A KILLER’S CLOSING IN…
When her client and old college friend is murdered, P.I. Kat Justice knows the killer will come for her next. Her survival depends on finding her unknown enemy first…and working with homicide detective Mitch Elliot, her onetime crush..
It’ll take all her professional skills to ignore the sparks between them, but Kat can’t allow the handsome cop to get close. She’s seen too many people she loves die, so she vows just to do her job without getting emotionally involved. Yet keeping her distance may not be the best way to protect her heart—or their lives.
Family and Law Enforcement Go Hand In Hand
2Dead Wrong featuring Kat Justice – November-2012
3 No Way Out featuring Cole Justice – May-2013
4Thread of Suspicion featuring Dani Justice – October-2013
5Dark Tide featuring Derrick Justice – March-2014
Something was wrong. Seriously wrong.
Kat Justice flipped the light switch again. Once. Twice. Three times. Click, click, click.
She held her breath and listened. No hum from the refrigerator on the other side of the wall. No bubbling of the aquarium. She couldn’t even hear the heater that should be running on this unusually cold Oregon day. Just silence, pulsing in the dark.
Someone had cut the power to Nancy’s house. Were they still here, hiding in the murky shadows? Should she continue going forward or back out of the house?
A fresh wave of concern sent a shiver down her back.
“Easy, Kat,” she whispered as she often had when she’d served on the Portland police force. But calming her nerves wasn’t so easy anymore. Not since she’d left the force to work as a private investigator in the family agency. Now she rarely faced danger.
But this new case was different. A man had followed her friend Nancy home. She feared it had to do with her brother Nathan’s recent death. She believed he’d been murdered.
Kat had told Nancy to call 911, but the police weren’t here. Had Nancy been unable to make the call? After finding the house dark, Kat called 911 herself, but she couldn’t stand outside and wait for them to rescue Nancy. She had to protect her friend at all costs.
Gun in hand, she slowly set off, putting one foot in front of the other and hugging the dining room wall to make herself less of a target. Her heart thumped wildly as she felt her way to the kitchen doorway.
“Nancy,” she whispered.
No response. She took another step, sliding her foot along the floor. It thudded into something soft yet solid. She knelt down and felt along the floor. A leg. A jean clad female leg.
Her breath hitched in her lungs as she moved toward the spicy scent of her friend’s signature perfume.
“Nancy?” she whispered again, fear ripping open her heart.
She located her friend’s neck and checked her pulse.
For a moment, she could only sit in horror. Nancy was dead. Her old college friend, the woman she’d just reconnected with after seven years was gone. Kat had failed her.
No, God, no. Not this. Not Nancy.
A sound drifted through the darkness. The barest of sounds like a whisper. Kat held her breath and listened. Soft footfalls. One then another, moving on carpet in the next room. Step after slow step. Heading her way.
He’s still here.
Hands trembling, she jerked back against the wall.
Think, Kat. Think.
She couldn’t help Nancy now. She needed to retreat to safety and then apprehend the killer if she could do so safely.
She searched the shadows, straining her eyes. Darkness and more darkness split only with a slice of light from the open doorway. She heard the sound again. Slow yet stealthy. He was closer now. She had to move. If she sat here, she’d die.
She stayed low, crossed the room and followed the wall retracing her steps toward the door. She glanced around the corner.
A hulking male stood in a shadow cast from a streetlight. Dressed all in black with a ski mask covering his face, he closed the door behind his back, plunging them into complete darkness.
“So glad you could join our little party.” His voice was low and gravelly, yet oddly excited.
Her mouth went dry, and her throat tightened, cutting off her air. She had to get out of there.
The back door.
She rose and backed away, tripping over Nancy. Her arms flailed in the air searching for anything to break her fall. Her fingernails scratched down a wall, but she couldn’t grab hold. She landed with an oomph next to her friend. Her gun slipped out of her hand and skittered across the wood floor.
She turned over. The moon broke free of heavy cloud cover. Shivery light filtered through the window making her assailant look otherworldly. Large, muscular he took slow measured steps as if he had all the time in the world.
Father, please. Don’t let me die. The prayer filled her mind, but panic dragged it away in a flash.
Rolling over, she scrambled toward the kitchen.
His heavy footsteps followed, faster now. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Swift and sure. She felt him near her. Heard him breathing, raspy and harsh.
She risked a peek behind. He was close, standing over her. She gave one more lunge into the kitchen, the back door only a few feet away now. She clasped the cool doorknob, but a hand shot out and grabbed her by the ponytail, jerking her head back and dragging her toward Nancy.
“No!” she yelled and kicked, hair ripping from her head.
He slammed a knee in her back, forcing her face down into the ice-cold tile. Air rushed from her lungs and she struggled to gain a breath as he caught both of her hands behind her back.
“No,” she wheezed out and freed one. She grabbed for anything she could touch, connecting with latex gloves then reaching higher and clawing with her fingernails. Digging deep and hard.
He swore and yanked her hand away, wrenching her arm and pinning it next to the other one. She bucked, but he was too strong. He bound her wrists. The slash of thick tape pulling from a roll the only sound besides the thudding of her heart echoing in her ears.
Please, God! Please don’t let this happen!
Hard fingers dug into her arms as he flipped her to her side then straddled her hips holding her in place with iron muscles. “You’ll pay for that scratch, Kat.”
How did he know her name?
“Do I know you?” she asked though she was certain she’d never heard his voice before.
“Nancy told me all about you and your little part in this. So glad I can clean up all of her messes in one night.”
He thought she’d discovered something about Nathan’s death, and he was going to kill her before she could act on it.
“I don’t know anything,” she said filling her tone with as much conviction as she could, but it came out breathless and wispy.
“You think I believe that?”
“It’s the truth.”
He bent low. Got in her face and laughed. Rumbling. Horrible. Sadistic. His breath was stale with cigarette smoke and mixed with cloying aftershave. For some reason that made it all abruptly real, and she realized she was about to die.
Terror took hold. Terror beyond her wildest imagination. Her heart threatened to burst from her chest.
“No.” She bucked harder, upsetting him for a moment.
He had to grab the wall to steady himself. “Just like your friend. Fighting when you have no chance.”
He drew back and sent his fist barreling into her face. She felt her nose give. Blood poured freely down her cheek and into her mouth, tasting metallic and thick. He laughed as he wedged a small flashlight under his arm then pulled an elastic cord from his jacket.
“Nancy had no business talking with a private investigator. Your death is on her hands, not mine.” He aimed the light at her arm and secured the cord just above her elbow.
He pulled something else from his pocket and held it up. The beam from his flashlight shone through it.
A sob rose in her throat, wild and desperate.
“This is more fun that I thought it’d be,” he said thumping the vein at the bend of her elbow. “Don’t worry. You won’t feel a thing. You’ll just slip off to Never Never Land.”
She looked up at his blistering, angry eyes, and prayed. Prayed for Nancy, dear sweet Nancy, but mostly, mostly she prayed he wouldn’t succeed in killing her, too.
The Justice Agency – Bk 4
November – 2012
Buy It Now for Print and E-book
When someone sabotages former navy SEAL Luke Baldwin’s “unhackable” software, there’s more than his reputation at stake. Faced with treason charges, Luke turns to Dani Justice, a computer expert and skilled investigator. She’s eager to dive into the challenging case…until she uncovers a devastating connection. The hacker framing Luke has a personal, deadly history with Dani.
Luke’s code of honor and his growing feelings make him resolved to protect the sweet, strong woman he knows is more vulnerable than she’d admit. But what good is his training or determination against an enemy who can hack into any system and find them wherever they hide?
Luke Baldwin’s training as a Navy SEAL warned him he was in trouble. To pay attention, be still and take precautions. But darkness clawed at his senses, keeping him from fully waking and heeding the warning.
Hoping to get his bearings, he concentrated on the sounds unfolding around him. Cars whizzed by. Horns honked. If he were home in bed where he should be, he’d hear the quiet of suburban life, not Portland’s bustling traffic.
Digging deeper, he managed to pry his eyes open and look around. He sat behind the wheel of his battered Jeep Wrangler tipped at an angle in the ditch with the hood pressed against an enormous Oregon pine. Thick underbrush had swallowed up his car and spindly pines swayed overhead in icy winds.
“What in the world?” He shook his head to clear his mind. Razor-sharp pain stabbed between his eyes. He let the lids fall, hoping to end the blinding intensity. Nausea curled his stomach and burned up his throat as the damp cold of winter seeped to his bones.
How had he ended up in the ditch?
C’mon, Baldwin, think.
He breathed deeply, letting oxygen rush to his brain and stem the nausea. Clarity tugged the edges of his mind, then suddenly it all came flooding back.
He’d been driving home in the wee hours of the morning to grab a quick shower before today’s demonstration of his company’s software. The roads were slick with rain, and fog hovered over the pavement. Driving too fast for the conditions, he felt his car start to slide. He’d pumped the brakes. The pedal sank to the floor with no resistance. His car left the pavement, slipping into the ditch and ramming the tree. With no airbags, his head slammed into the wheel and everything had gone black.
His ancient Jeep had failed him again. Of course it had. It was on its last legs and needed replacing. He should get a better car. One with reliable brakes and airbags. Not happening, though. He’d poured all of his money into his company.
Wait. Company. What time is it?
He glanced at his watch: 1030 hours.
No! Couldn’t be. He’d be late for the demonstration.
He released his belt and dug out his cell phone. Dead.
“No, no, no!” He pounded the wheel, the lancing pain slicing up his arm and into his already throbbing head.
Just what he deserved for failing his staff. His software company vied for a multimillion-dollar military contract today at 1100 hours. He could kiss the money and his company goodbye if he didn’t show up.
Not an option for a SEAL, even a former one.
He forced open his door, the bent metal groaning and creaking. He stumbled out. Rain spit from the gray winter skies, dampening his mood even more. He grabbed fistfuls of grass and pulled his aching body up to the winding road leading into Portland. He waved at cars, hoping to flag one down, but they sped past as if he were invisible. He’d have to hoof it down the hill to the coffee shop where he got his caffeine fix every morning. They knew him and would let him use their phone.
He hunched into his jacket to fight the wind whistling down the hill and jogged down the road. Ignoring the pain pulsing through his body, he settled into the zone he’d often found as a SEAL after silently dropping behind enemy lines. His mind floated free, and oddly, his father’s voice rang in his head.
So you screwed up again. I knew you’d never amount to anything.
Maybe his father was right. He was a screwup. He’d failed most everyone who mattered in his thirty-four years on this earth. His mother, his older sister—both of them killed in a fire set by his crazed father. His fiancée, Wendy, who wanted more from him and had every right to expect it before she’d bailed two years ago. And Hawk. Poor Hawk.
Luke flashed back to Afghanistan, to before he left the SEALs to be close to his only living sister, Natalie. Insurgents rushed his SEAL team—guns blazing in the night, his buddy Hawk falling and never getting up again. All courtesy of an intercepted satellite phone call. Luke held Hawk as he took his dying breath and made a promise to prevent other soldiers’ deaths because of satphone security issues. So he’d founded SatCom with Hawk’s little brother, Timothy Revello, and their dream was moments from becoming a reality.
If Luke made it to the office before he broke that promise.
He upped his speed and soon swung into the coffee shop, heat instantly cocooning him as the scent of aromatic java perked him up. The owner stood behind the long mahogany bar, a line of customers waiting for their drinks. With no time to wait in line, Luke approached Earl.
Earl placed a cup in front of a young woman, then looked up. “Man, Baldwin. You look rough.”
Luke’s chest burned from exertion, but he managed to say, “Need your phone, Earl. Car and cell dead. Need to call a cab.”
Earl grabbed a cordless phone and a laminated cardstock listing local phone numbers, then slapped them on the counter with a solid whack. “Want your usual when the line gets down?”
Luke nodded, and as he worked to bring his breathing under control, he requested a cab then dialed his partner Tim’s direct line at SatCom.
He tapped his foot on the floor as he waited, and caught sight of his scruffy appearance in the front window. A lump, swollen and purple, stuck out on his forehead. A cut on his cheek gaped open and blood saturated his wrinkled pants and shirt. No wonder people were staring at him. He might need to go home and change before the demonstration. If Tim thought he could handle it. A big if for the introverted geek who’d rather walk on a bed of nails than speak in public.
“Revello,” Tim finally answered, sounding out of breath.
“Where are you?” Tim demanded. “I’ve been going crazy here.”
“I’m sorry.” Luke took a quick moment to regroup and not let Tim’s frantic tone up his own anxiety. “I ran my car off the road on my way home last night and knocked myself out. I called a cab and should be there in forty minutes tops.”
“Forty minutes?” Tim shouted. “You better hope we’re still in business by then.”
So much for changing clothes.
“Can you stall with General Wilder? Just until I get in.”
“Probably, but Wilder’s not our biggest problem right now.”
“What’s going on?” Luke asked calmly, though his heart had kicked into high gear again.
“The procurement committee got an anonymous call late yesterday afternoon claiming our software has been sabotaged.”
“What?” Luke barked out.
“Yeah,” Tim said. “Wilder sent over a consultant to validate the program. She was waiting at the door when I got here. She’s been evaluating the software and our network logs all morning.”
“This is a joke, right? To get back at me for being out of pocket and making you worry.”
“Nah, man, it’s no joke.
“So let me get this straight,” Luke said, dread settling over him. “We’re minutes from demonstrating our software for the military brass and they send an independent consultant to validate it? Just because some crackpot calls and says it’s corrupt?”
“Not just any consultant, but Dani Justice.” A waver of uncertainty threaded through Tim’s voice.
“You make it sound like she’s well-known in the computer world.”
“Tops in our field.”
“And we’re sure the general contracted with her?”
“Yep. Confirmed it with his aide before I let her in the building.” Tim paused and a long sigh filtered through the phone.
This can’t be happening. “You know anything about this Dani Justice?”
“Yeah, she’s legendary in the Portland computer world. She once worked for the FBI in cyber crimes. Now she and her siblings own a private investigation company.” Tim snorted. “Working in a mom and pop agency seems like a waste of all that talent, but what do I know.”
“I should’ve known Wilder would hire the best.
Earl called out Luke’s coffee order, his face creased with his usual easygoing smile.
Luke held up a finger and smiled back despite his inner turmoil. “Too bad Wilder didn’t give us a heads-up.”
“He said they couldn’t warn us she was coming or we might try to cover up the software’s vulnerability.”
“We’d never do that. If there was a vulnerability, that is.” Luke craned his neck, hoping to see his cab pulling up.
“I know, but Wilder thinks someone at SatCom is guilty. The aide said if they find even a hint of sabotage, Wilder would pursue prosecuting the guilty party for treason.”
“Treason!” Luke shouted, the entire coffee shop stilling. He lowered his voice. “That’s a pretty serious charge for tampering with software.”
“I know, right, but we both know if someone sabotaged it, they could listen in on the military’s satellite phone conversations.”
“And lives would be lost,” Luke added. His gut clamped down as he imagined how the information gained by altering their software could give the enemy an upper hand. Field operations would be vulnerable. Locations known. Soldiers under fire. A shudder claimed Luke’s body.
He had to get to the office. Where was his cab? “Before I go, please assure me that Ms. Justice won’t find anything wrong with our software.”
“We should be good. We’ve done our due diligence and hired people to validate it. We got a clean bill of health.”
Unease niggled at Luke’s gut. “But we didn’t hire Ms. Justice like the general, did we?
“Are you kidding? We could never have afforded her.”
“If you’d come to me I would’ve found the money somewhere, Tim. You know that.”
“Where? You’re completely tapped out. You’ve already sold your house and moved in with your sister. You’ve even maxed out your credit cards and company loans. So where would this cash come from?”
“I know, I know,” Tim interrupted. “If you’ve told me once you’ve told me a thousand times. You’d rather our company fails than deploy anything that could put service personnel in danger.”
“It’s not just talk, you know. I mean every word of it.”
“Believe me, I got it.” Tim sighed as he usually did when they talked about commitment to honor and sacrifice that soldiers lived and breathed, but Tim had no clue about.
If a SatCom employee had actually tampered with the software and planned to put soldiers at risk, Tim wouldn’t believe they deserved to be charged with treason, but Luke did. Even if the lost contract forced SatCom into bankruptcy or if, as the owner of the company, his name and reputation would be tainted for life.
If they don’t bring you up on charges, too, and you don’t end up in a prison cell of your own.