Authors: Kaye Blue
Tags: #Interracial Romantic Suspense
Kaye Blue’s Men Who Thrill
The Next Sacrifice?
Sacrifices are necessary. And sometimes innocents have to suffer for the greater good.
I’ve always told myself that. Believed it, too.
Until I collided with her.
She’s plain, curvy, probably easily overlooked by most. Still, I sense a strength in her, a fire, a kindred spirit that draws me.
But she’s asking questions, questions that I can’t answer, questions that very powerful people don’t want asked. And if I can’t convince her to stop, she might be my next sacrifice.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
“So the rumors are true?” the man standing next to me asked.
I kept my hands locked behind my back, eyes front, face unmoving. I didn’t even blink.
“Guess so,” he said once he’d accepted that I would not be providing a response. “It must be tough to sit with that stick rammed in so deep. I guess that explains why you always stand.”
I maintained my posture, and he again eventually got the message. After a last look, he shrugged and then continued with his task, placing three black folders in precise piles atop the metal desk. After the folders were set to their exact specifications, he moved around the desk to the minifridge and retrieved a bottle of water, some expensive kind from Iceland or Greenland or somewhere like that, and set it atop the desk, along with a glass garnished with a slice of lime.
Anyone watching the scene would have taken the man for a waiter, an assistant, an errand boy, harmless.
They would have been mistaken.
He was dangerous, a seasoned and skilled soldier. Like me.
“Seriously, man. You gotta relax. Being so tense will send you to an early grave.”
I was halfway there already. Him, too, something we both knew well but that he liked to ignore. I felt the first spark of annoyance growing, but I pushed it down. This was a tiresome conversation, one that we’d had countless times. I was serious, but so was our business. And the General didn’t look fondly on laxness of any kind.
“I mean, really—”
He cut off short at the sound of approaching steps and immediately stood at attention, the gregariousness of the last few moments fleeing in an instant, the edge that being in the General’s presence brought now apparent.
“Is my water prepared?” the General said as soon as he entered.
“Yes, sir,” the other man responded.
“And the papers I requested?”
“All in order, sir.”
“That will be all.”
The man left, knowing he’d been dismissed. As it was with the General, there was no change in his voice, no yelling, no demand. His power emanated from something else, something that wasn’t apparent when people first glimpsed at him, but something that they quickly realized was there. He was the embodiment of the idea that strength and power weren’t always derived from perceivable physical makeup.
And while I was much more of a presence, my height and stature inevitably making smart people fear me and stupid ones want to test me, I respected the General’s more circumspect facade, and used it as a constant reminder that people were occasionally not what they first seemed.
The General sat, sipped his water, and then casually leafed through the files on his desk.
“I have a project for you,” he said.
I’d figured as much. He never summoned me for leisurely chats, so when I’d gotten the call, I knew my next project was at hand.
“What’s the work?” I asked.
I could never be sure what task I might face on any given day. The General trusted me with a variety of projects, some simple, some less so, so I was always prepared for the unexpected.
“I’m uncomfortable with the state of things over at Titan,” he said, referring to the huge defense contractor. “The board of directors has installed a new CEO, but I don’t know him, and after that mess with Tillman, I need additional eyes and ears in house.”
“Who did you have in mind?”
“You,” the General said, leveling me with an unwavering stare.
“What do you mean?” I asked, just barely managing to keep the surprise out of my face and my voice.
“I’m sending you in as Titan’s new director of security. Everything has been arranged and your cover is set.”
To say I was surprised would be an understatement. The General’s directives always varied, but I was more of a…blunt instrument, and what I was best at, and most comfortable with in no way included what the General was describing.
“Are you certain? I’m not usually in such a forward-facing position.”
I hadn’t intended the challenge that was clear in my voice, but it was there nonetheless. The General leaned back, the only hint that he was displeased by my question—and my tone—but I didn’t doubt he was unhappy with both. I didn’t make it a habit to question orders, but this move was beyond curious.
Like I said, I was more of a blunt instrument, and the size and prominence of Titan meant that its director of security would have to do a lot more interacting with the public than I was used to. Seemed simple to me, but the General said nothing. He’d issued his order; there was nothing further to discuss.
“I’ll be there in the morning,” I said.
He nodded, satisfied. “And before you go, there’s one other thing I need you to take care of.”
“He’s downstairs,” the General said, grabbing the remote control that lay atop his desk and then clicking on the television that sat across the room. On the screen was a man, bound and gagged, lying in the fetal position on the floor of one of the holding cells deep in the guts of headquarters.
“We got what we needed, so we’re finished with him.”
“Did he say why he did it?” I asked.
“They all have their reasons. It’s not like they matter.”
Or, the General said without saying, whatever this person’s motives, he’d run afoul of the General in one way or another, and would now pay the price.
“I’ll take care of it,” I said as I left the office.
“It’s great to have you aboard,” Howell Hamill, the new CEO of Titan Industries said.
“And it’s great to be here. I’m looking forward to a fruitful relationship and helping ensure that Titan is the most safe and secure company in the industry,” I said.
I felt the scowl on my face, heard the stiffness in my voice, so low it was a near growl, but Hamill accepted the words without comment. He simply smiled brighter and pumped my hand harder. I wanted to snatch it back and pommel him with it and then rip off the damn tie and suit jacket that were currently strangling me, but I maintained my cool and schooled my features into what I hoped was an if not welcoming, at least not intimidating expression.
And besides, my current predicament wasn’t Hamill’s fault, so it wouldn’t be right to take my anger out on him, much as I wanted to, and I really,
wanted to. The last two hours had been torture, the chitchat and getting-to-know-you bullshit making me want to choke someone.
Instead, though, I followed Hamill down the neutral halls of Titan, making a series of stops, nodding and shaking hands with a string of executives more generic than the one before, trying to fit in.
It was a struggle.
I’d said my cover name a thousand times, and it still felt foreign, strange. I also did what I felt was a passing imitation of a first-day executive eager and excited about my new role, but no matter how I stacked it, I was uncomfortable.
It wasn’t the project; I had settled in one spot before, often for months on end to root out traitors that had infiltrated critical organizations or to get rid of people who knew or had done things they’d had no business knowing or doing.
But never like this. I worked in the margins, played where there were no niceties, no rules. And these rituals, the nods at civility were taxing.
The General had assured me that this was necessary, that given the security at Titan and his lack of familiarity with the new CEO, this was the only way I’d have the kind of access he needed.
I doubted it.
Even I, who much preferred being in the trenches, had a more than passing familiarity with computer-based security systems, and I was far from the best. But the General had access to the best and brightest. So as secretive as Titan was, there was nothing that they had that someone on our team wouldn’t have been able to find from headquarters.
But the General had been insistent, said he needed boots on the ground, needed someone he could trust to work in house, figure out who knew what and why.
So here I was, the wolf shrouded as the shepherd, wondering if any of the lambs at Titan were headed for slaughter.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
A few hours later, after what felt like a million introductions and enough inane chatter to make me reach for my side arm, I got away from Hamill, begging off his lunch invitation citing anxiousness to get started as an excuse. And it was true. Putting aside the fact that breaking bread with Howell and his cronies, or puppeteers, would be a heretofore undiscovered layer of hell, there was indeed work to do.
I was familiar with Titan, at least on the surface. The General took a great deal of interest in the company given that it was such a prominent defense contractor, and, though he hadn’t ever expanded on the nature of the relationship, I knew that his interest went beyond the obvious.
The exact nature of the General’s interest was a question, the answer to which would undoubtedly be helpful with the task at hand, but the General shared information as he saw fit, and it was my duty to make the best of what I had. That in mind, I began.
The General had instructed me to get a feel for things, see how the system was running and whether there was anything he should be concerned with. Broad parameters, but ones I knew well and understood how to implement. I wasn’t certain there was any wrongdoing afoot, or anything that might be of concern, but in a place like Titan, I knew nothing was what it seemed. So I started digging.
Based on my preliminary research, Hamill was exactly as he appeared: so far over his head that he didn’t even realize he was drowning. There were a couple of red flags on the board, something I’d look into further at some point, but almost immediately, I settled on the data analysis group as my first real target for deeper investigation.
If there were trouble at Titan, it’d be there. The group was well placed enough to have access to information, but still anonymous enough and their work vague and incomprehensible enough that the higher-ups probably paid it no mind. In short, a perfect place to hide all manner of nefarious deeds and precisely where I planned to start.
At exactly ten thirty the next morning, I scanned my security card, heard the
of the stairwell door unlocking, and quickly made my way down the one flight of stairs that separated the C-suite where I was, from the fourth floor, where data analysis was.
I walked through the halls on the fourth floor with quick strides, pointedly ignoring the curious stares of the cubicle dwellers. I had chosen this approach intentionally, wanted everyone on the floor to know I was here, and hopefully to panic. Panicked people made mistakes, and mistakes would not escape my watchful eye.
This part of the job I was going to enjoy.
“Well hello, sir.”
I was intercepted by a tall blonde who stood next to a set of cubicles, extending her hand, the most welcoming smile on her face.
I nodded and gave her hand a brief shake, lifting a brow, my request that she introduce herself apparent without words.
“I’m Susan Sterling, co-lead of the data analysis group.” She tilted her head toward the man who stood next to her. “And this is the other co-lead Daniel.”
Daniel seemed polished, the kind of guy I would imagine as a team leader in a corporate environment. He also looked like he was about to have a heart attack, a consequence of my presence I assumed. Susan, despite her friendly demeanor, also looked concerned.
So far, so good.
“And who else works in your department,” I asked after shaking Daniel’s hand.
“The department itself is fairly large, thirty permanent folks and an army of temps, but I like to think of this little group as the brain trust,” she said smiling widely.