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Security specialist and PI Jamie Sinclair shoots for the stars in this breakneck thriller. Her enemies shoot to kill.“[Nichole Christoff] understands how to keep her readers riveted from beginning to end.”—USA Today
In Jamie Sinclair’s line of work, there’s no such thing as too careful. Not when clients like Madeline Donahue come knocking on her door. Madeline claims a disgruntled robotics engineer is blackmailing her boss—an eccentric tech billionaire—and holding the computer systems of their satellite and space payload company hostage. With U.S. government secrets at stake, Madeline wants Jamie to protect her as she pays the ransom. But is it really ransom? Or personal payback?
The late-night dead drop starts off badly, and gets worse quickly when Jamie is framed for murder and more. Now, with the U.S. government trying to bring her down—and a team of hired guns aiming to take her out—Jamie is on the run, fighting to force a deadly conspiracy from the shadows. She’ll have to move fast to get that target off her back—and to keep those she loves from becoming the weakest link in a powerful enemy’s kill chain.
Don’t miss any of Nichole Christoff’s white-knuckle Jamie Sinclair thrillers: THE KILL LIST | THE KILL SHOT | THE KILL BOX | THE KILL SIGN | THE KILL WIRE | THE KILL CHAIN
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Kill Chain
Happy hour had come and gone in every bar in Washington, DC, and I was still at my desk, all alone, in my M Street office—but that’s when my visitor came to call.
Five floors below me, the closed-circuit security camera, tucked into the lobby’s crown molding, picked her up the moment she slipped in from the sidewalk and transmitted her image to my laptop. She wore a short, black trench coat and gray leather gloves, as if the Mid-Atlantic’s early April weather were too cold for her. And despite the camera’s awkward angle, I could see her shiver when Chester, the guard on duty behind the wide mahogany reception station, hailed her.
She gestured to the directory, framed within a shining brass-and-glass marquee beside the elevator. The thing showcased the names of the building’s businesses, and Chester picked up his phone. Mine didn’t ring, so he must’ve called the accountants’ office on the third floor, or the stockbroker’s on four. Once in a while, they worked late. But by now, it was after eight on a Thursday evening and anyone with any semblance of a social life had left. Even my long-suffering office manager had headed home to her honey hours ago. I should’ve done the same. Except I didn’t have a sweetheart waiting for me at my place.
That, of course, was all his fault.
Or maybe it was mine.
In any case, Chester waved the woman through the metal detector downstairs. When she didn’t set off any bells or whistles, he sent her on her way. Bypassing the elevator, she ducked into the stairwell. I turned my attention from my laptop. And back to the schematic spread across the desk in front of me.
Detailed in black and white, this was the layout I’d developed for Scotty Handemann. Scotty is an Operation Enduring Freedom vet who’d lost a leg and most of an arm to a roadside bomb, but who’d come home to serve his small town as its mayor. Not long ago, he’d declared his candidacy for Virginia’s Twelfth Congressional District—and he’d been giving the crusty old incumbent, who’d grown a little too fond of Washington’s big-city comforts, a run for his money ever since.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Scotty’s campaign headquarters had ended up burgled last week. Twice. Then, Saturday night, his pregnant wife, Rachel, found herself face-to-face with an intrude rifling through the desk drawers in their country farmhouse.
When the police swore they’d done all they could do to protect the candidate’s family, Scotty took charge of the matter. He hired me.
I’m a security specialist who’s built her business on a private investigator’s license. My client list is full of folks who call me when calling the authorities is out of the question. Like that governor whose underage daughter ended up in nine kinds of trouble when her so-called boyfriend bought her drink after drink in that dive bar last year. Or the niece of that elderly queen of the silver screen, whose lawyer locked her in a bedroom and forgot about her while he lived large on the old lady’s residual checks. Four days ago, like them, Scotty Handemann became my client.
On Monday, I assigned a team of bodyguards to Scotty’s family and personally made site visits to identify potential risks at his home, his office, and everywhere in between. On Tuesday, I sketched out a comprehensive surveillance-and-security system that the couple’s nine-year-old daughter could operate—and that Fort Knox would envy. On Wednesday, my tech guys installed it and I taught the Handemanns how to use it. Now, on Thursday, my job was done. But I couldn’t quit thinking about Scotty and Rachel and the little slice of happiness they’d hired me to help them hold on to. For them, security had less to do with motion sensors and alarm panels than with one another. Every time I so much as glanced at the schematic, I saw that as plain as day.
Tonight, however, something else caught the corner of my eye.
Past the threshold to my inner office, across the dark expanse of cubicles and conversation groups where my staff worked every day, a silhouette grew tall against the wall of frosted bulletproof glass. The shadow hinted at a woman’s figure. She halted as if reading the blocky black letters—painted in reverse from my perspective—on the partition between my business and the fifth-floor corridor. The letters spelled out the name of my company:
Sinclair and Associates. The woman raised a fist and rapped on the glass.
Slowly, I reached out, touched a button on my laptop’s keyboard. Another video feed sprung to life on my screen, giving me a bird’s-eye view of my visitor. I shoved my square-rimmed glasses northward along the bridge of my nose and spoke into the laptop’s built-in microphone.
I could hear my voice echoing in the hall.
Without a whisper of welcome, I said, “What can I do ya for?”
“I’ve come to see Jamie Sinclair,” the woman in the corridor replied. “I’d like to hire her. Or rather, my institution would.”
The word institution conjured up images of crumbling brick edifices where Victorian street urchins worked their fingers to the bone to pay some drummed-up debt to society.
I rose from my desk, drew the Beretta 9000S nine-millimeter handgun holstered on my hip. I approached the frosted-glass portal with my weapon alongside my thigh. I applied my key code to the complicated electronic lock, retracted the bolt, and opened the door.
The woman on the far side of it was older than she’d appeared over the closed-circuit camera downstairs. She probably had a dozen years on the thirty-eight that I’d collected, but her hair, which she wore in a bob crammed carelessly behind her ears, had been dyed a dimensional black at an excellent salon. Her makeup was minimal and just as artful. A dusting of blush, some no- nonsense mascara, and a dab of tinted lip balm made the most of what God had given her. All in all, I’d have said she wasn’t a high-maintenance type of female. Or maybe she just didn’t want to look like one.
“Which institution,” I said, “would that be?” “You’re Jamie Sinclair,” she breathed.
“In the flesh. And you are . . .”
A slight smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. She extended a gloved hand and I shook it.
“I’m Madeline Donahue,” she said. “PhD. I’m the Director of Innovative Engineering at Stellar Unlimited.”
Stellar Unlimited had been the brainchild of Niilo Järvinen, the filthy-rich Finland native whose hyperintelligence turned heads in Silicon Valley before he’d even graduated from Oxford University at the age of fourteen. By the time this whiz kid had breezed through MIT and pursued a post-doc at Caltech, the technology giants of Northern California wooed him for all they were worth. He’d tried working for them for a while, but reportedly, software development and sophisticated search algorithms bored him to tears—because Niilo Järvinen had had his eyes on the sky.
Six years ago, Järvinen founded Stellar Unlimited, a privately held competitor to NASA, the European Space Agency, and every other space program supported by government bucks anywhere in the world. His goal was to make the potential of space—or at least the possibilities found in low earth orbit—accessible to everyone, from third-world cellphone companies that couldn’t afford to rely on the communications satellites belonging to the global powers that had cornered the market to Great-aunt Millie who wanted to go to space for her eightieth birthday. Rumor had it he even had plans up his sleeve for a moon colony and lunar tourism.
Of course, Aunt Millie couldn’t shimmy into a flight suit quite yet. Järvinen’s Stellar Unlimited hadn’t perfected their shuttle. However, by all accounts, his innovative rockets and payload delivery program had been doing big business for the past thirty-six months.
“Well,” I said to Dr. Donahue, Stellar Unlimited engineer extraordinaire. “Come on in.”
No one lurked behind her in the hall, but I quickly locked the door once she’d stepped across the threshold. I didn’t turn my back on her, either. And I certainly didn’t flash the weapon I held at my side.
Still, Dr. Donahue said, “Do you usually answer the door with a gun in your hand?”
“That depends,” I replied. I holstered the weapon, pointed her through the gloom and toward the wedge of light that arrowed from my inner sanctum’s desk lamp. “Do you usually knock on the doors to dark offices after business hours?”
Dr. Donahue’s smile hitched a little higher. “I suppose, given your occupation, there’s no such thing as too careful.”
“If there is,” I admitted, “I haven’t come across it.”
And that was the truth. Three weeks ago, I’d intended to be very careful when I’d taken on the hunt for a missing woman at the behest of a certain DEA agent who’d wanted more than my professional involvement. Despite my precautions, however, I’d ended up in a Texas Hill Country hospital with a concussion—and making a mess of things between me and the military cop who made my heart beat faster. But that was neither here nor there. And given that that military cop, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Barrett, was still doing penance on an army post over a thousand miles away from Washington, DC, for bad decisions he’d made when a cold case in his hometown had heated up again, careful was all I had to keep me company.
I clamped down on that rumination, however, rolled up Scotty Handemann’s schematic, and stuffed it into a cardboard cylinder while Dr. Donahue settled into the funky Eames chair opposite mine.
She said, “I couldn’t take a chance on being seen coming here, but I had a hunch you might stay to work after closing.”
“And who helped you with that hunch?”
Again, her smile flickered. “I’d rather not say.”
Such reticence wasn’t unusual. Nobody liked to admit they had a problem the cops couldn’t solve. Consequently, I wasn’t in the habit of demanding references—but I sure liked ’em when I could get ’em.
Apparently, Dr. Donahue wanted a little reassurance as well. She said, “Would it be presumptuous to ask whether this conversation is confidential?”
As if I were merely taking notes, I slid my laptop to the center of my work surface. I typed Madeline Donahue and Stellar Unlimited in the browser’s search bar. A wealth of websites popped up, including an article put out by the company’s in-house public relations team. The headline boasted “Director of Innovative Engineering Wins Department of Defense Grant,” and the woman in the accompanying photo was the spittin’ image of the one sitting across from me.
“Anything you confide goes no farther than this room,” I assured her. Dr. Donahue eased back in her guest chair. “Perfect,” she said.
And then she told me her story.
“Last month, someone hacked into Stellar Unlimited’s local area network. They seized our servers and essentially held them hostage. No one at the company could access email, retrieve files, or issue payments, let alone perform complicated tasks like simulations or launching a payload.”
“Then you need a cyber forensics specialist. Not me.” I drew a scratch pad across my desk, began to jot down the particulars of a cyber forensics specialist I knew. He was fifteen years old and still lived in the baby-blue bedroom his parents had painted for him before he was born.
“The hacking wasn’t the end of it.” Dr. Donahue’s gray gloves creaked as her hands knotted in her lap. “We had a ransom demand.”
I nodded. I’d heard of such things. A couple of years ago, a major Canadian university fell victim to hackers who held their entire computer system hostage. As a result, instruction and research ground to a standstill. And if that kind of information could be laid bare, anything could be done with it. Students’ grades could be altered. Payroll could be stolen. The faculty retirement fund could end up on the fast track down the tubes.
“We paid,” Dr. Donahue said, “the first time.”
“And now your hacker’s come back for a second touch.”
She nodded. “That’s why I’ve flown in from California. His instructions were very clear. This time, he wants me to deliver the cash. In person.”
But that didn’t sit right with me. Typically, cybercriminals liked to get paid electronically, through Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies that can be converted to cash quickly, easily, and practically anonymously from anywhere in the world. I rocked back in my chair and watched Dr. Donahue closely.
I said, “Making a delivery can be incredibly dangerous.”
“That’s why I’ve come to see you. We want you to go with me.”
“You said he.”
“You said his instructions were very clear. You said he wants you to personally deliver the ransom.”
“Yes, well, there’s one more thing. We think we may know who’s blackmailing us. His name is Robert Fraley. He led our robotics team, but we had to let him go. Now he lives here. In Fairfax, to be specific.”
Fairfax was a pretty little suburban community just outside DC’s infamous Beltway.
And with its multitude of universities and companies under contract with the Department of Defense, it would be chock-full of opportunities for someone with robotics on his résumé.
I said, “I take it you haven’t contacted this Robert Fraley directly.”
“God, no. Besides, he’d never admit to any wrongdoing now, even though he left Stellar Unlimited under a pretty dark cloud in February.”
Dr. Donahue shrugged a shoulder. “Robert fell for his research assistant. It happens, I guess. But his wife took exception to it. She sued him for divorce. For some stupid reason, that’s when Robert decided he wanted to have his cake and eat it too.
“He began drinking heavily . . . and following her. He was subtle about it at first. You know, showing up at her favorite coffee shop whenever she made plans to meet a friend. Then he graduated to planting himself outside her office and shouting at her window. Sometimes he bellowed poetry. Sometimes threats. It wasn’t long after that that we realized the research assistant had taken to running Robert’s lab for him. Given the sensitivity of our research—and its global economic and political implications—that was a big no-no.”
“How did Fraley take his firing?”
“Not well. I had to be the one who called him onto the carpet. Neither of us enjoyed the experience.”
“So, this isn’t a little hacking to plump up a bank account. This is revenge served cold. Maybe against you, Dr. Donahue.”
My visitor didn’t deny it.
She wouldn’t quite meet my eye, either.
I rose from my desk, rounded it, and offered my would-be client the best advice I had to give. “Go see this Robert Fraley,” I told her. “It’s been easy for him to hide behind his computer screen and make demands of you. But if you show up on his doorstep, he won’t be able to hide from you anymore.”
“I . . . I can’t do that. We have no actual proof that Robert’s behind the hacking or the financial demand. I’d look like a fool—and so would Stellar Unlimited.”
I suspected, as a start-up in an innovative industry, Stellar Unlimited could handle looking a little silly. But maybe the mastermind with the money, Niilo Järvinen, couldn’t. Or maybe Dr. Donahue was the one with the allergy to confronting the troublesome Robert Fraley face-to-face.
She reached across the intervening space between us and touched my arm.
“Please, Ms. Sinclair. The amount must be paid tonight, whether Robert’s behind the demand or not. Stellar Unlimited can’t afford another shutdown—or the sale of our data to someone else.” Her gloved hand disappeared into the breast pocket of her trench coat, reemerged with a bulging white envelope. She offered the envelope to me. I knew what would be in it before I peeked beneath the flap. But the glimpse of all those Ben Franklins still gave me pause. Because Dr. Madeline Donahue hadn’t handed me chump change. She’d just crossed my palm with $50,000.
“This is the ransom money?” I asked.
“This is for you.”
“It’s too much.”
And it was.
Unless she wanted me to do more than watch her back as she paid off Stellar Unlimited’s supposed hacker.
“Niilo wants you to be well paid,” she said, “for assisting me and for your silence. He takes this situation extremely seriously. He wants you to know that.”
I opened my mouth to demur.
Dr. Donahue didn’t let me.
“All you have to do is go with me,” she said.
“That won’t fix your problem,” I warned her. “And if you show up with a shadow, it might make things worse.”
“Whoever he is, he expects me to bring my lab assistant. He already said so.”
“You’ve talked to him?”
“He texted me soon after I checked into the Nightingale Hotel this afternoon. He’ll text again, tonight. At eight thirty. He’ll send directions about delivering the money then.”
Clutching the envelope full of Franklins, I turned my wrist to glance at my Cartier Roadster. The watch’s luminescent dial pointed to half-past eight. And at that moment, deep in Dr. Madeline Donahue’s coat pocket, her cellphone chimed with an incoming message.
Nichole Christoff is the award-winning author of the Jamie Sinclair thrillers: The Kill List, The Kill Shot, The Kill Box, The Kill Sign, The Kill Wire, and The Kill Chain. A writer, broadcaster, and military spouse who has worked on the air and behind the scenes for radio, television news, and the public relations industry, Christoff owes her taste in fiction to Raymond Chandler, James Thurber, and Jane Austen. She belongs to the Private Eye Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.