| BONEYARD RIDGE
Text Copyright © 2014 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Smoky Joe’s Saloon had never pretended to be anything more than a hillbilly honky-tonk, a hole in the wall on Old Purgatory Road that served cold beer, peanuts roasted in the shell and a prodigious selection of Merle Haggard hits on the ancient jukebox in the corner.
At the moment, “The Fightin’ Side of Me” blasted through the jukebox’s tinny speakers, an apt sound track for the bar brawl brewing around the pool table in the corner.
Two men circled the table like a pair of wary Pit Bulls, eyes locked in silent combat. The older of the two was also the drunker, a heavyset man with bloodshot eyes and a misshapen nose, mottled by red spider veins. He seemed to be the aggressor, from Alexander Quinn’s vantage point at a table in the corner of the small bar, but the younger, leaner man had shown no signs of trying to de-escalate the tension.
On the contrary, an almost frantic light gleamed in his green eyes, a feral hunger for conflict that Quinn had noticed the first time he’d ever laid eyes on the man.
His name was Hunter Bragg, and he’d finally found the trouble he’d been looking for all night.
“Come on, Toby, you know he’s going to beat the hell out of you the second you take a swing. Then I’m going to have to call the police and you’ve already got a couple of D and Ds on your record this year, don’t you?” The reasonable question, uttered in a tone that wavered somewhere between sympathy and annoyance, came from the bartender, a burly man in his early sixties with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair and a gray-streaked beard. He was dressed like most of the patrons, in jeans and a camouflage jacket over a T-shirt that had been through the wash a few times, dulling its original navy color to a smoky slate blue.
He was the “Joe” of Smoky Joe’s Saloon, Joe Breslin, an Army vet who’d opened the bar with his savings after deciding not to re-up decades earlier when the trouble in Panama was starting to heat up. He’d packed on a few pounds and lost a few steps since his military days, but Quinn had seen him in action a few nights earlier when another loudmouthed drunk had taken the angry young man’s bait and lived to regret it.
“He’s askin’ for an ass-kickin’, Joe!” the man named Toby complained, shooting a baleful look at Hunter Bragg. “I don’t care if he is a damn war hero.”
“I’m no hero,” Bragg growled, the feral grin never faltering.
“Bragg, I don’t want to kick you out of my bar, I really don’t,” Joe said. “But if you don’t shut your damn trap and stop picking fights, I’m gonna. You think your sister needs any more trouble?”
Bragg’s gaze snapped toward the bartender at the mention of his sister. “Shut up.”
Breslin held up his hands. “Just sayin’. She’s already got enough on her plate, don’t she?”
“Shut up!” Bragg howled, the sound of a wounded animal. Chill bumps scattered down Alexander Quinn’s spine and, on instinct, his hand went to the pistol hidden under his jacket.
Toby took a couple of staggering steps backwards until he bumped into the wall, dislodging some darts from the board that hung near the pool table. “You’re crazy, man.”
Bragg’s head snapped back toward Toby, barely leashed violence throbbing in his tight muscles. Quinn wasn’t sure if the man had come to the bar armed or not; Joe Breslin wasn’t the sort of proprietor who made people check their weapons at the door. And so far, Bragg had never used anything but his fists in a fight.
But things could turn disastrous in a heartbeat, Quinn knew. He’d seen it happen too many times.
He crossed the room with quiet speed, inserting himself into the arena of conflict. As he’d hoped, his mere presence put a big dent in the tension, as both men turned their wary gazes toward him.
“Gentlemen,” he said with a polite nod. “Are you still using this table?”
Toby stared at him as if he were crazy, but Bragg’s eyes narrowed, his head tilting a notch to one side.
“I know you,” he said.
Quinn nodded. “We’ve met.”
Quinn shook his head. “At Landstuhl.”
Bragg’s face blanched visibly at the mention of the military hospital in Germany where combat-injured American troops were treated until they were stable enough to return to the States for further treatment.
Bragg had spent over a week there after an improvised explosive device, or IED, had obliterated his troop transport vehicle, killing everyone else in the Humvee and leaving Bragg with a mangled leg and a head injury. Surgeons had saved the leg, though when Quinn had seen the man in the hospital in Germany, there had been some question as to whether he’d have much use of the limb again.
Now, it seemed, it was the head injury that should have caused the doctors more concern. Bragg’s limp was barely noticeable these days. But he was no longer the good-natured practical joker his fellow soldiers had nicknamed the Tennessee Tornado.
“You brass?” Bragg asked warily.
“Civilian,” Quinn answered.
The green eyes narrowed further, little more than slits in his stormy face. “Spook?”
Quinn just smiled.
Bragg’s eyebrows rose slightly, opening his eyes enough that Quinn could read the sudden recognition in the younger man’s gaze. “You’re the guy who runs that new PI joint over in Purgatory.”
Quinn removed his hand from his jacket pocket, producing a simple, cream-colored business card. “The Gates,” he said, holding out the card.
Hesitantly, Bragg took the card from Quinn’s outstretched hand. “I’m not in the market for a private eye.”
“I’m in the market for employees.”
Bragg handed the card back. “I’ve got a job.”
“You sweep floors at the Piggly Wiggly.”
“It’s honest work.”
“So’s this.” Quinn held up the card.
“I’m not looking for excitement.”
Quinn merely lifted one eyebrow, shooting a look toward Toby, who stood next to the dartboard, watching Quinn and Bragg with a confused expression on his whiskey-slackened face.
Putting the card on the green felt surface of the pool table, Quinn looked back at Bragg. “If you change your mind.”
He left the bar without looking back to see if Bragg picked up the card. He couldn’t make the decision for the man. He could only offer an option that might channel his anger in a more productive direction.
He wasn’t in the business of saving people from themselves, no matter what the good folks of Purgatory seemed to think.
“Damn it!” Susannah Marsh looked with dismay at the jagged chip in her French-manicured thumbnail and mentally calculated whether or not she could work in a trip to the salon over the next seventy-two hours.
Nope. Not a hope in hell.
“What’s the matter?” Marcus Lemonde looked up from his desk in the corner of the small office, the expression on his narrow face suggesting the query was more about politeness than interest.
“Broke a nail, and I won’t have time between now and the conference to get it fixed.”
“Can’t you just file it down or something?” Even his feigned attempt at interest disappeared, swallowed by mild annoyance.
She sighed, knowing she’d be just as annoyed in his position. It hadn’t been that long ago she’d have rolled her eyes at a manicure mishap herself. “Yeah. I’ll do that.” Because a perfect French manicure was so easy to achieve, especially when one nail was now considerably shorter than the rest.
How on earth had she managed to choose a career where things like manicures and stiletto-heeled shoes practically came with the job description? Lord, if the kids she used to run around with back on Boneyard Ridge could see her now….
She dug through her purse for the manicure kit she always kept with her, but it wasn’t there. Had she left it in another purse? No, she distinctly remembered getting it out of yesterday’s bag that morning.
And leaving it on the breakfast bar in her apartment.
Damn it, damn it, damn it!
The resort had a gift shop at the far end of the hotel that carried things like nail files and other items hotel guests might have forgotten to pack. But she barely had time to get to her meeting with the Tri-State Law Enforcement Society’s representatives, who were meeting with her and hotel security to go over last-minute plans for the conference that would start on Friday.
With a glance at Marcus to make sure he wasn’t watching, she dipped her hand into her purse and grabbed the slightly bulky Swiss Army knife she also kept with her at all times. Its attached file was a bit rough for a good manicure, but it would do for the meeting. Then she could run down to the gift shop for a nail kit to do the job right.
Flipping open the nail file as she hurried down the corridor, she bit back a laugh. All this drama for a broken nail!
For the first sixteen years of her life, she’d chewed her nails to stubs and never thought twice about it. She’d owned one purse at a time, which she carried only when absolutely necessary. Skirts were the bane of her existence, baring as they did the scars of a lifetime of scratches and scrapes, and high heels were so far off her radar she’d had to spend a whole week of secret practice sessions with her cousin from Raleigh before she could navigate her way across the room in a pair.
How had she turned into such a girl?
The obvious answer was leaving Boneyard Ridge, making a new life for herself in a world where little redneck tomboys from the hills could easily find themselves chewed up and spit out before they could blink twice.
She wasn’t going to let her grandmother down, the way everyone else always figured she’d do.
As she waited for the elevator to the third floor, where Ken Dailey, head of Highland Hotel and Resort’s security team, would be waiting for her with three of the law enforcement society’s event organizers, she ran the coarse file across her nail, wincing as it snagged heavily on the broken edge. The friction, she saw with dismay, was doing horrible things to the French tip polish. Giving up on the nail file attachment, she flipped open the scissors and snipped off the whole tip of the broken nail.
The elevator dinged and the doors swept smoothly open just as she snapped the scissors back into the knife handle. She quickly dropped the knife into the pocket of her jacket and pasted on a smile to greet whoever might be inside the elevator car.
There was only one other occupant, a scruffy-looking man wearing a maintenance crew jumpsuit. His green eyes lifted in surprise as he pulled up to keep from running straight into her.
“Sorry,” he said in a voice as deep as a mountain cavern. He stepped back into the elevator to let her in.
“You aren’t getting out?” she asked.
“I pushed the button for the wrong floor.” His gaze dropping, he reached out and started to push the button for the third floor, then looked sheepish when he realized it was already lit up.
He was a rangy man in his early thirties, with shaggy dark hair that fell into his darting eyes, making him appear to be looking at her from under a hood. He would probably be nice-looking if he didn’t come across as such a sad sack, Susannah thought, torn between pity for his obvious discomfort and irritation that he wouldn’t lift his head and look her in the eye.
He had spoken in a strong hill country twang, reminiscent of the harsh mountain accent she’d ruthlessly subdued since leaving Boneyard Ridge.
“Grubby little tomboys from here don’t get to live out their dreams, Susie,” her grandmother had told her as she handed Susannah $400 in cash and a bus ticket to Raleigh. “You gotta learn how to make it out there in the real world.”
The maintenance man let her off the elevator first when they reached the third floor. She moved ahead, trying to ignore the prickle on the back of her neck as he brought up the rear. He didn’t overtake her, despite his longer legs. When she stopped to straighten her clothes before entering Meeting Room C, she spared a quick glance his way.
He kept his head down, apparently determined not to meet her gaze as he passed behind her. He walked with a strangely deliberate gait, as if each step were a decision he had to make before he committed himself to the next one. A couple of steps later, she figured out why. He had a limp.
She couldn’t remember ever seeing him around the hotel before, but maintenance workers and hospitality staffers had a pretty high turnover rate. Plus, while she wasn'tsomeone who saw the people who pushed mops and brooms as interchangeable drones, the stress and speed of her job as the resort’s head events coordinator meant she didn’t have the time or opportunity to get to know many people outside of her own office.
For that matter, she thought as she pasted on her best go-getter smile and opened the door to the meeting room, she barely knew the staff in her own office, including Marcus, her right-hand man. They rarely had time for chitchat and she wasn’t one to socialize with her coworkers off the clock. Or anyone else, for that matter.
She couldn’t afford friends.
Four men awaited her in the meeting room, Ken Dailey with hotel security and three others. They stood in a cluster near the large picture window that offered a spectacular view of the mist-shrouded Smoky Mountains to the east.
She looked with envy at their cups of coffee but knew she didn’t have time to get a cup of her own. They had business to discuss, and she was running out of daylight.
“Gentlemen, sorry I’m late,” she said, even though she knew full well she was at least five minutes early to the meeting. “We have a lot to cover, so shall we get to work?”
HUNTER BRAGG STOPPED at the end of the hallway and turned back toward the meeting rooms clustered in the center of this wing of the hotel. The door closed shut behind her, and he started to relax, shoving his hair out of his face and straightening his back.
She hadn’t recognized him from the news reports. He hadn’t really feared she would, given how different he looked from the clean-cut Army sergeant whose abduction had been a weeklong sensation until something new came along to take over the news cycle.
Of course, he’d recognized her easily from the photo Billy Dawson had shown him and the men he’d selected for the job a few days earlier. “Her name is Susannah Marsh. She’s in our way. Y’all are gonna take her out.”
In that photograph, taken by a telephoto lens from the woods that hemmed in the resort’s employee parking lot, Susannah Marsh had given off a definite aura of money and sophistication. Her well-tailored suit, the shimmery green of a mallard’s head, and shiny black high heels had offered an intoxicating blend of power and sexuality that had sent the other militia members privy to the plan into flights of lustful fancy.
All Hunter had been able to think about was the fact that Billy and the others—men he’d spent the last three months befriending—wanted him to take part in killing a woman just because she was in the way of their plans.
They seemed so ordinary on the outside. Billy Dawson fixed cars out of his garage for a living. Morris Bell drove a Ridge County school bus. Delbert Yarnell worked at the hardware store in Barrowville. They had wives and kids.
And a festering hatred of authority.
Down the hall, the elevator dinged and the doors swished open. A well-dressed man in a silk suit and shiny wingtips stepped out and started to turn away from the end of the hall where Hunter stood, but his gaze snapped back in his direction and he changed course, his long strides eating up the distance between them.
“What are you doing up here?” he asked, frowning.
The question caught Hunter by surprise. He didn’t know this man, though he looked vaguely familiar. They’d probably passed each other in the halls at some point in the last week.
But why was this man challenging him?
The other man’s nostrils flared. “You can’t afford to make her suspicious of you.”
Hunter blinked. This man was part of Dawson’s crew, too?
“Don’t worry,” he assured the other man aloud. “She sees me as part of the wallpaper.”
“We’re making our move tonight.”
Hunter’s gut clenched. Tonight? Nothing was supposed to go down until tomorrow. What had happened? And why hadn’t Billy Dawson warned him of the change in plans?
“I know,” he bluffed. “What’s the plan?”
The other man narrowed his eyes. “Billy didn’t tell me to share it with you.”
“I thought we were on the same side.”
Hunter returned the other man’s skeptical gaze with a cold, hard stare of his own. “Think I’d be cleaning toilets in this place if we weren’t?”
The other man straightened his tie, a nervous habit, obviously, since his tie was already immaculately straight. “Just don’t screw this up.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Without another word, the man in the suit turned and strode away from Hunter as quickly as he’d approached.
Releasing tension in a quiet sigh, Hunter turned the corner and headed for the stairs. Once he was safely out of sight, he pulled his phone from his pocket and hit “one” on his speed dial.
When the voice on the other end answered, he said, “They’re moving up the hit.”
“Tonight, as soon as she leaves the office.” Muscles in Hunter’s gut quivered as he tried not to panic. “It’s too soon.”
There was a brief moment of thick silence before the other man asked, “Any idea when she’ll leave the office?”
“Going by her usual schedule, no earlier than six. Probably closer to seven.”
“Any idea what they’re planning to do?”
“No. I didn’t quite make it into the inner circle before this all went down. I’ve been trying to piece things together, but—” He bit back a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know what they’re planning. Or where.”
“I can try to get some backup into place for you by tonight, but I’m not sure I can swing it before then. I'll see how many people I can move into place by tonight, but you know we’re stretched pretty thin at the moment, until I can bring in more new hires.”
“I know,” Hunter answered tersely. He knew exactly how understaffed The Gates was, if Quinn had resorted to hiring an ex-soldier with a bum leg and anger management issues.
“You may have to handle this alone for a little while.” Another brief pause, then, “Can you?”
“I guess I’ll have to, won’t I?” Hunter answered, unable to conceal a touch of bitterness in his voice.
SHE NEEDED A PET, Susannah decided as she crossed the darkened employee parking lot. A pet would give her an excuse to leave the office at a reasonable hour instead of finding just one more thing to take care of before she locked the door for the day.
Not a dog. Dogs needed room to run and someone home to let them out for potty breaks. A cat, maybe. Cats were independent. She’d always liked cats. She’d cried for weeks when she’d had to leave her marmalade tabby Poco behind when she left Boneyard Ridge.
She’d left a lot of things behind in Boneyard Ridge. Things she’d never get back again.
She’d parked at the far end of the parking lot when she’d arrived at work that morning, on the premise that the long walk across the blacktop to her office would be almost as good as working out.
Almost. Pulling out her phone, she hit the record button. “Look into joining a gym.”
“You don’t look like you need one.”
The masculine drawl came out of the darkness, sending her bones rattling with surprise. The lamp at this end of the parking lot was out, she realized as she turned in a circle, trying to spot the speaker.
A darker shadow loomed out of the gloom surrounding her car. She instantly regretted not shelling out a few more bucks to get an alarm system with a remote. She peered toward the approaching figure, taking a couple of defensive steps backwards.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the man’s voice assured her.
She didn’t believe him.
Sliding her hand into the pocket of her purse, she closed her fingers around the small canister of pepper spray she made a point of carrying.
“Don’t do that,” the man warned, a hint of steel in his deep voice. “We don’t have time.”
Even as the words rumbled from the gathering gloom, Susannah heard the growl of a car engine starting nearby. She saw the shadowy figure shift attention toward the sound, and she took the opening, kicking off her high heels and running toward the lights of the hotel behind her.
She didn’t get three steps before he grabbed her from behind, wrapping her upper body in a firm grip and lifting her off her feet so quickly she didn’t even have time to scream before his hand clapped over her mouth.
She tried to pull the pepper spray from her purse, but his hold on her was unshakable. She could barely flex her fingers.
The roar of the engine grew closer, and she started kicking backward against her captor’s legs. Her only reward was pain in her own heels as they slammed against what felt like solid rock.
“For God’s sake, stop fighting me!” He was running with her, ignoring her attempts to get away as he loped across the parking lot toward the woods beyond. “I’m on your side.”
The sheer audacity of his growling assurance spurred her fury, and she clamped down on his hand with her teeth.
A stream of curses rewarded her effort, but the man didn’t let her go. He just kept running, an oddly hitching stride that tugged at her memory until she realized where she’d heard that low, cavernous voice before.
The sad-sack maintenance man.
It’s always the quiet ones….
Suddenly, a loud stuttering sound seemed to fill the air around them, and her captor shoved her to the ground and threw himself over her body, pinning her in place. Her purse went flying, pepper spray and all.
The least of her worries, she realized as her rattled mind finally identified the sound. Gunfire. Her pulse started whooshing like thunder in her ears as she held her breath for the sound of more shots.
The engine noise she’d heard before faded, followed by the unmistakable squeal of tire on pavement. They were turning around and coming back for another go, she realized, her breath freezing in her lungs.
The man on top of her pushed himself off her, giving her a brief chance to flee his grasp. But she was too paralyzed with shock to make a move, and then the moment had passed. He grabbed her arm, dragging her to her feet, and started running.
As she stumbled behind him, she realized she had only two stark options—run with him or put up a fight that would give whoever had just tried to gun her down another chance to finish the job.
Her heart hammering wildly in her chest, she ran.