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Innocent as sin, p.1
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       Innocent as Sin, p.1

           Elizabeth Lowell
 
Innocent as Sin


  INNOCENT AS SIN

  Elizabeth Lowell

  For Margaret and Roy

  Yeah, sure, you betcha!

  Contents

  1

  Wearing dirty camouflage gear, boots, and insect repellent, Rand McCree…

  2

  The man known only as the Siberian sat behind the…

  3

  Kayla Shaw walked out of the little adobe house and…

  4

  Andre Bertone shifted his weight, making the expensive leather chair…

  5

  Former ambassador James B. Steele rolled into the conference room on…

  6

  Kayla Shaw drove quickly up to the gate of Elena…

  7

  Rand McCree dabbed at the yellow paint he had just…

  8

  Kayla Shaw let the silence expand as she looked at…

  9

  Silently Rand McCree put the nearly bare canvas into a…

  10

  To buy herself time to think about the dimensions of…

  11

  Andre Bertone,” Rand said, handing Faroe a mug of black…

  12

  Kayla was tempted to drive past the freeway turnoff again,…

  13

  Rand McCree looked around John Neto’s suite in disbelief. There…

  14

  Impatiently Bertone tapped his fingers against his polished desk. Joao…

  15

  Kayla sat at her desk and wanted to scream. The…

  16

  The tape securing the recorder to the small of Rand’s…

  17

  Kayla Shaw stood off to one side of the pool,…

  18

  You see Bertone yet?” Faroe’s voice came from the earbuds…

  19

  Who’s that?” Rand forced himself to ask.

  20

  From the corner of his eyes Rand saw that Bertone…

  21

  Reluctantly Kayla approached the broad flagstone terrace that stepped down…

  22

  Kayla strode down the lighted path, wishing her shoes flashed…

  23

  Rand broke into a run as soon as he saw…

  24

  Move slow,” Rand said clearly. “Kayla’s still on edge. She…

  25

  Not many people could make Gabriel Navarro uneasy, but Andre…

  26

  Slow down,” Kayla said to Rand.

  27

  What are you doing?” Kayla asked tightly.

  28

  While they hung the feeders in the shelter of the…

  29

  Is this car registered in your name?” Rand asked.

  30

  The last thing Kayla expected to find in the bungalow…

  31

  Bla-Blam!…

  32

  Then Steve Foley,” Kayla said to Grace, “told me to…

  33

  Faroe shoved an unlabeled DVD into the TV player, handed…

  34

  The Jumping Cholla bar on Indian School Road was as…

  35

  Kayla shook her head sharply.

  36

  Fragrant steam swirled around Kayla’s head, making her feel even…

  37

  Kayla drew a deep breath, then let it out slowly,…

  38

  Fully dressed, Rand sat beside the bed and watched Kayla…

  39

  Get that camera crew awake and shooting now,” Faroe snarled…

  40

  The child’s soft footsteps woke Elena immediately. She slipped…

  41

  Okay!” Ted Martin clapped his hands together and laughed.

  42

  Just as Rand finished buttoning up his shirt, Kayla walked…

  43

  Hamm parked on a dirt side street that had a…

  44

  Kayla stared at the cell phone in her lap. It…

  45

  Yeah,” Faroe said into the mike beneath his collar. He…

  46

  The Cheesecake Factory brunch crowd had spilled out into the…

  47

  Steve Foley was wearing pressed black jeans and a white…

  48

  Andre Bertone’s hands were locked around the wheel of his…

  49

  There’s been activity in the correspondent account,” Kayla said. “Since…

  50

  Bertone couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, could barely think.

  51

  Just as Rand and Kayla passed Faroe’s table, he shoved…

  52

  Lane walked eagerly next to his dad as they strolled…

  53

  The instant Foley answered his cell phone, Bertone began talking.

  54

  Rand hung up his cell phone and crowded Kayla into…

  55

  Grace tapped her finger impatiently on the scratched and gouged…

  56

  With a grim kind of pleasure, Kayla pulled into the…

  57

  Kayla slid her employee ID card through the card reader.

  58

  What are you doing here?” Foley demanded.

  59

  Rand McCree looked at his watch—six minutes to go…

  60

  Elena watched Bertone’s face go from laughing to murderous seconds…

  61

  Kayla was tired of being on her knees. She made…

  62

  As Rand reached the bank’s front door, he composed his…

  63

  The corridor was empty. Foley crowded Kayla down the hallway…

  64

  When Rand came through the front door, the lobby guard…

  65

  Rand fought Sunday-afternoon traffic on Scottsdale Road, cursing and wheeling…

  66

  All Kayla could see was the shiny tops of Foley’s…

  67

  The gate guards had been changed. Bertone was obviously digging…

  68

  Kayla braced herself with a foot against the passenger seat…

  69

  I can’t help you,” Elena insisted again, looking out the…

  70

  Abruptly beige suburbs gave way to beige desert. Paved roads…

  71

  Martin handed Rand a headset, plugged it into a junction…

  72

  Kayla lashed out with her heel at the pilot’s kneecap.

  73

  Rand hugged the dirt bank of the ravine until he…

  74

  Bertone stood at the front door, waiting to hear the…

  75

  Rand found Bertone’s black Humvee parked at the top of…

  76

  Kayla forced herself to be still, not to scream or…

  77

  Rand forced himself to think when all he wanted to…

  78

  Kayla pulled and twisted against the duct tape covering her…

  79

  Bertone moved with incredible speed for a man of his…

  80

  Kayla stood close to Rand and watched a lone hummingbird…

  About the Author

  Other Books by Elizabeth Lowell

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  1

  Africa

  Late March

  Wearing dirty camouflage gear, boots, and insect repellent, Rand McCree crouched behind the tattered grass blind. His camera’s extreme-long-distance lens filled the hole cut in the loosely woven grass. Even though the sun was barely above the eastern horizon, Rand was sweating. He didn’t notice it. In the Democratic Republic
of Camgeria, whether it was tropical coastland or scrubby interior, men sweated. It was how they knew they were alive.

  Through the camera lens Rand watched the rebels—or freedom fighters, depending on your politics—wait next to heavy trucks parked just off the south end of the miserable, barely scraped dirt strip that passed for a runway in this part of Africa.

  Next to him, his twin jerked, kicking the AK-47 lying between the two men.

  “Settle down,” Rand said softly. “The plane will be along eventually.”

  “Something bit me,” Reed muttered.

  “Are your shots current?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Then what are you bitching about?”

  “I feel like a bush blood bank.”

  Rand smiled. “You are.”

  “How did I let you talk me into this?”

  “Me? You were the one going on about a lifetime opportunity to get a picture of the most dangerous, mysterious arms trader since—”

  “Yeah, yeah,” Reed interrupted. “Don’t remind me.”

  “Not more than twice a day.”

  “More than that. At least twice since—”

  “Quiet.”

  Reed shut up and heard the whining growl of turboprops. He raised his powerful binoculars and began searching the dusty sky in the direction of the sound.

  “Got him,” he said to his twin. “Coming in at three o’clock, flying low. And I mean low.” He whistled softly through his teeth. “That’s a ballsy pilot. Or a drunk. His gear is raking leaves.”

  “Just one of the problems of flying without filing a flight plan.” Rand concentrated on getting the unmarked, unlighted Ilyushin Il-4 in focus as it approached the dirt strip. “Keep an eye on the countryside. We don’t want to explain what we’re doing here.”

  “Nobody would ask,” Reed said. “They’d just shoot us.”

  “Like I said—”

  “He’s going straight in,” Reed interrupted, excitement in his voice. “You got him?”

  “Yeah. Watch that you don’t flash sunlight off your binocular lenses.”

  “Kiss mine. We’re going to nail the Siberian’s baby-killing ass.”

  Rand grinned. The thing about having an identical twin was that he was…identical. You talked to each other because you could. But it wasn’t necessary. He’d do what you’d do in his place.

  No thought required.

  The plane leaped into focus. No insignia. No numbers. No identifying marks at all.

  Surprise, surprise.

  Silently Rand went to work.

  2

  Camgeria

  Early morning

  The man known only as the Siberian sat behind the copilot and watched the scrubland flash by at eye level on both sides of the plane. At the last possible instant, the Ukrainian pilot lifted the Ilyushin’s nose and slammed the metal bird onto the rough dirt runway with the sound of someone whacking a tin coffin with a baseball bat.

  The turboprops reversed hard and spooled up, screaming like the undead. The plane bucked and humped on the rough dirt surface. Red dust swirled up from the wheels and the prop wash, sticking to the smears of hydraulic fluid that covered both wings of the aircraft. The first direct rays of the sun turned the smears into blood.

  Cargo trucks waited. So did heavily armed men. They hadn’t flinched when the plane passed barely five feet above their heads.

  Sweating, cursing in two languages, the pilot and copilot wrestled with the controls. Between them, they kept the plane rubber side down in the middle of the narrow strip. Sweat darkened the men’s blue coveralls. The aircraft was overloaded and undermaintained, a flying death sentence waiting to be executed.

  Any sweat on the Siberian came from the heat slamming into the cockpit from the outside. Compared to what waited behind them on the runway, the shuddering, straining landing of the plane was caviar and toast points.

  Halfway down the dirt runway, brakes and reversed props finally won out over momentum. A hundred yards short of the runway’s end, the plane sat down heavily on its gear and settled into a more predictable shake, rattle, shimmy, and roll. The pilot cranked the nose wheel and reversed course, beginning the long taxi back to where the men waited.

  “Nyet,” the Siberian said.

  The pilot didn’t argue. He might be the number one flyboy, but he knew who owned the plane.

  “Keep your engines running but hold this position,” the Siberian continued in Russian. He unsnapped the harness that was barely big enough to contain his massive chest. “Make the bastards come to us.”

  He stood up and leaned forward, watching the trucks and men nearly half a mile away.

  “You think it’s a trap?” the copilot asked him nervously.

  “Life is a trap.”

  With that he crouched down and looked through the windscreen with binoculars, studying the trucks. After some indecision, their drivers had started up and were heading for the aircraft, trailing streamers of dust. Most of the vehicles were grinding along the edge of the runway, but one of the drivers used the runway itself.

  It could be an innocent mistake.

  It could be intentional. Lethal.

  The Siberian yanked a hand radio from the hip pocket of his white jungle suit. He keyed the microphone and snarled in English, “Tell that idiot to clear the runway, or we’ll take off right now.”

  “Oh, yaasss, b’wana,” a voice replied over the radio in singsong English.

  “No insolence, Da’ana, or I’ll cut your heart out and feed it to those pagans.”

  The radio popped softly as the man at the other end of the transmission keyed his microphone, acknowledging the command from his boss.

  “Stay in the cockpit,” the Siberian ordered the pilot in Russian. “Keep the brake set and power on the props.”

  “What if one of the rebels backs into them?” the pilot asked.

  “Haven’t you heard? Stupidity is a capital crime.”

  He turned and growled orders into the cargo area, using serviceable Bulgarian. The Bulgarian loadmaster began undogging the wide double doors just in back of the cockpit.

  The Siberian grabbed an Israeli-made submachine gun from beneath the jump seat and headed back into the cargo area. He stood in the open doorway while the first truck arrived and backed into position, its tailgate lined up level with the floor of the plane’s cargo area.

  Two lean, bare-chested black Africans in tattered camouflage shorts sat in the back of the truck. Beneath their thin butts were burlap bags crammed full of cargo. One of the guards held a Kalashnikov casually in one hand. The other had a Russian-made sniper’s rifle slung over his shoulder.

  The Siberian switched frequencies, lifted the hand radio to his mouth, and spoke to the rebel commander in French. “I take off in twenty minutes. If you want your merchandise, work fast.”

  A second truck pulled up beside the first. A gang of sweating black laborers jumped down and mounted the first vehicle. Quickly they boosted heavy burlap bags into the cargo bay and started to scramble aboard the aircraft.

  The Siberian made sure they all got a good look at his Uzi. The laborers held out empty hands to show they were unarmed, then began moving the bags forward, stacking them against the bulkhead. When the first truck was empty, the Siberian kicked the bags loaded aboard the plane, found them full and heavy, and stepped aside. The laborers removed five of the twenty heavy wooden crates stowed in the rear of the cargo area and loaded them in the truck.

  Within three minutes, the first truck had been unloaded, reloaded, and was pulling out.

  The Siberian watched while the first truck drove away and a second backed into position. The two armed guards in cammie shorts stayed in position beside the new load while the laborers repeated their tasks.

  Smoking a cigarette, watching the surrounding land, the Siberian prowled back and forth in the cargo bay. The sun was well up over the horizon. The heat of equatorial Africa rose from the ground like an invisible shroud. White Eastern
Europeans and black Africans alike sweated and exchanged cargoes without a hitch. No one was new to this game.

  As the fourth truck unloaded, the Bulgarian stopped a laborer and used a sheath knife to rip a hole in the heavy burlap bag the man carried. He pried a black stone out of the slit and held it up for the Siberian to inspect.

  “What you think? Is it coltan?” the Siberian asked in Bulgarian, one of his six languages.

  The loadmaster shrugged. “You tell me.”

  “It’s coltan.” He stubbed out his cigarette on the cargo floor and went to the doorway. “They know better than to shit on the Siberian.”

  Or on his Russian backers.

  Not to mention Joao Fouquette, who controlled much of South America’s arms trade.

  Like the legal world, the illegal world had its shifting alliances, double crosses, armed truces, and brutal wars.

  A dusty Toyota pickup with a heavy machine gun mounted in its bed pulled up beside the cargo trucks. A handsome black man in a crisp tan officer’s uniform swung out of the cab and approached the loading bay.

  “How was your trip?” he asked the Siberian in French.

  “Uganda didn’t think much of your phony end-user certificates for the Kalashnikovs.”

  The officer grinned. “That’s because the Ugandan defense minister supplied them to me without giving his superiors a cut.”

 
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