It’s snowing here again, so the perfect weekend to stay by the fire and read. And on that note, here’s the final part of Chapter One in Marked Masters, and I’ll post Chapter Two over this weekend so everyone will be ready for the book’s official release on Monday, March 2nd. If you haven’t read the previous posting on Chapter One, here’s Part 2, with a link to Part 1 just look for the link in the opening paragraph of the post. For everyone who’s ready for Part 3, here’s the end of Chapter One, with Jack attempting to get a little more information than Laurel is ready to give–but what’s new, right? LOL!
Chapter One – Part 3
Our plane boasted the standard East Coast, in-state shuttle accommodations, crammed to the wing flaps with coach seating. Seventy or so passengers filled the small commuter jet, with a column of two seats on the left side of the aisle and a width of three seats on the right. The flight spent little actual time in the air compared to the eternity waiting on the tarmac. Still, I figured I could grab a quick nap and intended to do so without delay.
It was open seating, but Jack managed to score us two seats together on the small side of the plane. He wanted the aisle, and I gave no argument to sitting and scootching into the window seat. I raised up a bit to straighten the skirt of the gray knit dress I got the last time I was in Peru. It was scrunchable and one of my favorites for traveling. It also went great with my favorite heels.
Jack had charmed the flight attendant out of a Glenfiddich before takeoff and was visibly relaxed when he glanced over at me and said, “They were airport workers. Or at least they were dressed like airport maintenance with a utility cart.”
A utility cart with a lot of rope. I bit my lip. “What do you think they wanted?”
“I’m inclined to think they wanted to stop us from taking the flight. They were only interested in subduing me.” He flexed the hand not holding the drink. “But how did you have that sharp tool?”
“A special storage case designed for me by a German craftsman,” I explained. It wouldn’t hold a large weapon, yet it could escape the detection of metal detectors and appeared innocuous under X-ray. “Just a little favor I received recently from an old friend.” Then I pointed up at the overhead compartment. “You probably should check your bag. I found the contents scattered in the stall.”
Jack shrugged. “I’m not worried. Nothing in the bag for them to find.”
I took a sip from my water bottle. “What would their—whoever they are—interest be in stopping you from taking the flight?”
“Or you.” He took a long swig and put the glass on the tray, the cubes rattling against the plastic glass.
“Why would it have necessarily stopped me?”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Your loyalty is well known. And you did locate me, after all.”
“But I may have gotten on the plane alone if I hadn’t discovered where they’d trapped you. Just notified the desk agent you were missing.”
He shot me a look that made me laugh.
“I really am glad you are all right. My only regret is not getting a picture when I had the chance. I seriously thought about it but figured that was leverage you’d never let me use anyway.”
“Right on that count. Would you really have left me?”
“Maybe…” I let the word hang for a moment before I added, “If I thought you’d taken off to follow a lead solo again. It wouldn’t have been the first time.”
Jack handed his glass to the passing attendant. “You do know I would never do anything without reason. Right? However, when going for a cup of coffee requires rescue, it proves there are no innocent errands for either of us. I’m just glad this time I’m not dead.”
I shuddered through a deep breath and looked at him with astonishment. “What did you say?”
“You heard me—I’ll not repeat it. I equally cannot believe anyone could get the drop on me like that.”
“I’m glad you aren’t dead as well,” I repeated solemnly, then winked to lighten the mood. I would never tell him how true that was. It would give him too much power. “Do you think we’ll ever know who’s responsible?”
Jack stared into the distance. “Oh, I’m certain I’ll find out.” From the tone of his voice, I could tell that his words were a vow.
Even before we’d taken off, I had my napping plan rolled out, and I pulled on my sleep mask to firmly cover my eyes. I figured the two-seat side was best as I didn’t have to worry about anyone crossing over me for the next half hour or so. The flight met capacity levels in both human and hearing volume, and as with all the short hoppers I’d traveled on through the years, the noise levels in the plane were tremendous. No matter. The steady rumble was pure white noise to me. No frills had its benefits.
Alas, my rest was not to be. We had barely lifted the landing gear when Jack’s shoulder leaned into mine. He asked, “Laurel, are you asleep?”
Ignoring him would have been easy. I could have simply used the plane noise as excuse if he persisted. But I knew Jack, and not only would the plan not likely work, but when he persevered I risked blowing my top due to no sleep and less patience. I lifted one side of the sleep mask, not willing to give up yet on my dream. “I’m trying, Jack. I was a little too busy last night to get my full eight hours.”
“Which brings up precisely the subject I want to discuss.” He cocked a black eyebrow at me, and I was reading his lips more than truly hearing each word as he continued. “I hope this foray into crime is your first and last. The value of the theft you attempted would put a felony on your record if those coppers last night had caught you.”
I moved the whole mask to my hairline so he could see me lift my own eyebrow questioningly as I reminded, “Aren’t you the one who left with the masterpiece? I recall simply spiriting away a lowly journal that law enforcement can only use to get on to a trail of human traffickers. Since it meets no chain-of-evidence rules, it couldn’t be more than a misdemeanor given its market value. Perhaps you should look inward, Mr. Hawkes. I think you can keep busy enough examining your own personality flaws, but thanks so much for your concern.”
He snorted. I wiggled the dark mask back into place.
“Still, love…” His fingers lifted up a corner of the mask so I could again see that cocky eyebrow. “You possessed more than average nerve whilst we each traipsed through the little midnight caper. You were angry but confident when we met up at the car.”
“You mean when you broke into my car and stashed your loot in my backseat? Wow, now that I think about it, Jack, your transgressions are really piling up. Maybe it would be best if I not associate with you anymore. Bad influence and all of that.”
Due to our too-close confinement, I hoped this exchange was the end of his questions. I could deflect a lot and had my personal arsenal of point maneuvers that worked against most people, but Jack Hawkes was not most people. My extracurricular activities, what I deemed my “reclamation projects,” had gone undetected for some time by all facets of law enforcement, and I intended to keep the status quo exactly as I preferred it. While I’d been close to getting caught several times, even spotted on three separate occasions, I’d never actually been apprehended or even positively identified. However, I’d also never before had an adversary like Jack Hawkes. Someone who learned about my exploits by getting there just ahead of me. Someone who from the time I met him operated under the assumption I was more than I seemed.
Well, I never said the man wasn’t bright. Hopefully, flip answers and the fact he got to the painting first was enough to shut down further discussion.
I jerked the satin mask from his fingers and repositioned it one last time over my eyes. To no avail.
“Speaking of associates.” Jack ripped the mask completely off my head. I glared at him as I tried to use fingers and my vague reflection in the thick airplane window glass to reduce the clown mess my blond waves likely took on from the flinging elastic. My blue eyes were a blur, but even the poor reflection showed they were narrowed in anger below my thin brows.
“Were we speaking of associates? I honestly don’t remember previous conversations along those lines.” I shrugged and changed my look to my patented bored face. Experience told me that allowing Jack to witness any negative emotion on my part simply made him feel he’d scored points and goaded him into continuing for the kill. Okay, maybe kill wasn’t the best word to consider in our present adventure.
He tossed the black mask into my lap. “I’ve been reviewing every idea I’ve come up with in the past week, and I cannot figure out why Moran didn’t kill you or have you killed anytime between London and Le Puy-en-Velay. He could have done so many times, with ease and little risk of exposure. Even accomplished the deed himself, we now know.”
“We now assume. No one’s given me confirmation yet about his French alias as my vehicular knight in shining armor.”
“Consider it confirmed.”
Damn! I hate when he knows stuff before me. Especially when I should have already been notified by someone. “So, did you order Interpol not to bother telling me?” I crossed my arms. “Assured them you would tell me yourself, and you simply forgot to mention it?”
“I received final confirmation an hour ago. This is really my first opportunity.”
Not exactly, but I’d let it slide this time. “You’re right, Jack. It is puzzling how I was always able to either slip away from Moran’s clutches, or I simply wasn’t shot in the final showdown. As I recall, you were the only one who almost strangled me in France. Should I be concerned at your close proximity?”
“Keep this up, and I may try it again.” He frowned. “I’m not joking here, Laurel. I want to know what you have on Moran that made Simon and the others afraid of killing you. And why did Moran let you go when he had the opportunity to kidnap you?”
Yes, that was a paradox I’d been contemplating for days as well. My quick wits had allowed me to get free of the first crew in Moran’s line of hired help, but they’d only intended to chloroform me at the outing. Okay, yes, again an assumption since they took a couple of shots at us later, but they blasted out taxicab windows when they likely could have aimed better and hit me instead. But I was still walking and breathing and thinking… Why?
Even Simon was confused, lamenting that if he shot me when he had the chance, then he would pay for the act later.
Jack’s next question pulled me out of my funk. “Did Moran know your grandfather? They had to be near-contemporaries. Maybe he owed your grandfather a debt of honor?”
“It’s possible,” I said, but I had difficulty believing the theory. It was more likely my crooked father had made Moran’s acquaintance, rather than my straight-arrow grandfather. Dear Old Daddy may have even owed the criminal mastermind a huge debt of some kind when he died in the Swiss avalanche. It was six months before the mangled body was found and his dentist provided the evidence to prove those lovely veneers were my father’s.
Daddy Dearest owed every other blackheart, after all. Moran’s plan could easily be to spare my life to try to get some kind of final debt repaid. Though, since I had little money, I wasn’t sure what I could offer in repayment. It had been nearly a decade since my father’s death, sure, but I’d never heard of a statute of limitations on outstanding markers.
After my grandfather joined my grandmama in the great beyond, my father happily fell headlong into a two-year gambling, spending, debauchery spree to end all real and imagined by Hollywood. Despite the wealth our family accumulated over many generations, by the time my father went over the wrong side of his favorite Alp with his latest bimbo, he had nearly run through the entire estate. He’d left IOUs all over Europe and the Americas. Any money that remained tied to Grandfather’s estate was used to keep all my limbs firmly connected to my torso by paying off the drug dealers and mob bosses who crawled out of the woodwork to intimidate me through direct and indirect contact.
Doing so did not save the family name, however, or my social reputation and position with many of the wealthy I’d always considered “our people,” as individuals through the years had been eager to remind me. Though, not everyone abandoned me, I was happy to realize. A strong cadre of my old friends truly possessed class and did what they could to help my art mission. In that way I felt I was all the richer.
At eighteen, I left for college with nothing but the rest of my grandmother’s small trust she left specifically for my use. I sold the classic Porsche my grandfather left for my sixteenth birthday gift, and I learned what life was truly about. I was still learning.
“So, has Moran had any dealings with the Beacham Foundation?” Jack asked.
“You mean besides having his plans changed whenever I find something he’s stolen and get it returned to the original owners?” I replied. When Jack nodded, I shook my head. “Not that I know of. However, I’ve only worked full time with the foundation five years. Until I graduated from Cornell, I worked temporarily in different departments in an intern capacity, which was only due to the fierce loyalty Max had to my grandfather’s memory.”
“And you, I assume, were supposed to take over the foundation.”
Yes, he’d obviously been reading my file again, so my voice bordered on sarcasm when I said, “Grandfather always hoped I’d take my place in the business, but that, of course, was when he held ninety percent of the stock. Once the foundation became Beacham in name and tradition alone, I’m basically nothing more than an employee, and I only know what pertains to my position. I may learn more in the coming months as the new head of Beacham London, but I doubt Max will change much. You know as well as I that he’s keeping a pretty tight noose around my neck.”
“I think you mean leash.”
I shrugged. “Leash, noose, both can choke the life right out of you.”
Come by tomorrow for a Chapter Two excerpt