“How’s your first assignment so far, Ice?”
The teasing question came through the video connection from one of the large-panel screen monitors set up around the room. It was from Lucas Johnson, his friend and business partner.
“Well, it’s been twenty hours and I haven’t been shot yet,” Evan replied. “But it’s still early.”
“Looks like you’ll have to get used to the slower pace of civilian work. You might not be under fire for a few days in.”
Evan shifted his stance and felt the pull of tight scar tissue in his thigh. The bullet wound was a souvenir from his final CIA mission in Azerbaijan eight months ago. It had been a long road to recovery, including an early retirement from government service. Now, he was a managing partner with Fortis, a full-solution security firm, along with his best friend, Lucas Johnson, and their third partner, Sam Mackenzie. They had a team of twenty-two specialized field agents, technicians, and operations analysts with experience from all branches of elite government service.
As Lucas mentioned, this Boston assignment was Evan’s first with Fortis. He was leading a team of three agents on the ground to solve a multimillion-dollar jewelry heist, and recover the assets within a matter of weeks.
“I’ll do my best not to get bored,” Evan retorted with a hint of a smile.
“Looks like you guys are set up there?”
“Yeah. The additional surveillance is up and running through the building,” Evan confirmed. “Michael and Raymond are on-site since early this morning to start the investigation,” Evan replied, referring to two of the Fortis agents working on the ground for the mission.
Lucas nodded. His high-definition screen was so sharp, he could have been standing right next to Evan instead of over five hundred miles away in Virginia.
“Yup, we have the images from the Worthington building coming through here, now. When are you going in?” asked Lucas.
Evan checked the time. It was eleven forty-five in the morning. According to their client, Edward Worthington, the key subject usually took lunch at twelve-thirty each day, and had no appointments in her calendar for that afternoon.
“I’m headed to the auction house in a few minutes. I should make first contact before one o’clock,” he confirmed.
“Okay. I’ve assigned two of our analysts here to do the preliminary research on the other employees. I’ve sent you what we have so far on James,” Lucas explained.
“Got it. I’ll review on my cell phone, and give you an update later.”
They ended the video call. Evan did a final check on the surveillance equipment. He and his team were based in two hotel suites in downtown Boston, several blocks from their client’s offices. One suite served as Evan’s temporary residence while in the city as part of his cover, and his three agents were staying in the connected room. In there, two powerful six-core CPUs were connected to four forty-two inch LED flat-screen monitors set up around the living room, creating a control center. Evan looked around the various live feeds, all showing a different view of the Worthington business offices, the large art gallery in the front, and the warehouse in the back. It was a quiet day, with only four employees on the corporate floor, and three in the gallery and warehouse. His gaze landed on the image of Nia James, his target subject, as she sat behind her office desk reviewing several documents. He watched her for a few moments, until his cell phone rang.
“Yeah,” he answered briskly, noting it was his third agent, Tony Donellio, assigned to local reconnaissance.
“Hey, Ice, I’m at her apartment.” Evan clenched his jaw at the nickname. It was a remnant from his time in the CIA. Though he had left the agency, the Fortis team insisted on using it. That was mostly because Lucas chose to forget his real name.
“Good, do a full search and wire the place up so we have eyes throughout. Then, you’re searching the security guard’s place, right?” Evan asked.
“Yeah,” confirmed Tony. “His shift at Worthington doesn’t start until six tonight, but our intel says he’s usually at the gym by three o’clock in the afternoon. I’ll be there by about one-thirty to have a look around the area.”
“Good. He’s the weak link. With nothing of use captured on the Worthington surveillance videos, and no signs of forced entry, there’s no way he wasn’t involved in the heist. Raymond and Michael are interviewing him tomorrow, but we need to find something on him to use as leverage. I’ll meet you back at control later this afternoon.”
“Got it,” confirmed Tony.
Evan hung up and checked the time again. With one more hard glance at the subject, he checked the clip of his Glock and slid it smoothly in the small belt holster secured against the right side of his back. He added his suit jacket before leaving the hotel room.
In the lobby, the concierge gave him a friendly nod.
“How are you doing, Mr. DaCosta?” asked the middle-aged man, well dressed in a tailored suit.
“I’m good, Carlos. How are you?” Evan replied smoothly.
“Very good, sir. Shall I get your car for you?”
Carlos waived at one of the valet attendants to request Evan’s car to be brought around.
Worthington was an easy enough walk into the center of downtown, but Evan’s cover required the image of wealth and prestige, and that didn’t include a brisk walk in balmy May weather. His leased car, a sleek black Bentley, was brought to the front door within a few moments, and Evan smoothly made his way through the streets of Boston.
The Worthington Gallery and Auction House was a small chain owned by Edward Worthington. It had expanded from a single storefront operation based in Connecticut into a national player in the world of arts, jewelry, and estate auctioning over the last twenty years. They now had five locations across the country, a solid reputation, record sales, and plans to expand into Europe. All of that was now in jeopardy. Two nights ago, their Boston office was robbed in a meticulously executed jewelry heist. The thieves managed to enter the warehouse undetected and break into a digital safe, all while bypassing the state-of-the art surveillance and security system.
The stolen jewelry included a white diamond necklace with a rare 13.16 carat pear-shaped red diamond in the center, known as the Crimson Amazon. The piece was scheduled to be exhibited around the world prior to the auction at the end of August. According to appraisals and expert opinion, that necklace alone should fetch over twenty-five million dollars. Along with a broader collection of rare and high-end jewelry pieces, the summer event was now anticipated to be one of the highest-value auctions in years, certainly the biggest in Worthington’s history. It would put the company solidly on the map as a major North American player.
Within twelve hours of discovering the robbery, Edward Worthington hired Fortis. Evan and his team of highly trained protection and asset recovery specialists now had under six weeks to find the thieves and recover the jewels intact. As with most of Fortis’s assignments, confidentiality and discretion were critical. If Worthington’s clients or anyone in the industry discovered this massive breach in security, the auction house would be ruined. Which meant police involvement was not the preferred option at this stage. Fortis had the skills and resources in security, surveillance, investigations, and threat neutralization to quickly and stealthily deliver services to their high-end clients, all without the bureaucratic restrictions of law enforcement.
Evan arrived at the Worthington offices at a few minutes to one o’clock. He parked on the street in a spot where he could see the storefront. With a few moments to spare, he took out his phone to review the file Lucas had sent. Most of it was old information provided by the client in their initial meeting. It confirmed that other than the owner, only one employee knew when the Crimson Amazon necklace had been delivered, and only one had the combination to the safe: Nia James, the managing director. The digital copy of her employee identification photo showed a young woman with a rectangular face and sculpted cheekbones. Her hair was pulled back into a sleek ponytail, accentuating the feline angle of her dark eyes.
Evan scrolled through the other documents to see if there was anything new or revealing about her. Twenty-six years old, valid driver’s license, no passport. Born and raised in Detroit, moved to Boston eight years ago to attend college as a part-time student. Worked as a waitress, then graduated four years ago with a B.A. in Business. Senior sales manager at a jewelry store before being hired at Worthington eleven months ago. Clean criminal record, except for a sealed juvenile file.
A tire squeal and a honked horn caught Evan’s attention. He looked up to assess the situation and it was easy to see the distraction to drivers nearby. The object of his surveillance was crossing the street at the intersection in front of his car. Nia James walked with a straight, proud posture, her chin held high with bold confidence. She wore a dark skirt-suit, tailored to fit her lithe body like a fine wool wrap. Her lean legs were coppery brown, naked and elongated by high-heeled shoes in a glossy burgundy leather. Their extravagant cost was evident in the telltale red soles. Half her face was covered with oversize sunglasses and her lips were coated in a rich ruby color that accentuated their shapely fullness.
The lunchtime traffic was pretty busy, yet cars slowed as the men driving them did double takes, or stared openly. Even guys walking nearby turned to appreciate the view of her figure, both coming and going. Evan would have found the show amusing, except it uncovered a complication he hadn’t anticipated. Nia James was far more attractive in real life than her identification photos suggested. She walked with a smooth, sexy sway that told him she was very aware of her effect on men and was comfortable working it.
If his instincts were correct, and they usually were, he would have to adjust their plan accordingly.
Evan opened the driver’s door to the black Bentley convertible just as she passed in front. He slowly unfurled his tall frame to exit the car, fully aware of the impression he made: rich, powerful, young. It was an image designed to capture the attention of an opportunist, and one he’s used successfully many times as a covert operative. And like most women, Nia James responded. It was subtle, only with a slight tilt of her head in his direction, but it was enough. First goal accomplished.
She entered the premises, and Evan was only a few steps behind. The Worthington’s offices occupied the first two floors of the historical building. He had the architectural specs well mapped in his head. On the first floor, there was an art gallery and antiquities dealership, selling a wide variety of valuable collectibles on consignment. The business offices were on the second level in an open loft space, accessed from the main floor by a wide, curving staircase. The warehouse and secure storage was is the rear of the building, with a delivery bay backing onto an alley.
Evan stepped through the front doors into the large gallery with twenty-two-foot-high ceilings. The walls were lined with framed art of various types and sizes. The center space had glass display cabinets and sleek tufted white leather benches. He could easily see Nia standing near the rear of the room, next to a reception counter that was manned by another employee. But he started a slow walk around the room, stopping occasionally to admire one of the many drawings, paintings, and photographs. He also knew the moment his target left the area through the door to the warehouse.
Evan turned to find a young girl walking toward him. She was twenty-one years old, with a bright smile and even brighter blond hair. And he already knew she was the gallery receptionist and office administrator, Emma Sterling.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” she continued, stopping next to him.
He smiled back.
“I hope so,” he stated. “I would like to get some information about your auction services.”
“No problem,” she replied smoothly. “Are you looking to buy or sell?”
“All right. I’ll introduce you to our managing director, Nia. She’ll be able to evaluate your needs.”
The young girl turned away a little, and pressed a button on a discreet earpiece. She spoke in soft tones for a few seconds before clicking it again and facing him again.
“Nia will be with us shortly. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Sure, some water would be great.”
“Sparkling or flat?”
“Hmmm, flat is fine.”
“No problem, Mr. . . . ?” She raised a brow and smiled even bigger.
“Evan. Evan DaCosta.”
“Great, Mr. DaCosta. Nia will be here shortly.”
He nodded and she walked away.
About a minute later, Evan watched Nia James cross the room with the same smooth, sensuous gait he witnessed earlier. He found himself anxious to see her up close, feel how potent her attractiveness was. Not that he would be affected, of course. He’d seen her type too many times over the years to be fooled by the artifice. And glammed-up women weren’t really his type. He preferred the outdoorsy, active women who didn’t take hours to get ready. The girl next door.
Yet as this woman, their prime suspect in a ballsy jewelry heist, stopped in front of him, Evan stopped breathing.
“Mr. DaCosta,” she stated in a sultry voice, her hand extended. “I’m Nia James. I understand that you’d like to hear more about our auction services?”
She looked up to meet his eyes squarely. Hers were a warm brown, with speckles of copper and honey. Evan cleared his throat, matching her firm handshake. Tiny sparks sizzled up his forearm.
“Nice to meet you, Miss James. I was told Worthington would be able to help with an estate auction?”
They were interrupted before she could respond.
“Here you go, Mr. DaCosta,” stated the receptionist as she handed him a chilled bottle of fancy imported spring water.