HARD TO KILL: Cape Charade Short Story #1

Description

When Army Captain Kellen Adams receives a job offer that sounds too good to be true, she finds herself balanced between fascination and fear. All she has to do is break a code and find a long lost treasure…or die trying.

New York Times Bestseller Christina Dodd kicks off her Cape Charade suspense series with HARD TO KILL,
a short story of treasure, treachery…and murder.

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Excerpt

Captain Kellen Adams reviewed the job posting for a Washington state resort called Yearning Sands. There was a photo of the hotel, and it looked like something out of a postcard. The pristine blue of the Pacific Ocean offered a gorgeous contrast to the resort itself — the main building looked like a German castle and the cottages on the outskirts of the resort were the definition of rustic. Kellen was excited to see that there were running paths that wandered across the resort, and a beautiful, albeit chilly looking, beach reserved for resort guests.

She reflected that being the assistant manager of a resort that size wouldn’t be a picnic. The security alone must be very intricate to keep track of all those rich folks and their baubles. She couldn’t imagine anything less like the Army.

The job description was honest, it seemed. While the pictures showed the resort in brilliant sunlight, the posting was quick to point out that this was the Pacific Northwest, and applicants should be prepared for inclement weather to be the norm. Rain, winds, fog and occasionally snow would sweep in off the ocean, and getting a little wet and sometimes even muddy was expected of every employee.

Kellen smiled. She didn’t mind a little mud, and after her time in Kuwait, she could use a nice rain shower.

As Kellen pondered whether applying for the position was even a good idea, Major Brock Aimes entered the room at his usual breakneck speed.

Major Brock Aimes. Male. White. 32 years of age. 6’ 1”, 185 lbs. Brown hair, blue eyes. Aide-de-camp to General Lawrence Slater. Purple Heart for injury sustained in Afghanistan. Have to see the scar to believe it. Toady. Suck-up.

Since Kellen had arrived on the German Army base, she had met Major Aimes once. He had once stopped speed walking long enough to hold a brief conversation. Mostly his name, position on base, and a quick welcome designed to impress her. Her kneejerk reaction: Maybe General Slater kept his aide that busy, but Aimes seemed to her to be one of those guys who moved quickly to give the impression of going somewhere.

Kellen stood at attention and saluted. Aimes responded in kind before saying, “Captain Adams, General Slater would like to see you.”

Not only he did walk too fast, the man sounded like he had a stick up his butt.

When she didn’t move, he added, “Now.”

“Of course. Lead the way, please, Major.”

As she followed Aimes through the brightly lit hallways, she admitted to herself that she was intrigued by the General’s request. She had worked with the general in Afghanistan. He was a good officer, followed the letter of the law and Army regulations in a way that respected both the United States government and each of the soldiers under his command. She remembered him curt, calm and distant, but then again, those mountains, the biting cold, the constant guerilla activity would get to anyone after a while.

Afghanistan had tested her, too.

He never took advantage of his power, either. One of the reasons Kellen remembered him so clearly was that he acted quickly but never rashly. He had the final say in troop movements and tactics, but he knew the particular talents and knowledge of each of his soldiers and was always willing to consult with them. He would ask the kid from Idaho how best to deal with fighting in desert conditions, then he would pick the brain of the soldier with a background as a car mechanic before determining the timeline for fixing a broken Humvee. He was beloved by his troops and, even covered in dust and sweat, a good-looking man.

But why would he want to see her?

She didn’t have to wait long to find out. Major Aimes practically pushed her into the general’s office and as she passed the threshold, he grabbed the heavy door and closed it softly but firmly.

General Lawrence Slater. Male. White. 6’, 170 lbs. Square jaw line, broad shoulders, full head of salt and pepper hair. Gray eyes. 54 years old. Widowed. No children. Career military; three stars.

As Kellen saluted General Slater, she surveyed the room. His office was harshly lit with plenty of fluorescent bulbs above and piercing sunshine from the open windows. There were stacks of papers on his desk, each with a heavy object — stapler, tape dispenser, desk clock — holding them down against the wind coming in the window.

General Slater answered her unasked question. “I always request an office on an outside wall. After all that time in the field, I need fresh air.”

Kellen nodded crisply. “Yes, sir. Good idea, sir.”

“Sit down, Captain. I’ve got a proposition for you,” Slater said, flicking his hand at one of two stiff-backed chairs that looked like they’d been commissioned from the cafeteria. Kellen sat in the nearest seat, her back straight, her hands held gently in her lap.

Slater scrutinized her. He made her nervous, as if she was on display. As if he was assessing her in some way she could not define.

“One of my soldiers, a corporal, showed me something I thought you could help me with, Captain. What do you know about the Monuments Men?”

Kellen wrinkled her brow. What a strange question. Where was this going?

“Sir, I know the basics. During World War II, a group of art historians and archivists were commissioned to recover the art and artifacts the Nazis had stolen from the countries they conquered. I believe the idea was to save those objects and return them to their original owners, if possible.”

General Slater smiled slightly. “That is, indeed, the basics, Captain.” From one of the stacks on his desk, he produced a small, leather-bound book, cracked with age. “What do you make of this?”

Kellen leaned forward to take the proffered book and flipped through the first few pages. They were beautiful. The lettering looked almost medieval. It was an illuminated manuscript – each new section started with a hand painted miniature. But the sentences (if that’s what they even were) made no sense. Shaking her head, Kellen said, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what to make of it. It appears to be in code.”

Slater leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. If the General had had a mustache, she would have expected him to start stroking it like a Bond villain. A very handsome Bond villain. “That’s right. A nearly unbreakable code at that. Let me back up. Almost year ago, one of my soldiers, Corporal Benjamin Roy, showed me this book of code. He told me that his great-grandfather, Chester Roy, fought in World War II and was chosen as one of the famous Monuments Men. As the story goes, Chester worked around Europe retrieving precious works of art, and when he got to Germany, he found a cave.“

“A cave?“ She leaned forward, her interest caught.

“Right. Corporal Roy wasn’t sure about everything his great-grandfather found in that cave, but one thing was notable — a famous painting stolen by the Nazis and hidden deep inside for safekeeping. Are you with me, Captain?”

Kellen thought he might honestly be pulling her leg with this fantastical tale. Warily, she said, “Yes, sir. I’m with you.”

“Good. At the time, Chester Roy couldn’t extract the painting — the war was ongoing at this point and the chances of the painting getting blown up outside of the cave are greater than if it remained concealed inside the cave. He and his men decided to hide the entrance to the cave.“

Kellen looked at the leather-bought book in her hand. If she was understanding General Slater correctly, he was inviting her on a treasure hunt.

“Over the next few months, the Monuments Men had a rough time, and nearly everyone who knew the location of the cave was killed, including Chester Roy. Corporal Roy says his great-grandmother received that book among her husband’s possessions at time of death.” General Slater paused in his story.

Kellen opened the book again, ran her fingers over the writing. “Sir, are you saying that this book contains the location of a treasure cave?”

“According to his widow, yes. She died of Alzheimer’s a few years back, and one of the things she said on her deathbed was that her husband was a ‘treasure hunter’ and he ‘found a priceless painting in a cave in Germany.’ He must have written her a letter at the time…”

Kellen shook her head. “He wouldn’t send his wife that type of classified information. She had to have cracked his code.”

“Exactly what we thought,” Slater nodded approvingly. “But she’s the only one who did.”

“Sir?”

“Corporal Roy came to me with this diary because no one in his family can figure out what it says. They’ve asked for help from professional code breakers with no luck. Not even the computers are up for the task.“

“How did Mrs. Roy manage it?“ Kellen asked.

“Ah. It seems Mr. and Mrs. Roy met in Washington D.C. where she was a secret code-breaker for the war effort.“

“Wow. That’s spectacular!“

Slater smiled a rare smile. “Yes. Very romantic.“

Romantic. She leaned away, turned her eyes back to the book.

Slater wasn’t charming. Not like Gregory. But he was older, handsome, powerful, a man to be reckoned with. She had admired his leadership in Afghanistan, but with Gregory, she had proved she couldn’t trust her own judgment.

Without pause, Slater continued, “The corporal needs help with this diary — he’s very firm on needing to find that painting and restore it to the descendants of its original owners or the museum from which it was stolen. I suppose you’d call it the kid’s quest.”

Kellen looked up.

General Slater seemed to be oblivious to her discomfort.

Get a grip, Kellen. He said the word, “romantic,“ and he smiled. It didn’t mean he was interested in her.

He looked at her straight on, his flinty grey eyes snapping with excitement. “That’s where you come in, Captain. I know about your particular prowess with codes and maps and details. I know the kids in your unit have always believed you’re lucky and can’t die. I need your help with this.”

“You’re asking me to crack the code in this book. Sir, this isn’t something I’ve ever done before. I’m not Mrs. Roy. I have no training. And—“ she rotated her shoulder — “I’m in no shape to dig.“

“Young woman, I’m a general.“ His voice held the snap of a man who had long been in command. “You’re a captain and would be the code-breaker. You won’t be required to dig. Aimes will hire help for that.“

She laid the rest of her cards on the table. “I’m also in no shape to fight, or dodge bullets. A treasure hunt is, by definition, dangerous.“

“Perhaps. If we told people what we were doing. I’ve had this journal in my possession for eleven months, looking for the proper person to break the code. Today I’ve told you. Should you accept, I’ll tell Aimes. I’ve proved I can be discreet. Let us assume both of you have the same ability, and that we won’t be hunted through some German forest by some Nazi ghost army seeking vengeance.“

Kellen inclined her head.

“Before you tell me why you can’t do it, let me tell you why you can.” He ticked the reasons off on his fingers. “You have the security clearance to dig into the files and get into Roy’s mind. You don’t have a home to go back to. Your enlistment papers are pretty clear on that point since your next of kin are listed as N/A.“

So far, he wasn’t selling her.

“There’s a reward to be had — the Victoria and Albert Museum is offering a substantial reward in exchange for the rights to display the work for the first two years after it’s found, provided it’s not provably the property of another museum.“

“Substantial reward?“ Now he had her attention.

“Substantial,“ he said firmly. “They worked those terms out with the family — who knows how much they’re being offered. But for us, the reward will be split 50/50. You get half and Benjamin Roy and his family get the other half, because you’re our best chance of breaking this code.”

Kellen was speechless. Not only did he know an eerie amount about her, but he also wanted to turn her into Indiana Jones.

Still, he was right. She didn’t really have anywhere else to go.

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