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The Last Minute
By Jeff Abbott
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Sam Capra has one reason to live: to rescue his baby son from the people who abducted him. An ex-CIA agent, Sam now owns bars around the world as cover for his real mission-working undercover for a secret network as mysterious as it is powerful, while using his skills to find his child.
Now the kidnappers have offered a deadly deal: they’ll surrender Sam’s child…if Sam finds and murders the one man who can expose them. Teaming up with a desperate young mother whose daughter is also missing, Sam tracks his prey-and his son-across the country in a dangerous race against time, and must unravel a deadly conspiracy if he’s to rescue the only person in the world that matters to him.
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A VERY PRIVATE WAR
Upper West Side, Manhattan
I KNOCKED ON THE GREEN DOOR and knew that in the next five minutes I'd either be dead or I'd have the truth I needed.
The man opened the apartment door just as I raised my fist for the second, impatient knock. He did not look like a man who traded in human lives. He looked like an accountant. He wore a dark suit, a loosened tie with bands of silver and pink, and a slight air of exhaustion and impatience. His glasses were steel-framed and rectangular. His lips were greasy with takeout Thai, and the remains of a meal—maybe his last—scented the air.
He looked at me, he looked at the pixie of a woman standing next to me, then he looked at his watch.
"You and your wife are late, Mr. Derwatt," he said. "One minute late."
There were several misconceptions in his statement. First, my name was not Derwatt. Second, the woman standing next to me, Mila, was not my wife. Third, we were exactly on time; I'd even waited for the second hand to sweep past the twelve before I knocked. But I shrugged, full of graciousness, and he opened the door and Mila and I stepped inside. He looked her over. He did it all in a second but I saw it. She was glancing at the two thick-necked thugs who stood by the apartment's dinner table. Then she cast her gaze down, as if intimidated.
Nice bit of acting, that. Mila could stare down a great white shark.
I offered the accountant a handshake. "Frank Derwatt. This is my wife, Lilia."
"Mr. Bell." He didn't shake my hand and I let it drop down to my side. I threw in an awkward laugh for effect. I was wearing jeans and a navy blazer with a pink polo underneath. Mila had found a horrible floral skirt that I suppose approximated her bizarre idea of what an American suburban housewife would wear. She clutched her pink purse. We looked like we were more interested in a country club membership than an illegal adoption.
"I thought we were meeting alone," I said. Mila stepped close to me, like she was afraid.
The accountant dabbed a napkin at the Thai sauce smearing his mouth. I wanted to seize him by the throat, throw him against the wall, and force him to tell me where my son was. But that would only get my son killed, so I stood there like I was the nervous suburban wannabe dad that I was playing.
"Face the wall," one of the big men said. He was a redhead, with his hair sliced into a burr and freckles the size of pebbles on his face. "Both of you."
We both did. I set down the small canvas briefcase I was carrying.
I didn't argue. I was supposed to be a nervous, law-abiding citizen and, although I have been those things in the distant past, I wasn't right now. No wire, no weapons. Just me and my shining personality and a rage I kept caged up in my chest. The redhead searched me thoroughly. Then he did the same to Mila.
"Frank," she said, about halfway through, a tinge of fear in her voice. She was selling it.
"Just be patient, honey, it'll be over in a minute," I said. "And then we can get our baby."
Mila made this soft hiss of assent, the patient sigh of a woman who wanted this deal to be her gateway to happiness.
"Mr. and Mrs. Derwatt are clean, Mr. Bell," the redhead said. He stepped back from us. I took Mila's hand for just a moment.
"Sit down, Mr. Derwatt," the accountant said. "Excuse the mess. We decided on an early dinner. I don't usually meet with clients at night."
I knew that normally the accountant would now be on a commuter train back to New Jersey. I had checked into every nook of his life: a wife, two sons, a mortgage on a cozy little place to live, a life full of promise.
All the sweet elements I'd once had, and had lost.
The accountant and his toughs studied me. Let them, I thought. I'd been careful.
One opened the briefcase. He dumped the bricks of cash out onto the table and began to sort them.
Mr. Bell glanced at me.
"My wife and I," I lied, "we've failed to conceive after three years of trying. It has nearly destroyed our marriage. I'm eager to give my wife a healthy, happy baby."
"You could adopt through legit channels."
"Yes. But, um, some of my business practices, I don't care to have them scrutinized by well-meaning social workers. We simply wish to acquire a child."
Mila moved close to me. "You have done our background checks, yes? We wish to make our selection and get a child."
"It's not that easy, Mrs. Derwatt."
"I've brought the down payment. We select our child and then we go get him or her."
He blinked at me.
"That was what was agreed," I said.
"The money's all here, Mr. Bell." The redhead had counted with the precise quickness of a man used to handling banded stacks of cash. "Twenty thousand dollars."
"There were some anomalies in your background checks," Mr. Bell said.
"Anomalies. I do not know this word," Mila said. She'd thickened up her eastern European accent.
"Um, questions, Mrs. Derwatt."
I held my breath. We had been very, very careful in setting up these identities. Mila had worked on them while we tried our best to find any link to the one clue we had to my son's whereabouts: a photo of a woman leaving a private clinic in Strasbourg, France, soon after my son's birth. I had been told she'd sold my son. We still did not know who the woman was, but using Mila's considerable resources we'd found a surveillance photo of her arriving in New York, a week after my son's birth, walking out of the terminal with this man. Mr. Bell, whose face was in a criminal database maintained by the state of New York for having been convicted of embezzlement six years ago and had gotten parole. We matched him to the airport photo. Found out where he lived, where he worked and who his associates were. Slow, plodding detective work but it had paid off. We had sent out feelers as potential adopters of a child, provided background, gotten this meeting to pick out a son or daughter.
"We could not find a complete enough history for Mrs. Derwatt before she came over from Romania."
Mila was from Moldova, but the languages are identical. She turned to me and said in Moldovan, "We will have to kill them."
I forced a smile. "She doesn't understand what you mean," I said to Mr. Bell in English.
"You said you met Mrs. Derwatt through an online dating service that matches Western men with eastern European brides."
"Yes. What does this matter? We've brought the money. We want a child."
"She's Romanian, why not adopt there?" Mr. Bell said. "You could just go to eastern Europe and buy yourself a kid like you bought yourself a wife." Nice sneer at the end.
Somewhere, we'd left a hole in our story. Or, conversely, this was a test. I put on my outraged face. "We don't care where the child comes from. I told you, I cannot use normal channels."
"As many of our clients can't, Mr. Derwatt. So you understand why we must be so cautious. Our potential parents are… dangerous people."
"My business is my business. I've provided you with what you need to know about me. Anything more could be compromising."
"For me or for you?" Mr. Bell asked.
"Darling, let's gather up our money," I said to Mila. "We're leaving." I continued to play the outrage card.
"Don't touch the money, Mrs. Derwatt," Bell said.
"We had a deal." I pointed at the laptop on the table. "Pay a deposit, pick a baby from the list, pick him up, and pay the rest."
"We can decline to do business with anyone who makes us uncomfortable."
"What is problem?" Mila said. "Maybe you make misunderstanding, and this is easy to fix." She tried a bright smile with him.
"You claim to be Lilia Rozan, from Bucharest, immigrated here three years ago."
"No claim. Am."
"That particular Lilia Rozan is currently in a cancer ward in New Jersey."
Misstep. We'd used a bad identity. Mr. Bell stood a little straighter. He was nervous but he had the muscle here. "So, Mr. Derwatt, we want to know who you and the lovely missus are."
"We're wanted by the police," I said. "We had to lie."
Mr. Bell smiled. "Details, please." The two men were on each side of him. They didn't have their guns out but they thought they didn't need to; we were unarmed.
I looked at Mila. "Look, our money's good as anyone else's. Please."
The bald man moved behind Mila. She clasped a hand over her wristwatch.
"We want to know who you are. Right now. Or he starts in on your wife."
Mila turned, hands clasped together as if in prayer. "Oh, no, please, don't hurt me. We just want a baby. Please. That's all we want."
He shoved her into the wall. She kept her footing but tears sprang to her eyes. "Oh, please."
I stayed very still. The bald man glanced back at me, frowning with disgust that I would let him manhandle my woman, and in that second Mila pulled the watch from its band. Connecting them was a thin steel wire. She leapt onto his back and looped the garrote over his neck, the watch and the band serving as handles so that she didn't slice her fingers off. His yell became a gurgle in an instant.
I hammered a fist into Mr. Bell's chest and he went heaving into the air and landed on my money. The redhead started to draw but he couldn't decide, for one crucial second, whether to shoot me or save his buddy, now purpling under Mila's wire. As he swung the silencer-capped Beretta 92FS back toward me—hello, self-preservation—I launched into him. I levered the gun down as he fired and he hit his own foot. He howled and I slammed a fist into his solar plexus and then into his throat. He staggered back and we fought for control of the gun. He was bigger than me. I wrenched the gun, pushing it back toward his chest. His eyes widened as he realized the barrel was going to slip under his chin. It did and I squeezed his hand and his own finger pulled the trigger. A spray of blood and flesh fountained as it carved a path into his face. He looked surprised before the bullet distorted his flesh.
I freed the gun from his fingers and whirled, aiming at Mila's opponent. But that guy was already gone. She's not big but still a hundred pounds, hanging on to a wire; a throat can't survive the trauma. The bald man lay in a sprawl at her feet; she hovered over Mr. Bell, panting.
"You all right?" I asked her. She nodded. I felt a tickle of bile at the back of my throat and I swallowed it down.
"You killed them," Mr. Bell said, gasping. People say the most obvious things when they're in a daze.
"They sell people," I said. "They're worse than I'll ever be."
"Who are you?"
I didn't answer. I'm just a man who wants his stolen child back. My son I've never seen, except on this video, being carried by a woman who sells human beings for profit. My child. I was much closer to finding my kid than I'd ever been. And I thought of the times I rested my hand on my wife's pregnant swell, feeling the bubble of movement beneath the skin, knowing it was a baby but not knowing it was going to be Daniel, this unique and special person who I'd never gotten to see with my own eyes, hold with my own arms.
I'm coming, I told him, my breath like a prayer on the air.
Mr. Bell swallowed; his mouth quivered as he looked at the dead men. "Okay, you can have a baby. Whichever one you want."
"I want one born on January 10th at a private clinic in Strasbourg called Les Saintes. His birth name on the certificate was Julien Daniel Besson but his real name is Daniel Capra. This woman took him from the clinic. All we've been able to find out is that she travels on a Belgian passport under the name of Anna Tremaine. Now, I asked around, and I found out that you work with Anna Tremaine."
He gave a half-nod. He was scared to death, blinking at the bodies of the muscles.
"Where is my son?" I asked, very quietly.
"I didn't handle that placement. Anna would know. Oh, God, please don't hurt me."
"Don't lie to us." Mila held up the watch-garrote, slicked with blood.
"I'm not lying. I'm not."
I squatted by him, put the silencer—still warm—against his modishly unshaven cheek. "Did Anna know you were suspicious of me?"
"Um, no. We initially reject every adopter—we claim they aren't suitable, that there's a hole in their story. Our clients are normally so desperate, they will do almost anything not to be rejected. Usually we can pressure them into 'qualifying' by sharing information that is valuable—you know, insider info on a company, or they can render services to us that can be useful later."
Extortion and blackmail, as if illegal adoption wasn't enough. What charming people.
"So you meet us. We pass your test. Then what?"
"I call Anna. We set up a meeting. You give her the rest of the money. Then she makes a phone call and the child is brought to you."
"Has my son been sold?"
"I told you, I don't know. Please. Please!"
"Watch him," I said to Mila. I opened the laptop. On the screen was a catalog in PDF format. Pictures of babies. Countries of origin. Description of parents, if known—but no names. The spring catalog featured over two dozen children. Beautiful kids on the auction block. I scanned it quickly. None was listed as being born in France and I didn't see what the point of lying in the catalog would be.
"You're going to call Anna Tremaine, and you're going to set up a meeting."
Mr. Bell's lip trembled.
"Where is she based?"
"Her cell phone has a Las Vegas area code. But that's not where she necessarily meets people," he added in a little rushed lie.
"Las Vegas will be just fine." I decided I'd make it extra easy for Anna Tremaine. "You tell her that Mr. and Mrs. Derwatt have checked out and that we'll be in Vegas tomorrow night to collect our child and pay the money."
"You have to pick one, then."
"A child. You have to pick a child."
"This one." I just pointed to the infant whose picture was on the current page of the digital catalog.
"Okay." His breathing slowed. "I'll do it, please don't kill me."
"Call her. Now. And if you say a single syllable that I don't like, I will kill you." And I slipped Mila's garrote around his throat. The bloodied wire lay against his shirt and I tightened it enough so that the steel lay against his soft throat. I gave him an address in Las Vegas to suggest as a meeting place. He nodded.
He dialed. He waited. I leaned close enough to hear.
"Anna. It's Bell. The couple today, the Derwatts, they checked out okay. They've made their selection."
I could hear the barest scratch of pen and ink. "All right."
"They don't want to meet in New York. I think they would be willing to come to Las Vegas."
A pause. "All right."
"Do you know a place called The Canyon Bar, just off the Strip?"
"Oh, wonderful," she said. "Hipster parents."
"They suggested meeting there. Tomorrow evening at nine."
I thought she might suggest her own choice. But any public spot could be put under surveillance. Our locale was as good as any other. "That's fine," she said.
"All right, I'll tell them."
"You're welcome." The conversation felt off. Tense. But he hadn't said anything I could pinpoint as a signal to her.
"The wife and kids all right?"
"Yes, Anna, thanks for asking." He swallowed against the wire. "Brent starts flag football this weekend. Jared's joined swim team."
"Oh, that's nice. All right, I'll see the Derwatts tomorrow. How will I know them?"
"She's very petite, dark-haired. He's about six foot, wiry, dark blond hair, green eyes. Nice-looking couple."
"Tell them to get a table, preferably in the back. Order me a martini, three olives, and leave it at the table with a seat for me. I don't like the look of anything in the bar, I skip the meeting, and no baby."
"I'll tell them."
"Very well," Anna said. "Bye."
He hung up the phone and dropped it to the floor. Shivering under the wire, waiting for me to kill him.
Mila knelt to meet his gaze. "You're not going to die. You're going to talk. You're going to tell me everything you know about Novem Soles."
"Novem Soles, also called Nine Suns."
"What? I don't know what you mean."
"I mean the criminal ring that Anna works for."
"I only know Anna. She's self-employed."
I pushed up the sleeves on his shirt. There was no marking tattoo, a fiery nine transformed into a blazing sun. Novem Soles's mark of ownership; I'd seen it on too many arms back in Amsterdam. I checked the arms of the two muscles. One had a tattoo, but it was the Chinese symbol for luck. Hadn't worked.
"She's not working for herself," I said. "She works for an incredibly dangerous group of people. They were plotting a mass assassination a month ago. You screw them over, you die."
Mr. Bell's lip trembled. He was trying to find his bravery but failing.
"You see them?" Mila pointed at the bodies.
"You're not going to be like them unless you make trouble. You're going to be locked up in a room and wait until we've taken care of Anna. And you tell my people all you know about Anna Tremaine and her operation," Mila said. "Everything. And then you're going to go back and live with your family and you're going to stay the hell out of illegal activities."
"Call your wife. Tell her you need to go out of town for a few days. Then call your office."
He nodded, eager, hopeful he would live.
When he was done, he handed her back the phone. She took a pair of handcuffs off one of the dead men and cuffed Bell. I almost saw him shiver in relief. If she was cuffing him, she wasn't killing him.
I had the information I needed, finally. I was going to find my son.
IT WAS A BREAKING OF THE RULES, punishable by death. His project; his failure. His only shield was that he controlled access to many secrets that made their work and their profits possible. He smoothed out the thin strip of blond hair that bisected his scalp, a low-cut mohawk, and tugged at the jacket of his Armani suit. He stood on the porch of the large house and waited for the other eight to arrive in the darkening evening.
Rain slashed the beach, wind whipped the waves. Thunder thrummed the sky and the world appeared to have been smeared with gray paint. Alongside the sodden beach ran an equally sodden road, with a sign marking that it had been closed for repairs. Over the course of two hours, eight cars came down the rain-smeared asphalt and went around the wind-buffeted sign without the slightest hesitation. Each of the Lincoln Navigators, with its windows tinted against prying eyes, had been hired out from a local company that usually specialized in transporting film actors and rock stars around the island.
The passengers in each car, in this case, were not famous, and each liked their anonymity.
The house nestled in a private cove. The drivers helped their passengers inside. Each had packed light and carried a single bag. The drivers—all former military, now security for hire, from a variety of English-speaking nations—then took up stations around the house, to ensure that no one approached via boat, or car, or plane. Shortly after the last passenger arrived, the sky began to break, the clouds parting as if a curtain was rising on a stage, the early evening stars as witnesses.
The house smelled of Italian cooking: a heady mix of oregano, garlic, simmering beef, and red wine. The host for this gathering of the Nine Suns, or Novem Soles as it was also known, had spent part of his wandering childhood in Rome. He loved food, and his nanny had taught him how to cook. So for dinner there was salad, grilled fish, hearty pastas, and fine wines imported from Tuscany and Piedmont.
The nine men and women ate and sipped wine and chatted about the world's events: a financial crisis in South America, the increasing violence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, the latest scandal in the American Congress—and the opportunities for expansion that all three presented.
The man with the blond mohawk accepted compliments on the food; he smiled and encouraged the quieter members of the group—quiet, that is, in the way of cobras, observing, considering when to strike—to join the conversations. He had wanted to arrange prostitutes for the visiting group, but had been sternly warned that, given recent events, this was no time for debauchery. He missed sex; he was reduced to being a spectator nowadays, but even watching, a feeble substitute, was better than nothing.
In these rooms they did not use each other's names. They were known by their responsibilities: the Banker, the General, the Diplomat, the Courier. Titles passed down through long years, or kept by the original members of the nine. The blond mohawk was called the Watcher; it was a role he'd fought hard to get, and he had no intention of losing it now.
The Watcher waited for the Banker and the General to get into their usual bickering, but for once they did not. He heard English spoken, Russian practiced, the silk of Arabic whispered. These gatherings were always a good chance for everyone to practice their foreign language skills. But the meeting would be conducted in English, the group's lingua franca.
After supper, the nine gathered in the large den. The Watcher stood at the head of the long table. He took a calming breath that he camouflaged under a welcoming smile. He was the youngest. Can't be scared, boy. Be tough.
"I'm a firm believer in bad news first," the Watcher said. "As you know, our recent mass assassination plot in the United States failed."
Silence among the nine. It seemed like all the goodwill engendered by his fine food and wine evaporated like ice on summer concrete.
"A smuggling ring that we used as a cover to get experimental weapons into the United States was destroyed. The ring was infiltrated by a former CIA operative named Sam Capra. He should have died in our bombing of a clandestine CIA office in London dedicated to stopping illicit transnational activities. His office was part of the Special Projects branch—which, as you know, does the work that even the CIA is not supposed to discuss." The mention of Special Projects caused a bit of a stir in the room: glances exchanged, water sipped, eyebrows raised. "These days Special Projects is specifically interested in any criminal, non-terrorist activities that can affect American national security."
He paused; they stared. Waiting. He tapped on the laptop button and a picture of Sam Capra appeared on the screen. Brownish-blond-haired, green-eyed, the lean face of a runner, mid-twenties, boyish. "Capra survived only because he walked out of the office before it was bombed, however, and was regarded by the CIA as a likely traitor due to financial irregularities committed by his wife, and the inconvenient fact that his pregnant wife had told him to leave the office right before it was destroyed. Capra escaped from the CIA's custody, went searching for his wife, infiltrated our group in Amsterdam, and disrupted the assassination plots."
The nine waited while the Watcher took a long drink of water. He studied their faces. Most of them would not have been recognized by any government official, any police department, any journalist, any intelligence service. They were, for the most part, so ordinary. Frighteningly ordinary. The person who might sit next to you on the subway, or stand behind you in the grocery store line, or drop off their child at the same time you did at school. They came from around the world, yet they all seemed to have that same urban sameness. It was, the Watcher thought, a superior camouflage. Yet they had come so close to delivering a history-changing death blow to American stability, to bringing the country to a mad level of chaos that promised an erosion of the rule of law and, in turn, enormous profit.
Look how far we've come since the early days, the Watcher thought. A tremendous lesson could be learned from a tremendous failure. They were unbloodied and unbowed. "You will note that we lost our main CIA contact. He was killed in action by Capra. We have since lost two other low-level contacts I… recruited inside the CIA. They've been arrested. Fortunately we did not deal face to face with them, and they cannot betray us."
"So right now, we have no eyes inside the CIA?" the Banker asked.
"We have an eye or two that never blinks." He smiled. Let them know he still had information feeds inside the agency, but not exactly what kinds. "I do not know if they can see as well, or as far." The Watcher cleared his throat. He could have shared a file two inches thick on Sam Capra's life with his compatriots, but he'd decided not to play up the man's importance. "We do, however, have leverage over Sam Capra. We have his infant child."
"Children," sniffed the Banker. She was a Chinese woman, petite, thin, with a lovely face that could have sold cosmetics by the tonnage. She made a frown, as though the word held a sourness.
"Control," countered the General.
"Control of a puppet with no strings for us to pull. While we have control over his kid, there's no way the CIA will let him close to any information that is useful to us," the Diplomat said. He spoke with a deep baritone, a South African accent, hands tented before his face. "I say we kill him. Show that we cannot be defied."
"Sam Capra," the Watcher said, "doesn't know that our group has steered him from six years ago, that we have guided his life as surely as a hand on a rudder. We made him into what he is, not the CIA. The setback with his wife was… unfortunate. But he only knows us as a name that means nothing, a vague threat. He doesn't know who we are, he doesn't know how we came to be."
"He has damaged us like no one else has," the General said. "I truly prefer that he be dead."
"We should not be killing CIA agents unless absolutely necessary," the Historian said. He was a heavy-set Russian, head shaved bald, muscles thick under the black of his tailored suit. "It provokes attention. It is bad for business. He's no longer with the CIA, he is useless to us. He cannot hurt us. He cannot find us. He dies at our hand, the CIA will be coming to investigate."
- "Abbott is one of the best thriller writers in the business, and he delivers action and complex characters in an explosive cocktail. The next Capra novel cannot come fast enough."—Associated Press
- "Like Adrenaline, this is a fast-paced thriller with a likable, morally conflicted hero. Sam is in a difficult situation, seemingly forced to commit murder to find his son, and-this is a testament to Abbott's skills as a storyteller-we really don't know whether he will follow through. The book ends on an upbeat note, giving Sam a certain amount of closure. Still, let's hope Abbott isn't through with Sam. He's a very well drawn character, and it would be nice to see him again."—Booklist
- "This is the second in the Capra series, and he hasn't slowed down. It has killings, betrayals, big-time conspiracies and action galore."—The Oklahoman
- "The Adrenaline rush that won't stop."—San Antonio Express-News
- "Twisty, turny, and terrific."—USA TODAY on Adrenaline
- "[An] edgy, seat-of-your-pants spy caper."—Entertainment Weekly on Adrenaline
- "Outstanding . . . genuinely moving . . . Abbott hits full stride early on and never lets up. Readers who thrive on a relentless narrative pace and a straight line to the finish won't be disappointed."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on Adrenaline
- "Extremely compelling . . . a thriller that will get even the most jaded reader's pulse racing . . . a grand slam home run."—Associated Press on Adrenaline
- On Sale
- Jul 3, 2012
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Grand Central Publishing