Chapter 1: Riley
Volume One: Dangerously Taken
WEDNESDAY. AEGIS GROUP EGYPT OFFICE, CAIRO, EGYPT.
RILEY SMITH STRODE ACROSS the courtyard toward the command center for the Aegis Group's Egypt offices. These days it seemed like Riley spent more time here than he did at his apartment in Seattle. A fact that his mother was not letting him forget.
His phone vibrated again. It was either a secondary notification calling him to the briefing, or Mom texting him pictures of his brothers getting ready to bale hay. He'd never promised to help, just said he'd try. It wasn't his fault a top priority job was canceling his travel plans home. His brothers knew what they were doing. They'd been running the ranch since high school. Deep down he knew the messages had nothing to do with baling. He hadn't been home since Christmas, something Mom thought was unforgiveable. Usually she aimed the weight of her guilt trip on Riley's youngest brother down in Texas, but lately her focus was on Riley instead. She loved reminding him he wasn't getting younger, and that she felt he owed her at least one grandbaby.
"Hold the door?" a woman called out.
Riley turned toward the van parked by the gates leading out onto the street. The team's Client Liaison hauled her laptop out of the backseat, juggling two other bags. He clearly wasn't the only one ready to get out of here.
"Need a hand?" he asked
Melody ignored his question and stepped through the doors ahead of him.
He wasn't sure what to make of Melody. Zain, their immediate boss, had informed Lepta Team that because of their unique nature dealing with companies as clients and the high dollar they commanded, the team needed a go-between. Riley didn't care one way or another. As the team's second, his focus was logistics. Getting them from point A to B in one piece. The less he had to bother with informing clients about their activities the more prepared he could be. That said, Melody and their Team Leader got along about as well as wet cats.
"Here, let me help you with that." He picked up her heavy laptop case and carried it up the stairs to the second floor. "What'd Grant say this time to piss you off?"
"What?" Melody glanced up at him, blinking rapidly.
"You seem tense. Grant say something?"
"Oh. No. Long call with the client." She blew out a breath and climbed the stairs, matching his pace. She was different when the clients were around versus just the team.
"Is the job that bad?"
They reached the second-floor landing. From the sound of it, they were the last to arrive. Melody hesitated in the hall, deep lines of worry bracketing her mouth.
"You ever have a bad feeling about something?" She eyed the hand-carved double doors leading into the command room.
"Yeah..." Great. Just what Riley wanted. Another complicated job.
"The asset makes sense, it's just... You'll see." Melody jerked her head toward doors.
Riley followed Melody into what had no doubt been intended as some sort of giant dining room. Their team used it for the planning and oversight of their work in the Middle East. The other four members of their team were present and seated around the table with the projector on.
"Thanks for joining us." Grant turned toward the wall. "We're short on time, so this needs to be brief."
Melody set her things down by the door and remained standing opposite Grant, who continued to ignore her.
This was going to be fun. How long until Zain made those two kiss and make-up?
Riley just wanted the job to start. Once they all knew their role things seemed to work out.
Grant clicked the remote on the projector.
An image of a woman stretched across the wall.
Riley swallowed. He stared at her eyes, his soul seemingly sucked out of his body. He blinked a few times, trying to shake off the spell. There was something magnetic about her eyes, and he hadn't even noticed the rest of her. Her crooked smile appeared to be laughing at him as though she were aware of her power. The sun-tanned skin made it hard to pin down her ethnicity, but regardless of where her ancestors hailed from-she was beautiful.
"Meet our VIP asset. This is Erin Lopez." Grant nodded at the woman. "She is a Project Manager working for NexGen, an oil company working out of the Kurdish region of Iraq. Two hours ago, while touring a facility outside Mosul, a group of extremists breached their security and kidnapped Ms. Lopez. There have been no demands, no contact, nothing."
Demands rarely came that quickly. He was more concerned about where they were headed. Mosul might be under Kurdish control again, but it was by no means safe. Private security companies made a fortune offering personal protection.
"Wait." Riley frowned and leaned forward. A woman who looked like that, with a powerful job, she'd rate pretty high on a company's list of important people. They were paying their team to bring her back after all. "Don't most of these companies have bodyguards for their people over there?"
"Yes. Ms. Lopez's personal security was on-site, but not with her at the time of the attack. NexGen wants us to rendezvous with the bodyguard to assist us," Grant replied.
"They didn't fire his ass?" Riley asked. In their shoes, if he were head of security, that man would have been out of a job.
"Not that I'm aware of," Grant said.
"What about her history there? With the company, I mean." Nolan, their Communications Officer, leaned forward and clasped his hands. "She looks familiar..."
Grant gestured to the picture. "If you were ever deployed to Iraq, you might have seen her-"
"Officially, she's a valuable employee the company wants to get back as quickly as possible." Melody stepped forward, the projector light falling across her face. "The situation is more complicated than that. We've already received a call from Americans on the ground in Kurdistan to say they know we're coming and they're ready for us." Melody glanced at Grant, who still looked like he'd sucked a lemon.
"No one wants to see an incursion in Kurdish Iraq," Grant said. "Unlike the rest of the country, the Kurdistan region hasn't seen a terrorist attack in years. Obviously, everyone wants this situation resolved as quickly and quietly as possible, so they can focus their efforts on rebuilding Mosul."
"A couple more things about our VIP asset." Melody glanced at Grant. "According to some digging Zain did, Ms. Lopez has caused a few waves at NexGen that possibly impact why her bodyguard wasn't fired immediately. She was directly responsible for NexGen cancelling their contract with Allied Security due to some infractions with locals."
"Are we thinking this is related?" Riley glanced around the table. A woman with a smile like that and a spine of steel was the kind of person who needed rescuing.
"Maybe?" Melody was studiously not looking at Grant. There was something serious going on between those two that was awkward to observe. "Local security forwarded us a video of the attack, which I think everyone should see."
"Video?" Grant glared across the table at Melody.
"Give me one moment, please..." She tapped at her phone. "Of note, Ms. Lopez is the daughter of an Iraq immigrant and a Miami local. She enlisted in the army a year after she graduated high school and was one of the most valuable translators, interpreters, social navigators, she worked with troops on cultural awareness... You get the point. Like Grant said, if you were deployed in this region, chances are you've seen her or benefitted from her work. She went straight into working for NexGen after that and continues to work in border areas where the risk is greater."
Riley glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the team. Surely they had to be on the same page? A woman like that? They had to bring her home safe.
Brenden, their tactical expert, didn't so much as blink. The guy might as well be a statue, but that was typical.
Nolan, their communications officer, shook his head, and if Riley wasn't mistaken, that was the sound of Nolan's molars grinding.
Vaughn, their surveillance specialist, caught Riley's eye and shook his head.
It wasn't just him, then. Something about this job stank.
"Here we go." Melody glanced from her phone to the screen.
"Security reported the group didn't make it far into the building," Grant said.
Riley sat up.
Melody had been upset, bothered even, by this job. Was it the video? Was this the source of her apprehension?
Unlike most security video, this was in color. The recording began, showing a woman he assumed was Ms. Lopez standing in the bottom left corner of the frame. She had what looked like a tablet in hand and was speaking with two men. Based on their Dockers and button-down shirts, he'd guess some sort of management. A flash of light shone through the window of a door on the upper right-hand side of the screen a moment before the door blew in, bouncing off one wall and then the other before it came to rest in the middle of the hall. The blast knocked the two men off their feet while Ms. Lopez crumpled to the ground, her arms over her head, body in a tight ball. Her tablet skidded away out of view.
Riley winced. That fall, combined with the concussion blast and not to mention any debris they didn't see, would have hurt.
Three men in traditional thawb garments with their faces covered ran in through the new hole. Two went straight for Ms. Lopez. One of Ms. Lopez's coworkers even kicked at the attacker, but they were ignored.
Riley clenched his hands. She had training. If she got out of their grip, she could get away.
The men hauled Ms. Lopez to her feet. She swayed for a moment before she got her feet under her. She moved like lightning, wrenching her arm away and delivering a sharp jab at the closest man's ribs. Riley held his breath and clenched his fists. She swung her elbow at the other man, catching him off guard.
Something happened off-screen. The attackers flattened against a wall, all three grabbing Ms. Lopez. Security? Some sort of first responder?
Riley clenched his hands. She could still get away...
A moment later, the three men dragged Ms. Lopez out the side door.
The video went dark.
For several seconds no one spoke.
Riley tried to swallow the lump lodged in his throat. A feeling of wrongness settling in his stomach. He glanced up at Melody, who continued to frown at the square of light cast by the projector.
"So, she was grabbed because she was all they could get to? That's the story they're giving us?" Riley asked.
Grant turned to face the table.
There was no way Ms. Lopez was anything but a target. No wonder everyone wanted to keep this quiet. An attack in Kurdistan was one thing, a kidnapping by terrorists another. This was more complicated than a simple snatch and grab.