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A journalist shows up on Eve Duncan’s doorstep with a plea for help. Jill Cassidy has just come from a small African village with a heart wrenching story: half the villagers — many of them children — have been killed in a horrific attack by guerilla soldiers, the bodies burned beyond recognition. Now, the families desperately need Eve’s help to get closure and begin to heal.
But when Eve arrives in the remote jungle, she begins to suspect that Jill’s plea may have been a cover story for a deeper, more sinister plot. Isolated and unsure who she can trust, Eve finds herself stranded in an unstable country where violence threatens to break out again at any moment and with only her own instincts to rely on if she hopes to get home to her family alive . . .
#1 New York Times bestselling author Iris Johansen is back with one of her most exhilarating and dangerous adventures yet in this “riveting” high-stakes thriller (Publishers Weekly).
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Jill Cassidy’s fingers stabbed into the mud as she saw the light spearing the darkness on the road ahead. The vehicle was going slowly, but they’d never see her on this side path. She had to get to the main road. But she had no shoes, and every muscle was aching, throbbing. She’d tried to get to her feet and walk as soon as she’d heard those bastards leave, but she was too weak. She had only managed to crawl slowly, painfully, through the jungle.
She could do this, she told herself desperately as she forced herself to propel her body through the mud on the path. The pain wasn’t as bad as it had been when they’d first left her. Ignore it, think about the story. Always think about the story. It wasn’t the pain, it was the shock that was causing her to shake and feel so weak.
The shock and this gentle, warm tropical rain that had started to fall just as she’d finally managed to pull herself together and force herself to move. Strange that warm rain could make her feel this cold. So gentle, she thought dazedly. Why on earth had that word occurred to her when there seemed to be no gentleness left in her world?
The headlights drew closer.
She had to get to the road before the car passed her.
She tried to move faster.
It was a jeep, she realized. The motor was so loud…Would they hear her if she called out? She had to catch their attention. She made a last effort and rolled out onto the road.
“Jill!” The jeep screeched to a halt. “Dammit to hell!”
Novak, Jill realized. It was Jed Novak, and he was angry…That was okay, let him be angry. All that mattered was that he had come, and nothing else could happen to her as long as he was here.
He jumped out of the jeep. “Jill.” He was striding toward her. “I almost ran over you.”
“You…wouldn’t do…that. Spoil your…image. CIA to the…rescue.”
“Shut up.” Then he was kneeling beside her, the rain beading off the brim of his hat as he looked down at her. “Just look at you, Jill,” he said hoarsely as he wrapped his jacket around her. “I told you to be careful. What happened? Why wasn’t someone with you?” In spite of the roughness of his tone, his hands were gentle as he picked her up and set her inside the jeep. “How badly are you hurt?”
“I don’t know. It…feels bad. But I made it through that jungle…so I guess it’s not—” Jill struggled to keep her voice steady. It was over. Those bastards were gone. Don’t let them do this to her. “I thought they—were going to—kill me. But it turned out they—only wanted to teach me a lesson and get me sent home.”
“You have some nasty bruises.” He stiffened as the dashboard lights fell on her torn blouse and upper body. “Blood. Shit. I shouldn’t have moved you.”
“Not—my blood. Hadfeld. They—wanted to show me—his head. They threw it at me…He’s dead, Novak.”
“You’re not in good shape yourself. Those bruises are really bad, and they’re all over you.” He was carefully feeling her arms and body. “Here, too. Your head? Concussion?”
“I don’t think so. I never totally blacked out.” She’d wanted to black out, but she’d been afraid that if she stopped fighting, she’d never wake up. She started to shake again. Don’t think about it. She’d made it this far, and she’d be fine. Just don’t think about it.
But she couldn’t stop shaking.
“Hey, it’s okay. You’re safe.” Novak had pulled her into his arms and was holding her tight. “Breathe deep. Just take it easy. We’ll talk about it later.”
Safe. She lay there against him, letting his heat warm her, shut out the chill. He was so strong, and she felt as if his strength were pouring into her and shutting out that horrible weakness. Yet more than five minutes passed before she could stop shaking.
She finally sat up and pushed him away. “I’m sorry,” she said unsteadily. “I fell apart. You asked me why—there wasn’t someone—with me. I got the phone call from Hadfeld. But it was a trap. They were waiting for me.”
“How many were there?”
“Can you describe them?”
Describe the pain? Describe the smell of them? Describe the helplessness she’d felt? But she had to focus and try. She shook her head. “Scarves over the lower…half of their faces. One black man, three white. Two of the white men had dark hair, one was fair-haired. It felt like…straw. Most of the conversation was in a Maldara dialect.”
She had to stop a minute before she could go on. “They…wanted to hurt me and…they did. The one who was fair-haired kept driving the others to hurt me more and more. He beat me himself, then he told the others what they had to do and how to do it. He said they’d been sent here to do a job, so do it.” Say it. She had to tell him. She swallowed. “I have a little blood—down there, and I’ll need a rape kit.”
Silence. “They raped you?”
“Three of them did. The one with fair hair only seemed to want to beat me. He seemed…angry.”
“Son of a bitch.” Then Novak began to swear softly and viciously. “We’ll get you to the local hospital in Jokan,” he said. “Another fifteen minutes.”
“No hospital. Not here,” Jill said jerkily. “You’re CIA, and I’ve seen you pull strings. You can get me anything—I need—without throwing me into the system. Do it, Novak.”
“The system isn’t all that bad when you’ve been savaged the way you’ve been, Jill. You’re one of the best journalists I’ve ever come across, but not even a Pulitzer is worth this.” He added harshly, “You should have done what I told you and stayed out of it. Would it have been too much to leave it up to me? You knew I’d follow up.”
“Yes, I knew you would,” Jill said wearily. “Because you’re as obsessed as I am. But it was my story—you might have been—too late.” She was getting weaker, she realized. That temporary adrenaline rush when she’d felt so safe with Novak was fading. And there was something she had to do, she remembered vaguely. “Do you have a first-aid kit in this jeep?”
“You don’t have to do it yourself. I’ll get you help right away, Jill.”
“It’s not for me. I need some medical gloves. I couldn’t describe those men, but I—fought them. When they surprised me, they took away my gun, but they’ll have scratches.” She looked numbly down at her hands. “And I might have some DNA beneath my nails if it survived my trip—through—all that mud.”
He muttered another curse, reached into the backseat for the first-aid kit, and handed it to her. The gloves were on top of the bandages, and she quickly pulled them on to protect her nails. She set the first-aid kit on the floor at her feet. Better. One more thing done to rid herself of that terrible feeling of helplessness. “You were driving slow. You were looking for me, weren’t you? How did you know I was here?”
“My informant at the embassy intercepted an anonymous call to the secretary shouting about how U.S. journalists were to blame for the ruin of his country and claiming that he’d taken care of one tonight. Their directions were pretty damn accurate. They wanted you to be found. I was lucky to reach you before the soldiers from the embassy.”
“No, I’m the lucky one.” Though luck was a bittersweet concept tonight. But she could imagine how she would have felt if anyone but Novak had found her. “Now take me somewhere you can get those gloves off to a lab so I can get clean again. Then I’ll try to figure out how to find out how they knew it was me Hadfeld had contacted.”
He was silent. “It might be my fault.”
Her gaze flew to his face. “You’ve got a lead?”
“Better. I think I might be able to get my hands on the skull. So go home and let me work on it,” he said roughly. “You’ve gone through too much as it is.”
“Yes, I have.” Her hands clenched into fists. “And I’m not the only one. Do you actually believe I’d ever let those bastards get what they wanted? Can’t you see? They knew the first thing that the embassy would do if they found out about this would be to notify my publisher. And then they’d send me back to the U.S. to some discreet hospital to go through debriefing and therapy. That’s why that bastard told those other men that they had a job to do. That’s why they kept beating me. That’s why it was rape.” Her eyes were suddenly blazing at him. “After all that’s gone down here in Maldara, the last thing those diplomats would want would be to have a journalist injured and raped at this stage of the game. Six hundred thousand people were murdered here. Genocide. Now they think they’ve put Humpty Dumpty back together again. So they’d need to hush any disturbance and wrap me in tender loving care. Why else do you think this happened?” Her voice was shaking. “I told you, those men knew what they were doing. They wanted to hurt me. They had their orders. Well, I won’t let them get away with it.”
“Easy,” Novak said quietly. “I’ll take care of it. No one’s going to let that happen.”
And if he took care of it, it would mean anyone in Novak’s way would be destroyed. She had seen it before. But she didn’t want it to go down that way. “You bet they’re not. Do you know how weak they made me feel? The pain kept coming and wouldn’t stop, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I’m never going to be that weak ever again.” She wanted to close her eyes and just stop arguing with him. She needed to shut out the world, and maybe, for a little while, those four monsters would vanish with it. But she had to get Novak’s promise first. “So this night never happened. Because you’re going to let me see to it myself, aren’t you? It will take a little while for me to get over this, but you’re not going to let anyone sideline me. You’re going to let me go after them. I deserve it, Novak.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” he asked hoarsely. He looked away from her. “Okay, you don’t go back to the U.S. I use you and let you help me take them down. And, if you get hurt again doing it, I just consider you collateral damage. Is that the plan?”
“That’s the plan.” She could close her eyes now. She could relax her body and attempt to block out the pain…and the memory. “Just get me fixed, and then you can tell me how you’re going to get the skull.”
“And just how am I supposed to fix you, Jill?”
She was getting so blurry she wasn’t sure she understood. “You’re right, I spoke without thinking. My responsibility…Just take me somewhere, and when I’m better, I’ll take care of it.”
He was cursing beneath his breath. “Never mind. You’re not thinking straight enough to recognize monumental frustration when you hear it.” He said slowly, clearly, “Listen. Stop trying to be strong. I know you’re strong. You don’t have to prove it to me. And I’m not leaving you until I know you’re okay. We’re in this together.” He reached out, grasped her hand, and pressed it tightly. “Do you understand? I’ll not let you go.”
And, in spite of Novak’s being one of the toughest men she’d ever met, he was having trouble with her being hurt and not being able to put her back together again. Strange…
But she couldn’t help him now. Maybe later…
Right now, she could only cling desperately to his hand and take whatever comfort he could give her. Because she was starting to shake again, and he had said she didn’t have to be strong. “That’s very…kind. Do you mind if I—don’t talk anymore, Novak?”
“Hell, no.” His grip tightened. “Look, this is what we’re going to do. I’m taking you to Baldar, the private airport we use near the border, and flying you to Nairobi. There’s a hospital there where I send my men when I need absolute secrecy. No reports. No leaks. No one in Maldara will know where you are.” He muttered a curse. “Even though I don’t want to do it because it will take about an hour and a half to get you there.”
“That doesn’t matter.” Yet she could see he was upset again, and she had to make one last effort. “None of this was your fault. Your decision. My—choice. Stop blaming yourself.”
“That’s right,” he said bitterly. “Collateral damage.”
She didn’t reply. She was at the end of her strength, and she just wanted to crawl away somewhere until she could heal.
It wasn’t an accurate description of her role in this nightmare. She had gone after the story with her usual drive and determination. Novak might have thought that the decision he had made caused this to happen to her, but she did not. She’d not been smart enough to read the signs of betrayal when Hadfeld had phoned her. She’d been too eager to get to him and obtain the proof she needed. Even if Novak had found a way to get the skull, things might still be on the verge of exploding.
And there might be true innocents on the horizon who could be hurt by what had happened here at Maldara.
Two Weeks Later
I thought you’d be finished with her by now.” Michael was tilting his head and gazing in disappointment at the reconstruction of the skull on Eve’s worktable. “I wanted to see Nora before I left today. Did you have trouble with her?”
“No.” Eve made a face at her son as she wiped the clay off her hands with her work towel. “I had trouble with you. I was busy packing your bags and making arrangements for that summer camp your sister, Jane, is so set on taking you to. Nora had to wait.”
“She won’t mind.” Michael wasn’t taking his gaze off the skull of the six-year-old child who was Eve’s current forensic sculpture. “She’ll know you’re trying to do what’s best for her, that you’re trying to bring her home, Mom.”
His voice was gentle. Even as a toddler, he had never had a horror of these skulls of the victims that had appeared in her studio through the years. Now, though he was only ten years old, that understanding and gentleness seemed to have deepened. Eve had never had to explain to him about the monsters who had killed these children, then tried to burn them, bury them, toss them away as if they had never existed. Michael just accepted that Eve was trying to fix something that was broken, that those children were lost and had to go home. Lord, she was lucky.
She gave him a quick hug. “Well, Nora may understand, but the Chicago Police Department isn’t that patient. I have to finish this reconstruction and get it back to them so that they can start sending out photos to the newspapers and TV shows. We have to see if anyone can identify her.” She turned him around and pushed him toward the hall. “And you have to gather all the treasures you can’t bear to leave behind for the next month and pack them in your duffel. Last chance. We have to be at the airport in four hours.”
“Right.” He smiled at her over his shoulder, his amber eyes shining with mischief. “You’re first on the list. Can I take you, Mom?”
She wished he could. She didn’t know what she was going to do without him and Joe for a month. “I wouldn’t fit in your duffel. But we can Skype.” She made a shooing gesture. “Get going.”
He laughed and ran down the hall.
She turned back to the reconstruction with a sigh. Noise. Laughter. Family. She was going to miss all of it. She reached out and gently touched the reconstruction’s cheekbone. “Sorry, Nora. You’re important, too. I’m just having a few issues at the moment.”
“Then come with us.” Joe was standing in the doorway, looking at her. “A month is a long time.” He crossed the room and took her in his arms. “Or let me come back to you.” He kissed her. “Screw that seminar. I’ll go next time.”
“Scotland Yard doesn’t offer them that often. And everything is cutting-edge when they do.” Joe was a detective with ATLPD and was always interested in all the bells and whistles connected with crime fighting. “And the timing is just too good to miss. Jane is taking Michael to that dig in Wales, and you’ll at least be close enough to keep an eye on them.”
“Come on, Jane adores Michael. And she’s introducing him to digging for ancient Roman treasure at that Welsh castle. Treasure and playing in the dirt. A ten-year-old’s dream. He wouldn’t miss me.”
“He’d miss you.” She kissed him again. “Just as I will. But I’m not ten, and I’d feel better if one of us is near him. So would you.” Michael had become the center of their lives since the night he’d been born, but neither of them could deny that he was…unusual and always a challenge. “And you can never tell which way he’s going to jump.”
“Tell me about it,” Joe said dryly. “You could come and work in London.”
“And then you’d feel guilty about spending all those hours at the Yard.” She gave him a quick kiss. “I’ll tell you what I told Michael. Skype. Go finish packing. I need to clean up before I take you to the airport.” She grimaced. “And I gave in and agreed to give an interview at one this afternoon. Annoying, but it was the only time the reporter could fit me into her schedule. I’ll take her out on the porch and try to get rid of her as quickly as possible. But you guys are on your own until we leave here at two.”
“We’ll manage.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “Reluctantly. Why the interview? Does it have anything to do with Nora? She’s not even finished.” He frowned, puzzled. “And you don’t usually give interviews anyway. You say it’s a waste of your time.”
“It is a waste. They tend to focus on me and not the victim.”
“Imagine that,” he said mildly. “The foremost forensic sculptor in the world who is both charming and beautiful. How could you possibly compare to a hideous skull that’s been buried for decades?”
“Not beautiful, interesting-looking. And I’m not charming, that would require effort. I always opt for kind and intelligent. You must already be missing me if you’re resorting to flattery.”
“You’ve got that right.”
She cleared her throat. “Me too.”
“So why the interview?”
“It’s Jill Cassidy. I liked the story she did on that DFACS scandal. She never gave up and fought those politicians who were ignoring the child abuse and fraud claims all the way.”
Joe nodded slowly. “I remember. She won a Pulitzer for it.” He gently touched her hair. “I should have known it would have something to do with kids. She wants to do some kind of profile on you?”
She shrugged. “I guess she does. We didn’t discuss it. I said I could give her an hour if she insisted on its being today. It seemed worthwhile. I don’t think she’d waste my time on trivial junk.”
“You mean like telling the public how brilliant and famous you are? Heaven forbid.” He was heading down the hall. “Not only trivial, but totally boring…”
Eve shook her head as she watched him disappear into the bedroom. Wry, mocking, yet as full of mischief as their son. Nothing boring about Joe. She was already missing him. Their relationship had taken them through valleys and mountains, and they had come out of both with a closeness and love that no longer faltered no matter what strain was put upon it. She frowned as she had a sudden thought. Good Lord, what if that interview involved Joe and Michael? The last thing she needed was a journalist looking for a tell-all piece that violated her privacy. She could not permit it.
Don’t jump to conclusions.
If she saw that was the way the interview was heading, she’d just end it immediately. She wasn’t shy about protecting her family’s privacy.
And she’d taken the interview because Jill Cassidy had shown herself to be a responsible journalist. Joe had been joking about Eve’s being boring, but it was true that she was not someone whom social media would find particularly fascinating. She was not only a workaholic, she was too complicated…and very private.
She just had to hope she wasn’t getting mixed signals from Jill Cassidy…
* * *
“Hello. I’m Jill Cassidy.” The young woman at the door was smiling warmly at Eve as she shook her hand. “Please call me Jill. I can’t tell you how eager I’ve been to meet you, Eve Duncan. Thank you for agreeing to see me.”
“Come in. I’m sorry I can’t give you very long. I have to take my husband and son to catch a flight.” Eve was studying the reporter and feeling distinctly relieved. Jill Cassidy must be late twenties or early thirties, a little on the thin side, with medium-length brown hair and wide-set blue eyes. Full lips that had a touch of sensitivity and humor and clear, glowing skin. But those eyes were steady and honest, and Eve felt the honesty was also very real. She was dressed in dark slacks and a simple white blouse that made her appear businesslike yet perfectly natural and unassuming. “I expected you to be older. You won that Pulitzer two years ago.”
“I got lucky. Right story. Right timing.” She was looking around the open living room and kitchen. “This is wonderful.”
“It’s home,” Eve said simply.
“That’s why it’s wonderful. You can feel it. I’m traveling most of the time, so my home is usually the nearest hotel.” She gestured to the smiling portrait of Eve dressed in her old blue work shirt on the wall beside the window. “That’s terrific. Relaxed, but there’s still a sense of purpose. Your daughter, Jane MacGuire, painted it?”
Eve’s eyes widened. “Yes. You’re right, Jane is terrific. Her career as an artist is zooming these days. How did you know about her?”
“I do my homework.” Her gaze was wandering around the room. “You have a longtime relationship with Joe Quinn, a police detective whom you married eight years ago. You have a ten-year-old son, Michael; and besides Jane MacGuire, whom you adopted when she was about Michael’s age, you and Joe Quinn took in another young girl, Cara Delaney, and made her your ward. She’s not with you now either, since she’s a promising violinist and she’s on tour.” Her gaze returned to Eve’s face. “Now, I found her background to be very interesting indeed.”
Eve stiffened, instantly on guard. That remark had been too full of meaning to miss. “Really? But you asked to interview me, didn’t you? I don’t consider my husband or children to be fodder for the press. I believe you’d better leave.”
She shook her head. “Do you think I’d have mentioned Cara Delaney if I’d meant to cause you problems? I just had to make certain you knew that I could hurt you if I chose and had no intention of doing so. Otherwise, you’d be worried all the time I was talking to you that I was going to cause some kind of scandal by revealing that your ward is the granddaughter of Sergai Kaskov, a known figure in the Russian Mafia.” She gestured impatiently. “I don’t care about that. All I care about is that you’re brilliant and have devoted most of your career to helping children who have been murdered and abused. Evidently, somewhere along the way, you’ve also been able to build a life for yourself and your family that I envy with all my heart. Good for you.”
“You couldn’t have hurt Cara.” Jill Cassidy seemed to be sincere, but Eve was still wary. “She wouldn’t give a damn about scandal. All she cares about is the music. Though you’d find the rest of the family very protective and might find yourself in an extremely uncomfortable situation.” Eve stared at her. “You could have just not mentioned my family at all. This was all very deliberate.”
- "Riveting... Readers will keep guessing about the complex characters' underlying motivations as the plot races toward the stunning conclusion."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "This is dangerous, riveting and extremely awesome-adjectives that also describe Iris Johansen to a 'T.'"—Suspense Magazine
- "In SMOKESCREEN, Johansen's Eve Duncan must outwit a vicious psychopath in the middle of the jungle. I really enjoyed this rip-roaring thriller."—Catherine Coulter, New York Times bestselling author of Paradox
- "Every element advances the plot to a heart-pounding conclusion. This novel is sure to appeal to Eve Duncan enthusiasts as well as new readers of the series."—Library Journal
- "From thriller writer extraordinaire Iris Johansen comes a pulse-pounding excursion into a war torn nation, where forensic sculpture Eve Duncan heeds a journalist's call to assist in identifying a village's dead after a horrific massacre, only to discover more sinister plots may be lurking behind the journalist's call for assistance."—CrimeReads.com
- "Propelled by a muscular narrative and elaborate subplots, Johansen's latest complex Eve Duncan thriller reliably pivots on the cerebral battle of wills among its robust characters."—Booklist
- SMOKE SCREEN by Iris Johansen brings to life a realistic page-turner.—Crimespree magazine
- "SMOKESCREEEN is supercharged, combustible and totally addictive. There's no one like Iris Johansen!"—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author
- "A master storyteller, Iris Johansen brings characters to life like no other. A tension filled novel...her plot is intricate, her characters compelling. SMOKESCREEN is great fun."—Robert Dugoni, New York Times bestselling author
- "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
- "Mega-star Johansen is a true master."—RT Book Reviews
- On Sale
- Feb 11, 2020
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Grand Central Publishing