My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a covert operative, a secret agent, an intelligence officer….
No. There's already enough duplicity in my life. I used to be a spy, until…
Well, until someone decided they had a better use for me. I was pried loose from government service with a setup, a carefully doctored paper trail that made it look like I'd gone rogue. It happens, way too often, and it was totally believable to people who practice suspicion as a professional virtue. I was 'burned', spy-talk for word being put out to every covert agency on the planet that my motives and actions had become suspect and I no longer had the trust – and protection – of my former employers. When the 'burn notice' went out, I was unmasked and repudiated at the touchiest part of an undercover op involving some very bad people. The result was immediate and unpleasant.
Beaten and unconscious, I was delivered to Miami, my boyhood hometown, and dumped. All my resources evaporated: bank accounts, credit lines, contacts, cover identities. Spies don't have any authentic credit or employment history, of course, which meant I officially ceased to exist, except for prominent entries on several government watch lists. Unable to work or travel, I was expected, I suppose, to live with my mother until I was desperate enough to take the next 'professional' job I was offered, even if it came from the people who'd set me up.
In adverse situations, I've always tried to do the thing unexpected. It keeps me alive and free.
"This is the big one, Mike." Barry the money launderer slurped his cocktail as if in dire need of it. "A job like this could put you on top. Really."
"Being 'on top' doesn't exactly appeal, Barry." Michael scanned his surroundings from behind his sunglasses. "Sometimes it just means you're the one who's got the farthest to fall."
Barry was part of the meager network of contacts Michael had salvaged from his former life. They traded information, and occasionally found work for each other. Barry had called him to meet with a prospective client, long on promise and short on details in a way that made him a little suspicious. But he'd agreed, after taking a few basic precautions.
They were sitting on opposite sides of a roomy four-place table at a patio bar overlooking the hotel landscaping and the beach beyond. Awnings stretched overhead, providing shade, but otherwise all but one side of the establishment were open to the elements. There was a wealth of observation points and routes in and out. It was just the sort of place Michael would have picked for a first meet with someone he wasn't sure about. Only, the client had selected it. The display of fieldcraft sparked Michael's interest as it ramped up his unease. He hoped Sam had found a good vantage point; he wanted pictures of this guy. "What do you know about him?"
Barry turned his glass and stared into it. "I know he's rich and well-connected, new in town, and looking for talent. He must have done some research, because he specifically asked if Michael Westen was available." Barry gave him an odd little smile that looked more like gas pains than amusement. "Seems you got a fan."
Michael studied his tablemate until Barry began to fidget, then said, "Barry, do we have company at the table?"
The man stopped fidgeting. "I'm not wearing a wire, Mike, honest. It's just… Big money or not, I think maybe I should have told him you were too busy, or I couldn't find you. But I was scared to. The guy comes with first-rate cred, but he creeps me…" He looked up over Michael's shoulder and fell silent.
"Gentlemen." A deep gravelly voice. A man stood between them on Michael's right: late forties maybe, dark hair in a widow's peak. Sunglasses hid his eyes. A strange scar that started at his forehead, disappeared under his left lens, and reappeared on his cheek made Michael wonder if the man had two good ones. Six feet, six-one, one-seventy to one hundred ninety pounds, fit and muscular. Dressed conservatively in a light polo shirt and slacks whose cut and fabric revealed wealth and taste to a discerning eye without being showy. No jewelry, and his wristwatch was a battered old military-style timepiece with a leather strap. "I'm a few minutes early, I know, but apparently none of us likes being late for appointments."
He sat without offering a hand. More fieldcraft, Michael thought. No need to advertise that this was a meet, or anything but some buds getting together for a drink.
Barry got up and looked at them both. "Luck, Mike." He left without looking back.
The prospect reached for Barry's empty glass and pulled it to him, keeping his hand curled around it and the other resting casually on the table. Michael speculated what sort of man considered keeping his hands in sight while dealing with strangers an act of politeness.
The kind of man who frightens people who know who he is.
The man watched Barry disappear. "He didn't tell you he was leaving, I take it."
"I think he was about to. He didn't tell me what this was about, either, Mr.…" He let it hang.
"Lynch. John Lynch." The shade-covered eyes turned his way. "It was my stipulation that we talk alone. If you take the job and need to bring him in, I have no objection, but I'm sure you're a respecter of need-to-know."
Michael slid his chair back a little farther, putting most of his body in Lynch's view while making it easier to stand. "What's the job?"
"Missing persons. A young man and woman." The corners of Lynch's mouth lifted slightly. "They weren't when I saw them last, but I'd guess they're a couple by now."
"The police handle missing persons cases."
"They won't handle this one."
Witness Protection Program? Michael had once been duped into bird-dogging a man on the run for a contract killer. Feeling his unease ratchet up another notch, he asked, "What makes you think they're in Miami?"
"Because I sent them here."
Fiona appeared at Michael's elbow. He felt his cheeks stretching in the grin he wore when he was thinking of throttling someone. "Fi. I didn't expect to see you here." I expected you to stay in the lobby of the hotel, listening to the wire I'm wearing.
Lynch was sizing her up, but not the way men usually did. Michael was sure the older man knew exactly what he was looking at. "One of your crew, I'm sure. Won't you sit down, Miss?"
Fiona looked at Lynch as if she was sighting on him through a scope. "Don't mind if I do." She sat facing Lynch, at Michael's left hand, setting her fanny purse on the table in front of her, and set her hand on it. Lynch casually pushed back his chair and dropped his hands off the table.
Michael said quickly,"Mr. Lynch, if you sent them here, why don't you know where they are?"
Lynch shifted, and the charge building between him and Michael's trigger-happy sweetheart grounded out a little. "Because they're hiding, and at the time, I thought it best to know as little of the details as possible. But the situation has changed, and I need to at least get in touch and talk to them. I've already spoken with the man I hired to set them up here. He won't tell me where to find them, or deliver a message, or even admit he knows where they are." The undamaged cheek, the right, lifted briefly. "Can't fault him for his professionalism."
Michael felt very close to refusing the deal; there were too many unanswered questions here for his comfort. "The contact. What's his name?"
"Dominic Corteza. He has a legitimate business, a cigar factory in little Havana. But he makes his real money doing special jobs for people, and does no small amount of pro bono work as well. Rather like you, Mr. Westen."
Fiona spoke up, surprising Michael again. "I'm surprised you haven't found a way around one stubborn man, Mr. Lynch." Her eyes were still locked on the man's face.
Michael shifted. "Fi, do you know each other?"
Her hand still rested on her purse, which he knew contained a Browning Hi-Power. "Only by reputation."
"Thought I caught a hint of County Armagh in your voice," Lynch said. "IRA or Provos?"
"What's the difference?"
"It might give me a better idea what you're carrying in your purse, is all." A pause. "You're too young to remember."
"You were a favorite story of my Uncle Kev's." Fi's fingers toyed with the zip of her bag. "He always wanted to meet you."
A sudden motion a step away startled Michael and made Fi's hand jump off her purse. A girl appeared at Lynch's shoulder. Michael immediately revised his first guess about her age: she'd looked no older than sixteen at first, but he decided that was just her tiny size and slight frame. She was twenty or so, and had the delicate form and porcelain skin that Japanese women have an undeserved reputation for. But her slightly slanted eyes were gray-blue, and her boyishly short hair a very light blonde with no sign of darker roots. She was dressed in a pair of tight khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt tied off at the midriff, and wore a fanny pack and an expensive camera with a very long lens on a strap around her neck. "Sorry I'm late. Had a little cleaning up to do. Did I miss anything?"
Fi recovered and said, "What's this? Bring-your-daughter-to-work day?"
"Funny." The girl regarded Fiona with the same sniper's gaze Fi had been giving Lynch. "She's funny, isn't she, Jack?" She set the camera on the table at the empty place across from Michael, but she didn't sit. She stood behind Lynch's right shoulder, scanning the area. It occurred to Michael that, if the two of them were armed and right-handed, it would be a perfect fire-support position, both of them able to draw and shoot in any direction without getting in each other's way. He decided that Lynch couldn't be carrying anything bigger than a holdout gun in an ankle holster, and the girl's outfit had no hiding places at all, though her fanny pack could hold a lot of hurt.
"Anna," Lynch said, amused, "Keep your claws in."
Then Michael recognized the camera. He looked up at the girl, trying to keep his voice casual and stifle his alarm. "What did you do to him?"
"He's yours too, then?" Her eyes left Fi to settle on Michael for a moment. "Nothing permanent. He may have trouble getting out of bed tomorrow. Now he's made, will he join us, do you think?"
A waiter put in a belated appearance. "You folks ready?"
"Carta Blanca," Michael said, thinking the long-necked bottle might come in handy as a weapon.
"Just water, thank you," the little pixie said, sizing up the waiter in a way that pulled a smile from him. But Michael saw where her eyes lingered, and even though she smiled, he knew her scrutiny had more to do with threat assessment than mating ritual.
"On me," Lynch said. "Mentirita. Cuba Libre, I mean, if they have limes. Otherwise, just rum and Coke, easy on the rum. Your friend who lost his camera, will he want something?"
Michael flicked a glance at Fiona, who was still splitting her attention between their host and his unlikely bodyguard. "He's partial to mojitos."
"Two for him, then. You, miss?"
Fiona leaned back, trying without success to look casual. "Nothing for me, thank you."
Lynch nodded as if he'd expected her to decline to drink with him, and sent the waiter off. Then he raised his hand in a small gesture, and the girl Anna unzipped her pack. Michael tensed and Fi sat forward, but the girl only removed a small envelope and passed it to the older man.
Lynch slid the envelope to Michael. "Pictures of the kids, and cash. Not payment or a retainer, just a consulting fee. If you don't want the job, take the money and keep quiet about it. The pictures are three years old, but they're the most recent I have. Don't show them around. It could be worth those kids' lives for the wrong person to know I'm looking for them here."
Sam entered the bar and looked around briefly before he approached the table. He looked a bit rough, Michael thought. He was limping, and his shoulder and neck seemed stiff. The little blonde turned to him, placing her hand lightly on Lynch's shoulder. "Sorry about that. Jack has bad people looking for him everywhere."
"Not if you find them first, I bet." Sam eased into the empty seat with a wince and stared at his camera. "You didn't do anything to it?"
"It's a nice camera. Besides, if you got any pictures, I might want a copy." She moved around behind Sam and looked over him at Lynch. "That's a new look for you. I kind of like it." She pressed the heel of her small hand between Sam's shoulder blades and moved it in a small circle. "There, about?"
Sam grunted. "Uhh. Yeah. You charge by the hour?"
"It never takes that long." She smiled and slipped the other arm around his shoulder, resting her forearm on his collarbone. With her cheek brushing his ear, she said, "On the count of three. One-"
Her forearm yanked back, and the hand between his shoulder blades rammed forward. Sam's back arched and his eyes opened wide as they all heard a muffled pop. She returned to her position behind Lynch. "Better?"
Sam twisted his head experimentally and rolled his shoulder. "Gone. Wow."
"You'll still be sore tomorrow." She started scanning the surroundings again. "But your first dose of painkiller's here."
The waiter arrived with a tray of drinks. Lynch reached back for his wallet as they were being distributed and removed a card, which he handed over. Michael and his two associates traded glances; the featureless rectangle of black plastic was exclusive to millionaires with plenty of cash on hand.
When the server left, Lynch went on. "There's a card with a number in the envelope. If you locate them, just give them the card and tell them I'm looking for them."
The scarred man gave a small shrug. "I think they'll want to talk to me, but I can't be certain. You'll have earned your pay, regardless." He sipped his drink and smiled at the quartered limes packed down with ice. "Excelente."
"We haven't talked money yet."
"It'll be a short talk. I hire the best, and I expect to pay accordingly. But you haven't told me if you'll work for me." Lynch gave Fi a glance over the rim of his glass. "I'm sure you'll want to talk that over. Just remember that this isn't about me, it's about two kids in trouble. Whether you take the job or not, we won't be meeting again." He took another sip. "I haven't been to Miami in a long time, but I'm sure I've been noticed. That means I'll have to behave like I'm here on business. I'll be expected to renew old acquaintanceships and act like I'm putting something together. On the other hand, I can't afford to stay in one place long."
"No," Fiona said, "or go anyplace you're expected, I imagine. Or sleep twice in the same bed."
Sam's half-empty drink paused on its way to his mouth, and he glanced across the table at Michael. Michael pretended not to notice.
Anna, the little blonde at Lynch's shoulder, sipped her water, looking at Fi with lowered lashes. "Jack needn't be unduly worried. He's been taking care of little annoyances on his own for a long time, and now he's got me besides. But while he's on the move, he'll be pulling eyes away from the kids and anyone else who's looking for them."
Completely un-intimidated, Fi addressed Lynch. "What are these people to you?"
Michael had expected the man to tell her she wasn't getting paid to know, or some such. Instead, he watched the corners of Lynch's mouth turn down. "Family of friends. Friends of family. An obligation I took up, and it's time to make another payment on it." He stood abruptly. "Stay. Whatever you want, it's on my tab. Good meeting you all."
The little blonde stayed behind a moment while her principal put a few people between him and the table, her eyes patrolling his six and lingering on Fi. Then she turned and headed out. Fiona's eyes tracked her out of sight.
"Fi," Michael said in warning tones.
"Just checking to see if she casts a shadow in sunlight."
Sam deposited his empty glass and picked up the full one. "A client with money, and a big spender too. That'd be a switch. Who is he, Mikey?"
"He says his name is John Lynch."
Rum and water sprayed out Sam's nose. As he coughed and sputtered, Michael asked, "Will somebody tell me who this guy is?"
"Don't deal with him, Michael," Fiona said. "He's the Devil himself."