After attempting to help the FBI expose a ruthless weapons and drug dealer, Owen Fixx, Amber Kelly enters the Witness Protection Program. Unfortunately, her sister, who was once married to said drug dealer, is forced to join her
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"More whiskey." A man with a belly the size of a watermelon leaned his tattooed forearms on the bar. "Make it a triple."
Amber Kelly leaned her own arms on the bar across from him and met his bleary gaze. "Are you driving, Harry?"
"Truck's got a busted rear axle. I'm hoofing it. Jack Black, Amber. Keep it coming, and I'll give y'all a frigging big tip at closing time."
He would, too. Then she'd hand it back to his wife because Liz and Harry Carver had five teenage boys and Harry preferred hard liquor to hard work. Motioning him over to the pool table, Amber poured a glass of watered-down whiskey and wished like hell two a.m. would arrive.
She'd spent the past month of her life in this backwater Tennessee town. Four endless weeks living with a new name and managing a mediocre bar in a sequestered region of the Smoky Mountains. The scenery was spectacular, the townspeople off and on friendly ...
And God alive, her sister Rachel was the most infuriating pain in the butt on the planet. Where the hell was she on the busiest night they'd had in ten days?
"Getting low on beer here," a man called out. He winked at Amber across the crowded room. "Friday poker should never be played straight."
So claimed the cardsharp banker who owned the best house in Black Creek and held the mortgages on 45 percent of the rest.
With a placid smile, she began refilling pitchers. She didn't bat an eyelash when the door slammed open and a scrawny man with a floppy gray mustache shouted, "Where's my boy?"
"Not here." She kept her eyes on the flowing beer. "Not tonight."
The man was across the floor in a flash. Paulie Murkle reminded her of a revved-up cartoon rabbit, from his twitchy pink nose to his long, thin feet. He blinked his eyes rapidly as he demanded, "You tell me true, Amber. Is he off drinking and diddling that waitress of yours?"
"Could be. She's not here, either." Amber placed a mug of draft on the bar. "I'll put this one on your tab, Paulie. I can't change how Jess or Rachel act, and neither can you."
Paulie snatched up the mug, slopped foam. "Girl's a drunkard and not fit to work here."
Setting five pitchers on a tray, Amber slid them to her lone server. "She's not a girl. And I say she is fit to work here. You're starting to piss me off with your attitude, so let it be and go play poker with the bank."
"I don't play cards with assholes. Hows come you hired someone without experience to work the tables? You shoulda found another like Wendy." He waggled his brows at the fifty-something server who made a point of ignoring him.
Amber fought a wave of irritation. "Rachel's a good person, Paulie. Just maybe not cut out for small-town life."
"Then let her hightail it to Memphis and leave my Jess be."
"Your Jess turned twenty-six last week."
"My Ethan turned twenty-nine last month. What's your point?"
"They're old enough to make their own choices."
"The hell they are." Beer dripped from Paulie's mustache onto the bar. "They stay on the farm with me till I say not."
Please, God. Whisk me to Kansas or California or Little Rock, Arkansas. Anywhere that isn't here at this moment.
With a patient smile, she said, "I'll try Rachel's cell again. She's bound to pick up at some point. Meanwhile, go on over and shoot pool with your fishing buddies."
She speed-dialed her sister as she spoke, and turned away to let her mind slide back twelve short months, to a time when life had been much simpler — or so it had seemed.
Georgia — Rachel now — had sashayed in to see her one night, newly married to Owen Fixx. As hotel manager, Amber had been working an emergency relief shift, dealing blackjack in Fixx's casino. She'd been surprised by the elopement, but happy for her sister. Until six days later when the FBI had come knocking on the door of her Las Vegas condo ...
Her world had taken a definite turn for the worse after that visit. While an oblivious Rachel had settled into married life, fear and suspicion had become Amber's constant companions. She'd transitioned from hotel manager to internal spy in less time than it took to pull the arm of a slot machine.
The discoveries she'd made about her new brother-in-law had stunned her. She'd amassed a file full of damning evidence — thanks in part to the dangerous game she'd chosen to play with his besotted and equally guilty son.
She wasn't proud of her actions in that regard, but she'd weighed the odds and taken the risk. Fixx was a monster, and that monster had been living and sleeping with her sister.
A B-movie of bad memories played in Amber's head. She'd done what the FBI had asked. She'd gathered information and turned it over to her government contact. End of spy story, finally. Fixx would be arrested, Rachel would get a quick divorce, and Amber would find a new job. No one need ever know what she'd done.
Wrong. Someone in the FBI had known. The evidence she'd unearthed had mysteriously vanished, and it had taken every aspect of the life she'd been living with it.
Amber and her sister had been handed over to the US Marshals office and placed in the Witness Protection Program. They'd been given new identities and relocated to Tennessee, where old-style music played day and night, people believed in spooks, and Amber was slowly but surely going out of her mind.
Her gaze flicked through the crowded room to the jukebox in the corner. One of her customers was a diehard Tanya Tucker fan. The playlist really, really, really needed to be updated.
"Answer," she ordered as her sister's cell phone continued to ring. Instead, Rachel's voicemail kicked in. Rocking her head from side to side, Amber waited it out. "Yes, I know, you're unavailable, blah, blah, blah ..." When the message ended, she said simply, "Call me. Now."
Setting her phone down, she glanced at Paulie, who was jabbing a pool cue into the stomach of a man twice his size. A few minutes later, she heard a ring and saw her sister's name on the screen.
"It's about time, Rachel." She turned away. "Where the hell are you? Paulie's on the verge of skewering his neighbor."
"Sounds like my kind of guy," a man's voice drawled back. "Listen, sugar. I got your sister all snug and cozy here with me. Sorry she can't talk right now, but I can and I want you to listen. We're coming for you. In fact, sugar pie, a couple of us are already there."
Gage Morgan loved the King. Not weirdly loved him, but his early music had an edge no other musician could match.
He sat in his open-top '59 Caddy outside the gates of Graceland, slouched down in the driver's seat, savoring his second bottle of Michelob. "Blue Moon of Kentucky" played quietly, traffic was light, and he had a sweet buzz going on — one he hoped to make a whole lot sweeter after this meeting he'd been talked into showing up for ended.
McCabe, the man who'd talked him into it might be a US Marshal, but he wasn't his boss in the true sense of the word. As a US Marshal himself, Gage didn't mind hearing him out. What could it hurt? He wouldn't give a rat's ass no matter what McCabe said. You cared, life got messy, and he'd been there, done that too damn many times already.
Gage heard the footsteps McCabe didn't bother to disguise and smiled as he took another pull on his beer. "Your boots need new soles, my friend. Left one more than the right."
"Your senses are still good, Gage. Means you can only be on your second or third beer, and that makes me uncommonly lucky at quarter to midnight on a Saturday."
"You're luckier than you think. This is only my first beer."
"You could use a shave and a haircut." McCabe vaulted over the door, accepted the bottle Gage handed him. "Yeah, I know, same goes for me." He drank deeply. "It's been a long day."
"I'm not available."
"Tell me something I haven't heard before."
"Just trying to save time. I'm in a funk."
"Who isn't? Bad weather's blown in."
"Does this particular weather involve a woman?"
McCabe chuckled. "Two of them, actually."
"One's smart, the other's resentful. You take this assignment, you'll figure out which is which soon enough."
"Major funk here, McCabe." Reaching for another beer, Gage twisted off the cap, but he swirled rather than drank. "What's the story?"
"They're in the Witness Protection Program — have been for the past month. One of them's missing, presumed taken. The other's gone to ground, no idea where. She's not trained, not really, but she has a surprising amount of common sense. It might keep her alive long enough for you to find her."
"Making her the smart one."
"There you go. You've got it figured out already. As a bonus, she's a looker. Tall, black hair, gold eyes. No idea what her ancestry is, but you won't be disappointed."
"Can't be disappointed by what you never see." Gage kept swirling his beer. "How she looks doesn't matter to me. What's the bottom line?"
"She was asked to gather information for the FBI about one Owen Fixx."
Shit. Gage let a humorless smile cross his lips. "Owen Fixx? The weapons and drug dealer who works for a sadist known as James Mockerie? That Owen Fixx?"
McCabe slanted him a shrewd look. "Intrigued?"
"No. And I'm sure as hell not suicidal."
"You were once."
"Yeah, well, I have more to live for these days. I'm thinking about getting a dog."
"Dogs are a commitment, Gage. You go wherever, whenever, and suicide missions were your style long before you left the LAPD."
Which he'd done for reasons that'd had him shying away from relationships ever since. "Talk to me about Mockerie." Gage let his gaze roam past the gates of Graceland, heard "That's All Right" in the background, and forced himself to stay in the moment. "What's he up to these days?"
"Same as always. Anarchy. Word is, he's found a lucrative overseas market for his weapons. Anywhere wars break out, his people are there, guns, bombs, and drugs at the ready."
"You create hell around you, those who have to live in it need to escape any way they can. What happened to the information your looker dug up?"
Figured. Gage laid his head on the headrest. "How is it Mockerie's minions got a line on her? Did the resentful woman talk?"
"She ran. Maybe she talked. Details are sketchy. All we know is that she's missing." His lips curved. "And here's the kicker: she's the clever one's sister."
Great, just fucking great. "So we're talking blood and affection and the potential for panic at some point because, hello, not a trained agent. Jesus, McCabe, this isn't just suicide, it's sloppy suicide. What's clever sister's name?"
McCabe polished off his beer. "Her real name was Alexa Chase. You want the current one, you'll have to come in and get it, along with the rest of the details. This is a one-man job as far as I'm concerned. I don't want send in a team of people. I just want to send in the best."
Gage seriously wished he'd been born with Elvis's mojo, but no such luck. On the other hand, Elvis had been dead and buried for forty years. There was no dog in the offing for the King. No looker with black hair, gold eyes, and curious ancestry, either. He turned his head on the rest. "I'll mull it over, get back to you."
Ditching his bottle, McCabe vaulted from the Caddy. "Time's a factor. Don't mull for more than an hour. You've got contacts in the area, Gage — more than a few, if memory serves. That makes you the right man for the job in my mind. You know where to find me."
Using his knee to bump the retrofitted CD player to another disk, Gage switched to gospel. And took a painful journey back through hell.
James Allan Mockerie had two stunning women on retainer. They'd been his mistresses back before he'd murdered his wife, but these days, they were simply a pair of exquisite call girls who came to him as required.
He missed his wife in a strange and unhealthy way. Unhealthy to his vast business empire, certainly. From the moment he'd met her, she'd dazzled him. And as he'd discovered, to be dazzled was to be distracted.
His anger started mounting, and he couldn't seem to control it. So he blocked the memory and shuffled his thoughts accordingly.
There were problems that required his attention. The one that weighed heaviest on his mind involved his associate, Owen Fixx.
Secreted in Fixx's plush Las Vegas hotel office, Mockerie watched the action in the casino below through a wall of elegant smoked glass. The gaming floor was packed, as usual, with everything from cowboys in distressed denim to Texas millionaires in diamond-studded belts. The money they dropped helped fuel his empire. That and booming overseas sales.
He recognized his associate's sharp double rap on the door.
"Come," he said when the knock repeated. Propping a booted foot on the desk, he swiveled Fixx's office chair just enough to let his approaching associate know he was considering something weighty. Then he stopped the motion and showed his teeth. "You look unhappy tonight. More problems on the wife and sister-in-law front?"
Lines of strain showed around Fixx's annoyingly handsome eyes. "The problems are being handled. The information that was stolen is back in my hands, and our FBI insider is going about his business. I put a fifty thousand dollar reward out on the pair of them. I got word two nights ago that my ex has been located. She was living in a small town in Tennessee."
Mockerie kept his teeth fully visible and his own eyes shielded behind a pair of round sunglasses. His hair was long and flyaway under a hat that had belonged to his father. His white T-shirt, leather vest, and jeans had all seen better days. He wore a ring, the only piece of jewelry he owned, on what remained of his left middle finger.
He toyed with that ring while Fixx took a subservient seat across from him.
"Your casino's doing well." Mockerie studied his missing half finger. "Ka-ching, ka-ching." His gaze rose. His teeth vanished. "Where is she now?"
"My tracker caught up with her in Mississippi."
"Is your tracker reliable?"
He watched Fixx deliberately blank his features. "I sent the best I've got. He's taking his directions from our inside man. I don't think it'll be long before he'll have her sister, as well."
"You hope. The information Alexa Chase stole might be back in our hands, but that doesn't mean the threat's been eliminated. She could have all kinds of shit tucked away in that cunning brain of hers."
"If she did, she'd have given it to the authorities when they brought her in."
"Assuming she trusts the authorities. I wouldn't tell all to anyone in the government. You're smart, you withhold, just in case the so-called good guys decide your usefulness has ended and the wolves can have you. Get them, Fixx. Both of them. I want to see their squirming, terrified bodies stretched out on long tables." Mockerie's smile returned. "If I don't see theirs, you can count on the fact that I'll be seeing yours."
Months of spying, of subterfuge and over-the-shoulder glances, had taught Amber that panic was her worst enemy. It was right there, always, waiting to wrap its bony fingers around her throat. But instead of letting it intimidate her, she'd learned to use it. To take advantage of her heightened senses and focus on what mattered. What would keep her alive.
She didn't have time to think, not really. Even as Rachel's kidnapper spoke to her, she looked up and saw two large men staring at her from the back of the room. They grinned and started to move forward through the crowded tables.
Amber's first instinct: survive. She grabbed what came to hand — two full bottles of whiskey. Breaking them both, she sent the contents flying. Then she lit a match.
Chaos erupted instantly. She threw three more bottles of whiskey into the mix. Flames shot upward in huge spikes and spread.
She could no longer see the men, but she knew they were there, hopefully trapped in the pandemonium. She ducked out through the exit next to the bar, stopping only long enough to swing the emergency backpack she'd had ready and waiting for a month up over her shoulder.
There was a tunnel. The former owner of the bar had told her about it when she'd arrived. Something to do with Prohibition and smuggling booze down from the hills. Whatever its original use, Amber was grateful for its presence that night.
When she emerged in a back alley, she climbed out, tried to settle her nerves, and took a look around. She didn't hesitate. She stole the first truck she saw that had keys in it.
Thoughts she couldn't control spiraled through her head. Rachel had been taken by someone connected to Owen Fixx. That was a given. Obviously, Fixx wanted both of them. Maybe they'd snatched Rachel partly as a backup in case they missed her. Whatever the plan, Amber had no intention of going along with it.
She headed northwest. The Dakotas meant nothing to her or her family. No safe harbors to be had in those states. But there were mountains where she could lose herself while she considered her limited options.
She drove through the night, slept some, and when she felt it was safe, used a payphone to call the message center for her WPP emergency contact. She relayed the available facts in code and slept a little more.
Excerpted from "Dark Justice: Morgan"
Copyright © 2017 Jenna Ryan.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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