Excerpt: Ultimate Kill
Book 1: Ultimate CORE Trilogy
How many narcissists does it take to change a light bulb?
He holds the bulb while the world revolves around him.
“DID YOU FIND her?” He glared at the man he’d overpaid to find the one thing that belonged to him. Rage simmered in the depths of what most men might consider a soul. Not him. Essence, the nonphysical aspect of a person, that which survived after death and all of the other metaphysical, intangible drivel of poets and priests…that kind of shit was for pussies. He had one life to live and he’d live it to the fullest.
Carl Blackborne, the former CIA agent and the investigator he’d forced into his employment, shifted his gaze to the desk. “I’m sorry, sir, but…no. That’s not to say that I didn’t discover any new leads,” he quickly added.
He followed Blackborne’s gaze and looked at the handcrafted replica of the first ship ever built by his great-great-grandfather. Made of gold, and worth over three hundred grand, the piece had been in the family for five generations. “It’s lovely, no?” he asked the investigator and touched the ship’s golden mast.
Blackborne blinked. “Yes. Truly one of a kind, sir.”
“If you break down what’s in your savings and life insurance, it’s worth more than you are.”
“I…I don’t know how to respond to that.”
He ran a manicured finger along the golden stern and wondered if the ship would become damaged if he slammed it against Blackborne’s over-sized head. “Of course you don’t.”
“Sir, if I may, I’ve exhausted—”
“Do you know how old my great-great-grandfather was when he built his first ship?” he asked and touched the life-like sailor standing at the helm of the golden ship. From what he’d been told, his forefather had been a ruthless son of a bitch. He didn’t emulate the man, nor did he worship him. He didn’t have to. Not when he was better than him. More powerful. More coldblooded. More merciless.
“No, sir, I—”
“He was twenty. Twenty,” he repeated, sliding his gaze to Blackborne. “By the time he was twenty-five, he was worth over one million dollars. That was in the mid-1800s. By today’s standards, he would have been worth over twenty-five million. Amazing, no?” He waved a hand, and leaned into his chamois-soft leather office chair. “Over the past one hundred and fifty years, his company has endured many ups and downs. Right now, under my rule, it’s up. I’ve had the foresight to take this company to new places. Literally. My planes, ships and trucks are worldwide. I’ve made this company a household name. Now that’s amazing shit.”
Blackborne rubbed the back of his neck. “Truly amazing, sir. But if you’ll let me explain my new leads.”
He folded his hands and rested them on the luxurious, handcrafted desk. Made of six different kinds of exotic woods, like ebony and Carpathian elm, it too was worth more than Blackborne. “By all means. It’s not like I don’t have anything better to do with my time. Right, Ric?”
Ricco Mancini, his aide-de-camp and most loyal confidant, sat stone faced, his focus on the investigator. “All the time in the world. I see no reason why Blackborne shouldn’t waste yours.”
Clearing his throat, Blackborne nodded. “Understood. Sorry, sir. I’ll make this quick. When I was investigating her past, I came across family lineage that might be of interest. I thought that maybe—”
“How is this a new lead?” Blackborne wasn’t the first investigator he’d hired, and based on the others, he could rattle off the woman’s family tree by heart. Hell, he’d stripped that tree of its leaves and snapped the branches until she no longer had a family.
“Well, it’s not exactly a lead, just a new avenue.”
“My trucks travel down avenues all the time,” he said, finished with Blackborne and their conversation. He’d had high hopes for the investigator. During his previous employment with the CIA, Blackborne had been known to successfully track terrorists and international criminals. Diabolically brilliant men who had the means to hide and, if they’d wanted, never be found. And yet Blackborne couldn’t find a simple woman? Fucking useless idiot.
“I’m not interested in hearing about avenues—at all,” he said. “I paid you a lot of money to bring me—”
“I told you I wasn’t sure if I could find her,” Blackborne countered, his voice rising.
His rage went from simmering to boiling.
No one interrupted him.
No one dared to shout at him.
He slid his gaze to the two men flanking the office’s double doors. Santiago Ramirez, the Columbian he’d taken under his wing over fifteen years ago glared at Blackborne’s back. So did Santiago’s counterpart, former Russian heavyweight boxer, Vlad Aristov. He looked to Ric, whose mouth tilted in the subtlest of smiles. Knowing that the chance of this conversation ending well was slim to none, the sadist would enjoy Blackborne’s faux pas.
“She’s obviously changed her name,” Blackborne continued without apology. “Covered up paper trails. She has no immediate family, her friends and associates have no idea where she moved to…I’ve bribed several IRS officials and even they couldn’t help me. That’s why I thought if I could—”
“Pull up her family tree?” he asked with an easy smile that in no way matched the raw fury constricting his chest. “It’s a brilliant plan. I wish my other investigators had the foresight to come up with such a unique idea.”
“Thank you, sir.” Blackborne relaxed and grinned, obviously not understanding sarcasm. “I appreciate the compliment.”
He looked to Ric and caught the laughter in his eyes. “What would you need for this brilliant plan of yours?” he asked, transferring his attention to the investigator.
“More money and, of course, more time.”
His last four investigators had given him the same request. They’d eventually come to him empty handed and wound up dead.
“I suggest we expand the scope and not just focus on her family,” Blackborne said, his tone enthusiastic. “The friends and associates I checked with…these were people who knew her, or rather knew of her, when she was in her early twenties. As you know, she went off the grid around the time she turned twenty. I think if I go back further, say into her childhood, and find people she was close to, then maybe—”
He raised a hand. “No.”
Blackborne’s face contorted with confusion. “Sir, we might be able to find a link from her childhood that could lead us to her current whereabouts.”
“Might…could.” He rested an elbow against the leather armrest and cradled his chin between his index finger and thumb. “If a broke redneck plays the Lotto enough times, he might eventually win. If you give a seasoned whore the money to go to college and educate herself, she could go on to run a Fortune 500 company. Mr. Blackborne, what are the chances of a broke redneck winning the Lotto and a seasoned whore going on to run a Fortune 500 company?”
Blackborne looked to the desk again. “Let me rephrase then, digging into her past may…I mean, it’s probable…” He scratched his head. “Sir, I can’t guarantee anything, I can only try this route.”
He straightened and opened the desk drawer. “Not interested.” His fingers stroked the AAC Evolution-45 silencer, a weapon ironically used by U.S. Military Anti-Terrorist units. He grasped the handle of the gun. “I know everything about her past. Her preschool teachers, her fourth grade Girl Scout troop leader, who she lost her virginity to during her senior year of high school.” His stomach tightened with anticipation as he pulled the lightweight gun from the drawer and aimed it at Blackborne’s head. “I know everything about her, except where she is now.”
Blackborne staggered back, holding his hands in front of his body. “Please, sir. This investigation—”
“Is over.” He tensed for the slight recoil and pulled the trigger. As if the man had sneezed, a puffy mist of blood burst from Blackborne’s face before he crumpled to the ground. He slipped the weapon back into the drawer, then pulled out a file from the hidden center console. “Well, that was a disappointment.” He glanced to Ric who, in turn, looked to Santiago and Vlad.
“Get him out of here, then kill his wife and kids,” Ric told the men.
Without a word, Santiago and Vlad picked up Blackborne and took him from the office. When the door closed behind them, Ric rose from his chair. “And the woman?” he asked. “Should I find another investigator?”
“No.” He opened the file and stared at the eight by ten glossy of her. Although not beautiful in the classical sense, she’d caught his attention the moment he’d seen her. While she’d been bustling through the club where she used to work, taking drink orders, he’d pictured her naked, curvy body on his bed, her long, straight brown hair fanning out along his silk sheets as she spread her legs and welcomed him. He had eventually made what he’d imagined into a reality. And after having her once, he’d wanted her again.
Only she hadn’t.
That was her first mistake.
When she ran from him…that was her second.
After he’d found her, he’d tried to be reasonable. He’d tried to give her everything she would ever need, and she’d rejected him.
That was her last mistake.
He always got what he wanted. Always. Growing up with enough money to run a small country, the world and its contents were his for the taking.
She was his to take.
Ric pressed his hands against the desk and leaned forward. “You’ve spent eight years looking for her. Are you giving up?”
He looked up from the photograph and met Ric’s eyes. Eight years. A lot had happened during that time, and over the years he’d assumed he would eventually grow tired of searching for her. But he hadn’t. She was the one object his money couldn’t buy. The only woman who had walked away from him without a second glance. He never understood why. Quite frankly, he didn’t care whether she wanted him or not. She was a lost possession he wanted found. “Have you ever known me to quit anything?”
“Never.” Ric smiled. “Now what?”
He closed the file, then returned it to the drawer. “Now we do things my way.” He rose from the chair and walked to the windows. As he looked around the spacious backyard, he found his wife and two children sitting on the lawn having a picnic lunch. “Hiring another investigator isn’t going to cut it. We’ve been down that road one too many times,” he said, and watched grape jelly drop onto his four-year-old son’s pristine white shirt as the boy waved to him.
“And your plan is…?”
“Simple.” He gave his boy a two-finger salute. “If I can’t find her, I’ll make it so she has no choice but to come to me. When I’m finished, she’ll beg me to take her back.”
“Interesting,” Ric said, his voice laced with amusement. “And why would she come to you?”
He smiled, as his wife frowned and worked on their son’s jelly stain. “Because if she doesn’t, I’m going to kill a lot of people.”
The past is never where you think you left it.
— Katherine Anne Porter
Four months later…
JAKE TYLER COUNTED the sixth dead armadillo he’d seen lying on the side of the road since exiting onto Georgia’s US 17. They were ugly creatures, and when he’d spotted the first two he’d thought they were turtles. The owner of the one pump gas station he’d stopped at thirty minutes ago had informed him otherwise, in a friendly yet condescending way. Armadillos, turtles…he could give a shit.
A big-ass bug splattered against his dusty windshield. As for palmetto bugs? He sprayed the windshield with fluid and turned on the wipers. Yeah, he could do without large flying cockroaches. As the wipers smeared the disgusting bug across the window until it finally fell off, his cell phone rang.
“Do you need me to schedule you a flight?” Rachel Malcolm, CORE’s computer forensic analyst, asked when he answered.
“No. I’m good.”
“Are you still in Florida?”
He swerved around a copperhead snake sunning itself on the road. He could do without venomous snakes, as well. “Not exactly.”
“Then where are you?”
“It’s Friday. I already emailed Ian and told him I delivered the package. Now I’m taking the weekend for myself. Is that a problem, or does he have another errand for me to run?”
Hell, yeah, he was bitter. Because of Ian Scott, his new boss and founder of CORE (Criminal Observance Resolution and Evidence), he’d lost his job as sheriff and had to uproot from Bola, Michigan, to move to the investigative agency’s Chicago headquarters. Ian was a manipulative son of a bitch who oozed bullshit from his pores. After Ian had screwed with his career and coincidentally had an opening at CORE, the former FBI profiler had lured him with promises of a high salary, excellent benefits, travel and intriguing cases to investigate. While he’d been tired of living in a small town where he had to deal with Bigfoot sightings, hunters and ridiculous townie disputes, what he was doing for CORE had proven to be even less exciting. As a former Marine and sheriff, he’d take a Bigfoot sighting over being Ian’s errand boy any day.
“I’m fine,” he lied.
“Then why don’t you just tell me where you are? I promise not to tell Ian.”
At this point, he didn’t owe Ian anything. If the man didn’t like how he planned to spend his weekend, he could kiss his ass. “I don’t care whether he knows or not. Last I heard, he didn’t have a new assignment for me.”
“Not true. He told me he wanted you to work on a cold case for him.”
Boring. He’d spent the past six months training with CORE agent, Dante Russo. He’d tagged along with the man during his assignments and, in the end, Dante had assured both him and Ian that Jake was ready to handle his own investigations. Instead, Ian had sent him on errands. First to Tulsa, where he’d had to personally return a stolen brooch, worth seventy-five thousand dollars, to an old woman who had been fleeced by a con artist. And most recently, to Merritt Island, Florida, where he’d hand delivered supposedly super-secret documents to a wealthy businessman.
While a cold case wasn’t exactly an errand, he had no desire to sift through old documents and files. With the Marines, he’d seen action. As sheriff, except for the Hell Week case Jake had worked on with Rachel and her husband, Owen, he’d mostly sat around with his thumb up his rear. Even then he’d been restless and had the itch to move on and do something that would actually stimulate his brain. A cold case might give him some stimulation and he understood there was always paperwork involved with any case. Still, if he wanted to spend his days sitting behind a desk, he would have become an accountant.
“If the case has been cold, it can wait a few more days.”
“Wow, are you in a mood. Okay, Oscar the Grouch. If you don’t want to tell me where you are, I’ll just check your phone records and find out myself. Thanks for making more work for me.”
He cracked a smile. He loved Rachel, and loved working with her, but she could be relentless when she decided she needed to know something. He supposed it wouldn’t matter if she knew or not. Actually, it was because of her he was driving through rural Georgia. “Fine. I’m on Georgia’s US 17 counting dead armadillos.”
“Gross. I’ve never seen an armadillo.”
He could hear her tapping away at her computer keyboard. “Not even in a zoo?”
“I don’t do zoos. They make me sad.” More tapping. “And if you’re on US 17, then that means… Oh. My. God. You’re going after her.”
Naomi. He rubbed the tension at the base of his neck. He hadn’t seen or spoken to his former fiancée in nearly five years. She’d never been far from his thoughts, and a part of him still loved her and what they’d had together, but bitterness had kept him from bothering to try and find her until now.
After he began working at CORE, started hanging out with Rachel and Owen, something inside of him kept nagging and urging him to look for Naomi. To put the past to rest and move forward. Since she’d left him, he’d dated, but nothing regular. He hadn’t wanted to become involved in a relationship that could end as badly as the one he’d had with Naomi. But Rachel and Owen, the way they looked at each other, their body language toward each other and their occasional PDA, had him thinking about the past, about Naomi and how good it used to be between them.
Now he wanted answers. Naomi had told him she needed to leave Bola because she couldn’t handle small town life, even though she was the one who’d talked him into moving there. When she’d brought up leaving, he’d been a year into his first term as sheriff and hadn’t been able to walk off the job. Instead, he’d suggested a long distance relationship. She said she’d think about it. When he’d returned home that night, she was gone. Her clothes, her books, whatever she could pack in her car. Gone.
Anger and betrayal caused the tension in his neck to intensify. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” he said. “I might drive into town and keep on going.”
“Well, according to the map I’m looking at, unless you make a few turns you’ll drive right into a river.” She released a sigh. “Jake, I’m not going to tell you your business, but have you thought this through?”
He’d done nothing but think about Naomi since Rachel discovered where she’d been living the past four and a half years. Was she dating? Married? Did she have any kids? Jealousy stabbed him in the chest. Even though her betrayal still cut him deep, he wanted her happy. Only he wanted her happy with him. Or, he used to.
“I’ll play it by ear,” he answered, and added another dead armadillo to his count.
“Brilliant plan,” she said with heavy sarcasm. “Look, I’m going to be blunt.”
Great. Here we go. “Shocking. I can’t wait.”
“I’m being serious, Jake. There’s a reason why she ran, and you know damn well that’s what she did.”
“I don’t know anything.” He gripped the steering wheel tight. “Hell, I don’t even know her real name.” When Rachel had used Naomi’s social security number to track her whereabouts, the computer hacker had discovered that Naomi McCall hadn’t existed until eight years ago.
“Shit. I’m sorry. I know this has to be hard. You obviously loved her and she…well, she had another agenda.”
One that hadn’t included him. If Naomi was on the run, if she was part of the Witness Protection Program—which sounded like a ridiculous theme from a Hollywood movie—he could understand her secrecy. But they’d been together for three years before she’d disappeared. They’d planned to marry, start a family, a future. For her to not trust him enough to tell him the truth…that frickin’ sucked. And hurt.
He slowed the rented Lincoln Navigator and eyed the remains of the Georgia Girl Drive-In to his left. Weeds and small saplings filled what used to be a parking lot. Like so many of the old, abandoned buildings and cars he’d seen during the drive, nature was doing its best to reclaim the land. Then he saw a road sign.
Five miles to Woodbine.
Five miles to Naomi.
His stomach knotted with both anticipation and dread. Maybe Rachel was right. Maybe he should leave Naomi alone. If she was running from the past, who was he to stop her?
Her fiancé, damn it. Her lover. Her best friend. The man who had promised to love her and cherish her. Maybe not in front of a minister or judge, but he’d made that pledge to her. And he’d meant every word.
“This is simply a recon mission,” he said. “Like I told you, I might keep on driving through.” Another lie. He’d come this far and he never did anything by half.
“Like Owen, you couldn’t lie your way out of a paper bag.”
“What the hell does that even mean?”
“You’re full of it. You’re going to go there and meet with her and possibly mess with her life. On top of that, if this goes as bad as I think it will, you’re going to come back to Chicago surlier than when you left.”
He heard more tapping from the keyboard. “Yes, gruff, brusque, curt, boorish—”
Chucking, he shook his head. “Are you reading from a thesaurus?”
“Yes, I am. And while this entry wasn’t in there, I’d like to add crab-ass to the list.”
“I haven’t been that bad.” Or had he?
“That’s what you think. You know, maybe you should meet with Naomi. Get her out of your system once and for all, then come back to Chicago. I already started a profile for you on one of those online dating sites. You need to get laid. And with the picture of you I have up there, I have no doubt you’ll find someone new in no time.”
His cheeks burned. While used to Rachel’s bluntness, her ‘you need to get laid’ comment was too straightforward, even for her. “First, worry about your own sex life. Second, don’t you dare put me on some dating site.”
“I said I have it ready to go. I would never do that to you.” She let out another sigh. “I care about you, Jake. I just want to see you happy.”
The Lincoln approached a sign.
Welcome to Woodbine. Established in 1893. Home of Georgia’s Official Crawfish Festival.
The anticipation and dread strengthened as the overgrown terrain he’d been driving past morphed into mowed lawns and well-kept houses. Minutes from now, he’d pull up to the school where Naomi worked at as a nurse. If Rachel wanted to see him happy, this could be her chance. Unless…
Needing fresh air, he rolled down the window.
Unless Naomi blew off his ass.
“Thanks, Rachel. I’ll call you when I’m heading out of here. It’s a fifteen hour drive from Woodbine to Chicago. I might want to catch that plane, after all. Either way, I’ll be home by Monday to work on Ian’s cold case.”
“I’ll let him know. And, Jake…I know this sounds pessimistic, but prepare yourself for the worst.”
Right. If he didn’t expect too much, he might not be let down. “Got it,” he said, then after saying good-bye, he ended the call. The well-kept houses disappeared into marshland as he took the bridge into Woodbine. When the marsh disappeared and the houses returned, he slowed the Lincoln and turned into the parking lot of the Rainbow Lodge, an old single story motel. While he wasn’t sure if he’d stay in Woodbine, he planned to secure a room just in case.
Screw it. He pulled back out of the parking lot and followed the Lincoln’s GPS to the local elementary school. Rachel was right. He should prepare for the worst. The nearest major airport was in Jacksonville, Florida, and only a forty minute drive. He’d check on Naomi, try and catch her as she was leaving work and invite her to dinner. If she flat out wanted nothing to do with him, he’d head right back the way he came.
He had a lot of questions that needed answering. Namely, who was the real Naomi McCall?