Barnes & Noble
The Mighty McKenzies Series (Book#4)
Keeping his true identity a secret
is the only way to complete his undercover mission…
Shannon Murphy has no idea her neighbor is a Homeland Security agent working undercover to break up a human trafficking ring. Ian McKenzie wants to keep it that way. Until the mission to rescue Shannon’s friend from the same abductors Shannon escaped goes south, plunging her into mortal danger. After keeping secrets, can Ian convince Shannon to trust him with her life?
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Ian spotted his target in the back-left corner of the truck stop’s massive parking lot, parked sideways as if poised for a quick getaway. Two empty spaces separated the white panel van from a garish bright yellow semi, one of dozens of rigs parked along the chain-link fence. He couldn’t help rolling his eyes at the cliché of bad guys in a panel van. Just once he’d like to come up against his prey driving something more original with a cool factor, like a sports car, or even a blacked-out Suburban if they had to go big. Then again, a fancy car would attract attention, and attention was the last thing they wanted. It was the last thing Ian wanted.
He hunched his leather jacket against the cold wind blowing down from the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains and started forward. A glance to his right revealed the fast-food drive-through was already beginning to bustle with people looking for a quick easy supper. Harassed-looking moms and dads in SUVs placed their orders, kids in the back yelling, laughing, or crying through the open windows. None of them seemed to notice what was really going on outside the reach of the restaurant’s neon glow. Few people ever did.
Rigs belched smoke behind the restaurant, pulling up to lines of diesel fuel pumps that seemed to go on forever. Others parked to catch a few hours of sleep before getting back on I-40 to head into nearby Gatlinburg or some other destination. The occasional achingly young woman or man hopped in and out of the various sleeper cabs, sometimes pausing to grab junk food right alongside the soccer moms and dads inside the restaurant. And no one thought twice about it. Which was why business thrived out here. Just not the kind of business most of the decent people in this part of Tennessee knew about. Or the average person in hundreds of other towns just like this one.
Sometimes Ian wondered why he bothered to fight anymore. The odds were overwhelmingly against him. More often than not, his missions ended in defeat rather than victory. But every time he was on the verge of quitting, the memories would slam into him. Dormant grief and anger would work their way through his system like banked coals igniting into a dangerous wildfire. And then a name would prick his conscience.
That was his battle cry, a reminder of his greatest failure, the reason he persevered even when the odds of making a difference seemed pathetically out of reach. But it was a newer name that pushed him forward tonight—Maria. Although he didn’t know her, his friend and neighbor, Shannon, did. And the word on the street was that the men he was about to meet knew Maria too.
But they weren’t her friends.
Ian sent up a silent prayer that Shannon would be uncharacteristically patient, that she’d stay in his car as she’d promised when this opportunity came up. They’d been on their way to a pizza joint when the long-awaited call had come in. If he’d taken the time to drive her home, he’d have missed the meeting. And neither of them had been willing to risk that.
Up ahead, a twenty-something skinny white guy with dark greasy hair and ragged jeans waved at Ian from near the van’s front bumper. The kid had dubbed himself Wolverine.
But something more passive, like Archie or Howard, seemed more appropriate. He didn’t exactly inspire fear. But he did have his uses—like setting up tonight’s meeting.
“Hurry up, Ian.” Wolverine wrung his hands and glanced at the trio standing beside the van’s closed sliding door. “The boss doesn’t have all day.”
Ian kept his steady, unhurried pace. It gave him time to size up his adversaries. According to Wolverine, their names were Butch, Jagger and Axel. Ian would bet the .357 Magnum Ruger GP100 that he’d left in his car for Shannon’s protection that those monikers were just as fake as Wolverine’s. But unlike Wolverine, these men’s nicknames fit them perfectly. And they didn’t give the impression that they were the least bit worried about Ian’s size.
At six-one, his height tended to be an advantage when facing an opponent. But it was his powerful biceps and muscular physique that usually gave him the intimidation edge. His leather jacket, spiky black-and-blond hair, dragon tattoos peeking out from his neck and wrists completed his street image. But the bulked-up men calmly watching him approach had Ian thinking he should up his reps at the gym. A lot. If things went south in the next few minutes, he might end up in the fight of his life. And that was only if they didn’t kill each other in a shoot-out first.
“Lose the shades.” The biggest of the three gave the order. His red hair and pale, freckled skin probably got him teased when he was younger. No one would make that mistake now. He could have been the Incredible Hulk’s younger, less green brother, with a carrot top.
“And take your hands out of your pockets.” That from the middle guy. Ian half expected the dark-skinned giant to pull a sword from behind his back and go all daywalker on him like Wesley Snipes in the Blade movies.
Ian kept his hands in his pockets. He didn’t take off his shades. He looked to number three and jerked his head toward his fellow thugs. “I get the Incredible Hulk and Blade. But who are you supposed to be? Captain Jack Sparrow, on steroids?”
Jack’s eyes widened, and he looked to his boss as if to take his lead on a response. Ian chalked him up as a minion, like Wolverine. No one important. He focused his attention on the other two. It was Blade who straightened, tossing his dreads and baring his white teeth like a hungry pit bull. First lieutenant then, the main man’s bodyguard. Definitely important. And dangerous.
“You think you’re funny or something?” Blade flexed his fists at his sides.
“What are you doing, Ian?” Wolverine sounded like he was ready to faint. “You tryin’ to get yourself killed?”
Zeroing in on the one he’d come for, Ian stopped three feet away from Hulk. He kept his left hand in his jacket pocket wrapped around the butt of his second favorite gun, a Glock .22. Not as powerful or impressive-looking as his .357 revolver, it had the advantage of holding more rounds with less recoil. And it fit perfectly in his pocket. He could take out Blade and Jack without even pulling out the gun. But it would ruin a really nice jacket.
He stared directly at Hulk. “This macho drama is great if you’re trying to intimidate some green kid straight out of high school. But I’m not green, and high school was a long time ago. My buyers are impatient for some fresh product. I was told you were the guy who could get it. Either show me what you have or my money and I go elsewhere.”
“Ian, man. You’re blowin’ it.” Wolverine sidled closer to Hulk. “You need to show some respect and—”
Hulk held up his hand. Wolverine slunk to the front of the van again. Blade had moved forward when Ian had. But he stepped back at his boss’s signal, looking none too happy about it. Jack’s eyes seemed to bulge from their sockets as he glared at Ian. Apparently, he wasn’t a fan of Captain Jack Sparrow. That alone had Ian wanting to knock some sense into him.
“How fresh are we talking?” Hulk’s voice was deathly quiet, his dark gaze riveted on Ian.
“I don’t make deals with people I don’t know.” Ian slowly and deliberately pulled his right hand out of his pocket, then held it out toward the leader. “Ian Savage.”
Hulk eyed his hand for a long moment. Time seemed to stand still as Ian waited. In his peripheral vision, he watched for sudden movements from the others, calculating distances and reaction times as he sifted through various possible scenarios.
“The name’s Butch.” Hulk finally grasped Ian’s hand in a firm handshake. When he let go, he waved toward his lieutenant. “That’s Axel, and over there is Jagger.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “But I kind of like Blade and Sparrow. Might have to borrow those.” He chuckled and reached into his pocket.
Ian tensed. Butch noticed and hesitated. He mimicked Ian’s earlier slow, deliberate movements as he pulled his hand out of his pocket, revealing a stack of photographs.
“Product.” Butch’s mouth curved into a lecherous grin. “The freshest around. Your buyers have any particular preferences, fetishes?” He fanned out the pictures like he was playing poker, and held them up in the air. “Redheads, blondes, brunettes. Tall, short, skinny, fat. I’ve got `em all.”
Ian flicked his gaze over each of the pictures. None of them matched Maria’s description or had the tattoo on her neck that Shannon had told him about. “Got any Latinas? Dark hair, dark eyes? Curvy?”
Butch shrugged, his smile fading. “I got a few. But they’re older, more…experienced. I thought your buyer wanted fresh.”
Ian made a quick course correction, forcing a grin as he worked to keep his worm on the hook. “The Latina would be a bonus, for me.”
Butch laughed, biting at the bait again. “If we deal, maybe I’ll throw two Spanish beauties in just for you. What about your buyer? What’s his preference?”
“Young,” Ian said. “Very young.”
“A man after my own tastes.” He winked.
The urge to slam the butt of his pistol against the pervert’s grinning mouth was nearly overwhelming. Instead, Ian schooled his features into a bland expression that gave nothing away of the turmoil inside him.
Butch pulled a smaller stack of pictures from his other pocket and made a show of licking his lips before turning them face out. “Young enough for you?” His brow arched. “I mean, for your friend, of course.”
Bile rose in Ian’s throat. The girls in the photographs didn’t look old enough to be in high school. Two were prepubescent. He tightened his grip on the pistol in his pocket. One little squeeze and he could rid the world of this piece of garbage. But that wouldn’t help the victims in those photographs. Until he knew where they were, he had to treat this animal like a human being.
Forcing a conspiratorial grin was beyond Ian’s abilities. “How fast can you deliver?”
“A couple of hours. If the price is right.”
Disappointment shot through him. He’d hoped the victims were close by, maybe hidden in the back of one of the big rigs. The whole mission could have been resolved in minutes. The young girls—none of them were old enough to be called women—could be rescued from this scum’s depraved clutches and given a new chance at the life they deserved. Instead, he’d have to keep up the facade a little longer.
He held out his hand to take possession of the photographs. “I need a closer look before I choose.”
“They’re all A1 prime. I take good care of my girls.” Another lascivious grin. “You pick the ones you’re interested in, then we talk price and delivery.” Butch stacked the pictures together and held them out.
“Ian? Ian, is that you?” a man called out from behind him.
Ian froze. No. Of all people to recognize him from his other life, why did it have to be him. He was going to ruin everything.
He reached for the pictures.
Butch snatched them back, and suddenly Ian was looking down the bore of a pistol.