The Doll – Excerpt


The Doll by Taylor Stevens

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“A heroine every bit as provocative as Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.” –The Dallas Morning News

Haunted by a life of violence and as proficient with languages as she is with knives, Vanessa Michael Munroe, chameleon and hunter, has built her life on a reputation for getting things done—dangerous and often not-quite-legal things. Born to missionary parents in lawless Africa, taken under the tutelage of gunrunners, and tortured by one of the jungle’s most brutal men, Munroe was forced to do whatever it took to stay alive.
The ability to survive, fight, adapt, and blend has since taken her across the globe on behalf of corporations, heads of state, and the few private clients who can afford her unique brand of expertise, and these abilities have made her enemies.
On a busy Dallas street, Munroe is kidnapped by an unseen opponent and thrust into an underground world where women and girls are merchandise and a shadowy figure known as The Doll Maker controls her every move. While trusted friends race to unravel where she is and why she was taken, everything pivots on one simple choice: Munroe must use her unique set of skills to deliver a high-profile young woman into the same nightmare that she once endured, or condemn to torture and certain death the one person she loves above all else.
Driven by the violence that has made her what she is, cut off from help, and with attempts to escape predicted and prevented, Munroe will hunt for openings, for solutions, and a way to strike back at a man who holds all the cards. Because only one thing is certain: she cannot save everyone.
In this high-octane thriller for fans of Lee Child, Stieg Larsson, and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy, Vanessa Michael Munroe will have to fight fast, smart and furiously to overcome a dangerous nemesis and deliver her trademark brand of justice.




Dallas, Texas

Palms to the glass, watching the lot from his office window, Miles Bradford saw her topple. The fall was a slow-motion sort of thing, the type of tilt and drop that made him hesitate, unsure for a long second whether to laugh or worry. He held his breath, urging her up. Any second now, knowing he was there, she’d turn toward the building and wave. They’d laugh about it later.

But she didn’t move. Made no attempt to edge out from beneath the motorcycle that pinned her leg to the pavement. Didn’t even raise her head.

Seeing though not understanding, moving as if treading water, Bradford backed away from the window. Then turned and bolted out of the office, down the hall, and past reception. Bypassed the elevators for the stairs, took the five floors at a run, and emerged from the stairwell into the lobby, where he pushed through the big glass doors only to find an ambulance blocking the northern lot access and Munroe on a stretcher, being lifted into its interior.

Bradford yelled, swung his arms to attract the attention of the paramedics so they would wait a moment longer, and allow him time to get across the lot so he could ride with her. But they never turned, never looked. The stretcher slid inward, the doors shut, and Bradford ran again, racing the distance, arriving seconds too late.

The ambulance, siren blaring, pulled out onto the service road.

The Ducati lay on its side, shoved slightly from where she’d been pulled from underneath, engine off and keys still in the ignition. He stooped and heaved the bike upright. Straddled the machine, hit neutral with his foot, punched his thumb into the starter button, and compressed the clutch handle only to find that the impact with the pavement had snapped it off.

He swore and stared in the direction the ambulance had traveled, frustrated and motionless, catching his breath, processing, while the wail faded and traffic began to flow again. Had he run directly for a car instead of the ambulance, he might have had a chance to chase it down, but he was too late for that now. Bradford glanced back toward the building, where the small crowd of onlookers had already begun to disperse.

Two decades of working in the line of fire, of watching his back and chasing images from shadows, and he still had the tendency to think like a civilian on his home turf. What were the odds that one of the people on the ground floor had made the call and an ambulance had been close by? Not impossible, but not highly likely, either.

Bradford dismounted and rolled the Ducati to the garage, to the out-of-the-way nook Munroe typically stashed it, and then jogged back to the lobby with the mental tape of her fall playing inside his head. Watched her jerk and then glance down, saw her pause and the way her left hand had wandered over her thigh, the long hesitation before she slumped and toppled. Hers weren’t the motions–the sudden drop, the collapse–of someone passing out.

At the elevator he jammed a finger into the up arrow and ran through a list of possible alternatives–allergies, medical conditions, recent sicknesses–and drew one blank after another.

By the time Bradford returned to his floor, he’d gone through the replay a dozen times, more frustrated with each rewind. He pushed through the wide doors that separated Capstone Security Consulting from the hallway, crossed the plush reception area with its rich furnishings and oversize logo–corporate tokens that implied something other than the blood-and-guts outfit beyond the wood-paneled wall–and came to a full stop at the reception desk and Samantha Walker who sat behind it.

She stared up at him with her big brown eyes and the same give me the sitrep look she always got when his stress level soared. “What the hell was that all about?” she said. “You look like death paid a visit. Talk to me.”

Bradford ignored her with a vacant half-smile and leaned across the desk for the Post-it stack. What else could he do? Tell her that based on his gut and a ten-second memory loop that wouldn’t stop, he was pretty sure the woman he loved had just been tranqued and shoved into an ambulance?

He scribbled the few digits he’d caught off the plates when the vehicle had peeled out onto the service road and, with eyes still on the pad, said, “Where’s the closest emergency room?”

“Medical City and Parkland.”

“Call them, will you? Find out if Michael’s there?”

She gave him that look again, then reached for the mouse and her monitor came alive. “Am I calling about Michael or some other name?” she asked.

“Michael,” he said. Because unless Munroe was working, that’s who her ID said she was, but the inquiry sent his mind bolting in two directions, and while Walker searched for numbers, he forced thought fragments and scattered images into a coherent question: He’d watched Vanessa Michael Munroe being lifted into the ambulance, but to those who’d done the lifting, was it Michael they’d taken or another of her incarnations?

He struggled to draw from the ether some sense of why, of who would have had the means and motive to put her into that ambulance, and, more important, how she’d been traced. Munroe had surely made enemies in her life, trading secrets and buying souls, but she’d worked with disguises and aliases, had stayed away from home for so many years, that there were few who knew who she truly was or how to find her.

Walker cleared her throat, picked up the phone, and gave Bradford a decided stare that said she’d make the calls but not while he stood there listening and micromanaging.

He moved to get out of her way, swiped a key card through a scanner.

A segment of wall to the right of the desk clicked open a sliver. Bradford pushed against it and stepped through. Beyond the paneling, the interior hallways and facing walls were glass, with privacy blinds kept open, giving the entire floor a sense of light and space. He moved past the offices to what most businesses would consider a conference area but which was to Capstone the war room, the nerve center, the place from which the business tendrils reached out for thousands of miles to support and supply the private security gigs running at any given time.

There was no door, only a frame where one used to be, and at one of the desks facing a wall of oversize monitors, Paul Jahan swiveled away from a keyboard.

Bradford nodded, said, “Hey, Jack,” and handed him the Post-it. “Dallas Fire-Rescue plates. Can you run them?”

Jahan took the purple square with its three handwritten digits, gave it a look, and then stuck it to the nearest monitor. “Give me a minute,” he said. “I’ll see what I can get.”

In the ensuing silence, Bradford strode to the marked-up whiteboards that functioned on the right wall as the monitors did on the left. He followed the note changes, minor updates on the two-man team in Peshawar, but read them without really seeing. His mind was elsewhere, still running, still torn in the two directions Walker’s innocuous question about Munroe’s identity had sent him.

Having nothing to answer the first, he shifted to the second: If something happened to Munroe, Logan’s number was the emergency contact in her wallet. No first name, no last name, just Logan. He was her surrogate brother, soul mate, partner in crime, the man whose history was nearly as convoluted as her own and who guarded her back as fiercely as she guarded his.

Bradford checked his watch. Checked his phone. Ten minutes, if that, since he’d watched Munroe take the bike down with her fall. Still early if he meant to start tracking, but that didn’t matter. He pulled from speed dial the number known to few, the phone Logan always carried and almost certainly answered.

Called and was sent directly to voice mail.

Bradford hung up without leaving a message.

Thumbed through the contacts for Tabitha, Munroe’s eldest sister, hit call, and then ended it before the dialing began. No one in Munroe’s family had any idea of the life she led off the grid and she took care to shield them and leave nothing that would trace back to them. It was still too soon for this kind of call, and he wasn’t ready to step into the resulting quagmire of explanations if Tabitha should happen to pick up. Needed to script a plausible cover story first.

From across the room Jahan said, “Looks like those digits belong to valid Fire-Rescue plates. I can’t say for sure with only half of them, but they seem to check out.”

Bradford turned from the whiteboard wall. “Is it a stolen -vehicle?”

“Not that I’m showing, although it might not have been reported yet.”

“What about a trace on the GPS? Can we figure out where the ambulance ended up, maybe where it’s been?”

Jahan swiveled his chair around to face Bradford and then shifted a couple of inches to the right, then left, and back again in a maddening fidget. “I might be able to do that,” he said, and stopped. “When do you plan to let us know what’s going on?”

Bradford sighed. Walked to the nearest blank spot on the whiteboards, picked up a red marker, and drew the beginning of a diagram. Wrote: Michael–passed out or taken down?

He turned. “That’s all I’ve got.”

Jahan’s mouth opened for a full second before he spoke. “You’ve gotta be kidding.” And a beat later: “What did you see?”

“Not enough.”

Jahan’s index finger moved toward the whiteboard. “But enough for that?”

Bradford’s posture sagged and he glanced again at the diagram.

Given Munroe’s lifestyle, it was more than enough, but there was nothing he could point to for confirmation. The nine months since the infiltration in Argentina had been quiet, her initial week in Dallas had turned into months, the occasional overnight stay at his place lengthening into more, until she, who had no home of her own, gradually grew comfortable in his. He’d offered her security contracts as a way to delay the inevitability of her leaving, but they’d been small and relatively inconsequential–the longest had been a month in Abuja, Nigeria, which had evolved into an adult baby-sitting gig–definitely nothing to write home about, nothing he could connect to today.

The intercom crackled. Walker said, “I’ve got a Michael Munroe at the emergency room at Medical City.”

Jahan raised his eyebrows; Bradford shook his head.

“It’s too soon,” he said.

Jahan’s head tilt was subtle, an acknowledgment of trust rather than agreement. Bradford reached for the key rack, lifted off a set, and moved toward the door space. “Keep an ear for the phones, will you? I’m closing down the front and taking Sam with me.”

Bradford and Walker took the elevator down to the ground floor and crossed to the parking garage, to an Explorer, one of three -vehicles Capstone kept on hand. Bradford got in behind the wheel. Walker slid into the passenger seat, buckled up, and kept her focus beyond the windshield, biting back, he knew, questions she wouldn’t ask.

Her silence now was part of the same dance of avoidance that had descended on most of the team when Munroe had first come onboard. Suspicions of preferential treatment tainted the waters. Bradford had brought Munroe into the company, it was no secret that he was sleeping with her, and he’d already dropped everything once before to watch her back. Until proven otherwise, this little jaunt to the hospital was Bradford’s overly paranoid, overly protective private mission, and as such, a waste of company resources.

The emergency room at Medical City, like most emergency rooms, was harshly lit and filled with depression. Seating took up the bulk of the waiting area. The next-of-kin story got Bradford and Walker beyond the wide swinging doors that divided the helpless from the helped and into the hallway, where the smell of antiseptic filled the air and the glare of fluorescent tubing illuminated nothing Bradford wanted to see and everything he didn’t.

He found the room and passed through the curtained entry, only to back out as quickly as he’d gone in.

Walker, close behind, nearly collided with him in the process. She jumped sideways to avoid impact.

“What the hell?” she said, and when his only response was to search out the room number again, she gave him that look and continued past.

The room held one bed, an assortment of medical equipment, and a small space to move about. Bradford joined Walker beside the bed, where, expression clouded over, she stared down at a stranger, bloodied, stitched up, and doped.

“You want me to check with the nurses?” she whispered. “Find out if there’s been some mistake?”

Bradford drew the curtain fully around, and motioned for her to keep watch. Belongings lay to the side of the bed and he searched through them, rifling through clothing, shoes, and purse until he found a wallet.

Munroe’s wallet.

There was nothing else to indicate who this person was–no notebook or gadgets, no phone or identifying items. Only the folded leather that had, until this morning, been in Munroe’s back pocket. Bradford flipped through it and pulled out the ID, turning it toward Walker long enough for her to get a good look, then nodded his head toward the exit.

She turned and left.

He continued past the driver’s license and credit cards, which were still there, searching for the emergency numbers and the cash, which should have also been there but were not. Bradford pocketed the wallet, lifted the sheets slightly to see what lay underneath–a violation of privacy to whoever was in that bed, but he needed to confirm what he already suspected–and then having done so, slipped out.

Walker waited for him at the Explorer, arms crossed and leaning against the hood, and when he was within hearing distance she straightened and said, “The woman was brought in at about ten-twenty this morning. Michael didn’t leave till eleven-thirty. The timing doesn’t work.”

“Except Michael got to the office around ten,” he said. “The timing works if they were waiting for her to arrive, if they knew they’d get her on her way out.”

“They’d have to be watching your place,” Walker said.

“Maybe they are.”

Bradford opened the doors and slid in behind the wheel, a hundred questions charging through his head, all of them superseded by guilt. Munroe would never have been found if she hadn’t been in Dallas, and she’d stayed in Dallas for him.

Excerpted from The Doll by Taylor Stevens. Copyright © 2013 by Taylor Stevens

About Misty

Your friendly neighborhood narcissist. I'm sarcastic, cynical and a bit cranky. I own a soap box so big that sometimes I have difficulty stepping down off of it, and I'm about 94% certain I have multiple personalities. I don't sleep enough, and I read more than any person should ever consider normal. I have anger management issues, especially when I'm stuck in traffic and I have an unhealthy obsession with my Kindle. I am a vampire lovin', zombie obsessed, book-in-hand, iPod freak. You either love me or hate me. You be the judge.