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BURNED

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Covert CIA ops officer Vanessa Pierson has dedicated her career to capturing one man: Bhoot, the world’s most notorious nuclear arms dealer. That mission has been impeded by the murders of her assets, who were betrayed by a mole within her own agency. When she narrowly escapes death during a devastating explosion at the Louvre, Vanessa immediately suspects that Bhoot was the architect of the brazen terrorist attack. But when a previously unknown militant group claims responsibility for the bombing and promises even greater carnage, she is forced to rethink her initial assumptions—especially when Bhoot himself contacts her to deny responsibility and confirm her suspicions that a miniaturized nuclear device may have fallen into hands more dangerous than his own. Of course, Vanessa knows Bhoot can’t be trusted. But she begins to fear that a new and even greater threat to the world’s fragile balance of power may have emerged.

As Vanessa’s investigation leads her ever closer to the identity of the mole and the real terrorists’ plans, she finds herself drawn against all her better instincts into a perilous alliance with one of the world’s most dangerous criminals—a man who has become her darkest obsession . . . and perhaps her savior.

Moving swiftly from Paris, to Amsterdam, to Venice, to Istanbul, Burned is a nerve-shattering, intricately woven thriller about the mission to capture a brilliant and elusive mastermind—and an exhilarating new chapter in the Vanessa Pierson saga.

BLOWBACK

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The quick slap of a runner’s stride against asphalt broke the late-afternoon hush of Vienna’s Prater garden. Vanessa Pierson tensed, catching a flash of blue and white in her peripheral vision. Lean legs encased in a warm-up suit, slightly scuffed running shoes, rhythmic breathing—an athlete training for Vienna’s annual marathon? She exhaled as he passed, but the knot behind her solar plexus tightened and sweat broke on her forehead, her body’s message that she’d moved way beyond normal operational adrenaline.

But there’d been nothing normal about this op from the beginning.

Her Iranian asset had sent her a private message embedded within the careful content of the e-mail that prompted this meeting. He’d used the code they’d agreed on the last time they met in person. A phrase that told her the meeting was so urgent it warranted the risk entailed. “Although my conference schedule is extremely busy, I’m hoping to visit the Klimt paintings in the Belvedere Palace.”

And now you’re forty-two minutes late, Arash.

Fear for him whispered through her. What if he’d been detained, arrested—

She forced her mind away from the worst-case scenarios. Screwed-up Agency commo plans were legendary—the most intricate and carefully arranged meetings blown by someone forgetting whether to move the clock forward or back by one hour or two.

She’d played tourist for the last ninety minutes, strolling the main avenue, circling the park’s ornate lake to feed the raucous ducks, the burn phone in her pocket pressing against her hip. Only one person had the number: Chris Arvanitis, her boss at the counterproliferation division, the only one at CIA Headquarters who still had her back.

Now, retracing her steps, she followed the path to the amusement park, where the Riesenrad, the Giant Wheel, spun ponderously against a low gray sky. When Arash arrived, he would head toward their landmark.

They hadn’t had any contact since their last meeting in Copenhagen, almost two years ago. For a few minutes they’d walked through Tivoli Gardens, the last gleam of sunset reflecting off the lake. As a swan stretched its gray wings, sending ripples over the water’s metallic shimmer, she’d pressed a flash drive into his damp palm, squeezing his hand gently. To calm him, she quietly joked, “For one of your colleagues at Natanz who enjoys the soft porn of Game of Thrones. Leave it where it will be used often and shared.”

He had offered a faint smile, but the skin around his dark eyes tightened and Vanessa read the spike of fear. He knew better than to ask what the drive contained—he would put the pieces together easily enough, even before the story burned through the international press and the virus contained on the flash drive irrevocably changed the nature of covert war. Knowing she would not see him again soon, if ever, she’d walked away without looking back. Almost whispering the silent request: Be very careful, Arash Farah. Stay safe, my friend.

ACQUIRED MOTIVES

Acquired Motives

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Anthony Randall didn’t look like a self-confessed sadistic rapist. His large blue eyes were free of guile, his cheeks were tinged pink, his lips habitually worked themselves into a soft frown. He looked younger than his twenty-two years.

He looked like an altar boy.

Sylvia Strange shifted in the hardwood chair where she had been poised for more than thirty minutes. The glare of the fluorescent lights made her head ache. Her navy silk skirt was creased. She hoped dark circles of perspiration weren’t visible under the arms of her suit jacket. It was her job to maintain the illusion of control even when the courtroom resembled the inside of a pressure cooker.

Sylvia noticed sweat easing down Judge Nathaniel Howzer’s throat to the collar of his black robes. The judge had summoned opposing counsel to the bench three times during the past fifteen minutes. Clearly, he wasn’t pleased with the most recent turn of events.

Just days earlier, Erin Tulley, an officer with the New Mexico State Police, had admitted that Anthony Randall had been reeling under the effects of drugs and alcohol when he confessed to rape. The law demanded that confessions be knowing and voluntary–tricky when the confessor’s system was toxic.

Immediately following Tulley’s turnaround, the defense had filed a motion to suppress the confession. If granted, there would be no trial, and the defendant would walk. The judge had refused to render a decision on the motion until he heard the testimony of the evaluating forensic psychologist: Sylvia Strange.

As Judge Howzer conferred yet again with defense and prosecuting attorneys, the bailiff fanned himself with both hands. It had to be pushing ninety degrees in the courtroom. A female journalist in the gallery lifted a ponytail of graying hair above her neck and strained forward to catch the breeze from a portable fan. The nose and mouth of another reporter were covered with a white mask to filter out environmental impurities.

Behind the press row, the family members of the rape victim were huddled together. The victim’s mother looked as if she was shell-shocked. Sylvia could hardly bear to glance at the woman.

Judge Howzer finished his murmured consultation with the attorneys. Sylvia took a deep breath to regain her focus as Tony Klavin, the defendant’s attorney approached the witness stand. Klavin was thirty-five, athletic, and aggressive; he committed every ounce of energy to this examination.

“Dr. Strange, at any time during the fifteen hours you spent with the defendant Anthony Randall, did you discuss his family history?”

Sylvia saw Randall seated at the defense table, his blond head held perfectly still. She said, “During the examining interview I obtained a clinical history to establish the individuality of the defendant’s background, his family, education. and life experiences.”

Tony Klavin nodded sagely and the dark curl that licked his forehead bounced ever so gently. He’d earned a reputation as a cunning and oily defense attorney by taking on offensive clients and winning their high-profile cases. He jammed both hands into his pants pockets and hunkered down. “Did Anthony Randall have a tragic childhood?”

“Objection.” The prosecutor, Jack O’Dell, was on his feet. He shook his head in disgust. “Dr. Strange has not been qualified by this court as a dramaturge, Your Honor.”

“Mr. Klavin, rephrase the question in less theatrical language.”

Tony Klavin touched the tips of his fingers together; his hands formed a triangle. “Dr. Strange, did Anthony Randall become a substance abuser when her was eleven years old?”

For a split second she locked eyes with the defendant; it was like looking into the eyes of something dead. Six weeks ago, during the final clinical interview at the jail, Randall had been cocky, convinced that his ability to manipulate would get him whatever the hell he wanted. He wasn’t sophisticated enough to be cognizant of the MMPI-2 validity scales, which detected “fake bad” crazies–those hard-core cases who wanted the world to think they were too sick to take responsibility for their crimes. But he had a good handle on his sociopathic skills: deceit, control, exploitation.

To hear Anthony Randall tell it, he was the victim.

Sylvia felt the dampness between her shoulder blades, and one droplet of sweat slowly traveled down her spine. She ran her tongue over her lips and willed herself to speak. “Anthony Randall was hospitalized for alcohol abuse when he was twelve.”

“At what age did he begin to drink?”

“Between the ages of ten and eleven.”

“And did he also begin sniffing glue?”

Jack O’Dell interjected, “Your Honor–”

While the attorneys argued another point of admissibility, Sylvia took a breath and centered her mind on the business at hand. In this case, she was a witness for the defense. As a forensic psychologist, she worked for prosecution, defense, or the court–whoever requested her services. Impartiality was a professional requirement.

Sylvia had evaluated hundreds of criminal offenders. She had heard enough truly horrific life stories to fill volumes. And most of the time, she felt empathy for the defendants. But Anthony Randall left her cold. He enjoyed inflicting pain.

Sylvia continued to answer Tony Klavin’s questions, to build a case for Anthony Randall, the conduct-disordered child who had grown into a dysfunctional, antisocial adult. With each response, Sylvia felt her stomach muscles clench. Months ago, when she first read the police crime reports, she’d wept. Anthony Randall had beaten and raped a fourteen-year-old girl with a metal pipe. And then he’d left her for dead.

Flora Escudero had survived–just barely. But she had been unable to identify her masked attacker.

Sylvia was no proponent of the death penalty. It was an archaic, unjust system–racially and economically biased, outrageously expensive, imperfect, and inhumane.

But she couldn’t deny the intensity of the primitive emotion that welled up inside her: she wanted Anthony Randall to die.

“Dr. Strange? I’ll repeat the question.” Tony Klavin was staring at her, puzzled by her slow response. “Was the purpose of your evaluation to determine the defendant’s competency to stand trial as well as his mental state at the time of the incident?”

Here it comes, she thought. “Yes.”

“When you questioned him about the incident, did he indicate whether or not he remembered making a statement to the police?”

“He said he couldn’t remember much.” Sylvia’s voice was flat, stripped of emotion. “He said his memory was clouded and he was suffering the effects of Valium, marijuana, and alcohol.”

“When Valium and marijuana are combined with alcohol, can they impair a person’s judgment?”

“They could.”

“Could they impair an individual’s memory?”

“It’s possible.”

“Did Anthony Randall indicate whether or not he remembered making a confession to the police?”

The words lodged in her throat, and she glanced at the defendant. No one else would have seen it, but Sylvia was attuned to Randall’s every movement. His left eye narrowed for an instant as the soft skin around it responded to a muscular contraction–an involuntary reaction–and even that minute loss of control was exceptional for Randall. The public Randall.

Sylvia heard the click and whir of cameras going off along the press bench.

“Dr. Strange?” Tony Klavin prodded.

“He said he did not.”

“Could the defendant remember even one word of his so-called confession?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He said he was too intoxicated, too high.”

The hum of voices in the gallery reminded Sylvia of cicadas. Judge Howzer’s face darkened as he wordlessly castigated his courtroom. Silence returned.

“Dr. Strange, in your work, have you had the opportunity to observe substance abusers?”

“Yes, I’ve observed them in various stages of addiction, withdrawal, and recovery.”

The first time you met with Anthony Randall, what was he like?”

“His voice was a monotone, his mood was blunted, dull. He was depressed, and he said he felt suicidal.”

“Is that consistent with the way someone would act who has recently withdrawn from drugs and alcohol?”

Although the heat in the courtroom was stifling, Sylvia felt cold. “It could be.”

Tony Klavin stepped toward the witness stand. “Dr. Strange, Police Officer Erin Tulley has testified under oath that when Anthony Randall made his alleged confession on the night of April sixteenth, he was”–with a grim flourish he quoted slowly from the transcript in his hand–“‘stumbling around, sick and dazed, blacking out.'”Klavin paced a tight circle, making no effort to hide his scorn. “Does that sound like the behavior of a man who made a knowing confession?”

“Objection!” Jack O’Dell was on his feet. “This pantomiming and playacting is unnecessary and prejudicial.”

“Sustained. Just ask the questions, Mr. Klavin.”

“I’m sorry, Your Honor. I wasn’t aware I was making faces.

Sylvia tried to stay focused on Klavin’s line of questioning, but her thoughts kept coming back to Erin Tulley’s turnaround. State Cop Tulley had shocked the state when she recanted earlier evidence concerning Randall’s confession. By now, the rumor of choice was that Tulley had broken rank because she was dying in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the state police; she claimed she’d been denied promotion because she was female. The agency’s response to the civil action was simple: Erin Tulley had spent only two years in uniform; a promotion to the Criminal Investigation Division would be premature for anyone–male or female–after two year’s service.

But Tulley wasn’t the kind of woman who would a lonely fall. Pale, visibly distraught, and vehement on the witness stand, she had given the defense the wedge it desperately needed to demolish the prosecution’s case.

And Sylvia felt as if she’d been set up to follow Tulley’s act–her testimony would be the clincher, the last scene before the curtain.

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DARK ALCHEMY

Dark Alchemy

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A string of renowned scientists have been found dead of lethal poisoning. The FBI has just one suspect, the brilliant toxicologist Dr. Christine Palmer. The doctor has an eccentric personality and classified access to the world’s most deadly experimental neurotoxins, but the FBI has no proof.

When the latest death occurs at a top-secret research facility near Santa Fe, forensic psychologist Dr. Sylvia Strange and her associate, counterterrorism expert Edmond Sweetheart are called in to link Palmer to the crime.

But Sylvia has doubts when she encounters the compelling doctor. And when it appears that her partner is withholding vital information from her, Sylvia no longer knows who to trust.  Is Christine palmer the narcissistic and ruthless killer the FBI suspects? Or is there another killer on the loose?

Simon & Schuster (hardcover)
ISBN: 0-684-85599-2
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DANTES’ INFERNO

Dantes Inferno

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Dr. Sylvia Strange, the forensic psychologist at the heart of Sarah Lovett’s best-selling series of crime thrillers, returns for a fourth outing in DANTES’ INFERNO (Simon & Schuster; April 2001). This time, Dr. Strange leaves behind her familiar New Mexico terrain for the blistering urban turmoil of Los Angeles, as a serial bomber threatens to destroy that beleaguered city.

At the stunning new Getty Museum, perched high above the city’s tony westside, a bomb hidden beneath a stairwell kills a teacher and a ten-year-old boy when it detonates during a school field trip. Quite by chance, the victim is the nephew of Edmond Sweetheart, the brilliant psycholinguistic profiler who has reined in more than one serial killer. With a personal vengeance, Sweetheart delivers the circumstantial evidence that points to John Dantes, an avowed anarchist with a history of targeting public works with his bombs.

A year later, with Dantes convicted of the crime, Sylvia Strange is summoned to Los Angeles by her colleague, Dr. Leo Carreras, to administer psychological tests on the incarcerated madman. Dantes, who maintains he is innocent of the Getty bombing, can hold his own against the rigors of Sylvia s psychological inquiry. As he plays his own mind games with her he knows things about her past that she d rather forget Dantes plants more than a seed of doubt in Sylvia s appraisal of his guilt. But if Dantes did not plant the deadly bomb at the Getty, who did?

The answer soon surfaces, as a copycat bomber lays claims to an alleged bomb at City Hall. Sylvia, anxious to return to the relative tranquility of Santa Fe, is nonetheless swept into the vortex of the investigation. Working alongside Sweetheart, as well as the FBI and LAPD, she reluctantly takes on the role as M s main contact. Guided by Dantes and his vision of L.A. s imminent destruction, Sylvia is thrust into more than one life-threatening scenario. As M leads her through a modern version of the nine rings of hell, she quite literally finds herself in the city s subterranean underbelly, working against the clock to discover M s identity before it is too late.

Praised by fans and critics alike for her tense and absorbing (Publishers Weekly) novels, Sarah Lovett once again delivers the goods with a clever page-turner that accurately draws on forensic details and expertly delves into the psyches of serial bombers. As incendiary as its title suggests, DANTES INFERNO taps into our collective fears, fueled by contemporary headlines of terrorism and random acts of destruction, and reveals why Lovett can claim an ever growing number of fans among discerning readers of suspense.

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A DESPERATE SILENCE

A Desperate Silence

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The girl gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Her fingers were pale where knuckles stretched skin, her arms were thin as sticks. Bones–not flesh–defined her body. Toes on toes, her bare feet pressed the accelerator flush against the Honda’s floorboard. Her head scarcely topped the dashboard, but she saw the narrow horizon of blacktop change suddenly to desert and barbed wire. Raising a wake of dust, the car hurtled headlong off the highway toward a fence. Gravel smacked the windshield.

As the fence loomed closer, the world careened past the moving car–low trees, jutting rocks, rolling terrain. The child’s chest heaved, but all sound of her breathing was smothered by a song blaring from the radio. The music rose tinnily above the rattle of loose metal and the high-pitched whine of hot engine.

The girl jerked the steering wheel to the left, straining her muscles, frantic when the vehicle didn’t respond the way Paco had taught her it would. She was sure the car would crash and she would die in flames and twisted metal. For an instant, she imagined giving in to the black night. But she was a fighter, and so she focused the last reserves of her energy on steering the car. Finally, she felt the shudder of tires forced back onto the hard surface of the road.

Dim yellow headlamps filled the rearview mirror, and the child’s heartbeat stuttered. It was el demonio, the demon–with his dark hungry face. The lights glowed like the eyes of a crazy animal. A sudden memory jolted through her mind: fingernails scratching her neck just as Paco’s strong arms pulled her from the demon’s reach.

But there were no grown-ups with her now–and no safe place. Just the yellow glowing eyes of her pursuer growing larger in the rearview mirror.

Blood smeared the girl’s cheek and lip. Dried blood where she had slammed her cheek against metal, fresh blood where she bit her lip in fright. A deep blue-black bruise darkened the inside of her left thigh. Beneath the delicate chain and the silver medallion around her neck, the skin was red and scratched where the demon had torn at her with long cold fingers.

Suddenly, there was a new danger–bright flashing lights in front of the Honda–coming at her! These lights snaked across the road, blocking her path. The child was trapped. Her eyes opened wide, and panic stole her breath away.

What was it? A truck A bridge? A train!

She swerved the Honda and hit the brakes again–but too hard. The car went into a skid, across the road toward barbed wire and tracks. She couldn’t escape the metal snout of the train engine.

A cry of terror escaped the child’s mouth, just as a fat hunter’s moon broke over the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. The moon’s glow suffused the night sky. She whispered the first words of the prayer.

Our Mother, Nuestra Madre–

And then she squeezed her eyes shut as a solid wall of moving metal caught the front end of the Honda. The noise of rending metal and a shower of sparks raked the night as the train pushed the car fifty yards along the track.

The dark green Chevrolet Suburban slowed on U.S. 285 just south of Lamy, New Mexico, and Lorenzo Santos Portrillo tried to make sense of what he’d just witnessed: the Honda had collided with a train. He peered out into the moonlit desert, straining to locate the ruined car, to gauge the seriousness of the accident. What he saw was an illuminated mess of smoke and dust and twisted metal roughly a quarter mile away. Directly ahead, the stalled train blocked the road.

His eyes were invisible in the unlit interior of the vehicle. His even white teeth were clenched. The scent of citrus cologne clashed with the uncharacteristic tang of nervous sweat and blood. Despite his agitation, Lorenzo’s physical movements remained tightly controlled, but his mind refused to harness information with its usual discipline. He’d seen a ghost tonight; at first he believed she’d returned from the grave to do him evil.

But her terror had persuaded him she was merely human.

Renzo eased his foot off the accelerator, letting the Suburban coast. He was focused on the flashing lights of the train, and he almost failed to register a car, hazard lights blinking, pulling off the side of the road opposite the scene of the accident.

The warning message squeezed through to his consciousness: more people to deal with tonight. They were crossing the road, shining flashlights over the terrain as they approached the crash.

Was the girl alive or dead?

Lorenzo drove slowly. In the time it took the Suburban to cover the last eighth of a mile, a man–lantern in hand–swung himself down from the train and darted toward the wrecked Honda. The car had been crushed by the train’s massive engine.

Lorenzo’s gloved fingers grazed his steering wheel; the gloves were cheap leather throwaways. On his left wrist, the thick silver bracelet–etched with the face of Serpent Skirt–was smeared with Paco’s blood.

The blood had a dull sheen visible even in the darkness of the car. He remembered to check his face in the rearview mirror. When he briefly snapped on the overhead light, he saw the droplet of blood above his lip. He wiped the stain away.

The Suburban vibrated as its right tires ate soft shoulder less than a hundred feet from the wreck. The beams of the car’s headlights illuminated weeds and a downed barbed-wire fence. A discarded plastic bag, caught on a barb, shivered in the evening breeze like a stranded octopus.

Lorenzo put the Suburban in park, engine idling. as he pushed his arms into his suit jacket, he slid a .22 semiautomatic into the right pocket. His briefcase was on the floor of the passenger side. His suitcase and his golf clubs were in the trunk.

A harsh sigh escaped his lips. It would be dangerous to deal with multiple witnesses. Not that he couldn’t do it. Two nights ago he had killed four men–two of them trained bodyguards. But he needed all his wits, his resources–he couldn’t deny he’d been shaken by the discovery of the child. He took a breath, exhaled slowly, and stepped out of the car.

Moving across the rough terrain toward the wreck, he quickly reviewed the possible scenarios. He discarded most of them. It would be best to deal with this particular situation quietly.

He prepared his face: overlaying concern with compassion, he became the essence of the Good Samaritan. When he was close enough to the men gathered around the driver’s side of the Honda, he called out. “Can I help? Should I call someone?”

He saw several heads turn his way before the beam of a flashlight blinded him. He turned his face from the light. A male voice was ordering members of the group: “Let me through, see if I get a pulse.”

Renzo moved around the far side of the Honda. He gazed in one window, but the vehicle’s interior appeared empty. No Luggage, no sacks, no bundles. This wasn’t the time or place to complete his search.

He heard men murmuring worriedly. Fragments of conversation floated on the cold night air.

“Just a kid…”

“…saw it happen…”

“…one minute this white Honda was on the road…”

“…why would a little girl be all alone out here…”

A minute passed, then two. Renzo’s fingers slid over the grip of the semiautomatic. Covertly, he hefted its weight as he kept one ear on the conversation around him.

“Maybe she’s illegal…”

“…no I.D….”

“…called state police…”

His patience was waning. He stepped closer to the edge of the small group; shoulders parted to allow him a view. He stared impassively down at the child’s inert body. Her head lolled back, and he saw that blood covered her eyes, her throat. One of her legs was twisted in a peculiar position. She looked dead.

Renzo thought each word as he pronounced it: “I know C.P.R.–”

“So do I.” This man was hunched over the child’s body, his fingers pressing for a pulse. “C.P.R. won’t help this little one. She’s gone.”

Relieved, Renzo made what he thought were appropriate noises of distress. After a moment, he turned and walked back to the car. He guided the Suburban in a wide U-turn across the broken white line and into the southbound lane.

As he drove, he reached for his cellular phone, paged his associate, and entered Code 77. Divine wrath. Translation: kill complete.

Moonlight cut across his eyes for an instant, and Lorenzo Santos Portrillo–or Renzo as he was called by his few social contacts–blinked. What haunted him was the knowledge that he had killed this child already, ten years ago.

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DANGEROUS ATTACHMENTS

Dangerous Attahcments

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El Chacal, The Jackal, stood on the second tier of cell block one and stared down at the activity on the floor below. In the common area, four inmates were playing a round of bridge. A fifth inmate sat rigid in front of the TV and whispered to Brooke, a regular on The Bold and the Beautiful. The jackal sighed; an honest day’s labor was rare in this world.

He closed his eyes and silently recited the words of St. Ignatious Loyola. “Teach us, good Lord, to serve Thee… to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do Thy will.”

It was a lesson most of the occupants of CB-1 had not yet learned. And there were other lessons: thou shalt not steal… thou shalt not kill.

He turned back to gaze into an open cell. The small square window was already charcoal gray. Each day another two minutes of daylight were lost. It would keep on that way –getting darker and darker — until the winter solstice.

Day and night, just like his own two selves. He’d grown so use to them, he hardly noticed the transformation anymore. Day getting shorter. Night, longer and longer, ready to take its due.

It was the killing that made him split apart in the beginning. Or maybe the split was the reason he had begun to kill.

Thou shalt not kill. Finally, after doing so many bad, hurtful things, he had learned: thou shalt not kill.

Unless you are doing His will.

To labour and not ask for any reward
Save that of knowing that we do Thy will.

The jackal had been offered a task, but had not even considered it, until th e Lord intervened. The Lord said, “Accept the task, jackal, and be rewarded.” His will be done.

The task was to kill. Not a senseless, selfish kill like some of the men had done, like he himself had done a long time ago. This kill was part of the Lord’s divine plan.

On earth as it is in heaven.

The reward was great: it would become the crowning glory of his work for the Lord.

He sighed and gazed down at the sheet of paper he’d been clutching in his right hand, Things had been going so well.

But then, a snafu. Somebody was nosy.

And now, he had twice the work.

One hit had become two hits.

the second name was written in pencil, faint but legible. His own handwriting. Over and over. Just the way the nuns had taught him to write Be sure your sin will find you out — on the blackboard one hundred times.

The second name covered the page ninety-seven times. The jackal thought it was an odd name. He took the stub of pencil from his pocket, licked the tip, and smoothed the sheet of paper over the rail. In minute script he added the last three repetitions: Sylvia Strange Sylvia Strange Sylvia Strange.

Sylvia Strange turned from the frontage road that ran parallel with the interstate. From this distance, the building ahead looked businesslike, industrial. Closer, it became what it was, a prison with dirt-encrusted windows and gleaming perimeter lights. On her right, a pockmarked state historical sign announced the Penitentiary of New Mexico, founded 1956.

She approached the intersection going forty, swerved to avoid a jackrabbit, and swore as the Volvo slid to a stop over loose gravel. Scrub chamisa, prickly pear cactus, and occasional soda cans dotted the fields on either side of the road. A lone cottonwood towered over the flat desert landscape. In the distance the Sangre de Cristo Mountains gave off a dull blue gleam under winter sun. South Facility, medium security, was a quarter mile to her right. On her left, a prison service truck idled by the cutoff to the maximum facility. The driver smacked his lips at her, then lit a cigarette.

She accelerated past the sewage treatment facility, past the fire trucks. Ahead, she could see the entrance to the PNM Main Facility surrounded by heavy link fencing and spirals of razor ribbon designed to slash a man to pieces. She approached it with familiar emotional discord, equal parts apprehension and fascination. Today, her thoughts were colored by too little sleep, too much caffeine. Even on the best days, it was impossible to view the Main Facility without thinking about the nation’s most brutal prison riot. In 1980, thirty-three inmates had died–some tortured and mutilated–at the hands of other inmates.

The silhouette of a guard was visible in the window of the large beige tower looming over the prison’s entryway. Sylvia stopped at the speaker embedded in a concrete post set in the center of the road.

“State your name and business.”

“I’m Dr. Strange, here for attorneys Cox and Burnett.” Her voce sounded husky, unused. She cleared her throat.

“Park in the lot to your left.”

A third of the spaces were filled. She pulled into a slot shaded by a naked cottonwood and facing a trailer with a sign: FAMILY HOSPITALITY CENTER. A few flakes of snow drifted down to settle on bare earth.

Sylvia drew her briefcase from the Volvo and locked the doors. Her gray wool skirt had ridden up her thighs as she drove. She smoothed it down to the low edge of her knees and buttoned her burgundy suit jacket.

As she approached the reception outbuilding, she caught sight of her own reflection on the tempered glass. At thirty-four, she was tall, lithe, and moved with ease thanks to the weekly ballet classes she’d hated as a teenager. She had inherited her father’s lean limbs and broad shoulders as well as her mother’s large breasts. Thick brunette hair grazed the collar of her jacket; she wore it loose, slightly layered, brushed back from a prominent forehead. Wire-rimmed sunglasses shaded her eyes and intensified the angles and planes of her face. She walked quickly, her heels clacking on the cold asphalt. When she entered the building, she was twenty minutes early.

Several correctional officers, stragglers on the morning shift, were clustered in the reception area. The admitting C.O. glanced at Sylvia and immediately refocused. As he slid the sign-in sheet her way, he gave a low whistle. “You a lawyer?”

Sylvia’s smile was cool. She was used to male attention, knew how to deal with it, but the rules were different at the pen. She signed her name and noticed her hands were shaky. “Psychologist,” she said.

He glanced at the sheet. “Strange?” He grinned. “That’s strange.”

“Yeah, isn’t it?” Sylvia smiled back mechanically; since kindergarten, she’d heard every possible pun on her name. Be kind to your local C.O., she thought.

“Doc! Haven’t seen you in a few!”

Sylvia recognized the voice before she turned and beamed at a mischievous guard named Leroy. She shook his hand and said “How’s Holly?” Leroy’s wife worked as a court clerk at the Santa Fe Judicial Complex.

“Holly’s fine, just got promoted,” Leroy said.

Sylvia watched him smooth the skin on the ring finger of his left hand. When he gave her a mock salute, she noticed a faint band of white; he’d left the wedding ring at home.

Leroy winked. “You gonna tell us who’s crazy in there?”

Sylvia winked back. “Does Holly know you pocket the ring when she’s not around?”

Leroy turned bright pink and his buddies hooted. When he regained his composure, he said, “I’ll get you for that, Doc.”

As Sylvia walked away, she smiled. “Im counting on it , Leroy.”

she felt internal gears shift as she passed through the metal detector, down the short hall, and through the exit. She had crossed into another world.

She waited impatiently in the small concrete anteway while the heavy link gate slid open with a groan of resistance. This was the worst part, the first taste of no-man’s-land between metal barriers.

A sparrow landed between the diamond-shaped discs of a loop of razor ribbon. The bird chirped before flying off again. Sylvia advanced through the gate and walked toward the doors to Main’s lobby. As she glanced up at the two-story fortress, she tried to remember exactly which soot-crusted window was the psych office.

The room was tiny, crammed with filing cabinets and two metal desks. Sylvia set her briefcase on the desk nearest the door. A potted plant was suspended from a web of macrame over a heating vent. Wilted leaves shuddered in the forced-air breeze. A list of phone extensions, in case of emergency, was tacked on the wall. Just in case.

She sat, snapped open her briefcase, took out several pencils, and selected the slim accordion file labeled LUCAS SHARP WATSON NMCD #36620. A blue folder contained routine incarceration documents as well as Watson’s main jacket. Date of incarceration: August 28, 1992. County: Bernalillo. Determinate Sentence: 6 years. Crime: voluntary manslaughter. Twenty-one-year-old Lucas Watson had brutally beaten a forty-year-old migrant worker to death in a barroom dispute. Both men had been drunk; they had argued over money. No one had claimed the body of the victim. Watson had served three years of his sentence.

Sylvia wondered what he looked like–no photograph was included in the file–and felt a slight anticipatory edge in her stomach; it was always the same when she met a penitentiary client for the first time. Thank God he wasn’t a Death Row inmate; she wasn’t up to a terminal case this morning.

The thickest folder was green and included Watson’s personal history as well as investigative reports on family members, and statements from employers, even schoolteachers. One fact caught Sylvia’s attention: when Watson was six years old, his mother had committed suicide–a .22-caliber bullet through her head.

She skimmed the information and the note Herb Burnett had scribbled on a yellow Post-it. “Dear Sylvia, Glad you can take over for Malcolm. Lucas Watson is up for parole next week. Sorry for the rush job. How about dinner, chez moi?”

The red folder held a psychological assessment by Dr. Malcolm Treisman, Sylvia’s senior associate up until the previous summer when he’d been diagnosed with cancer. Malcolm’s death, two weeks ago, had been a blow to family, friends, and associates. It had left Sylvia with the feeling she was ghost-walking, only half present among the living. The fact that Malcolm had also been her lover sharpened her grief.

The dull ache in her temple spread across her forehead. She had just pulled a bottle of Anacin and a notepad from her briefcase when there was a knock and the door opened. Lucas Watson, accompanied by a C.O., stood framed in the doorway. He was about six feet two and wiry. His blond hair was shaved close to the skull; small scabs were visible beneath the stubble. He moved with shoulders slightly hunched–a taut inmate strut–to reach the chair in front of Sylvia’s desk. As he sat, her met her gaze. His pupils were light blue, almost cloudy; they reminded her of someone who had suffered snow burn.

“Good morning, Mr. Watson.”

“Lucas.”

“Lucas.” She smiled. “I’m Sylvia Strange.” She glanced at the C.O. who had remained in the doorway. “We’re okay.”

The C.O. fingered his name tag: ANDERSON. “If you need me, I’ll be outside.”

She waited until the door closed before she spoke. “Your lawyer, Mr. Burnett, told me you requested an independent evaluation. Can you tell me why?”

Lucas shifted, hips pressed toward the desk. His tongue slid over his teeth and tiny beads of perspiration were visible on his upper lip. “For the parole board.”

“Do you think your caseworker can come up with a feasible plan?” Sylvia asked. Each inmate was assigned a caseworker. When applicable, he or she was responsible for the formulation of a parole plan–the nuts and bolts of parole–including potential living situation, employment, and available treatment programs.

Lucas fixed her with his cloudy eyes and nodded.

“Good. Before we begin, I need to remind you that I can’t guarantee confidentiality. Whatever we talk about in this office, I’ll be sharing that information with your lawyer and, ultimately, with the parole board.”

He nodded again, his body humming with motor tension, fingers drumming the arms of his chair.

Sylvia noted a dark substance under his first and second fingernails. Her guess: dried blood. When he was stressed, Lucas probably scratched the scabs on his scalp.

She said, “Because we only have this one meeting, I want to touch base with you about what’s going on in your life. Later, I may ask you to complete some short tests. How did the test go with Dr. DeMaria, by the way?” The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, MMPI-2, had been administered by one of the prison psychologists.

Suddenly, Lucas Watson’s face darkened with concern. “What did she say about me?”

“Are you worried about what Dr. DeMaria might have said?”

He leaned forward and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “She doesn’t like me because I know who she really is.”

“Who is she,Lucas?”

“One of them.” He cocked his head, raised one eyebrow as if they shared a secret, and smiled.

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VALERIE PLAME WILSON, former CIA covert operative on the “Vanessa Pierson Espionage Series” books, BLOWBACK & BURNED and Sarah:
“My co-author is the wonderful and talented Sarah Lovett, successful author of the thriller series featuring Dr. Sylvia Strange. She has been a delight to work with and I feel fortunate to call her a friend.”
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