“Another round,” Cage yells to the waitress as she passes by our table.
“No, no, no,” Dozer groans, his head hanging low, pounding his fist on the table. “I’m done.”
“You can’t be done,” I laugh, clapping my hand on his shoulder and grinning at Cage who sits on the other side. “This is a rite of passage. Tradition. You’re a newbie. It’s mandatory to get drunk as part of the welcoming process.”
“Yeah?” Dozer asks, his dark eyes narrowing. “Then how come Jimmy and Malik aren’t getting drunk? They’re as new as I am.”
Jimmy Tate sits beside his wife, Anna, who is the only one of us not drinking tonight. He has his arm around her shoulder, whispering something in her ear that has her eyes sparkling. Jimmy joined Jameson about a month ago, coming straight out of an enlistment as an Army Ranger. It was a good move for them as Anna’s pregnant with their first child. She’s from western Pennsylvania originally, and she wanted to be closer to her family.
Malik Fournier sits next to Anna with Cruce on the other side. He’s talking with animated hands, telling a story to Cruce and Barrett. Jameson hired Malik a while back, but he’d only recently started. He’s a former Marine, like I am. So far, his claim to fame is that two of his brothers play professional hockey for the Carolina Cold Fury.
I look back to Dozer. “Malik and Jimmy are as new, but since they’re leaving tomorrow on a highly classified, incredibly dangerous mission, it’s probably best they’re not puking their guts up.”
Dozer nods, giving me a dazzling grin. “Fair enough. And since I am a good and loyal teammate, I’ll drink their shots.”
“That’s my boy,” Cage whoops, slapping Dozer on the back. “He’s not a quitter.”
Laughing, I take a sip of my beer. This feels good… being among my teammates for an evening out to celebrate new friends and say farewell to others. Malik and Jimmy are headed out tomorrow, along with Merritt Gables, Tank Richardson, and Sal Mezzina from the Vegas office.
I wasn’t blowing smoke up Dozer’s ass either. It’s a black-op mission. Sometimes, we are hired by our government, and the missions can be dangerous. While these men are fairly new in my life and we’re just getting to know each other, we’re now brothers of sorts, so I feel a modicum of worry for them. It’s not so secretive we haven’t been filled in on the details, but it’s delicate enough it doesn’t go any further than our company.
Jameson will work in conjunction with an international rescue team, which will go in to try to recover a few relief workers taken hostage in Syria. Our guys will work with some off-the-books teams from the United Kingdom and Australia.
I don’t pretend to understand the internal dynamics of our government, but it was somewhat of a surprise when I accepted the job with Jameson Force Security to learn we’re often hired to perform military operations instead of sending in the actual military. Something to do with budgetary constraints and political ramifications, but in essence… we’re often sent in when it’s not affordable for the military defense budget to be tapped or our government cannot be associated with a certain type of mission.
Regardless, our guys will be dropped in a hotbed of hostility to rescue hostages, despite our country’s clear policy of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists or hostage-takers”. It makes me uneasy and worried for my friends.
“Saint,” Malik calls, breaking into my thoughts. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?” I ask. This is the first opportunity we’ve had to go out with Malik and Jimmy since they joined a few weeks ago. We’d been a bit sidetracked with the Cruce and Barrett situation—saving Barrett from a maniac who was trying to kidnap her.
Malik leans forward, placing his arms on the table. His expression is one of extreme interest and excitement. “Cruce says you used to be a world-class thief before joining Jameson.”
Everyone goes silent, all eyes on me. We’re a new team, and we’re still figuring each other out. Kynan hasn’t told anyone my background, but I’m not embarrassed by it. However, Cruce knows because I filled him in one night after too many beers.
Chuckling, I nod—affirming the rumor he’d heard. “And before that, I was in the Marine Corps, same as you.”
Malik whistles low in appreciation. “No, shit? Man, that is way too cool. I bet you have some amazing stories.”
“Most would land me in prison,” I say slyly. “Which is why I’ll never share them.”
“I get it,” Malik replies, holding his hands up.
The waitress appears with a tray loaded with shots of tequila, lime wedges, and a saltshaker. As she unloads everything, Cage points at me. “Give that man the bill. He’s apparently loaded.”
Oh, such a young pup who doesn’t have a clue as to the reasons people do horrible things.
Yes… I spent many years stealing. High-end robberies for insanely expensive items and I traveled the world doing it.
It’s wrong. It’s against the law, unethical, and even against my own moral codes.
But I had my reasons, and I make no apologies. Besides, I paid the ultimate price for my time as a thief… and I’m not talking about the time I spent in prison.
Although I did go to jail for my crimes, it was nothing compared to what I lost.
Shaking my head, I pull my wallet out and hand the waitress a hundred-dollar bill, telling her to keep the change.
Then I tell Cage, “I gave away a good chunk of the money I made, but still—I did all right for myself.”
“You fucking gave it away?” Jimmy appears astonished. “Like a modern-day Robin Hood?”
I don’t answer at first, not minding all the eyes pinned on me. I’ve suddenly become the most interesting man in the world to my new friends. Picking up the saltshaker, I lick the area under my thumb before sprinkling salt there.
After I pass the shaker to Barrett, who sits to my right, she mimics my actions and hands it to the next person. I hoist my shot of tequila up while everyone readies their own shots. “I’m no Robin Hood, who was noble to a fault. As a thief, I was selfish. My work suited my own needs. But yeah… I gave most of it away.”
“But why?” Malik asks, and I cut my eyes to Cruce. Besides Kynan, he’s the only one who knows my entire story.
His expression reassures me that no one at this table would judge me for my past.
But I don’t feel like getting into it tonight. Not at a table full of near drunks. I’m sure I’ll share one day—maybe in a more intimate setting. One on one, probably.
If people are genuinely interested.
Tonight, though, it will be my secret.
I scan the long bar behind Cruce, crowded with Pittsburgh’s movers and shakers. Three months ago, Kynan opened a new headquarters for Jameson Force Security here in Pittsburgh. This bar isn’t anywhere near our office building, which he’d placed squarely in the worst section of town to keep people away. We’re in an upscale bar with established professionals, many in the banking or medical industry, which has replaced steel as the city’s best-known commodity. Young millennials celebrate the end of a workday by ignoring each other and concentrating on their phones.
And right there… a beautiful woman enjoys a drink.
I lick the salt from my hand before tipping my tequila down my throat. Picking up the lime wedge before me, I bite into it, savoring the juice a moment before discarding it.
Letting my gaze roam over my friends, I stand slowly and button my suit jacket. Unlike everyone else’s casual clothes, I’m wearing a designer business suit.
What can I say? I like to dress nice.
“Sorry, ladies.” I smile at Anna and Barrett before scanning the fellows. “And gents… but we’ll save the reason I became a thief for another time. I see something that looks a whole lot more fun than you people.”
I cut my eyes to the woman. She’s around my age—which is thirty-six—maybe even a bit older. In a designer dress with an expensive handbag, she wears expensive jewelry but no wedding ring. I’m betting she’ll smell of high-end perfume.
All heads at our table swing the direction in which I’m looking.
Dozer murmurs, “Very nice.”
Cage barks out a laugh. “No way. She’s so out of your league.”
“She is wearing a nice haul of jewelry,” Cruce points out, and I can’t help but snicker.
Shaking my head, I wink. “Her jewels are safe from me… but other parts of her aren’t.”
“Dayum,” Dozer intones, one eyebrow shooting up. “Boy has some moves.”
Jimmy playfully covers his wife’s ears, then raises his voice, “Don’t listen to this filth, honey.”
She bats his hands away, laughing, then playfully says, “I’ll lay twenty on the table that Saint scores.”
“Baby,” Jimmy exclaims with faux shock she’d dare wager on a man’s sex life. But then he grins and pulls his wallet out. “Twenty on him striking out.”
They call out bets left and right, but I ignore them. I shoot Anna a gracious wink to show my appreciation for her confidence in me, then move around the table toward the lonely looking, but incredibly beautiful, woman at the bar.
Only to be cut off by Kynan McGrath.
I pull up hard, a bit astonished to see him. He’d declined our invitation to go out for drinks, saying he had important calls to handle. Bebe Grimshaw—our resident hacker—hadn’t come either, but her son Aaron wasn’t feeling well. She’d wanted to head home to check on him.
“Got a minute?” Kynan asks.
“Yeah… sure,” I say, momentarily forgetting the woman at the bar.
He moves through the crowd, heading toward the exit. I glance at the table, finding my teammates watching. They hadn’t failed to see Kynan come in. The huge, blond Brit is hard to miss, even in this crowd.
I follow Kynan out onto the sidewalk. It’s the first week of June—not quite summer—and the evening temperatures are amazing. It can’t be more than sixty degrees out, which is a pleasant change to the body heat inside the bar.
The streets aren’t crowded, so Kynan moves a few feet down from the doorway, turning to face me before leaning against the building. “Had an interesting call tonight. Jack Powers of Allied Insurance Services.”
This piques my interest. “Specializes in insuring famous artworks.”
“He called on behalf of several insurers. Seems there’s been a rash of high-end hits over the past two years. They’re pooling their resources to try to bring this ring down.”
“What makes them think it’s an organized ring?” I ask. Most jobs are independently done on a small scale.
“There are some patterns,” Kynan says with a shrug. “Rare techniques being used.”
This makes sense. A lot of thieves have distinct calling cards. Enhanced skills they’ve become known for.
My specific forte was in advanced technology tactics to bypass digital security systems. Others are great at hot-wiring expensive collector cars.
“He wants to hire us to infiltrate a well-known crew operating out of Europe. They suspect this crew is putting together a huge heist—that these prior hits were practice for a much larger payday.”
“You don’t just infiltrate a heist ring,” I say blandly. “You have to have connections.”
“The name William Mears mean anything to you?” Kynan asks.
I blink in surprise. “Yeah. British. Did some jobs with him. He’s one of the best.”
“Well, he’s apparently the suspected crew leader. Working out of Paris.”
I have to think for a moment, but it only takes half that time for a chill to shoot up my spine. “Wait a minute… does Powers know I work for you? What makes him think you have anyone here at Jameson who could have a leg in with this ring?”
Kynan nods. “They’ve apparently had eyes on you since you got out of prison. They knew you worked here.”
Jesus… insurers of precious artworks and jewelry have watched me since I got out of prison? I never thought they’d go so far as to protect their assets in that way.
I’m flattered—at least a little.
But then another thought strikes. “If the insurance industry has kept tabs on me, what makes you think the bad guys haven’t done the same? It’s entirely possible Mears knows I work for you.”
Kynan shrugs. “Maybe. Maybe not. But I suspect if you went to him, asked to get on his crew, and he declines, then he probably knows you work for me.”
“They kill people for less than that,” I say pointedly.
“Which is why it’s up to you if you want to take this job,” Kynan says. “I told Jack I’d lay it out to you, but it was your decision since you’d be going in alone with no backup and you’d be putting your neck on the line. They want to know who the mastermind is and how they bankroll the operation. I don’t imagine they care about Mears. They want the guy who hired him and his crew, and they want to know what’s coming down the pike. Bottom line is to put them out of business.”
I have no love lost for the people who are still in the business of stealing pricey stuff, but I have nothing against them either. Live and let live is my motto.
But it could also be an important job for Jameson. I don’t have the skills Malik and Jimmy have. I’m not going to run off to a Middle Eastern country to save hostages.
This is my chance to be useful to the man who hired me straight out of prison.
“When would I leave?” I ask.
“Tomorrow,” he says. “They’re anxious for you to start.”
“I need all the up-to-date information on Mears,” I say. “What he’s been doing the last few years and such.”
He’s going to be my in, so I have to know what he’s been up to. I need him to want me on his crew.
Kynan pushes away from the building. “I’ll have the information by morning. And Bebe will have a new alias for you to travel under. She’s working on the documents now.”
I nod. “I’ll make arrangements to fly out tomorrow.”
Smiling, Kynan sticks his hand out. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” I reply, feeling surprisingly good about this job. I fucking love Paris. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. I’ve spent a bit of time there over the years. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a lady inside who many of your employees don’t think I have a snowball’s chance in hell with. I need to go prove them wrong.”
Tipping his head back, Kynan lets out a deep laugh before motioning toward the door. “By all means… go do your thing.”
I’d like to visit Havana to take in the culture and history.
But this is a business trip, and I’m ready for it to be over. It’s taken longer to build our con than I’d like. Thankfully, though, the plan goes down tonight.
I wait on a darkened street running along Otto Schreiber’s property line. It has a five-foot brick wall around the exterior, which allows me to see the house on the other side.
A retired German businessman, Otto wasn’t easy to get close to. Since he’s suspicious by nature, while being protective of the pretty objects he’s accumulated and locked away in his home, it took two long weeks to set things up.
The plan is simple—seduce, distract, and rob.
Luckily, I’m not the one expected to seduce. There are some lines I won’t cross. No, I’m here because my particular skillset includes combination recovery—safe cracking.
It’s an art form. Experts—like me—train for years to learn to do it quickly and efficiently. Sure, there are auto-dialers and manipulation robots that use software to figure out combinations, but those can take hours.
I can crack a three-number combination in as little as seven minutes. The credit goes to my dad for teaching me.
An exterior light darkens on the back of Otto’s house, which is my signal the coast is clear. It’s my partner’s way of informing me that Otto is distracted and the downstairs guest bathroom window is unlocked.
After scanning the street, I put my hands on top of the brick wall and hoist myself up. I seriously dig the role reversals on this job. I’m the one using my muscles and cat-like grace to scale a wall while Neal is inside seducing Otto. Of course, it helps Otto is gay, which means my seduction talents wouldn’t have worked anyway.
Neal isn’t gay, but I’m not sure he’s straight, either. He could be bi, but maybe he just does whatever it takes to get the job done. On the scarier side, he pretty much has no moral compass. To him, there’s no difference between banging a man or a woman if it’ll ensure the plan goes off without a hitch.
There’s one security guard who patrols the property, which takes up a city block and is filled with lush gardens. While Neal was busy over the last two weeks meeting Otto and building his trust to get a precious invite into his house, I did reconnaissance and monitored his staff’s activities. The interior house staff left after they served Otto dinner, around eight. His security—the one man patrolling—stayed all night, but his habits are routine and predictable. He works in a counterclockwise pattern around the house. When he gets to the back gate, he always takes a smoke break. As I peer into the garden illuminated with up-lighting around the bases of a few trees, I spot the faint trail of smoke near the rear gate.
I lift my leg over the wall and nimbly jump to the ground, barely rustling a blade of grass.
I’m dressed in black, of course. It sounds cliché, but it’s the best camouflage. Even though my skin is dark-toned, I still pull the black knit mask down. There are no security cameras, but I still don’t want to take any chances. If someone saw me, they could finger me in a lineup.
Hunched low to stay within the shadows, I creep along the side of the house to the bathroom window. I give it a push and after a tiny groan of distress, it lifts fairly easily. I pull myself up and onto the windowsill, managing to slither my way across the toilet and onto the white hexagon-tiled floor with barely a sound.
Moving to the doorway, I listen carefully.
Music—light and mellow—and murmured voices from what sounds like the direction of the kitchen. While this is my first time in the home, Neal was able to draw a map after his first visit two days ago when Otto invited him to dinner. Neal’s job was simple that night—merely be charming enough to get another invitation.
Somehow, it worked, but then again, Neal is a conman extraordinaire. In real life, he’s anything but charming. An asshole, actually. Someone I despise and hate working with, but unfortunately, I don’t have much of a choice in what I do or who I work with lately.
It’s frightening how easy Neal can chameleon himself into whatever’s needed on a job.
Satisfied Neal and Otto are occupied based on the conversation I can hear, I tiptoe across the large foyer and up the curved staircase to the second floor. Neal hasn’t been up here, but we’re relying on secondhand information that says Otto’s safe is in the master bedroom behind a knockoff Chagall painting.
I find it easily and sure enough, the painting swings on hinges away from the wall as promised. Inside is a J. Baum safe, probably dating back to the early 1900s. I take a moment to appreciate the faded gold lettering and its history.
But then I get to work, switching on my penlight, I hold it between my teeth to shine on the combination wheel.
Lock manipulation requires using your fingers, eyes, and ears to work the lock and exploit mechanical imperfections to determine the combination. Once I have the numbers, I have to put them together to open the lock.
Before I do that though, I quickly run through a list of about ten known lock combinations that safe companies pre-install during the manufacturing process. I doubt this old safe still has the factory-installed combo. It doesn’t, which I confirm in the forty-five seconds it takes to run through them.
And now… it’s time to get down to business. I press a button on my watch to start a timer. Not that Neal has given me a deadline. He’s promised to keep Otto busy and away from the master bedroom, “Even if it means fucking him on the kitchen table”. I grimace even imagining it, but not because I have anything against gay sex. That can be hot, but the thought of Neal having sex with anyone churns my stomach because he’s an assholish creep.
No, I set the watch to try to beat my own time. I’m motivated by goals and competition.
When the timer starts, I turn the dial clockwise, slowly moving it while listening carefully. I keep my fingers light on the wheel, waiting for that first “snick” to tell me what I need.
The knock on my hotel door interrupts my frustrated pacing. I’ve had my bags packed for hours. I’m ready to go, but I have to make sure Neal’s fine. The plan was to have him stay the night with Otto—if Otto turned out to be a cuddler or something. But I’d expected him at our hotel first thing this morning.
As it stands, it’s going on two and I’m pissed.
Slinging the door open, I angrily demand, “Where the hell have you been?”
He smirks as he steps inside, but he doesn’t answer my question. Instead, he says, “Did you know your accent becomes more low class when you’re angry? What do they call that… cockney?”
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” I ask. “Because I’m surprised a dumb American can tell the subtleties of British accents.”
See, asshole. That’s how you deliver an insult.
Still, I was born about as low class as you can get, abandoned in a Tottenham hospital by the woman who birthed me. I knew from early on I was different, mostly because the color of my skin was darker than the only parents I’ve ever known. I asked them about it when I was three, and they told me the truth. God bless George and Clara Westin for the transparent honesty they’d always given me. They never hid the truth about adopting me, and they’d even made every effort to find information about my birth parents.
There was precious little, though. My birth mum had come in under a fake name, although the nurses believed she was biracial because her skin color was lighter and she had light-colored eyes—a hazel-green—which I also have.
But who knows about those things? I read somewhere that skin, eye, and hair color can lay dormant for generations only to pop up when least expected.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Despite a hormonal meltdown when I was thirteen, which had more to do with me getting my period and less with my ethnic identity crisis, I grew up in a relatively secure and loving household where the circumstance of my birth didn’t matter.
Just as they don’t matter here.
I shut the door behind Neal, not bothering to ask again why he’s so late. He’d probably give me gory details about what he and Otto did, and I can do without those images.
“Have any problems?” he asks as he plops on his back on my bed. Glad I won’t be sleeping there anymore.
“Just over eight minutes,” I say proudly. Not my best time, but definitely nowhere near my worst.
Walking over to my purse, I pull out the black velvet bag I stored the loot in. Pulling it out, I hold up the massive oval sapphire-and-diamond ring. The Sri Lankan sapphire weighs in at a little over sixty-nine carats. While a little too gaudy for my tastes, the fact it will fetch a few million on the black market makes it palatable to me.
“You put the fake in its place?” he asks, and I roll my eyes.
“No, I decided to leave him the real one after I did all that work of cracking the combo.”
Laughing, Neal rolls off my bed. Heading to the door, he says, “I’m going to go take a shower. I got extra dirty last night, if you know what I mean.”
I do… and I don’t want to think about it. Poor Otto.
“Can you hurry it up?” I ask as he exits my room. “I’d like to get out of here.”
He doesn’t answer. Doesn’t even bother shutting the door.
Growling, I stomp across my room and slam the door shut. Nabbing my phone off the small desk, I avoid the bed and flop in the chair instead. I dial my dad, immediately feeling my anxiety lift when he answers.
“Sindaria,” he exclaims when he answers, rocking the cockney accent. It makes me smile. “How’s Havana?”
“Hot. I miss London,” I say. “Heading out tonight.”
“I miss you too,” he says gruffly, which means he translated my words into ‘I miss you’.
“Any problems while you were there?”
He’s asking whether I had any problems cracking the safe. It’s important to him because my dad passed his skills along to me. George Westin was a master lock manipulator and thief extraordinaire. While I’m sure my mum would have liked to have me go into a different profession, that ended up being moot as she died when I was seven. It made me closer to my dad than ever, and I proudly followed in his footsteps.
“Wasn’t a great time,” I say, disappointment filling me. “Over eight minutes.”
My dad chuckles. “Sindaria… you can do something only a handful of people in the world can. And you’re upset with eight minutes?”
“Well, no,” I admit with a huff. “But… well, I’m tired. Plus, Neal is an asshole—”
“Wish you wouldn’t work with that guy,” my dad cuts in. He knows Neal. In this line of work, people tend to know the same players, and he can’t stand him either.
“I know,” I say softly, but that’s about all I can.
My dad has no clue I don’t have a choice but to work with Neal. That I’m an indentured servant right now until I fulfill a certain job quota with the current crew I’m on.
I’m stuck with no wiggle room to escape.
But I can’t tell my dad. The pickle I’ve gotten myself into would kill him.
Especially since he’s the reason I’m stuck.
Things are moving faster than I imagined they would. I’ve been in Paris less than thirty-six hours, but I’m on track to meet the unnamed kingpin whom the insurance companies believe is planning a major heist.
Frankly, it’s not something I had expected. When I’d reached out to William Mears, inquiring if he was interested in my services because I wanted to return to the business, I expected I’d have to work hard to prove my worth.
But William seemed absolutely delighted I’d contacted him, especially with my assurance I was in possession of new technology that would make modern-day security systems seem like tinker toys. Thank God for Bebe and her massively ginormous techie brain. She loaded me up with all kinds of goodies before I left for the airport.
When I touched down in Paris, I checked into a hotel under my travel alias. It’s something all thieves do. While the insurance consortium is paying my bills, I do have to account for my expenditures. Still, I’d told them I needed to stay somewhere fairly posh as my ability to get into this ring was going to be my portrayal as a still-relevant player.
I’d just gotten out of prison, so I don’t want them to consider me ‘down on my luck’. I want to paint the impression I have many options, which means I don’t have to take whatever they decide to offer me. Luckily, the consortium didn’t balk at my request. I have a nice per diem that will let me put on the necessary airs I’ll need to sell my game.
I had dinner with William last night. He and I worked a few crews together in my early days, before I ventured out as an independent contractor. He’s the type who buckles down and gets serious on a job, but who can kick back with a pint after.
When I’d gone off on my own, William moved more into a managerial/planning role with a crime lord. He’d put his considerable experience with heisting into devising perfect plans and managing to pull off numerous high tech and expensive robberies.
Oh, the vault is on the sixty-third floor and protected by armed guards and lasers? No worries… William would come up with some elaborate scheme to scale that fucking building, then cut a hole through the side while suspended from cables.
He was bat-shit crazy, but it worked.
Or so I’ve heard.
At dinner, William had asked, “You ready to go straight into the big leagues or do you need some time to acclimate?”
“What do you have planned?” I’d asked, hoping he’d spill the beans about what I needed. If he did, I could head home with my mission accomplished.
It could never be that easy, though. All he’d said was, “Something bigger than anything that has ever been done. But I have to clear you with the boss.”
At the mention of the boss, a thrill went through me, but that could mean anything.
William and I made small talk. He’d asked what I’d been up to since getting out of prison, and I’d flat out lied. Told him I’d tried some odd jobs, but nothing had stuck. If he were on to me, then there was nothing I could do. I’d deal with it if I had to, but I feel pretty secure he wouldn’t introduce me to someone above his pay grade if he thought I was undercover.
We left after he gave me a business card for a Julian Mercier with instructions to be at the address listed at nine AM.
So, here I am.
The restaurant—Margeaux—has a menu posted in a glass case beside the door, which indicates it’s only open for dinner. When I try the handle, I find it unlocked.
Inside, I take note of the marble flooring, expensive chandeliers, and heavy leather chairs around mahogany dining tables. It’s not necessary to translate the euro prices to know only the wealthy eat here.
A burly man in a dark suit hurries through the seating area. His smile is polite, but his tone is anything but. “We’re closed.”
“Door was open,” I point out, not sure why I feel the need to be a smart ass. I’m not a small man, standing nearly as tall as this dude, but he’s twice as wide as I am. Not to mention, his fists look pretty meaty.
I’m shocked when he chuckles. “So it was. What can I do to help you?”
Hands clasped in front of me, I flash a grin. I’m rocking a light gray suit with a pale pink tie and pocket kerchief. I make sure my Vacheron Constantin watch and Cartier cuff links are on display. Those were not purchased by the insurance consortium. Rather, they are plunder from my early days of robbing jewelry stores, long before I ever went into the Marine Corps. “I have an appointment with Mr. Mercier at nine.”
“Mr. Bellinger,” the man replies with a nod, affirming he’d expected me this morning. “I’m Cesar. If you’ll follow me, please.”
He leads me through the restaurant, the kitchen, and then down a hallway.
“Where are you from, Cesar?” I ask. His accent is not French, so I’m guessing he’s from Spain.
“Portugal,” he replies, but he offers no more. Instead, he pauses when we arrive at a door. Before opening it, he gives it three sharp raps.
When he motions for me to go before him, I find myself inside an ordinary office, which seems out of place with the grandeur of the restaurant. Wooden desk, two nondescript chairs, and substandard art on the walls.
I take everything in quickly, the ingrained training to check out my surroundings before the people kicking in.
I’m surprised to see William there, since I was under the impression he wouldn’t be. No matter, though.
William barely waits for Cesar to pull the door shut to give us privacy before he introduces me to the other man.
Julian Mercier has to be in his sixties at least, but he wears it well. He’s bald, although the pattern of stubble suggests it’s not from hair loss. But he wears his baldness like a crown. A toughened exterior with an air of cultured royalty. He sports a pearl-colored tailored silk suit with a burgundy-and-brown paisley tie. Not a combo I’d choose, but it works in Paris.
“Mr. Bellinger,” he says, his Parisienne accent elegant. Last night in my hotel room, I’d Googled him, discovering Mr. Mercier was born and raised in Paris. While well-traveled, he has never lived elsewhere. He’s a renowned businessman who owns several high-end restaurants, retail stores, and even a massive hotel. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” I say as we shake hands.
“You come highly recommended by William.” With a gracious smile, he motions to a chair. I unbutton my suit jacket as I sit, crossing one leg over the other. He moves behind the desk, takes his seat, and steeples his hands before his face. William remains standing. “But you’ve been out of the game a long time.”
“True,” I answer with a careless shrug. “But the rust will fade once I get off the bench.”
Julian doesn’t crack a smile, but he does appraise me. “William says you have access to some of the best technology.”
“Also true,” I reply, keeping it vague.
Playing it cool. I don’t need you, but you need me.
“Why did you quit?” he asks. He keeps his questions elusive, too, but it’s obvious he means my life as a thief.
“Got pinched.” My answer is frank. “Didn’t have the goods on me, but they got me on obstruction charges. Enough to put me away for a couple years.”
Julian nods, but it’s obvious he already knew.
“Why not go straight?” he inquires. Casually, he crosses his arms on the desk.
“My mom died while I was in prison,” I say, still marveling at the pinch of pain I get when I allow myself to remember. “After I was released, I tried to go legit, but I realized… I can’t let go. I’m too good at what I do, and the rewards are better than the risks any day.”
“And if I brought you onto my team, what would you bring to the table?”
“Besides the most up-to-date tech, auto-dialers, spyware, and surveillance, you won’t find anyone with bigger balls than me.”
Julian’s eyes flash with mirth. He likes my answer. “But why not go out on your own? From what I heard, you weren’t much of a team player in the past.”
“And look where that got me.” I snicker, forcing my laugh to sound careless.
Julian and William chuckle, too, but I sober. “Look, with good financing and the best resources, getting caught is a minimal risk. I’m safer working with a team than without. Whatever you have going on, I want in.”
Julian’s brow creases as he studies me. Suddenly, he relaxes, giving William an imperceptible nod before appraising me once more. “Before I bring you on, I’d like to test you. We have a job lined up right now. You understand, no?”
“Absolutely,” I say, a small tingle going up my spine. I may want to go legit and leave my life of crime behind, but the prospect of stealing something still juices me up.
“Good,” Julian replies. He rises from behind the desk, then holds his hand out. When I do the same, we shake. Turning to William, he says, “Might as well introduce him to the team he’ll be working with.”
“Yes, sir.” William motions me toward the door. Once I give Julian a slight bow of gratitude, I exit.
As William escorts me through the kitchen area, I ask him, “Why does a wealthy businessman, especially one who seems to be doing well for himself, have to resort to heading a criminal enterprise?”
William chuckles. “It’s the criminal enterprise that enables him to do well.”
Nah… I don’t buy it. Julian Mercier’s legitimate businesses are worth a fortune. If I had to bet, I’d wager he’s in the game because he’s a thrill-seeker or a devoted collector.
Don’t get me wrong—I understand the appeal. While not the main reason, I did love the adrenaline high I’d get from successfully pulling off a heist.
It was almost as good as sex.
I assumed William would transport me elsewhere to meet the rest of the crew. Instead, he cuts through the dining room into a small alcove with a staircase. After plodding up one flight, we stop at a single wooden door, at the landing.
He opens it, walks in and I follow.
A quick scan shows thick emerald carpet, paneled walls, and chandeliers. Heavy leather furniture… couches, chairs, and ottomans. A horseshoe-shaped bar in the middle. Perhaps it’s a club room where patrons retire for brandy and cigars after dinner?
Regardless, I turn my attention to the people inside.
Not counting William and me, there are four others.
But their faces aren’t computing. Nothing registers after I let my eyes linger on the first person. A woman.
She’s tall and willowy with coffee-and-cream skin. Her exotically gorgeous hazel eyes widen in surprise.
William grins. “That’s right… you two know each other, don’t you?”
At the sight of her, an overload of feelings course through me. Drowning in the hatred, shock, and—fuck-me-standing—the instant, electrifying lust doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibilities.
Forcefully swallowing my enmity, I try to sound unaffected. Showing my hand will only fuck up this mission before it even starts.
“Hello, Sin,” I manage. My tone sounds almost civil, which is so at odds with the turmoil inside me.
“Hello, Saint,” she replies, obviously as upset as I am.
Code Name: Heist (Jameson Force Security, Book #3) is a standalone romantic suspense within The Jameson Force Security series. See the full details and get your copy HERE.