she thought recklessly. Go for it anyway. Trust that all the preparations she’d made would hold and luck would be with her. That study was just off the veranda and she could be in and out in less than ten minutes. She was already lowering herself from the wall to the courtyard, her eyes on the veranda. After that, rely on the fact that she was very fast and could make it back here before the sentries reached the courtyard…
No sign of any guards yet.
The veranda was right ahead, the study dark. She’d waited for two hours after those lights had gone out before she’d climbed over the garden wall.
She ran up the veranda steps to the French doors and waved the RFID chip over the security panel’s illuminated face. The screen changed from blue to green.
So far, so good.
She keyed in a six-digit pass code, and after a pause that seemed like an eternity, the door unlocked. She pulled it open. No alarms, no blinking lights.
She was in.
She moved to the side of the door and disarmed the interior alarm with another swipe of the RFID chip.
She drew a deep breath and waited, listening.
Then she moved toward the desk where she’d seen Korgan working for the past three nights. She was right on schedule. Just another two minutes and she’d have it…
“Enough,” Korgan said impatiently from across the room. “Lights, Vogel.”
Lights illuminated the room.
Alisa whirled to the easy chair where Gabe Korgan had been sitting in darkness.
She recognized him at once. Why not? Those silver-blue eyes and intense features were familiar to most people in the world these days. And at the moment the bastard’s eyes were lit with interest, and he was smiling with satisfaction.
Busted! she thought, disgusted. Why shouldn’t he be smiling?
And the man he’d called Vogel was crossing the room toward her with a gun in his hand and a grim expression on his face. “Don’t move,” he said crisply. “Reach for a weapon and I’ll put you down.”
She was trying to smother her frustration and gather herself together. She might be able to get out of this, she just had to figure out how. She immediately lifted her hands. “I have no intention of resisting you, Vogel,” she said quietly. “I wouldn’t be that stupid. I’ve done my research and I realize how good you are and how loyal you are to Korgan. And I don’t have a weapon. Not that I don’t carry one on occasion, but I didn’t come here to shoot anyone, and I didn’t want Korgan to think I did. Search me.”
“I will.” His hands were already running over her quickly and thoroughly. He stepped back. “Clean, Korgan. Do you want me to call the local police or do you want to question her yourself?”
“Let’s not be in a hurry.” Korgan’s gaze was searching Alisa’s face. “So you didn’t want to shoot me, just rob me?” he asked mockingly. “How kind. Who the hell are you? And may I ask what you were after, and how you were able to get past my alarms? You were incredibly fast when you were disabling them. You shouldn’t have been able to do that at all, much less with that degree of speed.”
“I had a little help.” She looked him in the eye. “But that wouldn’t have done me any good if you’d had the new XV-17 alarms installed here at this palace instead of the older XV-10. That comes very close to being totally foolproof. The V-10 has been around long enough to be studied and breached if the technician is clever enough. I’m a very good technician.”
“Evidently.” His lips tightened. “But that doesn’t mean I like the idea of you using my own work against me.” He paused. “You would have needed an RFID chip to get past these panels. Did you steal one from one of my staff?”
“No, I didn’t need to. I cloned yours.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Now, how the hell did you manage to do that?”
“When you went to the airport the other day. I played the part of a maintenance worker in a lumpy, unflattering jumpsuit. I’m sure you didn’t even notice me.”
“I didn’t. Lumpy…I assume to hide an RFID reader?”
She nodded. “It’s very effective within six feet or so. I know it’s on your key ring, but you should really find a way to sheathe that thing. It’s a scary world out there.”
“Tell me about it. And how do you know about the XV-17? It’s still in beta testing. Are you into corporate espionage?”
“No, I don’t give a damn about your alarm systems right now. It’s you I’m interested in.”
“One of my favorite subjects.”
She stepped toward him. “No, it’s not. You try to keep everything about yourself out of the spotlight. But it’s pretty futile. Everyone knows you’re one of the greatest minds of this or any other age. An innovative genius who comes up with a miracle or two every couple years. Your upcoming subspace passenger jets are on the verge of revolutionizing the travel industry. Straight up into the upper stratosphere, then down to almost any place in the world. New York to Tokyo in sixty minutes.”
He shrugged. “It’s looking closer to seventy.”
“We’ll suffer through it. You won your Nobel prize with your fleet of solar-powered drones that plant, water, and fertilize crops, maybe solving the world hunger problem.”
“A fun side project.”
“Uh-huh. Like your virtual reality glasses that started as a toy but are now the industry standard for teleconferencing. Hearing aids that bring people back from almost total deafness. Self-driving cars that communicate with each other, reducing accidents to almost zero. Electro-stimulus techniques on the human nervous system that could someday wipe out Alzheimer’s.”
“I’ve had an enormous amount of help with that last one.”
“Barely a day goes by that I don’t see some article that compares you to da Vinci, Edison, or Einstein. I bet that really annoys you. Your design aesthetic is second to none. You designed your mountain-view headquarters in Colorado with the same care and creativity you bring to every one of your projects. And I saw your art exhibition in San Francisco. Breathtaking stuff. More side projects?”
“Just another creative outlet.”
“As if you needed one. But you can see I know enough about you to go after one of your other projects if I was a corporate spy. I’m sure your really important inventions are patented before they’re off your drawing board. You probably came up with the XV alarms when you were bored and needed something to amuse yourself.”
“Close.” He was silent, studying her. “Very perceptive. But I’m not sure I like you being that perceptive about me. It indicates you’ve been studying me, and that means you may have come up with answers that might prove uncomfortable for me.”
“Police?” Vogel asked again. “She’s smart and she almost got to you. You need to get rid of her.”
“Not yet. She hasn’t even told us her name.” Korgan smiled and turned to Alisa. “Vogel is always eager to protect me from people who might prove to be detrimental to my health. He’s particularly wary of very smart, beautiful women because they have more weapons than most. We’ve run across a good many scam artists in our time. Are you a scam artist?”
“No. I’m Alisa Flynn, and I’m a special operative with the CIA. I’m very honest for the most part. I was only trying to rob you of information, and I had no intention of using that information against you.” She shrugged. “Though I can see why you might be skeptical. You’re probably not at all trusting. You were a billionaire before you were twenty-five. Now that you’re in your late thirties, you must be close to Bill Gates territory.”
“No, but I have hope for next year when I have two new operating systems coming out. One must always strive to improve.” He leaned back in his chair. “And information can often be the most valuable commodity of all. I value it far more than I do anything else in this palace. I resent having it stolen.” He repeated, “Alisa Flynn…CIA. What do we know about her, Vogel?”
Vogel was already pulling up information on his phone. “Agent with the CIA. Recruited in Caracas when she was only thirteen. Very high IQ. Well respected by her superiors. Has qualified in auxiliary training in a number of fields. No family. Travels extensively. No permanent residence.”
“Just the kind of operator the CIA would choose to send here to steal information from me,” Korgan said dryly. “What does the CIA want from me, Alisa Flynn? Why did they send you?”
Lie? Or go for it? Either way it could be dangerous for her. But she’d already made the decision which path she’d take if she was forced to change directions. “They didn’t send me. They didn’t know about this break-in.”
He gazed at her skeptically.
“I’m telling you the truth. I don’t have a choice. Everything I’m going to say to you from now on will be the truth.” She added in exasperation, “This wouldn’t have had to happen if I could have gotten to you a few weeks ago to talk to you. I thought perhaps we could help each other. But everyone around you was on high alert, and I couldn’t get past that gold wall that people like Vogel have built around you. So I decided I’d just try to do it on my own.”
“Do what on your own?”
She paused and then said, “Stop Jorge Masenak.”
He didn’t change expression, but she’d thought she’d seen a flicker in his eyes in that first instant. She’d definitely noticed the sudden tension in Vogel’s demeanor. “Masenak?” Korgan said slowly. “Was that name supposed to arouse a response?”
“Yes, and it did.” She shrugged. “I thought I’d just cut to the chase and let you know that what I’m after has nothing to do with that empire you’ve built, and everything to do with getting rid of that son of a bitch as quickly as possible.” She stared him in the eye. “He’s an annoyance to you. I don’t know why yet. I’ve been trying to find out. I thought if I could find out what you want, then I could offer you a trade. But all I’ve been able to learn is that for some reason, Masenak is getting in your way. I’m guessing you’re looking for a way to remove him from your path and make sure he doesn’t bother you again.” She added bluntly, “Or maybe you just want him dead.” She leaned toward him, her voice suddenly urgent. “Either way, you’ve been blocked from touching the bastard, just as I have. But we could help each other. I could make it happen.”
“My, my, are you offering to kill him for me?” His eyes were narrowed on her face. “A CIA operative turned rogue? So much for your sterling reputation with your superiors. Not exactly plausible. If you went rogue, you’d lose everything you’ve worked for in your career. You’d be on the run yourself. Would it be worth it to you?”
“Masenak is a monster,” she said flatly. “Yes, I would kill him if I had to. Yes, it would be worth it. It would be better than watching what Masenak will do if we stand and do nothing. And it’s true, if you make that call, I would lose everything. Everyone in the agency is under orders to stay away from Masenak until the present tinderbox of a situation is resolved.” She paused. “I’m not going to wait. Do what you like. But you might consider how valuable I could be in any plot you’re weaving.”
His brows rose. “Plot?”
“Don’t play games. Shall I lay it out for you? Jorge Masenak is one of the most powerful and ruthless mercenaries in Africa. He’s a thief, rapist, and killer. Compared with him, ISIS appears positively angelic. But he has the people in the Szarnar Jungle terrified, and a few of the desert tribes have also started to throw him their support. Partly because of Masenak’s threats of reprisal, partly because he’s bribing the chiefs with women.” Her lips twisted bitterly. “Or should I say girls? He’s using some of the young girls he kidnapped from St. Eldon’s Academy outside Morocco six weeks ago. The chiefs like the idea of young, healthy girls they can screw now and might be able to ransom to their parents later.” She added, “But that means Masenak’s influence is growing, and it might be harder for you to get what you need from him if you don’t move quickly. He’s getting stronger all the time—when he raided that girls’ school, he kidnapped fifty-nine girls, most of whom were daughters of wealthy businessmen and influential diplomats. All of them were between the ages of ten and seventeen. Since then every time a move has been made against Masenak, the bastard has chosen one of the girls and filmed her being raped or tortured.” She was trying to keep her voice steady. “If the girl was considered by him to be unimportant, he showed her being beheaded. An excellent way to keep both government forces and parents in line, don’t you think?”
He nodded. “In keeping with the son of a bitch you called him. I can see why there was a news blackout since the raid. The CIA would be under pressure to keep from getting the blame for causing Masenak to torture or kill even more girls.”
“But you knew about it, didn’t you?” she asked fiercely. “You had to know about it.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked warily.
“Because you’d make certain you knew everything that was happening with Masenak. He was on your radar. You had a meeting with CIA director Joseph Lakewood only a week before that attack on the school and offered to finance manpower and weapons to take out Masenak’s forces in that Szarnar area as soon as possible. The director was considering it when Masenak launched his attack on St. Eldon’s Academy. That blew your deal with him out of the water.”
“Did it?” His expression was suddenly wary. “Now, how would you be privy to information about a meeting that I was assured was top secret? I wonder what other classified data you might have decided to appropriate.”
- "The wildly over-the-top characters and plot race toward a fittingly extravagant conclusion. Johansen's fans will be in heaven."—Publishers Weekly
- "Though Flynn is a new star in Johansen's pantheon, her personification of familiar tropes of female strength, power, sexual attraction, and supernatural talents will make her an instant hit with Johansen's many loyal fans."—Booklist
- "The characters are refreshing and new and the story is thrilling for the reader to follow along, especially if this is your first time reading an Iris book."—RedCarpetCrash.com
- Chaos is what author Iris Johansen creates so easily - a book filled with conflict, danger, a touch of romance when it is least expected by the couple, with elements ripped from the very headlines. In other words, a book that is really, really hard to put down... Looking for action, danger, drama, romance, surprises, secrets, with even more totally unexpected twists and turns? Then Chaos is what you need in your hands!—FreshFiction.com
- "I absolutely loved the slow-burn development of Alisa and Korgan's relationship... I felt so emotionally invested in them, and their exchanges will keep you on the edge of your seat. Johansen knows how to write wonderfully crafted characters and dialogue."—BookReporter.com
- "Dive into the explosive world of Iris Johansen, where villains get exactly what they deserve and the good guys -- eventually -- win the day. That's a world I want to live in!"—Tami Hoag, #1 New York Times bestselling author
- "Johansen keeps readers on the edge of their seats."—Booklist
- "Just by seeing the Iris Johansen name....you know [it] will be an explosive, unforgettable story."—Suspense Magazine
- "Johansen never ceases to inspire, shock, reveal and unveil secrets, and draw you into a story from beginning to end."—Suspense Magazine
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2020
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing