Exit Strategy (Nadia Stafford Series #1)

Exit Strategy (Nadia Stafford Series #1)

by Kelley Armstrong

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From the author of the acclaimed Women of the Otherworld series comes an exciting new heroine whose most secret identity is both lucrative…and lethal.

Regulars at Nadia’s nature lodge don’t ask what she does in the off-season. And that’s a good thing. If she told them, she’d have to kill them. She’s a hit woman for a Mafia family. Tough and self-sufficient, Nadia doesn’t owe anyone any explanations. But that doesn’t mean she always works alone. One of her contacts has recruited her in the hunt for a ruthlessly efficient serial killer cutting a swath of terror across the country. The assassin is far too skilled to be an amateur—and the precision of the killings is bringing the Feds much too close to the hit man community for comfort.

To put an end to the murders, Nadia will have to turn herself from predator to prey as she employs every trick she knows to find the killer. Before the killer finds her…

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553588194
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/26/2007
Series: Nadia Stafford Series , #1
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 285,224
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kelley Armstrong lives in rural Ontario with her husband, three children and far too many pets. She is the author of a new crime series, the Women of the Otherworld series and an upcoming young adult trilogy, The Darkest Power.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I twisted my fork through the blueberry pie and wished it was apple. I've never been fond of blueberry, not even when the berries were wild and fresh from the forest. These were fresh from a can.

Barry's Diner advertised itself as "home of the best blueberry pie in New York City." That should have been the tip-off, but the sign outside said only Award-Winning Homemade Pie. So I'd come in hoping for a slice of fresh apple and found myself amid a sea of diners eating blueberry. Sure, the restaurant carried apple, but if everyone else was eating blueberry, I couldn't stand out by ordering something different. It didn't help that I had to accompany the pie with decaf coffee--in a place that seemed to brew only one pot and leave it simmering all day.

The regular coffee smelled great, but caffeine was off my menu today, so I settled for inhaling it as I nibbled the crust on my pie. At least that was homemade. I shifted on my seat, the vinyl-covered stool squeaking under me, the noise lost in the sounds of the diner--the clatter of china and silverware, the steady murmur of conversation regularly erupting in laughs or shouts. The door behind me opened with a tinkle of the bell, a gust of October air and a belch of exhaust fumes that stole that rich scent of fresh coffee.

A man in a dirt-encrusted ball cap clanked his metal lunch box onto the counter beside my plate. "He got another one last night. Number four. Police just confirmed it."

I slanted my gaze his way, in case he was talking to me. He wasn't, of course. I was invisible . . . or as close to it as a nonsuperhero could get, having donned the ultimate female disguise: no apparent makeup and thirty-five pounds of extra padding.

"Who'd he get this time?" the server asked as she poured coffee for the newcomer.

"Little old Chinese lady closing up her shop. Choked her with a wire."

"Garroted," said a man sitting farther down the counter.

"Gary who?"

The other man folded his newspaper, rustling it with a flourish. "Garroted. If you use something to strangle someone, it's called garroting. The Spanish used it as a method of execution."

I glanced at the speaker. A silver-haired man in a suit, manicured fingernails resting on his Wall Street Journal. Not the sort you'd expect to know the origin of the term "garroted." Next thing you know, his neighbors would be on TV, telling the world he'd seemed like such a nice man.

They continued talking. I struggled to ignore them. Had to ignore them. I had a job to do, and couldn't allow myself to be sidetracked.

It wasn't easy. Words and phrases kept tumbling my way. Killer. Victim. Police. Investigation. No leads. I could, with effort, block the words, remind myself that they had nothing to do with me, but the voices weren't so easy to push aside. Sharp with excitement, as if this was something they'd seen in a movie and the victims were nothing more than actors who, when the credits rolled, would stand up, wash off the fake blood and grab a cigarette before heading home to their families.

The Helter Skelter killer. Even the name was catchy, almost jocular. I bet he was proud of it. He'd risen from the ranks of the unnamed and now he was someone--the Helter Skelter killer. I pictured him sitting in a coffee shop like this, eavesdropping on a conversation like this one, his heart tripping every time he heard his new name. My hand tightened on my fork. A burr on the handle dug in. I squeezed until pain forced my thoughts back on track.

It wasn't my concern. There were dozens of killers all across the continent, plotting crimes just as ruthless. Nothing to be done about it, and I was no longer in a position to try.

I took a swig of coffee. Bitter and burned, foul on my tongue, acid in my stomach. I took another gulp, deeper, almost draining the mug. Then I pushed it aside with my half-eaten pie, got to my feet and walked out.

I stood in the subway station and waited for Dean Moretti.

Moretti was a Mafia wannabe, a small-time thug with tenuous connections to the Tomassini crime family. Three months earlier, he had decided it was time to strike out on his own, so he'd made a deal with the nephew of a local drug lord. Together they'd set up business in a residential neighborhood previously untapped--probably because it was under the protection of the Riccio family.

When the Riccios found out, they went to the Tomassinis, who went to the drug lord, who decided, among the three of them, that this was not an acceptable entrepreneurial scheme. The drug lord's nephew had caught the first plane to South America and was probably hiding in the jungle, living on fish and berries. Moretti wasn't so easily spooked, which probably speaks more to a lack of intelligence than an excess of nerve.

While I waited for him, I wandered about the platform, taking note of every post, every garbage can, every doorway. Busywork, really. I'd already scouted this station so well I could navigate it blindfolded, but I kept checking and double-checking.

My stomach fluttered. Not fear. Anticipation. I kept moving, trying to work past it. There was no more room here for anticipation than there was for fear. It was a job. It had to be approached with cool, emotionless efficiency. You cannot enjoy this work. If you do, you step onto the fast slide to a place you'll never escape, become something you swore you'd never be.

I kept my brain busy with last-minute checks. There was one security camera down here, but an antiquated one, easy to avoid. I'd heard rumors of post-9/11 upgrades, but so far, this station had avoided them. Though I hadn't seen a uniformed transit cop, I knew there could be a plainclothes one, so I spotted the most likely suspects and stayed out of their way. Not that it mattered--in addition to the extra padding I was wearing a wig, colored contacts, eyeglasses and makeup to darken my skin tone.

I'd spent three days watching Moretti, long enough to know he was a man who liked routines. Right on schedule, he bounced down the subway steps, ready for his train home after a long day spent breaking kneecaps for a local bookie.

Partway down the stairs he stopped and surveyed the crowd below. His gaze paused on anyone of Italian ancestry, anyone wearing a trench coat, anyone carrying a bulky satchel, anyone who looked . . . dangerous. Too dumb to run, but not so dumb that he didn't know he was in deep shit with the Tomassinis. At work, he always had a partner with him. From here, he'd take the subway to a house where he was bunking down with friends, taking refuge in numbers. This short trip was the only time he could be found alone, obviously having decided that public transit was safe enough.

As he scouted the crowd from the steps, people jostled him from behind, but he met their complaints with a snarl that sent them skittering around him. After a moment, he continued his descent into the subway pit. At the bottom, he cut through a group of young businessmen, then stopped beside a gaggle of careworn older women chattering in Spanish. He kept watching the crowd, but his gaze swept past me. The invisible woman.

I made my way across the platform, eyes straining to see down the tunnel, pretending to look for my train, flexing my hands as I allowed myself one last moment of anticipation. I closed my eyes and listened to the distant thumping of the oncoming train, felt the currents of air from the tunnel.

It was like standing in an airplane hatch, waiting to leap. Everything planned, checked, rechecked, every step of the next few minutes choreographed, the contingencies mapped out, should obstacles arise. Like skydiving, I controlled what I could, down to the most minute detail, creating the ordered perfection that set my mind at ease. Yet I knew that in a few seconds, when I made my move, I left some small bit to fate.

I inhaled deeply and concentrated on the moment, slowing my breathing, my pulse. Focusing.

No time to second-guess. No chance to turn back.

At the squeal of the approaching train, I opened my eyes, unclenched my hands and turned toward Moretti.

I quickened my pace until I was beside him. Tension blew off him in waves. His right hand was jammed into his pocket, undoubtedly fondling a nice piece of hardware.The train headlights broke through the darkness.

Moretti stepped forward. I stepped on the heel of the woman in front of me. She stumbled. The crowd, pressed so tightly together, wobbled as one body. As I jostled against Moretti, my hand slid inside his open jacket. A deft jab followed by a clumsy shove as I "recovered" my balance. Moretti only grunted and pushed back, then clambered onto the train with the crowd.

I stepped onto the subway car, took a seat at the back, then disembarked at the next stop, merging with the crowd once again.

Job done. Payment collected. Equipment discarded. Time to go home . . . almost.

Outside the city, I sat in my rented car, drinking in my first unguarded moment in three days. Although the scent of the city was overpowering, I swore I could detect the faint smell of dying leaves and fresh air on the breeze. Wishful thinking, but I closed my eyes and basked in the fantasy, feeling the cold night air on my face.

This was my first hit without a gun. Distance shooting was my specialty, but my mentor, Jack, had been pushing me to try something else. Carrying a gun these days wasn't as easy as it had been five years ago, and there were times when using one just wasn't feasible. So he'd trained me in poisons--which to choose, how to deliver it, how to carry the syringe and poison disguised as insulin. Then he'd encouraged me to find an excuse to try it. With Moretti, it hadn't been so much an excuse as a necessity.

The Tomassinis had confirmed that Moretti had suffered a fatal heart attack on the train. There had been some commotion and the police had been summoned, probably because Moretti had realized in his final moments that he'd been poisoned. That, Jack said, was a chance you took using concentrated potassium chloride in a public place, on a victim who knew he was a target. It didn't matter. With Moretti, the Tomassinis wanted to send a message, and it was clearer if his death wasn't mistaken for natural causes.

As for what else I felt after killing Moretti, I suppose there are many things one should feel in the aftermath of taking a life. Dean Moretti may have earned his death, but it would affect someone who didn't deserve the pain of loss--a brother, girlfriend, someone who cared.

I knew that. I'd been there, knocking on the door of a parent, a spouse, a lover, seeing them crumple as I gave them the news. Your father was knifed by a strung-out junkie client. Your daughter was shot by a rival gang member. Your husband was killed by a man he tried to rob. I'd seen their grief, the pangs made all the worse by knowing they'd seen that violent end coming . . . and been unable to stop it.

Yet in this case, it was the other victims I saw--the teens Moretti sold drugs to, the lives he'd touched. Killing him didn't solve any problems. It was like scooping water from the ocean. Yet, the next time the Tomassinis called, if the job was right, I'd be back. I had to.

It was the only thing that kept me sane.

On my way out of the city, as the lights of New York faded behind me, the radio DJ paused his endless prattle with a "special bulletin," announcing that the Helter Skelter killer may have struck again, this time in New York City. "Speculation is mounting that the Helter Skelter killer is responsible for the rush-hour subway death of Dean Moretti . . ."

My calm shattered and I nearly ran my car off the road.

Chapter Two

Cool under pressure. If they posted employment ads for hitmen, that'd be the number-two requirement, right after detail-oriented. A good hitman must possess the perfect blend of personality type A and B traits, a control freak who obsesses over every clothing fiber yet projects the demeanor of the most laid-back slacker. After pulling a hit, I can walk past police officers without so much as a twitch in my heart rate. I'd love to chalk it up to nerves of steel, but the truth is I just don't rattle that easily.

But driving up to the U.S./Canada border that morning, I was so rattled I could hear my fillings clanking. How could Moretti's hit be mistaken for the work of some psycho? Any cop knows the difference between a professional hit and a serial killing.

Had I unintentionally copied part of the killer's MO? The case had been plastered across the airwaves and newspapers for a week now, but I'd behaved myself. If an update came on the radio, I'd changed the station. If the paper printed an article, I'd flipped past it. It hadn't been easy. Few aspects of American culture are as popular with the Canadian media as crime. We lap it up with equal parts fascination and condescension: "What an incredible case. Thank God things like that hardly ever happen up here." But I no longer allowed myself to be fascinated. In hindsight, it was a choice that warranted a special place on the overcrowded roster of "Nadia Stafford's Regrettable Life Decisions."

I'd driven all night, as I always did, eager to get home as soon as my work was done. It was just past seven now, with only a few short lines of early morning travelers at the border. As the queue inched forward, I rolled down my window, hoping the chill air would freeze-dry my sweat before I reached the booth. Somewhere to my left, a motorcycle revved its engine and my head jerked up.

Normally, crossing the border was no cause for alarm. Even post-9/11, it's easy enough, so long as you have photo ID. Mine was the best money could buy. Half the time, the guards never gave it more than the most cursory glance. I'm a thirty-two-year-old, white, middle-class woman. Run me through a racial profile and you get "cross-border shopper."

In light of the Helter Skelter killings, they'd probably look closer at everyone, but I had nothing to hide. I'd switched my New York-plated rental for my Ontario-plated one. I'd disposed of my disguise in New York. The Tomassinis paid me in uncut gemstones, which are small enough that I could hide them in places no border agent would normally look.

I pulled forward. Second in line now.

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Exit Strategy (Nadia Stafford Series #1) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 96 reviews.
UpAllNight More than 1 year ago
This is the first Armstrong novel I've purchased that wasn't part of the Women of the Underworld series, and I have to say I'm very glad I did! The characters are fully realized and I found myself caring about them, which to me is always the hallmark of a great author. The story, while maybe not altogether original, is definitely intense enough to keep you in your favorite reading chair until, sadly, you find yourself at the end of the story... and wishing you had the next book in the series on hand! I have reserved my copy of Made to Be Broken, and will be going to pick it up today. Thanks to Ms. Armstrong for continuing to write engaging, dramatic stories that draw me in and keep me coming back for more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another cant put it down, sequel was just as good....waiting for another!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Assassination as an art form skill, efficiency, and stealth are the requirements. Assassins come in both genders, all ages, and with as wide a variety of backgrounds and baggage as there are killers. Of course the law knows there is an underground community of killers-for-hire, but as long as they work ¿smart¿ they¿re safe. When one of their own goes amok, they hurry to protect their livelihood. Nadia Stafford is offered a place on the team to bring the renegade down, by her mentor. It proves to be and exciting and fast moving adventure, not just for Nadia, but for the reader as well. I¿d love to read a sequel. Reviewed by Wanda C. Keesey
Anonymous 4 months ago
ca.bookwyrm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an enjoyable book by one of my favorite urban fantasy writers, and yet I didn't enjoy it nearly so much as her Otherworld series. I liked it enough that I'm not sorry I bought it, but it's debatable whether I'll buy the next one (assuming there is a next one) as quickly as I did this one. (I bought this book within a day or two of its release date.)One of the reasons I didn't like this book as much as Armstrong's other work is the genre. I highly prefer my fiction to have an element of the paranormal in it. Doesn't have to be werewolves or magic or elves, but I don't like straight fiction nearly as much as fiction with a twist. (I read to escape. How much of an escape is reading about a world that actually exists? Not quite enough, for me.)Another reason I prefer the Otherworld series is the main male character's voice. Jack has a consistent way of speaking where he brings the subject up as a question, and then provides his take on it. So: This book? Like it well enough. In comparison? Not so much. It's a great way of characterizing him, and she's very consistent with it, so the writing itself is solid. But it bugs me, and so I didn't like him much, and so the read wasn't as enjoyable.But... all that said. The book is solid. It's well written, with the quality I have come to expect from Kelley. The twists are nicely disguised, and as long as you pause to read the chapter headings (numbers for main characters, names for villain) you won't be confused by the occasional POV shifts. I think this is a great branching out for one of my favorite authors, and I hope she can make a go of it. I definitely do recommend the book, especially for those people who like straight fiction better than I do.
silentq on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. Ex cop turned hitwoman goes on the hunt for a hitman turned serial killer, with the help of other hitmen. The pacing was great, the writing spot on, the story was enough of a cat and mouse game to keep me interested but not frustrated. Despite our heroine being a Canuck, most of the action takes place in the USA, so I'm looking forward to the next book which seems to take place more in and around the lodge that she owns in Cottage Country.
Capfox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've been a fan of Kelley Armstrong for a while, so when I heard she was coming out with a book in a new and different series, rather than the Otherworld books I'd read so far, I was pretty excited. If I hadn't known I was getting it for my birthday, I would likely have run out and gotten it the day it showed up in bookstores.I was a bit scared, I have to say, since I've noted in the past that the crossover from fantasy, even real-world fantasy, often makes it very difficult to go into a realm where there are no magical powers to save you. Turns out, that fear was uncalled for. This book was very good, and was as good as I'd expected.Here, instead of werewolves and witches, we have a hitwoman, who also runs a lodge out in rural Ontario, and her gruff partner, trying to hunt down a serial killer that's drawing more attention to the hitman community than they'd like. The book's got some twists, a couple of which I saw coming, many of which I didn't, and that's a good thing for a mystery/thriller type of book.The characters are sharp, the dialogue and inner monologue is as good as usual, and Nadia, the main character, feels different from the other narrator characters she's had before, mostly. As I was reading, I found a bunch of parallels with Bitten, the first Otherworld book, in terms of structure and character buildup. There's a background that keeps getting referred to, and brought up gradually over the course of the book. Her style, though, is better here, and that makes the book more fun in general, and loses the parts of Bitten that I disliked.All in all, I'm pretty happy with it, although it could have used some more proofreading before being let out the door. As long as that doesn't distract you too much, then this is one that her fans and thriller fans should give a try.
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked the book ¿Made to Be Broken¿ so much that I actually went backwards and read the first book in this (two so far) book series, Exit Strategy. And I loved it also.Nadia Stafford is an ex-cop who now owns a nature lodge, supplementing her income by work as a killer-for-hire. She has two hit man protégés with whom she occasionally works, her mentor Jack, and her ¿co-worker¿ Quinn. Jack enlists Nadia and Quinn, as well as his former mentor Evelyn to help find a serial killer who shows signs of being a professional hit man. The police and FBI are hauling in as many hit men as they can; Jack believes it¿s ¿bad for business¿ and wants to find and stop this guy. They ascertain that the hit man must be one who wants to retire, and therefore is eliminating anyone who could finger him; in other words, it¿s an ¿exit strategy.¿ But soon, it appears the thrill of killing has overtaken the need for an exit strategy. Nadia and the others race to find him and eliminate him before he kills more innocent people, themselves included.Discussion: This series has such appealing and complex characters.Nadia, who comes from a family of cops, is tough and an excellent sharpshooter. But she is vulnerable as well; she has difficulty controlling her anger and her burning desire to avenge the rape and murder of her cousin Amy when they were both teenagers. Jack is mysterious, taciturn, brooding, gruff, ¿sexy as hell,¿ and acts very caring toward Nadia. But he never evinces any overt interest in her romantically. And yet, the author manages to convey a great deal of heat coming off of him when he is around Nadia.Quinn is open, friendly, handsome, a bit of a ¿boy scout,¿ and totally infatuated with Nadia. He makes no bones about showing it, and in fact, is somewhat irritatingly aggressive about it.Nadia doesn¿t feel towards Quinn what she does toward Jack, but she doesn¿t think Jack is interested, and talks herself into thinking Quinn may be the best possible option for her. But when Jack and Nadia are together in the book, the pages are simmering with a heat that threatens to boil out of control.Evaluation: The plot is fun and interesting, and the sex is simmering under the surface; a perfect combination!
silverdaisy1975 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Nadia is a hitwoman, but not your average hitwoman. She is an ex-cop. After a series of events fires up her blood about the injustice of the law, she starts taking hits for criminals. While she claims she isn't a vigilante, she is perhaps only a step below that. With her partner, Jack, teaching her the ropes this time they are hunting together for a pro turned serial killer.This book was really good. It wasn't too dark but it had a serious tone to it. The beginning was a little hard to get through but I will definitly be looking for the sequel.
crazybatcow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ex-cop turned hit-woman - sounds exciting, huh?Well, it ain't.The story is very (very very) slow. There is no tension developed (the bad guy does bad things at the same pace throughout). There are too many minor characters (every hit-man in the area must've been dragged into the story, most of them with no obvious point). There are too many stereotypes (hit-woman is a survivor of sexual assault who "gets even" by being a hit-woman, main hit-man is the strong and silent mentor type, the other main-hit-man is also a cop-hitman and there's a very weak romantic triangle between these three... and I didn't mention the older woman mentor-hit-woman who... oh nevermind, she's just there for the development of some fake tension).On to the bad guy - hit-man gone crazy? Why? Well, the reader never finds out because the author never tells us. The book just wasn't logical. There aren't 6 hit-people who'll all work together to bring down an additional randomly gone crazy hit-man. And if there were, they wouldn't all be buddy-buddy, and they wouldn't all have the same moral high-ground (hey, they are HITMEN for crying out loud, that doesn't put them at the top of the moral list). Anyway, I won't be reading any more in this series and wish I hadn't wasted my time reading this one.
BookWhisperer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tried reading this book, interest did not stick. I love Kelley Armstrong but I was not feeling this book.
coralsiren on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a great, fast paced thriller with a fantastic heroine. I love Kelley Armstrong's novels and this is one of my favorites so far.
amf0001 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was suprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Though not especially original (old hitman turns serial killer, other hitmen try to kill him before he gives the profession a bad rep) I liked Nadia's personality and enjoyed spending time with the professionally paranoid and seeing them dance around becoming friends. The serial killer was not particularly interesting, as it should be, and our nefarious heroes carried the day (no real suspense there) This is the beginning of a series and I look forward to reading more.
storming on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not as good as her witch/werewolf series but still entertaining.
bluerose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Completely different to her Otherworld series, this is the story about an ex-cop now making a living as a part time assassin, who gets hooked into a job that turns out to be a much bigger deal than originally anticipated.More of a mystery/thriller than SF, but as usual, great characters, good pacing, great plot and twists, and well setup for a sequel.
GoldLeaf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Enjoyable, a new direction. I prefer the paranormal series, but as Armstrong's preferred protagonists all seem to be female predators, she still knows how to deliver a good story. Nadia, quiet family mobster hitman, works with her newly acquired mentor and friends to find and stop an old hitman gone serial killer. This is a solid murder mystery with all the excitement of drawing out the story mixed in with some character insight into paid killers. Worth reading the sequel.
iFool on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Smooth writing, straightforward storytelling, lots of interaction between characters. The only other book that I have read by the same author is Bitten. As I read through this book, I can't help but notice a fair number of common elements. The heroin got drawn into a parallel life somewhat unwillingly and is mentored by a small group of seasoned practitioners while romantic tension developed among the main characters. The heroines in both books are constantly dealing with emotional baggages and rage. The actual story line of manhunt (or werewolf hunt in the case of Bitten) almost become a subplot amidst all the intertwined relationships among the characters. There were several action scenes that were quite intense. All in all an effortless entertaining read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nicely done with good flow. Instead wresting to see where it goes from here
tschnitzler More than 1 year ago
I will be looking for more Nadia Stafford books. This book is so detailed and instructional, I feel I am a quarter of the way toward being a killer for hire! Nadia is smart, thorough, and tough. When she is recruited to take out a fellow hitman, things get real interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A little slow in the beginning but great!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A league of assassins? That's the baseline premise of this first installment. A few hokey parts but overall kept my interest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago