I’m a killer. The thought tortured Jake Walker.
Matt was dead. Jake’s fault. At least that’s how he saw it.
Bile rose in his throat at the image of his boss thrown back in his chair, one neat hole in the center of his forehead. A once brilliant mind reduced to splattered bits of gore. Jake’s hands shook as he closed his laptop and gathered his things.
They had asked him to let the bad guys in the software, to allow them to wander and hide in the millions of lines of code. A huge gamble. He’d tried to warn them. Yes, he’d told them he knew where to look, how to follow, but still…the stakes were so high they were out of sight.
They told him to keep his head down and report what he saw. He’d done that. The game had been fun…until someone blew Matt’s brains all over his office.
They hadn’t told him the cat-and-mouse game could be deadly. They promised they had his back. They were supposed to be the good guys.
They had dangled the carrot. This was Jake’s chance to be somebody, they’d said. Jake was the only one with the skills, knowledge, and access. Ego and idealism—they got him in trouble every time.
Had his back. Fuck that.
He’d called the number. They’d said sit tight; they’d get back to him.
Jake Walker might be a fool, but he drew the line at being a martyr.
The bad guys killed with precision and then vanished as if they’d never been. A shiver of fear knifed through him. What chance did one pansy-ass software geek have?
Matt was dead.
Forced into action, Jake didn’t really hold out much hope, but he clung to the flotsam of desperation with the strength of a drowning man. Jake willed himself to slow, to act casual as if nothing was wrong. He had to get out of here, to run, to find help.
He squeezed his eyes tight against the image of Matt branded on his brain with the singe of horror and guilt.
Right now he felt spotlighted, the lights of his office holding back the darkness of the night outside his window. Through the interior glass walls, he scanned the sea of cubicles. An ominous quiet lurked in the shadows. In the half-light, Jake felt exposed and at a disadvantage. If someone wanted to hide, the geometric patches of darkness cast by the security lights would shelter them—the overheads had been doused when the last of his staff had left hours ago.
A noise startled him. Frozen, Jake held his breath and waited.
The sound didn’t repeat.
Perhaps it was the air conditioning kicking on. The noises of the empty building sounded strange, creaking, groaning as if collapsing without the human energy to keep it inflated. Or perhaps it was his imagination. But he hadn’t imagined Matt, dead, half his brain splattered on the bookcase, the window, the photos of his wife and kids.
Jake pulled in a deep breath, squeezing his eyes shut, then let the air out with measured precision, willing his nerves to calm. When he opened his eyes, the world had steadied a bit.
He could do this.
As he stuffed the papers into his briefcase, his hand brushed against cold metal. A gun—a Glock 19, so new the oil still gleamed on the unmarred bluing. Jake had never owned a gun before. And he’d never broken the law—not intentionally anyway. He’d felt like a felon scoring the piece off the kid in Hell’s Kitchen.
How the hell had he gotten into this?
Jake didn’t even know who the killers were. But he’d chased them through the code, and he knew where they were and what they were trying to do. He had to stop them, but he needed help.
And he needed to get as far away from here as he could.
He knew they were there, watching, waiting. So clever how they by-passed the trading programs with all the tight checks and rechecks and security redundancies. And so easy, too. Had he not been looking, watching, no one would’ve known the bad guys even manipulated the inventory numbers, or made phantom trades to manipulate the price of oil. His trip to Oklahoma had confirmed the inventory anomalies—the only time he’d gone off the reservation. Well, that and the phone call to his IT contact in Conroe. But those were it. After that, nothing had felt the same.
He tried not to look out the window, to squint into the night, scanning for those who wanted to know how much he knew, who he told. He didn’t know all of it, but he knew enough to be afraid. Big players: Drayton Lewis the tech magnate, Senator Herrera from Texas with a lifetime of political IOUs, and others—he could sense them, but he hadn’t turned over their particular rock yet.
Hurry, Jake. Hurry.
Jake booted up his desktop, his foot bouncing a staccato rhythm. They were clever, all right, clever to the point of arrogance. And that’s how he’d found them.
With a few quick keystrokes he started the scrubbing program on his hard drive and the backup that would overwrite both drives. Then he stuffed the new laptop into his shoulder bag, killed the lights, and headed out the door.
With no one at work to help, Jake knew he had to get word to someone. Without a whole lot of luck, and some serious help, he was a dead man. Shelby would know what to do.
But the information could get her killed.
He’d thought long and hard about how to show her where to look. He’d been careful, but had he been careful enough?
At this point, out of time and using up luck by the second, he had no choice.
They had to be stopped, and, of everyone he knew, Shelby was the only one who could handle the heat and crack the code. Together they could outmaneuver these guys. His sister had more lives than a cat and a bite more vicious than a pissed-off Doberman. And she could dig—if anyone could take what he’d found and put names to it, she could.
The elevator dinged its arrival, tripping his heart, which already pounded. As the doors opened, he paused. Looking back, he took a quick look around; he couldn’t help himself. He’d liked it here—writing the security for the trading programs, being a cog in the wheel of global trade. With a sigh, he flicked off the lights and stepped into the elevator.
The clock was ticking.
After the doors closed and he was alone with his thoughts, Jake punched the button for the fifth floor. The guard wouldn’t be at the monitors—he still had a lot of real estate to check—nonetheless, Jake would have to be quick.
The elevator slowed to a stop. Fifth floor. As the doors eased open Jake fought the instinct to cringe, to hide—he half expected they’d crawled inside his head and knew what he was doing. They’d been in every other crevice. He ran a hand through his hair. Calm down. If they knew… Stop! Think!
After punching the hold button to keep the car there, he ran for the mailroom. The pre-addressed FedEx box waited where he’d hidden it. Each floor had a mailroom. He’d chosen this one at random, but primarily because he had no connection with anyone or any department that had offices there. After wrapping the laptop quickly in two layers of bubble wrap, he shoved it in the box, sealed it, and then put it in the early pickup box. It’d be on its way before the workday got fully underway. Filling his shoulder bag with a thinner box so it looked as it had when he’d left his office, he took a deep breath and bolted for the waiting elevator. Less than thirty seconds and he was back riding down to the lobby.
Jake had calmed himself by the time the doors opened, disgorging him into the large marble and glass atrium that never warmed, not even in the heat of the New York summers. The perfect heart for a corporate collective where “survival of the fittest” and “he who dies with the most toys wins” were rules branded on men’s souls.
His footfalls echoed as he strode across the lobby, working hard to act as if today was the same as any other. But it wasn’t. After today, there would be no going back. And Jake was fine with that. If not exposed, the secrets would eat at him until there was nothing left. So, either way, he was doomed.
Sorry to draw you into this, Shelby.
A year apart, he and his sister been close once, until Shelby had taken up the sword against big business and Jake had sold himself to her devil. As much as he hated to admit it, his sister had been right.
The security guard met him at the door with a smile, pushing it open. “All work and no play, Mr. Walker.”
Jake gripped the man’s shoulder—a quick connection that felt final. “Some days are like that, Ethan.”
The man nodded as if he had a clue. For a moment Jake was envious of the guard. Four advanced degrees and I’m jealous of the night watchman. Jake chided himself, but he recognized his emotion—the last dying gasp of idealism. But somehow having taken a stand, having put in motion things that would stop them, Jake felt better. A surging sense of relief rushed through him—he would do that, he was that kind of guy, even when his life was on the line.
Jake stepped through the door, stopping once outside the penumbra of light cast through the glass. The night air, muggy and dense, smothered him like a plastic sheet. Sweat popped, beading on his skin still cool from the air-conditioned office. The discomfort proved he was still alive, which, all things considered, was a good thing and by no means assured—although his prospects were looking up.
He’d done it. He’d really done it. The vise around his chest loosened, and he took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
Night had scoured the streets of people. A random can, skittered by a silent breeze, made him jump. Jake crossed the strap of his shoulder bag across his chest. The doorways stood empty, the storefronts shuttered, One World Center a beacon of light standing high above.
New York’s fabled financial district—the beating heart of capitalism. Now a sleeping lion, it would awake to consume its fill again tomorrow.
A frisson of fear shivered through him, making the hair on the back of his neck rise.
So close. He’d made it this far. All he had to do was get to the airport—a ticket to Houston in his breast pocket. He’d paid cash, but computers remembered, and there was always a trail if someone knew where to look and how to follow it. He ought to know—he was a master at that game.
Head facing forward, eyes scanning as he maintained an outwardly casual interest in his surroundings, he turned and strode toward the Ritz. It wasn’t far. He could catch a cab there.
He whirled at a noise behind him. Pausing, his heart accelerating, he stared into the darkness.
Sam Donovan was in her usual position—flat on her back.
Even though she’d pulled the small plane into her hangar that hunkered between the larger Coast Guard Air Station Houston Hangar and the even larger NASA one, the heat from the floor burned through her thin shirt—a vestige of the sun on its path, the light angling in through the open hangar door. Her east-facing hangar took the worst of the morning sun.
Only June and already the temperature and humidity in this reclaimed swamp south of Houston were off the charts. Cicadas sang from hiding places among the leaves on the few trees stubborn enough to live despite little water and intense reflected heat. A lone seagull called. Moisture beaded on the relative cool of the hangar floor. Sam had no doubt that if she tossed some water on the tarmac, she’d hear it sizzle and pop in the summer skillet.
Seattle would be misty and cool….
How had her father convinced her to give up the bush-plane charter company and move to this hellhole? Sam shook her head in disgust. Her mother had come, too. They’d done it for family, even though theirs was as fractured as any, and more than most here in the sanctimonious South, which itched like a hair shirt.
Clearly, some boundaries needed to be drawn, but, when it came to her father, Sam wasn’t good at drawing a line in the sand. Patrick Donovan was known for crossing most lines anyway. All other areas of her life were ordered, precise—each tool in its spot, each plane centered on the markings on the hangar floor. Yet, her father defied all efforts at pigeonholing. Something Sam found irritating and oddly admirable. Perhaps she wanted the father he couldn’t be.
But, thankfully, right now she wasn’t searching for the glue for a fractured family. Her current problem was something she could actually solve. The spring assembly on the tailwheel of her 1946 J-3 Cub had popped on landing this morning. Thank God she’d been making the landing and not her student. The memory of the plane’s immediate turn when she set the tail down on rollout shivered through her. Experience and quick reflexes kept them from leaving the runway, ground looping, or worse.
Then she would have had to fix more than a spring.
“Wrench.” Sam stuck out her hand.
“Geraldo! Dammit.” The heat had eroded her good humor. She blinked at the sting of sweat that trickled into her eye. Wedged under the tail, she couldn’t reach to wipe it away. She shook her open palm. “Geraldo. Wrench, please.” Where was the boy?
“What manner of wrench would ya’ be needin’?”
Sam froze, the voice a taper lighting her already short fuse. Her father.
She wriggled from under the plane’s elevator, which sat low to the ground, and gazed at the man looming over her. Full head of white hair, ruddy complexion, a bit of a paunch, his chin held a bit too high, as if willing someone to take the first punch—Patrick Donovan in the flesh. Today the scar across his chin—an old oilfield battle wound inflicted when the pressure got too high on a well and it blew the valve, launching a spear of metal three-hundred yards—was etched in bright red. He’d been lucky. His partner, not as much—the metal shot through both his knees. But that scar on her father’s chin had served as a bellwether of his mood for as long as Sam was wise enough to take heed. Red was not a good sign—something had amped him up and raised his blood pressure, although she couldn’t see any other outward sign. In fact, if she didn’t know better, he looked snake-bit, although he was working to cover it up with a grin that barely lifted his lips into an anemic curve. His eyes, bright green and normally dancing with a joke, looked flat and dark.
Lately, he’d kept his distance, ever since their last row, but that one was on him. By Sam’s way of thinking, stealing someone’s plane, even if you brought it back, was just plain bad form.
“Paddy. Been awhile.” Think of the Devil. Sam shook her head and stifled the urge to cross herself. Like the Devil, Patrick Donovan often rode in on a random thought. She had only herself to blame.
“Aye.” A frown darkened his face briefly like a cloud passing across the sun.
“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.” Sam leaned over to root through the toolbox at her father’s feet. After finding the wrench she was looking for, she glanced around the hangar, scanning for Geraldo. The King Air, an older model twin turboprop that was her workhorse, still nestled tail-in in the far back corner. Her Jet Ranger, one of the older models but still an amazing workhorse, took up the center of the hangar, its rotors aligned along its body. The J-3 she was working on, a pre–World War II tube and fabric trainer, she’d pulled just inside the doorway. The floor with its new coat of Epoxy gleamed like china ready for the plating of a holiday meal. A small office, with a subsistence-level apartment above, jutted from the north side of the hangar.
Her helper had vanished.
Wrench in hand, Sam dove back under the plane. “What did you do with Geraldo?”
“The kid launched out of here looking for all the world like he’d been shot from a cannon.”
The wrench fit over the bolt but slipped when she put her elbow to it. “Goddamn it!”
“Mary Catherine!” Paddy actually sounded a bit shocked, which irritated the hell out of her.
“Now I know you didn’t come here to make nice,” Sam growled from under the plane. She hated her name. Hated to be spoken to like a child. And was on the verge of hating her father for it, which didn’t sit well with her at all. Sam counted to ten and then decided she needed another trip through—ten wasn’t enough. This time she held each digit in her brain until thoughts of patricide passed.
“You’ll need to remember that one when you confess to Father Flanagan,” Paddy continued, unaware how close he was to dying. “He’s been asking after you.”
“Been working overtime on your soul, I’m sure. But tell him not to worry on my account. I gave up hypocrisy for Lent. So Geraldo jackrabbited. Thank you for that. But, really, it’s little wonder considering the last time you were here.” Sam knew there wasn’t much good that could come from worrying that knot, but she couldn’t resist.
“Aye. You were a bit cheesed.”
“More than a bit. You stole my plane.”
Patrick Donovan, Paddy to his friends, pressed a hand to his chest in mock indignation. “Stole! I was just borrowin’ it a wee bit. I returned it.”
Sam needed a different wrench. After rolling out from under the stabilator, she returned the wrench to its slot in the toolbox. With a clean mechanic’s rag, she worked at the oil staining her hands to little effect, then pressed herself to her feet. “With bullet holes in the stabilator, no explanation, and the DEA hot on your heels. Took me a month to get my plane out of impound.”
Paddy spread his arms wide. “See there, nothing lost.”
“Except for the legal fees and the revenue I would’ve earned had I had the plane in service, not to mention parts and labor.” He started to argue, but Sam waved his words away. “I’m taking it you are not here to apologize.”
“Ah, you be thankin’ your mother for that tongue.”
“Don’t you be speakin’ of Ma. She’s a saint.” Sam clamped her lips closed—words, once spoken, couldn’t be unheard. Those said in anger often provoked regret.
His cheeks flushed, his eyes all misty, her father stared at her, seeming at a loss for words, and then he said, “I am sorry. Sometimes life…” He sighed and then started over. “Sometimes I miscalculate.”
Despite being hardwired to the self-preservation mode, Sam lowered her shield a hint. She’d never seen him without a ready gambit. “Is that what you call it?” She softened her tone. Asking someone to be what they weren’t never worked out well, not that she’d forgiven him for stealing the plane. She knew he hadn’t planned it; it had just happened. But, despite the almost near perfect futility, she had a mind to try to teach him a lesson. Things had to change—he had to change—for all of them. He needed a good scare, but, if her father was afraid of anything, Sam had yet to see it.
Jamming his hands in his pockets, Paddy turned to look through the hangar door into the heat of the day. It shimmered off the tarmac in waves, distorting the world like a funhouse mirror. “I’ve made mistakes—left the wrong woman, trusted the wrong people, tiptoed on the wrong side of the line more than once. When I make my way to the Pearly Gates, I’m sure Saint Peter will have a one-way ticket to Purgatory for me.” He angled a glance at his daughter. “I’m not saying I won’t deserve it. But I will say, when I made my choices, I thought they were the right ones. Perhaps I didn’t think it through.”
Sam snorted. She’d heard it all before. “Thinkin’. Not your strong suit.” She clamped her lips together. He was doing it again, sucking her in, poking at the beehive of worry that she might have far more Patrick Donovan blood coursing through her veins than made her comfortable.
“You’ve made yourself a nice place here.” Paddy clasped his hands behind his back as he let his gaze wander.
“Paddy, I’m working fourteen hours a day, barely keeping the lights on and the lender off my ass, and the Coast Guard wants to get rid of me.” As the only civilian operation in the secure area of Ellington Field just south of Houston, she’d become a thorn in the side of the Homeland Security folks, a tempest stirred up by her neighbor, the Coast Guard’s Air Station Houston.
“Your father’s daughter.” Paddy sounded proud, but not happy. “You’ll figure it out—you always do. And the Coast Guard won’t evict you. Commander Wilder won’t let them.” Backlit by the sunlight behind him, his expression was unreadable.
“Wilder! He’s leading the charge.”
“Don’t be too sure.”
Sam hated it when her father used that superior tone. “Is that why you came here? To fill my head with ideas that Commander Wilder is going to be my Galahad? You’re wasting your time. Men! They always have an angle. You taught me that.”
Her father deflated, a balloon pierced by the sharp point of her cynicism. “Aye. Leavin’ your Ma and you—that’ll be a sin I carry on my soul. I might not be able to make it up to the Almighty, but I aim to try to fix what’s between the three of us.”
“I saw what your leaving did to Ma. I’ll not be forgivin’ you.”
“Then that’ll be a burden you carry. But don’t let my folly ruin your happiness.” Paddy turned and grabbed her hands in his, surprising Sam before she could retreat. “I am sorry. I was a fool. Lessons often come too late, but now perhaps it was for the best.”
“How can breaking a woman’s heart be for the best?” Sam vibrated with anger—this was not the discussion for today, maybe not for any day. She’d shut him out; it was the only way she knew to protect herself. And she’d rather die than see him hurt her mother again.
“Break her heart, perhaps save her life,” Paddy murmured, looking pained.
“What?” Sam wrenched her hands from his, then pushed at a lock of curly red hair, tucking it back under her ball cap as she flipped the brim around to the back.
Paddy’s expression opened, as if he wanted to explain, reaching for the words before he gave his head a quick shake. “You’ve got your mother’s eyes. So green—a piece of the Emerald Isle.”
They were his eyes, not her mother’s. Sam had always chaffed under the comparison, but he knew that. She narrowed her eyes as if focus would give her a clue as to the game he was playing. It didn’t. It never did.
He dug into his front pocket and pulled out something silver that reflected the light. “Here. Take this.” He pressed the object into Sam’s hand.
Small and light—a key to a padlock maybe? “What’s this to?”
“The answers, if you ever find yourself lookin’ for some.” He tried for a smile and then leaned into her. “If something happens, if I don’t come back, look where you would expect to find something I hold dear.”
A niggle of worry chased a chill down Sam’s spine. “Never come back? What are you talking about?”
Patrick drew back, running a hand through his hair, standing it on end. “Phillip has a story. I’m tellin’ ya’, lass, it’s a wild one. Didn’t believe him at first. But, they got him spooked for sure.”
“Uncle Phil? Spooked?” Sam couldn’t imagine what it would take to scare the senior senator from Texas. Worried now, she couldn’t keep the sharpness out of her voice. “About what?”
“I can’t be tellin’ you.” His voice shook.
Sam could tell he was afraid. She grabbed his shoulders. “Da? Does this have something to do with your new well? The one you’ve leveraged your soul to drill?”
“You may be right there, lass.”
“You need to tell me.”
He shook his head. “Promise me you won’t go looking unless I’m not there to give you the answers.”
“Promise. It’s bad business.” He gave her a slight smile. “Please?”
Her father never asked nicely. “Okay.”
“There.” He seemed satisfied.
Whirling at the sound of running footsteps echoing off the tarmac, Paddy stiffened. Fear sliced across his face as he pulled away and then stepped back. He relaxed as two figures, one tall and broad, one small and slight, pounded around the corner and through the door.
“Over here.” Geraldo motioned. A lean and lanky refugee with shaggy black hair, skin the color of pecan shells, a tentative smile, and a love for anything that flew, the kid had showed up out of the blue one day and stayed, despite Sam’s best efforts to run him off.
Commander Wilder, the taller, broader of the two, followed on the boy’s heels. Both of them skidded to a stop in front of Sam and Paddy. The boy’s eyes, dark with worry, darted between Sam and her father. A look of bemused consternation softened the angled planes of the commander’s face. A flush of embarrassment rose. The boy had oversold the danger. The commander should know Sam and her father lived life at the top of their lungs, and, while death might be threatened, they had yet to start shooting at each other.
Sam stashed the key in a pocket then crossed her arms and stepped back. Just like Wilder to dash into her hangar, loaded for bear like…Galahad. She snuck a look at her father. He knew what she was thinking, and he raised an eyebrow to tell her so, which made her smile.
Suddenly a bit self-conscious, Sam tugged at the damp white tank top that clung to her skin. Not a good choice in hindsight, but it was the coolest thing she had that was clean. Under the intensity of the commander’s gaze, she tried not to squirm.
Commander Kellen Wilder. Just his voice warmed her to the core and sent her thoughts tumbling in a direction she didn’t want them to go. She’d been fantasizing about him since she’d met him. Tall, broad, and tapered, with blue eyes and dark, almost black hair which he wore a trifle too long to suit his higher-ups, Commander Wilder was a perfect poster boy for the Coast Guard. Whether he intended it or not, his mere presence demanded attention.
Yep, he’d been the stuff of dreams…right up until the Coast Guard focused on getting her operation kicked off the airport. “Can I help you?” Sam kept a mildly interested expression on her face as she met him eye-to-eye. When his gaze shifted over her shoulder to the plane she’d been working on, she allowed herself a moment to appreciate all of Kellen Wilder. She didn’t feel bad about that—he invited the attention in the almost-too-tight flight suit, which he wore well, damn him.
The commander looked a bit curious as he glanced between Sam and her father. “The boy here told me I needed to hurry. Apparently he was worried about a future homicide.”
“Homicide?” Sam said as if the idea appealed to her. “None imminent, but my finger is still on the trigger.”
Donovan shifted, but he let her do the talking, which put her guard up.
Wilder extended a hand as he clasped the older man’s shoulder with the other. “Paddy.”
There was warmness between then, and affection, a respect of sorts. “Wilder.” The older man gave the commander’s hand a solid shake, then stepped back.
To Sam, the fact that her father liked Kellen Wilder was a huge red flag.
Paddy cleared his throat. “I’ve got to go, Mary—”
Sam silenced him with a shake of her head. Despite the hundreds of times she’d lectured him on the difficulty of being taken seriously as a woman in the man’s world of aviation, he refused to understand her adoption of a more gender-neutral moniker.
“Sam,” her father quickly corrected. When he said her name, it had a note of finality to it.
She felt a frisson of panic, a need to keep him there, to keep him safe from himself and whomever he was running from this time. “Da?”
“You’ll know.” He gave her a wink.
With that, he turned and was gone.
Sam stared after him, working to breathe, as if he’d taken all of the air with him.