Laukkanen returns for another adventure with FBI agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Special Agent Kirk Stevens in a cat-and-mouse chase of the mastermind of a murder-for-hire scheme that has authorities baffled from the first shocking instance. Windermere and Stevens witness the murder of a wealthy businessman. Windermere locks eyes with the assassin, stunned by the lifelessness reflected there. Slipping into the gathering crowd, the killer disappears, a nondescript individual in a hoodie. Having met that morning to catch up on their respective careers, Stevens and Windermere find themselves once again locked in a cross-jurisdictional pursuit, a pairing that has proven successful in past cases.
As the investigation continues, reams of paperwork appear the only way to ferret out just what is going on behind what becomes a series of random killings all across the country with no clues to connect the incidents. Only the careful culling of facts and crime scenes will reveal the nature of a crime spree that leaves no clues behind. Along with Windermere’s new partner, Mathers, the agents eventually realize that there is more than one assassin on the loose. The case takes on more ominous tones when their forays into databases are blocked by lack of Defense Department access. In an age of terrorism and Homeland Security, the efforts of three agents in search of a killer don’t reach the necessary priority level to access the database.
Laukkanen expands the scope of his plot through chapters detailing the activities of the mastermind behind the scene, Parkerson, and the two assassins he currently has in the field. An adept student of technology, Parkerson has created his own private murder-for-hire business, a lucrative venture accessed via the internet, a nameless, efficient service for those willing to pay hefty fees for the extermination of others. His employment provides the perfect screen for these illegal activities—at least in theory. The perfection of his plan breaks down in its practical application, the human assassins programmed to carry out orders like robots.
Parkerson’s most effective killer has begun having problems, aberrations in behavior that he is slow to catch, the careful grooming breaking down at critical times and places. Parkerson finds it necessary to intervene, to safely guide his killer home from a murder before the authorities close in. These breaks in behavior are the death knell of the enterprise, the weak link in the master plan. Blinded by greed, Parkerson keeps everything in play, resorting to extremes to stop one assassin with another. By this time, Windermere and Stevens have caught onto the game, closing in on both assassin and the man behind the scheme.
It’s a bizarre plotline, but the author mostly pulls it off. The flaw is found in the sourcing of the assassins, morally questionable as well as unlikely, allowing certain characters to engage in outrageous behavior, men become machines. Certainly Parkerson is a villain, one easy to dislike. What I find more difficult to fathom is the evolving relationship between Windermere and Stevens, a beautiful black female agent and a paunchy, middle-aged man. Flirtatious but restrained in the prior novels, Windermere has now articulated her attraction to the happily- married Stevens, who is equally as smitten. Though Windermere indulges in a one-off with Mathers, which further complicates the working relationship between the three agents on the case, she indulges in unprofessional behavior that not only causes unnecessary problems in the investigation, but casts an onus on her character—despite her admonition to Stevens: “Don’t you dare divorce your wife!” It’s the old Eve in the Garden tempting Adam thing, Carla really the only one with egg on her face, the men unable to resist her beauty, etc. The situation may lend spice to the plot (even romance if you avoid the reality of a wife and children), but at the expense of the authority of an author to tell a solid, well-plotted thriller.