Paradise Burning

By: Blair Bancroft


Chapter One


“Almost in.” Kira Malfi’s honey-warm voice pinged off a satellite, crossing thousands of miles as clearly as a call to Boston.

To Mandy Armitage, Kira was a reddish blob of body heat on her computer screen, but in her head she held a clear picture of AKA’s whipcord-fit agent, poised over a keyboard in a dilapidated warehouse on the outskirts of Lomé, Togo, her chocolate-brown skin blending smoothly into the darkness around her.

Almost in. A few more minutes and they’d have what AKA had been after for months. The culmination of Eleanor’s latest pet project.

At the thought of Eleanor Kingsley, the autocratic K in AKA, Mandy winced. Eleanor’s intentions were good, but on the problem of trafficking her views tended toward obsession. Risks . . . too many risks.

But not on tonight’s assignment. AKA had had the location under surveillance for a week. At night the warehouse on the outskirts of town was a dark, deserted shell. No problem.

Yet . . .

Mandy repressed a sudden urge to blurt out, Hurry, hurry, hurry. Stupid. How many times had she done this, talking an agent in and out of a building, a city, a country . . .? She was queen of AKA’s controllers because she could stay cool and steady while her mind skidded around, or vaulted over, every obstacle that stood in the way. Kira’s mission was just one more job, one more line on AKA’s hush-hush list of accomplishments.

A second voice, urgent, barked in Mandy’s ear. Not what she wanted to hear.

“Kira,” Mandy relayed, “observer reports headlights approaching . . . Land Rover pulling up . . . Get out now!”

“I’m in.” Kira’s voice was steady. Unruffled. “Just another moment . . .”

“Two men at front, two moving toward the back. Back door now, Kira. Abort, abort, abort!”

“Got it.” Kira Malfi still sounded as if she was taking a stroll in the park.

Too late. “They’re in,” Mandy said, voice cool, stomach clenched. “Windows? Packing crate?”

“No windows, no crates,” Kira intoned. “Rafters twenty feet up. So where’s Scotty and his damn beam when I need him?” Mandy heard a faint sigh. “Hell, baby, maybe they just want to chat—”

A burst from an automatic rifle punctuated Kira’s words.

“Kira? Kira?”

Mandy stared at the five red heat signatures on her screen. Four showed signs of movement. One did not. Oh, God. In AKA’s twenty years in business they had lost only two agents. Armitage, Kingsley & Associates weren’t a mini CIA, just a private firm of problem solvers. On an international scale, maybe, but AKA agents were not supposed to die. Particularly not on Mandy’s watch.

Never on Mandy’s watch.

Never before.

The rose garden, bleak and frosty in an overcast Massachusetts January, perfectly matched Mandy Armitage’s mood. For a short while she’d allowed herself to hope. Until AKA’s observer reported Kira Malfi’s lifeless body being tossed into the back of the Land Rover.

Kira. One more female lost to the ruthlessness of men who made their living selling women and children into slavery. Bastards.

Mandy sat slumped on a wooden bench beneath a rose arbor. Bare gray branches twined around her, above her, the thorns undisguised by a few brown remnants of summer leaves. Pulling the glove off her right hand, Mandy touched her index finger to a thorn. Pressed down. Watched as blood welled up, the only spot of color in the winter landscape.

Within twenty minutes of what Eleanor Kingsley had chosen to call “the incident,” a replacement had been assigned to Mandy’s computer. She’d been debriefed not only by Eleanor but by Jeffrey Armitage, the A of AKA. Professionals to the core, they’d done their jobs, but Mandy noticed Eleanor kept her hands tightly clasped on her desk, very likely to keep them from shaking. Jeff poured brandy for all three of them.

Sometimes, just sometimes, her parents seemed almost human.

And now, at last, she’d escaped into the frozen gardens behind the old stable block that had been converted into AKA’s version of mission control. The extensive estate, sixty miles west of Boston, was centered around a sprawling Tudor-style manor house with guest cottages for employees. The soothing ambiance of the rolling New England countryside spread its varied beauty over eight months of the year and was as stark and unrelentingly gray as the most conservative Puritan could wish during the other four.