Teddy Fay flicked his gaze to the rearview mirror and grimaced. The gray sedan was still following him.
Returning his attention to the blacktop ahead, he searched for a turnoff to another road he could use to help him lose his tail. But there wasn't even a wide enough spot where he could pull over. For as far as he could see, the road in front of him was squeezed between the rise of a mountain slope on one side and its descent on the other.
When he glanced again at the mirror, he caught sight of the fear in his own eyes. Fear that this lonely mountain road would be where he died.
He squeezed the steering wheel and shook the thought away. He couldn't let them win. Would not let them win.
He glanced again at the car in the mirror. "Go ahead. Give me your best shot. I will not let you get to me today."
With renewed determination, he pressed down hard on the gas. For the first time since he'd realized he was being followed, the gap between the other vehicle and his grew instead of shrinking.
If he could, he would have gone even faster, but knew if he did, the force of a turn might send him crashing into the hillside or flying over the drop-off.
He rounded another ridge, hoping this time he'd spot a turnoff he could use to escape, but the twisting road continued as far as he could see.
He swallowed back his fear. "You can do this. You have to. For them."
He leaned toward the steering wheel, his eyes glued to the road ahead just as the other car came into view behind him.
"Cut." Peter Barrington's voice came through a speaker mounted under the dash of Teddy's car. "I think we got it, Mark."
The tension in Teddy's face vanished. "Excellent. If you're happy, I'm happy."
Teddy released the steering wheel and leaned back. His car was being towed behind the camera vehicle that had been filming him, and he'd only been pretending to drive.
Handling the mountain road on his own would have been child's play. But, alas, today he wasn't Teddy Fay, but rather Academy Award-winning actor Mark Weldon, one of his three main identities. The other was that of film producer Billy Barnett.
Thanks to a talent for altering his appearance, honed during years spent in the CIA, only a select few knew that the three men were one and the same.
This trip up the mountain was Teddy's and the crew's fifth of the day. On the first three, a cameraman had been in the seat beside Teddy, filming close-ups and shots of the pursuing sedan. During the last two trips, Peter's crew had been focused on capturing exterior shots. Peter was the film's director, and the only director for whom actor Mark Weldon worked.
The film was called Storm's Eye
. Its plot centered on a man named Tyler Storm, who'd spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law but was now trying to make amends for his past deeds. Peter had written the part of Storm with Mark in mind, a lead role to celebrate Mark's status as a major award winner.
The camera truck towed Teddy's car into a dirt parking lot where several other production vehicles waited, as well as Peter, who was standing behind the television on which he'd been watching the camera feed.
When Teddy climbed out of the car, he gave Luke Reed, the man in charge of the rig carrying Teddy's sedan, a nod. "Thanks for not driving us off the cliff."
"They have to pay extra for that."
"Then I'm thankful we have a cheap producer."
"Ha, I'll tell Billy you said that when I see him."
"Trust me, it's not anything he doesn't already know." Teddy smiled to himself. If only Luke knew. When Teddy reached Peter, who was reviewing what they had shot, he glanced at the monitor. "Everything look good?"
"See for yourself."
Peter pressed a button and the footage from the last trip up the mountain began to play. Teddy had no ego when it came to his acting. All he wanted to do was a good job. When he watched himself, he did so rationally, looking for how he could improve his performance.
The direct shots of Teddy were full of tension and worry, while the footage of the pursuing sedan had the right sense of urgency he knew Peter was after. As he watched, he picked out a few moments in which he felt he could have done a better job, but he was pleased overall.
Peter smiled as the playback ended. "I'd say you're starting to get the hang of this acting thing."
"Maybe someday I can make a living at it."
"It's always good to have goals, even for you."
With his lead role in Storm's Eye
, Teddy was making enough from Mark Weldon's acting work to live quite well. Given the even larger amount he earned as Billy Barnett, and the tidy sum he'd already amassed before entering the film business, Teddy was more than comfortable.
"Do we need to go again?" he asked.
Peter clapped him on the back. "I've got what I need. You're wrapped for today. Go back to the hotel. Grab a drink and enjoy some time by the pool."
"I like the way you think."
"Then you'll love this. If I'm not mistaken, you're off tomorrow morning, too."
"You're full of good news today."
Peter chuckled in a not-so-fast kind of way. "I was thinking that if you see Billy, you could tell him tomorrow morning might be a good time for a set visit." Unlike Luke the camera truck driver, Peter knew all about Teddy's identities.
"If I happen to run into him, I'll let him know."Chapter 2
Teddy felt the familiar sensation of being watched the
moment he stepped into the lobby of the Santa Barbara Hills Hotel.
At least two-thirds of the patrons were sneaking glances at him. Since receiving his Oscar for best supporting actor, Mark Weldon could no longer roam the streets-or in this case, walk through a hotel lobby-unrecognized. It was all rather unfortunate. The persona had served Teddy well when no one had known who Mark was. But gone were the days of conducting any truly covert work as the actor. He had no choice now but to limit Mark's appearances to shoot days like today, and big events at which Mark's attendance was expected.
Teddy turned toward the familiar voice of Ben Bacchetti, head of Centurion Studios, the studio behind all of Peter Barrington's movies. Like their fathers, Peter and Ben were best friends. Some friendships might be strained by working together, but theirs had only grown stronger.
Ben walked toward Teddy from the direction of the hotel restaurant, in the company of Peter's father, Stone Barrington. A successful lawyer with a reputation for being an expert at handling difficult situations, Stone was on Centurion's board of directors. He was also the man responsible for Teddy working with Ben and Peter.
"Ben, Stone, isn't this a pleasant surprise."
"Good to see you, Mark," Stone said.
"Here to check up on the shoot?"
Ben shook his head. "Not this trip. We're here for a meeting with a production company looking for a studio partner. I'll be heading back to L.A. when we're done."
"Don't production companies typically come to you?"
"This isn't a typical production company. Have you heard of Carl Novak?"
"The tech billionaire?"
"That's the one. You've probably seen his wife before, too. Rebecca Novak? She used to be a model. You name a fashion magazine, and she's been on the cover."
"They want to get into the film business?"
"They already have a few productions underway, documentaries and films that deal with problems that don't get a lot of attention. Without a studio partner like us, they'd be stuck making only a film or two a year. They'd like to do more than that. We're one of several groups they're talking to." Ben's phone buzzed. He checked the screen. "Our car's here. We'll see you later, Mark."
Ben headed for the exit, but Stone turned to Teddy instead of immediately following. "Could you do me a favor?"
Teddy arched an eyebrow. "Depends on the favor."
"If you run into Billy Barnett, can you tell him I'd love to have dinner with him? Say, seven-thirty?"
Teddy twisted his head to the side, attempting to look at his back.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to see if someone put a Billy Barnett's personal assistant sign on my back. He has a secretary and an actual
personal assistant now, you know. You could call one of them, and they'd let him know."
Stone smiled and patted him on the arm. "I figure this way's faster."Chapter 3
Across town, the owner of Smiling Eyes Flower Shop tore off the receipt and held it out. "Thank you, Mrs. Novak. I'll make sure they're delivered to your house by one p.m. tomorrow."
"Perfect." Rebecca Novak glanced at the clock on the wall. It was already a quarter to three. "Is that the right time?"
The clerk looked to see what she was talking about and nodded. "Within a minute or two, I think."
"I didn't realize it was so late. Thank you again for your help." Rebecca returned her wallet to her purse and hurried out the door.
She'd spent more time in the shop than she'd planned and would need to rush to get home in time for the start of the meeting with Centurion Studios.
As she approached her car, she noticed the passenger door of the sedan beside hers was open, blocking her way. A man was leaning into the other vehicle, as if he was getting something out of the glove compartment.
At any other time, she would have patiently waited for him to finish, but she was already running behind. "Excuse me."
The man didn't seem to hear her.
"Sir? If you don't mind, I need to get into my car."
He looked over his shoulder and then at her car, as if only now realizing he was in her way. "Oh. I am so sorry."
He closed his door and stepped to the side to clear the path.
Once he was out of the way, she flashed him a smile and moved past him. "Thank you."
As she reached for the handle of her door, she sensed a sudden presence behind her, then felt something hard jab into her ribs. Startled, she looked down and saw the muzzle of a gun pressing against her.
"If you do anything to call attention to us, I will kill you."
She stared at him, wide-eyed, then started to pull her purse from her shoulder. "Whatever cash I have, it's yours."
He shoved the gun harder against her side. "You only speak when I ask a question. Otherwise, you remain silent. Nod if you understand."
He ground his gun into her again. "Understand?"
She squeezed her lips together and nodded.
"Good. Take a step back and open the door to my car."
Her eyes widened. But before he could twist the gun into her again, she did as he'd asked.
"Now, get in."
When she didn't move right away, he said, "I can either kill you here or take you with me. Either way the message will be sent. The choice is yours."
She hesitated another second before ducking down and climbing into the seat. The instant she was inside, someone who'd been hiding in the back grabbed her arms. She tried to struggle free, but a wet cloth flopped over her mouth and nose. Rebecca twisted her head back and forth to get out from under it, but a hand held it in place.
Her head began spinning as a wave of vertigo washed over her. She tried to fight it, but with every breath she took she felt her consciousness slipping further away.
Though she heard her captors speaking, their voices were muted by the thick cloud of confusion churning in her head, and it took her a second to realize they weren't speaking in English. Yet she still found she understood a word or two here and there.
"Get her key," one of the voices said.
She felt her purse being tugged from her shoulder, but she could do nothing about it. Around her, the world grew dark as her vision narrowed.
"That's right, Mrs. Novak. Go to sleep."
As the last of her consciousness began to fade away, she realized why the language sounded so familiar.
They were speaking in her husband's native Croatian.***
Zoran Janic tried very hard not to glance at his phone. His cousin, Neno Bilic, was supposed to have contacted him an hour ago. If something had gone wrong with the operation, Janic would not be pleased.
Two weeks ago, he had sent Neno, along with two of Janic's other men, Sava Kordo and Pavel Dodic, to America to deal with a problem Janic had neglected for too long. Fourteen days should have been more than enough time to rattle the Novaks in preparation for the main event. Which, if things had gone well, should have begun within the last couple of hours.
Janic walked to his window, his jaw tense. Those nosy documentary filmmakers were irritating enough. After they had shown up in Croatia and started digging up information on crime networks in the Balkans, networks that with just enough poking would lead right to him, he found an easy enough way to shut down production. But his plans changed to something bigger when he learned Carl Novak and his wife, Rebecca, were the ones backing the film.
It was a sign that the time for payback had arrived, a sign Janic had been waiting years for.
Finally, his phone rang.
"It's me," Neno said. "We have her."
All the tension Janic had been holding on to vanished. "Any problems?"
"No one saw you?"
"Good work. Proceed as planned."
Janic ended the call, grabbed the bottle of whiskey off the shelf behind him, and poured himself a celebratory drink.Chapter 4
Carl and Rebecca Novak's mansion sat on five acres in the
foothills on the north side of Santa Barbara, hidden behind a high wall.
When Stone and Ben arrived, they were met at their car by a smartly dressed man, who looked to be in his forties.
"Mr. Bacchetti, Mr. Barrington, I'm Andrew Vulin, Mr. and Mrs. Novak's estate manager." The man spoke with a European accent. "If you would follow me."
The grand entry to the house featured dueling staircases and a gorgeous chandelier that hovered over the center of the space.
Vulin led them down a Spanish-tiled hallway on the first floor, lined with original illustrations hanging on the walls. They passed several rooms before stopping in front of a closed set of double doors. Vulin knocked twice, then opened both doors and announced, "Centurion Studios." He moved out of the way and nodded for Stone and Ben to enter.
The high ceiling room was surrounded by bookcases that covered almost every available inch of wall space. In the center were a pair of leather sofas facing each other, separated by a coffee table.
Standing near the sofas were two men. One was unmistakably Carl Novak. A week seldom went by when his image didn’t appear either in print or on TV. More of often than not, he would be in the company of his wife, Rebecca.
Stone and Ben had been told she would be at the meeting, too, but the only other person in the room was an older gentleman standing with Novak.
Novak glanced past Stone and Ben at the door as it closed, as if expecting someone else to enter. When his attention returned to his guests, he took a step forward.
"Thank you for coming. I’m Carl Novak." His native Croatian accent was subtle, as if he’d worked hard to rid himself of it.
"Ben Bacchetti. Thanks for inviting us."
Novak shook hands with them, then motioned at the other man. "This is our counsel, Richard Mori."
After another round of handshakes ensued.
"We appreciate you coming all the way out here," the lawyer said. "Carl and Rebecca both thought this would be a more comfortable setting than my stuffy office."
"It’s a gorgeous house," Ben said.
Novak smiled. "Thank you."
Nori motioned to the sofas. "Shall we sit?"
Ben and Stone sat on one sofa, Novak and his lawyer on the other.
Mori appeared to be waiting for Novak to start speaking, but his client was looking at his watch, lost in thought.
Novak blinked at the sound, then chuckled, self-consciously. "My apologies, gentlemen. I was expecting my wife to be here. She explains everything much better than I do." He smiled. "As you are aware, the goal of our production company is to make films that will inspire viewers. What we don’t want to do is turn out mindless movies only meant to make money. No offense intended."
Ben shook his head. "None taken. We try not to do that also."
"I believe that. Your list of quality films is remarkable. That’s why we made sure you would be one of the studios we met with."
"We appreciate that."
It was clear Novak was still distracted, but as he described his and his wife’s plans for their company in more detail, he began to settle into himself. And by the time he summed things up, all traces of his previous preoccupation had disappeared.
Copyright © 2023 by Stuart Woods. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.