The Runway Murder Affair

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Note: This is a preliminary draft of the book's opening and is subject to change.

Chapter 1

My comrades and I wanted the day to start with a bang, just not the kind that would result if any of our group happened to step on a mine. I especially didn’t want the report to say The task force lost the element of surprise because the Arachnid agent, Katherine “Casey” Billings, didn’t watch where she put her feet. Not only did I hate the idea of turning up dead before my twenty-eighth birthday, but Arachnid took enough flak from national intelligence agencies as it was.

As we crept through the quiet woods, I kept a wary eye out for the little yellow flags the explosive ordnance team had used to mark mine locations. The task force consisting of French counter-terrorism (GIGN) agents, assorted others, and me wore full assault gear. The black nomex coveralls, vests, goggles, gloves and gas masks were haute couture for raiding smuggling dens, but they didn’t make us invulnerable. If only.

One team had already neutralized the lookouts. With dawn just breaking over the French countryside, the jihadi smugglers occupying the two-story, stone farmhouse we surrounded should still be sleeping. We should take them by surprise. Should being the operative word.

We reached the edge of the trees. My partner, Gaston Monsengwo, nodded at me. “Team 2 ready,” his voice said in my earpiece. I couldn’t see his mouth move under the gas mask. At five-eight, I topped the wiry Congolese security officer by a couple of inches, but he had a reputation for toughness. The two guys going in behind us also checked in.

Still no signs of life in the farmhouse. With its slate roof, rustic shrubbery in the clear area around it, and matching garden shed, it could’ve graced a postcard with “Visit Central France” emblazoned over it. In French, of course.

The other teams checked in, one by one. Waiting, I let my thoughts drift to Jack, who was probably still asleep in London. Tall, dark-haired, and gray-eyed, at age thirty-four he had the skill and rugged good looks of a pirate and the soul of a knight, all wrapped up in a package that was Earl of Bainbridge, MI-5 agent, and—maybe—love of my life. I took a better grip on my Walther P99, a step up in power from my favored PPK. I wasn’t usually distractible at times like this, but knowing Lord Heartthrob waited for me gave me a new stake in my own safety, one I hadn’t expected. One I couldn’t let distract me.

The last team was checking in. Any moment, we’d roll.

Faint light streaked the gray eastern sky. Except for leaves rustling in the breeze, everything was silent. Poised. Even the birds, which should’ve been rousing, kept their peace, probably uneasy about all the strange, black figures in their domain. My own heart hammered just a little faster than usual, thanks to adrenaline pumping through me.

“Et bien,” the tenor voice of Etienne Vacher, GIGN agent and task force leader, said in my earpiece. “Avaçons.” Advance, he meant, so we hurried across the clearing to our positions by the house like a dozen drone ants converging on a picnic hamper--but an armed and deadly one.

Monsengwo, our two burly companions, and I plastered ourselves against the stone walls flanking the back door. I have a certain fondness for making things go boom. However, because this was Monsengwo’s first major op, I’d take the lead inside, so Etienne and I had agreed the newbie could have the door-blowing fun. Monsengwo and I would attack up the rear stairs. The other guys would take the cellar.

Silently, Monsengwo stuck a plastique door opener against the lock, nodded to the rest of us. He informed Etienne we were ready. A similar message from the front door team whispered in my headset.

“Still clear,” the infra-red squad scanning through the walls reported in French. Our targets hadn’t yet roused. Perfect. Looking good on the surprise front so far.

His voice now don’t-screw-with-me hard, Etienne announced us in French on a loudspeaker, then demanded the occupants’ surrender. That was the signal for a couple of guys somewhere out of sight to cut the phone line. The loudspeaker’s off switch clicked over the command net as Vacher snapped, without pausing, “Attaquons.”

Monsengwo triggered the explosive, which made a hard, fast bang and knocked the door in. We charged through the smoke. Swept our weapons across the empty kitchen and reported it clear. Through the parlor door, we could see the front team doing the same. We charged toward the stairs. A pair of muffled bang noises, in quick sequence, behind me and the vibration in the wooden floor signaled the cellar team’s flash-bangs detonating. A thunderous roar outside shook the ground as the minesweeping squad detonated the perimeter mines. That should rattle our targets nicely.

Hitting the landing, I aimed my weapon up the stairs. Monsengwo lobbed a chemical smoke grenade up to the next floor as breaking glass heralded others crashing in through the windows. Coughing, curses in French and Arabic, and sounds of scrambling came from above. My heart kicked into a faster pace, and I set my jaw because, dammit, I did want to make it home.  

I’d almost gained the top when a scruffy, bearded man popped out, Beretta in hand. As I squeezed the Walther’s trigger, his weapon fired. Lightning spiked into my side, turned my vision to streaky black. The impact knocked me backward. My head and shoulders hit hard. Streaky black became midnight with purple pinwheels, and then everything went dark.

#

I surfaced lying on my back. Breathing hurt, and someone tugging at my shirt didn’t help. Pressure on my side sent a hot knife of pain through my gut. “Ow, shit,” I snapped, forcing my eyes open. I was outside, lying on grass. “Watch—the hands—Vacher.”

Etienne Vacher leaned over me, pale blue sky behind him. Framed by his combat helmet, his narrow face and dark eyes held worry, but his lips curved up. “You always say that,” he commented in his lightly accented English, and I realized I’d automatically used my native tongue, complete with original North Carolina inflections.

“Be still,” he added.

If Etienne had time to poke at me, the fun must be over. And I’d missed it. Damn.

I’d lost my vest and headgear, and a sweat-dampened lock of dark brown hair blocked part of my vision. Shoving it back with reassuringly minimal pain, I heard the familiar mopping-up sounds around us—voices giving orders, making comments. I sucked in a painful breath and ground out, “What—”

“Your vest stopped the round,” he said, “but you’ve a nasty, hand-sized bruise. The medic will check it after she tends to those who’re bleeding.”

At my questioning look, he added, “Minor wounds, not serious. I don’t think yours is, either, but we’ll have her check. We took four of the enemy alive, recovered all their cargo and records. When we finish searching, we’ll see what we have.” He tugged my shirt down and gave me a wry smile.

Four out of ten. Not what we’d hoped. We needed all the information we could wring out of them about their plans. Gossip said they planned something huge for September, which started day after tomorrow. “The one who shot you had the worse of your exchange,” Etienne added. “You killed him. Head shot. Very neat. Monsengwo, alas, is impressed.”

“Like—you’re not.” Breathing felt marginally easier, which meant talking was.

“You always impress me, m’amie.” He grinned. “You’re probably fit for that romantic celebration I keep offering. Perhaps this time?”

I rolled my eyes. With a wink, he rose and departed. His amiable, easy manner when suggesting horizontal celebrations made the offers flattering rather than offensive. Even though I suspected he’d proposition pretty much anyone with female plumbing. Etienne had that kind of light, flirtatious charm.

Jack did not, which was one thing I loved about him. Thinking of the bruise, which would absolutely not vanish in the twenty-four to forty-eight hours before I saw him again, I grimaced. Monsengwo might be impressed. Jack definitely would not be.

#

Thirty-six hours later, I strolled into the Tube station at Heathrow. This mission didn’t have the urgency to rate a car and driver, so I’d take the Underground to Arachnid headquarters in South Wimbledon. I had work to do, but after that I was headed for Passionate Reunion City. Or so I hoped.

On the one hand, I couldn’t wait to see Jack. On the other, I didn’t like to think how his protective instincts would react to the bruise that had developed rather disgusting shades of purple and green. I’d save that little tidbit for a face-to-face explanation, but I could certainly let him know I was back. I tugged out my phone and hit his speed-dial number.

His phone rolled to voicemail. “This is Jack. Sorry I can’t take your call. You’re welcome to leave a message.” Polite but to the point, like the man himself. I smiled. I really had a bad thing for him if just hearing his deep, strong voice with its Oxbridge accent made me tingly inside.

The message tone beeped.

“Hey, Lord Hot Stuff.” Wishing I could see his reaction to that, I felt my smile broaden to a grin. “I’m back, heading to work to tie up some loose ends. Give me a call when you’re free.” I waited a beat, softening my voice. “I missed you. And I love you.”

Snapping the phone closed, I dropped it into my tan leather shoulder bag. I’d worn nice, cream-colored slacks and a lilac, short-sleeved v-neck sweater, dressier than my usual jeans and knit pullover, in the now vain hope he’d be free. At least I wouldn’t have to change before meeting him.

Coming home to someone, even though we didn’t live together, felt odd. Last time I’d left England, no one outside of work had kept track of whether or when I returned. Now I had someone who not only kept track but made coming home every day a delight in so many different ways.   

I waved my card at the turnstile scanner and pushed through. My train was at the platform, and I hurried aboard, pondering Jack and our hypothetical future. As part of his cover, he frequently moved in London’s elite social circles--what would’ve once been the ton, plus everyone else with lots of money. I wasn’t sure I could deal with that lifestyle for the long haul. Growing up poor in a textile mill town had given me certain beliefs about money the wealthy set didn’t seem to share.

As if that weren’t enough, Jack and I worked for agencies that cordially disliked each other. MI-5 and many of its counterparts resented Arachnid’s ability to skirt the rules binding them while we didn’t appreciate having them receive credit for our accomplishments because our existence was secret.

Despite all that, Jack and I had fallen in love when we worked together earlier in the summer. Jack lit me up as no one ever had. Just thinking about him had my breasts tightening and my panties damp. The ten days since I’d last seen him felt, in the language of overly hormonal teenager diaries, like forever. That love had deepened and firmed during his recovery from a chest wound he’d taken shielding me, and we’d vowed not to let work come between us.

Thinking of work reminded me of the mission I’d just finished. We’d recovered not only the expected munitions and wads of cash in dollars and various European currencies but miscellaneous other bits, including a pouch of gems and high-grade fakes. That last seemed off-kilter, not in the usual line for these people. And why mix gems and fakes? Money laundering?

Coming out of the Tube in Wimbledon, I stepped onto a street full of mundane businesses--estate agent, florist shop, tea room, book shop, and so forth—that helped conceal Arachnid’s presence in the neighborhood. I opened my phone to check messages. Just like the Queen of the Lovesick. Really, I should get a grip—the phone rang in my hand, chiming “Rule Britannia,” which I’d assigned exclusively to Jack. My heart skipped a beat, then picked up its pace—so moony, but what could I do?—as I punched the button to receive. “Hey.”

“’Lord Hot Stuff?’” Jack’s wry baritone sent fresh tingles through me.

“It fits you.” My heart swelled with love, and I wished I could see him.

“You cannot possibly expect me to agree with that.”

I laughed. “So don’t. I love your modesty, but we both know it’s true.” I did love his modesty. He’d been on track for a first, or top honors, at Cambridge until he’d deliberately washed out as part of his cover, had earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from MIT under an alias, and secretly received the George Cross from Her Majesty the Queen for deeds of valor, but he never boasted about anything.

A heavy sigh came back to me. “I’m glad I please you,” he said politely.

“You do more than please me,” I told him, gentling my voice, “and you know it.” Sent me into orbit was more like it. I couldn’t wait. “Where are you, and how’s your shoulder?

“Fine. As it was when you left.” The hint of impatience in his voice reassured me. The high chest wound had hampered his shoulder movement for a while, but he seemed over that.

“I’m at work,” he continued. “Where are you?”

“About to go into work. Dinner tonight?”

“Daphne’s cocktail party is tonight, remember? We could have a late dinner after.”

I didn’t remember, probably because I preferred to block all things Daphne-related from my brain. Jack’s childhood friend and onetime love, the aristocratic, blonde Lady Daphne Archibald, shared things with him I never could. Things like noble blood, family wealth, and social cachét. Mill workers’ kids like me come equipped with none of the above. But I was trying to make nice for his sake, so—

“Casey?”

“Sorry. I’m almost at the door. I remember the party, Jack. I’ll meet you there.” And hide my reluctance behind a smile as sincere as I suspected Daphne’s was. My radar pinged on her every time she came near Jack, giving me a strong hunch she didn’t define past quite the same way he did.

For now, though, I could forget about her and wrap up my own business, which carried considerably more importance to very many more people, even if they never knew about it.

I pushed through the front door of the unassuming brick office building, swiped my ID, and palmed the scanner. The guard on duty flicked her eyes over the readouts. With a nod, she said, “Welcome back, Agent Billings. Arachne wants to see you.”

A call to the boss’s office after a mission usually means one of two things. Either the agent summoned screwed up big time, or the mission requires sensitive follow-up. Since I hadn’t come anywhere close to screwing up, I should’ve greeted the summons with pleasure. Instead, reluctance dogged my steps as I walked to the elevator and punched Level One for the most secure part of our underground complex. If my case needed more action, I wasn’t handing it off. But I wanted my two days of standard post-mission leave to spend with Jack.

Frowning, I watched the floor readout change. When had he gotten so deeply under my skin? Was I that deeply under his? We’d talked about forever, but we’d settled nothing except that we loved each other. Settled or not, though, talk of the future popped up between us with unnerving regularity.

The elevator stopped with a ding, and the doors opened. I took about a score of steps over unremarkable indoor/outdoor carpeting--easy to clean when people bled on it--in British Blue to the faux oak, steel door of Arachne’s office.

When I opened it, the motherly receptionist, Lucy, gave me her cheery smile. “Go straight in, Agent Billings. She’s expecting you.”

I thanked her. From a desk in the corner, Arachne’s blond assistant, Martin, looked me over through his gold-rimmed glasses. “I see you returned whole, not trailing blood or other fluids.” He sniffed. “Congratulations.”

Striding past him to the inner door, I smiled in a sweet way calculated to annoy him and wondered why the hell he sounded disapproving at my lack of injury. If I’d come in bleeding, he’d have expressed concern for the carpet.

I tapped on Arachne’s door and walked in.

She looked up over half-moon glasses and waved me to a seat. We had no idea what her real name was. The head of our European operations went only by that single title, Arachne. Stylish as always in a rose silk suit, she gave me a quick nod of approval. “Very nicely done, Miss Billings.”

No too-modern Ms. for her. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She closed the folder in front of her, set it aside for a moment, and regarded me gravely. “The Security Service has taken an interest in your smuggling case.”

That was the other name for MI-5, Jack’s agency, which probably didn’t bode well. “I assume that’s not good,” I said, not wanting to leap to a nasty conclusion.

“No.” She pursed her lips. After a moment, she continued, “In fact, they have warned us off it.”

“The hell they—sorry, ma’am.” But damn it, I’d done good work on that case, as had several of my colleagues. I blew out a breath. “Do they realize all signs point to something big coming? Why the f—why wouldn’t they want all possible eyes and ears open for it?”

“Precisely my own questions.” She studied me for a moment. “According to the latest report from France, the interrogations point to one of two events as a target. The first, London Fashion Week, begins in two weeks, which you may not realize if you haven’t followed fashion news.” A tactful way to inform me since she knew I paid little attention to Fashion Anything. “The second is the Prime Minister’s wedding the next week.”

I pursed my lips in a silent, dismayed whistle. Either of those would involve hundreds of people, with thousands more on the streets. The Prime Minister’s wedding guests included a veritable Who’s Who of the Industrialized World. “Knowing that, MI-5 and MI-6 wanting to take this alone makes even less sense.”

Watching me closely, she said, “I have reliable information that the order comes at the suggestion of Lord Bainbridge. What do you know about that?”

Jack. For a moment, I couldn’t believe it, but her grim expression convinced me. Damn it, how could he? Why would he? If she said her info was reliable, though, it was. I met her stare with my own most direct one. “I know nothing about it, ma’am.” But I for-damned-sure would before today was over. How could he be that blind?

With a brief nod, as though she’d expected that reply, she continued. “This case originated in France, even though it now reaches into the United Kingdom. We have indications that there may be a mole within MI-5, which makes our persistence even more important.” She paused.

A mole? And Jack had suggested—“Arachne, you don’t think Jack—I mean, Bainbridge—” He couldn’t be, not a man who’d done and sacrificed all he had for this country.

“No,” she said firmly. “Signs point to someone among the more recent arrivals at Thames House. However, the Security Service, in keeping with its lamentable history on such questions, decline to accept the possibility. At least to us.”

I grimaced. Moles had been a large and highly placed problem for MI5 during the Cold War.

“I want you to continue the investigation,” Arachne said, “via leads this office will determine in conjunction with Interpol and GIGN. If that poses a problem for you, however, I’ll assign someone else.”

“No problem, Arachne. I’m eager to follow through.” Preferably with a right cross that would knock sense into my lover, but I knew that was childish.

“Very good. I trust you’ll inform me if problems do arise. First, however, I assume you’ll want your two day’s leave.”

“I’m not sure,” I said slowly. “Either way, I’ll come in, use the shooting range, and putter around, probably.”

“As usual.” A wry smile curved her mouth. She opened her folder again, dismissing me, and I left.

Jack and I didn’t talk about work—he legally couldn’t because of the Official Secrets Act, and regulations bound me, but tonight we had to. How could he do this? Hadn’t Petunia McIntosh, my backup, and I proved Arachnid could more than hold its own? Damn it, there were hundreds of lives, maybe thousands, at stake here.

Jack and I had spent most of our time together so far at his estate in Yorkshire while he’d recovered from his wound. Grateful for our unexpected love, we’d drifted along in that realm of new lovers, Rosy Horizons Land. Now we’d returned to the real world of inter-agency intrigue, double-dealing, and crime. I’d known we would, of course. I just hadn’t expected the double-dealing to come from him.

#

I chewed on the problem as I donned the blood red cocktail dress and three-inch, open-toed heels I’d bought for the party.   I’d have been just as angry without Jack’s involvement in this latest development. What I wouldn’t have been was hurt, which I deeply was. He’d disapproved of Arachnid and thus of Petunia and me at first, but he’d said we’d won him over. So why this?

Maybe I wasn’t being fair, though. Maybe he had a good reason, improbable though that seemed. Damn it, why hadn’t he said something when we talked? He had to know how I’d feel about this, even if he didn’t know I played a role in the investigation his service was blocking.

I’d tried to call him but had shied away from leaving a message beyond “we need to talk” since I didn’t know who’d be around when he played it, and he’d called back while I was in the shower. Much as I hated to have this talk at the party, we seemed to be stuck with that option.

Frowning at my reflection, I added the gold earrings also purchased for the event and reached for the locket that went so well with my dress. Decorated with red cloisonné enamel etched in gold, the seventeenth-century gold heart on a chain had been Jack’s gift to me, the first “real” jewelry I’d ever had. When he’d put it around my neck, then kissed it in place, his eyes in the mirror had seemed to hold his heart, as though he were giving it to me in the pendant.

I’d seldom removed the locket when we were in Yorkshire, but I didn’t feel now the way I had then. If Jack didn’t respect my work, could he really respect me?

I left the locket in its box. The form-fitting dress had a long, pointed left sleeve but bared my right shoulder and arm along with most of my back. An unadorned neck didn’t go so badly with that look.

Maybe it would distract attention from the flowing, hip-length fabric panel sewn between the left sleeve and the left side seam. Its “handkerchief” hemming reminded me of Batman’s cape from the comic book. The sales clerk had assured me the look was fashionable, and I’d seen others like it, so I’d taken her word for it. I could’ve asked Tara, the Arachnid costumer, for help but had wanted to prove to myself that I could function in Jack’s world.

Tonight I’d have preferred functioning with my Walther PPK at the firing range, but hiding from the confrontation wouldn’t help anything. I grabbed my beaded evening bag and headed out.

During my cab ride, I planned my strategy. I’d be friendly to everyone—Jack’s brother and many of their friends would be there—and just a shade extra-polite to Jack, enough that he’d notice but no one else would.

The cab let me out at the new, glass and steel Normandy Hotel, in the fashionable Docklands area. I paid the driver and turned toward the building with sudden flutters in my gut. Damn it, I didn’t know how to talk to these people. Didn’t like knowing they were judging me. When I went under cover, I had a script, a goal other than somehow making my lover see reason, and an identity that wasn’t me. Without them I felt naked. I didn’t even have the Walther to bolster my courage.

The maroon-uniformed doorman made eye contact. With a smile and an appreciative nod that bolstered my courage, he touched his cap before opening the door.

Absently, I gave him a nod of thanks. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and walked into the building.

A sign in the lobby directed me to the Tudor Room, which turned out to be paneled in dark wood, carpeted in deep blue plush, and lit with crystal chandeliers, now dimmed. Easels along the far wall held what looked like fashion sketches.

Oh, right—this was a lead-in to London Fashion Week, a chance to introduce Daphne’s new favorite designer to her friends. Vivi-Someone was the designer. I wanted to say Vivaldi, but I knew that name belonged to music, not fashion.

Strolling in, I noted the exits—corridor door behind me, its twin to my left at the other end, service entrance near the rear wall, far end. Sliding doors in the glass wall opposite, leading to a river-view terrace. A collection of dinner-jacketed men and elegantly dressed women stood scattered around the room. I didn’t recognize anyone, but my dress blended just fine. Giving myself a point, I grabbed a glass of white wine from a passing waiter and wandered toward the sketches.

“Casey! How lovely to see you,” said a cultured alto behind me.

Daphne. I took a breath and pasted on a smile before turning to greet Jack’s old love. To be fair, I think she tried to mean her welcome, just as I tried to appreciate it.

“Thanks for inviting me,” I said. “Jack will be along later. I was about to check out the sketches.”

“I’ll walk with you. Robin’s here somewhere.”

Jack’s younger brother, CEO of the family shipping line, was not exactly one of my favorite people, but I smiled as she fell into step with me.

“I think,” she added, lowering her voice, “he and Vivien have a bit of thing on.”

Vivien. That was the designer. Vivien Darrow, alias Vivi-Something. “Remind me what her label’s called, Daphne?”

“Viveka. It’s quite interesting, I think.”

It was quite high-end kink, I thought, eying the buckles, collars, corsets, pushed-up boobs and generally abundant skin on the sketches. I murmured something vague. It was hard to believe Daphne liked this stuff. Her classic little black crepe dress resembled mine far more than it did any of those images. Except hers, unlike mine, probably hadn’t had to be taken in at the bust.

“Oh, and here’s Robin,” Daphne said.

She and I turned together to greet him. As usual, I was struck by how much like Jack he looked and yet how different. His face was pleasant, not ruggedly handsome, his bearing lacking his brother’s air of command just as his frame lacked a couple of Jack’s inches in both height and shoulder breadth.

“Casey!” Careful of my drink, Robin cupped my bare shoulder and leaned in for the double-cheek air kisses he favored.

I smiled at him. “Hello, Robin.”

Daphne greeted him and wandered away. I turned my attention to Robin’s petite, blonde companion.

Robin put a proprietary hand at the small of her back. Considering the way they stood so close and he inclined his head to her, I figured Daphne was right—definitely something going on there.

“Vivien, darling,” he said, confirming Daphne’s and my shared impression, “this is Jack’s friend, Casey Billings.”

Friend? Well, there really wasn’t a good word for the relationship, except paramour, which had less than polite connotations.

As I clasped her offered hand, I noticed movement in the hall doorway at the far end of the room. A clump of people drifted inside. The last one inside stood several inches taller than the rest. Wearing evening black and white, he looked even better than I’d remembered. I sucked in a breath as my stupid heart did its usual kick-thump and lift at the sight of Jack.