Thursday, 19 August 2010

Excerpt Day - Vanishing Act © Liz Johnson

Excerpt

Nathan Andersen needed a nap. Badly.

He yawned for the millionth time, fighting eyelids that threatened to close even as his car swerved down the highway at midnight. A sudden tremor against his leg nearly sent him through the roof, and he dove into his pocket for his cell phone.
"Agent Andersen."
"Hey, Boss."

"Someone's burning the midnight oil," he said, chuckling. "Have you left the office yet, Heather?"
Her long pause answered his question. "You asked me to call if we heard anything else from Roth about Nora and your assignment."

"Yes. What'd he say? Did he overhear another phone call with more details?" The FBI mole's first tip was trusted enough to put Nate on the road to Crescent City. What he learned next could make or break the assignment.

"Not exactly. It was more of a confirmation of what he already told us. Roth said that he heard Goodwill—" whose lawyer had gotten him out on bail a couple months before "—on the phone with the Shadow." Both agents remained silent for a moment. For years the Shadow's name meant nothing but disappointment to the FBI. He was probably the best assassin in recent history, and the file on him was filled only with death certificates of his victims.

No names—pseudonyms or real. No pictures. No physical description. No location. Nothing to help them find him.
Heather cleared her throat and continued. "Roth said that he heard Goodwill confirming with the Shadow that he arrived in Crescent City and he was sure that Nora James was there. He said something about the community college, but Roth wasn't sure what was going on."

Nate's breathing quickened. He had to find her first, or it could spell the end of their case. "Did he say if the plan had changed?"
"Roth didn't hear anything about a change. As far as we know, the idea is still for the Shadow to kidnap Nora and hold her until Goodwill's trial is over. What are you going to do?"

Nate grunted. "If Goodwill's plan hasn't changed, then neither has mine." Another jaw-stretching yawn caught him off guard, and he mumbled an apology. Hitting the speaker button on his phone, he tossed it into the center console. Using his now-free hand to search for something that might help him fight off sleep, he grabbed for the coffee cup sitting next to his phone. Scowling when he realized it was empty, he chucked it at the opposite floorboard and rooted around the passenger seat for the bag of sunflower seeds he'd stashed there hours earlier.

"Do you really think Nora is in Crescent City?" Heather sounded unconvinced. "I know Roth doesn't have any reason to mislead us, but she took off a year and half ago. She could be anywhere by now. How can we be sure Goodwill tracked her to a tiny little town no one's ever heard of?"

Nate shoved a handful of seeds into his mouth and tried to talk around them. "I don't know how he found her, but he's got no reason to lie to Roth about hiring the Shadow to kidnap her and hold her as blackmail again. Goodwill will do anything to stay out of jail and he knows the evidence we have against him could put him away for life."

Red taillights flashed down the road, sending Nate back to the night in the alley that his years of investigation into Phil Goodwill's crime syndicate had led to. That night hadn't ended well, especially when Parker James, Nate's key witness and the master of Goodwill's perfectly manufactured monetary fronts had been shot.

His arm twitched, jerking him back to the present at the same time that Heather asked, "Do you really think that Goodwill will try to kidnap Nora again? Especially since she didn't know anything about her father's involvement with the crime ring?"

Nate laughed out loud. "You'd think he'd have learned his lesson last time. In seven years with the Bureau, I've never seen anyone turn as fast as Parker did when his daughter was kidnapped. He couldn't wait to turn over state's evidence to get Goodwill behind bars. He practically taped that wire on himself before going into the alley."

Nate shook his head at the memory of the agitated and jerky accountant so focused on rescuing his daughter. Now Nate had a job to do. One that could clinch his case against one of the biggest criminals in the Portland area. He couldn't afford to let the guy back out on the street for good.

And to keep that from happening, he had to focus on his two witnesses. Both in danger. One in immediate peril.
"Will you keep an eye on the old man while I'm out of town? Just check in on him from time to time."
"Sure thing, Boss. Is there anything I should tell him?"

Nate chewed on his lip for a moment, instinctively reaching for the coffee cup before remembering it was empty. "Don't tell him I'm going after Nora. He doesn't need to know that Goodwill's last-ditch plan for freedom is kidnapping his daughter. Again."

"Okay."
"I don't want Parker even thinking that he might not testify at the trial. His testimony rounds out this case perfectly. I'll find Nora and get her to the safe house. I won't let Goodwill intimidate the old man by threatening Nora."
Heather yawned loudly on the other end of the line. "Oh, sorry. Guess it's getting late here, too." Her definition of late was a little different than his.
"Go home—get some rest. Check in with me as soon as you hear anything else from Roth."
"Will do. Good night, sir."

"Good night," he said around his own yawn. Fighting the urge to let his eyelids drop, he refocused on the red dots ahead growing ever closer and mentally grasped for a plan to find the girl in Crescent City. He had to find her before catastrophe struck.

He didn't have a recent picture of her, so his only point of reference was her father's description and a list of her favorite activities. Church, work, school and riding bicycles—not much to go on. She had friends in each activity, but Parker had been adamant that she just hadn't had time for much else. Her master's program really took up almost all of her spare time.
But at least it was a place to start.

Nate spied the large wooden shaft sitting in the middle of the road much too late. When his sedan smashed into it, a hideous scraping vibrated along the underside of his car.

A hundred feet down the road, just as he passed a large white sign with blue letters welcoming him to Crescent City, Colorado, population 26,714, smoke appeared in his rearview mirror. White and airy at first, it quickly began to darken.
"Just great," he mumbled, pulling off the highway and into a little service station. "Nice going, Andersen."

He parked the smoking vehicle—a Bureau-issued, undercover, black sedan—and got out to take a look around. The station was locked up tight with a little sign tucked into the front window. The red arms on the paper clock indicated the shop would open up at seven-thirty the next morning. He glanced at his watch; only a couple hours away.

The lights of the city didn't really begin for about half a mile or so. It wasn't worth it to walk that far looking for a hotel for only two hours of sleep. He'd get more rest in his car.

He reclined the back of the seat, cracked the window, crossed his arms over his chest and fell into peaceful oblivion.
Danielle Keating squinted at the black sedan parked in front of Andy's Auto Shop. She hiked her coverall bottoms up at her waist before slipping one arm into its sleeve. The gray tank top she usually wore underneath was clean, so she wasn't in too much of a hurry to cover it up. Besides, the early morning sun made her simmer when zipped inside the full-body jumpsuit.

With the arm that was still free of the blue sleeve, she shaded her eyes and peered closely into the car's window. Backseat empty. Front seat em—
Whoa!

She jumped back just as the driver's side door flung open, and a dark-haired man with bloodshot eyes stepped out. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms and nodded at her. He ran his tongue over his teeth and yawned but didn't speak.

He squinted in the glare, but she could tell by the slow up-and-down movement of his blue-gray eyes that he was appraising her. It sent shivers up her back, and she quickly shoved her bare arm into its sleeve.

Just because she didn't like being assessed, didn't mean she would back down. Doing her best to maintain eye contact, she leaned a little closer. She waited for him to speak, but he seemed in no hurry. He pushed his large hands into the pockets of his wrinkled khaki pants and jingled keys or loose change there. His broad shoulders stretched the blue cotton of his polo shirt, and he stood somehow both relaxed and erect, leaning against the side of the car.

Finally she could handle the silence no longer. "Having car trouble? Or just needed a place to park?"
He squinted again, this time lifting the corners of his mouth in a half smile, his face suddenly coming alive. "Car trouble. I hit something in the road about a quarter mile back, and then I saw smoke in my rearview…so I pulled over."
"Good thing you did." She nodded, not taking her eyes off of him.

"When does the mechanic get in? I'd like to get it looked at right away so that I can get home."
Danielle's smile faltered for a moment, but she quickly plastered it back into place. Why did men always assume that she was the front-counter help? "She's here now and is happy to take a look. Pop the hood."

The tall man's ears flushed red in appropriate contrition beneath his closely trimmed brown hair, and she took a measure of pride in his shame. He opened his mouth, then seemed to think better of it and hopped back into the car, bending forward to pull the hood release.

Danielle lifted the hood and propped it open, leaning into the shadow. She felt, rather than saw, him move to stand next to her, his body radiating warmth in the already oppressive heat of the unusually mild September. She took a step away, trying to keep her jittery nerves under control. He wasn't necessarily a threat to her. He probably had no idea who she was. Why would he?

Shooting him a sideways glance through narrowed eyes, she sucked in a quick breath before lifting the radiator cap, revealing a normal amount of fluid. The oil dipstick showed normal levels, too.
"Hmm. It's probably your transmission fluid. Let me check."

He shook his head as she shimmied under the car. "But it was running fine."
Sure enough, the pan was leaking copious amounts of dark fluid. "Yeah, you probably hit something that cracked your pan and left your transmission to fend for itself. Hang on."

She scooted out from under the car and turned on her side, peering all the way up at his face. He looked slightly perplexed, but reached out a hand to help her to her feet. She hesitated for a moment before letting him dwarf her hand in his much larger one. His tug gentle yet firm, she immediately found herself on her feet, toe-to-toe and far too close for comfort.

"Thank you," she mumbled, taking a few quick steps backward.
"You're welcome."

Her eyes sought his again, even though she wasn't sure what she was looking for there. His smile was gone, replaced by exhaustion. "Did you sleep in your car, Mr….?" Her voice trailed off, as she chided herself for not asking his name before.
"Andersen. Mr. Andersen."

In her mind she replayed the line from The Matrix in a menacing tone and barely managed to keep from laughing out loud.
"Danielle," she said, holding out her hand to shake his. He nodded, looking even more tired than before. "It's going to take me a little while to check out your car more completely and make sure there's nothing else going on with it. Help me push it into the garage, and then you can sit down in the waiting room. We're not usually busy on Tuesday mornings, so you might even be able to get a little sleep."

"Thanks," he said as he leaned into the car again and slipped the automatic into neutral. She couldn't help but notice the messy passenger seat, which seemed inconsistent with the man. While he had tousled hair and more than a five-o'clock shadow growing on his chin, he seemed mostly put together—or would have if he hadn't slept in his car. She'd seen all sorts of cars and their owners since starting at the shop more than a year before. Usually the single guys in ripped T-shirts and stained jeans trashed their cars, not the men with desk jobs and khakis.

"Ready?"
"Huh?" His voice jerked her from her thoughts. "Yeah. Let's go."
Together they pushed the sedan to the garage door, which Danielle quickly unlocked and raised. When the car was settled over the in-floor pit, Mr. Andersen disappeared into the waiting room, and Danielle set to work, glancing every couple of minutes at his slumped form. She wasn't sure what she was expecting him to do, but as long as they were alone together in the garage, she wanted to know where he was.

Nate snorted loudly, effectively ripping himself from the light doze he enjoyed on the hard plastic chair in Andy's Auto Shop waiting room. Leaving his chin resting against his chest, he rubbed the back of his neck with both hands and squeezed his elbows together. The stretch of his arms and shoulders felt wonderful after being cooped up in the car for so long.

He blinked once, his eyes scraping the tender flesh of his eyelids, and groaned loudly. He rubbed both hands over his face. Two-day-old beard rasped against his palms, and he shook his head slightly and closed his eyes again to let them gain some of the moisture they'd lost during the long night.

He definitely wasn't twenty-five anymore. When he first started with the Bureau, all-nighters and long-term stakeouts were a snap. Even with only stale Funyuns and massive amounts of Yoo-hoo to drink, he'd been alert and thoughtful, great at his job.

At almost thirty-five he had to admit—even just to himself—that he needed to take better care of his body. Especially if his immediate response to a lack of sleep was snoring in a waiting room, even though he should have been on the job. No more all-nighters. It was just that easy. That is, unless his job required it. He'd take better care of himself, but he'd do whatever the job required. Over the last several years as the special agent in charge of the Portland office, Nate did whatever it took to complete the assignment.

© Liz Johnson

Vanishing Act
Author: Liz Johnson
Publisher: Steeple Hill Books
Genre: Inspirational Romance
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Eighteen months ago, Nora James watched as her father was shot in an alley—and then she fled. She changed her name, her appearance and her job, hoping to keep her father's shooter at bay. For months, it worked…but now her luck has run out.

A ruthless assassin is on her trail, and soon Nora, now known as Danielle, will be found. But this time, she has FBI agent Nate Andersen by her side—right? The handsome agent would give his life to protect Danielle, but he's wary of giving his heart…until a deadly confrontation leaves him with both on the line.

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