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Cutting Loose (Steele Street) Mass Market Paperback – December 26, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Tara Janzen lives in Colorado where she is at work on her next novel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One


Friday, 2:00 P.M.-Langley, Virginia

Alejandro Campos slowed the black Mercedes to a crawl, and carefully negotiated a serpentine series of heavy gray concrete pylons leading up to the security checkpoint at the entrance to CIA Headquarters. The positioning of the barricades looked haphazard.

It wasn't.

NASA's astrodynamics lab in Huntington had designed the maze. At four miles an hour or less, traffic flowed smoothly through the pattern. Anything over four mph guaranteed smashing a quarter panel against a pylon at an angle guaranteed to put a vehicle broadside to a guaranteed line of fire from the armored guard station at the end of the serpentine.

The CIA liked their guarantees.

They liked them double-downed hard.

Peeling a couple more antacids off the roll he'd been working since Dulles, Campos gave the mirrored third-story windows in the main building a quick visual once-over. Behind the windows was another NASA-designed product, an array of computer-directed weaponry with a broad range of capabilities, from putting a bullet neatly through a single driver's eyeball to turning an armored vehicle into a smoking tangle of twisted metal, or doing anything in between, depending on the perceived threat level. In terms of firepower, the imposing guard station at street level was mostly for show, but it was a damned convincing show.

When he reached the last of the pylons, he pulled the Mercedes to a stop, popped the antacids in his mouth, and shoved the rest of the half-eaten roll back in his pocket.

Yeah, it was good to see the old place.

Sure it was.

The security officer at the checkpoint was hard and lean, about thirty-five years old, with a layer of Kevlar soft body armor just visible inside the open collar of his uniform shirt, and Campos didn't doubt for a minute that he was capable of handling most situations without third-story assistance.

Approaching the driver's window, the officer pressed a switch on his multifunction communications device. Campos knew everything that happened during the guard's contact with the vehicle, both audio and video, would be transmitted in real time to the control center's computer inside the main building.

To smooth things along, he rolled his window down to the bottom stop and deliberately placed both hands, palms open, on top of the steering wheel.

"Good morning, sir," the officer said pleasantly. "Could I see your entry authorization?"

"Certainly," Campos said, taking a business card off the dash and handing it over.

The guard entered the numeric sequence written on the back of the card into a PDA and viewed the response on the screen. He was carrying a custom single-action .45 caliber sidearm in a tactical SWS polymer holster with four spare magazines on his duty belt. The pistol's rosewood grips showed wear marks, an indication of the amount of use it got-plenty, probably at one of the agency's off-site high-tech qualification ranges.

"Look directly at me," the guard instructed, then aimed the lens of the PDA's digital camera toward Campos. He compared the image with whatever else was on the screen. "Is there anything more you would like to tell me, sir?"

"Zachary," Campos said, just loudly enough for the officer to hear him clearly.

Zachary Prade-the name he'd used the first time he'd come to Langley, and, according to his orders, the name they were giving back to him, at least for a while. Alejandro Campos had served his purpose.

It was the way of things, whether he was ready or not. He knew it. He just didn't know if he was ready or not.

He had a feeling he wasn't.

Dammit.

The guard nodded and handed him a visitor's pass.

"I'm clearing you for building entry, but not through security screening. Park your vehicle in the Alpha Two section on your right, proceed inside the main entrance, and wait outside of screening for your escort. Should pick you up within ten minutes. Any questions?"

"No," Campos said, and put the Mercedes in gear.

A few minutes later he was heading for the building, and it occurred to him that in all his years with the CIA, this was the first time he had ever, literally or figuratively, walked in through the front door.

Four sublevels down, his escort swiped a keycard through the cipher lock reader on a door marked "Forensics." The temperature inside the room was a good ten degrees cooler than the hallway, which made his suit jacket almost comfortable.

Campos noted three rows of what appeared to be oversized stainless-steel filing drawers set into the wall on the left, an assortment of analytical instruments along the remaining walls, and a steel examining table in the center of the room.

Perfect. A morgue.

He wasn't surprised.

Given his involvement in a recent debacle in El Salvador, and his report, he could even guess who the guest of honor would be. Hell.

There were three individuals already in the room, two men and a woman. They were standing close to the table and the thick black body bag lying on top of it, unzipped. He recognized the woman and one of the men immediately, then recognized the other man, but only just barely. Despite an active-some might say hyperactive-history of correspondence between the two of them, conducted through various cutouts, intermediaries, and back channels, he hadn't actually seen the man who had recruited him in over eleven years.

"Hello, Zach," the man said, turning to face him, but leaving both hands inside the deep pockets of his lab coat. Short and stocky, with steel gray having replaced his once dark hair, Alex Maier looked like he'd lived every one of his thirty-odd years with the agency.

"Alex," Zach said, acknowledging his case officer. "Are you planning on telling me what's important enough to terminate my cover?" On the flight up from San Salvador, he'd compiled a pretty good shortlist of reasons for Alejandro Campos to disappear, and his partner, Joya Molara Gualterio-Jewel-could probably add, oh, a million or so even better reasons why it was time for his butt to be pulled out of Central America. Past time, actually. He had no problem with that part, not really, despite eight years of damn hard work and a damn near perfect record as a Salvadoran cocaine kingpin with more connections than a South Central bookie.

Okay, "no problem" was stretching things a bit. He had a couple of problems with it, all of them personal, all of them still living in his villa in Morazán.

Ex-villa, he reminded himself. Dammit.

But this little trip to Langley had required a catalyst beyond any reason to pull him out of deep cover, and that's what really had been eating at him since he'd gotten the call. A lot of shit had hit the fan in El Salvador three weeks ago; and suddenly, after eleven years, he was face to face with his boss. It wasn't a coincidence, not in his business.

"Yes, of course," Alex said, his words measured, his tone tired, reflecting the lines of strain in his face. "But, as always, first things first."

"And what exactly might that be?" Zach asked, already knowing at least part of the answer. Hell, it was stretched out on the table.

"First of all, Zach," Alex said, "allow me to introduce Charles Kesselring and Amanda van Zandt. Charles is Deputy Director, Operations, and Amanda is Deputy Director, Intelligence." The woman was blond, of medium height and build, the man taller, about six two, with a pale complexion and narrow shoulders. The two senior officers each gave Zach a polite nod, which he returned.

The introductions were required by agency protocol, but were completely unnecessary. Zach knew perfectly well who the current DDO and DDI were, and he knew that having the two of them in the same place, especially this place, at the same time, probably meant a situation serious enough to have foreign policy implications.

"And," Alex continued, "may I regretfully direct your attention to the body of Mark Devlin, recently killed while on assignment in Central America." The body bag. The guest of honor, literally.

Zach recognized the dead man as one of the agency's contract aviators, a hard-core former Marine who had been a frequent visitor at Alejandro Campos's plantation in northern El Salvador. He had known the man by another name, a name that would never again be spoken by anyone inside the agency.

"Your most recent field report included a videotape of Devlin's death at the hands of CNL guerrillas after his Cessna was shot down in Morazán," Alex said. "This tape was filmed by one Lily Robbins, an American schoolteacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose return to the States you expedited at the conclusion of the Morazán incident. We are here to discuss Robbins's possible connection with the flash drive from Devlin's downed aircraft."

Well, there it was, his worst-case scenario rearing up and biting him in the ass, the catalyst, the reason he was standing in a morgue with the DDO and DDI-Lily Robbins.

Geezus. Her name was the last damn thing he'd wanted to hear in this place, the absolute fucking last. But he'd known, so help him God, he'd known he hadn't put the mess in Morazán behind him, no matter how brilliantly he and Smith Rydell, a Department of Defense operator on the scene, had performed their missions. All by himself, he'd saved the agency over a million dollars and gotten their stolen courier's pouch back for them. Rydell had recovered the classified flash drive from the CIA's downed Cessna, but by the time the DOD operator had been brought on board, the critically injured Devlin had already been captured by the CNL. No one on the U.S. side had been aware of the pilot's fate until the guerrillas, in an uncharacteristic gesture of decency, had delivered his body to the Catholic mission in San Cristobal for transport back to the States. After that, the entire incident had exploded into a violent tangle of conflicting agendas involving more actors and intrigue than an Italian opera, including cocaine smugglers, arms dealers, international assassins, and Salvadoran insurgents, not to mention deep-cover CIA intelligence assets and a New Mexico schoolteacher. The agency had, at first, suspected Lily Robbins of being an agent for at least one of the players in the drama, but had eventually agreed with Zach's assessment that she had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At least they had been in agreement, but now-well, hell, now it looked like Lily Robbins was riding shotgun in his handbasket.

"What kind of connection are you thinking?" he asked, keeping his thoughts to himself and wondering if a couple more antacids might help the situation.

Probably not, dammit, and only years of hard training and even harder experience kept him from giving in to a weary sigh.

Van Zandt picked up the conversation, speaking with a clear, refined eastern accent. Zach guessed Vassar, or maybe Yale, definitely not Albuquerque.

"We have downloaded and analyzed the contents of the flash drive," she said. "The files are extensive, mostly routine field reports and other regional data. The largest file, however, initially downloads as an overwritten area of the device's memory, appearing to contain only random bytes with no recoverable data."

"I'm guessing 'appearing to contain' is the operative part of that sentence," he said when she paused, but there really wasn't any guess about it.

"Correct," she continued. "Using the appropriate algorithm, the file can be reordered into random character strings. That, by itself, doesn't accomplish anything of value. When paired with the proper literal key, however, the file becomes readable. In this case, the encoded file was created using a true random one-time literal key."

Zach knew about literal keys. The cryptographic method was centuries old, and had fallen out of favor in the computer age. The technique involved mapping plain-text characters through random characters to create encoded text. If done properly, the only thing a cryptographer could tell from the encoded text alone was that each character was somewhere in the alphabet from A to Z, with each letter being equally probable, assuming that the plain text had started out as English. A computer could make the encoded text mean anything at all, with equal odds of success for each decryption version. Zach knew systematic computer codes, including computer-generated pseudorandom keys, could eventually be broken by other computers. Codes using true random keys, however, could be broken only if the same key were used repeatedly. If the key was only used once, computer analysis could not recover the plain text.

"Normally, of course," Kesselring interjected, "both the originator and the recipient would possess the same literal key. In this case, for reasons that are not pertinent to this discussion, the only copy of the key accompanied the encoded file. One of Devlin's transport options for such data was a macramé bracelet with a polymer strand containing a series of microdots woven into it. Very low tech in this modern age, but still quite effective, especially since so few examiners even look for it." He activated a laptop computer screen on a table next to Devlin's body. "Our medical examiner scanned Devlin's wrists and found a pattern of hemp fibers embedded into the skin on the left one. Here's a color-enhanced image of the pattern." Kesselring paused to let Zach take a close look at the purplish chain-link outline. "Your report states that Ms. Robbins was in physical contact with Devlin just before he died. Her tape shows clearly that Devlin had nothing on his wrist at the time of his death. The report also states that she was wearing various items of personal adornment when she arrived at your residence. Could a fiber bracelet such as this have been one of those items?"

Oh, hell, yeah.

Lily Robbins had been wearing all sorts of jewelry the night she'd shown up at his plantation, including a macramé bracelet. She'd been soaking wet from a rainstorm, packing a guerrilla capitan's engraved pistol, and obviously in more trouble than he'd thought, and he'd thought she'd been in plenty.

"Yes," he said evenly. "It's entirely likely Ms. Robbins has your key." Though he'd be damned if he could think of a reason for an innocent bystander to steal a cheap bracelet off a dying man.

On the other hand, he didn't have any trouble coming up with a thousand and one reasons for a not-so-innocent bystander to steal the bracelet. Neither would the CIA. Hell, they probably had a couple of thousand reasons, any one of which could bury Ms. Lily Robbins.

"Likely enough to send you to find her and look for it," Kesselring agreed. "There are a few more things you need to be aware of, though. First, the only individuals on this end who know of the key's existence are the four of us in this room. Second, we consider it entirely possible that Devlin was photographed after he was captured. Third, there are some pretty clever folks who serve-ah-other interests, and those folks just might figure out that he left without something he arrived with. If we can guess what it is and where it is, then so can they. Best case, you locate Ms. Robbins, recover the bracelet, it turns out to be what we think it is, you return without incident, and that's the end of it. Worst case . . ."
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Product Details

  • Series: Steele Street (Book 8)
  • Mass Market Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Dell (December 26, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0440243858
  • ISBN-13: 978-0440243854
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 1.2 x 6.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,219,641 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

TARA JANZEN, New York Times bestselling author, is the creator of the acclaimed Steele Street series of romantic suspense novels about a hotshot crew of former juvenile delinquents and car thieves in Denver, Colorado who grow up to become one of the U.S.A.'s most elite black ops forces. The eleven book series begins with CRAZY HOT and CRAZY COOL and finishes up with LOOSE ENDS. One of the books is on AMAZON'S TOP TEN ROMANCE LIST - LOOSE AND EASY, 2008. Three of her books are on the Romantic Times ALL-TIME FAVORITES list - RIVER OF EDEN, CRAZY WILD, and SHAMELESS.

Writing as Glenna McReynolds, she is the author of thirteen Loveswept romances, an epic medieval romantic fantasy trilogy, THE CHALICE AND THE BLADE, DREAM STONE, and PRINCE OF TIME, and a contemporary romantic adventure set in the Amazon, RIVER OF EDEN. Tara loves doing research for her books, and her love of anthropology and the natural sciences has helped her create the landscapes of her novels, from the rich historical background of THE CHALICE AND THE BLADE trilogy, to the shores of the blackwater rivers flowing through the Amazonian rain forest in RIVER OF EDEN. Her love of the shooting sports and American muscle cars fuels all the "crazy hot" and super fast-paced Tara Janzen novels of the Steele Street series.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Tracy Vest VINE VOICE on March 13, 2008
Format: Mass Market Paperback
After eight years deep undercover as a Central American drug lord, Zach Prade has been pulled out and returned to the US. His first assignment is to retrieve a bracelet with top secret information that fell into the hands of a documentary filmmaker. He soon discovers that this won't be a quick snatch job when he notices a couple suspicious men are also following Lily. All hell breaks loose when the henchmen show up with guns and to Zach's surprise, Lily kills one. They go on the lam to return to the safety of the Steele Street gang in Denver, but not before another person after the bracelet identifies them as the killers along with the very identifiable car Zach chose for surveillance - a rare cherry red 1968 Shelby Cobra Mustang. As they spend more time together, Lily's reluctance to get involved with a man she believes to be a drug dealer melts away. Can they get to Denver before the rest of the bad guys catch up with them?

As I scratched my head wondering who all these people in this very overpopulated book were, I discovered that this is the eighth book in a series. And unlike many series romances, this one really doesn't stand alone. The central couple only appears in a third of the book. The rest of the book is needless romantic build up for future novels, techno geek gadgetry, and far too much with secondary characters that really don't move this particular story along. Zach and Lily have scorching chemistry but their relationship was underdeveloped. I would have liked far more time spent with the two on the road, and more interaction with Bayonne and Kitten. When they finally meet, it is such a let down. Perhaps I would have liked it better had I read the other seven novels, but doubt I'll bother since this one was pretty average.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Cherise Everhard VINE VOICE on January 2, 2008
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
Lily, a school teacher, first met Alejandro Campos in El Salvador about a month ago. She was there filming a documentary about the nuns at St. Joseph when all hell broke loose, she watched an American pilot die and before he did he gave her a macramé bracelet. She managed to flee the chaos and end up at Alejandro's estate. The notorious drug lord was a friend of the sisters.

The immediate attraction between these two in On the Loose (Steele Street, Book 7)was palpable, but a case of the wrong place and the wrong time. After the 'war' was over, Alejandro flew Lily back to New Mexico. That was three weeks ago. Now he is back in the states and going by his given name of Zach Pride. The government in which he works for has given him an assignment... Get the bracelet from Lily.

Once again Zach/Alejandro saves Lily and the two of them hop in is 68 Shelby Cobra Mustang and are on the run. There are people out there looking for Lily, the bracelet and looking for Gillian, aka Red Dog. The two purposes collide bringing the Steele Street guys and gals into the mix.

This was a book that had something going at all times, never a dull moment. While getting us involved in this current story Ms. Janzen has a fabulous way with introducing characters and making us long for the next. Lily and Zach make an unlikely couple if you look at their backgrounds, but the chemistry between them, the attraction, is so real and believable, you can feel the heat.

I don't remember Dylan Hart, the Steele Street boss, being so funny, but man he had me laughing out loud in this book. His comments about Cherie and Red Dogs brother, Gabriel, were hysterical. This is a fantastic read and I eagerly anticipate Loose and Easy, coming in November 2008. Enjoy!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Amy R. on January 5, 2008
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Zach Prade was one of the original chop shop boys who called Steele Street in Denver home. He was picked up as a teenager and found a home with the other Chop Shop boys Dylan, Creed, Hawkins, and JT. For the past eight years, he has been in deep cover as Alejandro Campos, a drug lord in El Salvador. In the last book, On the Loose, he meets Lily, a schoolteacher from New Mexico who is there to do a documentary on nuns. Instead she runs into trouble as she is a witness to murder, conspiracy, and espionage. He helps her get out of the country back to the US. From the first moment they met, there is a chemistry there that under the circumstances they cannot pursue. What do a drug lord and school teacher have in common?

Fast forward three weeks and Zach (aka Campos) is no longer undercover. He is back with the CIA. There is a problem in that Lily may have a bracelet given to her by the dead pilot she met in El Salvador that holds the key to valuable encoded files. Everyone is after this bracelet and will not stop at anything to get it including kill Lily.

Zach goes after Lily along with Charlotte, the Harlot, a suped up red Shelby Mustang that Zach helped rebuild when he was chop shop boy. They have to get away from New Mexico and back to Denver where Dylan and the SDF crew can help them. Along the way, they give into the hot chemistry they felt for each other since they first met.

As the second book in the Loose series and the continuation from her Crazy series, Janzen gives us an exciting romantic suspense adventure in the world of espionage, terrorists, and the men sworn to protect. Lily is no shrinking violet and is the daughter of a Montana sheriff and a past sharpshooter champion. Zach is looking to start over and begin a different life.
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