The Housewife Assassin Gets Lucky – Excerpt

THE HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN GETS LUCKY  (Stand-Alone Novel)
By Josie Brown and Deborah Coonts
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When two hot, haute heroines team up to solve a murder, neither can afford to be fashionably late.

 

No one expected to find a dead girl in the Royal Suite at the Babylon’s posh London club. Who would kill her? And why?

With little to go on and no friends to rely on, Lucky O’Toole, the Babylon’s Chief Problem Solver, is dispatched to…well, to solve the problem.

But she needs to be in Paris. Her fiancé—and, worse, his mother—are counting on her presence at a party in her honor in seventy-two hours, more or less. With a personal-life time-bomb ticking, Lucky hopes for a quick solution.

A mystery woman, seen leaving the Royal Suite just before the girl’s body is discovered, attracts Lucky’s attention. She has to be the key…

On loan to the CIA, assassin Donna Stone Craig and her crack black-ops team have stepped into a viper’s nest. First, they darn near get out-bid and overwhelmed at an auction to acquire a vintage purse hiding some critical intel its lining. Then a very important source Donna is to meet at the Babylon London Club winds up dead. And the young woman’s intel—bearing incredible global consequences—is encrypted. She was the only one who could give Donna the cipher, and she’s dead. Surely someone else would know. But, who?

It’s easy to see why Acme’s prime suspect is the tall brunette who acts like she owns the place. Lucky O’Toole shows up at the wrong time, and in the wrong place.

But before Donna and Lucky can find the right answers, they’ll need to overcome their reservations, and resolve their differences. But can they learn to trust each other before the real killer gets away?

They have to. Their lives—and world peace—depend on it.


 

Josie and Deborah
Click the photo to hear Josie and Deborah talk about their collaboration, “The Housewife Assassin Gets Lucky.”

So, how easy—or hard—is it to write a novel with someone else?

In the case of THE HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN GETS LUCKY,
I was very “Lucky” in that my collaborator was also my dearest and best friend,  Deborah Coonts.

We had a blast introducing our heroines to each other. And if you've read one but not the other, this is a perfect introduction to Deborah's Lucky O'Toole or my very own Donna Stone.

 

 

 

EXCERPT

Chapter 1
LUCKY

My life imploded thirty seconds ago at 4:26 p.m. on a heretofore mundane Tuesday afternoon—well, mundane by Vegas standards. There was the dust-up with hookers trolling Delilah’s Bar and the man who wanted his therapy horse to be allowed to watch him play the slots. And a bunch of young men had put a Vegas Knights hockey helmet on one of the statues, which I thought was an improvement, but unfortunately, nobody asked me. I let the kids go, said no to the horse and encouraged the hookers to move on down the Strip, but, like I said, fairly ho-hum Sin City shenanigans.

After that, I rushed back to my office to grab the one remaining suitcase. Yes, I am taking a vacation—I haven’t had one in seventeen years, not a real one anyway. Two days in Reno didn’t count. And my recent trip to Macau was business. Today will be all pleasure. I’m heading to Paris with my fiancé, Jean-Charles Bouclet—a French chef of world renown and a dish all on his own.

I’d promised. A promise that left me twitchy…for many reasons. First, I have an overblown sense of self-importance when it comes to my job. My name is Lucky O’Toole and I’m the go-to gal when the shit hits the fan at the Babylon, Vegas’s most over-the-top playground. And, second, I have a near-pathological ability to screw up my personal life.

So, right now, straddling the fence of indecision, I didn’t need complications. But one was standing in front of me blocking my exit.

My father.

I looked at him with one eye closed, as if sighting down the barrel of a gun. With his salt-and-pepper hair cut short, a strong jaw set at a defiant angle, and determination in his eyes, he’d come to get what he wanted. Today he wore his full battle dress: a light wool suit, diamond collar bar that secured a Hermes tie, Ferragamo loafers and no socks—the Vegas casino owner from Central Casting. A flash of gold at his wrist completed the look. Play to the crowd, he’d always told me. A dangerous thing in Las Vegas, a city that launched imaginations to the moon.

At six feet of solid woman, I had my father by several inches. And after recently taking a bullet to the chest, he had yet to find the flush of health. I could take him, but I didn’t have the heart. “Say again? You need me to do what?”

His Adam’s apple bobbed as he crooked a forefinger and ran it around the inside of his collar, pulling it away from his neck. “Make a quick detour to London on your way to Paris.”

“You can’t be serious.” I’d mortgaged my soul and threatened death to anyone who screwed up this trip.

“Very.” He looked it, too. Dammit.

I lowered my head. “Please?”

A tic worked in his cheek. “Lucky.” His tone held a warning. He needn’t have bothered—I was beyond caring. If he killed me, it would save Jean-Charles the trouble. Either way, one of them would. This dilemma had horns for sure.

I put down the suitcase I’d been holding, the last of three. The other two were already in the limo that waited at the front of the hotel. What did one take to meet the future in-laws? The chic and very Parisian future in-laws? A terrifying face-to-face that had me teetering on an emotional tightrope.

London would give me time to think. But that always got me into trouble.

I needed to get on that plane. If I didn’t, somehow, I knew life would fray at the edges and eventually disintegrate. I summoned my most determined, grown-up voice—hard to do when giving my father the old push-back. “I can’t. Jean-Charles has us on a tight schedule—parties in our honor, fancy dinners at restaurants that wouldn’t accept a reservation from God herself. Send someone else.”

“I can’t.” His push was stronger than mine, or perhaps just more practiced. “It has to be you. Sheik Mohammed Ben Halabi has a bee up his tight little ass and only my humblest apologies and grandest offerings will have a chance of making it right. I’d go myself but the doctors…” He trailed off.

No way would the docs clear him to fly to L.A. much less across the pond. He wasn’t asking; we were negotiating.

What my father couldn’t handle fell into my lap. My father, Albert Rothstein, a.k.a. the Big Boss, occupied the only rung on the corporate ladder above mine.

And the sheik—Ben to his friends—was our most important client. The amount of money he kept in play across many of our properties around the world exceeded the GDP of Switzerland. Okay, a bit of hyperbole, but not much. And, as one of my father’s most ardent supporters, he’d invested in several of our properties in Macau and Singapore.

“You’re offering me to Sheik Ben?”

“Of course not. But you are my family. And sending family will show him the matter is of utmost importance to me.”

“I liked the days where a prize racehorse or a fast car would be sufficient.” I felt myself caving. “So, what is this huge kerfuffle that has you offering to raise my salary and give me anything else I can think to ask for like unfettered use of the G 650 in order to get my compliance?” I’m a private jet whore, what can I say? I’d sell my mother to have the sleek jet at my disposal, but on the open market my mother Mona wouldn’t bring enough to cover the hourly cost for a short hop to Palm Springs. London would cover it—not that I had a choice. But I did have a strong negotiating position and I wasn’t above using it.

“I did not promise…” he stopped when he ran into my glare. Avoiding it, he selected a c-note from the slim wallet he’d extracted from his inside jacket pocket. He began to fold the bill, clean crisp folds he could do blindfolded. “Jesus,” he muttered as a tiny figure began to take shape, “You’re worse than your mother.”

For once I didn’t bristle at the comparison. My mother was the High Priestess of the Cult of Getting What You Want—a quid pro quo pro, if you will. I’d done a lot of giving people what they wanted—it was a character flaw that made me good at my job but made my personal life suck eggs. Now I was ready for a bit of take after all the give. “You going to tell me what you need handled in London, or do I need to order some tea leaves and rustle up a psychic?”

He blew a puff of disgust, then unfolded his tiny figure, smoothed the bill and began again. “Apparently the daughter of one of the highest-ranking members of the Royal family is working for us at the London Club.”

“Really? Cool. A direct pipeline into the money pit. How’d we get her? That’s quite a coup.” This so did not seem to be the big goddammit he was making it out to be.

I had a hard time concentrating. Jean-Charles would be here any minute. I’d been running all day and must look a fright. I leaned around him where I could glimpse myself in the mirror hanging on the far wall. Light brown hair, blue eyes, cheekbones high and sharp enough to hold up my vanity. Even though my life was taking a hard right, I still looked like me, such as it was.

My father placed the tiny figure on my desk and raked a thumbnail down a crease. Then he held it up in the light. Satisfied, he began folding again. “You don’t understand. The daughters from those families do not work. They consume. It is expected of them to display their father’s wealth. Her working is an insult to the family. A very large insult.”

“According to Sheik Ben.” Like most of the world, I had little knowledge of the inner workings of the closed Saudi society.

“Yes. The girl, Aziza, is his niece. The family is most disgraced.”

“According to Sheik Ben.”

“Yes, according to Sheik Ben, but it’s his opinion that matters. Lucky, this is right in your wheelhouse. With all your experience, with your deft touch and keen discernment, I can trust you to do it right, to smooth it over and avoid a huge diplomatic incident. God knows we don’t want to land in the middle of something like that. Really, this is one day, max. Wine him, dine him, do your thing and you’ll be on your way to Paris before you know it.”

“Lathering it on a bit thick, don’t you think? And no hip waders within easy reach.”

“There!” My father admired his creation then pressed it into my hand with a smile. “For you.”

A heart.

And mine melted. I never could say no to him. I pocketed the heart then gave him a hug. He didn’t have to tell me how important this was—I could see it in every crease of his face. And he was right—this I could do with my eyes closed. “You owe me, big time.”

“Thank you.” He actually seemed to deflate in relief—so not like the pre-bullet version of my father. “I knew you’d go.”

“Go where?” My French chef strode into my office, resplendent in creased jeans and an untucked, form-fitted cotton shirt in a pale blue that matched his eyes. He wore a scarf knotted around his neck, also blue but several shades darker. His brown hair curled slightly over his collar. Somehow, he had morphed into a Parisian when I wasn’t looking. In his chef’s whites—and out of them—he was just a man. A rather exquisite man, but a man. And I was a woman. Handy that. And now? Now he was French, I was a Vegas rat, and the differences took my breath. A frisson of fear slithered through me.

Opposites attract, but likes stay together.

One of Miss P’s platitudes that hit me right between the eyes.

Miss P is the head of my staff and my most trusted bellwether. She wasn’t here, so I ignored her voice in my head and prepared to try to dazzle Jean-Charles with my best corporate soft-shoe. It wouldn’t work—it never did. But it was all I had.

Jean-Charles grabbed my shoulders and leaned in. I met him more than halfway, putting everything I had into the kiss. God, he still made my toes curl. Did I do that to him? That’s what I wanted—magic. Not just for me, but for both of us.

I felt a tug on my pants leg. A small voice said, “Lucky! What about me? Papa, let her go.”

Both Jean-Charles and I started giggling which totally broke the spell. I reached down and grabbed Christophe, my rather insistent future stepson. His blonde curls mimicked his father’s as did his blue eyes, although Christophe’s were a few shades darker. At five years old, he still fit on my hip, but he was getting pretty heavy. It didn’t help that he wiggled all over with excitement. In one hand he clutched a beautiful bouquet of hot pink tulips. “These are for you. I picked them out myself.”

“Tulips are my favorite. How’d you know?” I made a big production of planting a noisy kiss on his cheek, which made him giggle. “Thank you.”

His face turned serious…sort of. “We’re going to Paris! Mémé and Papi will be there. And Tante Desiree.” His face creased. “But no cows or pigs. That’s right, Papa? And no chickens.” He looked a bit distraught over the chickens.

“They must stay at the farm.” Jean Charles fought a smile.

“He has no future in the restaurant business.” What can I say, I have a flair for the obvious.

“But there will be cakes, and candies and pastries!” Christophe vibrated with the thought of it all. “We need to go, or we’ll miss the plane. We can’t miss the plane!”

“We won’t.” I took a quick glance at the clock. We’d make it, but it would be close.

With the limo idling at the curb and time-a-wastin’, Paulo, our chief driver, would be getting antsy. The airport wasn’t far, but Christophe was right, we needed to go. “I need to talk to your father for a minute, then we’ll go.”

I put him down and handed him off to my father. “Give us a few minutes, please.”

It was the least he could do; we both knew it. He took Christophe’s hand—I kept the tulips. I watched them until my office door closed behind them. Absent during my childhood, my father was getting a short course in parenting, not only from Christophe but from a set of unexpected twins born recently to him and my mother. As a former hooker, my mother would’ve been well aware that pregnancy can happen to a woman well into her forties. Guess she’d forgotten. Life had bitch-slapped that message home with a vengeance. Proof there is a God, if you ask me.

I buried my nose in the flowers.

“They don’t have an odor.” Jean-Charles sounded calm even though he had to have known he wouldn’t like what I had to tell him.

I took that as a good sign. “I’m buying time.”

“What is it your father needs?”

I gave him the Cliff Notes version.

“This man. This sheik. He is more important to your father than your happiness?” As an opening salvo that was a bit harsh.

“Probably.” My honesty momentarily silenced him, giving me the opening I needed. “Look, my father wasn’t my father for as long as I can remember. He and my mother just sprung all that on me recently, if you recall.” There’d been a good reason they’d kept my heritage secret—my mother’s subterfuge and a potential felony statutory rape conviction—but I still smarted from the years of wondering why my father hadn’t wanted me. Ancient history that left me with thin scabs over old wounds. “I started working for him when I was fifteen, so our relationship still rests on a foundation of business as usual.”

“You can change that.” His jaw had turned to concrete, and he no longer smiled.

I had that effect on a lot of men. It’s a gift, what can I say. A tool in my limited repertoire. “Working on that, but now is not the time for a major breakthrough. We haven’t the time nor a skilled therapist on speed dial. I’ve got to go to London. I’m taking the Gulfstream. I won’t be twenty-four hours behind you.”

He didn’t look convinced, but he was taking it as the fait accomplis that it was. “Friday night is my mother’s big party. A party for you, if you recall.”

“I recall.” That reminded me of another party I could now check on—a prominent soirée for the third cousin to the Queen or something. A big deal for our London Club. It wouldn’t hurt to check over the preparations.”

“She will not forgive you if you are not there because of your job.

Personally, I thought that sort of thinking a bit limited, but now was not the time to crack that nut. “I understand.”

His shoulders rose and fell with a sigh. “Lucky, your job—”

“Is as important as yours.”

“Of course.” He tossed off the words as if they didn’t hold my soul.

And there it was, the super big swamp pit separating us. He could say the words, but he wasn’t so good at living them. If he couldn’t make the leap, that would be a dealbreaker.

Teddie had understood that. Teddie. But he hadn’t been able to live the truth either. And he’d broken my heart in the process. Now he was back, wanting me to trust him again.

Why did men put women to such choices?

I pushed all that aside. “Come. Let’s get Christophe. We have to run.”

“He will be so disappointed. He made me promise he could sit with you on the plane.”

Guilt. Not the best thing to leave when parting from a loved one. “I’ll make it up to him. And I’ll be a day behind, no more.”

I weighed the odds. If I was a betting gal, I’m not sure which side of that bet I’d put my future on.

 

Chapter 2
DONNA

A dainty shawl of snow drapes all of London. More is expected late this evening. And yet, be it rain, snow, sleet, or hail, the weather never seems to deter Londoners from getting on with their lives.

Even the posh set proves to be a hardy lot. They are out in droves for the latest Couture, Fashion, and Jewelry auction at Christeby’s.

Already four items have been put on the block. Each has been auctioned off at a good twenty to thirty percent above the opening bid. The article I want—a rare cream and bronze Hermés Kelly handbag embellished with gold hardware— is estimated to go for between ten and twenty thousand Euros.

In any event, my employer, a CIA-contracted black-ops organization known as Acme Industries, has been instructed to offer whatever it takes to get the purse.

If you’re wondering why the CIA is suddenly gaga over haute couture, let me assure you that it’s a matter of national security. Somewhere deep in the handbag’s lining is a small sliver of paper. Written on it is a password and ID to a secure cloud containing a list of the spies working for the MSS—China’s Ministry of State Security—who are embedded in the United States. The handbag’s seller is the wife of a Chinese defense minister. Her quid pro quo: to leap to the front of the United States’ immigration line with an S-6 visa. Once stateside, she’ll disappear into our Federal Witness Protection program.

The auction allows for a clean transaction. While the minister’s wife gets a big payday, new identity—even a new face—the CIA rounds up a few bad guys at the cost is a pittance in comparison to, say, a new war toy.

My cover is that as an American-based private buyer acting as the proxy purchaser for a wealthy Argentinian socialite. As such, I am unobtrusively chic. My long, brown hair is swept back and coiled at the nape of my neck. Although I don’t need them, I wear glasses. I hold my numbered paddle in one hand and a small clutch and Christeby’s catalog in the other. I’m dressed in a long-sleeved Roland Mouret black, gray, and white woven bouclé front-zip jacket with a nipped-waist peplum and a crew neck, paired with black crepe palazzo pants that easily hide the ceramic folding karambit knife that is strapped to my calf. Odds are I won’t need it, but having served as my youngest daughter, Trisha’s, Daisy Scout leader in days gone by, I’ve learned to come prepared.

I’m here doing my bit for God and country when I should be coordinating the winter prom at the high school attended by my oldest two children, Mary and Jeff. The event is next weekend. In twenty-four hours I should be home. In the meantime, my aunt, Phyllis, has my proxy on the necessary decisions to be made—you know, the color of the balloons, if there should be a D.J. or a band, and whether sodas or punch should be served along with cupcakes or a healthier snack. Whenever Jack and I are away on missions, Aunt Phyllis covers our kids: not just Jeff and Mary, but also my youngest daughter, Trisha, who’s now in the fifth grade. I have a ward too: Evan Martin. He’s away at his first year of college, but officially he and Mary are a couple, and he’s due back next weekend to take her to the prom.

So, yeah, the sooner I get home, the better.

The CIA isn’t expecting too many bidders, and certainly, none who are foreign agents, but you never know. Acme’s way of preparing for the unexpected is to equip me with a crackerjack mission team.

One of them, Abu Nagashahi, is waiting outside the auction house in a rented limousine. Even though on this mission he’s acting as my chauffeur, in reality, he is a field agent who triples as surveillance, cleaner, and if need be, getaway driver.

The mission’s tech operative, Arnie Locklear, is hunkered down in the back of the limo. He’s already hacked into Christeby’s surveillance cameras and has patched in our Communications Intel operative, Emma Honeycutt, who’s based at Acme’s headquarters in Los Angeles. She’s now scanning the crowd to run their faces through Interpol’s facial recognition network. That way, if there are any known diplomats, covert operatives, terrorists, or foreign actors among us, we’ll know.

Another member of our team is Dominic Fleming. Silver-tongued and blazingly blond, this former MI6 agent is currently schmoozing with the auction’s curator, Sharon Walker, the elegant woman who holds the keys to the kingdom: in this case, a short list of the bidders who have already expressed interest in the handbag.

The last member of my mission team, Jack Craig, stars in the public role of my paid bodyguard. In reality, this tall, dark, and eye-catchingly handsome man is also my husband, which means he always has my back. I’d put myself in front of a bullet to save him as well, so it works out.

Jack’s third-row seat is the one closest to the center aisle. I’m in the chair beside him. As we converse quietly, we take turns looking behind each other’s shoulder to scan the room. The entire ops team wears special lenses and earbuds that allow us to be each other’s eyes and ears at all time. Arnie and Emma monitor all video and audio feeds.

I look over at the podium in time to see Sharon shoo Dominic away. Catching my eye, he shrugs, which tells me she was immune to his charms. But from the murmurs buzzing through this packed auditorium as the auctioneer is handed the Hermés handbag, there will, in fact, be many bidders.                                          

Hopefully, none of them will feel the need to outbid the CIA.

While the auctioneer describes the highly-coveted accessory in a clipped tone, albeit in minute detail, I murmur, “Emma, any interesting bidders?”

“Thus far we’ve had just one Interpol match,” she replies. “A Korean businessman named Park Sung Min. Last row, fourth chair from the left.”

“Dammit, I guess the Chinese minister’s wife invited him too,” Jack mutters. “Let the bidding war begin.”

“I’ve got him sighted.” Dominic, who is leaning casually against the center of the far right wall, catches my eye and he nods in the direction of our Person of Interest. “Stylish fellow. Favors Gieves & Hawkes. Wears it well.”

I look over. The man is scanning his catalog as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.

Emma sighs. “It would help if we had today’s VIP bidder list so that I could cross-reference any names that pop up.”

This is Emma’s broad hint to our tech op—her doting husband, Arnie—that he has to up his game, and fast.

“Christeby’s client database has got a tight-ass firewall,” Arnie grumbles. “Wait a sec…I’m IN, baby!”

“I’ll alert the media,” I mutter.

“Sending those bidders who have registered for today’s auction now,” Arnie assures us.

“Receiving,” Emma says. “I’m matching them up now.”

We can barely hear her over the auctioneer who declares, “And we’ll start the bidding. Do I hear five thousand pounds?” He nods at someone.

“Was it Park?”

“No,” Arnie says. “Some woman. Dark hair, brown pantsuit. The name is”—he pauses as he scans the database—“Nika Petrov. She has a Paris address. I’ve put all lenses on the auction room’s feed.”

“Nika is also on the Interpol list,” Emma confirms.

“Ten thousand five hundred!” The auctioneer exclaims.

I start to raise my hand, but Jack stops me. “Wait until the auctioneer calls for the final bid,” he suggests.

I nod. He’s right. That way, we trump the others and fly under the radar for as long as possible.

Park raises his hand. So does some older gentleman sitting in the row in front of us. He’s also on the aisle. He leans on a cane.

“Emma, can you ID the older man?” I whisper.

“Give me a second,” She replies.

“Eleven thousand!” the auctioneer cries.

Again, paddles go up: Park, Nika, and the older man bid again.

Finally, Emma answers, “Christeby’s has him listed as Chet Bakersfield, an American. Checks out. He’s a buyer with a vintage shop in Manhattan.”

“Eleven thousand five hundred,” the auctioneer declares.

This time only Parks and Nika’s goes up. Chet grimaces but keeps his paddle in his lap.

“Twelve thousand!” The auctioneer shouts.

Three paddles go up again: Parks, Nika’s paddles rise, and one belonging to a plump woman in her twenties who wears jeans and a pea coat. Her red hair is buzzed into a flat top.

“B.J. Rosenthal,” Arnie tells us. “Christeby’s client card has her based in Los Angeles.”

“Interpol IDs her as Mossad,” Emma chimes in. “But, she lives in Santa Monica.”

“Thirteen thousand!” the auctioneer shouts.

“Heck, I know B.J.—and not in a good way.” I don’t think now is the time to add that one of our industry trade magazines, Femme Fatale, ranks her at Number One with twice the number of exterminations than the next closest competitor.

Does it bother me I’m a distant fifth? Nah. I juggle three kids, a crazy aunt, and an attentive husband. B.J. only has to worry about a houseful of cats.

“Jeez! Russia, North Korea—and now Israel?” Jack grumbles. “Is there anyone who isn’t bidding on this damn handbag?”

“Thirteen-five,” the auctioneer exclaims. “Do I hear fourteen thousand?”

My cell phone rings. Instinctively, I look at the Caller ID. The name reads TAKE THIS OR ELSE.

I’m curious enough to play along. “Who is this?” I ask warily.

“Donna Stone Craig, where the hell are you?”

I can’t recognize the voice because the auctioneer has just shouted, “Fourteen thousand!” At the same time, I hear my mission team acknowledging the bidders in furtive whispers.

“What?” I don’t have time to play games. “Again, who the hell are you?”

Fifteen thousand!”

“It’s Penelope Bing,” my caller huffs.

The meanest mommy in my gated community—Hilldale, California—is notorious for her bad timing.

The bids are now coming in fast and furiously. Over the auctioneer’s shout “Twenty-three thousand!” I hiss, “Penelope, I’m in the middle of something now. I’ll call you back—”

“Like hell, you will!” she snarls. “You’re supposed to be heading up the Hilldale High School Winter Prom planning committee!”

“Twenty-five thousand!” The auctioneer yells, his tone rising.

“I sent my aunt in my stead! Isn’t she there?”

I plug one ear with a finger so that I can drown out the auctioneer and hear myself think. “Granted, Aunt Phyllis is an acquired taste—”

“Is that how you’d describe her, ‘an acquired taste’?” Penelope retorts. “I’ve got another term for it: Nuts! Did you know what she chose as the prom’s theme?”

“Twenty-eight thousand! Do I hear thirty?” The auctioneer shouts.

“Surprise me,” I mutter.

“‘Game of Thrones’!” Penelope snaps.

“That sounds innocent enough,” I reply just as the auctioneer shouts, “Do I hear thirty-five thousand?”

“Not if a pyrotechnical team is needed to build a fire-breathing dragon,” Penelope retorts.

“I guess you have a point there,” I admit.

“Do I hear forty thousand?” the auctioneer bellows.

“And do you know what your aunt wants to do for party games?”

“I’m afraid to ask,” I reply.

“Use your imagination!” Penelope screeches.

“Yes, to the woman in the back. Do I now hear forty-five thousand?” the auctioneer exclaims.

“I give up!” I shout into the phone.

“Battle competitions,” Penelope snickers. “With real swords, hatchets, and spiked clubs! She says she knows an antique dealer who’ll lend them to her. Now I ask you: what if one kid accidentally murders another?”

“I guess we’d have some explaining to do,” I admit.

“…For fifty-five thousand! Do I hear sixty?” the auctioneer shouts.

“And another thing—” Penelope says, but then she’s interrupted by another call. The ID reads: MARY

Yikes.

“Penelope, I have to put you on hold!” To hell with waiting for a response. Instead, I tap onto Mary’s call.

The auctioneer bellows, “Sixty-five thousand! Do I hear seventy?”

“Honey, I’m in the middle of something.” My words are kind, but my tone is firm.

“I’m…I’m so sorry to bother you, Mom…” Mary is sobbing.

I shake off Jack’s wide-eyed nod toward the auctioneer as I ask, “Mary…sweetie, what’s wrong?”

“I just saw something on Evan’s Facebook page that made me upset.” Mary sighs deeply. “He took a selfie with some…some girl. And he—”

“Seventy thousand?…Yes?” The auctioneer sounds ecstatic “Do I hear seventy-five?”

Damn auctioneer! I can’t hear Mary over him. “What did you say?” I hiss. “Evan did what again?”

“Eighty?… There, on the left again! Now, eighty-five, anyone?”

“I said he had his arm around her waist!” Mary chokes on her tears.

“Ninety? Anyone?…Final bid then…”

Jack nudges me. When I swat him away, he points to my paddle and hisses, “Now!”

Oh, yeah—right! I raise it high.

“Maybe Evan and this girl were just joking around!” I’m frantic to get off the phone, but I’ll be darned if I hang up on my daughter at her lowest point.

“Do we have ninety-five thousand? Anyone?…The lovely lady in the back?” The auctioneer sounds relieved. “One hundred thousand, anyone?”

Jack elbows me in the waist.

I shoo him away with one hand while I raise my paddle with the other.

“Woman Front and Center, thank you! How about one hundred and five?… Yes? Ah, there we go!”

“This girl looks so sophisticated—you know, very fashionista chic.” Mary’s anxiety comes in loud and clear, even in this room of gasping bid watchers. “How can I compete with that? I come off like a…a silly teenager!”

“One hundred and ten?” I feel the auctioneer looking directly at me now.

I nod frantically while waving my paddle as if calling over a search plane with a flashlight, all the while whispering frantically into the phone, “But you are a teenager—although, you’re not silly.”

Mary sighs. “You’re lying. You tell me I am, all the time. And you’re right! If I’m going to compete with college girls, I’ve got to up my game.”

“What does that mean?” My mommy alert is clanging.

“One hundred and fifteen, anyone?” The auctioneer asks.

This time, when I lift the paddle again, Jack jerks my hand down to my side. “You’re bidding against yourself!” he mutters. “I don’t think our client would like that.”

“I mean, I need to re-think what I’m wearing to the prom,” Mary continues. “The dress I bought is much too young—so stupid! No, I’m stupid for thinking I could even compete with a…a college girl!” She bursts into tears.

“SOLD, to the Woman Front and Center!” The auctioneer points to me.

“Well, the client should be happy—sort of,” Jack declares.

“Mom?…MOM! Are you listening?” Mary’s grumbles indignantly.

Another call is coming in: It’s Penelope again, dammit. I tap DELETE.

“Honey, of course, I’m listening to you!” I reply.

“Bullshit! You hung up on me and didn’t bother to call me back,” Penelope snaps.

How did she get on the line? Did I hang up on Mary instead?

“Let me make something perfectly clear to you Donna Craig: you better put a leash on your aunt—before she ruins the dance—along with your reputation!”

The phone line goes dead.

I close my eyes and sigh. Suddenly, I could think of a few good uses for that knife strapped to my calf.

When I open my eyes again, Jack is already on his feet. Grinning down at me, he nods toward the purchase table. “Come on, Woman Front and Center. Let’s claim your ill-gotten goods and get the heck out of London before Penelope Bing ends up murdering your aunt.”

“Frankly, I’d bet on Aunt Phyllis. If she wanted to get someone whacked, she’s got the right connections.”

Jack shrugs because he knows I’m right. And since he and I have both had our own run-ins with Penelope, Aunt Phyllis would have to flip a coin as to who gets that honor.

As we walk over, it dawns on me that I’ve never held a purse that cost anywhere near one hundred and ten thousand euros.

Once the intel is extracted, what would the CIA do with it, anyway? I guess it wouldn’t hurt to ask if I could keep it as a souvenir.

***

“Congratulations on your new acquisition.” Sharon Walker hands it over as soon as I put my John Hancock on the sales confirmation receipt.

Really, I write Johanna Hancock, but my scrawl is illegible, so it doesn’t matter either way.

“Thank you,” I reply with a pleased-as-punch smile.

Only the staff and final purchasers are allowed into the auction house’s sales offices located behind the auction room. Considering all the hubbub currently keeping the sales associates busy with their bidding clients—not to mention a record-breaking sale—this department’s lavatory should now be empty. Once I’m in there, I’ll slice open the hidden compartment and take a picture of the sliver of paper listing the cloud account and text it to Emma.

“Excuse me, can you point me to the ladies’ room?” I ask.

“It’s at the end of the hall,” she replies. “I’ll walk you out. I’m due back on the auction floor for the next items.”

As we part ways in the hallway Sharon adds, “Again, thank your client for her patronage. Her participation made it a thoroughly thrilling auction!”

“I’ll say,” I murmur as she heads in the opposite direction.

I’m a few steps from the women’s lavatory when the door to the men’s lounge flies open. Park Sung Min stands there with a gun pointed at me. He nods at the handbag. I’ll take that.”

“Sure. Catch.” Instead, I throw my own purse at him.

It hits him in the face.

He’s so surprised that he stumbles backward, through the door again. His gun goes off—

And the bullet hits flesh: Nika Petrov’s, who somehow breached the sale corridor’s security code and snuck up behind me.

Talk about lousy timing.

The bullet pierces her gut. As blood flows from the wound, she keels over, dead.

By now Park has smacked into a wall. I hold him there with my right forearm against his throat while my left hand slams the hand holding the gun against the wall until he drops it.

When he does, I punch him in the face a few times until he passes out.

And in the process I break a nail, dammit!

As he drops to the floor, I scoop up my purse.

I’m breathing so heavy that I don’t realize I’m not alone until I hear a woman’s voice declare, “I’ll take that handbag if you don’t mind.”

B.J. Rosenthal stands just inside the doorway. She has Park’s gun pointed at me. “The Hermés this time, not the cheap Givenchy knock-off,” she adds with a smirk.

Talk about rubbing it in.

“Do it now,” she adds firmly. “I never thought I’d end up with the infamous Donna Stone Craig’s scalp on my belt. But hey, when duty calls—”

At that second, the men’s room door swings open again—

And into B.J., knocking her off balance and onto her knees. Her gun goes off—

But I’ve already taken a step to my right, just in time to dodge the bullet that catches Park in his left eye. Life leaves him with a jerk and a gasp.

Like me, B.J. turns around to see who walked through the door:

Jack.

Though still on her knees, with both hands B.J. swings the gun in his direction.

But before she positions him in her sights, I pull out my stiletto and plunge it between her ribs, angled up to her heart.

B.J. gazes down, mesmerized by the slick, ruby red bloodstain now mushrooming on her shirt and coat. When she looks up again, her eyes meet mine. Finally, they roll back in her head, and she folds to the floor like a rag doll.

I reward Jack with a kiss. “I’m glad you came looking for me.”

“When Arnie confirmed that none of the other high bidders left the building, he slipped me the security code, and I thought I’d come snooping,” he replies. “Abu and Dominic are just down the hall. Arnie is looping the security footage to erase this killing party. He’s also put the sales offices in lockdown while they clean up this mess. In the meantime, we should get the hell out of here.” He nods toward an alley exit door.

“I still haven’t verified the intel,” I point out.

“I suggest we take it with us to the Ritz and do it there.” Jack grins. “That way, we’re closer to some celebration bubbly.”

I kiss his cheek. “You don’t have to ask me twice.”

***

“Despite having paid four times the amount requisitioned for the intel, and having almost lost it in the process, the CIA deems the mission a success—especially since you kept it out of the hands of enemies that could have done us irreparable harm.” Ryan’s cheery declaration comes in over the speaker on Jack’s cell phone in our Ritz Hotel suite. “In fact, you’re to stay in London for another assignment.”

Hearing this, I choke on a large swig of Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV champagne. What if this means Jack and I will miss seeing the kids off for their prom?

As if reading my mind, Ryan assures us, “This assignment is a simple pick-up. Donna is to rendezvous with a CIA asset at the Babylon London, a private club in Mayfair.”

Dominic exclaims, “By Jove, I happen to be a member of the Babylon! They hold a room for me on call.”

Abu snorts, “Is there a club in this town you haven’t joined?”

Dominic shrugs. “Can I help it if I’m a social animal?”

“You’re half right,” I mutter under my breath.

Dominic misses my slight because he’s too busy preening in the sizeable gilt mirror over the dresser.

To Ryan, I ask: “For just that reason, wouldn’t it be simpler to send Dominic?”

“It has to be someone who has access to the club, but at the same time is not familiar with the club’s employees or other guests. As it turns out, the club’s guest quarters are booked up. However, as Dominic’s companion, you’ll certainly attain access.”

The word ‘companion’ raises brows—Jack’s and mine.

To make the situation even worse, Ryan adds, “Dominic can also provide a diversion if necessary.”

“For that, we’ll need to stay in my room.” Dominic winks at me knowingly. From his smirk, I realize that he genuinely believes his own malarkey.

“Trust me, I won’t be hanging around that long,” I vow.

“But I have a reputation to uphold!” Dominic insists. “I get at least two front desk calls—sometimes three—about the alacrity in which my guests exclaim their joy.”

Jack smothers a guffaw. “Seriously? Joy?”

Dominic shrugs. “As a matter of fact, my manhood has been bequeathed the nickname ‘Joystick’ by several satisfied damsels.”

“You can invite other, more boisterous guests to your playpen when Donna is in the clear,” Ryan proclaims. “Donna, you’re to rendezvous with the asset—codename ‘Nightingale’—at 20:10, in the Royal Suite. You’ll find it on the top floor of the club. Knock twice, pause, and then knock again.”

“I assume the contact will be the only one there?”

“That’s the plan,” Ryan replies. “And since we don’t know what form the intel takes, the face-to-face may need some instruction. Unfortunately, Nightingale can’t leave the club, so it has to take place there. And since every other room is taken for the evening and the handoff can’t happen in any of the club’s public spaces, the Royal Suite was suggested as the best location.”

“Any discerning details about Nightingale?” I ask.

“Female, and in her early twenties. Dark hair and eyes. Middle-Eastern descent. By the way, she’ll be wearing a teardrop amulet around her neck,” Ryan explains. “She’ll need something to recognize you as well.”

“I’ve got just the item,” I purr. “The Hermés bag.”

Ryan sighs. “At least, the CIA can’t say it wasn’t worth every penny you spent on its behalf.”

All ears perk up at that. “The intel must be vital,” Jack replies.

Ryan’s pause is so long that I wonder if he’s still on the line. Finally, he murmurs, “It may mean peace will finally be achieved in the Middle East.”

“Hot damn,” Arnie murmurs.

“Donna, the key to this mission is discretion,” Ryan warns. “You’re to be as unobtrusive as possible.”

“Got it. No one will even know I was there.”

“Famous last words.” Jack winks at me.

He says this because he only has eyes for me.

And, yes, I feel the same about him.

Now, that’s true love.

***

Dominic doesn’t miss an opportunity to play the lothario. The moment a doorman ushers us through Babylon London’s revolving door my colleague’s hand slides to my waist, drawing me so close that I almost pass out from his pungent aftershave.

His way of doubling down on this Acme-sanctioned Me-Too moment is to nuzzle my cheek and whisper, “Let me do all the talking.”

I giggle as if he’s just told a scintillating aside. At the same time, I stifle the urge to drive my fist through his kidney. “You know, I’ve walked into more harrowing situations. I think I’ll survive the scrutiny of your hoity-toity club’s staff.”

I nod toward the stuffy little man who stands beside the reception desk. While this slight, pale fellow’s thin mustache practically bristles at the sight of us, two of the three comely receptionists—one raven-haired, the other auburn—perk up at the sight of Dominic to the point of licking their lips. In contrast, the third one, a slight, prim blonde, stiffens at the sight of him.

Smart girl.

Maybe it’s because I made the stupid mistake of allowing Dominic to pick out my wardrobe, which he felt would “be up to snuff as it pertains to the club’s code—and my own personal taste.”

I’d have never said yes except for the fact that he agreed to put it on his own personal Harrods expense account.

So here I am, trussed up in a candy apple red leather dress suit that hugs every curve, along with matching red leather booties, gloves, and a full set of bright red Michael Kors luggage and a matching purse. A red silk scarf draped over my blond gamine wig, its ends crossed beneath my chin and then knotted behind my neck starlet-style, completes the look.

From the way Sir Stuffy’s upper lip curdles, nothing I wear will offset Dominic’s reputation for bedding screamers.

Sir Stuffy cringes when, in unison, the brunette and redhead receptionists sing out, “Good evening, Mr. Fleming!”

“Ah! Lavinia, Prunella, and”—he pauses as he leans in toward the third woman—“Julie. A pleasure to be in your quite capable hands again.”

Whereas Lavinia and Prunella exchange sly glances, Julie winces.

Before the ladies can respond, Sir Stuffy sternly intones, “Your suite is ready, Mr. Fleming. However—”

Dominic shifts his gaze to the man. His eyes narrow, as if noticing him for the very first time. “Adderson, is it not?” He snaps his fingers. “No?…Give me a moment. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Ackerman, then? Ableson?” He snaps his fingers. “Ah ha!—Ahern!” Pleased with himself, Dominic smiles supremely. “So kind of you to greet us.”

Ahern’s glare never wavers. “Yes, now, about your guest—”

Dominic interrupts with this cockeyed pronouncement: “You’re right. A proper introduction is in order. Her Royal Majesty, Princess Maja, of Sweden, may I present Mr. Ahern—”

What the….

Now he tells me I’m playing a princess? How is this ‘low profile’?

Ahern’s eyes widen at the title.

Okay, yeah, maybe I should go along with this. I extend my right hand.

Bowing slightly over it, Nigel Ahern murmurs, “An honor, your Majesty.”

Before I can answer in what would undoubtedly be the worst Swedish accent ever, Dominic interjects, “Alas, Ahern, my acquaintance doesn’t speak English. And with all the inbreeding that went into making her the forty-fifth heir to the throne, I’m not sure she speaks Swedish with any fluency, either. To tell you the truth, Old Boy, I’ve never heard a peep out of her. For all I know, she’s a mute.”

Hearing this, the receptionists’ faces mirror the same look: pity.

For that heaping pile of hogwash, he’ll get an earful when we’re alone in his room!

Lovingly, Dominic strokes my cheek. “However, in the language of love, she is quite fluent.”

Dominic’s hand is close enough to my mouth that I could easily bite through his pinky. Ever the team player, I stifle the urge. The mission comes first. I did note that the club has a back alley. When we’re done here, Dominic may learn the hard way that he should never go there alone.

Certainly, not with a mute pseudo-Swede royal.

Ahern allows himself a stiff upper lip grimace. “I am somewhat relieved to hear—as I’m sure will be the case of guests with rooms adjacent to yours—that the usual ‘gaiety’ that invariably emanates from your suite will be…subdued.” He taps the nearest bell to summon a man to help us with our luggage. “And as always, the baccarat table should provide additional diversions.”

Like magic, a bellman appears at our side.

I guess I should be somewhat miffed that Dominic has taken it upon himself to slip each receptionist a personal calling card. When one of the women turns it over, I see that he’s written in bold:

CALL ME LATER TONIGHT

At least one of them considers his invitation as disgusting as me: the youngest of the three, Julie.

As for the others, I’ll be clearing out as soon as I possibly can. I’ve got just a half-hour to change out of this getup and up to the Royal Suite. Once the intel is in hand, Dominic can walk “Princess Maja” out the front door.

His penance for dissing me in front of the others: I’m keeping all my Harrods booty despite my promise to leave all tags attached so it can be returned.

***

The only elevator that goes up to the Babylon London’s Royal Suite—the club’s penthouse—could easily pass for a small but well-appointed walk-in closet. Its walls are polished mahogany, a hand-knotted Persian rug lays on its parquet floor, and a plush chaise placed there to accommodate those too weary to stand during its slow ride from the lobby to the fifth floor of this private club. The one tip of the hat to its Victorian past is the quaint metal grill that must be opened before one can step in or out of it. Although its placement is quite discreet, immediately I spotted the elevator’s security camera.

Princess Maja has disappeared. As per my mission directive, in keeping with my role as a club guest, I am dressed to impress—but this time my way, as opposed to Dominic’s fantasy fangirl.

My cream tweed pencil-skirted Chanel suit’s plunging vee jacket is embellished with all sorts of shiny gold and crystal bling, as are its cuffs, and pockets. A matching bucket hat sporting a gold brow-skimming veil is perched over my naturally brown hair, which is pinned into a French twist. My hands are clad in cream-toned Fendi gloves, and my feet are strapped in to-die-for textured gold Jennifer Chamandi stiletto pumps.

Needless to say, my favorite accessory is my newly acquired vintage Hermés Kelly purse.

An elegant elaborately carved double door graces the end of a hallway that runs almost the full length of this block-long building. I am just a minute late, so I take my time. Out of habit, I scan the hall’s elaborate crown molding for security cameras. Yes, there are several.

Since I was told to knock twice and then twice again, I’m surprised to find the door slightly ajar. Because the club’s security is as tight as a gnat’s ass and the Hermés purse serves as my bonafide, I’m not so worried that some inquisitive guest may have wandered up here and Nightingale may have passed him or her the intel by mistake. Still, I tap out the code.

Silence.

I do it again.

Still, no answer.

Odd.

Slowly, I open the door.

The lights are off, but the street lamps beyond a wall of intricately carved French doors cast eerie shadows on the heavy furnishings scattered throughout the large room. It is undoubtedly plusher and lusher than Dominic’s digs, but to be expected for something called “the Royal Suite.”

But I see no one.

The room has a hallway at each side. On the left is the dining room and I assume a kitchen is just beyond. I choose the one on the right, which faces the park.

There is only one room on this wing: the master suite. Its door, at the end of the short hall, is also open. My spidey-senses are tingling…

I see her: on the floor and on her back, legs and arms spread awkwardly, like a human hieroglyphic. Her hair is swept to one side. Something shines out from deep within the long and dark tendrils:

The amulet, still on the chain around her neck.

I see no blood or bullet wounds. I drop down to take her pulse.

There is none.

I scan the room. Nothing moves. Quickly, I walk through it. No one is in the large walk-in closet or the well-appointed bathroom.

I go back to Nightingale. My eyes take her in, inch by inch. Dying is not an elegant endeavor. One’s last breath is usually a quick gasp, an indignant gurgle, or a resigned sigh. We don’t gracefully fall in repose; instead, we crumple to the ground.

In Nightingale’s case, her slim limbs look like playing cards that have somehow scattered, willy-nilly, from the rest of the deck.

Her legs are spread apart enough that her skirt has risen above her thigh. On the left one, a tattoo is visible: letters of some sort. Maybe symbols? I can’t make them out, but on closer look, they resemble the characters on her amulet. I pull out my cell phone and take a photo of both.

If her hair hadn’t been pushed to one side, I’d never notice the two tiny aligned holes on her neck. Odd.

I unclasp the amulet’s chain. Gently I pull it out of her hair.

I then pat her down: back, sides and pockets. I find nothing other than her cell phone. I take it.

Nightingale’s left hand is palm down as if she attempted to push herself up. Her right hand clenches something: a tiny, exquisitely designed glazed ceramic vase, perhaps only seven inches in height. It is Chinese in provenance and an antique.

Was this the intel she was to pass forward?

Just in case, I slip it into my purse.

Gently, I nudge her body to its side to see if she fell on something that might hold the intel we seek. She lies on a key ring with two room cards attached. I take it as well.

If what Ryan said is correct and that there are no vacancies, she may have used the excuse of readying the room for the next guest to make our assignation. I don’t know how long the rest of the club’s staff anticipates she’ll be up here. In any event, eventually, they’ll come looking for her.

All the more reason I need to get out of here.

(c) 2018 Josie Brown and Deborah Coonts. All Rights Reserved.

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