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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"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.
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…
"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 4x4 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."
"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."
"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.
"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 4x4 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.
"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.