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Prologue and Chapter 1 & 2 of DEVIL'S GAMBIT - DEVIL'S DUE



Prologue:


The pawns had been sacrificed for the greater good of the game. Moved into play by an unseen player, confident they would remain ignorant of the role they'd performed in that deadly game. But what if those pawns were to learn how they had been used? What if the game itself took on a life of its own...?


PART ONE: OPENING MOVES
CHAPTER ONE:

Only moments before the phone call that would change so many lives, it looked like it was shaping up to be a different kind of day for Megan Águila. One of laughing and loving, of breathing freely — not the kind that would twist her gut into a knot and lay a cold blanket of fear on her chest. Only a moment before she seemed to be without a care.

With her lithe middle-aged body resisting a yoga pose, she murmured aloud to herself, "Come on, Meg, don't give up. You know you never give up."

Following her own advice, she pushed on until her face came to press against her shins in a full sun yoga position. A knife of sensation sliced through the tension in her shoulders, and a groan escaped from the place within her where torture and ecstasy met. A pure moment of relaxation, savored. Until a cloud wandered before the sun, darkening the room and breaking her concentration.

"Computer," Megan said in a crisp voice. "Living room lights, level three."
She smiled, as she sometimes did, at the schizophrenic contrasts contained in her home. That she ran a house that even the most generous might describe as “cozy,” while the more frank would merely call “a shack,” with a sophisticated voice-activated computer. But a small rundown house with a technically advanced operating system captured the essence of their lives at this point better than anything else. No question about it, she thought, life makes some unexpected moves.

She eased the pressure on her mind, allowing it to drift back to that restful place, when the quick sound of determined footsteps, accelerating toward the door, wrestled her attention away again.

"Don't slam — " Megan started to say.

Too late. Shock waves rolled through the small house. Never knows her own strength, Megan thought affectionately of her daughter, Andie.
Accepting the impossibility of uninterrupted concentration, Megan ordered the computer to play her language learning CD.

"Translation drills," a dry mechanical voice soon intoned. "Where is the hotel?"

"Onde é o hotel?" Megan translated.

"Do you have a room with two beds?" the voice asked.

"Tem um quarto com duas cartas? No, camas. Damn, I always forget that."
Megan slipped from the sun pose and assumed a shoulder stand. Just as the telephone rang.

y they'd enjoyed in their former home. Nick hadn't had time yet to hook the phone into the system there. And they couldn't afford any extra phone services, such as voice mail. It was picked up by an answering machine she'd found at a garage sale.

Megan counted the rings under her breath, as if she were calculating how long she could hold her pose before the machine took up the call. She jumped to her feet at that moment and ran to the closest extension. The language CD played on.

"I would like a quiet room," the cloying voice continued.

"Damn. Computer — stop that CD."

Megan grabbed the receiver a moment too late. When she picked up the phone, she heard the sound of her own voice saying, "You have reached the home of..."

"I'm here," Megan shouted over the message. "Sorry about that," she announced breathlessly to the caller at its completion. "What can I do for you?"

"Mrs. Águila?" a throaty male voice asked.

"Yes."

"Megan Águila?"

"Who is this?" Megan demanded, a shade coldly.

"That don't matter — just listen. We have your husband. If you want him back alive, it's gonna cost you big."

 

CHAPTER TWO:

The trick to juggling, Dallas Burton Hale always thought, was just keeping all the balls in the air. The idea that he might drop one never occurred to him. Yet when he approached the drugstore's automatic door too quickly, he confounded the mechanism, causing it to stall in his face. He stared in disbelief. He usually timed things so much better.

A young cashier who witnessed the collision apologized. Hale flashed a reflexive smile of acceptance to the boy in passing. But that moment really didn't hold his attention. His eyes had already moved on to searching the aisles of the store, while his mind remained with the conversation that had brought him there.

He should have noticed something odd from the start. Megan had grasped the phone on the first ring, then hesitated with her greeting. But Hale had just finished taping a TV talk show, and felt so high from the rush of the audience's reaction to his charismatic presence, he failed to notice.

"Hey, watsamatter? The genius oversleep?" Hale had asked. "I just called the office and they said he's not there yet. He's a working-boy now. Eight to five and no slacking off. Tell Nick if he doesn't get his ass in gear, he's living on borrowed time."

Megan gasped.

"Meg, I'm only kidding. I just called because I thought something might be wrong. Does Nick need a lift? That wreck you bought him can't have much life left in it."

Megan's cryptic response had been to give Hale a rundown of her schedule for the morning, starting with a trip to Statewide Drugs. He only barely caught the location before she hung up.

Now, as he scoured the store for her, he wrestled with a couple of reactions. On one hand, he wasn't used to being summoned for audiences with his employees' spouses. Especially not in such exotic locations, he thought with wry amusement. But he knew Megan Águila. One-upmanship was not her style. Nothing short of a crisis could have made her act as she had.

He caught up with Megan in the rear of the store, pushing a cart piled high. Seeing her finely sculpted face, framed by the soft ash blonde hair, and her trim little body in workout gear, Hale had to remind himself that she was the mother of grown children. Nick Águila had known more than his share of luck.

Megan obviously hadn't noticed Hale standing off to her side. She reached into the cart for something when he called to her.

"Megan?"

Her body visibly tightened at the sound of his voice. She turned quickly. The made-up parts of her face stood out in stark contrast to the pallid expanse of her skin. "Dallas?" she asked, her voice as taut as a wire.
It shocked him to see her so shaken. He'd known Megan Daniels for years, long before Nick Águila entered the picture. She weathered crises as well as old lighthouses. Though countless storms had hit her in the time he'd known her, the last several years especially, she always handled them better than anyone else. Until now.

"Of course, it's me. Who else did you order to meet you here?" Hale heard uncharacteristic testiness in his own voice and struggled to restore his balance.

With a rattled sigh, she said, "Sorry, Dallas. I didn't recognize you with your glasses on."

"Oh, right," he drawled. Though he'd lived in Northern California since his college days nearly twenty years before, the honeyed sounds of his Virginia roots still caressed his voice, though more at some times than others. "The makeup woman got some powder in my eye this mornin' and I had to take my contacts out."

He did look different, he had admitted to himself after catching a glimpse of himself in his rearview mirror during the drive there. Sure, his golden hair always fell perfectly into place when he raked it back with his fingers, and his smile, the stuff of toothpaste ads, still dazzled. Even his once-broken craggy nose lent its usual character, as well as serving as a reminder to never again start a fight he couldn't win. But today, it just didn't add up. Not only had a cluster of angry red capillaries scored the white part of one eye where the powder brush had hit that morning, but the absence of the emerald contact lenses left him muted somehow. His natural eye color looked so murky, like algae on the bottom of a pond.

"Dallas, what took you so long?" Megan asked in a voice about to break.
"I came as quickly as I could, darlin', but I was just outside of San Francisco when I called you. You don't want to know how many traffic snarls I muscled my way through getting back to our own Silicon Valley. But I'm here now, Meg. Whatever is wrong, I'll take care of it."

Through narrowed eyes, Megan seemed to assess the degree of his commitment and apparently found it sufficient. "Oh, Dallas, I hope you can." Her icy hands grasped his for support.

"Look, Meg, we can't talk here. Are you almost finished with your shopping?"
He looked at her cart, haphazardly filled with an odd assortment of products, some of which, like baby food, he knew she didn't need. What did she do, wander through the aisles plucking items at random from the shelves?
Megan followed his gaze to the cart and seemed surprised by the things she'd collected.

"Meg, are you finished?" Hale repeated.

"What?"

"Have you finished your shopping?" He struggled to keep his voice level. Was she trying to be obtuse?

"Oh, I don't really want these things," she snapped with brusque dismissal. "I just wanted to look natural here. This was the first place I could think of to tell you to come. But you took so long getting here."

Natural? "Well, that's just fine," Hale muttered with exaggerated patience. "Why don't you leave your car here, and we'll — "

"I didn't bring my car. I cut through the vacant lot behind the house and took a bus. I didn't want anyone to see me leave."

"Who...?"

"Anyone who might be watching," she said with distracted impatience.

Hale prided himself on his ability to roll with an endless variety of punches, but her erratic behavior unnerved him. "Better still, Megan, honey. I'll drive you back to your house."

"No! Not there. We can't talk there."

"Why not?"

"I think my house is bugged," Megan whispered after a quick glance over her shoulder.

Hale fidgeted uncomfortably, while deciding how to proceed. "That so? How did you come to that conclusion?" Despite the casual delivery, Hale could hear his own voice tightening.

"Damn you, Dallas," Megan snapped. "Don't treat me like I'm crazy. Don't you understand what I'm saying?"

He still spoke tentatively. "No, Meg, I don't."

Anger broke the strong woman he knew from her frazzled shell. "It's Nick, dammit. He's been kidnapped. Now do you understand?"

 
       
 

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