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Unseasonable heat and humidity smothered County Prison’s exercise yard. The inmate who called himself Miller, always prefaced by Mister, jabbed a blunt finger into his palm to punctuate another escapade of underworld intrigue that revealed no names or traceable details.

A motley crew hung on his every word, some out of fear, some admiration, and some from the same morbid fascination that rivets gapers to wrecks.

One gangly kid remained after the others had drifted away. Abruptly Miller turned on the new kid who had asked entirely too many questions. “Whatcha in for?” Miller demanded.

“Some kid stashed drugs in my crib. It’s all a mistake.”

“Yeah, right.”

“What about you?”

Miller spat on the ground. “Mur—der.” He tasted the word like a delicacy. “Other shit they won’t prove.” He bared his teeth in the kid’s acne-riddled face, pleased when the kid flinched. “Gettin’ sprung from this hell hole.”

“’Cause you didn’t do it?”

Miller stepped into the kid’s personal space, and the youngster backed up. “ ‘Cause the witness won’t live to testify. No witness? No case.”

The kid drew several slow breaths and faked a nonchalant look while mauling an ant with his toe. “That’s cool.” He was trying to hide shaking hands behind his orange jumpsuit. “So, Mr. Miller, sir, sounds like you’re smarter than any of them. How are you going to get out? Got help outside?”

With cougar-like speed, the big man lunged at the hapless kid’s throat, half lifting, half hurtling him against the brick wall. “They’re still looking for the last piece of shit who tried to deal information.” Blocking everyone’s view with his massive body, he ground the kid’s head into the wall. “Nobody rats me out, ya got that?”

Miller loosened his grip and the kid bobbed his head, leaving a bloody streak where his flesh grated against the wall.

“I’d find you, just like the asshole banker who threatened to expose me. He had an unfortunate accident.” Grinning about his sordid solution, Miller lowered the kid, half patting, half smacking his face. “Listen, kid. I’ll make you a deal. See my buddies over there?” He made a small jerk toward two huge, pumped, and tattooed prisoners. “Little guy like you gonna need some protection, if you get my drift. No one hurts my friends. You’d like my protection?”

“Yes, sir! Of course!”

“It’s gonna cost you.”

“What do you want? I don’t got no money. No way to get drugs.”

Miller grasped the boy’s shoulder, giving it a shake with his oversized paw. “When your mom visits on Sunday—”

“How’d you know she was—”

“I know everything ‘round here. You’re gonna start giving Mommy messages for her to send to an email address that I give ya.”

“She doesn’t have email.”

Miller rolled his eyes. “The library does! You tell Mommy that you’ve made a powerful friend who will not let any of these psychopaths hurt you. That is, if she sends messages for me.”

“What if she won’t? What if she’s scared? What if—”

“Oh, she will. Trust me. She will.” Perfect! That was too easy to even be fun. He strode off to gather his minions.

* * *

In the dense forest beyond his cabin, Miller’s partner tackled the first order of business that came to his email in code: obliterate all trace of John Miller’s identity. Destroy all forged documents—driver’s licenses, auto registration and proof of insurance, PI licenses, military discharge papers, et cetera—anything that could link either of them to their business. He blended the shreds with wild animal scat in a galvanized bucket. That he buried in the woods.

What should Miller’s partner call himself for his next incarnation? He scanned a commencement program from a large Philadelphia public school. First name: he liked Stephen. No, better with a v. What goes with Steven? He loved Piscatelli, Shesniak, and Winchester, but joking aside, he needed ordinary. A last name so innocuous that nobody would question its spelling or if he was related to so-and-so in Scranton. Snyder, Ott, Turner. Turner? Steven Turner.

His eye fell on White. Steven White, a.k.a. Steve. No, Turner was better. Done. Mentally, he started a fresh page in his life. With forged documents in order, he could pursue new business ventures. And springing John Miller from County Prison topped the list. He felt itchy to get back to the hunt and execute his brilliant plan for his partner.

Several prospects had contacted him via one of the phones he dedicated to his new business, which he’d advertised on an obscure soldier-of-fortune Internet site. Discreet inquiries, his specialty, usually led to big prizes and a shit-load of money. He would not take any shortcuts, however, like Miller had done. That had led to his downfall.

Miller’s client had wanted certain competition eliminated. Completely. Emphatic that there be no connection between the client, his associates, and the victim. Miller had charged extra to background those connections. The client was just another idiot who couldn’t succeed without someone tipping the scale. No problem. Weeks of surveillance had revealed that the young doctor’s habitual behavior made staging an accident easy. Check mark.

The new Steven Turner internalized the lesson that Miller had failed—to always cross-reference similar names. A human resources banker-client had merely wanted sensitive documents recovered from an employee’s apartment. The employee would not be home. Her apartment offered easy access via a fire escape obscured by mature trees. The woman who stole said documents couldn’t possibly complain without incriminating herself. Piece of cake for big bucks, which led to a much bigger prize.

Except—the two targets being related never occurred to Miller. Ward was too common a name. The bank-target woman—Kingsley Ward—had surprised him, catching Miller in the act, forcing him to neutralize her. She never should have survived, but she had. Miller subsequently suffered the consequences of targeting high-profile people. That had disastrous consequences.

Worse—he’d taken for granted that the victim would grieve her dead husband, then bury herself in good causes. Instead, she was bent on revenge. Miller said he would never fail backgrounder 101 again. Or so Miller had communicated through a reliable insider in prison where he awaited his trial.

The newly christened Steve Turner ticked through his agenda. The banker who hired Miller in the first place was a dead issue—literally. Check. But that woman, intent on testifying against Miller, was not. That score must be settled. It was payback time for his friend for saving his ass in the war. Semper fi, good buddy. Her days are numbered. This job is pro bono.

©2017 Nancy A. Hughes. All Rights Reserved.

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