The Next Excerpt of Marked Masters

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000031_00001]It’s snowing here again, so the perfect weekend to stay by the fire and read. And on that note, here’s the final part of Chapter One in Marked Masters, and I’ll post Chapter Two over this weekend so everyone will be ready for the book’s official release on Monday, March 2nd. If you haven’t read the previous posting on Chapter One, here’s Part 2, with a link to Part 1 just look for the link in the opening paragraph of the post. For everyone who’s ready for Part 3, here’s the end of Chapter One, with Jack attempting to get a little more information than Laurel is ready to give–but what’s new, right? LOL!

 

MARKED MASTERS

Chapter One – Part 3

Our plane boasted the standard East Coast, in-state shuttle accommodations, crammed to the wing flaps with coach seating. Seventy or so passengers filled the small commuter jet, with a column of two seats on the left side of the aisle and a width of three seats on the right. The flight spent little actual time in the air compared to the eternity waiting on the tarmac. Still, I figured I could grab a quick nap and intended to do so without delay.

It was open seating, but Jack managed to score us two seats together on the small side of the plane. He wanted the aisle, and I gave no argument to sitting and scootching into the window seat. I raised up a bit to straighten the skirt of the gray knit dress I got the last time I was in Peru. It was scrunchable and one of my favorites for traveling. It also went great with my favorite heels.

Jack had charmed the flight attendant out of a Glenfiddich before takeoff and was visibly relaxed when he glanced over at me and said, “They were airport workers. Or at least they were dressed like airport maintenance with a utility cart.”

A utility cart with a lot of rope. I bit my lip. “What do you think they wanted?”

“I’m inclined to think they wanted to stop us from taking the flight. They were only interested in subduing me.” He flexed the hand not holding the drink. “But how did you have that sharp tool?”

“A special storage case designed for me by a German craftsman,” I explained. It wouldn’t hold a large weapon, yet it could escape the detection of metal detectors and appeared innocuous under X-ray. “Just a little favor I received recently from an old friend.” Then I pointed up at the overhead compartment. “You probably should check your bag. I found the contents scattered in the stall.”

Jack shrugged. “I’m not worried. Nothing in the bag for them to find.”

I took a sip from my water bottle. “What would their—whoever they are—interest be in stopping you from taking the flight?”

“Or you.” He took a long swig and put the glass on the tray, the cubes rattling against the plastic glass.

“Why would it have necessarily stopped me?”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Your loyalty is well known. And you did locate me, after all.”

“But I may have gotten on the plane alone if I hadn’t discovered where they’d trapped you. Just notified the desk agent you were missing.”

He shot me a look that made me laugh.

“I really am glad you are all right. My only regret is not getting a picture when I had the chance. I seriously thought about it but figured that was leverage you’d never let me use anyway.”

“Right on that count. Would you really have left me?”

“Maybe…” I let the word hang for a moment before I added, “If I thought you’d taken off to follow a lead solo again. It wouldn’t have been the first time.”

Jack handed his glass to the passing attendant. “You do know I would never do anything without reason. Right? However, when going for a cup of coffee requires rescue, it proves there are no innocent errands for either of us. I’m just glad this time I’m not dead.”

I shuddered through a deep breath and looked at him with astonishment. “What did you say?”

“You heard me—I’ll not repeat it. I equally cannot believe anyone could get the drop on me like that.”

“I’m glad you aren’t dead as well,” I repeated solemnly, then winked to lighten the mood. I would never tell him how true that was. It would give him too much power. “Do you think we’ll ever know who’s responsible?”

Jack stared into the distance. “Oh, I’m certain I’ll find out.” From the tone of his voice, I could tell that his words were a vow.

Even before we’d taken off, I had my napping plan rolled out, and I pulled on my sleep mask to firmly cover my eyes. I figured the two-seat side was best as I didn’t have to worry about anyone crossing over me for the next half hour or so. The flight met capacity levels in both human and hearing volume, and as with all the short hoppers I’d traveled on through the years, the noise levels in the plane were tremendous. No matter. The steady rumble was pure white noise to me. No frills had its benefits.

Alas, my rest was not to be. We had barely lifted the landing gear when Jack’s shoulder leaned into mine. He asked, “Laurel, are you asleep?”

Ignoring him would have been easy. I could have simply used the plane noise as excuse if he persisted. But I knew Jack, and not only would the plan not likely work, but when he persevered I risked blowing my top due to no sleep and less patience. I lifted one side of the sleep mask, not willing to give up yet on my dream. “I’m trying, Jack. I was a little too busy last night to get my full eight hours.”

“Which brings up precisely the subject I want to discuss.” He cocked a black eyebrow at me, and I was reading his lips more than truly hearing each word as he continued. “I hope this foray into crime is your first and last. The value of the theft you attempted would put a felony on your record if those coppers last night had caught you.”

I moved the whole mask to my hairline so he could see me lift my own eyebrow questioningly as I reminded, “Aren’t you the one who left with the masterpiece? I recall simply spiriting away a lowly journal that law enforcement can only use to get on to a trail of human traffickers. Since it meets no chain-of-evidence rules, it couldn’t be more than a misdemeanor given its market value. Perhaps you should look inward, Mr. Hawkes. I think you can keep busy enough examining your own personality flaws, but thanks so much for your concern.”

He snorted. I wiggled the dark mask back into place.

“Still, love…” His fingers lifted up a corner of the mask so I could again see that cocky eyebrow. “You possessed more than average nerve whilst we each traipsed through the little midnight caper. You were angry but confident when we met up at the car.”

“You mean when you broke into my car and stashed your loot in my backseat? Wow, now that I think about it, Jack, your transgressions are really piling up. Maybe it would be best if I not associate with you anymore. Bad influence and all of that.”

Due to our too-close confinement, I hoped this exchange was the end of his questions. I could deflect a lot and had my personal arsenal of point maneuvers that worked against most people, but Jack Hawkes was not most people. My extracurricular activities, what I deemed my “reclamation projects,” had gone undetected for some time by all facets of law enforcement, and I intended to keep the status quo exactly as I preferred it. While I’d been close to getting caught several times, even spotted on three separate occasions, I’d never actually been apprehended or even positively identified. However, I’d also never before had an adversary like Jack Hawkes. Someone who learned about my exploits by getting there just ahead of me. Someone who from the time I met him operated under the assumption I was more than I seemed.

Well, I never said the man wasn’t bright. Hopefully, flip answers and the fact he got to the painting first was enough to shut down further discussion.

I jerked the satin mask from his fingers and repositioned it one last time over my eyes. To no avail.

“Speaking of associates.” Jack ripped the mask completely off my head. I glared at him as I tried to use fingers and my vague reflection in the thick airplane window glass to reduce the clown mess my blond waves likely took on from the flinging elastic. My blue eyes were a blur, but even the poor reflection showed they were narrowed in anger below my thin brows.

“Were we speaking of associates? I honestly don’t remember previous conversations along those lines.” I shrugged and changed my look to my patented bored face. Experience told me that allowing Jack to witness any negative emotion on my part simply made him feel he’d scored points and goaded him into continuing for the kill. Okay, maybe kill wasn’t the best word to consider in our present adventure.

He tossed the black mask into my lap. “I’ve been reviewing every idea I’ve come up with in the past week, and I cannot figure out why Moran didn’t kill you or have you killed anytime between London and Le Puy-en-Velay. He could have done so many times, with ease and little risk of exposure. Even accomplished the deed himself, we now know.”

“We now assume. No one’s given me confirmation yet about his French alias as my vehicular knight in shining armor.”

“Consider it confirmed.”

Damn! I hate when he knows stuff before me. Especially when I should have already been notified by someone. “So, did you order Interpol not to bother telling me?” I crossed my arms. “Assured them you would tell me yourself, and you simply forgot to mention it?”

“I received final confirmation an hour ago. This is really my first opportunity.”

Not exactly, but I’d let it slide this time. “You’re right, Jack. It is puzzling how I was always able to either slip away from Moran’s clutches, or I simply wasn’t shot in the final showdown. As I recall, you were the only one who almost strangled me in France. Should I be concerned at your close proximity?”

“Keep this up, and I may try it again.” He frowned. “I’m not joking here, Laurel. I want to know what you have on Moran that made Simon and the others afraid of killing you. And why did Moran let you go when he had the opportunity to kidnap you?”

Yes, that was a paradox I’d been contemplating for days as well. My quick wits had allowed me to get free of the first crew in Moran’s line of hired help, but they’d only intended to chloroform me at the outing. Okay, yes, again an assumption since they took a couple of shots at us later, but they blasted out taxicab windows when they likely could have aimed better and hit me instead. But I was still walking and breathing and thinking… Why?

Even Simon was confused, lamenting that if he shot me when he had the chance, then he would pay for the act later.

Jack’s next question pulled me out of my funk. “Did Moran know your grandfather? They had to be near-contemporaries. Maybe he owed your grandfather a debt of honor?”

“It’s possible,” I said, but I had difficulty believing the theory. It was more likely my crooked father had made Moran’s acquaintance, rather than my straight-arrow grandfather. Dear Old Daddy may have even owed the criminal mastermind a huge debt of some kind when he died in the Swiss avalanche. It was six months before the mangled body was found and his dentist provided the evidence to prove those lovely veneers were my father’s.

Daddy Dearest owed every other blackheart, after all. Moran’s plan could easily be to spare my life to try to get some kind of final debt repaid. Though, since I had little money, I wasn’t sure what I could offer in repayment. It had been nearly a decade since my father’s death, sure, but I’d never heard of a statute of limitations on outstanding markers.

After my grandfather joined my grandmama in the great beyond, my father happily fell headlong into a two-year gambling, spending, debauchery spree to end all real and imagined by Hollywood. Despite the wealth our family accumulated over many generations, by the time my father went over the wrong side of his favorite Alp with his latest bimbo, he had nearly run through the entire estate. He’d left IOUs all over Europe and the Americas. Any money that remained tied to Grandfather’s estate was used to keep all my limbs firmly connected to my torso by paying off the drug dealers and mob bosses who crawled out of the woodwork to intimidate me through direct and indirect contact.

Doing so did not save the family name, however, or my social reputation and position with many of the wealthy I’d always considered “our people,” as individuals through the years had been eager to remind me. Though, not everyone abandoned me, I was happy to realize. A strong cadre of my old friends truly possessed class and did what they could to help my art mission. In that way I felt I was all the richer.

At eighteen, I left for college with nothing but the rest of my grandmother’s small trust she left specifically for my use. I sold the classic Porsche my grandfather left for my sixteenth birthday gift, and I learned what life was truly about. I was still learning.

“So, has Moran had any dealings with the Beacham Foundation?” Jack asked.

“You mean besides having his plans changed whenever I find something he’s stolen and get it returned to the original owners?” I replied. When Jack nodded, I shook my head. “Not that I know of. However, I’ve only worked full time with the foundation five years. Until I graduated from Cornell, I worked temporarily in different departments in an intern capacity, which was only due to the fierce loyalty Max had to my grandfather’s memory.”

“And you, I assume, were supposed to take over the foundation.”

Yes, he’d obviously been reading my file again, so my voice bordered on sarcasm when I said, “Grandfather always hoped I’d take my place in the business, but that, of course, was when he held ninety percent of the stock. Once the foundation became Beacham in name and tradition alone, I’m basically nothing more than an employee, and I only know what pertains to my position. I may learn more in the coming months as the new head of Beacham London, but I doubt Max will change much. You know as well as I that he’s keeping a pretty tight noose around my neck.”

“I think you mean leash.”

I shrugged. “Leash, noose, both can choke the life right out of you.”

Come by tomorrow for a Chapter Two excerpt

 

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Marked Masters Chapter One Excerpt–Part Two

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000031_00001]Back again with more Chapter One fun in Marked Masters. If you missed yesterday’s post, you might want to read the first scene in Marked Masters Chapter One before reading today’s, which is Part 2 of 3 parts total (yes, I write long first chapters). Will be adding Part 3 tomorrow to finish off Chapter One, and then posting Chapter Two soon after, so check back :) The book is still available at the preorder bargain price of 99 cents in all ebook formats.

 MARKED MASTERS

Chapter One–Part II

A few hours later—both of us changed out of our burgling black—Jack and I were sitting in the Miami airport waiting for our flight. His left forearm appropriated our shared armrest, and every time he moved a little, I smelled a new cologne he was wearing, some kind of pleasing sandalwood scent that lingered. Dressed in his standard suit, this time brown with white shirt, he livened everything up by adding a bright-teal silk tie. The color perfectly matched his eyes, and I wondered what woman had given it to him. Of course, Jack tended to appear naturally comfortable in any setting, which was one of the reasons I had difficulty trusting him.

I saved the article I’d hurried to finish writing, then pulled up my e-mail to Flavia, attached the file, and hit Send. The subject was one near and dear to my heart—women and art. Several months ago I’d promised a piece to the Association for Women’s Advancement in Art. An old friend, Flavia Bello, ran the organization. If I’d had the money, I would be a benefactor. Instead, I happily completed the occasional article for its newsletter.

Working on it with Jack around was proving to be a bit of a pain. Interminable waiting at the airport for a flight only made him more fidgety. Finally he’d left my side long enough to acquire drinks and snacks, and I’d taken advantage of the blessed silence to finish up the article.

Writing short pieces about artists and their work was a sideline I did to keep myself focused on art, instead of staying totally immersed in foundation business and the challenge of constantly trying to return masterpieces to the public view. Sometimes the writing work paid. Sometimes it didn’t. Despite my current financial state, it was never about the money for me. Through generations of my family’s love of creative expression and my own art history degree at Cornell, my niche in life had been determined from the moment of my birth. And I kept up my side of the façade.

Unfortunately, in the past weeks’ craziness I’d totally forgotten about the article until Flavia forwarded a reminder e-mail along with information about the upcoming fundraising event featuring women artists and subjects. Grandfather’s name and the Beacham Foundation still held sway in the social community, hence my ready access to most events. I reread the invitations and sighed. Florence, Italy, this Saturday night.

I slid my computer back into my bag, stood, and stretched. I couldn’t help thinking about Kat and the conjectures and decisions she would make in the coming weeks after the realization sank in that her father knew all this time and did nothing earlier to stop her mother’s nightmare. Losing trust in a life you thought you knew is something I understood from personal humiliation, and I would call to check on Kat from time to time, see how she handled things. But it was a journey she needed to walk on her own. It wouldn’t make it easier, but having made that solitary journey myself, I knew it to be true.

The silent tears she shed as I told her were only the beginning. Like her, I had a father who had deeply disappointed me. Unlike Kat’s, mine did so in a wholly spectacular manner that not only deprived me of my last possibility of familial support but snatched away forever the environment I’d known from birth until age seventeen. I survived by acknowledging I could no longer count on anyone but myself, built a personal armor around my heart, and developed a trust-radar and lie-detector system the CIA would envy. Hopefully, Kat would not have to do the same.

Relax. Close your eyes. We had new things to worry about.

Tinny music emanated from the iPod of the kid sitting next to me, and I drowsily wondered at the volume the device was cranked up to—his head nodding and earbuds blasting—since I had no difficulty determining the music as Nirvana. I dozed a bit before jerking myself awake to glance at my watch.

Jack had been gone twenty minutes too long. His errands should have taken only “seven” minutes, a direct quote, but he’d been gone twenty-seven—now eight—as I watched my minute hand move to that number. If my watch was correct and the airline hadn’t rescheduled the flight, we were due to board in little more than fifteen minutes. Anyone else and I would have shrugged the tardiness off and waited for his return. Since it was Jack, however, waiting wasn’t an option. If he discovered a new lead and was reconning solo—without telling me, to keep me in the dark—I wanted to find out. Now. If that wasn’t the case… Well, I needed to make sure he didn’t need backup.

I grabbed my bag and walked from the gate to the hallway. I was not going to panic. Instead, I focused on my surroundings. I smelled food, coffee, and that particular odor airports have as people move exhaustedly from one geographical space to another, a culmination of a variety of cultures and varying degrees of unwashed bodies. Jack had indicated he wanted coffee, so I headed that direction, dodging a couple of bored kids playing with a tiny rubber ball. No Hawkes. With the clock ticking down the minutes, I race-walked in and out of various outlets housing magazines, newspapers, books, souvenirs, and food, eventually finding a lone wall of canteen snacks for picky customers who didn’t want fresh, only processed.

Bathrooms offered the next option, both men’s and women’s, and I ran through each, checking stalls. The men were naturally shocked, but the women offered more vocal outrage. In the last men’s stall, I found Jack’s bag, contents scattered everywhere and what looked like drops of blood on the floor. I thrust his stuff back into the bag, carefully avoiding the blood, and headed back to the main hallway. Frantically looking in every direction, I did not want to return to the security area, and I didn’t think anyone else would have gone that way either.

I turned to look back toward the waiting area, hoping to see Jack waving frantically. No luck. For a second, my gaze was drawn to a matronly woman with a huge flowered hat. An entourage of some kind followed her, and all headed my way.

There! As they passed the water fountain, I spotted a door marked No Entry. I hadn’t noticed it earlier due to a group of kids fighting over the water fountain and the fact the door completely matched the surrounding walls.

My large Fendi purse and the wheeled bags helped hide my actions from the casual observer, and, I hoped, from the standard security cameras. The locked door presented no problem. Within a minute or so, I had it open with the set of tools I carried in a hidden pocket of my purse.

I replaced the tool and grabbed out of the pack a deceptively innocent-looking instrument with a sharp edge. Just for a little extra protection.

The wide storage room held a variety of supplies on seemingly endless high shelves and no clear view. Nothing to do but run for it. I slipped off my heels and ran, holding the bags tightly to my sides as I looked up and down each aisle. I stopped suddenly as I thought I heard something, and I started to call out but worried I might be alerting the wrong person about my presence.

Only a few minutes left before the flight boarded. I headed back toward the other end of the room, on guard the whole way, and hoped the noise was Jack.

I stepped around the last shelf and gaped. Trussed up like a holiday turkey, Hawkes was hanging by ropes from the shelf, his silk tie thrust in his mouth. Under his angry black eyebrows, his teal eyes shot murderous looks my way. He mumbled something—I could only guess—and jerked at the ropes. He succeeded in shaking the shelf a bit. But since the unit was bolted to the floor, the only thing he disturbed were the group of plastic tumblers stacked in thin see-through bags all around him. Two packages closest to him tottered violently, fell off, and burst open. The freed tumblers rolled everywhere to join compatriots, which had apparently been knocked down during the er…uh…hanging.

Though relieved to see him, I also wanted to laugh a bit since I had imagined him strung up many times since I’d known him. I thought seriously about pulling out my phone and taking a picture, but I didn’t want to risk the death my poor smartphone would likely suffer after Jack was free. Instead of wasting time, I quickly looked him over—to try to determine the source of the blood I’d seen in the stall. The only visible wound other than the rope chafing was a small cut at the edge of his left eyebrow—the brows still pulled together in a thunderous V.

The handle of my weapon went into my mouth, to leave my hands free for climbing, and I let the bags slide from my arms. My Manolo Blahniks were discarded next, and then I climbed several of the shelves and used my tool to saw at one of the ropes holding him in place. His muttering got louder, and I knew I should pull the tie out of his mouth, but I didn’t want the complaints to start.

The tool was sharp. Before I cut the second one holding him, I knew I needed to cut the rope binding his hands so he could protect himself as he fell. With a bit of difficulty, I sliced through the professional knots, and he jerked the tie from his mouth.

“Bloody hell, Laurel, what took you so long to find me? Have we missed the flight?”

“Get ready, the rope’s about to give way.” I ignored his questions as I took a final swipe.

“What do you mean…” Jack said, his words becoming incoherent as he dropped to the floor amidst the plasticware.

His next words weren’t meant for polite company as he struggled to undo the knots around his ankles. I climbed down and handed him my tool, which he ungraciously took and sliced through the rope with more expertise than I had demonstrated. He rubbed his ankles and his wrists, and I could tell from the way he was moving his whole body hurt. It looked like a small bruise was forming at his brow and the shadow of another a bit under his chin.

“I guess the blood in the bathroom was from the cut near your eye?”

He looked at his Silberstein before he shakily stood. So it hadn’t been a robbery. “What makes you think it wasn’t from the other guy?” he asked irritably as he held a shelf to steady himself. “Come on, we have to go. Thank God we’re already checked in and the gate is close.”

“Because nobody hurt could have attached you to those shelves like a string of holiday lights.” I countered the earlier question he used to avoid answering what I’d asked.

He ignored me, stuffed his tie in his suit pocket, straightened his clothing, picked up his case and mine, and we took off for the gate, arriving with very little time to spare.

Part 3 coming tomorrow!

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First Chapter Excerpt of Marked Masters

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000031_00001]I’ve had a lot of people asking for the followup to Counterfeit Conspiracies, the first book in my Bodies of Art Mysteries series. That sequel, Marked Masters, will be released in a couple of days. Right now, it’s available everywhere as a pre-order in both ebook and print, with the ebook versions specially priced right now at 99 cents. My Where to Buy My Books page gives all the clickable links. But in these last days of the run up toward release I wanted to give some chapter excerpts for any readers who would like a sneak peek.  Early Goodreads reviews on Marked Masters are available until the online booksellers open up the review options on their sites, and so far the 5-star reviews hopefully show the fast pace, quick dialogue, and exciting settings are every bit as popular as what fans appreciated in the first book. In the meantime, here’s the first part of Chapter One, and I’ll post the next part tomorrow, and Chapter Two later in the week to give a taste now while we all wait for the release. :)

MARKED MASTERS

 * * * * *

 CHAPTER ONE

Two black-and-whites screamed to the curb, paralleling each other and blocking off any possibility of retreat. Brakes screeched. Sirens blared. My blood pressure ratcheted up a notch. The flashing lights alone set my heart pounding so hard I could swear the beats showed through my black Lycra.

One step and I bled back into the shadows of the house’s side wall.

A simple pickup on a limited time frame. That’s what the job had been. My objective was a medium-sized nude, which had reclined over the headboard of a blackmailer’s bed for decades. A painting and headboard currently residing inside the townhouse that was the focal point of this Orlando PD team.

“He’s been extorting money from my mother since before I was born,” Kat Gleeson had explained earlier in the afternoon. “The blackmailer picked up the portrait at a sale after the artist died, playing a hunch it would be worth bigger bucks later. Mother received the first demand as soon as my father started in political life. Laurel, you have to help us.”

A longtime friend from my Cornell years, and daughter to Senator Gleeson, R-FL, Kat called me, frantic, to meet for lunch after hearing I was in the city. When I’d said my Miami flight was first thing in the morning, she’d turned from frantic to panicked, and I promised to be at her favorite cocktail bar in ten minutes time. I’d met her there.

Now, twelve hours later, this new dilemma forced me to contemplate an alternate route inside the house for the nude painted when Kat’s mother was an ingénue and the artist undiscovered. In his later years, before his final drug overdose, the once up-and-coming artist became best known for his erotic subjects and a penchant for the rock-and-roll lifestyle of the 1970s. Now, a single moment captured in brushstrokes kept Kat’s mother chronically worried and perpetually broke.

As political pundit-buzz hummed about Senator Gleeson’s prospective run for the presidency, the hush-money stakes had risen sharply. The next installment had hit a price Mrs. Gleeson couldn’t deliver without her husband’s knowledge and cooperation.

“She’s devastated,” Kat had said as she’d toyed with her second mojito. I’d decided if my friend’s ragged expression in any way resembled her mother’s, devastated was probably putting it mildly.

In the past few years I’d gained the reputation as the best person to call when a legitimate piece of art went missing. I’d climbed the ranks of the Beacham Foundation, from internship at the New York office during college, to field work and troubleshooting the last five-plus years since graduation, rising in the eyes of the art world as my skills sharpened and the wins mounted on my record. However, people who knew me well—or like Kat, had known me in my wilder college days—were also aware of my “special” talents, and that I always stayed ready to jump into a nonwork venue when a wrong needed to be righted. I dubbed these pro bono efforts my “reclamation projects.” Given my more visible status since a promotion a few weeks ago to head of the London office of Beacham Ltd., I knew such forays may have to be reduced in the future, but there was no way I could turn my back when someone like Kat appealed to me for help.

My prep time on this particular reclamation was understandably limited, but the facts that came back were solid—the owner was a Luddite who didn’t know a silent alarm from a silent movie. An absolute anachronism today, but the attribute served him well as a blackmailer since the practice left little risk of his digital fingerprint getting lifted anywhere.

What had alerted the cops?

The head-to-toe unrelieved black I wore dovetailed into the shadows and afforded me a bit of invisibility. I contemplated the peripheral shrubbery but waited to see the officers’ game plan. A peek at my watch, hidden by the hood of my sleeve, showed less than a half hour to either accomplish what I came to do or cut and run.

Car doors slammed and voices rose as authoritative tones ordered a blue scramble to search for whatever tipped them off to the location.

Another scan of the back wall showed the basement window I’d initially dismissed as too small for a final escape. But it could get me into the house as long as I sucked in my gut and visualized being very, very small. I also had to maneuver without being seen or heard across the white ribbon obligatory to so many Sunshine State homes; the oyster-shell path that ringed the grounds around the house walls like fluorescence in the moonglow.

They drew their guns and headed for the porch. I made my move, using long-latent childhood gymnastic muscles to clear the wide, crushed path and stick a quiet landing on the tiny strip of grass along the foundation.

I pulled the penlight I’d stashed in my bra and scoped out the basement in two-point-six seconds—or thereabouts. Any longer carried too much risk, but the quickly lighted view told me I’d be dropping about six feet onto bare cement. That was doable.

The extended beam of a Maglite flashed from around the corner as I started feet first down the rabbit hole. When my soles hit concrete, I reached up to softly set the window back into a closed position. Then I crouched into a dark ball and held my breath. Even with the locked window, I heard the cop’s feet pass by, then stop. He flashed his light through the glass, across the cellar, floor to ceiling. I hugged the wall tighter and hoped he wouldn’t try to look straight down.

“Nah.” I heard him talking into his radio. “There’s a tiny window back here, but it’s locked, and I can’t imagine anyone getting through it anyway. Over.”

Still, it wasn’t time to sigh in relief. The mark was due home from a NASA event soon. No need to look at my watch again to know the minutes were flying. I continued to hold my breath until I heard the oyster shells crunch when the cop resumed his recon.

A cursory scan for infrared, trip wires, or motion detectors came up zero. The house was as technology-free as I’d been told. No doubt I was taking a chance going in before the cops left, but if I’d stayed outside I was pretty much guaranteed to get caught. And a ride in the back of a squad car to explain why I was dressed in black in a dark yard near midnight was not on my agenda for the evening.

The open floor plan in the living space made it relatively easy to navigate without lights. Moonlight streamed through huge windows dressed in nothing but sheers. I kept to the beige and taupe walls and the larger pieces of furniture as much as possible, using the moving shadows of the cops outside to know where and when to scoot to the next spot. So far, the boys in blue only appeared to be doing reconnaissance, leaving me to hope for a rapid departure when they found the house secured. At least I hoped it was completely secure. I hadn’t had time to do a whole house perimeter before they showed up.

I crept up the stairs, and the landing opened to a full-wall window that overlooked the front yard. Staying back as far as possible, I watched the blue crew huddle again at the curb.

Please, please, please leave. I don’t have much time left.

Just as my limbs started to cramp from standing so still, I saw one give the “move ’em out” swing of the arm, and both teams returned to their respective cars. I didn’t start breathing again until I saw the revolving lights stop and the headlights turn back down the boulevard.

It was hammer time!

The master suite was exactly where I expected, and I was probably feeling a bit too cocky as I closed the door behind me and pulled from my pocket the sharp little tool used to extract canvasses from frames. I spun around and approached the bed—and got my next shock of the night. A gorgeous baroque frame hung on the wall over the headboard…but it was empty.

I froze. There was no backup plan for this. Where else could the portrait be?

A check of the closet and under the bed offered no answers. I started running through rooms, scanning each wall, behind the sofa and chairs. Nada.

In the study I found bookcases filled with volumes and vases, but no portraits. I circled the desk, hoping for a clue. The ultraprecise Omega chronometer on my left wrist gave one quiet beep, warning me to pull up stakes and run before it was too late.

My gaze fell on a leather-bound journal atop the desk. Across the front, embossed in gold, were the words “My Women.”

His little black book? Or his blackmail roster? Either way, taking it might give me some ammunition to offer Mrs. Gleeson if the worst happened and the blackmailer came after her again. He’d obviously stashed the portrait someplace else. Maybe Kat spoke to someone besides me about this, and he’d gotten wind of a rescue attempt?

Either way, I needed to fly. The book went down the front of my leotard, and I slipped out the side door I’d originally planned to use for entry to the house.

Vaulting the back wall wasn’t even a challenge. I was so pumped I probably could have vaulted the whole house without too much difficulty.

I was behind the steering wheel of my car and digging the book out of my clothes, trying to figure out what I was going to tell Kat, when a voice behind me said, “See anything interesting, love?”

If I could have reached him, Jack Hawkes would have been dead.

“Damn it, Jack! Don’t do that!” I turned in my seat and instinctively swung backhanded to try to slap the grin from his face. He caught my arm without even trying.

“A bit nervy, aren’t you?”

Jack Hawkes remained a mystery no matter how creatively I tried to corner him on personal details. Maybe some level of UK agent, likely MI-6 by the way he operated, but I couldn’t be sure, because he treated his background as something on a “need to know” basis. However, I always had the feeling he didn’t want to explain rather than he couldn’t. I’d learned early on to not let down my guard to people who didn’t act completely trustworthy, and Jack tipped the scale soundly on my distrust meter. He was a perpetual pain in my backside and, reluctantly at times, my “partner against art crime” before I’d gone on this side-mission to help a college friend.

He and I were currently thrown together as a team to stop what may be the art heist of the century. At the close of our last mission, Simon Babbage, a new person of interest in major art thefts, immediately fell off the intelligence grid after we learned he betrayed Beacham Ltd. and was a confederate of criminal mastermind Devin Moran. The single crumb of information Simon left behind was a reference to a safe-deposit box in Orlando. Our legal team moved heaven and earth for Jack and me to peek inside, and we unearthed only a combination of numbers, a pristine map of the European Union, and a reference to Miami. Our next stop in this little adventure. Simon always made regular trips to south Florida, so it made sense to head that way and ask questions. We didn’t know if the numbers had anything to do with the heist, but suspected Moran was behind any plans in the works, so finding Simon was a priority. There was also a missing snuffbox that was rumored to contain a microchip with plans of the heist. Naturally, we were on the lookout for both of those items as well.

On the other hand, I hadn’t expected to see Jack’s face until our Miami flight the following morning, and the sight of his broad-shouldered frame filling my backseat now was just unnerving enough to give my voice an edge. I did not trust him. At all. The fact he was there instead of at the hotel simply ratcheted up my anger and unease.

“I’m pissed off is what I am!” I waved a hand. “It’s…over. And I failed. What are you doing here anyway?”

“Oh, a little shopping. Senator Gleeson asked me to pick up an old canvas for him.”

“What?” I stared as Jack pulled an item from behind my seat back.

There it was, a gorgeous nude infamous only because of the later-years reputation of the artist. Kat’s mother was young and lovely, and the body of art should never have gained its now notorious reputation. “It’s beautiful. A true work of genius.”

“It absolutely is. Sorry I scooped it out already and you had to leave empty handed.”

A second scream of sirens erupted from somewhere several blocks away.

“I’m guessing you went out the side door,” Jack said.

“Yes.”

“The neighbor to that side apparently has a predilection for night-vision goggles and very nicely alerted the police to my exit right before you arrived on the scene.”

“Explains why they didn’t try to get inside. The neighbor saw you leave.”

Jack nodded.

I reached between the seats to run a gentle finger along the artist’s confident brushstrokes. “How did you know I was going to take this?”

“I didn’t.”

“Then why—”

“The senator’s aide was a Rhodes Scholar, and we met when we were at university together.”

“So the senator already knows?”

“Has for years. He’s been waiting for his wife to bring it up but was afraid of saying anything until she spoke first. Whenever her bank account ran low, he knew she’d had to make another payment, and he would find some excuse to give her more. But he’d recognized the signs lately that things were getting out of hand, so he hired a private detective to learn the man’s schedule. Tonight seemed the best opportunity to make a move, especially since we’re leaving in just a few hours.”

I nodded. “That was our thinking too. Kat’s and mine. The Gleesons’ daughter and I were college friends as well.”

I pulled the book from my neckline. “But I didn’t exactly leave empty handed. Found this in his study when trying to discover where the missing portrait was. I think it may be more blackmail victims. We were concerned that taking the portrait would point too much toward Mrs. Gleeson, so I’m hoping this information defrays the risk.”

Jack turned on the dome light and grabbed the book.

“Hey, give it back.”

“No, this is evidence—” He whistled.

“What?”

Jack held up a hand to silence me, then turned a couple more pages. I tried to snatch the book back, but he jumped across the seat, and my fingernails only scratched the cover.

“You’re going to tell me what that is, Hawkes.”

“A minute, please.”

Finally, he stopped shifting pages and looked up, his face a mask of disbelief. “A detailed report on human trafficking activity coming through Florida, then going out across the U.S. He’s documented everything, who his clients are, what they’ve paid, which countries the women came from. Everything.”

“Wow.” This was nothing like I’d expected when I took the journal. “So does it go to the FBI or Interpol?”

“Probably both. You drive. I’ll send someone to pick up my car later.” Jack pulled out his cell.

I should have called Kat to give her the high sign, but I needed to process a lot of this first. To figure out how to tell her the blackmailer had more to worry about than the loss of his moneymaking portrait, and do so without giving away state secrets. I also had to find a sensitive way to reveal that her father knew but had kept the knowledge secret from her mother. There could be many reasons why, both sincere—and creepy.

Kat and I were scheduled to meet in the airport short-term parking in a few hours. The plan was to hand over the portrait, letting it go practically unnoticed from my car trunk to hers before we split up—me for my southbound flight and Kat to turn the painting over to her mother.

“I’d like to give the portrait to Kat instead of the senator’s aide,” I said when Jack hung up from his hushed-voice call to Interpol. “I’ll tell her that her dad knows, but I think this needs to be a family conversation instead of one originating with an employee.”

“Agreed. Is she meeting you at the airport?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll have a greeting party for the journal once we get to Miami. The suits are definitely interested.”

I smiled into oncoming headlights and merged onto the freeway. “Our low-tech blackmailer has just become an even lower lowlife.”

“And you, my love, have gained the prize that will give hundreds of innocent women their lives back.”

“One nasty bad guy down, one art criminal mastermind still to go.”

*  *  *

More of this chapter to come tomorrow

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We’re Going Into the Home Stretch…

Duomo complex with Giotto bell towerDo you know how writer’s whine? Well, let me tell you I’ve been happily whining up a storm lately because I’m having such a difficult time staying focused. I’m supposed to be finishing up the third cozy in my Organized Mysteries, which now has an official title of Organized for S’more Death (yes, it’s a camping trip for the McKenzie and Berman families–how fun, right?). But all the promos are starting on Marked Masters, the second book in my Bodies of Art Mysteries, and that makes me think of Florida and Florence, Italy–the two places Laurel & Jack focus their own attention in the book. The picture at the right shows the Duomo complex in Florence (you can see a hint of the exquisite dome on the far right edge) and the Giotto Bell Tower in the background plays a key role in the book. So… I’m having some difficulty staying in one point of view each day, and my cozy deadline is looming, and I have to keep reminding myself to get out of Laurel’s smart mouth POV and back into Kate’s much nicer and more dedicated one. However, Girl and Her Ebooks did a lovely chapter excerpt of Marked Masters over Valentine’s weekend, along with the synopsis of the noveland readers who received pre-release ARCs of the book have already started posting reviews of Marked Masters on Goodreads. So, I alternate between whining and grinning all day every day. And writing, of course–I seem to never stop writing :)

Giotto bell towerThe fun will continue in the next couple of weeks. As I posted here last week, I did a giveaway of a Bodies of Art large canvas tote bag at Laffeinated Ink on Wednesday, and plan to do another very soon. I’ll also be giving away copies of the book in March when I guest post at a couple of blogs, so stay tuned for information on those prize ops–I promise to post all the information here in case any readers want to enter. And if you haven’t yet subscribed to my newsletter, there will be more giveaway tie-ins offered with the next issues, so feel free to sign-up for my newsletter here.

I’ve also been putting some finishing touches on a short story that features Laurel Beacham doing one of her “pro bono” retrievals. I’ll post when it’s available for viewing soon. It will be on the Short Stories page whose link is along the banner at the top of this page, and which currently contains the link to my Organized Christmas story.

Moonrise over the Arno in FlorenceHope your February is going well, and you’re staying warm. We just had four inches of snow last night, and expect another couple overnight tonight. So my agenda for the next few days is to stay in, keep dry, and don’t stop writing. And to view wonderful pics like these of Florence to take my mind off the cold. If things get too difficult, I’ll have a little wine with my whine. Sounds like a good plan, right? Florence at Night

In the meantime, here are a few more wonderful shots of Florence that tie in with the events in Marked Masters. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Now, I have to get back to my Organized camping trip. I can almost taste the s’mores–David by Michelangelowhen I’m not helping Kate solve the murder of course!  Buonasera!

To purchase Marked Master in print or ebook, you can find the links on my Where to Buy My Books page. The book will be released in all bookseller outlets March 2nd.Florence at Night

 

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Pre-Release Review and Giveaway!

Bodies of Art ContestAre you a fan of my Bodies of Art Mysteries series? The wonderful Jenna Czaplewski posted an early review of Marked Masters on the Girl With Book Lungs blog, and there’s a Bodies of Art Mysteries giveaway, too. Here’s the link to the review and details on how you could win a signed copy of Counterfeit Conspiracies, and a printed ARC of Marked Masters before it’s released March 2nd: http://girlwithbooklungs.com/2015/01/22/marked-masters-by-ritter-ames/

But hurry–the contest ends January 31st!

 

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Isn’t This a Lovely Way to Start a Weekend

Amazon Daily FlyerGetting messages far and wide today telling me my friends and fans have received notices from the lovely folks at Amazon that my next novel Marked Masters, the next book in the Bodies of Art Mysteries is available for pre-order right now at the bargain price of 99 cents. Isn’t that just the nicest thing? Here’s the link if you want to see for yourself or pre-order a copy: Amazon page for Marked Masters. It’s also available in B&N Nook for Marked Masters and Kobo for Marked Masters.  What a great way to start a weekend!

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Away Blogging Again

I’m over at A Girl and Her eBooks with a quick post about how I use Pinterest as an author, especially for my Bodies of Art Mysteries–the second book in that series, Marked Masters, will be released March 2nd. Stop by if you have a chance. A couple of surprising pics, too. Here’s the link: A Girl and Her eBooks

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