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Cameron Morgan pulled his cowboy hat from his head, leaned his eye against the scanner next to the door and waited for the green light to pan across his eyeball. When the lock clicked open, he straightened and stepped through the heavy glass doors into the spacious offices of Prescott Personal Securities. After being gone for the past month on assignment, he felt as if he was coming home. He inhaled, expecting the soothing scents of eucalyptus and furniture polish. Instead, an acrid aroma stung his nostrils.
"Hi, Angel," he said to the receptionist behind the bleached pine countertop. Cameron wrinkled his nose.
"Was there a chemical spill somewhere?"
Angel, the street punk adopted by the agency's owner out of some attempt at being charitable, rolled her eyes. "'Sup?" She barely looked up as she smacked her gum between black lipstick-covered lips while she painted another coat of dead black polish on her clawlike fingernails.
Cameron wrinkled his nose. Ah, the source of the odor. "Do you have to do that here?"
She answered by raising her brows. No wonder memos from Angel were often misspelled and calls were misdirected. With nails like that, she couldn't possibly hit the right keys on the computer keyboard or the telephone switchboard. Despite the everythingblack, Goth look, she showed an occasional spark of intelligence that invariably took everyone by surprise and she was puppy-dog loyal to the boss.
"Any messages?" he asked.
"Give me a few, and I'll check." She capped the fingernail polish and shook her hands, blowing on the wet paint.
"A few" meant some time in the next hour or twoif she remembered after the paint fumes subsided and her brain activity reengaged.
Cameron shook his head and continued on to his office. Before he'd gone five steps, Angel called out, "Hey, wait. I was supposed to tell you something."
Perhaps the cloud of vapor had cleared and she was remembering. Cameron turned and smiled, encouraging the young woman.
Her pale forehead wrinkled and her thickly lined eyes squinted to slits. "Oh, yeah, the boss wants you in the conference room."
"When?" Cameron tapped his Stetson against his thigh.
She stopped chewing her gum long enough to snort and say, "Like, now. I believe her words were ASAP." She resumed blowing on her nails and smacking her gum.
Letters. A S A and P are letters. Cameron inhaled and blew out a calming stream of air before he smiled again. This wasn't the first time Angel had delayed an urgent message or misdirected a memo. He couldn't even count the number of times they'd had to call the repairman to fix the copier after she'd done whatever she did to break it. One of the machine mechanics had gone so far as to nickname her the Angel of Death. "Thanks, Angel. What would we all do without you?" Hire a real secretary?
"I don't know, but you better hurry," she said without looking up.
When Cameron entered the conference room, every gaze turned toward him. Four other agents sat around the table and an elegant blonde stood at the head. He nodded toward his friend, Jack Sanders, seated to his left and then fixed his attention on the woman standing, Evangeline Prescott, head of Prescott Personal Securities. "You wanted to see me?"
With her long blond hair pulled back in a French twist and wearing a medium gray skirt suit, Evangeline was a cool professional with a warm smile. She looked much better than she had when she'd first lost her husband in a plane crash two years ago. Perhaps she was finally moving on.
Evangeline stood with a laser pointer resting in her palm and her back turned to a projected view of a map depicting the state of Colorado. With a brief smile she nodded toward a seat. "Good. You got my message. If you'll take a seat, I'll explain why you're here." She nodded, the few curls that had managed to escape bobbed with the motion. "Remember the disk that arrived at the office during the Nick Warner case?"
The head of Prescott Personal Securities made it a Cameron nodded.
"Cassie deciphered the codes and she's been working with Lenny to figure out what exactly we have and what it means."
"How's that going?" Cameron glanced from Cassie, who hadn't looked up yet, to William Lennard, affectionately nicknamed Lenny, the group's incredibly adept techno geek.
"Good, Cam, real good." The red-haired young man's gaze remained affixed to the computer screen. He clicked the keys and the image on the big screen zoomed closer.
Cameron was used to Lenny being less than communicative at times. When he got wrapped up in solving a computer puzzle, he lost track of everything else, including time and polite conversation. Which made the hairs on the back of Cameron's neck rise. What was Lenny working on now?
Cameron's gaze panned to Mike Lawson and Cassie Allen sitting close together, peering at a printout on the table between them. Mike glanced up and nodded. "We've made a little progress." He nudged Cassie, who looked to Mike first. Deaf since college, she hadn't heard Cameron enter. When she turned toward him, her face lit with a smile. "Hi, Cameron."
He nodded and remained standing. "So what did you find on the disk?" And what does it have to do with me?
"Actually, we think the disk is full of land coordinates. Lenny was just showing us where one of those coordinates is in the state of Colorado. Would you do us the honors?" Evangeline glanced at their techno geek.
Lenny clicked a single key. The projected view zoomed in until Cameron could read the town namesone in particular. "Are you familiar with a small town northwest of Denver called Dry Wash?" Evangeline used the laser pointer to indicate the position on the map.
Was he familiar? Did spending the first eighteen years of your life count toward familiarity? Cameron molded the brim of the light brown Stetson in his hands. "Yes. It's my hometown." He directed his stare to Evangeline, his eyes narrowing. "But you know that."
Evangeline nodded. "The coordinates pinpoint a location near there. I had Lenny pull up the online county plats and overlay it with the exact coordinates."
Cameron stepped closer to the screen, recognition igniting the nerves in his gut. Lines drawn over an aerial photograph delineated the Bar M Ranch from the Flying W Ranch to the south. The point on the map indicated an area on the border between the two ranches. "The Bar M is my father's ranch and the Flying W belongs to Hank Ward." He glanced at Evangeline. "What's the significance of the location?"
"We don't know exactly, but we know a little more about some of the other coordinates." Evangeline nodded to Lenny. "Show him the other view, please."
"Yes, ma'am." Lenny clicked several keys and a broader view of Colorado appeared on the screen with red dots sprinkled across the map.
"These are some of the other coordinates listed on the disk." She pointed to two of them. "We've researched these two. The land is owned by a company called Tri Corp. Media." She shot a glance toward Mike.
"Mike, tell them what you found out about these locations."
Mike's face was poker straight. "They're known to be rich in oil and they were previously owned by Milo Kardascian and James Durgin, our dead CEOs. They sold their companies and land for cash and shares in Kingston Trust to pay off debt."
"So you have two CEOs who sold out for cash and shares, Tri Corp. Media bought the companies and land and both CEOs are now dead." Cameron shrugged.
"Sounds suspicious. Why don't you take it to the police?"
Jack shook his head. "And tell them what? We don't have any solid evidence to point toward Tri Corp. Media. For all we know TCM is just a company that knows when to make a good deal."
Evangeline paced in front of the screen, the light from the projector painting mottled images across her gray suit. "All we have is this land coordinate and the disk. That and a few other puzzle pieces."
"What puzzle pieces?"
Mike jumped in. "Durgin came to us scared he would be the next man murdered from a list of Kingston Trust investors."
None of this was making much sense to Cameron. "Why don't you go to the investment company that manages the trust and get the list of investors?"
"That's just it, it's a blind trust," Evangeline responded. "They don't have to share the names of the investors unless we get a court order and send in the police. We don't have enough evidence to do that yet. We're going on supposition."
Lenny raised his hand. "I'm checking into Kingston and hope to know something soon."
Mike added, "There's also Milo Kardascian's connection to the Russian mob through his gambling debts."
"Wait a minute. Do you think the Russian mob is involved in this?" Cameron tapped his hat against his thigh, his brain scrambling to take it all in.
Evangeline's shoulders rose and fell. "We're not certain of anything yet. We do know Kardascian was a habitual gambler. He frequented the mob-run private gambling establishments in Central City where he gambled his way deep into debt."
Jack snorted. "And the mob demands payment in one form or another."
With too many questions and not enough answers, Cameron wasn't liking where this investigation was going. "Do you think the mob or the owners of the trust are going to go after this land because of the oil?"
"Possibly." Cassie had been watching Cameron intently, reading his lips. "Rather be safe than sorry. Apparently each investor only knows the name of one other investor as far as we can tell. We only know of the two who've died recently."
Evangeline picked up the story. "Durgin had been told he himself was a target by the investor who had his name. Durgin knew only one other name, but he didn't get to tell us before he was murdered. He was scared and asked for our protection. Unfortunately, someone got to him."
"Let me get this straight. A business deal is about to go down somewhere along the border of the Bar M and the Flying W."
Evangeline nodded. "That's what we think." "Are we looking at a possible payment or a transfer of land or mineral rights?" Cameron asked.
Evangeline glanced at Rick and Cassie. "Apparently, the two CEOs sold their land before they knew it was rich in oil. They might not have known about the oil, but someone else did. Maybe the Russian mob that let Milo rack up a huge gambling debt, or the owner of the Kingston Trust. Maybe TCM has a hand in this. We don't know yet. We do know that once the CEOs invested in the trust with their companies and land, they were murdered."
For several seconds, the news sank in. A knot formed in the pit of Cameron's belly. "You think that once they get the owners to sell or invest their land in the Kingston Trust, they kill them to keep the profits for themselves?"
"You tell me. We're just guessing at this point."
"What if the landowners don't want to sell?" Cameron asked. "I know these people, their families have ranched that land all their lives."
Mike tapped a pen to the table. "Kardascian and Durgin were forced to sell to get out of debt."
"These ranchers don't gamble." Cameron snorted.
"Hell, they don't have time. They're too busy trying to eke out a living raising cattle."
"There are other ways to force people out." Evangeline stared hard at Cameron. "They could ruin the business so they're forced to sell. They've proven themselves ruthless, who's to say they won't take more drastic measures?"
Cameron froze. "You mean kill them and buy the property from the estate?"
"We don't know for sure, but maybe. It looks like the Dry Wash location is the next acquisition target. That's why we brought you in."
Lenny clicked a key and the view screen zoomed in on the county plat map. The Bar M and the Flying W property lines reappeared in clear, clean lines.
Cameron stood still, his heart pounding in his chest and his thoughts racing ahead to the Bar M Ranch, his father, mother, brother and sister. Were they in danger? Surely they wouldn't target an entire family to get the property. There were five of them, counting himself.
His gaze shifted to the Flying W, unless they planned to go after the low-hanging fruit. Hank Ward's wife, Louise, had died eighteen years ago. They'd only had one child.
The air left his lungs in a rush. JennieWard. His Jennie. Only she wasn't his Jennie anymore. She'd married right after he left ten years ago. Although widowed now, she had no children of her own, that left just the two WardsHank and Jennie.
"What's the game plan?" Cameron's gaze swept the room coming to rest on Evangeline.
"We think the Wards and the Morgans need some warning about what might happen, and we recommend
Cameron snorted. "Neither one of the families will They take care of their own."
"I was thinking of sending Jack in to speak to them," Evangeline continued.
Already shaking his head, Cameron shot a look at Jack. "No offense, but they won't listen to an outsider. My father might listen, because he knows Jack. Hank Ward is an entirely different story."
"You know him?" Evangeline asked.
"Yes, ma'am." Cameron dropped his hand, running the brim of his Stetson through his fingers. "But he won't listen to a stranger."
"Then could you go with Jack to make sure they take the threat seriously?" Evangeline asked.
The air in the room pressed in around Cameron. Go to the Flying W? Would Jennie be there? Ten years was a long time. Why did he still feel such a strong tug in his chest when he thought of Jennie? "The Wards and the Morgans have been feuding for close to thirty years. Don't think it would do much good."
Evangeline's blue eyes darkened. "I don't care if the Hatfields and McCoys are feuding, someone has to tell these people what they're up agai"
"I'll go." Cameron couldn't believe the words jumped out of his mouth. The more he thought about it, the more he realized Jennie could be in danger. Jack was an excellent agent, one of the best, and he'd do a good job. However, Cameron couldn't live with himself if something happened to Jennie and he wasn't there to stop it. "I'll go," he repeated.
Evangeline's mouth was still open from her last word. She shut it and tipped her head to the side. "You're the right man to inform your family, but maybe Jack should speak to the Wards."
"Look, I never went along with the feud. I thought it was a stupid waste of time." That had always been the problem in his father's eyes. If he'd stuck to the Morgan's side of the fence, he never would have fallen in love with Jennie and he and his family would still get along. "Let me speak to the Wards."