Shadow woman, p.1
Shadow Woman, page 1
Shadow Woman is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Linda Howington
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
BALLANTINE and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Shadow Woman : A Novel / Linda Howard.
1. Identity (Psychology)—Fiction. 2. Conspiracies—Fiction. 3. Psychological fiction. 4. Romantic suspense fiction. I. Title.
Jacket design and illustration: Jae Song, incorporating images © Kelvin Yue and © David J. Green/Arcangel Images
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
San Francisco, Four years earlier
Eleven p.m. The President and First Lady, Eli and Natalie Thorndike, had retired to their hotel suite for the evening. It had been a long day, beginning with the President’s cross-country flight, then going straight into a flurry of campaign speeches—supposedly not campaign speeches, but all of them really were—then culminating in a huge fund-raising dinner where each plate was ten thousand dollars. The First Lady had been by his side the entire time, so she had not only logged the same number of hours, she’d done it wearing three-inch heels.
Laurel Rose, an eleven-year veteran currently assigned to the First Lady’s detail, was so tired she could barely see straight, but at last her shift was over. She hadn’t been wearing heels, but her feet were killing her anyway. She tried her best not to limp as she made her way to her assigned room, down the hall but on the same floor as the President’s suite, so she would be swiftly available if needed. The on-duty agents were in two rooms, one directly across the hall, another with a connecting door to the suite, though that door was locked from the suite side. She didn’t envy them the graveyard shift, but at least now, with POTUS and FLOTUS in for the night, they could relax somewhat.
Three entire floors of the hotel had been taken over, with the President and First Lady on the middle floor. Guests who lived in the hotel had been relocated to other rooms, the stairways and elevators were secured, the hotel staff had been investigated and cleared, and the buildings across the street had been secured; all known risks in the area had been contacted to let them know the Secret Service was watching them, though most had been judged incapable of carrying through on their threats. The First Couple was as safe as the Service could make them.
That didn’t mean nothing could go wrong; it just meant they had made it as difficult as possible for anything to happen. There was always an uneasy feeling deep inside Laurel’s gut that reminded her anything could happen, keeping some small part of her perpetually on edge.
“You’re limping,” observed her fellow agent, Tyrone Ebert, as he fell in beside her on his way to his own room. So much for hiding how much her feet hurt, she thought wryly. She didn’t bother denying it, because he’d just look down at her with one of those see-through-you-like-glass looks of his. There was something a bit spooky about him, his dark eyes seeing everything while he himself revealed nothing, but Laurel trusted his razor-sharp instincts. So far he wasn’t showing any signs of burnout, something she deeply appreciated, because she herself was hanging on by a thread.
“Yeah, it’s been a long day.”
Nothing new about that. The days were all long. Since the Service had been moved from Treasury to Homeland Security, in her opinion things had pretty much gone to shit. Not that they’d ever been great—Secret Service management was an oxymoron; mismanagement was more like it. But now the long hours were longer, morale was in the crapper, their equipment was shit, and on another subject entirely, her mother, who lived in Indianapolis, was getting old and less able to do things for herself. Laurel had put in for a transfer to the Indianapolis area, but she had little hope of getting transferred even though there was a position open. That wasn’t the way things worked; unless you had some juice and knew someone who could pull strings, you weren’t likely to get what you requested.
Laurel didn’t have the needed juice. She hated office politics, so she’d never played the games, and now she was seeing far too clearly that her career with the Secret Service was nearing an end. That was another big problem with the Service: they couldn’t keep good people because of their asinine policies. And, damn it, Laurel knew she was a good agent, despite the underfunding, understaffing, outdated weaponry, and increasingly long hours. She just couldn’t take it any longer. Well, for not much longer, anyway. She hadn’t quite brought herself to the quitting point.
It was such a cool job, in some ways. Not great pay, but cool. She loved what they did, and was able to compartmentalize her emotions so it didn’t matter who sat in the Oval Office: the job was what mattered. She didn’t have to like the First Lady; she just had to protect her. The job would have been easier if the Thorndikes had been more personable, but at least they weren’t as horrendous as some of the previous First Families, if you believed some of the tales she’d heard. Natalie Thorndike wasn’t rude, or a lush, or hateful. It was more as if she didn’t see the agents protecting her as people; she was proud and cool and remote. Sometimes Laurel wished Mrs. Thorndike was a lush, which would at least have made for more interesting detail work.
The President was pretty much the same way, cool and remote, disconnected from everything except politics. On camera, or in campaign mode, he exuded warmth and likability, but he was a superb actor. In private, he was calculating and manipulative—not that Mrs. Thorndike seemed to care. Occasionally they were on the outs with each other; the agents could always tell because the typical coolness would become downright glacial, but other than that there was no outward sign of discord, no loud arguments, no verbal sniping, no slamming doors. For the most part, though, the political power couple marched in lockstep. Their unity had already gotten them to the White House, where they planned on spending another term. With the President’s ruthless instincts and the First Lady’s powerful family behind them, they would be part of the nation’s inner political circle for years to come, amassing wealth and power, even after he was no longer in office.
“See you in the morning,” Tyrone
“Good night,” she said automatically, a little surprised he’d said as much as he had. He wasn’t much on small talk, or on socializing. She actually knew very little about him, other than that he performed his duties impeccably. She’d worked beside him for two years now, since he’d come on the First Lady’s detail, and—come to think of it—she still didn’t even know if he was married or not. He didn’t wear a ring, but that wasn’t necessarily indicative of anything. If he was married, or involved with anyone, he’d never mentioned it. On the other hand, he never hit on her either, or on any of the other female agents. Tyrone was … solitary.
As Laurel continued to her room, two down from his and on the opposite side of the hall, she realized for the first time that something about him gave her a little thrill in her stomach. She’d blocked it out because of the job, but now that she’d admitted to herself she probably wouldn’t be here much longer, it was as if she’d given her subconscious permission to bring the attraction to her attention.
She liked him. He wasn’t a pretty boy, but he was damn striking, in a take-no-prisoners, dangerous kind of way. Tyrone would never blend into a crowd. He was tall and muscled, and moved with the kind of graceful power one saw in professional athletes, or trained special forces soldiers. Physically, he did it for her. She liked being around him, even though he wasn’t much of a talker. And she trusted him, which was big.
She slid her key card into the slot and turned the handle when the green light came on, stepping into the cool of her room. The bedside lamp was on, and the bathroom light, just the way she’d left them. She still took a moment to check her room, because double-checking was what she did. Everything was normal.
Wincing, she toed off her shoes, then groaned with relief as she rotated each ankle in turn, arching her feet, stretching the ligaments. The soles of her feet still burned, though, and nothing would help that other than getting off them for the next few hours, which she planned to do as fast as possible.
She stripped off her jacket and dropped it on the bed, and was starting to shrug out of her shoulder holster when she heard a faint pop-pop-pop. She didn’t have to stop and listen, didn’t have to think; she knew what the sound was. Adrenaline seared her veins in a huge rush. She wasn’t aware of leaping for the door, only of surging into the hall and seeing Tyrone right ahead of her, doing the same thing, his weapon in his hand as he charged full speed down the hall toward the President’s suite. They weren’t the only ones. The night shift had erupted from the room they occupied and the head of the President’s detail, Charlie Dankins, was kicking in the double door.
Oh my God. The shots had come from inside the suite.
The doors and locks were sturdy; Charlie had made several attempts by the time Laurel and Tyrone and a swarm of other agents had reached them. Tyrone positioned himself beside Charlie and said, “Now,” and they kicked together, the combined force finally crashing the doors inward. The agents went in high and low, weapons ready, rapidly sweeping the parlor for the threat.
The room was empty. She couldn’t hear anything, which was even more horrifying, but her heartbeat was thundering in her ears so maybe it was drowning out any sounds. To the right, the door to the First Lady’s bedroom stood open, but Laurel controlled her instinct to rush toward it. Right now, their priority was the President, which meant Charlie was in charge.
The door to the President’s bedroom, on the left, was closed. Charlie rapidly assessed the situation; until they knew where the President was, they could assume nothing. He pointed at Laurel and Tyrone and the rest of the First Lady’s detail, indicating they should check her half of the suite, while he and the others swept the President’s quarters.
His tactics were sound. The detail moved toward the First Lady’s bedroom in an endlessly rehearsed procedure.
The lamps had been turned off in the bedroom, but light from the open bathroom door streamed across the polished marble floor and plush Oriental rug. They rushed the room in precision, halting when they spotted Natalie Thorndike standing motionless on the other side of the sofa, her left side turned toward them.
Laurel had taken the left-hand position as they moved into the room, with Adam Heyes, the detail leader, to her right, and Tyrone to Adam’s right. Adam said sharply, “Ma’am, are you—”
Then they saw that someone was lying on the floor in front of the First Lady, someone with thick dark hair that had gone mostly gray: the President.
The next couple of seconds came in lightning-fast slices, as if time had become a strobe light.
Mrs. Thorndike swung around, and that’s when they saw the weapon in her hand.
Laurel had a split second, a frozen instant, to register the horrible blankness of the First Lady’s expression; then light flashed from the muzzle of the weapon and what had been only a “pop” from a distance was an endless blast of noise in the confines of the hotel room as the First Lady fired and kept firing, her finger jerking on the trigger.
A huge force slammed into Laurel, knocking her backward to the floor. On some distant level she knew she’d been shot, even recognized that she was dying.
She had another of those split seconds of sharp awareness: Adam was down, too, sprawled beside her. Her dimming vision caught Tyrone’s expression, set and grim, as he fired his own weapon.
Doing what he had to do.
Dear God, Laurel thought.
Maybe it was a prayer, maybe an expression of the horror she couldn’t fully realize. There were no more flashes. She gave a small exhalation, and quietly died.
The assassination of the President of the United States by his own wife, and her subsequent death at the hands of the Secret Service when she opened fire on them, killing one of the agents in her own protective detail and wounding another, was almost too massive a blow for the national psyche to take in. The country as a whole was in shock, but the mechanism of government automatically kept moving. On the other side of the country, the Vice President, William Berry, was sworn into office almost before the news of the President’s death hit the wire services. The military went on high alert, in case this was the beginning of a bigger attack, but gradually the pieces were put together to form a sordid picture.
The picture was literally a photograph, found in the First Lady’s luggage, of the President engaged in intimate relations with her own sister. Whitney Porter Leightman, four years younger than the First Lady and a power in Washington in her own right, immediately went into seclusion. Her husband, Senator David Leightman, had no comment other than, “The President’s death is a tragedy for the nation.” He didn’t file for divorce, but then no one in the know in the Capitol expected him to; regardless of the situation, his wife was still a member of the power Porter family, and he wasn’t about to cut his political throat because the President had been banging his wife.
A few people wondered what had made the First Lady snap, because the liaison wasn’t exactly a secret and she had to have known about it for some time, but in the end it was decided that no one would ever know for certain.
Secret Service agent Laurel Rose was buried with honor, and her name immortalized among those others who had given their lives in the performance of their duties. Adam Heyes was severely wounded, his recovery taking months, and had to retire from the Service. After several months, the agent who had shot and killed the First Lady, Tyrone Ebert, quietly resigned.
And the government ticked on, the wheels turning, the papers shuffled, the computers humming.
It was a normal morning. Lizette Henry—once upon a time Zette-the-Jet to her family and childhood friends—rolled out of bed at her usual time of 5:59 a.m., one minute before her alarm was set to go off. In the kitchen, the automatic timer on the coffeemaker would have just started the brewing process. Yawning, Lizette went into her bathroom, turned on the water in the shower, then
She liked starting her mornings off with a nice, relaxing shower. She didn’t sing, she didn’t plan her day, she didn’t worry about politics or the economy or anything else. While she was in the shower, she simply chilled—or more aptly, warmed.
On this particular July morning, her routine so honed and finely tuned she didn’t need to look at a clock to know what time it was at any point, she showered for almost precisely how long it would take the coffeemaker to finish its brewing process, then wrapped a towel around her wet hair and dried herself with a second towel.
Through the open door of the bathroom, the wonderful aroma of the coffee called to her. The bathroom mirror was fogged over with steam, but that would be clear by the time she’d fetched her first cup of the morning. Wrapping herself in her knee-length terry-cloth robe, she padded barefoot into the kitchen and grabbed one of the mugs from the cabinet. She liked her coffee sweet and light, so she added sugar and milk first, then poured the hot coffee into the mixture. It was like having dessert first thing in the morning, which in her book was a nice way to start off any day.
She took the coffee with her into the bathroom, to sip while she blow-dried her hair and put on the small amount of makeup she wore to work.
Setting the cup on the vanity, she unwound the towel from her head and bent forward from the waist, vigorously rubbing her shoulder-length dark brown hair. Then she straightened, tossing her hair back, and turned to the mirror—
—and stared into the face of a stranger.
The damp towel slid from her suddenly nerveless fingers, puddling on the floor at her feet.
Who is that woman?
It wasn’t her. Lizette knew what she looked like, and this wasn’t her reflection. She whirled wildly around, looking for the woman reflected in the mirror, ready to duck, ready to run, ready to fight for her life, but no one was there. She was alone in the bathroom, alone in the house, alone—
by Linda Howard / Romance / Mystery & Thrillers have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes