Jack Walker had to die.
The two men in the faded blue sedan didn't know why. They don't care. They followed orders – and that meant they waited in front of his house.
Ten minutes later, he came out into bright morning sunshine, hurrying down the front steps. A battered black leather jacket slung over his broad shoulders and an oversized duffel bag in one hand. Like he was in a rush. Maybe like he was aware they covertly watched.
The two men had seen him before, but he had always been shirtless, bloodied, and bruised on those rare occasions. His lips twisted in a wicked grin.
Now he was wearing a torn black t-shirt and tight faded denim jeans that looked like they'd seen better days.
Or maybe it was because Jack knew today, he was going to die.
He had already been in Las Vegas for over a month. This last week he was staying in Lila's apartment. She was a Cirque show acrobat who worked most evenings. Jack had filled those nights exploring the streets and dark alleys of the desert city. Learning all the nooks and crannies.
Searching. Always searching for that elusive link. Or a stray piece of intel that came in handy.
At one point, Jack thought of all the secrets in his past, things even his closest family and friends didn't know. And would never suspect. All those close calls. Bad guys always have plenty of skeletons buried in the closet—an awful lot. But Jack had his own set of rules. The one at the top of the list: never get romantically involved with a coworker, especially a roommate.
It didn't end well.
As Jack sweated under the Vegas sun, he felt Lila's intense gaze on his legs and back. The way her hungry eyes seemed to follow his every move. Recently, she'd started sunbathing by the pool in a red bikini, if you could call the brief scraps of fabric that. She was much younger– possibly thirty–hard to tell without giving her the impression he was interested. Thank god he'd paid her for the room already. She'd probably try to 'negotiate' the payment after another week.
But now he had another problem.
Two weeks ago, a guy moved into the next-door apartment. He was older and not especially attractive. Jack didn't even know his name. But something seemed off every time he encountered him. During the day, he planted himself into a white plastic chair under a large green umbrella out by the pool: massive thighs and a wide ass spilling out of the gaps. Pudgy fingers and dirty nails clutching tepid beer bottles as 'Associates' seemed to visit in a steady stream before lunch. Pockets full of cash offerings.
He had enough on his plate to deal with besides that. But maybe later. When the time was right. Now, it was time to find new lodgings.
The first time he almost died, it went something like this.
The nightclub was packed with patrons on that hot midsummer Friday. It was the time of night when everyone was ready to party. The dancers dressed to impress and seemed to be moving as one. A loud mix of dub-step and techno pulsed from the speakers vying with the shouts and laughter.
After a day of chasing leads, he'd planned on getting a few drinks. Maybe joining the crowd before crashing back at his home. It wasn't as if he had anything better to do for the weekend. He didn't have any friends in town. But he couldn't get through the crush of people to the bar. Every available bartender had a queue twenty deep.
Jack debated with himself on whether to stay or take a cab. Then, finally, after a couple more minutes of deliberation, he made his way back to the door. Time to call it a night. Or so he thought.
The slightly husky voice said, "Hey, I know you!"
He felt a sharp tug on his shirtsleeve, eyes flicking to the source.
The beautiful blonde stood at the top of the stairs. A short white dress hugged her long slender legs and curvy hips. "Come here and give me a hug, Alan." She dragged him close for a lingering hug and stepped back, her eyes scanning over his face.
Jack shook his head. The unfamiliar scent of her perfume filling his nose. "I'm afraid there's been some mistake."
"What...?" She frowned, her brows coming together. "I don't understand."
"You've confused me for someone else," he explained, turning away and slipping outside.
"Are you sure?" Her eyes roamed up and down his body as she followed. "Everything looks the same."
As if I'd forget someone like her. Never.
Jack's jaw tightened, and he squared his shoulders, "Absolutely."
"Hmm..." She lifted her chin and demanded, "Then who are you, and what do you do?"
When he thought about it, Jack knew it would happen sooner than later. It always does. They say everyone has a twin somewhere in the world. Add a bit of plastic surgery–or a lot–and you'd be hard-pressed to tell any two people apart. And if one of them was pure evil...
Man, oh, man. Nothing but trouble.
He almost laughed out loud at the play of emotions crossing her oval face. "Whatever is needed," Jack responded, his voice tight, "whenever it's needed." Most of what he did was classified, and Jack only gave those with a need to know any details. Just enough to get the job done. He had no business starting a relationship with a woman. He wasn't what he considered good boyfriend material.
Her lips twitched. "Let me guess, if you tell me what you do-"
"I'd have to kill you." He captured her delicate wrist in his large hand. His fingers stroking her supple skin.
She stared deep into his green eyes as if searching for answers. Her teeth worried her bottom lip in the meantime.
A few short inches separated them, but all Jack thought about was her perfect pink lips and what she might taste like if he kissed her. Just walk away. Do it now.
He tried but couldn't resist the temptation. He slipped his hand beneath her silky hair and dragged her forward until their lips almost touched. He inhaled her shuddering breath. "Tell me to stop, and I will," he breathed, praying she wouldn't. C'mon, just kiss me.
She closed the distance between them, her lips brushing his. They were so soft and full. Jack increased the pressure on the back of her neck and claimed her mouth, caressing her tongue in a long, slow glide. She tasted of lemon and strawberry-utterly irresistible.
He took another careful taste and let her go. His fingers brushed the hair back from her flushed face as they breathed deeply. The thought of going home with her intrigued him. Although, Jack couldn't afford any complications right now in his life. Too much was at stake. His finger tapped her swollen bottom lip. "Until next time, Angel," he said with a smirk.
He gave her one final glance as he strolled down the sidewalk into the shadows—hands in his pockets. Jack was confident he'd meet her again. The only question was where: Perhaps Paris, maybe London or Spring in Tokyo.
He didn't hear the car come up behind him. He was too engrossed in the possibilities of seduction. So when Jack saw it passing way too close, he instinctively moved onto the grass. Then, he spotted the driver as the car raced forward and heard the tires' deafening squeals as he slammed on the brakes.
And that's when all hell broke loose.
The loud sound sent Jack diving over the short brick wall and into the bushes. He covered his head as seconds later, a hail of gunfire exploded. He felt his body jerk as a couple of bullets grazed him.
After a while, Jack didn't even remember falling, just the pungent aroma of burnt rubber as the car sped off. The screams of clubgoers filled the humid night air.
Laying on the grass, he carefully checked for blood and came away with a wet hand. His side was torn open in a jagged wound. It seemed like seconds or hours had passed. Jack wasn't sure which. Pain spread like claws of ice and fire in his side as blood bubbled over his fingers.
He'd had worse injuries. More than Jack could count. In his line of work, scrapes, broken bones, concussions, torture, stabbings, shrapnel, and gunshot wounds were all part of the game.
Hopefully, he'd survive to play another round. If not, then he was dying, and the world was pretty much fucked.
The sound of wailing sirens intensified. He moaned in pain as multiple hands suddenly jostled his body around, and raised voices filled his ears. Jack shivered, even as a fresh sheen of sweat broke across his brow. Heart thumping wildly, the edges of his vision blurred as everything faded to black.
Jack loved the daylight. It was easier to spot anomalies. He cautiously made his way around the checkpoints, anxious to see if any acquaintances had made an appearance. He knew they were coming. The question was when.
He took a long sip of coffee and slid the edge of the window blind up. Bingo. Jack shook his head and chuckled.
He'd spotted them before sunrise, slowly circling the cul de sac. Then speeding away.
Now they were back.
Sitting in their piece-of-crap sedan in front of his house. What are the odds? Guess he wasn't dealing with a couple of geniuses.
Fucking amateurs. Were they the best 'Associates' Fat Marty could send? What a disgrace. It was only a matter of time before the cops hauled his fat ass off to prison. He must be feeling desperate living on the Clark County Detention Center bologna sandwich diet. Jack had heard it could be a real adjustment from the finer things in life. Like Fat Marty's addiction to chili dogs, cheesecake, and beer.
He must really be pissed I stepped into the ring. Well, too damn bad.
Yeah, Jack loved getting into the ring. The gambling ring and the chop shop ring especially. Burrowing deep inside then busting them into a million pieces for the law to pick up.
But this situation had to end. Jack raked his hands through his hair and blew out a breath. It was time to get ready. His hands flexed, and he paced around the foyer one last time. He'd miss the place. Had some great memories. Like the day Fat Marty sent his thugs with a job offer...
And he sent them home with one better.
Though there was no time to dawdle, he had a deadline. So Jack grabbed his favorite leather jacket and the duffel bag he'd prepared the night before.
The air was hot as he stepped outside. Sweat beaded on his face. He felt the stares from the goons in the car. Good, I have their attention. Jack hustled down the steps and cut across the yard to the red Toyota. He unlocked the door and pulled his jacket on, zipping it to the top. Then, he threw the bag across the seat. The engine fired up like he'd been promised it would.
With a screech of tires, Jack pulled away from the curb. He checked the rearview mirror. The guy behind the wheel straightened up. He saw a belch of blue smoke from the exhaust then heard the little motor wheeze to life. Traffic was light. Mostly teenager's cruising around soaking up the last of summer's sunshine.
Jack took another look at the old sedan. It followed a few car lengths behind. Then, the sedan closed the gap, edging closer. He patiently bided his time until he cleared the city limits. He smiled and pressed his foot to the gas, picking up speed. Not in a hurry. Just gradually building up momentum.
The road out of town wound its way north along the ridges and cliffs of the coast. A deserted strip of two-lane blacktop that was lumpy with patches and cracks. Around them, trees grew high and thick on both sides. The shoulder had a sparse cover of ragged brown grass and loose gravel.
Jack knew what they had planned. Good thing he was prepared. Just like a Boy Scout.
He had a little surprise for them. Jack Walker wasn't going to die. Not today. Maybe by the weekend, though.
Because suddenly the trees on the right fell away, and there was nothing–just the edge of the road and a thirty-foot drop to jagged cliffs and blue ocean.
Almost time. Get ready. He felt a surge of adrenaline in his veins. Took a deep breath. Let it out.
He slid open his bag and removed a helmet. Jack carefully settled it on his head and tightened the strap. His left foot shoved a waiting brick over to the gas pedal. His right foot nudged it into place.
Jack rolled his window down. He could smell the ocean breeze. His fingers fumbled to unlock the seatbelt. Then he heard the welcome click of release. He frantically grasped the bag and clutched it against him.
The driver of the sedan accelerated until he was nearly against Jack's bumper. He first felt one tap, then a second. Jack forcefully kicked the brick until it wedged tight and felt the car immediately surge ahead. He clenched the wheel so tightly his hands turned white. He pushed his shoulders back to brace himself and was flung forward as the sedan crashed into the back of the Toyota.
There was a loud metallic crunch. He slammed down on the brakes. Jack fishtailed out of control, swerving and skidding across the road until he sharply aimed for the left side. Just like he planned. The scent of burning rubber and the sound of spraying gravel filled the air. Jack pulled the latch, and the door swung wildly open. He pulled his visor down.
The Toyota swayed on its suspension and slowed briefly. Just enough time.
Now, Dammit! Go! Go!
Jack jumped. He tightened his hold on the bag and flew through the air. Tuck and roll. Tuck and roll. Tuck and roll. He repeated the phrase so he wouldn't forget. His bag hit first–the impact was jarring–and his whole body ached. He heard the guys' screams. Jack rolled over and over until he slid across the gravel and grass. His clothes caught and tore. Finally, He came to a stop against a group of young trees.
Jack barely had time to see the sedan hit the Toyota. It collided at an angle, clipping the right side. The force sent the Toyota swerving right and back into the sedan's path. The sound of tearing, crushing metal was deafening. Plastic and glass shattered, littering the blacktop with color. The sedan slewed into the loose gravel and a cloud of dirt and stones flung into the air. The Toyota's momentum pushed the sedan near the precipice before the Toyota disappeared over the edge – crashing into the jagged rocks and surf below.
It was done. Jack Walker was dead. At least to these guys. He let out a long, relieved sigh and took a deep breath. That was a closer call than he was expecting. Fuck. I'm getting too old for this.
Lately, he'd had entirely too much time living on the edge.
The late August sun was blazing. Jack was sweating and dirty. Hurt like hell. He knew he needed to get away from the area before anyone arrived. He let out another long sigh, took a deep breath, and slowly crawled down the shoulder. He had five hundred feet until he could collect his stash. Use the cell phone to call a ride. Drink some cold water and change his clothes. Eat a big fat steak.
I need a helluva vacation after this week. Somewhere I can disappear. Hmm... maybe somewhere tropical this time.
The first time he found Angel, it went something like this.
Jack Walker had mail. For the first time in three months. He fingered the thick cream envelope. Admired the bold script across the front. The way his name in dark blue ink looked so fancy and proper. Matched his favorite dress shirt.
Jackson Alexander Walker
He frowned. Not much mail ever found him. Just the way he preferred it. His bills were all done online.
Jack wondered who would send him anything. No one knew his whereabouts. Not even his mother. Thank god for that. Not that he was against her knowing his location. At least some of the time. She just had a bad habit of sharing too much.
With the wrong kind of people: bad ones, evil ones, conmen, criminals, gangsters.
They were the worst. They always had questions and demands. Never answers.
It interfered with the job.
Especially when she called with problems at inopportune moments.
Like that one time...
Jack remembered the day. His mother's cat Trixiebelle got stuck in the roof of the attic. The cat plaintively yowled all day and night. She wanted him to catch an early flight.
"I'm sorry, I can't help you, mother... Yes, it's on speakerphone... Because, I'm a little tied up at the moment."
Yeah, tied to the mast by the guy who plans on throwing me off this fucking whaling ship. Unless I can free my prototype knife from the lining of my boot. Cut through three layers of rope and secure a dinghy with my hands cuffed behind my back.
What a harrowing day.
Already, he could feel the tension from that assignment increasing in his neck and shoulder muscles.
He wondered who knew his full name. And why they knew his full name. How they got his full name.
What they would do with his full name.
Jack turned the envelope over in his hands. Checked it thoroughly for postage and marks of any kind.
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
He even smelled it. He placed it right under his nose and took a good whiff. Then a few more for good measure.
Just ink and paper. Not a scintilla of any other scent.
No, Jack wasn't pleased one little bit.
His heart racing and heat rising in his cheeks, he shoved a hand through his hair.
How can he track anyone if they can't be tracked? It was infuriating.
He stomped down the hall to his office. Jack entered. The room was nicely decorated with a large mahogany desk and matching bookcases filled with books lining the walls. But it was the French doors leading out onto the balcony that he loved.
Jack sat down in his special chair. Placed the envelope in the center of the desk. Twiddled his fingers and brooded a bit. Looked out the window at the peace and calm of the churning sea. Then, dragging in a breath of the salty sea air, he filled his lungs.
Something didn't feel right. He knew it.
Jack raked his fingers through his hair and debated opening the letter. Should he, or shouldn't he?
Yes. No. Maybe so.
He didn't know. His lips pressed together. Stop fucking rhyming!
He spun back and forth, back and forth, fingers tapping the armrests. He needed to focus.
C'mon, it's just like ripping off a bandage. Or yanking out your stitches a couple of days early because they itch. Just do it. Get it over with.
How bad could it be?
Jack couldn't stand the pressure anymore, so he opened the center drawer and reverently pulled out his special grade surgical steel dragon-handle letter opener. The one he keeps for special times.
The blade slid silently under the back flap. A quick flick of the wrist, and it was free. He replaced it in the drawer and closed his eyes. A quick moment of silence and a deep breath. Let it be good. Let it be good.
His fingers parted the sides and slid the items out. Jack lined them in a row. Two ivory cards with matching blue script. And four glossy pictures. He sat rigid for a few minutes his hands clenched against his thighs. He tried to understand it all but couldn't.
What the hell was going on? He decided to study the pictures first. All of them full-body shots. The familiar background–The Daisy Inn–identified Jack. He remembered the occasion. A friend's wedding. He'd just gotten a haircut, and his dark hair was tousled from the strong wind. He studied it a bit more. Turning it over and noting the lack of date. Just his name and location.
Jack returned it to the desk. Then, he moved on to another.
It was like looking into a mirror if he had one at the moment: the same color hair and face structure. Similarly shaped eyes, though Jack thought his were a deeper green. And his nose more refined. But near identical. Jack flipped the picture over and read the back. Alan Delacroix – Nightwind Pub. He'd never heard of it. He wondered where it was. He was determined to find it.
The next was breathtaking—the same beautiful blonde from that night at the club. The night I got shot. It must've been at a formal event because she was wearing a deep green dress. It perfectly draped to the floor. And exposed her shapely arms to the shoulder—a generous cleavage. Teardrop diamond pendant nestled just below her collarbone. Matching earrings. Hair upswept into what looked like a French Twist.
A gorgeous smile curved those same perfect pink lips. Her blue eyes alight from what appeared to be laughter. Jack flipped the picture over. Anxious and excited to learn her name. Madeline Lake–Devereaux Manor. Hmm... He never heard of that place either. He wondered what the significance of all this was. And the reasons behind it.
The last picture was from that night. Somehow, Jack wasn't surprised to see it. The moment their lips touched, and they kissed. The intensity in their expressions. It was obviously taken by someone right there. So close to them but beyond their awareness. Jack wondered if Madeline knew them. She thought Alan was there, and now he's involved. Maybe he was behind it. But for what purpose?
He tested the name. Madeline. Madeline. Maddy. It was fitting, but he could never forget her as Angel. He thumbed the picture over for any info. Finally, there was one single name and phrase. Angel–Savor this taste of Defeat.
Jack moved onto the cards. His fingers skimming across the fancy blue ink. The precise lines of the letters. It didn't make a whole lot of sense but looked like a game of sorts. He'd do some research and find those locations. See if he could find Madeline. He couldn't even believe this.
Escape Your Fate
Ten Global Locales
Fifty Million in Cash
Do you Dare to Defeat?
Play will commence once all contestants are ready
You will be notified
Jack studied the last card. Thought about the choices and what they meant. He'd figure it out. But, whatever happened, he'd need to be ready for anything.
Escape Your Fate
Dare To Defeat
Jackson Walker – A Man of Action
If I survive before I wake, then a kiss from Angel, my death tastes
If you Win
Your Angel Awaits
Jackson Walker – A Man of Sin
If I depart before I wake, then a kiss from Angel, my soul craves
If you Lose
Your Fate Awaits
He couldn't sleep.
Jack got out of bed and opened the sliders. He peered into the dark night. The chill of the air sent shivers creeping across his arms and made the hair on the back of his neck rise. And even though he'd been expecting it, Jack was still unprepared when it happened.
A wolf whistle pierced the air. Jack jumped, his gaze shooting to the side.
A tall, black-clad figure leaned against the side gate. Muscled arms folded across the chest. Smirk plastered across his face's twin.
"I just need a minute, Jack," Alan said. "And then I'll get out of your place."
Jack had the tingly sensation of deja vu. He thought he recognized that voice. But he couldn't place it. At least not yet.
"Start talking," he said, stepping out onto the patio.
"It's more like giving," Alan replied, handing him a dark blue folder. "Everything you need to know is in there."
Jack accepted the folder. He resisted the urge to open it, preferring to wait until he was alone.
"Okay, now get out of here."
But Alan wasn't done. His smirk broadened.
"I have something else for you," he said. He took an envelope out of his pocket and handed it over.
Jack opened it and looked in. It was a bank draft for a million bucks.
"We're hunting now, Jack."
And then he started to leave and turned back.
He made a gun with his thumb and forefinger, pointed at Jack.
"You're defeat, Jack."