facebook twitter email
francine mathews francine mathews
author bio standalones spy novels mysteries events contact

The Secret Agent

Prologue


Blown

Rose Cottage, The Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, March 26, 1967

He had never been a man who minded the heat.

In Bangkok he disdained air conditioners and forced his houseboy to cook nightly over a charcoal brazier, the flames flickering like knives on the man's burnished skin. By day he slipped through the sweltering streets when the sun was strongest, silk suit tailored close to his lean frame. His face was deeply tanned from sitting by the pool at the Royal Sports Club, his brow furrowed from staring into the light.

They called him many things in Bangkok: the Silk King, the Boss, the Legendary American. The braver ones called him Spy and Devil. He fashioned a life from myths and lies over the course of twenty years; he bought and sold entire villages, entertained everyone who stumbled into Southeast Asia, advised ambassadors and court potentates, dried the tears of women desperate for love. They had always whispered behind his back in Bangkok and the names they called him were proxies for one word: Power. He relished this about Siam the way he loved the stench of the murky khlongs and the liquid snatch of raw silk through his fingers: Siam was ruthless, Siam cared for no man not born of the River of Kings, Siam bowed only to secrets and the power secrets held.

He was a man who could buy anything with money; but secrets were traded in blood and that was why he cherished them.

This afternoon, alone in the blessed quiet that is granted to those who remain alert while the rest of the household naps, he sat on the terrace and turned a cigarette in his restless fingers. His doctor insisted that he quit smoking—but he was past sixty now and had lost too much in recent days to give up anything by choice.

The sun was fitful and the air was chill, six thousand feet above the Malaysian coast. He shivered slightly, closed his eyes, and thought of monsoons—of moist warmth, of stones streaming with fragrance. Of skin wet and shining in the garden torchlight, her head rising like a serpent's from the filthy water of the khlong—

He discarded the cigarette in a burning arc.

He was alone at last after the fuss and clatter of Easter morning, the service at the Anglican church in Tanah Rata, the picnic later on a distant hillside. He knew that his urgency had disconcerted them—the way he hustled them through the meal, packing up plates and glasses as soon as the last morsel was consumed, shooing them back to the car without explanation. It was a sign of advancing age, this lack of courtesy; a slip in tradecraft. He was stripped raw with tension, his ears preternaturally alert, a fine beading of sweat at the hairline—he, who had never minded the heat.

Tradecraft had got him this far. It would take him no further.

He glanced at his watch. Time to rise and push back the chair, time to set off purposefully down the gravel drive toward a man he had not seen in years and might be forgiven for failing to recognize. It was his last possible chance at a meeting. He had cased the route earlier in the day, refusing the car that would have conveyed him to church, joining the others at the foot of the road that wound past the golf course. He would take nothing with him now but the briefcase brought from Bangkok—the briefcase, and every mortal lust or fear that had propelled him through two decades of life in Asia.

His eyes narrowed in the failing light. The road was deserted, the whole world asleep. He set off.

Later, they would admit that they heard him go. His footsteps, even in their dreaming ears, could be those of only one man. The girl he had brought with him from Bangkok turned restlessly in her sleep, arm lifted in a gesture akin to dancing. Her lips might have formed his name.

She slept on.


CHAPTER ONE

The Oriental Hotel in the heart of Bangkok is a name to conjure history. It recalls a time when tourists were travelers, when steamer trunks came by long-tail boat up the Chao Phraya, the River of Kings; when stoic male writers and legends of the Asian bush crawled out of the jungle to swap stories in the Bamboo Bar. Somerset Maugham almost died of fever there, in the nineteen-twenties, and Joseph Conrad tossed sleepless on a sweat-soaked cot; Hemingway ought to have seduced a legion of hard-drinking women behind the swinging shuttered doors, but apparently never did. During the Second World War the natives of Bangkok edged warily around the hotel, which had become an object of fear under the Japanese; and when Thailand capitulated to the Allies in September 1945, the Oriental turned hostel for U.S. and British officers.

They must have felt right at home, those Allied soldiers, between the French doors and the lawns running down to the swollen brown river. Orchids bloomed as profusely as English violets at the foot of the towering palms, and the whistles of the boatmen flew over the water like lark song. Under the drift of electric fans they drank deep of gin and Pimms, composing letters to women they hadn't seen in years. They imagined themselves conquerors, without having fired a shot.

This is the trick of Thailand, and of the Oriental Hotel: to make a guest feel at home without ever implying he is anything but a guest. But like all great hotels, the Oriental is a stage for public drama: it demands a decent performance from the people who walk through its doors. The right to enter history comes at considerable cost, and style is the preferred form of currency. Shorts and backpacks—those hallmarks of the indigent tourist desperate for an hour of quiet and air conditioning—are strictly forbidden in the Oriental's main lobby.

Stefani Fogg had stayed at the hotel before. She had read the dress-code notice etched politely near the revolving front door. But she was the sort of woman who rarely apologized, particularly to the hired help. And so this morning she hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder and swung her long, bare legs out of the taxi.

"Welcome back to the Oriental, Ms. Fogg," the doorman said, and bowed low over his steepled hands.

She took the spray of jasmine he offered her and raised it to her face. The scent was elusive—the essence of untimely death. She nodded to the doorman, paid off the taxi, and stalked inside.

She may have been conscious of the eyes that followed her as she crossed the spotless carpet. If so, she ignored them. She ignored the soaring windows, the comfortable chairs swathed in silk, the towering arrangements of lilies, the four employees who bowed in succession as she passed. She ignored the powerfully-built man with the gleaming black hair, who sedulously scanned his newspaper at a desk opposite the magazine kiosk, although he was the only person in the room pretending to ignore her and thus ought to have been alarming. Stefani was too tired to care. The rigid set of her shoulders and the thin line of her mouth screamed exhaustion. During the past week she had slept badly and in the previous twenty-seven hours, not at all.

"Mr. Rewadee," she said by way of greeting to the Manager of Customer Relations. The backpack slid from her shoulder to her feet.

"Ms. Fogg! Welcome back to the Oriental!"

This phrase—or variations on the theme—was a gamut she was forced to run every time she reappeared on the banks of the Chao Phraya. But she liked Rewadee, with his correct navy suit and his beautiful silk tie, his smooth, tapering fingers; so she stifled her annoyance and forced a smile, as though her clothes did not stink of mildew or her feet require washing.

The manager's plum-brown eyes crinkled at the corners. He waggled a finger at her. "You're three days past the date of your reservation. We'd almost despaired of you. We even went so far as to talk of calling New York."

"I'm sorry. I was trapped in Vietnam. A flood."

"I had no idea there was a problem. Typhoon?"

"Yes," she said abruptly. "You still have my room?"

"Of course. For you—"

Rewadee waved vaguely in the air as though to dispel doubt, or perhaps the persistent odor of damp and decay that clung to her clothing. "I shall escort you to the Garden Wing myself."

He came from behind the counter, reached delicately for her backpack, and hoisted it waist-high like a fish unaccountably snagged on his line. Stefani did not protest. The strict tension holding her upright had begun to dissolve in the jasmine-scented air, the hushed quiet of deep carpets. She followed Rewadee without a backward glance.

The powerfully-built man at the writing desk folded his newspaper carefully as he watched them go.

* * *

The rain had started during her eighth day in Vietnam, after she left the Mekong Delta behind and headed north along the coast. Before Saigon there had been Vientiane, the backcountry of Laos, and the old trade routes that once ran between Burma and Angkor Wat and were painfully being reclaimed for capitalism from the guerillas and the drug lords. It had been seven weeks exactly since her last stop in Bangkok, seven weeks of monsoon, not the best time of year to travel. Vietnam and Laos have no national weather services. Predictions are made on the basis of hope, not science. Stefani learned to judge the feel of the air against her cheek, the color of clouds in the banded sky and to guess the degree of wetness coming, as people have done for millennia. She was alternately sweating under a humid sun or pounded by cloudburst.

She was too travel-worn to worry when the rain fell in torrents just south of Hoi An. She stared out the car window at the endless fields of rice, rainwater lapping the dykes where the local peasants buried their dead, the stone monuments too solid and square among the feathery tips of green. Only one highway ran along the coast of Vietnam, a strip of macadam that uncoiled as innocently as a snare through the sudden peaks and dipping plains of the Truong Son Range. The South China Sea was creeping over the white strip of beach and encroaching upon the road; seawater licked at the hubcaps of her hired Mercedes. The car hood thrust through the small fry of pedal bikes and motor scooters like a blunt-nosed shark; enraged cyclists slammed their fists against the windows as she passed.

They pushed on from Da Nang, Stefani and her Vietnamese driver, through the water that flooded the coast road until it fanned from their fenders like a ceremonial fountain and the emerald tips of the rice paddies were entirely submerged. By the time they struggled over the Hai Van pass and descended into Hue, the ancient Vietnamese capital, it was pitch dark and the driver was swearing.

A sluggish current streamed before the reception desk at the Morin Hotel, the Century's entire ground floor was under water; and while they stood on the soggy carpet, watching the rain drip from the ceiling tiles and gush down the banisters of the grand staircase, the first refugees arrived by boat.

After that, Stefani abandoned the banks of the Perfume River and sought out the private home of a man she knew, a surgeon in the hospital in Hue, who lived on higher ground. Though it was nearly midnight, Pho was standing outside his house as she approached, his wife and four children busy on the flat roof of the single-story dwelling. They had managed to rig a tarpaulin (old US Army combat green), and most of their belongings were already piled under it. Stefani got out of the car and helped haul a basket of trussed chickens up to the roof.

Her driver dropped her pack on a plastic deck chair and wallowed down the hill in his flooded Mercedes, never to be heard from again.

"You will eat rice with us?" Pho's English was halting but thorough; at thirteen, he'd carried a gun for the South Vietnamese Army.

"I would be honored," Stefani replied.

Pho's wife boiled rainwater over a kerosene burner, and rice is what they ate for the next five days—rice and a few eggs produced by the querulous chickens, while the Perfume River engulfed the Imperial City. They were cut off on a shallow island without a boat, and the river kept rising.

That first night no one slept out of fear that even the roof would not be high enough. Pho's wife strapped her youngest child tightly against the wet skin of her breast and rocked without ceasing as she hunkered under the tarp. Stefani paced off the roofline and found that the world had dwindled to eighty square feet. By day, they watched the houses of less fortunate lowlanders sweep by on the current. Boxes, rubbish, a flotilla of dead cats. Pho's neighbors called shrilly from other rooftops, traded rumors and news and what food they had. The children squabbled and fished ineffectually for the cats. Stefani tried to make a cellular phone call and found her battery was dead. By late afternoon, boats swamped with the homeless were poling through the flooded trees.

She scanned the skies for helicopters and saw nothing but layers of cloud. The sound of rain pattering on the tin roof under her feet was slowly driving her mad. She wanted to stuff rags in her ears, to scream words above the din; she fought the impulse to dive like a rat over the side of the sinking house. No helicopters appeared. The surging current was only eighteen inches below the roofline. The rain went on.

A palm tree in Pho's front yard served as her high-water marker. When the flood began, two feet of trunk were submerged. At 2:53 a.m. on the third day, at the height of the typhoon, she shone a fitful flashlight on the swaying palm and guessed that eight more feet had vanished. Thirty-one hours later, when the river was within five inches of Pho's roof, the rain turned to drizzle and the water began to recede from the hilltop. Stefani thought of arks and of doves and of eating something other than rice boiled in rainwater. When the house's ground floor appeared thirteen hours later, she helped Pho sweep the stinking mud and three drowned chickens from his house while his wife burned incense to the river god.

That afternoon, Pho waded down to the open-air market and bought vegetables and more kerosene. Stefani went with him, sloshing through water that surged to her thighs and trying not to think of snakes. She watched shoe salesmen hose the mud out of ladies' pumps and men's sneakers; she watched hawkers sell plastic ponchos and tourists film the wreckage with baggies strapped over their video lenses. The bodies of the drowned were beginning to surface. Children sold chewing gun and the more enterprising cyclo drivers charged journalists ten bucks apiece to view the corpses.

Later, she pressed two hundred and six dollars—all the hard currency she had—into Pho's palm and pulled her backpack onto her shoulders.

She fought her way onto a public bus and traveled south at a snail's pace, back to Da Nang, the only airport within reach that possessed a jet-length runway and a connecting flight to Bangkok. The trip usually took three hours; she stifled in the bus for ten. The narrow highway was still drowned under a yard of water. To the right she spied the railway line, impassable now, whole sections of track torn off and dangling. There were rumors of passengers stranded for days in the packed train cars.

"Not your usual suite," Mr. Rewadee said now as he threw open the door, "but exactly like it in every particular. I've placed a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and several of tonic at the bar, along with some limes."

There were four rooms on two levels: a breakfast area near the pale green sofa, the bedroom and teak-lined bath up a short flight of stairs. Kumquats flushed orange in a porcelain bowl. She knew, now, that seven people could survive for days in a space eighty feet square. Maybe she should invite all of Bangkok in for a party.

"Mr. Krane has called several times," Rewadee observed delicately. "I would be happy to inform New York that you have arrived—"

"I left two suitcases with the bellman a month ago."

Mr. Rewadee bowed.

"I'd like them brought up right away. Also a cheeseburger and a beer. And could you book me a massage for this afternoon?"

One entire wall of the room was glass. Stefani tugged open the raw silk curtains, saw the long-tailed boats churning across the River of Kings—and leaned her forehead against the window. Just what she needed. A view of the water.

"Welcome back to the Oriental, Ms. Fogg." Her personal butler held out a silver tray with a glass of orange juice and a copy of the New York Times.

* * *

Stefani Fogg was thirty-nine years old. She had a slight frame that encouraged most people to think she was frail. She was a pretty woman with the face of a pixie: heart-shaped, smiling, a hint of hilarity and high living in the sharp cheekbones. Like her body, it was a face calculated to deceive. Under the fringe of jet-black curls her brown eyes were assessing and shrewd.

"Wharton School," Oliver Krane had murmured over lunch in his corporate headquarters seven months before; "and prior to that, Stanford. I can see you in California, Stef—but Philadelphia? Come on." He consulted no resume; it was his habit to remember everything. The most secure intelligence network in the world, Oliver Krane liked to say, was the human brain—provided it was properly handled. "Iconoclast. You did the Lauder Program instead of a Harvard MBA. I like that about you; you never quite run to form. You speak German, I understand? Although you're said to prefer Italian."

She shrugged. "Better wine."

"Pity you didn't work up some Russian. Or Chinese."

"But then I wouldn't be just another pretty face, Oliver."

"Balls," he'd retorted sharply. "You don't run a fund for a major investment house—and get a seventy-eight percent return over five years—with just another pretty face."

He peered at her forbiddingly through his tortoise shell glasses.

"I want you for Krane's, Stefanie, and I'm willing to bet I've an offer you won't refuse."

"That's your job, isn't it?—Predicting the level of risk?"

She had tilted her pixie face and thrown him that disarming smile; he'd stared her down. Oliver had done his homework, of course; he knew the precise extent of Stefani's personal holdings. Something under eleven million dollars in various funds; an eight-room co-op on Central Park; a summer place in Edgartown; a ski condo in Deer Valley. He would know that mere money wasn't enough to scuttle her present job. She'd had money for years and found it boring.

The walls of the small dining room were lined with cobalt blue velvet. Only one table—theirs—was placed in the center of the maple floor. The view from the fifty-fourth story was blocked by sheer silk curtains that shifted under the eye like seawater; a screen, no doubt, for Oliver's varied electronics.

He had given her sushi, tempura prepared at the table, a fan of fresh vegetables and a glass of Screaming Eagle. When she had refused a passion-fruit flan, the head of the firm leaned across the table and ticked off his points in a voice that sounded pure BBC, though it was probably born in Brixton.

"Point the First: Stefani Fogg when she's at home. Likes to describe herself as bright but shallow. Raised comfortably in Larchmont, Princeton, Menlo Park. Father a chemical researcher and large animal veterinarian. Mother rather determinedly hip. She's a clever girl, our Stef, but gun-shy where commitment is concerned. No lover, no child, not so much as a small white dog for messing the carpet with. Appears to choose men by their shirt size rather than their IQs—the odd fitness instructor or bartender, a hapless musician. In the past seven years, no relationship longer than four months.

"Frequently described by the admiring epithet of bitch. Roughly translated: she has committed all the sins available to a woman in a man's world. Restless, impatient, ruthless and ambitious. Sole weakness a reckless streak you could drive a semi through. Two hundred years ago, she'd have been burned at the stake as a witch. The girl has intelligence, of course, and courage; but if she has a soul, nobody's saying. I do not," Oliver added sternly, "consider charm to be evidence of a soul."

"Thank you," she murmured.

"Point the Second: Stefani Fogg rumored to have turned down the chairmanship of FundMarket International last year, when it was offered her on a plate. Pundits confused.

"Point the Third: Stefani Fogg supposedly in play for CFO of at least three major multinationals, none of which succeeded in bagging her. Pundits agog.

"Point the Fourth: Galileo Emerging Tech—the fund Stefani Fogg manages at FundMarket—has lost nearly sixty-seven percent of its high-market value over the past three weeks. Rumors flying within FundMarket and without: Fogg is slipping, Fogg is asleep at the wheel, Fogg may be out on her arse next Tuesday. Pundits immensely gratified."

He sat back in his seat and stared at her with satisfaction. "Missed anything?"

"Just my soul. I keep it beneath the floor of a warehouse off Canal Street." She toyed with the Screaming Eagle. "About Galileo—The tech market's volatile, Oliver. You want big returns, you run major risk. Sometimes that means short-term loss."

"And you've generally defied the odds, haven't you? So what's gone wrong this month?"

She didn't answer.

"I have a theory, old thing. I won't bother to ask whether you'd like to hear it."

"Well, you did give me lunch. I can spare you a few more minutes."

"Stefani Fogg is bored off her nut and desperate for fun," he suggested. "Galileo is sinking because she no longer gives a diddly. I could offer the girl a spot of larceny or a fast plane to a desert island, and she'd snatch them both out of my moist little palm. Any sort of diversion would do, provided it were dangerous enough. She's toyed with electronic fraud, with faking her own death, with ripping off Tiffany's in a cat suit at midnight—but the payoff is never quite worth the risk. Our Stef knows that crime, however enchanting, however seduisante, can rather get one's hair mussed. Crime carries with it a measure of annoyance. There's the enforcement chappies, of course; there are turf battles between kingpins she doesn't even know, potentates she could easily offend. There's the possibility of maiming or a sordid public death. Our Stef refuses to pay the earth for a casual fling. She's looking for bigger game. A challenge to match her peculiar wits. Am I right, dear heart? Have I hit the target bang-on?"

She had gone quite still, watching him. He was a mild-looking man in his late forties: slim, loosely-tailored in medium gray wool, his fair hair clipped short over the temples and rakishly long at the brow. The tortoise-shell glasses partially concealed intense, caramel-colored eyes. Altogether a sleek kind of cat, his tail practically twitching as he surveyed her. He had done his homework.

"So you have the antidote to boredom, Oliver. What could you possibly offer that I need or want?"

"Fun, intrigue and high jinks on six continents," he replied promptly. "A floating bank account accessible at all times for expenses that would never be questioned. Counsel from the main office whenever you want it, but no handcuffs or second-guesses or attempts to drive your car from the rear. An unwritten brief. A handful of clients. Stimulation. A direct line to my desk, night or day. Gut decisions. Unlimited spa time in exotic places. Power."

"To do what, exactly?"

"Beat crooks at their own game. Much more exciting than joining them, I always think. Spy and seduce and manipulate empires—all in the name of defending commerce. With your talent and brains, Stef, you could write your dossier."

"But why me, Oliver? Why the bitch with the lousy returns?"

"Because they'll never see you coming, darling," he answered softly. "You're a bloody great gold mine. Smart and chic and too damn bored with your own wealth to be corruptible. You'll have your teeth sunk into their jugulars before they even catch your scent." Oliver's tawny eyes flicked across her face with brutal candor. "And there's the added advantage that I can deny you, ducks. As far as the world of High Finance is concerned, we've never even traded so much as an air kiss. I'm not offering you a title and a desk with a plastic nameplate. I don't want you in New York. I want you bumming around the world on extended holiday."

"Anonymity and carte blanche," she mused. "A hire-wire act without a safety net. If I fail, I fail alone."

"Of course. Where would the challenge be, otherwise?"

A silence fell between them.

"Don't refuse me before you've had ages to think," Oliver suggested. "It wouldn't be the first time a woman's done that, I grant you—but for Stefani Fogg, I'm willing to wait."

"Until Galileo craters?"

What had he said? Charm was no evidence of a soul?

He smiled, and pressed an invisible button under the table. A waiter appeared within seconds, on soundless feet.

"You've had the glamorous turn, old thing." Oliver's voice was like a croon. "You've had the usual stiffs in the Wall Street clubs with their fast cars and limp members. Now you want to run with the wolves. Don't you? Confess it."

* * *

Krane & Associates was the foremost practitioner of a singular discipline known as risk management. The ignorant called it a security firm; the desperate called when any form of shit hit the most delicate type of fan. Krane offered all the usual security measures available to corporate clients—bodyguards, armored cars, internal surveillance and Internet monitoring. But these were mere party favors Oliver Krane tossed to the unwitting. Krane's true worth—the commodity that had got him nearly two thousand employees worldwide—was that he knew more about everything than anybody on earth. He had ears to the ground in Jakarta and Shanghai and Hampstead and Miami, he sold information to the highest bidders in Hong Kong and Manhattan. Oliver screened private jets for sophisticated bugs, gave drug tests and polygraphs to suspect employees, retrieved information from computer drives that were supposed to have been erased, and found fraud in the ledgers of the most venerable corporations.

Oliver took pictures of remote deserts from private overhead platforms. Oliver tracked arms shipments through gray networks. He could listen to lovemaking at a distance of two thousand miles, and sometimes did. Give him thirty-six hours, and Oliver Krane could detail every secret your competitors had bought from your best employees, and exactly how much they had paid for them.

His corporate motto was blunt: Krane. Because what you don't know can kill you. What he ran, in essence, was a crackerjack intelligence organization publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

He was persistent in his patience, as Stefani learned over the next few weeks. He sent her birds-of-paradise in art-glass vases with smart-ass cards that were never signed. He sent her manila envelopes full of newspaper clippings and transcripts of cellular communications and internal financial audits. He sent photographs of dubious personalities and a few cryptic leads in the research campaign she was conducting into his private life. Tidbits and come-ons and clues she couldn't resist—but he never sent them directly. They appeared on the seat of a taxi she had just flagged down, or folded into her morning paper. Once she was handed a spreadsheet with her oysters in the old bar at Grand Central Station. She knew she was being followed—surveillance was child's play for Oliver Krane—and rather than frightening, the knowledge aroused her. She liked the thought of moving under a watcher's eye. She began to dress each morning with Oliver in mind.

More importantly, she examined Krane's stock as though it were under consideration for inclusion in Galileo, measuring its performance against what risk-management competitors she could find in the marketplace. She researched the corporate hierarchy—and promotional record for female employees; gathered press pieces from online databases that recounted Krane's most sensational cases; and checked to see what litigation the company currently battled. Her final gesture was to invite an old friend from Wharton for dinner. She respected Darryl Bainbridge—he ran a private investment firm for elite clients with large sums of money. He'd hired Oliver Krane the previous year to find an electronic embezzler among his handful of brokers.

When she asked Bainbridge what he thought of Krane & Associates, he cocked his head at her knowingly. "Best kept secret in the United States, but not for long. Buy all the stock you can—and keep it for yourself."

Oliver Krane's approach was unorthodox, and in a calmer frame of mind, Stefani might have questioned why. But at the moment she was fretful and bored and ready to jump ship. Krane pursued her in the only way guaranteed to catch her interest: he titillated and teased, feinted and attacked. She began to test the city streets four times a day, smoking cigarettes she didn't really want in the vast granite doorway of FundMarket International. Nothing she could find in the office was half so interesting as what might appear in the hands of a street vendor.

* * *

On the eleventh day following their private lunch, contact came in the form of an issue of Ski magazine and the Michelin guide to the French Alps. The section on Courchevel had been neatly marked with a hot pink Post-It note.

This one has your name all over it, ducks.

Oliver's cramped scrawl.

A downhill racer tore across the glossy magazine cover, body crouched into the fall line. Above him was a sheer headwall of black granite dusted with a filigree of white. Stefani frowned. She had skied enough—at Deer Valley and Gstaad and Kicking Horse—to know she was looking at a professional, and a rather famous one at that.

Max Roderick.

He'd won gold and a grudging respect at three different Olympics during the past two decades. He was known for hurling himself down World Cup courses with what looked like total disregard for his own neck and was in fact a calculated assault with a hairsbreadth margin of error. The press loved the way he clipped slalom gates so deliberately with his rigid shoulders and set his edges in a curve that would snap a lesser man in half. The media played up his ruthless strength and tried to crown him king. But Roderick made it clear he didn't give a damn whether the cameras followed him or not. He abandoned Beaver Creek and the US Ski Team for Austria, and trained relentlessly alone. He declined interviews. If he chased any women on either continent, he did it in places the press couldn't reach. He rarely drank and he went to bed early. Eventually the press got tired of Max Roderick—of a silence and a discipline they could not understand—and Roderick went on winning.

Stefani flipped through the magazine. A skier's skier brings his knowledge to bear on the tools of the downhill trade....Roderick was retired, now, and living in Courchevel, France, where he'd won Olympic gold at Albertville in 1992. He designed high-performance boards for a famous French manufacturer.

She stared for a moment at the shot of his face, taken in the flat gray light of February, all color leached to monochrome and the angle of bone and landscape sharper for it.

A solid chin with a cleft he probably despised. The skin tough and harsh with exposure, black hair tousled from a ski helmet. Deep creases at the corners of his eyes, the gaze direct and blue. A face that had known pain, found it irrelevant, and pushed on.

Of course the press loved him. But he was not her usual type, Max Roderick. Loners made her nervous.

...appears to choose men by their shirt size rather than their IQs...

She tossed the magazine into the trash.

Two hours later, she called Oliver Krane on his private line and demanded dinner.

* * *

Alone now in her elegant room at the Oriental, Stefani Fogg slid her filthy body into water so hot it made her wince. The first bath in nearly a week. She closed her eyes against the steam and the sharp bite of eucalyptus. And allowed herself, all her careful defenses down, to remember.


© Francine Mathews