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A Kingston Tale



VINDICATION



By



Brenda Gable



Book One



Smashwords Edition

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



ISBN-13: 978-1986131919

ISBN-10: 198-6131912





New Camelot Books in Publication



Rogue Prince

Crystal Sorceress

New Camelot’s Thief

Black Sorcerer

Fire Sorceress

Bernard the Bard

High Sheriff of New Camelot

New Camelot’s Lion

New Camelot’s Brewster

Rogue Dragon

New Camelot's Sally the Whore

New Camelot's Fafnir

New Camelot's Bronson

New Camelot's Tarnished Knight

New Camelot’s Dragon’s Breath

New Camelot’s Baker

New Camelot’s Merchant Prince



Kingston Books in Publication



Vindication

Redemption

Retribution




Chapter 1



“Amen,” Mackenzie whispered, after praying with a hopeful heart that the torture of not knowing what happened to her father would soon come to an end. She looked down on her mother’s bent head and inhaled the sharp tangy smell of whiskey wafting around the weeping woman like stale perfume.

Disappointment clouded Mackenzie’s face. Last night she had searched the house from top to bottom and found Gloria’s hiding places. Evidently, she had missed a hidden cache. She suppressed her angry disgust. It didn’t matter. Gloria replaced the deadly brew faster than Mackenzie could pour it out.

Mackenzie squeezed the tears of loss back. The memorial service was a formality to sanctify the legality of Hunter Taylor’s death. Her friends and Aunt Vesta convinced Gloria to hold the ceremony. They thought the service would bring closure and provide an impetus for Gloria to renew her life. All it did was give her mother another reason to drink herself into a stupor.

“Come on, Momma.” She put her arms around Gloria’s bony shoulders and helped the emaciated woman stand. “Let’s go home.” Vesta, Gloria’s sister, followed behind them.

With a firm grip around Gloria’s waist, Mackenzie walked her down the aisle and acknowledged the sympathetic presence of Doc Duncan, Patrick, Fleur, Sandy, Tristan, and Lily. The physician and small business owners had received loans from her father to make their dreams come true. They made themselves available to help Vesta and Mac deal with Gloria’s fragility. She didn’t know how she would have managed this long without their support.

The light weight in her arms was testimony to the poor condition of her mother. She was nothing but skin and bones held together with stress and despair. Mackenzie straightened her back and increased her hold on Gloria.

Gloria flinched when the afternoon sun hit her eyes causing her to trip over the door sill. Mackenzie’s strong hands kept her from falling.

A cluster of gawkers stood in the shade of an ancient oak tree outside the church. “Look at them.” Gloria’s slurred words held sneering bitterness. “One of them did it. I know it. One of them ripped my heart out of my chest. And they have the nerve to come here today.”

A woman pointed toward Gloria then bent to speak to a small child. Gloria broke away from Mackenzie’s arm and ran with faltering steps towards the group shouting in slurred tones, “Hunter didn’t do it. I know he didn’t do it. One of you killed him. You took the money and framed him.”

Vesta reached a struggling Mac just before Gloria collapsed on the sandy ground. Between her and Vesta, they manhandled Gloria into a waiting sedan. “Great, just great,” muttered Mackenzie through a clenched jaw. It was bad enough that her father disappeared with the bank contents ten years ago. Now, her mother was verbally assaulting the citizens of Kingston in a drunken stupor.

Other than committing her, there was nothing Mackenzie could do to stop Gloria’s slow death. But she could do something about the lies the town spread about her father. She could wait, observe and listen to the rumors and speculation running rampant in Kingston. Once the man that destroyed her family made a mistake, she would pounce and have her vengeance. She would never rest until her dad was vindicated and the real robber jailed.

Her attention returned to a sobbing Gloria. She pulled her mother against her chest and murmured, “We know he didn’t do it, Momma. The people who love you know he didn’t do it.” Mackenzie stroked raven black hair threaded with silver.

“How can I live without him?” Her mother wailed. Gloria clutched Mackenzie’s hand. With desperation in her green eyes she begged, “You have to find him. You have to make him come back. I can’t go on without him.”

Mackenzie sighed in resignation. If the police, the FBI, and various private detectives and bounty hunters couldn’t find Hunter, how could she? “You do what you have to do, Momma. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute; you do what has to be done.”

Mackenzie’s words seemed to touch something deep inside Gloria. She ceased crying and cupped Mackenzie’s face in her hands. “My poor baby. I know I’m a burden on you. Your daddy always made everything right. I just can’t go on without his laughter anymore. I just can’t, Mac. Please forgive me for being weak.” She pulled her daughter to her and gently kissed her on the forehead.

A chill went down Mackenzie’s back and fisted around her gut. The memorial service was supposed to help her mother come to terms with her husband’s disappearance, not send her deeper into depression. She exchanged sharp looks with her aunt. Vesta’s pale face reflected Mackenzie’s fear. Had their good intentions just snipped the last thread for Gloria’s reason to continue living, her hope that her husband would return?

“Gloria, you have to let Hunter go. You’re ruining your health. You have to pull yourself together for your daughter. He would want you to continue on, to start fresh with someone else. At least pick up your paintbrush and paint again.”

“I can’t,” Gloria whimper. “I just can’t live without him.”





Chapter 2



Two years later, the autumn day was drawing to a close by the time Clive Campbell reached his destination. Kingston was a mid-sized town twenty-miles inland from the South Carolina coast. The town was compact and self-sufficient. The core of the town was the business section. Everything one required for small-town life was within walking distance on either side of an abandoned railroad track converted into a walking path.

He took note of the long streamers of Spanish moss hanging from massive oaks like grey tentacles ready to snag unwary travelers. Antebellum houses with professionally manicured lawns lined the streets. Statues of heroes from various wars stood frozen in grassy parks. Ornate historical markers proclaimed somebody of importance lived, slept, or died in the older sections of town. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn he’d stepped into a Hollywood backlot for the remake of Gone With the Wind.

Residential areas grew out from the tracks in various pockets, each one representing a more recent era in architectural design. On the outermost edges by the interstate, urban sprawl blighted the land with billboards, fast food joints, and the larger chain stores. He predicted the heart of the town would die within a few years if businessmen didn’t invest in some serious revitalization.

Clive circled the block twice looking for the ugly squat concrete and glass building representative of typical police departments. Nothing on this block resembled what he wanted. He gave a quick look to his on-board navigation system. According to the system’s female voice, the municipal building was supposed to be right here, somewhere. Frustrated, he cut the program off.

Making a sharp right on Elm Street, he cruised down the tree-shaded road once again noting that Elm Street was lined with oaks. This time he spotted police officers walking down the steps of a two-story plantation-style building replete with Corinthian columns. The small sign hanging in the front yard proclaimed the large white building to be the Town Hall and Civic Center.

Clive pulled around the corner and found a parking spot beside the curb. When he stepped out of his sportscar, the afternoon humidity hit him like the crest of a playful wave. Sweat popped out on his forehead and trickled down his back and ribs. He loosened his tie and undid the top button of his dress shirt. Melting into the soles of his black leather shoes, he felt a surge of sympathy for the Wicked Witch of the West. How did people live in so much humidity? It was September for crying out loud.

His purpose for stopping was to inform the current Police Chief that he was reopening a case. The meeting was a courtesy between two different law enforcement agencies. The original investigating FBI agent’s notes indicated Chief Jackson had been helpful. Clive hoped he still was.

His long legs brought him before the police chief’s air-conditioned outer office within seconds. He buttoned his, black suit and straightened his tie before entering.

An ancient, bird-like woman was typing energetically on an antique IBM Selectric. He threw a puzzled glance to a state-of-the-art computer residing under opaque plastic covers on the floor in the far corner. She stopped typing and in a no-nonsense drawl demanded, “State your business with the Chief.”

He suppressed a grin. This prickly female from a long-ago era was obviously the Chief’s moat dragon, his frontline defense from unnecessary interruptions

“Special Agent Clive Campbell with the FBI. I’m here to see Chief Jackson on a cold case.”

Unimpressed, she held out a blue veined hand wracked with arthritis. Her wedding band lolled freely on a diminished finger bone between gnarled joints. “Identification.”

Clive pulled a small leather case from his inside jacket pocket and flashed his badge and ID. The petite woman removed her tortoise shell glasses and compared his photo to his face. Her brow furrowed. “Cold case you say?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Her large blue eyes brightened in speculation. “Oh, my.” Long fingers rose up to touch thin lips rimmed with coral lipstick. “Something has turned up on Hunter, hasn’t it?”

Clive used his stern professional voice. It reverberated over the secretary’s desk and into the closed inner office. “I’m not at liberty to discuss the case with you, ma’am. Now, if you would notify Chief Jackson I’m here, I would appreciate it.”

The inner door opened and Clive looked up to see a behemoth in a short sleeve white shirt and navy-blue pants duck his head to enter the outer room. Once a powerful figure, age and indulgence had transformed the chief into a corpulent walking wall. The man was six-foot eight if he was an inch and had to weigh over 350 pounds. The law officer grabbed his belt and hefted it up over his massive abdomen in a futile attempt to relocate his waistband above his groin. He growled, “What’s this about a cold case?”

A lesser man would have had second thoughts about accosting this graying bear. Clive was unimpressed. The Chief was so out of shape, the only way the man could hurt him was if he sat on him. “I’m here to reopen the bank robbery that happened twelve years ago. You may remember Hunter Taylor was the prime suspect.”

Suspect? Hell!” his voice boomed out down the hallway. “I was the first responder on that robbery. It was an open and shut case. Hunter took the money and vanished. What’s happened to make it active? Has Hunter surfaced?”

Clive remained silent and looked pointedly at the frail secretary and the curious faces peering into the office from the hallway. He preferred to discuss the case specifics behind closed doors and not in a public forum. However, the way the Chief’s voice carried, a closed door was probably a moot point.

Chief Jackson lowered his voice to a rumbling humble request. “Aunt Janet, I’m mighty parched. Why don’t you go down to the break room and get us two cold cokes?”

The old woman twisted her lips in surly disapproval. She was about to miss the bombshell of the year. “And you people,” his steel grey eyes glared over puffy cheeks to the doorway, “you better have work to do or I’ll know where the next budget cuts are coming from.”

Effectively clearing the room and hallway, the chief led Clive into his office. Taking the seat of power, the big man leaned back in his protesting chair and waved to one of two guest chairs.

Clive took a quick look around the sparse furnishings in the room trying to get a feel for the man. The desk was gray metal army surplus. The two metal and leather chairs looked like uncomfortable deterrents to long-winded visitors. A cordless phone rested at the Chief’s right elbow. The obligatory in/out boxes were wooden and held one manila folder each.

Across the room from the chief’s desk, a narrow wooden book case housed the Chief’s paraphernalia: his dress hat, several civic awards, impressive samples of quartz crystal, a dusty football trophy, and a photo of a classically beautiful woman with bouffant hair.

Three large multi-paned windows were on the chief’s left, letting ample fall sun filter through. The room would be hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Behind the desk was a large, yellowed county map that curled at the edges from age and relentless humidity. To his right were more bookcases containing neatly stacked printouts and legal tomes.

Clive knew agents that would have a field day profiling this man. All he was able to surmise was that the Chief was married, a rock hound, and an ex-football hero who didn’t like clutter.

Clive sat down in the offered chair. “Thank you for clearing out the eavesdroppers, Chief.”

The big man released a hearty laugh and pointed to a grill in the ceiling. “They probably raced upstairs and are hanging onto every word we say over the heating register. You can’t keep news about Hunter Taylor’s resurrection away from this nosey town.” His voice increased several hundred decibels with the last two words.

Clive raised his eyebrows. “Are you a local, Chief?”

“Naw. I married into the town. Forty years ago, this past spring I was passing through and stayed to marry the prettiest woman in the southeast United States.” He patted his ample girth. “And the best cook this side of the Mississippi. Amelia has made me the happiest and fattest man in this town.”

Clive’s lips twitched in a half-smile at the chief’s self-deprecation.

The chief’s smile disappeared like a lamp being switched off. Grey eyes, bright with intelligence, glittered at Clive. “Now, Special Agent Clive Campbell of the FBI, what brings you to our little town?”

Clive pulled his iPad out of his briefcase and turned it on. Pulling up a scatter diagram overlaid atop the local area, he placed it on the Chief’s desk. The map was marked with a proliferation of red dots, mostly aggregated on the state of South Carolina.

“Twelve years ago, the Federal Reserve dropped off $500,000 in fresh newly printed bills with Hunter Taylor. The currency and what was in the safe was stolen by the perpetrator. Each red dot represents a bank where one of those bills was later pulled from circulation and turned in for destruction due to wear.”

The Chief interrupted. “So, you’re saying someone is spending the loot.”

“Exactly. It’s been twelve years since the robbery. The average time in circulation for a hundred or twenty-dollar bill is around seven years. This scatter diagram was created with this year’s retirement data from the Treasury Department. These red dots are proof that someone is spending Kingston Bank’s stolen money.”

Chief Jackson skimmed his fingers over the map. Dots were sprinkled throughout the United States. A few clusters were in the major cities on the west and east coasts. But the majority was distributed in a broad red rash arcing through the center of the state.

The Chief looked at Clive with calculating eyes. “This looks like most of the bills are turning up in a fifty to one-hundred-mile radius of here.”

Clive nodded in agreement. Remaining silent, he let the Chief come to his own conclusion that the thief had sat on the money for five years before feeling safe enough to spend it.

The older man paused and looked thoughtfully at the map before speaking. When he raised his eyes to Clive, the thrill of the hunt glowed in them. “He’s here,” he whispered. “That son of a bitch is here.”



* * * * *



Patrick Brown’s muscled café au lait arm reached out from under the red antique Mustang and grasped empty air. A deep, rumbling bass voice growled, “Mac, where the devil is my oil filter?”

Mackenzie avoided the flailing arm and suppressed a giggle. She slapped the fresh oil filter into Patrick’s waiting hand, “Sorry. I was going over the songs for tonight.”

“Girl, get your head out of the clouds and pay attention. That witch is coming by in twelve minutes. She’s going to raise the roof if this old bucket of bolts ain’t ready.”

“That witch is my aunt,” Mac responded with laughter in her voice. “If she hears you talking about her like that, she’ll skin you alive.”

A chuckle that sounded like rocks caught in a garbage disposal resonated out from under the car. “That she would and with a smile on her face.”

Patrick stepped out from the undercarriage and as he pressed the pneumatic switch to lower the car, said, “All secure. Fill ‘er up.”

Mac pulled the automatic dispenser down from the ceiling and rotated the control to five quarts. Holding the pumping wand in place, her contralto voice chased notes up and down the scales. She was the lead singer in her small band, Creole Gumbo, and tonight they were trying out some new tunes at their standing Saturday night gig at the Aces Wild Lounge and Restaurant. Focused on the task, she did not see the two men amble up to the front of the garage.

“Hey, birdie. Sing us a song for your supper,” yelled Bart Masters over the sound of the pump. His hand went around his ample girth and grabbed his crotch in a vulgar gesture.

“Yeah, Mac, give us a song,” snickered his wormy-looking brother, Jimmy. The one eyebrowed sidekick mimicked his sibling’s movements. Both men were just under six-feet tall and from the dilated look in their eyes, were strung out on drugs.

Waves of anger washed over her. Those two delinquents from a losers’ colony had been a boil on her backside since she was a teenager. Mac released the wand and wiped her greasy hands on a red mechanic’s rag. With a belligerent jut to her chin she replied, “If you want to hear me sing, you can come by the club and pay the cover charge, just like everyone else.”

Like a lithe black leopard, Patrick stretched upwards to his full six-foot four. Overhead fluorescent lights reflected off his bald head. Black tattooed biceps strained his green T-shirt as he slid the oil filter wrench into its place in a rack of tools and tossed the filter into the recycling bin. He scratched the white afternoon growth on his chin.

“You two go find somewhere else to start trouble. I’ll have none of it here.” When they glared back at him, Patrick pulled the largest wrench from the keeper and took an intimidating step towards Bart. “I said, take your bitch and get off my property.”

Mac did not take her eyes off Bart. He was the leader of the scruffy duo, Jimmy the follower. Take Bart out and Jimmy would fold. The rushing adrenaline made the skin on her arms and fingers tingle like insects were walking up and down on sharp pointy feet. Bouncing on the balls of her feet, her body turned sideways, preparing to deliver a scissor kick to Bart’s head with her Doc Marten work boots. “I whipped your fanny in school. I can whip it again. Leave me alone, Bart.”

An ugly scowl crossed Bart’s face. Neither one of the men had shaved recently. Their clothes were stained with food and grease. Unkempt dirty brown hair covered their foreheads and ears. They reminded her of two feral hyenas. She forced herself not to flinch when Bart threatened. “We’ll see you when your pet jail bird ain’t ‘round to protect you.”

She let the rage in her eyes show. “I don’t need Patrick to defend me,” she slowly enunciated.

Bart and Jimmy flipped their middle fingers at her and turned away.

“That is just so childish,” she yelled to their retreating backs.

Patrick shook his head and returned the wrench. “Bad news. Those boys were born bad news.”

Mac let the air out of her chest. She felt the tension leave her shoulders when the shadows of the two men disappeared down the block. She didn’t think they would attack her with Patrick present. But jacked up on drugs, she wasn’t sure.

“What can I do, Patrick? They’re the Chief’s nephews.” She lowered her voice to a deep drawl and dug her thumbs into her coveralls, “Boys will be boys, Miss Taylor. I’ll have a talk with them.”

She stuck her soiled rag into the back pocket of her coveralls. “Chief Jackson hasn’t done anything about those two lowlifes since he shipped them off to juvie boot camp. Do you think he’ll act on another complaint of harassment?”

“No, reckon not. You make sure you listen up real good when you go to the dojo. You learn everything Master Lee can teach you.”

“I do, Patrick. I do.”

“You got your brass knuckles on you?” Mac pulled them from her left pocket.

“What about pepper spray?” She extracted a small aerosol canister from her right pocket.

“Knife?”

“In my boot.”

The clicking of Vesta Briggs’s heels reeled Mac’s attention away from Patrick’s self-defense checklist. She and Patrick both braced for what was coming.

A woman’s voice reverberated through the garage, “Patrick, that car better be ready. I have a showing across town.” A leggy, middle-aged woman with questionable red hair rounded the bay door. She wore a tailored pants suit and ankle length cordovan boots. In a futile attempt to hide developing wrinkles, she had a scarf emblazoned with fall colors encircling her neck. A gold name tag over her left breast identified her as Vesta Briggs of Briggs Realty.

Patrick flashed a mouth full of strong white teeth. He dangled a set of keys in front of Vesta’s face. She broke into a welcoming smile, igniting his eyes into a warm cozy fire.

Patrick rumbled, “Oil changed, fluids capped off, vacuumed and washed. She’s all yours.”

Vesta extended her hand and took the keys with a slow cat-eating-the-canary smile.

Mac observed the looks the two exchanged. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear Patrick was sweet on Vesta and the feeling was mutual. Her brows scrunched together in thought. Naw, couldn’t be. They were from two different worlds. Patrick was an aging ex-con. Her aunt was an ex-debutant and a retired show girl. Yet, the niggling insight continued while they exchanged pleasantries.

“How’s Miss Bessie doing, Patrick?”

“Mom’s heart is still strong, but her hip is really bothering her. Her age makes her a high risk. The doctors won’t operate. But she gets by with help from friends and the church. She won’t let the pain stop her from getting on a tour bus and heading up to the casino in Cherokee every four months.” He let out a deep rumbling laugh.

Vesta reached out in a casual movement and touched Patrick’s arm. “Tell her if the birds haven’t gotten the last of the figs, I’ll make her some fig and strawberry jam.”

Patrick froze and remained statue still. “I’ll tell her,” he stuttered out. His coffee-with-cream cheeks darkened with heat.

Vesta turned to Mac. With a disapproving twist in her mouth, her hazel eyes examined the ball cap that hid curly auburn hair. Vesta’s eyes continued down the grease stained overalls to the scuffed black boots. She shook her head and released a deep sigh of frustration.

“You singing tonight?” Vesta asked in a brusque tone.

Mac nodded. “New songs. Stop by and I’ll have Patrick slip you in.”

Vesta’s eyebrows rose up in indignation. She put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot. “I don’t have to sneak in anywhere. If I come, I’ll pay my way.”

Mac swallowed her laughter. She knew Vesta’s independence was not to be treated lightly. She shrugged her shoulders. “Whatever.”

Patrick held the car’s driver’s side door open. “Thank you for your patronage, Ms. Vesta.”

Sliding behind the wheel Vesta snipped at Mac. “You should pay attention to Patrick. He has manners. You could learn a thing or two.”

Refusing to acknowledge the slur, Mac looked out from under soot black eyelashes and stared at Vesta with the blank face she had cultivated over the last twelve years. Her aunt’s narrowed eyes glared a return challenge.

Patrick harrumphed. “Ms. Vesta, didn’t you say something about a showing you’re late for?”

Vesta broke the stand-off with a huff. “I suppose I did.” She cranked up the eight-cylinder muscle car and slowly backed out of the bay. Mac could still hear the engine’s distinctive rumble even after the V-8 cruised down the street. Side-by-side, Mac and Patrick watched Vesta drive out of sight.

Patrick broke the silence. “If you don’t mind me saying so, that is one fine woman.”

Mac slapped Patrick on the back. “Yeah, I know.”

“I see you two are still fighting.”

“It’s been reduced to limited guerilla warfare. We no longer have epic battles.”

“How’d you manage that?”

“I threatened to find an apartment last month if she didn’t quit trying to make me over.”

A look of alarm crossed Patrick’s face. “You wouldn’t leave her alone in that big ‘ole house, would you?”

Mac’s face settled into stern lines. “Only if I have to, Patrick. Only if I have to.”

A look of pleading crossed his eyes and was quickly gone. His voice deepened with emotion, “She’s done a lot for you, Mac.”

“I know, Patrick. That’s the only reason I didn’t leave when Mom died.”

Uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was going, Patrick cleared his throat. “Time to close up and go home.”

“Amen to that.” She turned to the sink and squirted a handful of pumice cleaner into her hands and scrubbed viciously at the grease around her fingernails as if the abrasive material would scour away all her problems.

She was drying her hands when a tall dark suited man caught her attention. He was walking briskly towards the garage. It wasn’t hard to recognize what he was. The eruption of angry volcanic heat in her veins was quickly followed by fjord cold determination. She’d bet her last dollar the stranger purposely striding towards the shop was one of “them.” If she was fast enough, she could elude him and avoid the pain his questions were bound to guarantee.

She eased to the back of the bays where the rear door was located. “I’m outta here. Cover for me,” she yelled to a startled Patrick.



* * * * *



With only the circumstantial evidence of the joint disappearance of the bank money and its manager, the chief stock holder, Clive was forced to shake trees and rattle cages in the small-town. Somebody knew what happened to Hunter Taylor and he was going to find that somebody. Clive parked his car and watched the red-head come and go at the garage on Market Street where his first target worked. He got out and walked by twice feigning indifference. Yet he still hadn’t seen Miss Mackenzie Taylor, the trustee of her father’s major stock holdings in the bank.

Her W-2 said she was an employee of Patrick Brown, owner of the vintage two-bay garage. But all he’d seen was the tall, black mechanic and the teenaged boy that assisted him. When the two mechanics began making end-of-the-day motions, he walked quickly to the garage. Mackenzie was Hunter’s sole heir and his best chance of solving the cold case.

He flashed his badge in the tall black man’s face. “Special Agent Campbell, FBI. I’m looking for Miss Mackenzie Taylor. Do you know where she is?”

Patrick stiffened and remained silent while he wiped oil off hands that could palm a car tire. Clive locked eyes with him, allowing his peripheral vision to note the black ink prison tattoos liberally adorning the man’s arms and neck. The dossier on Brown wasn’t extensive. He was supposed to be fifty years old. He was born in Kingston and did a short stint in prison. If not for the grey five o’clock shadow, Clive would have sworn the man standing before him was not more than his own age of thirty-five.

“What do you want with Miss Taylor?” The big man returned Clive’s question with another.

Clive felt irritation at the evasion and curt with his response. “The bank robbery case has opened back up. I’d appreciate it if you’d direct me to where she is.”

“The Taylors are good friends of mine. We have a lot of treasure hunters harassing them. Could I see that badge one more time? I need to make sure it’s not from Wal-Mart.” The big man extended powerful fingers and waited.

Motion diverted Clive’s eyes to the boy. The teen was slowly crabbing towards the rear door. “Stop right where you are,” he bellowed. The kid froze and turned around. With an impatient snap of his wrist, Clive withdrew his badge once more and let Brown scrutinize it.

The black man let out a disgusted snort. “Looks legit, Mac.”

A sullen look fell over the boy’s face. His legs braced into a fighting stance while the rest of his body seethed in attitude.

What in the world? Clive walked around Patrick and stood before the skinny kid. A smudge of grease marred a pert nose. Hazel eyes looked at him with angry suspicion. Slender hands were fisted by his sides. Clive looked a little closer. The chin was square but softly feminine. A razor had never been anywhere near the creamy skin on those cheeks. The tantalizing smell of wildflowers enveloped him, disrupting his thought processes.

“Miss Taylor?” he queried with confusion in his voice. How could this antagonistic grease monkey be his twenty-five-year-old witness?

“What do you want?” The contralto voice did not even try to mask a belligerent tone. Her expressive eyes gazed out through black lashes and lacerated him with distrust. He looked into large orbs flecked with jade, gold and amber. A niggling tickle manifested at the base of his neck and worked its way down to his groin where it blossomed into heat.

“We need to talk.” Shaking off the unexpected effect she had on him, he grabbed her elbow and propelled her toward the front bay doors.

Patrick’s muscle-bound bulk materialized before him, stopping his progress. With a scowl on his face Patrick ordered, “Take your hands off her. Whatever you have to talk about can be said here with me being a witness.”

Clive let the deadness come forth into his eyes. Patrick took in a sharp breath, but stood his ground. The two men stared each other down in a battle of wills. Black emptiness pitted itself against olive green determination.

Mac broke free of Clive’s grasp and stepped between them. “Quit it, both of you.” She turned to Patrick and laid a firm hand on his massive chest. “It’s okay. I can take care of myself.” She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her coveralls. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”

Striding out the bay door, she didn’t look back to see if he followed. Clive broke contact with Patrick’s eyes and marched quickly to her side. She stopped two blocks up the street at a small park. The plaque on a weathered bronze statue of a mounted cavalry officer proclaimed he fought valiantly against northern aggressors during the Civil War.

Mac plopped down on the only bench. She yanked off the cap confining her curls. Her chin jutted out with clenched teeth. She crossed her arms tightly around her waist. The creamy cheeks sported two red spots of anger. She looked straight ahead and snarled, “What do you want? Everything I know is already public record.”

Startled at the riot of color in her auburn hair, Clive lost his train of thought. Every time she shifted her weight, the rays from the afternoon sun exposed a jeweler’s case of hues. Interspersed among the jewels was fire. When the evening sun hit the curl tips, they glowed like minute matches. A sudden surge of desire to run his hands through that unruly, bejeweled mass shot through him. He shook his head and recaptured his thoughts.

“I want to know why a man with a beautiful wife, a loving daughter, the admiration of the town and no financial difficulties would turn rogue and rob his own bank.”

She dropped her eyes to the sidewalk. Her shoulders slumped as if Atlas’s onus balanced on them. “He didn’t.” The whisper was so slight he barely heard it.

Clive pushed her. “What proof do you have that supports your statement?”

Mac leapt up from the bench in a spontaneous eruption of anger. “I don’t have any.” She enunciated her words as if English was Clive’s second language. “I just know, he did not do it.”

He took her energetic response for evidence he was pushing her hot button. He pushed even harder. “So, where is he? Where’s the money?”

Her hands fisted by her side she growled, “He was framed. They killed him and hid the money.”

Clive stood up and leaned forward, his face inches from hers. “Who killed him?” He watched her face pale, the points of anger standing out even brighter on her cheeks.

Her voice started out a mere whisper then grew in volume and intensity. “I don’t know. Everyone loved him. He would never rob his own bank.” She screamed at Clive. “He would never leave us. He loved us.”

Clive grabbed her arm and shoved her back down onto the bench. “Hysterics will get you nowhere with me. Now, from the top, what happened that night? Why did a pillar of the community rob half-a-million from his bank and disappear?”



* * * * *



From the set of his shoulders and marching steps, Mac had known he was an authority figure the moment she spied him coming down the sidewalk. At over six feet tall, he was an imposing figure striding in the sun’s afternoon glare. With broad shoulders, narrow waist, and flat stomach teaming up with a strong jaw, crisp black hair, and an aquiline nose, he was a perfect candidate for a military recruiting poster. Eyeing the dark suit and white shirt, she pegged him as a federal agent.

A sudden, intense awareness had made her pause mid-flight and give him a second look when he entered the garage. He should have been handsome, but his face was cold with dour lines that spoke of too much experience with ugly things. Power and danger surrounded him like a cloak. She had a feeling that he had been tried by countless fires and come out a tempered sword, deadly and accurate in execution.

She’d looked at him closer from under her bill cap. There was something else. She looked at the way he held himself tightly coiled and ready to strike. She recognized the emotion. Just below the iceberg surface there was anger. If a person wasn’t careful, they could run afoul of that anger with Titanic results. She shook off her fanciful thoughts. She knew why he was here and she was not interested in anything he had to say or ask.

Every so often some over achieving agent would try to solve the case or an investigator intent on collecting the reward would drop by and try to get more information out of her. But there wasn’t any more information to be given. And every time one of those yahoos cornered her and went over the events of that week, they pulled scabs off wounds that were gouged bone deep. This man was no different. He was in a war against crime and if she was collateral damage, then too bad. Well, he had another thought coming. She was not a pawn to be sacrificed and discarded to achieve his career goals.

Standing as tall and erect as her five-foot seven inches would let her, she stared into the face of her persecutor. He lounged on the bench, confident in his ability to get more information out of her. Sinfully dark eyes stared back at her. She should have been afraid of the eerie blankness in his face. Most people would have trembled at the deadness in his eyes. But she was familiar with the emotionless look. She saw it every morning in her mirror when another day had gone by and still no word from her father.

She clenched her fists, her slight body trembling with anger at his cavalier treatment of her. She didn’t give a damn about his questions. She had her own to contend with and she was not going to play this game of “intimidate the witness” anymore for anyone.

She bent over and got in his face. They were close enough to breathe on each other. Her loose curls danced across both their faces in the fall breeze. Her eyes pierced his with reckless abandonment. There was nothing he could do to hurt her that someone hadn’t done before.

“I don’t have anything else to tell you. I am not going over the events one more time for anyone, not even you, Hot Shot. You can either arrest me or leave me the hell alone.”

Step-by-step she backed away, her hand reaching into her pocket for the pepper spray. If he would not leave her alone, she was entitled to defend herself. She’d done so against more than one aggressor in the past. Judge Templeton would understand her actions. She wouldn’t spend an hour in jail.

Lightning fast, he sat up and reached to grab her. Mac whipped the pepper spray out. Continuing to back away she growled, “Don’t touch me.” When he sat back down, she turned and fled. Running like a doe fleeing a hunter, she bounded away from the ghosts that haunted her. Pounding down the sidewalk towards the dojo she repeated her mantra, “He did not do it. He did not do it.”

Her head was down as she jogged, watching her steps on the cracked sidewalk concrete. The fist came out of nowhere into her abdomen, collapsing her lungs and sending her to her knees. Rough hands grabbed her and pulled her into the service alley.



* * * * *



Gasping for air that wouldn’t come, Mac looked up at her worst nightmare.

Bart leaned over and snarled, “Yeah, you did whip my ass. Made me look like a pansy. I was the brunt of jokes until I graduated.” He yanked her up from her knees by her hair. She jerked free, losing a handful of stands in the process.

Forcing the bile back down, her eyes jerked over to Jimmy beside him. Her blood turned to ice. A revolver was in his hand. The two human hyenas circled her. She maneuvered her back to the brick wall to support her trembling legs.

Eyes dilated with false bravado, they lecherously glowered at her body. They were jacked up on a dangerous high. Any morality they may have once had was shredded by the designer chemicals they’d consumed. Screaming would do no good. Businesses were closed for the day and the street rolled up for the night.

She frantically looked for an escape route. Bart was standing oblique to her left, Jimmy to her right. Both out-weighed and out-reached her. They would catch and overpower her whichever way down the alley she ran. And then there was the gun.

Going through her few option, she opted to stall for time. Maybe someone, on their way home after work, would see the confrontation. “What do you want, Bart?”

“Want? I want you to pay for humiliating me.” Bart unbuckled his belt. Jimmy pulled a cell phone out of his pants pocket. “I’m going to fuck you and Jimmy is going to record it. Then Jimmy is going to have a go and I’m going to record. We’re going to put it on the Internet and let the whole world see what a great piece of ass you are.”

Fear tripped up her thought processes. They were so much bigger. A blow to Bart’s body would be absorbed by his fat and Jimmy seemed at ease with the gun. All those years of structured complicated martial arts katas were of no help in this skirmish. But she had to do something. She was about to be raped!

Master Lee’s instructional voice penetrated her panic. When overwhelmed with force, fight dirty. Her balled fists brushed against the canister of pepper spray. She pulled it out. But, before she could orient the nozzle, Bart knocked it from her hand in a stinging blow. He slammed her against the building’s brick wall, his exposed member digging into her hip.

The overpowering odor of unwashed body and alcohol gagged her. His hand locked painfully on her jaw. His tongue forced her mouth open in a slobbery kiss. Another hand fumbled with her coverall snaps. Help was not coming. In a desperate measure she stopped struggling and let him paw her breasts while she pulled her knee up around his waist and eased the cuff of her coveralls over the knife.

“Yeah, baby. I knew you wanted me,” Bart crowed.

Jimmy screamed, “Bart, she’s got a knife!”

With the speed of a cat, Mac shoved the blade into Bart’s left forearm. He screamed in pain; his eyes widen in disbelief. But he didn’t let her go. She stabbed him again. Blood covered her hand and the hilt making it hard to grasp. Bart roared, his left arm blocked her next jab, his right fist slammed into her jaw. Her head snapped smartly on the bricks at her back. Blinding light held her immobilized. She couldn’t feel her feet. Her knees crumpled. She slid down the rough brick façade of the building to the oil stained asphalt.

Another yell, deeper and authoritative, pierced the blackness encompassing her. She heard foot beats that matched the racing thud of her heart galloping in her rib cage. Through a remaining pinpoint of light, she saw a pair of onyx eyes swoop down on her.



* * * * *



Clive leaned back against the park bench and watched Miss Mackenzie run away from him. If he wanted to, he could catch her, force her into submission, and arrest her for impeding an investigation. But that would be against his moral code and a credible case of harassment. She had done nothing wrong. She just refused to discuss the case.

She couldn’t be faulted for not wanting to go over painful ground. He stopped talking about Laura and the baby within days of the accident. If you didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. If you didn’t think about it, it didn’t happen. But it did happen. And none of the talking, peer sympathy, professional therapy or friendly good intentions was going to change reality.

He stood up and followed in Mackenzie’s wake, taking in the sights of the town. Closed signs hung in all the store fronts. He checked his wristwatch. Six-twelve and the business section appeared abandoned.

There would be time to hunt her down. He had Taylor’s home address. She and her aunt resided together in an ancient farmhouse on the outskirts of town. He was a patient man. He’d park outside the residence and wait for her. She had to come home sooner or later and then he would break her. If anybody knew where Hunter Taylor was, it would be his daughter.

A male shout of pain came from an alley sending adrenaline coursing through his veins. Without hesitation he raced the last two blocks to the source. Pausing at the corner for a quick look, he was surprised to see Mackenzie Taylor holding a knife on two males. The fat one struck her. He yelled for him to halt. The guy turned and Clive saw his exposed sex. She wasn’t attacking them. They were trying to rape her!

Rage broke through his wall of self-control and replaced surprise. Fury superimposed itself on his features casting his visage into demonic lines. He reached for his weapon. Mackenzie’s slow descent to the pavement diverted his attention.

“Mackenzie!” he called out to her. Her assailants broke into a run down the alley when he ran forward.

Clive knelt to her side. “Miss Taylor, talk to me.” His palm felt a cool and damp forehead. Shock, she was going into shock. He grunted when he lifted her in his arms. Her slender form was heavier than it looked. The bloody knife thudded on the asphalt when it fell from her lax hand. He looked around and recognized the can of pepper spray she had threatened him with earlier. Two weapons. The girl must have been attacked in the past to be this prepared.

Mac moaned. Her head lolled against his shoulder. He got another whiff of her wildflowers scent. A sense of protection escaped through the keyhole of his locked chest of emotions. His arms clenched tighter around her. Anger slipped through the chest hinges and tumbled into his gut.

He’d have those two perps up on charges as soon as he had her settled in a safe place. He paused to stare into her face. Her eyelashes fluttered. Her body stiffened then struggled. Hazel eyes opened up and glared at him.

“Put me down,” she ordered.

“You’ve suffered a severe shock, Miss Taylor. I’m going to get you out of this alley and then call an ambulance to take you to the hospital.”

“Put me down, now,” she repeated.

He dropped her legs, keeping his arm around her waist to stabilize her. He couldn’t help but notice that the top of her head fit under his chin perfectly. She moved her hand to the back of her head. “Ow!”

“Let me see.” He raised his hand to touch her.

A firm arm stiffed him. “Don’t touch me.”

Surprised at her prickliness after just rescuing her, he dropped both arms. “We need to get you to the hospital and have you checked out. Then I’ll go with you to the police station and we can give our statements.”

She slowly shook her head. “Nope. Not gonna happen.” Caressing the back of her head, she retreated down the alley back to the scene of the assault. Scooping the knife up, she wiped the blood off on her overalls. She stooped again and grabbed a chunk of loose broken concrete.

“What are you doing! That knife is evidence,” he shouted at her retreating back. She ignored him.

He tried another tack. “Where do you think you’re going if not to the police?”

“I’m going for revenge,” she replied with a venom laced voice.

If a victim didn’t want medical assistance, he couldn’t force it upon her. From the determined set of her shoulders, she’d quickly recovered from her ordeal. Perplexed, he followed behind her angry back. She stopped beside a green four-door Ford Tarus. The scratched and dented car had seen innumerable hard miles and the back seat was a catchall for fast food wrappers.

Looking quickly around her, she squatted, and using the concrete as a makeshift hammer, she drove the knife into the crack between the rim and whitewall. The air came out with an explosive whoosh.

Aghast at her actions, he shouted at her. “That’s destruction of private property!” When she ignored him, understanding dawned. “I assume this car belongs to one of those men who attacked you.”

“Yep.” She duck-walked to the rear and flattened it. Around the car she continued until all four were deflated.

Clive’s initial reaction to haul her up and march her to jail was stayed by an invisible hand. He rationalized to himself, It’s a local matter, not federal.

“Really, Miss Taylor, I insist that you desist and let me take you to the hospital. I think that blow to your head has caused some psychiatric issues.”

“Hah!” she snorted. “Just a second.” She reached into the unlocked driver’s side and released the trunk latch.

She was going for more damage. Clive thought through his options. He could cuff her and take her in, but he was out of his jurisdiction. As a citizen, he could dial 911. Chances are she’d be done with her intentions before a squad car arrived. He decided, he’d rather let this episode be the problem of the local law enforcement team.

He crossed his arms and leaned against a parking meter. She rummaged in the trunk and pulled out a short tire iron.

“Ah ha!” She waved the iron like a magic wand.

“Now what are you doing?” he queried.

“Watch.” With a malicious grimace on her face she used full swings to smash the head and tail lights. When the last plastic cover shattered, she shouted. “Yes!” and jumped up and down in a victory dance. Then she went after every piece of glass on the car. Tossing the tire iron into the back seat, she swiped her hands in satisfaction at her handiwork.

“Now, we’re even.”

Clive commented laconically, “That is vandalism, Miss Taylor. The owner could have you up on charges and I’d be forced to testify against you.”

“So, who’s going to file a complaint? Those two cretins that just tried to rape me? Not hardly.” She picked up a marching stride, headed in her original direction.

He fell into step behind her. “Miss Taylor, the proper way to handle this is with a formal complaint and have your assailants arrested.”

She kept moving. Over her shoulder she informed him, “They’d be out on bail in a day. They’d go for a plea bargain. What does a case of harassment get these days? I’ll tell you. They’d be picking up trash off the highway for six weeks tops as part of their community service plea bargaining. Nope. Those bastards have now paid in full for roughing me up. I didn’t bother the busy police. I didn’t have to spend money on an attorney. And I didn’t lose any work time.”

He grabbed her by the forearm and pulled her around. “What kind of justice do you call that?”

Her face lit up in evil humor. “Small-town justice.” She jerked away. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m running late.” As she picked up a fast jog down the sidewalk, she yelled over her shoulder, “Thanks for chasing those hyenas off.”

Clive stood on the sidewalk, his jaw cracked open, and wondered, what was in the drinking water of Kingston?



* * * * *



Mac jogged down the sidewalk not seeing anything around her but the evil in Bart and Jimmy’s face. She exploded through the dojo doors causing Master Lee to go into a defensive posture. The adrenaline that had been fueling her destructive rage peaked and crashed. Her body followed suit. Collapsing onto a floor mat she pulled her legs into her chest and laid her head on her knees. She shivered with delayed fear at the enormity of what had almost happened to her.

“Mac!” yelled the rawboned Korean-American. He dropped to the floor beside her and pulled her against his body. “Are you hurt? What happened?” His dark eyes rapidly searched for wounds, but all he could see was a reddening along her jaw.

Through chattering teeth, she went over the attack. His eyes widened in alarm. With a voice deep with anger he yelled at her. “And you didn’t call the cops? This FBI dude let you walk away without taking you to the hospital?” On a note of chastisement, he yelled at her again, “Mac!”

Her shivering stopped in his warm arms. She rolled her head back and gave him a satisfied smile. “I got them back where it hurt.”

Consternation crossed his face. His voice lowered. “What did you do, Mac?”

She opened her mouth and a hysterical giggle erupted from her throat. She slapped her hands over her mouth, cleared her throat and tried to answer again. “I trashed their car. I figure I did thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. They won’t be messing with me anymore.”

“Oh, Mac. Why don’t you play by the rules?”

A smile tugged at her lips. “I could have, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying.”

The twinkle came back to her eyes. She pushed up from the floor. “How about skipping the katas and give me some lessons in dealing with a piece of white trash holding a gun?”

Master Lee sighed in resignation. “Okay. Get in position.”





Chapter 3



He let her get away figuring she’d have to come home sooner or later. Assuming she’d be headed home for supper, Clive drove to the outskirts of town and parked a block down from Taylor’s two-story house. From his position, he could keep a close eye on the comings and goings at the residence.

The farmhouse was vintage rambling with multiple outbuildings and additions built on the original structure as the family size and needs increased. In excellent condition, it sported thermo-paned windows and multiple flowerbeds

The new roof was aluminum and painted green, accentuating the stark white aluminum siding. Fall flowers of aster and chrysanthemum were a riot in burgundy, blue, purple and yellow hues. Baskets of hanging ferns swayed in the gentle breeze under the house’s eaves. A mailbox painted with hummingbirds resided at the end of a concrete sidewalk.

As the sun set and the night progressed, sooner turned into later. An emergency pit-stop behind overgrown shrubs relieved his overflowing bladder. However, his stomach was screaming with protest. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast and the teeth chewing on his back bone were unrelenting in their demand for a decent meal. With an oath, he cut the ignition on and headed into town for food. There was always tomorrow. He’d catch her at the garage.

The first restaurant he came to was one step up from a dive. The number of cars parked around the dimly lit facility indicated either the food or the entertainment or both were excellent. Trusting the locals to be in the know, he pulled his car into the parking lot and stepped out into refreshing night air that promised cooler weather ahead.

The restaurant was overflowing. Roaring voices assailed him like ocean waves crashing onto rocks with an ebb and flow of volume and periodic outbursts of laughter. Waitresses moved with disjointed hips between packed tables, deftly maneuvering heavy trays laden with aromatic food that made his mouth water. His stomach gave him a high-five sign of approval. He looked around the crowd to assess how long the waiting time was for a table.

An easel bearing the night’s entertainment caught his eye. Mackenzie Taylor and her Creole Gumbo band was the night’s venue at the Aces Wild.

“How about that,” he muttered. Guess he’d be eating here regardless of the wait. He caught the eye of the hostess.

“I can get you a table in about ten minutes. If you’ll have a seat at the bar, I’ll come get you.”

“Scotch, neat.” Clive Campbell gave his order to the female bartender after he situated himself upon a stool.

Her red acrylic fingertips filled the order with liquid grace. The frosted, teased and questionably blond grabbed a decanter and a highball glass and kept her painted eyes on his. Glitter! The lids were painted with blue glitter for crying out loud. Clive estimated the buxom woman was at least fifty years old. The years had not been kind to her. Crows feet bracketed her eyes, catching caked foundation in their crevasses. Pucker wrinkles from smoking surrounded lips thinning with age.

She deliberately touched his fingers when she passed the tumbler of golden fire to him. He jerked his hand away from the subtle pass as if she had stung him. His normally dark brown eyes dilated to cold black in anger at her effrontery. He removed all emotion from his face and stood statue still, giving her the stare he reserved for hardened criminals. It was the tool he also used most often to avoid unsolicited attention without appearing overtly rude.

Her eyes shifted uneasily away. She quickly placed the glass down and crabbed over to the next customer. Good. He was not in the mood for explaining why he didn’t want gratuitous or paid sex. He hadn’t been in the mood for years. Occasionally, his body would override his depression and he would succumb to a pretty face and a lush body. But emotionally, he wasn’t in the game. Not since …


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