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It’s a Mystery: “Time ages a person’s soul”

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The Informationist

By Taylor Stevens
Crown Publishers, 2011

Meet Vanessa Michael Munroe, known as Michael or Munroe to most in her present life, called Essa by a precious few from her past. She deals in information—expensive information—for corporations, heads of state, private clients, crowns and commoners, and anyone else who can pay for her unique brand of expertise. She has a well-deserved reputation for extracting an impossibly accurate dossier when no one else can. As one admirer puts it:

“You give her a scenario, a country, whatever it is, and she’ll find a way. Doesn’t matter the language, the gender, cold, hot, war zone, military dictatorship, whatever—she gets it. …It’s always accurate, always good.”

She’s drop dead gorgeous, speaks twenty-two languages not counting dialects, a facility that once sent the CIA to recruit her, and she has awesome street fighting skills: “War was a boy’s club that she’d infiltrated long ago.”

She’s a chameleon who has perfected the art of disguise, and when we first meet her she is finishing up a job in Ankara, Turkey:

She followed [the mark] down the stairwell to the Anatolia: private of all private clubs… At the door she flashed a business card that had taken two weeks of greased palms and clandestine meetings to acquire…the doorman nodded and said, “Sir.”…She slipped a knot of cash into his hand…Inside a closet marked “staff only” she shed the trappings of the male persona…. From her chest she shrugged down the sheath that would function as the figure-hugging dress and slid thin lacy sandals from the lining of her jacket onto her feet…checking that the hallway was empty, stepped into the restroom to finish with makeup and hair…. She placed herself at the end of the bar, face turned away body turned toward him…. This final step and the job would be complete. She’d estimated ten minutes, but the invitation to join the party came within three…with only the briefest round of introductions she slipped into the evening’s role—seeking, hunting, prodding, all in the guise of the bimbo’s game…. The charade lasted into the early morning, when having gotten what she wanted, she pleaded exhaustion, and excused herself from the group.

Next, she’s on her way “home” to the United States and her most challenging job yet. (“Home. Whatever that was supposed to mean.”) After escaping from her native Cameroon at 15 under horrific circumstances, she wound up in Dallas where she forged a new life and became an informationist.

She’s been summoned by Kate Breeden, one of two people in the world that she trusted. They met at Southern Methodist University—of all the unbelievable venues—where Breeden was studying for an M.B.A. and Munroe was a student with an unusual sideline. There was instant chemistry and by the time the sideline grew into a full-time profession, Kate was managing a very successful marketing consulting firm. She was Munroe’s buffer between everyday life and life on assignment. She became in every sense Michael Munroe’s distaff majordomo.

In the months and sometimes years that Munroe was out of the country, Breeden paid the bills, kept the accounts open, and forwarded pressing matters. Breeden was warm and friendly and absolutely ruthless. She’d screw a person over…cozy up and bury them alive—and for that reason Breeden was an ally: She was safe.

Taylor Stevens

The assignment, should she choose to accept it, comes from Richard Burbank an oil mogul, whose company Titan Exploration is based in Houston. A gazillionaire, he’ll pay a hundred thousand just to meet with Munroe. Her reputation has preceded her thanks to Burbank’s high-stakes security pro and ex-mercenary Miles Bradford, who has researched her thoroughly. Bradford believes with Munroe he’s finally found the perfect choice to help Burbank find his adopted daughter Emily who vanished four years ago while vacationing in West Central Africa. In those four years, Burbank has shelled out a fortune to find her with no returns. Based on Bradford’s document of the case thus far (“He described the Africa she [Munroe] knew so well”) Munroe agrees to meet with Burbank.

After establishing what four years of semi-competent, basically naïve, shockingly ill-prepared international investigators didn’t find, Munroe sets out her terms: “two-point-five million up front plus expenses…and an additional two-point-five upon delivery.” She’s not returning to Africa for chump change. Burbank agrees, with the proviso that Bradford act as her bodyguard, a condition she realizes she has to put up with. She calls him Mr. Burbank, he calls her Michael, they’ve got a deal. Breeden irons out the details.

Meanwhile, Ms. Michael Munroe makes a detour to the only other person she trusts: Logan. He lives in a dumpy cement structure on a semi-deserted industrial strip, a Dallas special. Logan was a squatter, but he paid his rent on time so no one complained to the property managers. There were four rooms that served as living quarters and in the back a warehouse that doubled as a repair shop and storage area for the loves of Logan’s life: his motorcycles. He’s now a world-class biker. A far cry from

that muggy summer night seven years before, when prejudice in a hole-in-the-wall bikers’ bar had turned to violence and she’d thrown in her lot with the underdog. They’d laughed when it was over…making introductions like star-crossed soul mates…. Over the years the impression of childish innocence Logan gave had drawn in a succession of boyfriends who each in turn had discovered the reality of a dark and hardened soul…. On his own since he was fifteen, clawing his way to what he earned…he was, by Munroe’s judgment, the closest being she’d found to perfection in the nine years since she first set foot on American soil.

She knows that, whatever it takes, when she’s in need Logan will be there to back her up.
He’s also the keeper of her secret obsession, a Ducati, a sleek black-on-black bike of pure beauty that she rides like the wind whenever she can. When she tears down the roads at over 150 miles an hour, the rush it delivers is, “a narcotic sweeter than drugs or alcohol, just as addictive and equally destructive.”

Munroe and Bradford travel to the heart of Africa; it was once her turf and she knows it well, perhaps too well for comfort. In Equatorial Guinea they ask questions of people who interpret questions as an insult and a challenge to their authority. She lets them take one too many chances, gets drugged, wakes up kidnapped and held captive on a boat. Bradford is gone and all she’s got are well-armed thugs for company.

In a series of dazzling maneuvers that would make James Bond proud, Munroe escapes. It is a long, hairy, gut-wrenching journey to Francisco Beyard, a very sexy, foxy young man who made her what she is today. At 14, Munroe cleverly outmaneuvered him into letting her join his band of mercenaries—a maneuver an earlier accomplished adventuress, Irene Adler, who duped Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia, would surely admire. Beyard is a gun-runner and drug lord extraordinaire who cares for the people of Cameroon like a father. He was Munroe’s Pygmalion, and calls her Essa. He taught her to play chess, introduced her to fine wine and classical music.

In return, she became his silent partner whose powers of observation and linguistic skills were worth her weight in gold. By fifteen, she had turned from gangly girl to striking young woman. By then, her loyalty to him was unparalleled, she would kill for him. And did, in an act that forced her to disappear from his life without a word until now.

After Essa and Beyard have several long nights of the soul, he agrees to help her find Emily. Between them, calling in a lot of chips, they narrow Emily’s whereabouts to Mongomo, eighty kilometers from Ebebiyín, the village that serves as a crossroads between Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. She is a prisoner in the house of Timoteo Otoro Nchama, Vice Minister of mines and energy. He is her husband and they have two boys. He is her jailer “for her own good”. Emily’s story knocks Munroe for a loop!

Munroe, the consummate strategist, has been played, double-crossed, vanquished in plain sight. By the time Emily’s rescue is complete, Munroe has paid dearly on a very personal level and you know she will exact a payback that will make those who have wronged her wish they were dead.

If this sounds a little like pulp fiction, it is anything but. It is at once a riveting procedural, and a multi-dimensional thriller, with a heroine that hooks you from her first appearance. Already, pre-pub reviews are comparing her to Lisbeth Salander. This, I suppose, is inevitable but not worthy of either one of them. Vanessa Michael Munroe is very much her own woman. Kudos to her creator, Taylor Stevens, who has given her a high class caper worthy of her talents. And it’s only the beginning.

I don’t normally do an author bio, but Stevens background is so unique it’s worth mentioning. She was born into and raised in the Children of God, an apocalyptic cult that didn’t believe in education beyond sixth grade. This, she explains in a PW interview, “made for limited career options when I did finally get out.” She dedicates the book: To my fellow childhood survivors—you know who you are. Believe me, The Informationist is a tribute to her survival skills.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.