Hard Risk by Sidney Bristol
Harper Wright tried his best to never see the world before six in the morning. Dawn wasn’t his favorite time of day. Which meant it was the perfect time for a covert meeting. Though given how remote the grain depot was, it was damn creepy, and being a brown man by himself; he was not about to play around.
What the fuck was his boss thinking?
He glanced up and down the road while swiping his forearm over his brow. The last thing he needed right now was for a cop to roll up on him. At least he could truthfully say he didn’t live far from here and was simply out for a jog.
A gust of wind sliced through his two layers of clothing.
The whole country seemed to be in the grips of the worst winter in a long time.
Overhead, the rusting structure groaned and a piece of loose metal creaked.
He’d seen enough horror movies to know how this would end if he didn’t get a move on.
“Fuck,” he muttered and ducked into an entranceway partially obscured by the skeletons of tall weeds.
The forecast had threatened snow for days now. Was it going to actually happen? He hoped not. Harper was ready for warmer weather. That was for damn sure. His ancestors were from Central America. Where it was hot. He didn’t like this cold bullshit. Seattle had been bad enough with the rain and clouds all the time. He needed a change of scenery. Hell, maybe he should take a vacation and go visit the condo in Key West he’d bought but never lived in. Sure, he’d moved his stuff in, but he had friends who’d stayed there longer than he had.
The old door behind the weeds was partially rusted and the yellow paint chipped. He hadn’t known this entrance existed until Zora’s instructions had arrived. He pulled out his keycard and felt along the wall until he found a little plate, just like he’d been told to expect. Pulling it up revealed a keypad. A new keypad. When this place was built, keypads probably weren’t a thing yet. He swiped his card, then entered his unique code. Only then did the door disengage.
“I’ll be damned,” he muttered.
He stomped his feet on the rubber mat and peered down the dim hallway.
What would his old boss say if he knew about this?
It was extra weird that he’d worked for Zain and now Zora. He was fairly sure he’d never met anyone with a Z name before them.
Life was full of odd coincidences.
Harper could still remember the day Zain had called them all in to the tiny secure room at Aegis Group’s Seattle office—before that place got blown up, what was it with headquarters?—to tell them about a unique opportunity. Uncle Sam wanted their people to work on a joint task force. For what? No one knew. Some days, he still wasn’t sure if they knew the whole story themselves.
Unlike the others, back then, Harper didn’t have any reservations about taking the job. He went where the team did. Seattle wasn’t home for him and neither was DC. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure he’d ever felt at home anywhere. So it hadn’t been a big deal to pick up and move across the country for an ambiguous job. Hell, it was a lot better than some ops he’d run in the SEALs.
He unzipped his coat and stepped forward.
The dim lights grew brighter, chasing away the shadows.
“Thank you, Bond Girl,” he muttered.
Harper had no way of knowing if their resident tech genius had anything to do with the lights, but he’d thank her, anyway. Undoubtedly, someone under her was responsible for this. A job like this took ingenuity and their Bond Girl was the best. Right up there with Zain.
He followed the hall for a dozen or so yards until it met a larger room. A catwalk led off into the darkness and to his right, a metal staircase. He peered down over the ledge.
This had to be one of the grain silos.
Way back when, farmers from all around would have brought their grain here to be sold across the country. Most of that farmland was residential now, and farming wasn’t exactly a hot local job anymore.
He inhaled and closed his eyes.
There was a slight, earthy scent to the air.
He pulled out his phone, flipped on the light and descended the stairs like his instructions said to.
It felt as though the stairs went on for an age before he finally reached the bottom.
The depot had been out of use for some time. As he understood, the facility had been owned by the government and used for various purposes over the years. He didn’t stare into the shadows too hard. His dreams were already dark enough without adding the horrors these walls had seen to his collection.
At long last, he stepped onto a concrete floor. There were still grain husks here and there, inedible things that didn’t offer any nutrition to even the rats. He shone his light around the deep, dark hole in the ground.
What if Zora got pissed at him and left him down here?
Yeah, he’d mind what he said a little better from here on out.
He turned toward an open door. A light shone beyond it, beckoning him down yet more twisted halls until he came to a locked door. He wished he didn’t understand the need for all these misleading turns, but after the last few months, he did.
Harper lifted his hand and knocked against the secured door.
He’d followed the directions exactly, so where was he?
Somewhere, the wind whistled through the silo. The sound took on a life of its own, howling through all the halls and dark corners to stir things better left alone.
Creepy as fuck.
He shivered and almost jumped as the door’s lock creaked.
“About damn time,” he muttered to himself. Not too loud. He didn’t want to get his ass left out here.
The door slid to the left, revealing an almost white room beyond.
Zora Clark, head of the Task Force, stepped into view. She was a tall, elegant Black woman with wispy, short hair and a pale blue suit that offset her dark gaze.
“You’re here. Good,” she said by way of a greeting.
“What the fuck?” he muttered and stepped through the opening. He studied the wall and the bookcase that appeared to have moved. “You have a secret entrance in here?”
Zora gestured to the chairs in front of her desk. “Sit.”
Harper knew better than to expect an answer out of her. Zora was as tight-lipped as they came. He didn’t think a word left her lips that hadn’t been over-analyzed and weighted. That kind of calculated behavior exhausted Harper, but it wasn’t his life.
“We have a lot to discuss,” Zora said pointedly.
Harper offered her a winning smile. The type that usually got him numbers at the club. “Then start talking.”
Zora regarded him coolly for a moment. He didn’t actually expect her to warm up to him and his buddy, Tucker, had clearly already staked a claim to Zora. There was history between those two and Harper was dying to know more. But neither were sharing details, damn them.
He shrugged out of his coat and draped it over one of the two guest chairs before lowering into the other. Zora leaned against the front of her desk, probably going for a casual, confiding air.
“Tucker explained this to you?” she asked.
Harper studied her in return. “Harper didn’t tell me shit. He only asked if I was open to doing some under-the-table work not everyone else will know about.”
She nodded. “Then he has explained it to you.”
“If Tucker and I know, why not the others?” Harper asked.
It was a fair question. The Aegis Group team working with the Task Force was only five men, and they were tight. They’d been together long before this job. Harper was taking a risk in breaking the team’s trust by going behind his Team Leader’s back like this.
“Because Nadine had us,” Zora said simply.
Harper grimaced and shifted in his seat.
She had a point there he couldn’t deny.
Nadine Baker had been like a grandmother to all of them. The senior CIA operative had a good relationship with the entire core team, which was why they’d never realized she was the mole. She was the one blackmailed into killing people in federal custody. She was leaking their secrets. And she was why they’d all nearly been killed. If it weren’t for the complete incompetence of the men sent after them, Harper, Tucker, Logan, Evan, Kelsey and Felecia would be dead right now. They’d gotten lucky. Harper didn’t intend to rely on luck again.
“But, in the end, Nadine came through for us.” Zora crossed her arms over her chest. “Nadine’s last act was to hand over everything she had on our targets. Everything she suspected.”
Harper still didn’t know if he believed the sob story Nadine had fed her former partner. Supposedly, Nadine had been blackmailed into it all. It was like a movie playing out in real life.
This might the Harper’s only opportunity to ask questions and get answers from Zora. He didn’t know if he wanted to do the job, but he wanted the details. “Okay, so what’s the job? What new insight did Nadine give us? Has Skilton said anything?”
Zora picked up a tablet from her desk and held it out to him. “There’s a young woman named Robin Suleiman. I want you to get close to her and find out everything you can about her family. Primarily, her father and uncle.”
Harper took the device. “That’s it? Seriously?”
“Yes,” Zora said simply.
Harper glanced down at the high-resolution image of the young woman—Robin—caught in a candid moment. Her hair was so dark it might be brown or black. It was hard to tell with the poor lighting. It was curled and hung down her back in a glossy wave. The photographer had caught her turning to look at something. With the light on her face, she seemed radiant. Beautiful. She had that tanned quality that made it hard to determine her heritage, but with a last name of Suleiman that narrowed it down a lot. He knew Suleiman was a Turkish translation of the name Solomon, and that there were several prominent figures in Islam that bore the name Suleiman, which made it a popular surname.
This was why Zora wanted him.
Out of everyone on their team, it was Harper who spoke Arabic. It could not be a coincidence she wanted him for this.
“No.” Harper handed the tablet back.
Zora’s long fingers gripped the tablet. “You already agreed.”
“And now I’m saying no.” He stood and zipped his coat. “I get what you do. Compartmentalizing information, controlling who knows what, preventing more leaks from happening. But here’s the rub. My team dropped everything to work with you. At every turn, we’ve been loyal. We’ve proven ourselves. When you couldn’t trust anyone, you turned to us. I get not telling me some things for my safety, but this isn’t enough. I’m not sticking my neck out there for you to decide to leave me hanging. And telling me to get close to a woman to talk about her family, who I’m guessing have ties to Middle Eastern powers? Yeah, that sounds like you’re painting a target on my back so you can keep your hands clean.”
Zora didn’t deny she might do just that.
She’d come close to it. On their very first job, their team had been faced with a decision, follow Zora’s orders and ignore a volatile situation, or do something. They’d chosen to act and, as a result, saved dozens of abducted children, not to mention two women who were now married to people on Harper’s team.
He smiled at her. “Let me know if you change your mind and want to be more honest with me.”
Zora’s expression never slipped. He had to hand it to her. She was a remarkably strong woman. He actually respected her. It couldn’t be easy to get thrown onto this team as the assistant director, only to have the actual director completely ignore everything they did. She’d made magic happen out of nothing but her will and determination. But he didn’t always agree with how she ran things. There was doing what you needed to keep everyone safe, and then there was whatever the hell this was.
Harper knew the gig was more complicated than Zora was letting on. It had to be if she was keeping this from Logan, his Team Leader, who had become Zora’s right-hand man.
He turned toward the secret door. Part of him couldn’t believe that was real. A secret fucking door. Who would have guessed? Did Tucker know?
If it came out that Tucker and Zora were getting it on in secret, it wouldn’t surprise Harper one bit.
“It’s too dangerous for you to know the specifics,” Zora said.
That made him pause. He turned, cocked his head to the side, and regarded her for a moment. “Oh?”
She blew out a breath, planted a hand on her hip, and pivoted. Her gaze remained on the floor. No doubt she was sifting through a million bits of intel right now. How she did it was beyond amazing.
“We now know Skilton was just a middle-man. He wasn’t really in charge. I think Robin’s uncle puts us one step closer to who is in power. Nadine had a list of names she believed were part of some governing council handing orders down to Skilton to manage.”
“So he was just an operations manager guy?”
She nodded. “Yes. Unfortunately, most of the names on Nadine’s list are out of our grasp.”
“How do you mean?”
Zora just stared at him.
Okay, that was a brick wall. She wasn’t even willing to tell him. That meant the names were big. And very scary.
“But not Robin’s uncle? Who is he?” Harper unzipped his coat.
“Daar Suleiman. He and his brother, Cassim, fled Syria thirty years ago. They had a little money. Cassim made waves by marrying an American woman who owned a chain of motels and other businesses. They were together for about ten years, grew the business, then she ends up dead.”
“Shit. Who did it?”
She shrugged. “It’s never been solved.”
That didn’t sound good. They couldn’t possibly be interested in a ten-year cold case. So that was a red herring, but clearly a detail Zora had thought important enough to mention. He filed it away for later.
“But it’s Daar you’re interested in, not Cassim, right?” he asked.
Zora’s steely gaze gave nothing away. “Correct. We have next to no idea what Daar did in those first few years. He’s gone to great lengths to give himself a good public image. He runs a charity that offers assistance to other Syrian refugees, helps relocate people to find work…”
“I get the feeling it’s all a front?”
Zora nodded. “We know he uses the charity as a front to move weapons, drugs, and other valuables around. The Turkish government was going after him for stolen artifacts, but their key witness wound up dead. Any refugee using Daar’s services is being extorted or worse. We know Daar is instrumental when it comes to moving people and goods around the Middle East. If we found out how that would be a boon, but not the focus. We want to know about who he works with. Who he answers to.”
“Okay, if it’s Daar we’re interested in, why Robin? Why not send me to him as a client?”
“Because Daar doesn’t like Americans, and she’s the easiest mark out of the four.”
“Cassim remarried. It was arranged by—do you want to guess?”
“Daar.” Harper would never claim to be anything other than a grunt, but even that connection sounded fishy to him.
Zora nodded. “Can you work with that?”
“Depends. Do you have a cover story for me? Logan isn’t going to like me vanishing.”
“Leave Logan to me.” She picked up the tablet and handed it to him. “You need to focus on her.”
Harper looked down at his mark.
Who was she? How was she connected to all of this? And just how was he going to get on her good side?