License to Love

An Agent Ex Novel (Volume 4)

Gina Robinson

St. Martin's Paperbacks

CHAPTER ONE
 
 
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
TWO YEARS LATER
Out of costume and dressed inconspicuously in a show T-shirt, jeans, and a silk-screened black hoodie to hide his distinctive tattoos, Rock Powers leaned against the crowded casino craps table and placed the bet he’d been cryptically instructed to play, Hi-Lo. The house edge on this placement was just over eleven percent. The payout fifteen to one. So far he hadn’t won. What else was new? He was beginning to wonder whether he was wasting not only his money, but his time. He wondered the same thing about his search for Lani nearly every day.
On his own, he’d never play these lousy odds. The house always held the advantage. Just like fate seemed to. He preferred to stack the deck in his favor, which was why he was banned by the Vegas casinos from playing any card game. Too good at sleight of hand, and palming and counting cards. Anyone as good at the ambitious card trick as he was was bound to be suspect. Hazard of the magician’s trade. The mysterious person who’d instructed him to play craps and wait to be contacted knew a thing or two about him. Which was reassuring, in a strange, creepy way. At least the guy had done his research.
Rock was a gambler, but only on stage, and in his bid to find his missing wife. Much more of this futile betting and he’d lose his favorite Rock Powers Faith Unseen show T-shirt right off his back. Hey, it was a limited edition.
Where the hell was the bastard who’d given him these ludicrous instructions to place this bet and wait for him to identify himself? The mysterious contact that either had a Jason Bourne complex or was some kind of an espionage nutcase.
I know where your wife is.
The words on the missive slid beneath his dressing room door two nights ago, on the last night of his show’s run until it picked up again in November, haunted Rock. He might have ignored it; turned it in to security so they could catch the guy the next time he slunk by. Except for the enclosed QR code. Which when Rock had snapped a shot of it with his cell phone, took him to a video of a living, laughing Lani. A hypnotic video Rock had studied until he felt as if his eyes were going to fall out.
Lani, two years older? Different hairstyle. Wearing up-to-date trendy fashions and makeup. A newspaper in the background with a current date. But then anyone could print one of those up, right? Her fabulously rich laugh. He couldn’t get enough of hearing it over and over again. When was the last time he’d laughed like that, really laughed from the heart? The night he’d married Lani.
The way her shiny, straight, nearly black hair fell over her face as she moved. The distinctive gesture she used to sweep it back and tuck it behind her ears, out of her dancing, barely perceptibly almond-shaped eyes. The curve of her full lips as she smiled.
There was only one way to describe Lani—exotic. One quarter white, one quarter African-American, one quarter Japanese, one quarter Hispanic, Lani called herself the great all-American mutt. Everyone else found her looks arresting.
A picture could have been Photoshopped, altered in any number of ways. A video? That was a trickier deal. Then he spotted the unique silver ring on the pointer finger of her right hand and his heart stopped. He noticed every detail, as he was trained to do. She wasn’t wearing the huge diamond-and-platinum wedding ring he’d given her.
Whether that was really Lani, or a very convincing double in the video, whoever had made it knew something about Lani’s disappearance. Nutcase contact aside, desperation drove Rock to look into it. No rock unturned. Only himself, Rock Powers, completely upended.
Tell no one about this missive or the deal’s off.
The note gave the instructions he was now following. He’d spent two days in silent hell, thinking of nothing but this meeting.
Two days in hell were nothing in comparison to his years of torment. He’d been looking for Lani for two horrifically long years, enduring all the humiliation and frustration that came with her disappearance and the never-ending search. Offering a standing hundred-thousand-dollar reward to anyone who provided a tip that led to her. Or her body. Checking up on crackpot leads and greedy individuals who sought to trick him out of the reward. Being offered tips by supposed psychics. Didn’t these people pay attention? He was Rock Powers, debunker of psychic phenomenon.
There were two camps of magicians, both of which performed “psychic” tricks or mentalism. One camp practiced, claiming they had authentic supernatural abilities. The second camp performed just as convincingly, but let people know they were being tricked, duped by lies and modern magic. Rock was in the second camp. He could bend spoons with the best of them, but he never claimed it was anything other than sleight of hand.
For two years, the rumors had flown, mocking him, making fun, and hurling ridiculous accusations as he tried to contain his grief and worry and just find Lani.
“Great illusionist’s wife dumps him before the honeymoon even began. Magician Rock Powers can’t keep the magic in his marriage for even a day; claims he’s brokenhearted.”
“Drunk, Rock Powers marries on a whim without a prenup. Millions of little motives for murder? Where are you, Lani Powers?”
“Has illusionist Rock Powers performed the perfect crime and disappeared his beautiful bride for good without a clue? Stumped police demand he reappear her.”
“Rock Powers initiates a brilliant publicity stunt. Audiences pack his show, waiting for the ultimate prestige, the reappearance of beautiful Lani Torres Powers. Bring her back, Rock.”
For Rock it was no publicity stunt and he obviously hadn’t murdered her. That left only a few options. Either someone had abducted or murdered her. Or she’d decided she’d made a mistake by marrying him and disappeared as a way of rectifying it.
Running out on him neither made logical sense, nor jibed with what he knew of Lani. Logically, she would have stood to make a pile of money in a divorce, just as the gossipmongers proclaimed. He had married her on the spur of the moment and been incredibly reckless—no prenup. In addition to the money, the publicity from a split with him would only have helped her career.
And the Lani he knew? If she’d wanted a divorce she’d have come right out and asked for one. She was dedicated to the craft. None of this disappearing in the middle of an act crap. Finally, she loved him. He knew she had.
Which left the darker alternative the more likely, and frightening, scenario in Rock’s mind.
Ironically, the mystery, the sense that it could all be an act, the dark aura of suspicion that hung over him, and the desire to be in the crowd if he actually reappeared Lani combined to shoot his act to the heights of success. Professionally, he’d never done better. Personally, he was darkly driven. If he hadn’t been addicted to magic, he’d have long ago overdosed on something worse.
He pushed himself, worked until he dropped. Created dark tricks and acts spun from the turn his imagination and psyche had taken since she’d vanished. The reviews raved about the deep, disturbing nature of his tricks, saying he’d finally found his magical voice, his theme. Dark worked for Rock Powers. Dark was Rock Powers. His sense of naïveté gone, his act was true magic.
Women wanted him. They threw themselves at him. He had groupies, fan clubs full of them. Starlets and strippers. Porn stars. Nice girls with soft hearts. He could have had just about any woman he wanted. The ladies loved a tortured hero. He ignored them all. Which, ironically, only ratcheted up his appeal.
Work was the only thing that dulled the pain and kept him sane.
He’d known Lani just over six months, been married to her less than a day. But he wouldn’t rest until he found her. He wouldn’t let her down. If she needed rescuing, he was her guy. If it took him the rest of his life, he’d discover the truth of what had happened to her.
Then that note showed up beneath his door. Hope, as they say, sprang eternal.
Rock was just about to give up on craps and his mysterious contact and pick up his chips and go home. He gave a mental shrug.
One more bet, what the hell could that hurt?
He slapped the chips on the table. Once more and he was leaving with what was left in his wallet and of his pride before anyone recognized him. Before anyone realized he was a sucker for believing he’d finally find Lani.
The shooter, a cocky young guy, held the dice out for his tipsy girlfriend to blow on for luck. He shot. The dice bounced against the back of the table. The table erupted in applause.
The dealer surveyed the table. “Hi-Lo wins!”
Rock had just won something in the magnitude of fifteen thousand dollars. In a single toss, he’d recouped everything he’d lost, plus about five grand.
As the dealer handed him his chips, Rock felt a hand on his shoulder. “Excellent play, boy. You were about to give up, weren’t you?”
Rock turned and stared into the steely brown eyes of a distinguished man who could have been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty-five. Despite the steel in his gaze, his lips twitched as if he were fighting a smile. But his stance and attitude said he was a fighter and not to mess with him. There was something lethal about him.
“The impatience of youth,” the newcomer continued. “If you’d walked, you’d have lost the advantage of having already sat through the first few rolls where the house held the definite statistical advantage. In my business, we know how to play the odds to our favor.”
“Worried I’d lose the reward money?” Rock said. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? I’m not easy to fool.”
The man laughed. “Hardly. I’m in no position to accept it. The ethics committee would have a field day. Come with me.” The man squeezed Rock’s shoulder. “It’s too crowded to talk here. Too many ears.”
The guy wasn’t making any sense. Probably another loony.
Rock tipped the dealer, took his payoff and, ignoring his better judgment, followed the stranger as he wound his way through the crowd and the neon art in the hotel.
His contact had the good grace to allow him to collect his cash before leading him out of the casino into the bright, flashing neon magic on the Strip. Rock pretended to stash his payoff in his wallet and put it in his jeans pocket. In reality, he used sleight of hand to stash it in a concealed money belt.
“Paranoid?” Rock asked the man as they walked out of the casino toward the street.
The man shrugged. “No more than you are, stashing your cash in a money belt.”
Rock stopped and stared at him. How the hell had he seen that? Rock’s diversionary sleight of hand tricks never failed.
The man laughed and kept walking. Rock rushed to keep up with him. Rock was a world-class magician. If this guy hadn’t been distracted by the motion Rock made of stuffing the wallet in his pocket, this guy was something else. A formidable foe. A danger. Rock’s heart raced.
“Don’t look so worried,” the guy said as he kept walking. “I know a bit of magic myself. When I was a small boy, John Mulholland taught me my first trick or two.”
“You knew the great Mulholland?” Mulholland had been a magician for the CIA. The hairs stood up on the back of Rock’s neck. This guy really was a spy buff.
Rock grabbed spywannabe’s arm. “What game are you playing? What do you know about Lani?”
“Everything,” he said. “But here’s not the place. Trust me when I tell you that you have too many enemies here. Far too many enemies. You’ve stirred up trouble, boy. In more quarters than you know.” He shook off Rock’s hand and led him away from the hotel, down the street, and into a shadowy back alley.
Rock had to be crazy, certifiable to follow this guy. But he did. It was a balmy evening. A nice night for a walk if you weren’t out with a crazy. Finally, his contact stopped in the shadows upwind from a garbage Dumpster and leaned casually against a brick wall, studying Rock.
The guy wore an expensive suit. Rock wouldn’t have touched a thing in that alley, let alone risk staining or snagging his suit. But his contact wasn’t so finicky.
It was warm, almost too warm for the hoodie Rock wore. But he didn’t take it off. And he didn’t lean against the wall, either. “What do you know about Lani?”
“Direct and to the point. I like that.” As the guy smiled, his teeth gleamed white in the shadows. “But it’s generally considered polite to make introductions first, before delving into business.” He stuck out his hand, offering to shake. “Emmett Nelson, chief of National Clandestine Services. Recently appointed head of domestic spying for the top-secret antiterrorist task force. You can call me Emmett or Chief. Or Mr. Nelson, if you prefer. Pleased to meet you.”
When Rock hesitated, Nelson laughed.
“Don’t trust me?” Emmett said. “Afraid I have something lethal up my sleeve?”
Rock’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never heard of National Clandestine Services.”
Nelson sighed. “What? Never heard of the spying arm of the Central Intelligence Agency?”
“CIA? What the hell?” Rock didn’t trust him, but he shook Nelson’s hand to humor him. Nelson had a firm, confident, calloused grip, the grip of a man who knew how to take care of himself, and who fired a gun often.
“Yeah, I know,” Nelson said, releasing Rock’s hand. “Sad how many Americans don’t know the official title of the spying branch of the Agency. Too many people don’t realize the Agency is made up of many divisions, most of them desk jobs, analysts, and eggheads. The spying part is just the most fun.” His eyes twinkled. “I have the best job in the world.”
Rock shook his head, still wondering whether to believe this guy with his spy complex, or brush him off as a loony. He decided to run with it a while. “What does the CIA know about Lani? Why are you involved, Em?” It was hard to keep the scoff out of his voice. If this guy wanted to play James Bond’s boss M, Rock would go with it.
With a movement so quick, Rock didn’t see it coming, Nelson’s hand shot out and grabbed Rock by the throat, squeezing his larynx in a crushing way that only a professional thug would know. “No one calls me Em unless I invite them to, got that, showman?” Nelson locked eyes with him, his gaze decidedly unfriendly.
Shit! This guy is crazy and dangerous.
Rock considered fighting back, but he needed Emmett. For the moment. He nodded.
Nelson grinned and let go. “Good, now that we have that straight, I could ask you the same question.”
Rock rubbed his throat, hoping Nelson hadn’t damaged his vocal cords. They were insured with Lloyd’s of London for their hypnotic quality along with his mesmerizing eyes. But still, what was a magician without his commanding voice? How could Rock perform magic without uttering the magic words, abracadabra! Not that he’d ever really said abracadabra since he was about ten. “Me?” The word came out as more of a croak than anything. Rock cleared his throat.
Emmett stared at him without pity. “Yes, you! Why were you involved with Lani? What business did you have marrying one of my spies behind my back?”
Spies? Rock’s senses reeled. Lani, a spy? And yet, it made a warped kind of sense. He stared at Nelson, trying not to gape. “Lani’s a spy? That’s ridiculous.”
Nelson ignored him. “Everyone in the biz knows my agents don’t marry without my blessing.” He grinned, evilly. “Which I deny in almost every case. I like my agents to remain single. So many fewer complications and less baggage that way. Spouses are liabilities, security lapses and blackmail opportunities waiting to happen. My people know that when they sign on.
“Married people, especially women, want children”—he rolled his eyes—”don’t even get me started on the dangers of spies with children.”
Was it Rock’s imagination, or did Nelson hiss the word children? Speechless, he stared at Nelson as if he were crazy.
“What? Do you want proof, magician? A skeptic, are you?” Nelson shook his head again. “Need to see a badge or something?” He paused, studying Rock. “Sorry to disappoint. Secret agents don’t carry badges. They tend to give us away.”
“Why should I believe you?”
Nelson crossed his arms. His eyes narrowed as he watched Rock. “Because if you don’t, you’ll end up dead. Very soon, I suspect.”
Rock took a step back. He should run the hell out of here.
Nelson’s laugh stopped him. “Oh, not by me. I don’t want to kill you. But our enemies do.”
“Enemies? I don’t have any enemies, other than the nuts who want to steal my tricks.” Rock squinted at him, wishing, not for the first time, that he really did have psychic powers. Nelson looked deadly serious and suddenly not at all crazy.
“But our country does and you’ve attracted their attention.” Nelson paused. “The way I see it,” he said, “without my help, you’ll be dead within the week. Possibly tortured in the process.” Nelson shrugged. “You can never predict what those RIOT bastards will do. Or…”
Speaking of showmen, this guy was an ace. His pause was pure dramatic effect.
Rock broke first. “Or, what, spook? And who the hell, or what, is RIOT?”
Nelson laughed softly. “Impatient again. Should you accept my offer, all will be revealed in due time.” He shook his head as if amused. He seemed easily amused.
“Or we help each other out, magic man. Turns out, the Agency and I are in need of a talented magician. We rarely recruit from the magical realm. The last one was Mulholland in the fifties and the director got all kinds of grief for that.
“In the seventies, Congress and the press accused the Agency of using too many showboaty shenanigans. That failed assassination incident with Fidel Castro and the exploding cigar was unfortunate, but you have to admit it was creative. Too bad it put the final nail in magic’s coffin.” His eyes were devilish. “Richard Helms, the director at the time, ordered all copies of Mulholland’s classified magic manual destroyed. More’s the pity.”
For an instant, Rock wondered if the Agency really had given up on magic in the intervening years. Nelson’s tone left room for doubt.
“But, you know,” Nelson continued, “our R and D came up with some exceptionally clever devices because of Mulholland’s input. The Agency learned more about escapology, misdirection, change blindness, and creating cognitive illusions than most people can imagine.
“Saved our butts more than once, I can tell you. And then of course, there was the unfortunate incident where one of the manuals was discovered still in existence and published a few years back.
“And now”—Nelson waved his hands in an all-encompassing gesture—“we find we have need of magic again. Which brings me to you and the proposition I have for you. You have skills we need, my boy. And we have something you desperately want—your wife.”
Without thinking, Rock made a fist and took a step toward Nelson. The bastard has Lani.
“Step down and stop looking at me like that,” Nelson said. He shrugged again. “She’s not my prisoner. As I said, she’s my agent.
“And, you, Rock Powers, crave excitement and challenge. It’s a match made in heaven.”
Rock stared at him in disbelief. The CIA wants to recruit me?
This conversation kept taking one bizarre turn after another.
“I see you still don’t believe me. I guess it’s not every day the layman runs into a spy.” Nelson laughed. He looked as if he was having the time of his life at Rock’s expense. “Or maybe it is. Maybe you entertain spies unaware all the time. But seeing that you need proof…”
With a flourish, he produced a document out of thin air. He caught Rock unaware. He didn’t see how Nelson did it, but he was good. Must have had it up his sleeve the whole time.
Nelson held the document out for him. Rock snatched it from his hand and scanned it. He swallowed hard when he saw Lani’s handwriting and signature at the bottom, next to his own. Although her last name was different. He’d been too drunk and in love to notice before, but she’d signed her name Lani Silkwater, rather than Lani Torres, as he’d known her. He’d had no idea Torres was her stage name.
Rock’s heart crashed into his stomach. The commemorative certificate of marriage he and Lani had signed after the ceremony trembled in his hand. “How did you get my original certificate of marriage?”
It had been missing since the night Lani disappeared, and was obviously authentic, down to the tiny smudge of Lani’s lipstick in the corner.
“Lani took it with her when she left. Hid it in her shoe.”
Rock attacked Nelson, grabbing him by the lapel of his suit. “Where’s Lani?”
Nelson shook his head. There was no fear in his eyes as he stared Rock down. In fact, he somehow managed to look both lethal and amused at the same time.
“Not until we have a deal, Rock. Surely you can see that if I give you that intel, I lose my tactical advantage. A good negotiator never tips his hand.”
Rock released him and ran his hands through his hair. He couldn’t believe he was even considering Nelson’s bizarre offer. “How would this work? Will I have to train at the Farm? Would I have to give up my show? I’m on hiatus now, but I’ll be back on stage in a few months.”
I’ll never give up my show. Not even for Lani.
“No, we’d never ask you to give up your show. And yes, we’ll give you some training, but not at the Farm. Nothing about your involvement is official, you understand.” Nelson paused. “But let me be clear about this, once you accept my offer, there’s no going back. We know everything about you, including how to destroy you if you betray us.
“And just so you’re clear, betraying us, giving out our national defense secrets, is treason and punishable by death. The highest offices of government are aware of this operation.
“If you have any doubts, any hesitation, now is the time to walk away, Rock Powers. After this, there’s no going back.”
Rock took a deep breath. Espionage, that had to be an adrenaline rush, a new frontier for magic. And Lani. Damn his weak soul, he had to see her. Plus there was that little matter Nelson had mentioned about someone killing Rock within the week.
“We’re in a bit of a time crunch,” Nelson said. “But if you need a day to think it over—”
“Hobson’s choice, but I’m in.”
Nelson extended his hand.
Rock didn’t take it. “With one condition—I get my wife back. I get a chance to work things out with Lani.” Rock stared him in the eye.
Nelson dropped his hand and studied Rock. “I can give you the opportunity to see her, the rest is up to you. No guarantees. The decision to remain your wife is ultimately Lani’s.”
Rock nodded. “Fair enough. What do we do now? How does this work?”
“We shake on it. I’ll get you the details later.” He grinned. “And so you know, we’ll pay you handsomely. This deal will be worth your while.”
Rock didn’t give a damn about payment. He shook Nelson’s hand without hesitating when Nelson extended it.
“When do I get to see Lani?” Rock’s heart raced as he asked the question.”
“I’m going to have to train this impatience out of you.” Nelson shrugged and snapped his fingers. “My girl, reveal yourself.”
Then, right before Rock’s eyes, a woman dressed in skintight black and carrying a pistol stepped out of the shadows from behind the Dumpster. She raised her gaze to look him in the eye.
Rock’s heart caught in his throat. “Lani?”
Even in the twilight, her beauty took his breath away. She’d played up her Hispanic side, so much so that she looked like he imagined a hot Havana night felt—balmy, lusty, sexy with heat.
“Classic misdirection.” Nelson laughed. “She was there all along, watching my backside.”
She may have had Nelson’s back, but knowing she was going to see Rock, she’d dressed for him.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Gina Robinson