FORSAKEN DUTY FIRST CHAPTER EXCERPT:
Owen Tremaine hoped he’d survive the next punch. He kept his eyes closed, but couldn’t shut out the pain. Life’s bitter ironies. Addy Jacobs was alive…but he was going to die here, before he could see her again if he couldn’t end Mr. Edwards’ interrogation. Life fucking sucked. He laughed at his own morose thoughts. Wasn’t like him to feel sorry for himself. This wasn’t so bad. Not like the day she was taken from him. This was just physical, not a soul injury like that had been.
He’d gotten through that; he could get through this. For her.
He’d been some meathead’s punching bag for what, a day? A week? How long had it been? What was it they were after? He tried to think through the pain. He could hear Jax’s muffled shouts in another room. How far away was he? How many men were with Edwards?
He cracked his eyes open, trying to figure out where he was and how he got there. Oh yeah, the accident. Jax’s car had been broadsided on a country road outside of Denver. They’d exchanged gunfire before a flashbang had been tossed under their SUV, knocking them down long enough for the others to take them. After that, he woke up in this hellhole, tied to a rusty steel chair in the middle of what looked like an old jail cell in some long-abandoned piece-of-shit property, if he were to judge by the peeling paint and the persistent sound of dripping water. He wondered if he was in the tunnels somewhere.
He slowly straightened in his seat. Who knew how long of a break he’d have before they came back to him? If he was going to act, now was the time. He tugged against the ropes on his right ankle, once again maneuvering his foot to the support bar connecting the front to the back of the chair. Wedging his boot in the weakened corner, he used his other foot to push the chair and himself up a few inches, then slammed down on the one leg. The rope felt like a garrote around his ankle. Didn’t matter. He had to get free. Had to get to Jax. He did it again and again until the chair’s decaying support bar gave way. He repeated the motion with his other foot, breaking that bar too.
He sat for a minute, letting the pain wash through him, listening to hear if the bastards who’d been torturing them were coming back. When he didn’t hear them, he leaned the chair off one leg and wiggled his tied ankle free, then did the same with his other leg. That was all he could manage before he heard them coming his way.
He tucked his ankles close to the chair legs so no one would notice he’d gotten them free. The meatheads came back in, followed this time by a trim, middle-aged man with blond hair and blue eyes. His nose was too small for his face. His skin was weathered. Bastard apparently liked the sight of a man beaten to jelly, for he smiled at Owen.
“I see you’re awake again. Wonderful. Shall we start over?”
Edwards was the man who’d carved up Wynn’s hand. The man who’d strung up Ace. Probably one of the costumed observers to Fiona’s attempted initiation. He was the devil himself, and he had a blood price on his head among Owen’s team.
Owen would be quite pleased to collect it.
He closed his eyes, knowing the bastard fed on negative emotion—fear, anger, hopelessness. He stuffed those emotions away, starving Edwards of his jollies. “You go ahead. I can’t remember what we were talking about.”
The edge in Edwards’ voice was the only indication Owen had hit his mark. “Who’s funding you?”
“I already answered that. Pay attention, man.”
Edwards nodded toward one of his paid fists. Owen took a hit in the jaw. He looked up at the guy, visualizing a steel chair leg going through his chest.
“Answer it again,” Edwards said through clenched teeth.
“What family?” Edwards asked.
“What does it fucking matter?” Owen’s hands were almost free from the rope binding them behind him. He wasn’t about to sell out his investors. Val was a minority shareholder. He could take care of himself, but Senator Jacobs, who’d provided the other minority stake in angel funds, couldn’t. Beyond that, the government had footed the bill for this lucrative contract from their dark ops budget.
Before the goon standing near him could throw another punch, Owen said, “Uncle Sam’s family. It’s classified. Don’t you have friends in high places? Go ask them. By the way, while I have your attention, where’s my boy?”
“How would I know?”
“You took him from Addy.”
Edwards went absolutely still. “She still has her boy. For now.”
So it was true; Addy had had a son. “Word on the street is you put him with the watchers.”
“What makes you think he’s yours?”
“Good intel. Where is he?”
Edwards nodded toward his hired muscle. “I’m done here. Finish him. He’s got no info for me.”
Owen leaned back and braced himself by gripping the bars of the seatback so he could kick out. He hit the man’s chest with his heels, knocking him back several steps. The other guy rushed forward. Owen twirled to his feet, slamming him with the steel chair. In the seconds that opened for him, Owen finished freeing his hands, then kicked in the other side of the broken bottom rung, separating it from the chair. He grabbed it in time to shove it upward into the guy’s chest cavity, using his own forward momentum to impale him. Owen shoved his body into the second guy, then ran after Edwards, but he was too late.
Edwards had already rushed out of the jail cell, leaving the door locked behind him. The second guy charged toward Owen. He ducked. The guy’s fist hit the steelwork of the front wall, shaking it loose. Owen punched him in the gut then double-fisted the back of his head when he bent over. He slumped down, exposing the knife in his holster. Owen grabbed it and, fisting the guy’s hair, lifted his head and sliced his neck.
Shoving him aside, Owen looked around the room, assessing his situation.
The door was locked, and he had no key. Neither man had the door key or wallets, but one had car keys. He pocketed them then gave the cell bars a tug. Flakes of rusted metal and paint fell away. Two bars were loose. Owen looked around the room again. His gaze fell on the busted chair. He broke off the other support he’d loosened, then used it to pry the compromised cell bars free, giving him enough room to climb up and squeeze through.
He rushed toward the area where he’d heard Jax, finding him three cells down. Owen had to move fast—he didn’t know where Edwards had gone or if he was coming back with reinforcements. Jax was slumped over in the chair he was tied to. The door to his cell was locked, too. Owen used the knife he’d taken to fish around in the big skeleton keyhole. It worked. The gate came loose.
He hurried over to check his friend, who looked as mangled as Owen felt. At least he had a pulse. Owen cut the ropes binding him. Jax was in a fist-induced stupor. Owen wasn’t certain, in the state he was in himself, if he’d be able to carry Jax out…or even drag him.
He knelt in front of Jax and gently lifted his head. “Hey…you in there? Anything broken? Can you move?” They had to get out before Edwards came back.
Jax instantly came alert, ready to fight.
“Whoa. Whoa,” Owen said. “Just me. We need to move out. Can you walk?”
“Is gone. For now. We gotta go.” He pulled Jax’s arm over his shoulder and hoisted him up from his chair. They moved as fast as they could down the hall to a flight of stairs. Up was the only direction to go. It was dark in that part of the building—no windows anywhere and no lights on. Owen had no idea what time of day it was, where they were, or what the hell they were going to do next.
They made it to an exit. A chain had been cut and now draped from one of the push bars on the industrial door. It was night outside. The climb out of the hellhole had let Owen’s eyes adjust to dark. They were nowhere. Absolutely fucking nowhere. The building was in the middle of wide-open prairie, inside a tall, walled space. No lights shone anywhere around them, not even on the outside of the building.
A single SUV sat in front on the overgrown driveway. Owen used the key fob to see if it belonged to the guy below. The lights came on. He ran with an arm around Jax to the vehicle and managed to get him inside, laying him across the backseat. Owen jumped into the driver’s seat and started the SUV up. The building they’d just left was lit up in the headlights. It was a stately brick monolith with gothic arches over the front and side doors. The headlights illuminated a sign over the grand front door: Hawthorne Sanitarium, est. 1878. Jesus. The guards could have just left them there to die and no one would ever know before they were a pile of bones.
“Hang on, bud,” Owen said as he got them the hell out of there…wherever there was.
* * *
When the sun came up, Owen changed directions, heading west. He knew the moment Jax woke up from the string of foul words he growled. They were so far east that there wasn’t a hint of the mountains, only miles and miles of parched prairie grass and dirt road in the predawn light.
Owen looked over his shoulder. “How you feeling?”
“I need to take a piss. And I could use a gallon of water.”
Owen stopped the SUV. “The piss we can do. Water, not so much.”
“Where are we?”
“No fucking clue. I’m gonna need gas soon. I got no cash, no cards, and no ID to get cash. How about you?”
“Yeah. I got my wallet. They didn’t take it.”
Owen pulled over. They both got out and relieved themselves in the dust on the side of the road. The sound of their streams made Owen’s thirst even worse. Afterward, he looked in the SUV’s back hatch, searching for bottled water. The trunk was empty. He slammed the door then glared at Jax. “What the fuck happened? How did Edwards know where we were?”
Something about Jax’s quick answer made Owen question everything about him. If Jax weren’t in as bad a shape as Owen, it would have been easy to believe his old friend was in with the Omnis. Owen also found it hard to believe that Edwards didn’t know where his funding came from. Sure, it was funneled through a couple of dummy corporations, but not so deeply hidden that a patient and persistent investigator couldn’t figure out Jax’s dad and Val were his partners—especially an investigator with deep Omni pockets and plenty of time.
At Owen’s continued stare, Jax’s eyes narrowed. “You think I had something to do with it? Like I like getting pulverized?”
Owen sighed. Fuck. Edwards was sneaky as hell. The Omnis probably had someone watching Winchester’s, since it was a popular hangout with Owen’s crew. They were likely tracked leaving the bar that night.
“You hear that?” Jax asked.
Owen tried, but couldn’t hear anything. “No. My ears are still ringing.”
“It’s a highway. Or at least a paved road.”
Jax listened for a minute then pointed in the direction they were headed. “Let’s stay headed west.”
They got back into the SUV. Owen didn’t press Jax for answers. He needed to rehydrate, sleep, and eat something before anything Jax said would make sense. They found the road Jax had heard. It wasn’t a highway, just a two-lane country road. But there was heavy truck traffic, which made Owen fairly certain at one end or the other they’d hit a gas station. Eventually, they pulled into a little town that didn’t have a single traffic light but did have a gas station.
Owen used Jax’s cash to get them some food and water while he filled up. The girl behind the counter stared at him in horror.
“You want me to call an ambulance, mister?” she asked.
“No.” He managed a laugh. “My buddy and I were off-roading at a friend’s place. Guess helmets shouldn’t have been optional.”
An older lady joined the convo, eyeing Owen like he was trouble. “Little old to be learning that, doncha think?”
Owen laughed again as he set the money on the counter. “Was a helluva weekend.”
“It’s Thursday.” The clerk punched in his purchase and gave him change.
Fucking Thursday. They’d been questioned for four days. He took his case of water and sandwiches and returned to the SUV.
“It’s Thursday,” he said to Jax as he handed him a water bottle.
“Yeah, I saw the date on the pump.” They guzzled down a bottle each, then took a couple more before heading back down the road. This time, Jax was driving. He turned south out of town.
“Where are we going?” Owen asked.
“I know where we are now. I got a place we can lay low for a bit.”
“I don’t want to lay low. I want to see Addy.”
“You go see her like you are right now, you’ll scare the shit out of her. She’s safe, but we aren’t. I need to dump this vehicle, get a phone, and sleep for about a week.”
“A night. Not a week. We’ve already lost four days.”
“I’ll take it.”
Owen dozed off. The day was well into the afternoon when he woke again. They made another pit stop, then ate the sandwiches he’d bought at the last gas station.
“So where are we headed?” Owen asked when they got back in the SUV.
“I have a place an hour west of Denver.”
“What’s your status with the Red Team?” Owen asked.
“I’m on a special assignment for the senator.”
“You were Ace’s handler.”
“You gave her Adelaide’s picture.”
Jax neither confirmed nor denied that statement.
“What happened to the boys Ace recovered? The watcher groups.”
“I’ll show you soon.”
“Why did you direct Ace to find them?”
“Because King was using them as his private lab rats. I had to get them away from him. That’s why I got Lion’s group vaccinated. And it’s why the Friends kids and others from his various cults were targeted with the smallpox; King had no one else to test it on.”
Owen’s eyes narrowed. Jax had sent Ace to Wolf Creek Bend well after he’d already found Lion’s pride himself. He’d had them inoculated at least a month before she got there. “You already knew about Lion before Ace got to town. You didn’t send her there because of the watchers.”
Jax looked Owen in the eye. “So I passed one of my operatives off to you. What of it?”
“You were close to finding the tunnels. She needed justice. It was all coming to a head.” Jax shrugged. “It was time.”
Owen doubted that line of reasoning, but let it go for now. “Is it true that I have a son?”
“Where is he?”
“He was with Lion’s watchers. I don’t know where he is now—I don’t know where Lion’s pride is now. They were moved before I could get them out.”
“What’s his name in the pride?”
“You’re sure he’s mine?”
“The DNA said so.”
Owen looked out the window. Every part of his body hurt. His head wasn’t on straight. He needed a good night’s sleep, more food and water, and a long, hot shower. If pushed hard now, he’d make a mistake, compromise himself.
He still wasn’t sure which side Jax was on, but if they weren’t on the same one, then he’d gone through hell just to make it look like they were.
A few hours later, they made several turns onto dirt roads in the foothills northwest of Denver before going down a long drive in the middle of a patch of evergreens. Their headlights showed an old, nondescript, one-story farmhouse, like so many others up and down the Front Range. There was a black Expedition parked out front. No lights were on in the place.
Owen checked Jax, wondering if he was expecting anyone. He looked as tired as Owen but showed no signs of tension. The door unlocked when Jax reached for the knob. Lights came on inside. Owen didn’t have to look around to know there were cameras monitoring them and that access had been remotely granted.
Inside, the little farmhouse had been fully renovated. New kitchen, small dining area, new living room with a wall of bookshelves and a TV. Beyond that, there were two bedrooms, both with their own en suites. Simple, clean, and complete with two dinners sitting under warming caps. Owen lifted a brow at Jax.
“I called ahead while you were in the bathroom at our last stop. You’ll find clothes in your room too.” Jax shrugged. “What? Surprised I have my own crew?”
“No. I don’t know you at all anymore.”
“Fine. You can eat, shower, sleep, whatever the hell you want. I’m gonna clean up. You need a doctor?”
“No. We’ll talk in the morning. I gotta crash.”
Owen went into the second bedroom. A phone and a change of clothes were on the bed—a pair of jeans, black boxer briefs, and a white T-shirt. He and Jax were about the same size. Good thing, because Owen hadn’t packed for a trip. Toiletries were in the bathroom. Probably wouldn’t be shaving for a few days. His face was filled with cuts and bruises. His mouth and jaw were swollen. He looked like road kill. Maybe Jax was right about giving themselves a few days before going to see Addy.
No, fuck that. Owen wasn’t waiting. Not a goddamned minute more than he had to.
He ate his dinner, beef and broccoli on rice. Nothing too hard to chew for his sore jaw. He didn’t have an appetite, in part from the beating he’d taken, but also because they hadn’t been fed the four days they were being questioned—his body had gotten used to having no food. Owen looked at the phone, considering checking in with his team. He knew the phone Jax had given him was keyed in to whatever system he had rigged up. Owen didn’t know what his team might reveal on the other end. And truthfully, he didn’t want them involved; if he was walking into a trap, they couldn’t be anywhere near him.
After dinner, Owen had to decide between sleep or a shower. The bed, with its clean sheets, looked like heaven, but he needed that shower first. The hot water was soothing. He let it spill over him, wash the past few days away.
When he got out, he dressed. Who the hell knew what fun new torture would come as soon as he let his guard down; he didn’t want to face it naked.
He got into bed. His body was screaming. He wondered if he had a broken rib. Addy slipped into his mind. He thought of their childhood together, remembered watching her mature, feeling an unholy hunger for her, wondering if she’d like him when she was a woman.
She was fifteen when he and Jax graduated from West Point and took their commissions in the Army. She’d been eighteen when he and Jax came to her high school graduation party. Twenty-one when she got her college degree.
Twenty-one the day their lives started and ended.
Owen thought back through the small bit of info Jax had told him about her. Not once had he actually said Addy was still alive. For all Owen knew, Jax was taking him to see Addy’s grave.
That thought caused him worse pain than Edwards’ goons had.
He’d lived so long without a heart that it hurt to think of having one once again…and it would be worse to learn his fresh hopes were just smoke and mirrors.
He threw the covers off and stormed into Jax’s room. It was dark. “Wake up, you son of a bitch.” He gripped Jax’s throat and squeezed, lifting him from his mattress.
Jax didn’t fight back.
“Tell me she’s alive.”
Jax broke free of Owen’s grip. He stared at Owen, then scooted himself up to lean back on his pillows.
The delay was all the answer Owen needed. A tear spilled down his swollen cheek. Jesus fucking Christ. He was glad his team wasn’t here to see him break. Addy was the perfect way to torture him. He’d give his soul away to have her back in his life.
His shoulders slumped as he sat there on the edge of Jax’s bed. So many people he’d thought dead had emerged from the shadows of the Omni World Order that it had been a short jump to believe that Addy would, too.
“She is alive, O. But different.”
“We had four days of tender focus from the Omnis. She had years.”
“What happened to her?”
Jax shook his head. “I can’t… I gotta leave that to her to say or not.”
“But she’s alive?”
He nodded. “She doesn’t want to see you. When I finally found her, after everything she’d gone through, I couldn’t violate that trust.”
Owen left Jax’s room and went back to his. She was alive. It wasn’t much to go on…and it was everything. He’d take it.
Copyright 2017 Elaine Levine