Criminal Mischief: Episode #29: SKIN IN THE GAME
Today, Tuesday, October 8, 2019 is the release date for the first story in my Cain/Harper thriller series: SKIN IN THE GAME.
Cain and Harper:
Raised as siblings by an itinerant “gypsy” family, knife expert Bobby Cain, trained by the US military in the lethal art of covert eliminations, and Harper McCoy, nurtured by the US Navy and the CIA to run black ops and wage psychological warfare, are now civilians. Of a sort. Employing the skills learned from the “family” and their training, they now fix the unfixable. Case in point: Retired General William Kessler hires the duo to track down his missing granddaughter, a Vanderbilt University co-ed. Their search leads them to a small, bucolic, lake-side town in central Tennessee and into a world of prostitution, human trafficking, and serial murder. The question then becomes: Will their considerable skills be enough for Cain and Harper to save the young woman, and themselves, from a sociopath with “home field” advantage, a hunter’s skills, and his own deeply disturbing agenda?
Cain returned home to collect Harper for the drive to Leiper’s Fork. A trip that raised ambivalent feelings. Sure it would be good to see General Kessler again. It had been many years. On the other side of the world, each with sand and grit in their hair, eyes, everywhere; Cain with fresh blood on his hands.
But, under these circumstances? Kessler obviously adored his granddaughter. And with her parents succumbing to premature deaths, he and Miriam had essentially raised the girl. If she was truly missing, and not off on some college kid’s adventure, they would be crushed. Even a tough, old bird like Kessler.
Cain heard the hiss of the shower coming from Harper’s room, indicating she had finished her workout. He knew she’d be ready to roll within minutes of stepping from beneath the spray. Harper wasn’t one to primp. Or waste time.
Three years ago, a year after they had started their consulting—that nowhere near covered what they actually did—not sure there was a word for that—they had purchased the entire top floor of St. Germain Place. Before it was built out. They designed the space as a single unit with four bedrooms, an office, and a well-equipped gym that included a throwing area for Cain to remain proficient with his knives. A shooting gallery for Harper and her weapons would have been nice, but that would have violated a dozen city codes. It was all wrapped in 360- degree views of the city’s heart, the football stadium, and the Cumberland River.
“What’s this about?” Harper asked as Cain pulled from the underground parking.
He had called her as he left Milner’s office, telling her to get ready for a road trip. Probably just for the day but, as usual, to prep for a couple of more. You just never knew.
“Cindy Grant. General Kessler’s granddaughter has gone missing.”
“Gone missing in a bad way?”
Cain avoided the interstate, as traffic there was unpredictable and most often snarled, instead following a more direct route. Highway 431, then 46, which melted into the one-street village of Leiper’s Fork. Calling it a village was a stretch, the “downtown” area being a couple of blocks long and the stores and restaurants sparse. Beyond, the highway resumed, becoming Old Hillsboro Road, a two-lane blacktop that wound through rolling fields and thick stands of pines and gums and oaks. A half mile south of town, General William Kessler’s estate came into view.
“Impressive,” Harper said.
As Milner had described, its stone construction brought to mind a medieval castle. Backed up against a hillock of dark-green pines, it possessed a commanding view of the General’s acreage, plenty of that, and the valley below. Civilian life had been good to the Kesslers. Cain knew their money had come from real estate and shrewd investing. Not to mention the various boards the General sat on.
They were buzzed through the gate that stretched between two thick river rock columns and continued up 200 yards of winding drive that ended at a paved parking circle. A stone archway led to a pair of massive wooden entry doors. As Cain reached for the buzzer, one door swung open.
Miriam Kessler. Thin, gray hair trimmed short, she wore black slacks and a lemon silk shirt. Cain knew she was sixty-eight but she appeared a dozen years younger. Less so today. Miriam had been at the General’s side through everything. Countless state dinners and military processions. Now she devoted her time to charities and fundraising. “Bobby Cain,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”
“How are you, Miriam?” They hugged.
“We’ve definitely been better.”
“I don’t think you’ve met my sister, Harper.”
“I’ve heard about you though,” Miriam said, shaking Harper’s hand. “Please, come in.” Cain and Harper entered and she closed the door.
“Thank you for coming,” Miriam said. “On such short notice.”
“Anything for the General.”
“It’s been a tough week,” Miriam said. “Bill is beside himself.”
Cain remembered Miriam as always appearing fit, healthy, alive. Now, she wore a haggard, exhausted mantle. Stress lines cut into her face, her hair gray and tired. Her eyes held an irritated redness and a hint of puffiness. She looked like someone enveloped in a personal hell. Yet through that mask a glow of strength and resiliency persisted. Like so many military wives, she was a warrior.
“Bill’s in his study.”
She led them through a voluminous foyer and into a great room, which was exactly that. Ceilings that soared 25 feet above them, maybe more, and a massive stone fireplace, large enough to park a car inside. Plush sofas, antiques everywhere, and twenty-foot windows filling one wall.
“Can I get you something?” she asked over her shoulder. “I’m sure Bill will want some lemonade.”
“That would be fine,” Cain said.
They entered the General’s equally impressive study. Kessler stood and came around his desk, hand extended, now silhouetted against cathedral windows that looked out over rolling hills of green grass and wads of thick pines. He wore gray slacks and a dark blue shirt. His hair silver, eyes deeply blue.
“Bobby Cain,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yes, it has.”
They shook hands. Cain introduced Harper and they took seats facing Kessler who again settled into his oxblood leather chair.
“Wish it were under better circumstances,” Kessler said. “Did you have any trouble finding us?”
“None at all.”
Miriam returned with three glasses of lemonade. “Anything else?” she asked.
“No,” Kessler said. “Thanks.” He offered her a sad smile.
“Then I’ll leave you to talk business.”
Kessler watched her go, waiting until the door closed behind her. “She’s taking this harder than me. And that’s pretty hard.”
“I imagine so,” Cain said.
“You know about loss.”
Cain stared at him.
“First being abandoned at—what was it? Two months?”
“That’s what I was told.”
“The murder of your adoptive parents. While you were overseas.” Cain nodded.
“And you, Harper. Abandoned, actually sold, by your mother.”
“You’ve done your homework,” Cain said.
“As I’m sure you have. And will.” Kessler studied them for a beat, sighed. “The upshot is that I know each of you understand loss.”
“From what I was told, your granddaughter is missing,” Harper said. “That doesn’t mean something has happened to her.”
“I wish that was true.” He folded his hands before him. “But I’m a pragmatic man. Always have been.” He glanced at the door again. “I know the odds of her being alive are remote. Essentially nonexistent. It’s been a week now and she hasn’t responded. Her cell phone no longer receives calls. Something has happened. Something…unpleasant.”
Cain wanted to reassure him but knew he really couldn’t. Mainly because the odds dictated he was correct. Still, he tried. “She’s a college kid. They do stupid things all the time. Like going away and forgetting to call.”
“Not Cindy. Even when she was in Europe a couple of years ago, she called. Every day. Like clockwork. It’s in her nature.”
“Do you have any evidence that something’s happened?” Harper asked.
“Specifically? No.” Kessler shook his head. “I did call her roommate. A girl named Kelly Whitt. She said Cindy told her she was going to Colorado for a few days. She hasn’t heard from her since she left.”
“Did she?” I asked. “Go to Colorado?”
“She didn’t fly. Or take a train. Or rent a car, or use any of her credit cards. And her cell phone went out after about forty-eight hours. It’s last known position was in Nashville.”
Cain was impressed, but not surprised. A retired General who had spent much of his life in intelligence, who ran dark ops in many of the most treacherous places on Earth, could get his hands on just about any information he needed.
“Milner was a bit cryptic when we spoke. Exactly why are we here?” Cain asked.
“Because I want you to find her. Or discover what happened to her.” He hesitated. “And make things right.”
“I’m sure Milner told you that we don’t do missing persons.”
Kessler leaned back in his chair, spun it slightly so he could gaze out the windows for a beat. He sighed; a deep, mournful sigh. “Let me ask you something,” He swiveled back around. “How many knives do you have on you right now?”
“That you could find? Three or four.”
Kessler nodded. “The tools of your trade.”
Cain remained silent.
“Let me tell you a story,” Kessler said as he leaned back. “There was boy. Raised by a wandering gypsy band. Became an expert with knives. At a very early age. He put on knife throwing exhibitions all over the South. Part of the traveling show. He also became an expert second-story thief. He had many talents.” He steepled his fingers before him. “An arrest, an orphanage, and an adoption followed. Then on to the US Army. He was eighteen.” He scratched the back of one hand and then re-steepled his fingers. “His military career was destined to be bland, normal. But then his SEREs training drew some attention. If memory serves, he stayed off the radar for a week. And then suddenly appeared in his CO’s office. Something like that, anyway.” Kessler offered a half smile. “Ruffled more than a few feathers.”
Kessler had definitely done his due diligence.
“But our hero’s shenanigans attracted the attention of the Pentagon, a few other agencies. And his military career took a sudden turn. Ranger School, Seal and Delta training, followed by various Special Ops missions. Intelligence gathering, communication and supply disruptions, and a few targeted eliminations. Most, but not all, sanctioned.” He held Cain’s gaze a beat. “Yet, each necessary.” Kessler leaned back again, arms folded over his chest. “Then his parents were murdered. By three men. Each later met an unexpected and not so pleasant demise.”
Again, Cain said nothing.
“Our protagonist in this little tale then left the military. But not, for lack of a better term, special ops. Only his employers changed. Private, rather than military. His methods? Well, let’s just say the military—his gypsy family, too—trained him well.”
Still, Cain remained silent.
“Then, there’s another tale. Child sold to an itinerant family. By her alcoholic, half- Cherokee mother. Smart, precocious. Family disrupted when their past caught up to them. Orphanage, adoption, also military. Intelligence, PsyOps, CIA. Our heroine proved quite adept at running off-the-grid ops. The kind that could slam you in front of a Senate subcommittee.” He gave a half shrug. “Then, a chance reunion. In a hell hole.”
Cain wasn’t really surprised that Kessler knew his background in intimate detail. They had a history. Kessler had run several of Cain’s missions. But Harper? Kessler didn’t know her. No military connection. Yet, Kessler had gone deep.
“So, let’s get down to it,” Kessler said. “I know—I can feel it in my bones, and my bones are always right—that I will never see Cindy alive again.” Another glance toward the door. “I know that for a fact. She didn’t run off somewhere. Forget to call. This isn’t money driven. Not a ransom. This is something much worse. More final.”
“Are you sure we’re the right people for the job?” Cain asked.
Kessler leaned forward, his fists balled on his desk before him. “We’re soldiers. Each of us. Trained to do the tough jobs. The ones no one else will do.” He locked on Cain. “I know about Afghanistan. I know about the ones that killed your family in Tyler, Texas.” Now, his attention turned to Harper. “I know about deeply secret CIA ops. Most well below the threshold of visibility. I know much of the work you’ve done together over the past few years.” His fists relaxed. “So, yes, you’re the ones for this mission.”
Mission? Interesting word choice. But not unexpected coming from Kessler.
Cain nodded. “What do you want us to do?”
Kessler’s blue eyes took on an extra intensity. “This is a military operation. A war, if you will. One where we, not the enemy, dictate the rules of engagement. You know me. Know I’m more of the General George S. Patton school. Stonewall Jackson, too. Never wait. Take the battle to the enemy. I want Cindy found. Dead, alive, whatever, I want her found. I want those who took her to feel the full weight of their actions. If she’s been harmed, I want those responsible harmed. If she’s been tortured, then pain and mortal fear should come their way. If she’s been murdered, I want them to suffer a similar fate.” His face darkened. “That’s what I want.”