Iris Johansen’s breathtaking array of fiction becomes even more astonishing when you know she didn’t start writing until her children left home for college. She began with romances in the early 1980s, then turned to historical romance in 1991, beginning with The Wind Dancer. But 1996 marked her switch to crime fiction and seventeen consecutive New York Times bestsellers. Her books, including those featuring forensic sculptor Eve Duncan--have been praised as “entertaining…exciting” (Publishers Weekly) and “gripping and relevant” (Booklist). Johansen, who Tami Hoag calls “incomparable, lives in Georgia, and has written several novels with her son, Roy Johansen, an Edgar Award-winning screenwriter.
Sleep No More
Seahaven Behavioral Health Center
Santa Barbara, California
THE KILL SHOULD BE RIDICULOUSLY EASY.
Not really worthy of his talents, Drogan thought as he moved silently down the hall. It was all a question of timing. The nurse who was usually on duty at the desk of this private wing had left on her break three minutes ago and would not return for another seventeen minutes. Another nurse from the ward on the third floor, who was scheduled to cover her absence, was due to make a routine check in about ten minutes. No other coverage was considered necessary since the patient was always heavily sedated. He’d have to be out of here by then. The nurses at Seahaven were always as punctual and routine-oriented as everyone in the plush mental hospital. They had good jobs and wanted to keep them.
Too bad. The private nurse’s job taking care of the woman in that suite down the hall was about to come to an abrupt end.
He stopped before Beth Avery’s room and carefully, silently, opened the door. The lights were out in the room, but Drogan could see her heaped beneath the covers on the bed across the room. She should be sleeping well; he’d been told they always gave her extra drugs at night.
Including this night, her last night.
He took the hypodermic out of his jacket pocket.
Yes, it was too easy, he thought. Any of her doctors or nurses could have given her the fatal injection. She was drugged and helpless. Why pay a hit man to do the job?
Because they had no guts, he thought contemptuously. Because Dr. Harry Pierce, with all his fancy degrees in psychiatry, was a coward who wouldn’t risk his fine career and put his neck on the chopping block. That took nerve and skill and the ability to take the final step. Drogan possessed all three qualities, and that made him a giant far above these ineffectual assholes.
Ten minutes. Make the kill and get out of here.
He glided toward the bed.
What did you do, Beth Avery? Why do they want you dead? Are they tired of dealing with you? Not that it mattered. As long as he got his money, that was his only concern. Still, it was curious …
He had reached the bed. He put out his hand to shift the blanket so that he could make the injection. Then he would wait until he was sure that the stuff had worked. A less professional man would just take off, but he was proud of his work ethic.
It would take several seconds, but he’d be able to tell when she died. He knew death. It was an old friend.
He flipped back the cover.
No Beth Avery. Pillows. Three pillows.
He staggered back as he was struck from behind with the base of a lamp.
He fell to his knees as the room whirled around him.
A woman …
Tall, slim, dark brown hair, in her thirties … Beth Avery. He’d been given a photo of her. The target.
She had the lamp lifted to strike him again.
“No way, bitch.” He lunged forward and brought her down. He had dropped the hypodermic when he fell and he lunged for it.
She brought her heel down on the syringe, smashing it. Then she pushed him away and rolled away from him.
God, she was strong, he realized dimly. Avery was supposed to be weak and drugged, but she was as sleek and muscular as a young lioness.
But a lioness can be taken down like any other cat. His hands closed on her throat. Die, bitch.
She butted her head against his nose as hard as she could.
“WHERE THE HELL ARE THEY?” Venable, deputy director of the CIA, had his binoculars focused on the small cottage in the valley below. “Special Ops were supposed to go in from the rear ?fteen minutes ago and take Hu Chang out of there.”
“It’s a di?cult job,” Agent Gregory said. “The place is surrounded by mercenaries. You told Special Ops they had to get Hu Chang out alive.”
“You’re damn right. We have to know how much he told them and what he gave them.” Besides the fact that Catherine Ling, who was one of his best agents, would kill Venable if he allowed it to be bungled. She and Hu Chang had some kind of history. Even Venable wasn’t sure exactly what it was. But, dammit, it wasn’t Venable’s fault that Hu Chang had gotten into this mess, and the CIA was having to pull him out.
Not that he wouldn’t have had to go after him anyway if the story Venable’s informant had told him was true. A potion that complex and dangerous had never been invented. It probably wasn’t true, but why else was Hu Chang down there being tortured to make him talk? Venable couldn’t take the chance. “There they are,” Gregory said as he went to the back of the helicopter and threw open the door. “We should be out of here in ten minutes.”
The door of the cottage ?ew open and four men in Special Ops gear ran out. And in the middle of the group was a slim, dark-haired man in a torn tunic. Hu Chang.
“Yes.” Venable watched as the Special Ops men ? red back over their shoulders while they headed for the woods. Men were streaming out of the cottage.
Then Hu Chang and the special team had disappeared into the trees.
“They should reach the helicopter in three minutes,” Gregory said. “I’ll go tell the pilot to be ready to lift off.”
Three minutes passed.
No Special Ops. No Hu Chang.
Another four minutes.
Venable began to curse.
Justin, the Special Ops commander, burst out of the trees and was climbing the rocks toward the helicopter. “Is he here?” he called. “I told him where you were in case we got separated. I can’t ? nd him.”
“I can’t ?nd Hu Chang. When we reached the trees, he slipped away from us. One minute he was there, the next he was gone. He’s not here?”
“No, he’s not here.”
“Then I’ll go back for him.”
Shots. More men running from the cottage to the woods.
“No, get your men back to the helicopter. You’re outnumbered. Just lay down protective ?re to keep anyone away from the helicopter.”
“What about Hu Chang? He was my mission, dammit.”
“Evidently he didn’t want to be your mission,” Venable said. “And I’m not going to lose any of your men because he endangered you by this stupidity. We’ll give him ten minutes, then we’re out of here.”
“They’ll surround the area around the helicopter. He won’t be able to get through.”
“That’s his problem. Go get your men.”
The bullet had entered Hu Chang’s side, piercing ?esh and muscle. The pain was blunt and brutal.
He fell to his knees as the second bullet tore past his ear. Then he was behind the rocks, crawling toward the helicopter balanced on the side of the cliff .
“Get the hell over here. Stay low. I can’t risk anyone else coming out in this sniper cross ?re,” Venable shouted above the rotors from the doorway of the helicopter.
TWO MINUTES. The explosive was in place beneath the back veranda of the house. The charge set. Agent Art Benkman slid behind the garden wall that surrounded the pool and house and waited. No mistakes this time. His superior wouldn’t tolerate another near miss. It had been made clear that Black must be destroyed. He was a monster who knew too much. No, he’d seen Paul Black go into the house an hour ago. It was the best time for the kill. Only one person in the house besides that son of a bitch. A housekeeper who occupied the end bedroom of the rambling bungalow. He’d seen her light go out two hours ago. She’d be asleep by now. Good night. And good-bye. No one would survive this blast. He’d had to be sure. One minute. The flames from the blast would probably reach the top of those palm trees hovering over the roof. “I’ve got you, Black,” he murmured. “Burn in—” Pain. He was flipped over and was looking up at the man who had sent the needle- sharp stiletto deep into his back. Black. But it couldn’t be Paul Black. He was in the house. No, he was here. That dark, devil’s face . . . “Who sent you?” Black asked. “Who told you I was here?” He was searching in Benkman’s pockets, pulling out his wallet and the e-mail that he’d received two days ago. He glanced at it and smiled. “Very explicit. And you obeyed blindly like a good agent? Never mind. You don’t have to answer. I don’t need you now.” “Kill you . . .” Benkman whispered. “I have to—” “Die,” Black supplied as he picked up Benkman as if he were a child. “That’s all you have to do.” He was carrying him over to the house. “How do you feel about cremation?” “No!” He started to struggle as panic overcame pain. “Don’t leave me here. It’s going to—” “Blow?” Black dropped him on the floor of the great room. “In about forty seconds.” He looked down at him. “Why don’t you see if you can make it through the French doors and out onto the terrace? You might survive then.” He turned and strolled out of the house. Bastard. Benkman rolled over and started to crawl toward the French doors. Pain. The blood was pouring out of the wound as he moved. Weak. The blood was slippery . . . He was dying. No, he’d be okay. He was always okay. He just had to get out of this damn house. So slow. He was moving so slow. He reached the French doors. Now crawl out onto the veranda. He was almost there . . . And then he saw Black standing by the garden wall and watching him. He was smiling. He tapped his watch. Too late, Benkman realized frantically. He was too late. Time had run out. “Don’t leave me!” he howled. “Get me out of—” The house exploded and became an inferno.
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