Read The Gatekeeper Online

Authors: Michelle Gagnon

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General

The Gatekeeper

Praise for
MICHELLE GAGNON

“Boneyard
is a winner!
A compelling page-turner that pays due attention to the human heart. It’ll keep you up all night.”

—Jeffery Deaver,
New York Times
bestselling author

“A stellar work of mounting suspense and terror. Ritual murder, ancient magic and buried secrets all blend seamlessly in this debut mystery by a major new talent. Not to be missed!”

—James Rollins,
New York Times
bestselling author,
on
The Tunnels

“I defy anyone to read the first chapter of
Boneyard
and put the book down. With a cast of deftly drawn characters and a beautifully resonant setting,
Boneyard
is pure reading pleasure-creepy, terrifying and utterly believable. I recommend it with great enthusiasm.”

—Douglas Preston,
New York Times
bestselling author

“The Tunnels
starts out scary and only gets worse, or—if you like frightening thrillers—better. Michelle Gagnon is a fresh and confident new voice in crime fiction. An auspicious debut.”

—John Lescroart,
New York Times
bestselling author

“Gagnon’s plot is fast-paced, appropriately detailed in its forensic depictions, and reveals an attention to authentic FBI detection procedures that lets the reader know that the author has done her homework…an engaging and quick read.”

—Library Journal
on
Boneyard

“Michelle Gagnon’s stellar debut is an edge-of-your-seat story of suspense and intrigue. With a deftly crafted plot and a winning protagonist, Gagnon spins a fast-moving yarn that is certain to keep you up late. We will hear more from this talented newcomer. Highly recommended.”

—Sheldon Siegel,
New York Times
bestselling author,
on
The Tunnels

“Michelle Gagnon has written a tremendously fine debut novel that’s as dark, twisty, and thrilling as the tunnels she so hauntingly describes therein. Expect to sleep with the lights on for at least a week after you’ve relished the final page.”

—Cornelia Read, author of
The Crazy School,
on
The Tunnels

“A great read. Scarily good.
The Tunnels
takes you into some very dark places, as a bright new talent takes on old-world horrors and scares the living daylights out of you. It’s
The Wicker Man
meets
Silence of the Lambs.”

—Tony Broadbent, author of
The Smoke
and
Spectres in the Smoke

“A fast-paced novel that taps into primal fears as it unfolds in real tunnels as well as in the labyrinth of the human mind. Things go down fast, decisions have to be made, and Michelle Gagnon has written characters who are up to it. Don’t read this one when you’re alone in the house.”

—Kirk Russell, author of
Deadgame,
on
The Tunnels

MICHELLE GAGNON
THE GATEKEEPER

For Kate

“Invictus”
(Unconquered)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

—William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

JUNE 25
One

M
adison Grant leaned over the sink, careful not to get her jeans wet as she applied another coat of gloss. She rubbed her lips together, smacked them once, then dabbed the excess with her fingertip. She examined the resulting pink sheen critically—perfect. Stepping back, she tossed the wand into her purse. It was actually her sister’s knockoff Fendi. Bree would totally flip when she realized it was gone. Hopefully that would distract her from checking for other things that had gone missing, like her driver’s license and social security card. Of course by that time the shit would have hit the fan anyway. Their mom would be so freaked out that Bree’s complaints about a stolen purse would fall on deaf ears. At least that’s what Madison was hoping.

She shrugged on the purse and grabbed the handle of her carry-on. It was their fault for basically ignoring her. Ever since the divorce, Dad was only a voice on the phone, and Mom spent most of the day in her room, shades drawn. And Bree was so busy with her friends, she barely bothered to talk to Madison. No, the only person who really cared about her now was Shane.

Madison flushed at the thought of him. They’d only known each other a few weeks, but she could already tell this was it, her one true love. They’d met online and instantly hit it off. She lived for the sweet texts he sent while she sat in class, bored out of her skull. They had these long, intense IM sessions where they talked about everything: what they wanted to be when they grew up, what their families were like. He was the only person Madison had confided in about how shitty things had gotten since the divorce, how awful it was to be dumped in a new city across the country, how she hated school and everyone in it.

Shane was older, nineteen, in his first year of college at San Francisco State. But he said the age difference didn’t matter since girls were more mature, and he was totally right. Madison was a lot older than sixteen in her mind. And with Bree’s license and social security card, she could get a job. Shane had offered to let her crash with him for as long as she needed to. He hinted that since they’d be spending the rest of their lives together anyway, they might as well get started. When he sent the plane ticket she got so excited, dancing around her bedroom. Then she swiped some of the cash her mom hid around the house and lied about staying with a friend for the weekend. That gave her a few days before they’d realize she was missing. And now she had finally arrived.

It was hard to believe she was about to meet Shane in person. It was going to be perfect, just like in the movies. They’d kiss, he’d look into her eyes and tell her he loved her. She’d work at a cool café in the city while he finished school. Maybe she’d take some classes herself, then eventually they’d get married. They’d have two kids, a boy named Max and a girl named Penelope. Someday she might even call her parents to tell them what a great job
she’d done with her life. They’d forgive her for leaving, and everything would turn out the way it should have been all along.

On the other side of the security gate, a guy wearing a cap held a sign that read GRANT. Madison’s jaw almost dropped. Shane must have some serious cash—first the plane ticket, now a limo? Maybe his family was rich. He was probably keeping it a secret to see if she liked him for who hewas, like in that movie where the prince pretended to be a normal guy. Which was silly, she’d love Shane even if he was totally poor. But she had to admit, the thought of living in a huge house was definitely appealing. Better yet she might not have to get a job, she could just hang out all day. Madison repressed a giggle, trying to look serious and adult as she approached the driver.

“Hi. Are you here for me?”

The chauffeur eyed her, and she drew herself up to her full five-seven. “Madison Grant?”

“Yeah. I mean, yes, that’s me.”

The chauffeur motioned for her bag. She followed him to a Lincoln Town Car. He popped the trunk, tucked the suitcase inside, then opened the passenger door. Madison climbed in, impressed by the plush surroundings. There was even a bottle of sparkling water in the cup caddy. She unscrewed the cap and took a swig, then belted herself in. The car eased into the steady stream of traffic leaving the terminal, and Madison settled back against the seat.

“You know where we’re going, right?” she asked after a minute.

The driver didn’t turn his head, just nodded.

Madison was self-conscious. She’d never been in a limo before, but thought there was supposed to be one of those panels between them. Without one, she felt obligated to make small talk.

“So where are you from?” She asked after a short pause.

The driver didn’t respond, and she figured his English wasn’t very good. He looked Russian, at least around the eyes. Madison sipped more of the water. It had a funny metallic aftertaste, probably because it was from France. Her eyelids drooped. The flight had only been six hours, but she’d spent the whole time amped up in what Dad called her “condensed matter” state. It wouldn’t hurt to take a little nap, she decided. After all, she didn’t want to be sleepy the first time she met Shane.

 

When she awoke it was dark. Madison felt drowsy, disoriented. She wasn’t in the car anymore, and wondered if they’d arrived and the driver hadn’t bothered waking her. If she had been asleep when Shane first saw her that would be totally embarrassing, she realized, mortification jolting her from a stupor. She was on some sort of bed, there was a rough blanket beneath her. Was she in his dorm room? She stood and felt her way across. It was pitch-black, cold, and she shivered in her light sweater. Shane had warned her to pack layers, but she’d wanted to look cute so she’d kept her fleece jacket in her suitcase. She groped until she reached the wall. It was freezing and felt like metal. She rapped on it once, tentatively, then worked her way along it to a door. There was a handle but it was huge, also metal, and didn’t respond to her tugs. Madison bit her lower lip, experiencing a tremor of fear. Something was seriously wrong.

“Shane?” She called out hesitantly. Her voice sounded squeaky. She tried to inject more assurance as she repeated, “Hey, Shane, are you out there? I think I’m stuck!”

There was no response. Madison felt a tear trickle down her face, followed quickly by another. As she slid
to the floor and clasped her knees to her chest, she began sobbing in earnest. She was all alone, and no one even knew she was missing.

JUNE 28
Two

J
ake Riley leaned back in his chair, crossing his feet on top of his new desk. It was solid oak, and according to the antiques dealer had once belonged to George Steinbrenner. Even if that was bullshit, it was a nice desk, he decided. And the Steinbrenner story would probably impress potential clients.

His office was still filled with boxes. It had taken longer than expected to find a suitable space, commercial rents in New York were through the roof. Even with the exorbitant severance package from Jake’s previous employer, the new company would have to secure some contracts soon. But they’d made the right choice, he thought, gazing through the floor to ceiling windows. After searching the entire borough for an office with room to expand, they’d finally settled in one of the new skyscrapers jutting up around Columbus Circle. Central Park was across the street, and Jake was looking forward to eating lunch there, maybe strapping on his running shoes for a jog on slow days. Although hopefully there wouldn’t be many of those.

He ignored the needling voice that questioned the
decision to branch out on his own. Sure, Dmitri Christou had paid him well, but for the first time in his life he was his own boss. And hell, they’d be doing good work along the way. They’d decided to name the company The Longhorn Group, a nod to the fact that both he and his partner originally hailed from Texas. If Jake had his say, The Longhorn Group would quickly become the go-to company for K&R insurers.

K&R
was shorthand for “Kidnap and Ransom.” In recent years there had been a sharp uptick in the number of kidnappings of American executives abroad, some figures estimated as high as twenty percent. To secure the release of abducted employees, many companies hired private firms to either negotiate with kidnappers or, failing that, attempt a rescue. South American countries, particularly Colombia, were the most notorious for kidnappings, but plenty took place stateside. They just weren’t widely publicized, since no corporation wanted to put ideas in someone’s head. And despite the increased number of companies signing on for K&R insurance, most operatives trained in negotiation and recovery were busy working security details in the Middle East. Jake was hoping The Longhorn Group would fill that void.

Eventually Kelly might come on board, and they’d be able to work together again. It was a nice thought. Jake picked up the sole item on his desk, a framed photo of her, and gazed at it. It showed her in profile, sitting on a beach, red hair reflecting the setting sun. She always griped about the angle, but then she hated every photo of herself. He thought it captured a side of her that was usually hidden—there was a vulnerability in the way she held her knees that always got him. He set the picture back on the desk. They were officially engaged now, had been for months, but hadn’t set a date. She said work was
keeping her too busy, but he knew better. Still, he didn’t mind. She was worth waiting for.

He glanced up at a knock on his door. His new partner, Syd, stood grinning at him. Looking at her, compact in a well-tailored navy suit, every blond hair in place, you’d never guess she had single-handedly brought down one of the most dangerous terrorist cells in Yemen a few years back. Even though she was only in her mid-thirties, she’d been one of the CIA’s best operatives. Lucky for him she’d become so disenchanted with the amoral aspects of Agency work, she jumped at his offer to partner up.

“I think we’ve got something,” she said. Like him, over the years she’d managed to shed her drawl.

“Seriously?” They had just begun meeting with insurers to secure contracts. “That’s great! Did Tennant Risk Services get back to us?”

Syd plopped down on the wing chair opposite his desk. “Nope, not yet. This is a private client.” She paused a beat before continuing. “Actually, it’s kind of a favor for a friend.”

“Uh-oh. We talked about that.”

Syd sighed and wound a strand of hair around her finger. “I know, I know. But this could be a good case to build on. He’s a physicist for a lab that does Department of Defense work. It’s worth considering, anyway.”

“That sounds suspiciously like a pro bono job.”

“He’ll pay us what he can afford. Probably not much, but it’ll be something. Besides, it’ll give us a chance to double-check our operations. Kind of like the soft opening of a restaurant.”

“Uh-huh.” Jake examined her closely. “Just how good a friend is this guy?”

“That’s a long story.” Syd kicked off her heels and set her bare feet on the desk opposite his, settling back in the chair.

“No nylons?” he teased.

She tossed a paper clip at him. “That’s the main reason I’m doing this, so I won’t have to stuff my legs in sausage casings anymore.”

“Benefit of being the boss,” Jake said. In spite of himself, his eyes trailed up to where the navy hem rode above her knees. He forced his focus back up to find her grinning.

Syd wiggled her toes. “See something you like?”

“I wasn’t aware we had a dress code,” he said, gesturing to her suit. Even he could tell it was pricey, Chanel or something like it.

“One of us has to dress like a grown-up, on the off chance that a client comes calling.”

“You kidding? These are my good jeans. And I have it on authority that Bono wears the same T-shirt.”

“I’ll bet. But then, Bono isn’t exactly the first guy you call when a loved one goes missing.”

“Speaking of which.” Jake tapped his finger on the desk. “What’s the story with this guy?”

“His name’s Randall Grant. We met at a conference before I left the Agency.”

Jake frowned. “You’re dating him?”

“Dating
is a strong word. Let’s just say, we see each other when we can. Anyway, his kid got taken.”

“His kid? Sounds like an FBI case to me.”

“He can’t call the FBI. Whoever took her wants information on his work.”

“What’s he do?”

“I don’t know specifically, something high clearance. Nuclear stuff.”

Jake let out a low whistle.

“Exactly,” Syd said. “So you can see why he doesn’t want the FBI riding in and screwing things up, Ruby Ridge-style.”

Jake raised an eyebrow at her last comment. She
waved it off. “No offense. I’m sure your fiancée is great at her job. But you worked for the Bureau, you know how ass-backwards they can be. Bottom line, they care more about the secrets than the kid. And Randall doesn’t trust them with her life.”

“But he trusts us?”

Syd shrugged. “He trusts me.”

Jake examined the ceiling, considering. His gut was saying this was a bad idea, and he knew better than to question that. Getting involved in a case where you had personal ties was always a mistake. Still, it was a job, and after months of inactivity he was itching to do something besides choosing office furniture.

“Get him on the phone,” Jake finally responded.

“You sure?”

“Let’s hear what he has to say. But he’s got to give us more information, security clearance or not,” he warned her. “And the minute I get a bad feeling, we pull out. Deal?”

“Deal,” Syd said, tucking her feet back in her pumps. “You’re a prince, Jake.”

“Don’t I know it.” He grinned back at her. “Now let’s call your boyfriend.”

 

Kelly frowned as she took in the scene. Directly in front of her was a memorial to Arizona peace officers lost in the line of duty. The artist had made some interesting choices. The kneeling figure was straight out of a spaghetti western: neckerchief in place of a tie, hat in one hand, revolver at his side. The metal base he perched on jutted out into the points of a star. And on each point rested a different piece of Senator Duke Morris.

A few smears of blood marred the base, but other than that it was clean. Police tape cordoned off the area. Stairs
led from the small platform to the State Capitol building, which currently housed a museum. A sign described it as neoclassical with Spanish influences, which explained the shade of salmon rarely seen on government facilities. At the top, a copper dome was dominated by a statue called
Winged Victory
. It was a strange choice for a body dump site.

As she waited for the crime scene techs to finish, Kelly pivoted. The capitol complex was sprawling. The statue was dead center in the middle of a pavilion, surrounded by modern buildings that currently housed the seat of power. Wide concrete paths penned in browning grass and scraggly bushes, all fighting to survive the onslaught of the desert sun. Late June, and at 10:00 a.m. it was already a hundred degrees. Kelly raised her arm, wiping a bead of sweat from her brow, and wished for the umpteenth time that the FBI dress code allowed shorts.

Agent Danny Rodriguez appeared at her elbow. “They’re still canvassing, but so far no one saw anything. The locals set up a tip line for information, they’re already flooded with people blaming everyone from the president to bin Laden.”

“Great,” Kelly sighed. A high profile murder always drew the crazies. “What about cameras? State Capitol building, there should be a surveillance net.”

“You’d think so, but thanks to budget cuts security was axed. They’ve got cameras focused on the main buildings, but nothing on the plaza. Guess they figured vandals were their biggest threat.”

“They figured wrong.” Kelly squinted against the glare. A two lane road marked by a center divider faced the pavilion. On the opposite side, a park stretched off into the distance. Too much to hope for an ATM or liquor store camera nearby. “Where were the guards?”

“They got two guys, but the Diamondbacks were playing the Yankees.” Rodriguez shrugged.

“So what, they were busy watching baseball?” Kelly eyed him. She was less than thrilled with her new partner. Rodriguez was just four years out of the Academy, young to have been assigned to the elite Behavioral Science Unit. Rumor had it his career was fast-tracked after he ratted out a former partner to OPR, the FBI’s internal affairs division. And Kelly had a sneaking suspicion he’d been assigned to spy on her. Ten months earlier one of her cases had turned into a debacle, and she knew some of the Bureau higher-ups were screaming for her head. Her boss had stood by her, so far at least. Being stuck with Rodriguez reminded her she was on shaky ground.

“Hey, don’t take it out on me. I’m a Mets fan,” Rodriguez joked. He shrunk slightly under her stare. “So what next, chief?”

Kelly watched the medical examiner gingerly lift one of Morris’s legs off the base of the statue. Senator Morris was popular in Arizona, but best known outside it for his draconian ideas about immigration reform. She’d seen him on the talk show circuit last week, railing about how America’s borders needed to be closed entirely. The cop that led her past the tape mentioned that Morris had a good shot at president, then mumbled something about wetbacks before she cut him off. A man like that had probably made a few enemies over the years. And by gruesomely displaying his remains, someone was clearly sending a message.

The leg slipped from the ME’s grasp and bounced along the ground as he fumbled for it. Kelly repressed the urge to roll her eyes. “Family has already been notified, right?”

Rodriguez nodded.

“Let’s go ask them who hated the senator enough to hack him up with a machete.”

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