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The lights weren't supposed to be off.
Irritation, tinged with a tickle of uneasiness, skittered through Annie Compton. She fumbled in the predawn darkness to jab her key into the lock at Pop's Diner. Her boss, Peter Hardin, was supposed to have left the outside light on to deter burglars and to illuminate the front door for the employee who opened the diner in the morning. Today, Annie was said employee with the unenviable responsibility of showing up at 5:00 a.m.
She grumbled under her breath as she groped on the shadowed door to locate the lock's slot. The door moved unexpectedly. Just a fraction of an inch, but enough to catch Annie's attention. A bolted door shouldn't have wiggled that much.
Annie pulled the handle, and the heavy glass door swung open. Her pulse spiked. Turning on the front light wasn't all her boss had neglected when he closed the restaurant last night.
Gritting her teeth, she entered the diner and flipped on the overhead lights. The cold bluish-white glow of the fluorescent bulbs flooded the dining room.
"Hello? Mr. Hardin?" She scanned the empty restaurant cautiously. Listened. Waited. "Is anyone here?"
When she heard nothing, saw no one, she released the breath she held and crossed the floor. Annie stashed her purse behind the lunch counter, wishing she could call grouchy Mr. Hardin on the carpet for his gaffes. Considering her boss had only criticism for her waitressing skills, she figured turnabout was fair play.
She huffed a humorless laugh as she plucked out a coffee filter and dropped it into the brewing basket. The man had left the diner unlocked, for crying out loud! Compared to exposing the restaurant to theft, her forgetting to refillthe saltshakers was nothing.
Problem was, neglecting the saltshakers wasn't her worst mistake. Her gut clenching, she poured a carafe of water into the coffeemaker. She'd made her biggest blunder ever just a few nights before—a royal screwup that Hardin claimed had cost him two hundred thousand dollars. The amount seemed preposterous to her, but her boss insisted that was how much she'd lost him.
Annie's hands shook as she measured out the coffee grinds. She could never make up for losing Mr. Hardin so much money. She guessed she was lucky she still had her job, lucky he hadn't beaten her senseless the way Walt would have.
Thoughts of her violent ex-husband sent another shiver down her back. She rubbed the goose bumps on her arms and squared her shoulders. Never again.
If she had to work this dead-end waitress job the rest of her life, barely making ends meet for herself and her two young children, the price was worth her freedom from her abusive marriage. No man would ever hurt her or her children again.
Annie jabbed the power switch, and with a hiss and a waft of rich aroma, the morning java began dripping into the pot.
A glance around the diner showed numerous cleaning jobs that had been ignored at closing last night. She pressed her lips in a taut line of frustration. Perhaps this was part of her boss's plan to punish her for her colossal and costly mistake three nights earlier. Perhaps she deserved as much.
Two hundred thousand dollars. Acid bit her gut. How could she ever make up for that mistake?
Sighing her resignation, she took a clean rag from the cabinet and headed to the kitchen for a bucket of soapy water to start cleaning tables.
She noticed the foul odor as soon as she stepped through the swinging door from the dining room. Wrinkling her nose, she flipped the lights on and checked for some food item that might have been left out to spoil. But not even rotten milk smelled this bad.
Coupled with the unlocked front door, the putrid scent gave her pause. Too many things seemed off-kilter at the diner this morning.
A ripple of apprehension shimmied through her. Annie hesitated by the main grill, which still sported last night's grease.
"Mr. Hardin, are you there?" She heard the quiver of fear in her tone and pressed a hand to her swirling stomach. "Hello?"
She took a few baby steps forward, scanning the dirty kitchen. Rounding the industrial-size freezer, she crept into the back hall.
On the floor, a pair of feet jutted through the open door to the manager's office.
Annie gasped. Dear heavens! Had he fallen? Had a heart attack?
"Mr. Hardin!" she cried, rushing forward.
When she reached the office door, Annie drew up short.
Her breath froze in her lungs. Bile surged to her throat. Black spots danced at the edge of her vision.
Peter Hardin lay in a puddle of blood, his eyes fixed in a blank, sightless stare. Two bullet holes pocked his chest, and a third marred his forehead.
Annie stumbled backward, horror clogging her throat.
Numb, shaking, light-headed, she edged away from her grisly discovery.
Shock and denial finally yielded to terror. A scream wrenched from her throat and echoed in the empty kitchen.
Her boss was dead. Murdered.
And though she hadn't pulled the trigger, Annie was certain Hardin's murder was her fault.
Three days earlier
He'd stalked his prey long enough. Time to move in for the kill.
Over the rim of his coffee cup, Jonah Devereaux eyed the rotund, balding man across the Formica table from him.
Everything Jonah had learned to date in his investigation told him Farrout was the muscle of the gambling operation, the gatekeeper. Getting past Farrout, rooting out the players up the chain of command was what the past six months had been about.
"Mark my words. Kansas will go all the way," Ted Pulliam, one of Farrout's lackeys, said, jabbing the diner's table with his finger for emphasis.
Jonah grunted and lowered his coffee. "North Carolina. They're a powerhouse with a winning legacy to uphold."
Pulliam scoffed. "All right, Devereaux, put your money where your mouth is." The wiry man with faded tattoos slapped a Jackson on the table. "Twenty bucks. And I'll give you five points."
Jonah schooled his face and divided a bland look between Pulliam and Farrout, sizing them up. Weighing his decision to push his investigation to the next level.
He drained the cold dregs of his coffee and shoved the mug to the end of the table. In seconds, their waitress had snagged the coffeepot and stepped over to refill his cup.
Lifting a hand, Jonah waved her off. "Naw, I'm done, Annie. Thanks anyway."
"Gentlemen, we close in ten minutes. Can I get you anything else?" the attractive brunette asked as she cleared away the dirty mug.
Sure. I'll take an order of inside information about the local gambling ring with a side of details on the money-laundering operation I suspect your boss is running. Hold the onions.
If only it were that easy.
Instead, he'd spent months investigating the illegal activities he'd traced to Pop's Diner, and he still didn't have the evidence he needed to resolve the case and turn his information over to the local police.
The evidence he needed to give Michael justice.
Pushing aside thoughts of his mentor, Jonah flashed Annie a quick smile. "Just my bill."
While posing as a paper-mill worker who'd recently moved to the area, Jonah had eaten enough greasy meals at the small diner to send his cholesterol count into the stratosphere—a lesser-known hazard of undercover work that'd take countless hours in the gym to rectify. At least the coffee was good. God knew he'd guzzled enough of the brew at Pop's to last a lifetime.
But over the weeks, his regular meals at Pop's had gained him the level of familiarity with the locals he needed to loosen a few tongues and open a door or two. Things were finally beginning to fall into place.
He shifted his gaze to Farrout and pitched his voice low. "I want the real action. Five grand on UNC to win it all."
Pulliam fell silent and sat back in the booth.
Farrout lifted a thick black eyebrow. One taut second ticked after another, the tension screwing Jonah's gut into a tight knot. Unflinching, he held the portly man's stare.
Finally, Farrout narrowed his eyes to slits. "Ten."
Jonah sighed, pretending to consider the higher stakes. He couldn't seem too eager or too free with his cash. The working-class stiff he was supposed to be wouldn't have ten thousand dollars to lose on a careless bet. Not that he had that kind of money to lose, either.
He rubbed his thumb idly on the handle of his spoon and glanced out the plate-glass window to the night-darkened street. "That's pretty steep."
Farrout shrugged lazily. "I gotta know if you're for real or if you're just wasting my time. First bet is always ten grand, minimum."
Pulliam twisted his lips into a taunting grin. "How sure are you of UNC now?"
Keeping a stoic face, Jonah drummed his fingers on the table in an intentional display of nerves. "I can go eight now, two more next payday."
Farrout's fleshy lips twitched. "Deal."
Annie returned with separate checks for the three men. When she reached for Farrout's plate, he grabbed her wrist with his meaty hand and squeezed. "Did I say I was through?"
Wincing, Annie gave Farrout a wide-eyed glance. "I'm sorry. I just thought—"
Fury burned inside Jonah, and he stiffened. "Let go of her."
The barrel-chested man returned a cold stare. "Butt out, Devereaux."
Jonah gritted his teeth. "Let. Go."
Annie's cheeks had drained of color, and her dark eyes rounded with apprehension.
A muscle jumped in Farrout's jaw, but he released Annie with an angry thrust. "Watch yourself, Devereaux. I don't like people sticking their nose where it don't belong."
Hell. He didn't need to blow his investigation by pissing Farrout off. But he damn well wouldn't sit by and let him rough up a woman, either. He'd done that too often as a kid when his dad was in one of his moods, and the guilt still ate at him.
Annie rubbed her offended wrist and cast a quick, curious glance at Jonah before hurrying back to the lunch counter.
Over the months he'd been working the case, he'd gotten to know all of the waitresses by name. Annie was the most reticent of the waitstaff, but she was also the most intriguing. Though attentive and polite to a fault, she was far less inclined to engage in good-natured banter and flirting the way the other servers did. An air of mystery surrounded her, partly because of her shyness, partly because she wore her silky dark tresses in a style reminiscent of the sultry movie stars of the 1940s—parted on the side with a curtain of hair covering one cheek.
Jonah had caught a glimpse of that hidden cheek once and seen the scars she was concealing. Those scars added to the enigma that was Annie but, in his opinion, didn't detract from her pretty face. Clearly she thought otherwise, or she wouldn't work so hard to hide the jagged pink lines.
As Jonah dug his wallet out of his back pocket, Farrout and Pulliam slid out of the booth and sauntered to the counter with their checks.
"Put it on my tab, doll face," Farrout said, tossing his ticket on the counter and turning to leave.
Pulliam added his bill and clicked his tongue. "Ditto."
Annie's brow furrowed, and she shook her head. "But we don't—"
The men ignored her as they walked out, chortling to themselves.
From the booth, Jonah seethed over the men's rudeness. He studied Annie's crestfallen expression, her drooping shoulders and moue of disgust. She slapped the counter with the rag in her hand and huffed loudly.
When she raised her gaze to him, he quickly shifted his attention to his bill and pulled a twenty out of his wallet. He rose from the bench seat and approached the counter where she wiped up the day's mess with more vigor than necessary.
Extending the ticket and cash to her, he smiled ruefully. "Keep the change."
She glanced at the money and frowned. "But all you had was coffee."
He lifted a shoulder as he returned his wallet to his pocket. "Maybe I want to help your day end on a positive note."
Annie gaped at him as if she didn't know what to make of his kindness. As if she'd never encountered generosity before. "But—"
"Annie!" Peter Hardin, the manager of the diner and Jonah's key suspect in the money-laundering scheme, burst through the swinging kitchen door.
Jonah saw Annie tense as her linebacker-size boss stalked over to her.
"I need you to do an errand for me." Hardin slapped a bulky tan envelope on the counter.
Annie's face fell, and she glanced at her watch. "Now? It's almost midnight."
Jonah took his time putting on his jacket, unabashedly eavesdropping on the exchange. Annie's distress around her boss piqued his curiosity.
"Yes, now. This has to be delivered to Fourth Street in the next half hour. It's extremely important, so don't be late with it. Guard this envelope with your life."
Jonah clenched his teeth. Fourth Street was a notoriously bad section of town. This time of night, the area was downright dangerous. What was Hardin thinking, sending a woman on an errand alone in that part of town?
"But—" Annie hesitated, chewing her lip as if debating the wisdom of arguing with her boss. "If it's so important, why aren't you delivering it?"
Hardin glared at her. "I have my reasons. You want a job tomorrow, you deliver that package on time. Got it?"
Annie opened and closed her mouth in dismay, then nodded.
Her boss handed her a scrap of paper and hitched his head toward the front door. "That's the address and the name of the guy you give the package to. Only to him. No one else. Got it? Now, go on. I'll close up."
After fishing her purse out from under the counter, Annie tucked the package against her chest with a sigh.
Jonah watched her leave the diner and walk past the parking lot without stopping. He frowned. She didn't have a car? Walking Fourth Street alone at night could be suicide.
Without giving it a second thought, Jonah fell in step behind Annie. Peter Hardin might not care about his waitress's safety, but Jonah wasn't about to let Annie make that delivery unprotected.
Annie's footsteps reverberated in the dark shadows looming around her. Alone on the downtown street, she clutched the manila envelope to her chest like a shield.
She shouldn't be here. This part of town was dangerous, especially at this late hour. But how could she refuse her boss's order? She couldn't afford to lose her job. She only had a few more minutes left to make Hardin's delivery, and he had been emphatic about the deadline—and the dire consequences if anything happened to the mysterious contents.
Just make the drop and get out of there. Get home. Get safe.
The sound of her shallow breathing rasped a harsh cadence in the quiet March night, and her heartbeat drummed in her ears like a death knell. She slowed her frantic pace, closing her eyes long enough to gather her composure.
Keep your wits and don't blow this.
The drop-off address had to be close. She searched for numbers on the buildings, but the dilapidated storefronts and graffiti-decorated buildings bore no identification.
Posted January 17, 2011
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Posted January 22, 2010
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