The Book

Morgan
Drake witnesses a murder in an alleyway. He is the only person who can
give evidence in prosecuting the cop responsible for the crime.

When the
FBI safe house where he’s being held is compromised, he follows the
instructions of his agent in charge and runs.

Nik Valentinov works for Sanctuary, a foundation that offers witness protection when FBI security is questionable.

When
Morgan's handler sends him to Nik for safety, neither Morgan nor Nik
could imagine that two weeks alone in a cabin in the woods could start
something more.

Something way more than just trying to keep Morgan
alive. Something that makes their heart race more than danger……
Love.

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Excerpt

CHAPTER 1


“Twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie, twenty,
one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie…” The words were
on repeat in Morgan Drake's head, a litany, over and over, in case he
forgot. His FBI shadow had drummed the words into him until he could
repeat them in his sleep.

“Just in case, Morgan, okay?
If there's any problem, you take these keys and the car I showed you in
the next door basement parking, and you take Highway Twenty West onto
the 166, head for Altamont, Western Street, find a bookshop called Black
Cat Books. Someone will locate you there, and he'll have a password,
okay? Lemon Pie. He's a guy I trust with my life, and his name is Nik.
I'm writing his cell number on this paper. You need to memorize it in
case I can't contact him. Can you repeat… twenty, one sixty-six,
Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie. After me…”

He
lost the rhythm of the words as a dark sedan overtook him and then
peeled away at high speed. Dread gripped him again and he fought hard
not to hyperventilate. Taylor had told him this car would be safe in
every sense of the word. Fueled, in good condition, and with plates
linking to an elementary teacher in Queens. The convoluted route to the
garage where the car was housed meant he would probably have not been
followed. Probably. He couldn't stop the car. “Don't stop driving
Morgan. Don't you stop for anything or anyone once you get on the road.
Not FBI, not cops, no one.” Taylor always finished his sentences with
the simple question: “Do you understand?” No, Morgan didn't understand.

From
the minute he had made the decision to be the designated driver for an
after work party, everything had gone to hell. An hour of complete
terror, in which his world was ripped apart, ended with him in an FBI
safe house guarded by a gruff agent who played a mean hand of poker.
Obsessive and compulsive about Morgan's safety, Taylor Mitchell, FBI,
ruled the house with an iron fist, not letting Morgan slip into the role
of victim for an instant. They talked about what could go wrong. Taylor
gave Morgan worst case scenarios that literally blew his mind—shooting,
mayhem, and possible death. Morgan wasn't sure his protector was
supposed to do that. But he liked the guy and if a choice presented
itself between Taylor and the other agent who split the shifts? He would
take the warnings every time. Especially given the other guy had bad
breath and a corny line in come-ons.

God.

Taylor
and Morgan had only been talking before bed. Morgan had been looking
for the reassurances he remained safe, and Taylor had been only able to
say he would do everything in his power to keep Morgan safe. Should
anything happen, or go wrong, he knew of another man, another agency
quite separate from the FBI, to help Morgan. A private agency called
Sanctuary. Only brought in at the worst of times, it was there as an
option if needed. A friend of his now worked for Sanctuary, an agency
providing protection for people in need. Actually more than a friend.
His ex-FBI partner. Morgan waved the information away, naively so it
turned out later.

“How can anything go wrong? I'm with the FBI, the trial is in two weeks, and then everything will be normal again.”

“Even
the FBI can be compromised, Morgan. Don't you watch TV?” Taylor had a
serious expression on his face. Now, with Taylor lying shot, and
possibly dead, on the floor of the house, all Morgan could concentrate
on was the list of directions he needed to remember, the promise of some
mystical safety within his reach.

He waited for the
sedan to make a U-turn and come at him with some bad guy hanging out of
the window with a gun, but instead the indicators flashed and the car
left the highway. Morgan's breathing stayed erratic and panicked
sounding, despite how much he tried to settle it, fueled by the pain in
his chest, his left arm, and his throbbing head. He didn't want to
chance the radio. Music might help him find some composure, but shit,
what if it meant he didn't remember the words in the right order? He'd
probably end up in Canada or something, the bad guys chasing him down
and taking him out of the equation in some blood and gore shootout.

Yes,
Morgan watched the TV procedural cop shows with clever detectives or
FBI suits who flouted the law and kept the little man on the street
safe. He also saw the first witnesses in these shows were inevitably
shot between the eyes, the last link in evidence on a high profile
murder case. He'd also seen that sometimes the FBI agent was corrupt and
a cop could end up on the wrong side of the law. He liked those shows.
He simply didn't want to be in one of those shows.

“Twenty,
one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie, twenty, one
sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie.”

He
struggled to keep from losing his shit and forced himself to unbend
each finger of one hand away from the steering wheel. After he opened
his window, the rush of cold early morning air cleared his eyes, and he
breathed deeply, trying to gain control of his nerves. He checked the
mirror. There was no one behind him; the road remained deserted, and he
had a purpose.

Twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie…

CHAPTER 2 

“Forty-four
ninety-five,” the young guy behind the counter said with a wide yawn.
Dressed in the red uniform of the gas station chain, he couldn't have
been much past sixteen. Judging by the wide-eyed expression on his face
when he looked up to see his new customer, he either showed classic
signs of being high or he was really shocked at Nik's appearance. Nik
tried not to laugh. Given what he'd seen in the restroom mirror—blond
hair flat, brown eyes dull and bloodshot and pale skin—Nik imagined it
was probably the latter.

Three in the morning had
closed in on Nikolai Valentinov far too fast, exhaustion stinging his
eyes. Self-preservation prompted the stop at a gas station a short way
off Highway 20. He probably looked like some kind of gun-wielding,
staring-eyed, about-to-kill-everyone maniac. Add in the fact he was very
tall and dressed in black from head to toe and he could appear menacing
at all the wrong moments. Poor cashier-kid and his shit shift choice.

Placing
the most reassuring smile he could muster on his face, Nik carefully
counted out the cash for the charge, and they swapped the sum total of
five words in exchanging money for gas, Pepsi and a Snickers.

He
stopped for a moment outside the main door and glanced back briefly at
the cashier who remained staring at him with a wide eyed expression.
Then he stretched his arms high and breathed in deeply. Copious amounts
of caffeine kept him going, but the down effects were hard to rein in,
not the least of which was the two minute piss he had taken in the not
quite so clean and ironically labeled rest stop. Any kind of rest in the
filth littered on every available surface of the outside building was
not an option. Nik Valentinov may well have been way past simple
tiredness, but even he had standards. Simply being weary had been pushed
through on day three of his case, moving on to complete and utter
exhaustion by day seven. Finally, this morning, his charge had given his
evidence and had been rewarded, if that was the right word, with a
place in witness relocation. Out of Nik's hands and hair, the witness
was away from the auspices of the Sanctuary program and back into the
system that only now had decided it would protect the witness.

Nik
realized he hadn't moved from the spot where he'd stopped, and he had
to admit, it made him more than merely a suspicious face. It made him a
man who was simply plain odd, and a possible threat. Casually, he raised
a hand in a small wave and finished the short distance to his car,
stumbling over the island at the pump and finally, gratefully, leaning
against the driver's door of his 4×4 and swallowing the first third of
his Pepsi in seconds.

Nik could almost taste the
downtime in his immediate future, three whole, entire, complete weeks
away from close protection duty, from Sanctuary, from life. As much as
he loved his job, the call of peace and isolation of his own place, with
no high levels of alert and no college-aged hooker requiring his
protection, called to him. Only him, and a beer or ten, and a good book,
and fuck, at least one entire night of uninterrupted sleep, a rare
commodity when on any case. He could function well with the benefits of
small snatches of sleep until he let himself think “it's over”, and then
sleep was all he craved, all he needed. Another two hours and he would
be home. Rolling his shoulders, he winced at the tightness in his neck
and the familiar pain in his lower back and left knee. At this moment,
standing here and looking up at the night sky, he felt every single one
of his twenty-nine years, and then some.

Finishing off
the Snickers bar in four bites, he aimed the wrapper for the wide open
bin, missed by a good two inches, and then stooped to pick it up. He
placed it in by hand, sighing at his complete lack of coordination. I
shouldn't be driving; this is stupid. He was a danger to himself, and he
wasn't entirely sure he would last the two hours left to home. The
insistent lure of flashing neon across the highway called to him and the
small no-tell motel offered a bed. Maybe not a fully clean bed, but
hell, he had slept in worse. Maybe he should break this journey up.
Resolving to do just that, he started the engine and yawned widely,
feeling the crack in his jawbone. The ringing tone of his private cell
didn't register as any kind of noise he recognized straight away. It
just buzzed away in his subconscious until he finally put two and two
together. The sound echoed low and he had to root for the source of the
clatter in his laptop case. When he was on a job, his private cell
stayed that way, private. To hear it sound still turned low reminded him
he really needed to turn the damn thing up. Blinking at the screen,
shock snapped him fully awake as he saw the name flashing there. He
answered with a sense of urgency, thrown back three years to the working
partnership he had invested so much into.

“Taylor?”
He couldn't have stopped the alarm in his voice if he'd tried. The last
time he'd heard from his ex-partner was over a year ago at his FBI
debrief, a few weeks before he joined Sanctuary. To hear the man's voice
now, a familiar southern drawl, twisted heavy, wet and rasping, sent
concern skittering down his spine and chased exhaustion away in a rush
of adrenaline.

“FBI safe house Albany compromised.”
Taylor's voice sounded more than wrong. Hearing the shakiness, the tone
thick with pain, Nik didn't waste time on asking what had happened.
Taylor didn't need to point out he needed help of some kind. Nik jumped
into all business mode instantly.

“Talk,” Nik snapped
quickly. Training, instinct and friendship clicked instantly into place,
and he focused every inch of his resources to listening.

“Shooter dead… mark gone to ground.” Familiar words, and he knew exactly what he needed to say next.

“You tell them where?”

“Yeah. He knows. Can Sanctuary—”

“Me, not Sanctuary, I'm three hours out. I'll get him and make arrangements with Sanctuary. You're injured, call 911.”

“On
it.” The call dropped, and Nik knew his friend would be contacting 911.
Although injured, Taylor still appeared to be lucid enough to handle
calling for medical help. Nik sent a quick thought of hope winging into
the night and then snapped back to what he needed to do. He reached into
the lock-box on the right of the dashboard. Fingerprint recognition
released the security, and a small cover moved to reveal his work issued
Glock G22. With practiced ease, he checked the chamber and slipped the
loaded weapon into the shoulder holster under his black leather jacket.
Taylor, plus an emergency call from a compromised FBI safe house,
equaled a pressing need to be armed.

Lowering the
driver window for the rush of cold air as he drove, he felt different as
he left the gas station and turned back east on Highway 20. Gone was
any idea of being off duty. He was focused, intent, and wide awake.
Training kicked in immediately, and he was back in work mode. He
assessed his location and what he knew, considering the information he
had been given amounted to little. Not much to go on really, apart from
his best friend and ex-FBI partner injured, a safe house compromised,
and the shooter dead. The target Taylor had been protecting in the safe
house had run. Who else was in the house? The feds would never leave
just one guy with a witness. Was the other person dead? Maybe the
witness had been injured. Would the witness himself actually listen to
what Taylor had told him and try to find Nik?

Taylor
had called him personally, instead of calling the safe house compromise
in to FBI Operations. This meant one thing in Nik's mind. Inside job.
Taylor clearly had a trust issue with handing knowledge elsewhere,
especially internally. Unnecessary emotions flooded him, pushing aside
the ice of his focus momentarily. Part of the job had to be to focus on
the job, but shit, his gut churned, and he momentarily hoped to hell his
best friend had phoned 911 straight after getting off the phone with
him.

He wondered what kind of case his friend was on
that he couldn't trust the FBI internally. Why hadn't he gone through
official channels and approached Sanctuary? Why come to him direct? As
newbie partners they had created a failsafe backup plan over beers and
tacos just for this kind of situation. Only it had been in case either
he or Taylor had been compromised, not a witness or someone involved in a
case. Hell, it had started as a joke on a night out in a dingy bar. It
was Taylor that started it; three sheets to the wind and in emotional
mode. The beer took all his self-imposed barriers and kicked them to the
curb.

“If something happens to me I want you to have
my Spiderman comics,” Taylor said seriously and downed the remainder of
his beer in one gulp.

“Can I sell them?” Nik had replied. At that point he hadn’t realized Taylor was actually being serious.

“Only if you promise to use the proceeds to spend the whole lot in a gay bar in one night.”

“What
is it with you and getting me to gay bars?” Nik had laughed, but Taylor
had clearly crossed the bridge to utterly inebriated.

“Well,
you won't get to fuck anyone here.” Taylor looked over his shoulder at
the significant number of couples weaving on the floor in an
approximation of dancing.

“I'm not desperate, and I
don't need to pick up a guy in a bar,” Nik said in defense. He then
proceeded to change the subject. “Anyway, if I die, you can have my
gun.” There. That should shut his friend up with the awkward shit.

“Your
gun?” Taylor's eyes widened comically, and then he snorted beer in a
bark of a laugh. “Fuck, Nik. Your gun! That is all kinds of serious.”

“Ha freaking ha.”

“What
if we're not dead?” Taylor's words slurred, and he leaned in against
Nik. Nik didn't move. To have his drunken best friend leaning all over
him this way to Sunday was the only affection he allowed. He sometimes
thought it would make his non-existent love life one hell of a whole lot
better if Taylor was gay. At least Taylor understood the whole “serving
the country and having no life” decision Nik had made. Taylor had made
it too. Still, hooking up with a woman had to be easier than snagging a
man. Especially for mostly in-the-closet Nik.

“What do you mean not dead?”

“Like, y'know, shot or something.”

“Or something?”

“Yeah. We're separated, and you're shot, and we need a place to go.”

“How
shot am I?” Nik asked laughing, his smile widening when his friend's
eyes crossed at the contemplation of how shot Nik would be.

“A through shot. Your arm maybe. Of course, you would be stoic and all Nik-like.”

“Nik-like?” This was getting funnier by the minute.

“Yeah, all heroic and shit. Anyway, so you're being Nik, and you've been compomi—compro—compri—shit.”

“Compromised?”

“Yeah.
That one. You could call me and we'd have this place we could meet up.”
Nik climbed down off his stool carefully, ensuring Taylor didn't slide
sideways to the floor.

“I need a piss, man. Can you
sit up straight?” Taylor made a big deal out of slumping sideways to the
bar, calling the bartender over and asking for paper and a pen. By the
time Nik came back from maneuvering in and out of drunken half-dancing,
half-staggering couples, Taylor had a somewhat lucid plan in place in
half-legible writing.

“We always need a backup plan,
bro,” he had stated seriously, or as seriously as he could given the
seventh beer pushing him way over the edge.

Nik had
pulled the paper out the next day after he had watched, with some
amusement, Taylor grasping the porcelain god in their shared bathroom.
Written in stone was what they planned to do if things went south.
Should a case go to shit as FBI partners, they had a place they would
run to, a place to meet and regroup. When Taylor could finally see
straight and stop being sick, they thrashed out the details. A single
spot in the middle of nowhere had been chosen with a pin on a map and
backed up with consideration for Taylor's taste in good pie. This was
between them, no one else would know where it was. Passwords and verbal
codes were agreed upon, and it had kept them both alive on more than one
occasion. They didn't always work cases together when in the FBI. Then
Nik had been injured, not the through-shot Taylor had foretold but much
worse. A shot carved into Nik's knee and forced early retirement from
the FBI and his days as Taylor's partner were over.

Nik
had left without ceremony, joined the Sanctuary organization and, for
one reason or another, hadn't seen Taylor since. Not in the last year,
when all they had managed was a few coded emails here and there.

He
had immediately keyed the place he and Taylor had chosen into his
security coded navigation system. Black Cat Books, a book store and
coffee shop on Western Street in Altamont. A small, fairly insignificant
town based on size, it was only half an hour in distance but more than
fifty years in atmosphere from Albany, then a few more hours to New York
itself. It didn't seem like a place people assigned special meaning to,
apart, he guessed, from the people who lived there. The bookshop was
the focus of the community. It was a large open warehouse type affair,
with coffee shop and meeting room and a state-sponsored library to the
rear. This was exactly where Taylor's runner would have been told to go.
Nik only hoped the witness had listened to what Taylor had said.

He
had keyed the zip code into the navigation system, although he didn't
really need it for direction. He used it more for time. The sparse night
time traffic and a rush of adrenaline allowed him to drive without
killing himself, and meant he would make it there around six. He settled
into the rhythm of the road, connecting a call to Sanctuary and nodding
to himself when the call was answered on the first ring.

“Enterprise Transports.”

“I
need to report an issue with a consignment in New York.” There was a
brief pause as a minute change in the air passed between them carrying
the words, and then acknowledged confirmation of identity.

“Go ahead.” The voice came across the air clear, concise, firm.

“Taylor
called in a runner.” There would be no need to explain who Taylor was.
His new employers, a year of cases now, had a profile on everyone in
Nik's life. Sanctuary certainly gave the impression they knew
everything.

“Do you have a location?”

“Albany.
The FBI safe house has been compromised. Taylor's down.” Another pause
and he heard tapping against a keyboard. The operator at Sanctuary
understood he would want to know the situation with his ex-partner and
was taking the time to check.

“It's already been
called in, paramedics in attendance.” Nik let out a breath he didn't
even realize he had been holding. At least Taylor had managed to get
help.

“Nik…” The voice changed slightly in tone, from
all business to concern. “You're down for three weeks off-grid
post-case. I can't allocate you. I need to get someone else to go in.”

“No.
I'm dealing with it.” He didn't allow one drop of hesitation to show in
his voice. His best friend had asked for his help, and by his
standards, there could be no compromise. He wouldn't allow another
Sanctuary agent to take the case.

“Noted,” the
operator confirmed. Nik imagined the woman on the end of the line
shaking her head in exasperation. Sanctuary Operations, or Ops as they
were normally called, were used to what they called “the idiot heroes”
who worked for the foundation, with their I'm-dying-but-it's-okay
bravado and weird codes of conduct. He couldn't tell one operator from
the next, especially with the recording echo on the cell line. Although
he had exchanged a few words with more than a few different operators in
the office, he wasn't here to shoot the breeze or engage in polite
conversation. He was all about cutting to the chase.

“I need to know what's open for me.”

“Sanctuary
Seven is empty. I'll send the GPS coordinates to your nav. Do you have
an ETA?” Nik checked the screen and the new data that had been
downloaded for S7. He added up the journey from here to Altamont, and
then on to the general location of Sanctuary Seven, high in the
Adirondacks, way past what people considered civilization. Every
operative had a 4×4 as it was the only way to get to ninety percent of
Sanctuary safe houses and he was convinced he would need it today
imagining the type of accomadation there would be in the mountains. “Mid
afternoon.”

“Today?” The ops voice held no surprise. Sanctuary employees were used to working around tight deadlines.

“Today.”

“Stay in touch, Nikolai. Don't go off grid without letting us know.”

He
didn't answer. He wasn't going to promise anything he might not intend
to be held to. He didn't know what he would find in Altamont. He pushed
the speed far enough to make a difference but just below being pulled
over. Who would he find at the bookshop? His entire focus on this case,
Nik Valentinov was on the clock.