Smoke and Steel

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Chapter One

A Voice From the Past

Present Day...

“I love you, Jack.” The feel of her body nestled in the crook of his arm; her soft lips captured in his was so real. Then the ratchet of a nail gun in the distance jarred him from his sleep. His dream evaporated, leaving behind an emptiness that compressed his heart. It had been five years, plenty of time to get over her, but the dream brought her back as if it were yesterday.

The sun barely lit the horizon, creating a hazy, indistinct glow through the large picture window on the far side of the room. The latest wildfire, now contained, had trapped pockets of haze in the valley. A decent wind and heavy rain would deal with that, but Mother Nature seemed loathe to cooperate. The air quality remained poor, and it had forced Jack to take his daily run on the treadmill inside of the house, where the air filters cleaned the quality of the air and smoke didn’t burn his throat or redden his eyes.

He sighed, stretched, and glanced over at the other side of the bed. He didn’t miss Tiana, and he certainly wasn’t dreaming about her. A few months of fun, but not worth the pettiness or bullshit mind games. He wanted something more than just a pretty body by his side. He rubbed his hand through his hair, thinking of Kaylee. The softness of her skin, how she had felt in his arms; it hung in the air, an echo maybe of what he had, what he still wanted. 

Maybe I want too much. 

In all of his life, only one woman had captured his heart. And she was half a continent away and likely had forgotten all about him. 

Jack sat up, tossed the covers off, and stood. The haze was driving him nuts, the traffic and plastic people in L.A. were driving him even more so. He wanted to leave, escape somewhere, anywhere, and get away for a while. This was a thought that was quickly discarded as more basic needs made themselves known.

In the opulent marble bathroom filled with stark colors of black, white, and gray, he stood in front of the mirror, inspecting his reflection. His hair was no longer black, streaked with just a little gray. It was now predominantly gray, with only a few jet-black strands remaining. His father had been the same. The color gone by the age of forty, even if his face had remained youthful. He wondered briefly how Dad would have looked today, would the gray have turned white?

Jack ran his hand over his stubble and then slipped on his running shorts. He’d get in a run, then shower and shave before Azule showed up. He shook his head thinking about his assistant; she had been worrying over some investments that had tanked and wanted to talk to him first thing about Benton Security Services. Azule’s mind was a formidable weapon, one she wielded daily. He wasn’t sure what she was going to say, but he knew something was bothering her. It had been for weeks, and he dreaded the conversation they would have in a few hours.

He left his suite and made his way down the curving staircase to the main level. He pressed a panel in the wall and walked through it to another set of stairs leading down to the basement. The door closed, soft and silent behind him. The basement comprised a completely self-sufficient living space which included three bedrooms, each with their own bathroom, that shared a kitchenette, and a large living area. They had converted one bedroom into a workout room, moving it from its original location in the living area. There were no windows, nothing to even show that the house above had a basement. And it had served its purpose well a time or two in the past. It was literally a panic suite, rather than a panic room. 

Malcolm was still asleep, not that he expected anything different. His baby brother rarely varied from his routine, and that meant that he had at least an hour before Malcolm would emerge from the furthest bedroom and head upstairs. Plenty of time for him to get a workout in.

Jack stretched first. He could feel the muscles tighten around the scar that ran along his abdomen, a curve of silvery scar tissue that wrapped around from the left of his belly button into a long, upward curve towards his back. No matter how many years had passed, or how much he had continued to work his muscles or tone his body, the scar tissue still gave him twinges. It was a permanent reminder of his failure to keep the woman he loved safe.

As he reached for the weights and ran through his reps, toning each muscle, slow and steady, he could think of nothing else. It was the dream that had started it. It had certainly set the tone for his morning. 

Jack shook his head, wishing he could shake out his thoughts of her. It did no good to think about it, no good to miss her. 

He stepped onto one of the two treadmills and pressed the preset for a punishing five-mile trek, his feet stretching as the treadmill rose in height. It wasn’t the same as being outdoors, pounding down a trail outside, but he also wouldn’t be gasping like an asthmatic in less than ten minutes. The air quality remained poor, thanks to the wildfires and haze that filled the air.

Two hours later, Jack sat in his office across from Azule and wished he had followed that brief, waking desire to flee Los Angeles.

“Benton Security Services is over budget by nearly one hundred thousand dollars in the past six months,” the large, buxom woman declared, her full lips pressed tight, disapproval written all over her smooth brown face. “It doesn’t make good business sense.”

Jack leaned back and folded his arms against his chest, unconsciously mimicking the woman across from him. “I understand that, Az, but...”

“But nothing, Boss. You can’t run things at a loss, not in this economy, and not if you want to stay rich. Benton Security Services is hemorrhaging money and your other investments aren’t keeping up.”

Jack hid a smile. Azule was a financial wizard, among other business-centric talents, but she was rather one-minded. To her, if the money wasn’t growing, then it was in danger of heading the other way. As it was, he could overspend twice as much as he had, twice a year for the rest of his life and still never see a significant decrease in his overall worth. No one, not even Azule, was privy to all of his financial dealings. That it bothered her, however, was exactly the reason he kept her on. Azule looked after his interests and he paid her 50% above the average salary for the area.

“This is a project I’m willing to take a loss on.”

Azule scowled at him, her rich dark skin showing frown lines around the eyes as she contemplated what to say next, whether to argue further, before shaking her head and rolling her eyes. Was she appealing to the heavens to save her from the clutches of a mad white man with far too much money and not enough sense? Jack wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t help but grin when she threw her hands up in disgust.

“Have it your way, Jack.” Her eyes narrowed. “Where’s the mantiquer? I haven’t seen her in days.”

“Mantiquer?” Jack asked, laughing.

“You know who I’m talking about.”

“Tiana?”

“Right, her.”

Jack couldn’t stop laughing. “Why did you call her a mantiquer?”

Azule sighed, rolling her eyes so hard he saw the color disappear into white. “Women like that don’t want you, they just want your bank account. Guaranteed she was with a couple more on the side. Hope you wore your pelvic poncho when you tapped that.”

Jack threw back his head and guffawed. The sound filled the room as he rolled the words around in his head. 

Guaranteed, “pelvic poncho” is a term I won’t be forgetting soon.

The phone rang then. Not the one on the desk that Azule insisted on answering, but his private cell, which only a handful of people knew of. Jack reached into his pocket and pulled it out, his eyebrows rising as he saw the 816 area code. He didn’t recognize the number, but there was only one person he could think of who lived in flyover country, and he was the one who had helped get her there.

He pictured her face as he stared at the phone. It rang again, insistent.

Azule looked at him curiously, but said nothing, her eyebrows raised. 

How long had it been? Four years? Going on five? Not a single call, no emails, nothing. The silence had been complete. It had felt like a death. It still did.

The phone rang a third time, and he pressed the green button, bringing it up to his ear. “Jack speaking.”

“Hi, Jack.” Her voice was the same, unmistakable, and one that he couldn’t forget. His heart beat faster, and he could feel a warmth spreading through him. It was as if she were here, standing next to him, and her unique scent of honey and vanilla filled his nose. 

“Kaylee.” He breathed her name out, his mind a whirlwind of emotion, and Azule’s eyes crinkled around a smile, one that looked almost victorious. She nodded at Jack, and then stood, stepping out of the room and closing the door firmly behind her.

“I’m sorry to call you like this, but…” There was silence and he could picture her nibbling on her lower lip, a habit she had tried hard to eradicate but one that was intrinsic to who she was. “I need your help, Jack. It’s for a friend.”

“Five years.” The words escaped his lips. “It’s been five years.”

“I know.” She sighed then. He could see her face, imagine just how she looked. Eyes closed, her face a mixture of sadness and regret. “I thought it would be best. For both of us. For Malcolm. I just wanted to forget my life from before and concentrate on starting over again.”

Jack wanted to be angry. He had been. But now? He knew how afraid she had been, that the shadow of her family’s deaths, and of the darker force of the people behind those killings, two forces that seemed too large, were too overwhelming for them to fight. It was why she had been in danger. The people who had killed her family had taken everything from her, had broken her, and she watched everyone she loved die. She had left in order to protect him, even if he hadn’t needed protection. If he didn’t handle it right, she would rabbit again, and Jack wasn’t ready for that. 

“I understand.” Saying those words felt like he was chewing on sharp glass. It was a lie. He didn’t understand, couldn’t.

“I’m calling for a friend,” she continued. “Someone in need of protection. I think her life is in danger.”

How long had he hoped for her call? And even if it wasn’t to have her return to him, he couldn’t help but take this small opportunity and run with it.

“Tell me more,” he said, his voice all business. “I’ll be happy to help.”

Jack listened as she described the situation. Her voice sounded stronger, more self-assured, and he had so many questions. But they would wait. He listed off the main phone number, the one that would route through Azule and set a bodyguard detail into motion. The property there in Kansas City, Kansas, would do as a safe house. It was well-stocked and prepared. He had made sure of that when he knew Kaylee would end up living in the area. From the sound of it, Kaylee’s friend direly needed it.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she’s safe,” he promised.

The relief in her voice was unmistakable. “Thank you, Jack.” She paused, then whispered, “For everything.”

There was a click, the rapid triple pulse that showed the caller had hung up on the other end, then nothing. Jack stared at the dark screen. That was it? 

Azule was waiting for him to reemerge, her long, ornate fingernails tapping away at the computer. She looked up, gave him an assessing stare, and stopped typing.

“Well?”

“Benton Security Services will receive a call from a Lila Benoit in Kansas City,” he said. “Put Jesse on it. He just moved to the area last month to work for the KCPD, but he might have time.”

Azule shook her head, “He’s out until the end of the week. He had that family emergency, a sick sister.”

Jack groaned, “Shoot, I forgot all about that.” He thought for a moment, “What about Ellis?”

Azule nodded, “I’ll call him and arrange for the flight,” she said, scribbling the details onto a notepad. Then she stared back at him expectantly. 

He shrugged, turned on his heel, and returned to his office. As the door closed behind him, his steps slowed and he stared out at the thicket of trees outside his window. Like the rest of the L.A. hills, they looked dry, desiccated. There had been too much heat and not enough rain. El Niño was in full force.

Five years.

Just hearing her voice had brought it all back. His entire body was reacting. Even after all of this time, all that Jack wanted was to wrap his arms around her, press his nose into her hair, and feel her body against his. His reaction shocked him, but the thrill of connecting with her again helped him realize that there was a reason no other woman had stayed in his life longer than a few months. This time, he was going to do something about it. 

This time? I’m not going to just stand there and watch her walk away.

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©2021 by Christine Shuck - Author, Artist, and General Malcontent. Proudly created with Wix.com