Sneak Peek 1 of The Red Cardinal, Book 6 of the Cardinal Series by Mia Smantz

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Hello all!

Welcome to the sneak peeks countdown. With the 6th (and last) book, The Red Cardinal, soon to be released near the end of April, I'll be posting some snippets from the story to whet your whistles :)


I'm sure everyone has a lot going on right now with the upcoming holidays, so if you've made it this far, then I thank you for being here and tuning in.


Now, if you're here, then you are getting excited for the release of The Red Cardinal, book 6 of the Cardinal Series!


Also, as a reminder--if you're interested in purchasing a new hardcopy set of the first two books, The Cardinal Bird and Cardinal Caged, you can buy the first volume here. This volume is also available in the Kindle Unlimited store if you want to purchase or add to your ten-book Unlimited list to help free up a slot for another great book. I know I always have a hard time trying to cull my ten-books. Get the Kindle version here. Both versions save you some money by bundling :) Plus, it has an amazing new cover design. Soon, I'll be bundling the second volume of the series to include Cardinal of Hope and The Cardinal Sin as well as Cardinal Rose and The Red Cardinal. I'll make sure to announce it on social media.


Just some old business to bring up, I created the pre-order for the next book so that I could include the link within the current book, but I haven't been promoting it. But, here it is, the next series:





We're finished with the series--for now. People have asked if I'll be making another series with these characters in it, and my answer is undecided. With the finish of each book in my first ever series, the feeling has gone from relief to bittersweet. I know some of you feel the same way. Which is why I can't completely close the lid on further series with Callie and her boys. I've been laying small Easter eggs that would pave the way for further plot, but not be so pressing as to leave us hanging at the end of this book.


But for now, be sure to check out the new series, The Fire Series, with a new cast of characters to learn to love or hate--or both!







The Red Cardinal, Book 6


SNEAK PEEK


“Say the last part of the plan again, would you? I want to make sure that Callie heard it nice and clear.”


I shot a frown at Jace. “I heard her.”


“Come on, Damsel. Humor me.”


Juarez shook her head but repeated the last of the instructions. “You’re to stay no longer than thirty minutes at the cabin. If no one shows up, feel free to leave your information behind for them to reach out to you, but you need to get back in the car and return. We’ll be in this town waiting at the same spot for you.”


“To reiterate, she said thirty minutes.” Jace stooped down to me at eye level. “We’re not joking around about that part. If you’re in the middle of talking with these two dudes, and we storm the place looking for you and spook them off, it’s not our fault. We can’t risk you getting kidnapped again.”


My brows furrowed, and I swiped the keys with brusquer force than necessary. “Thanks. I got it the first half dozen times Agent Juarez explained it. Just don’t forget that it takes fifteen to get there.”


Jace waved off my concerns. “Fine, you have exactly—”


“I’m leaving,” I cut him off, leaning up to press a quick kiss to his lips before he could scold me further.


His silence lasted all the way until I shut the driver’s door behind me. He stepped up to the silver economy car the CIA arranged for the trip and tapped on my window. I started the engine and pressed the button to roll it down. His elbows hit the sill as he hunched down.


“Be careful,” he directed in a solemn voice.


“I will.”


“Don’t get kidnap—”


I revved the motor, maxing out the RPMs before the gas-saver could drown out his words. “I’m sorry. Were you about to say something? I didn’t hear you.”


“Funny,” he replied in a way that suggested he found my antics anything but.


He gave me one more sweet peck on the lips “for the road,” before I put the car in gear and inched out into the streets. The compact vehicle had been parked on an idle street, so I eased into driving. Both of my previous experiences I barely remembered since I’d been post-torture the first time and racing to save my friends’ lives the second.


Luckily, I also had motorcycle classes with Duane—even if those had been safely ensconced inside Delta and removed from all road hazards.


Henderson had preprogrammed the directions into the car’s navigation and promised the drive would be easy. I wouldn’t have to navigate intimidating traffic circles as a newish driver. Thank goodness I could speak and read Russian. I couldn’t imagine having to drive in a country where the traffic signs all looked like Greek to me.


Henderson and Juarez brought me as close as they dared without raising suspicions, which meant the small town had only one four-way where I stalled until the car behind me honked and startled me to take my turn. After that, it was smooth sailing as Henderson had promised.


The man who invented GPS and navigation should’ve been a billionaire. Without it, the trip would’ve been much more stressful. I turned onto a gravel drive and followed it for five of the fifteen-minutes until the winding road surrounded by forest opened up into a clearing with a derelict cabin nestled there.


My hopes sank as I noted the weathered wood planks, hanging shutters, and crumbling fireplace. The small structure was uninhabitable. I doubted Veseli would’ve hidden any great secrets at a place so obviously abandoned.


Still, I pepped myself up and exited the vehicle.


Andrea, my… I wasn’t sure what he was to me—adopted uncle? He had complained about the cold weather in October. I could only imagine the complaints he’d make now in the breathtaking bite of mid-December.


My boots crunched in the snow as I approached the front, praying that the cracked door would be unlocked. Of all the worn and broken things on the cabin, the windows had survived, remaining intact. It would be a shame—not to mention a hassle—to break them just to get inside.


The antique, imprinted handle turned with ease. I pushed the door in. The wind blew in a sudden gust. It picked up, swirled sparkling trails of snow, and drowned out the eerie creak I assumed the old hinges would’ve made.


With the stinging chill chasing me, I hurried inside, eager to cut off the noise and frigid temperatures.


My pupils adjusted from glaring white snow under a midday sun to the darkened one-room interior lit only by the brightness diffusing through grimy windows that could use a scrubbing—or twenty. The inside was no more impressive than the outside, sinking my mood to match the desolation the outdated, musty furniture gave off.


Had anyone even been here in the past decade?


“Don’t give up, Callie. Veseli would’ve loved a front like this to hide behind. Maybe there is something here.”


I took a couple of cautious steps to test out the floor’s integrity before gaining confidence in its sturdy nature.


“Andrea could’ve missed something. You just have to find it,” I cheered, aware that I’d crossed from spurring myself on and into full out talking to myself. “Antipodal coordinates. He never knew about antipodal coordinates. That was Veseli’s and my thing. There could be something here…”


I traversed the small room, lifting old vases or dusty ashtrays in search of a clue for where to go from here because this let-down of a building couldn’t be it. Even the paintings were pulled from their nails and examined for hidden messages, but Andrea had been correct. There was nothing here.


I sighed and brushed my hair from my forehead as I thought through what to do. I checked my phone. “Okay, you have five minutes left on the deadline they gave you. I can just wait and see if anyone shows up…” I scoffed. “Please, Callie. As if anyone is going to magically arrive in the next five minutes when you showed up out of the blue.”


I’d never doubted Veseli’s methods before, well, other than his motivation for kidnapping teens from their middle school. He’d explained it more to me during the long drive to Chernobyl. He’d been so shocked my stepfather, Drew Jensen, had offered me as payment in the first place that he feared Drew would only serve me up on a platter to anyone he owed money to.


Veseli figured he’d rather have me with him than with some other criminal, especially when he discovered that I could back up the claims Drew had thrown around in the beginning—an eleven-year-old girl, a whiz hacker.


My trial run had been to delete my own existence digitally from school records under the impression that I’d be helping my stepfather adopt me. Unbeknownst to me, Andrea and Veseli had already taken care of any physical documents and had waited for me outside my school, ready to storm the place if I pulled off the task Drew had crafted.


So, other than that somewhat smear on Veseli’s record, he’d never led me astray. I couldn’t doubt him now.


With three minutes left, I scribbled out a note on a dusty pad of paper I’d leafed through when searching for clues. It boasted a local restaurant across the top in Cyrillic letters that made my stomach growl.


I paused, halfway through my instructions for them to contact me. With deft fingers, I snapped a picture of the logo for the café. Surely Andrea would’ve followed up on something so obvious, but it couldn’t hurt to double-check with him when I got the chance. There wasn’t time now to meet my deadline, but I could leave a message with Andrea’s voicemail service and wait for him to get back to me. I’d left one last night after I stopped spying on the guys, but I hadn’t heard back from him yet.


Replacing the pad and pen on the Formica countertop, I stepped away.


Time was up. I repeated that to myself three times before I could force my feet to carry me from one of the only links I had to a man I’d come to think of as a father prior to his murder. I’d wasted so much time as an angry, angsty child-hating the person that had, in all honesty, tried his best to do what he thought was right. He could’ve left me in that school to return home to a despondent mom and a manipulative stepdad that had groomed me like a commodity. A shiver traced my spine at the thought of what might’ve happened if Veseli hadn’t taken me under his wing.


I glanced around once more. My imagination fixed up the tiny space, adding homey touches and supplanting the dated furniture with my own meager possessions. Perhaps if we never caught Ivanov, and I had to go into hiding, I could settle here.


Would Ivanov believe that I’d settle right in his own backyard? I doubted even the director of the CIA would search for me here after I’d shared the location with their agents.


Of course, I was in too deep with the guys to abandon them on their own. I could admit that to myself now. Sure, I’d left the majority of the team, but the fact that I’d brought Jace along spoke volumes. I couldn’t cut ties with them any more than Ivanov would leave them be if I did. So, despite the nice, reassuring thought of having a fallback plan, it would never happen.


I closed the door behind me, got in the car, and headed back down the long gravel drive. It could travel about five miles an hour before it felt like the divots and potholes would swallow the tiny thing whole, so I spent the time entering Jace’s number before I got out onto the main road.


The phone didn’t get to finish its first ring before his satirical voice reached my ears. “So, you’re alive? Not enough opportunities for a kidnapping between here and there?”


“The day’s young. Give it time,” I joked.


“I take it that you didn’t find anything.”


My jaw unhinged, and several seconds passed before I formulated a response. “How could you possibly know that? Did you guys rig the car with cameras? Follow me here?”

He laughed. “No, despite my best efforts, Henderson was a stalwart troll on that matter. Trust Callie, he said. She can do this, he said. He’s obviously not been read in on your entire track record.”


“Then how’d you know there was nothing here?”


“Your voice, and you let me start the conversation instead of plunging right into the exciting thing you found that could help solve all our problems and end world hunger.”


“Huh,” I mused. “We need to stop spending so much time together. It’s getting scary.”


“Fuck that. Give me two more weeks and CJ four, and you can be our honorary twin—no, we’ll be triplets. We could finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s minds.”


My nose scrunched up. “I don’t want to be a twin or a triplet. That would make me feel weird for the thoughts I have about you two.”


Jace’s sharp intake carried through the line before his voice came oozing out in a smooth roll. “Care to share with the class?”


I breathed out a laugh as navigated another pothole. “Can’t say that I do.”


“Fine, fine.” He paused. “Maybe next time.”


I shook my head and attempted to keep the smile from my voice. “Maybe.”


“Promises, promises.”


“I didn’t think saying maybe equaled a promise.”


“Can’t blame a guy for trying. So, do you have any thoughts about what to do now?”


“I might. Andrea already checked the cabin out before, so I’d been hanging most of my hope on the fact that those two guys would show up,” I began.


“The father and son duo somehow surviving amidst a patricidal shark tank?”


“Yeah, that.”


“Well, maybe they’ll show later. It’s possible that Veseli asked them to only check in with the place once a week.”


“I don’t know. It seemed abandoned. Andrea didn’t mention how decrepit it was.”


“Old, isolated cabin in the middle of the woods? Shit, forget kidnapping. We’re lucky you survived without being massacred by psycho, ax-wielding hillbillies.”


“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. It didn’t seem like anyone had been there in months, maybe years.”


“Hmm.”


“However, I might’ve gotten one little clue. I went to leave contact information, and the paper I found was a pad from a local restaurant.”


“That sounds promising.”


“I thought so too, but Andrea would’ve checked it out or mentioned it before. It might not be anything. When we return to the hotel, I’ll call his messaging service and share what I found.”


“You got the number from the pad, right?”


“Yeah, I snapped a picture.”


“If that restaurant is local, we might not go back to Moscow tonight.”


I heard Henderson’s voice drift over the line, deep and smooth as he questioned Jace about his last statement.


Jace relayed our conversation to the agents.


“So, what’s your ETA? Henderson actually made himself useful.” Jace ignored the indignant “hey,” that was loud enough to trickle through to my end. “We’ve got our eye on this nice little bistro for lunch before we check out that café clue.”


I turned onto the main road. The thick forest had pulled back like a curtain to give way to the view of sun, snow, and miles of stretching land. “Well, I just left the driveway now. Maybe ten minutes?”


“Perfect. So, we’ll see you in ten?”


“Yeah, I—”


Before I could pick up speed, something crashed into me from behind. An awful wrenching of metal and shattering glass filled the air. The compact car lurched forward. I gripped the steering wheel with two hands. My feet stomped the brakes as I swerved the wheel to fight sliding off into the snowy field.


Finally, the little car caught traction and slowed.


The entire incident lasted about four seconds, but it’d seemed longer. As silence settled softly like the fragile, sparkling flakes falling to the ground, I picked up the sound of glass breaking free and dropping down with soft, tinkling plinks.


I shook my head to clear it and glanced out the back window that’d been obliterated in one fell swoop. My phone’s screen flashed on from the passenger floorboard, drawing my notice, but my eyes caught on the side mirror over there as a man exited the vehicle that’d crashed into me.


I’d thought at first that it might’ve been an accident. My brain couldn’t recall if I’d remembered to look both ways before pulling out onto the road.


That idea flew right out the wrecked window when I caught the man’s stance in that military crouched-run with hunched shoulders to hold something out and in front of him. His dark gloves made it difficult to discern, but I would bet my cherished laptop back home, Lady Jarvis Junior, that a gun rested in the middle of that two-handed grip.


I punched the gas, but the vehicle behind me, a large utility truck, did the same, edging the front end of my hood closer to the field. There was no way this toy car would be going anywhere with its small tires and low clearance if it got even one toe off the road.


My hesitation proved to be my downfall—as if I hadn’t already run out of options at that point.


The passenger glass imploded from the butt of the man’s gun, raining shattered fragments into the seat next to me. I ducked away.


“Put your hands up on the ceiling. Do it now!”


His barked command had me obeying as fast as possible.


“Don’t move.”


“Okay,” I replied shakily. “I won’t move.”


My eyes darted to the floorboard, unable to help myself. Had the call with Jace ended and that was why the screen had lit up? It just looked black at this point. Either way, he had to be concerned after I got cut off midsentence, even if he hadn’t heard the actual crash. That meant they were ten minutes out.


“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t see you when I pulled out. I was lost. I—I got turned around. Please don’t hurt me.”


“Shut up!” He reached down, removed something from his pocket, and tossed it onto the seat. Dread filled my gut as I recognized them as plastic zip ties. “Put them on. One on each wrist and then loop the third between the two. Tighten them as much as you can.”


I shook my head again, trying to clear it. A ringing had started in my ears, and I wondered if I hadn’t gotten a bit of a concussion without realizing. I didn’t think I’d hit my head on anything, but it happened so fast.


When I’d fumbled my way through his instructions, he barked his next order in growling Russian. “I’m coming to your side of the car. Open your door if you don’t want to get sprayed with glass.” He nodded when I followed his orders. “Kill the engine.”


With my hands tethered to each other, I had to maneuver both around the steering wheel, but I managed after a couple of tries.


“Keys on the seat. I’m going around the front of your car. My gun will be on you the entire time. If at any point I can’t see your hands, I’ll put a bullet through your head. Do you understand?”


“Yes, I mean, da.”


My accidental slip into English brought the first uncertainty to the slender man that I’d seen so far, but it didn’t stop him for long. He did as he’d outlined and wedged his body into my open door. “Hold your hands out.”


He snugged the zip ties to bruising.


“Please, let me go. I’m just a dumb American traveling the country.”

The ploy to use English didn’t garner a reaction this time.


“Don’t speak! Schäfer, I’ve got her. Bringing her to you, right now.” He indicated with his gun for me to step out. “You’re going to ride with Schäfer in the big, tall truck. Come on. It’ll be fun.”


“With Schäfer? Does he have an accent like you?” I commented shakily. If for some reason the phone call had stayed connected, I wanted to give Jace as much information as possible. “Swedish, right?”


“I said don’t talk!” he pushed me toward the vehicle that had crashed into mine.


Approaching the loud diesel, it was a wonder that the thing hadn’t just rammed right over the dinky car. The silver compact looked like it’d gone ten rounds with a grater but the only damage to the truck was some powder coating on the excessively reinforced bumper cage had chipped away.


I caught sight of the driver.


He was a burly man somewhere in his fifties. If his outward appearance reflected his personality, then he was the kind of guy born to have an overly masculine truck like the one he currently reclined in like a throne.


Since I’d only heard one name so far, I assumed this had to be Schäfer.


He flashed me a smile, but too much white shone around his eyes, making me think he was quick to anger and psychotically unhinged.


“Hope I didn’t tap you too hard there, girlie. It’d be a real shame to damage your brain before Nordholm and I have a go at it.” He threw his head back and laughed as if he’d made the joke of the century, then he put the monster vehicle in gear to take off, patting his gnarled, gray beard like a pet. “We’re gonna have us some fun!”



END EXCERPT





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