When former hacker turned FBI cybersecurity specialist Hadley “Lark” Larkspur is asked to analyze a piece of malware, she never imagines the simple task will put her on the radar of underworld criminals. After armed gunmen try to abduct her outside a nightclub, though, it’s suddenly clear she’s in way over her head.
Delta Force operator Thomas “Mace” Beckett is in Boston awaiting his next assignment when he witnesses an attempted kidnapping. His training forces him to intervene, but then the woman pulls a gun on him. Mace isn’t sure what to make of the spitfire holding him hostage, but he quickly discovers that Lark is an innocent pawn in a dangerous game. Someone has framed her for the theft of millions from the mafia, and they want her to pay… in blood, if necessary.
With only days to find the funds, Lark and Mace scramble to track the real culprit. But their investigation unexpectedly leads straight to the heart of a terrible plot, one that could mean death for thousands. The criminals have stolen something far worse than money… and it’s about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Lark came even with an idling taxi, unaware of the danger as the two men stopped on either side of her. She half-turned, surprise and then alarm filling her face as she finally noticed them. A puff of white escaped her open mouth. She wrenched open the door of the taxi to escape, but one of the men yanked her away, pulling a Colt M1911 and pressing it into her stomach.
Mace came in fast and low, catching the second gunman around the waist and riding him down hard. The man’s head smacked against the pavement. Mace tore the semiautomatic from his hand, already rising and turning to the man holding Lark. The taxi driver yelled something Mace couldn’t hear and burned rubber as he raced away from the violence. Fucking coward.
He forced himself to ignore the blind panic on her face, instead focusing on the threat.
“What the fuck?” said the gunman. “Who the hell are you?”
Mace felt his expression go cold. “I’m the man who’s goan kill you if you don’ let her go.”
The man’s eyes narrowed and his grip on Lark tightened. The two gunmen—Dumb and Dumber—wore clothing almost identical to his own. Black jackets over T-shirts, military pants and black boots.
Dumb frowned as he looked Mace up and down. “Did Palachka send you? We got this covered, man. Get lost.”
“Let her go. Now.”
Dumb shook his head, anger growing in the depths of his eyes. “I got my orders. Palachka wants to have a chat with her, so I ain’t going to hurt her none.”
Damned straight he wasn’t. These men were muscle, just following orders. Palachka’s orders.
Who the hell was Palachka?
He glanced at the crowd. A small group watched them, grinning and nudging one another. As long as they thought theirs was simply a drunken brawl, no one would bother to call the police.
Lark hadn’t so much as twitched a muscle, but the whites of her eyes showed and he could feel her terror. She, too, looked at the line outside the nightclub.
He took a risk with a bald-faced lie. “Palachka tol’ me to take over. He said to tell you to head back and leave her to me. I’m the one’s goan to chat with her.”
Dumber picked himself up off the pavement and staggered over to his partner. “Lying prick. He’d’ve called us. And I don’t know you.”
“Best you don’ know me. I’m who Palachka calls when fucks like you bungle it.” Mace snorted. “What, you think he don’t have nothing better to do than deal with the likes of you? He’s waiting for you, though. Don’t want him pissed, do you?”
Both blanched. Mace walked casually over and tugged on Lark’s arm. Dumb hesitated, looked into Mace’s icy eyes, and finally loosened his grip. Mace lifted the Colt he’d taken from Dumber, pointing the barrel at the sky.
“This registered anywhere?”
Dumber felt the back of his head for the lump that must be forming. His fingers came away red with blood. “Nah, man. It’s clean. Why’d you wallop me, man?”
“Get out of here. We’re attracting attention.” He stared pointedly at the line of people outside the Promenade. “I’ll check in with Palachka when I’m done with her.”
Mace settled the matter by tightening his grip on Lark and dragging her toward the parking lot. Dumb and Dumber followed, exchanging a look.
“I’d better check in with him,” Dumb called. “Make sure you’re on the level.”
Mace forced an uncaring shrug. “Your funeral.”
They reached the edge of the deserted lot. Mace paused, raising his eyes pointedly. The two men hesitated, then shrugged and started in the opposite direction.
Lark wrenched her arm so abruptly he lost his grip, and she took off like a rabbit back toward the nightclub. How could she even run in those ridiculously high heels? He caught her in three strides. Sure, she’d be safe inside—for now. But what happened when the two gunmen realized Mace had clowned them? They’d be back, and they would be furious.
“Wait,” he said. He pulled her to a stop.
She swung her huge purse like a brick. He pulled back just in time to avoid being clocked in the head. She dug into her bag, scrabbling around inside. Maybe she really did have a brick in there.
“Come on. We have to get away from here. It won’t take those idiots long to figure out I’m not one of them.” He risked a glance behind.
When he turned back a second later, she had dropped her purse and now pointed a Smith & Wesson .38 Special at him, backing off several steps to gain distance. Her hands shook so badly he feared she’d drop it. He looked hard at it, then had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop the laughter that threatened.
The cylinders were empty; the revolver wasn’t even loaded.
Clearly, she was no criminal mastermind. So why were those men after her?
He needed to get her somewhere safe. Then he could get the answers he wanted. Pulling his cell phone from his pocket, he punched in the code to unlock it.
“Put it down!” she nearly shrieked. “Put down the goddamned phone. Drop it right now!”
Of course. He was the idiot. She now thought he worked for the same man who’d sent thugs after her. Interestingly enough, she’d demanded he drop the phone, but not the pistol he still carried. He bent down and set both on the muddy slush of the asphalt, stepping away from them and raising his arms from his sides to show her he meant her no harm.
“Look, that was just—”
“Shut up,” she snapped, narrowing her eyes. He guessed she was trying to cow him, but she seemed as threatening as a baby kitten. “If you don’t do what I say, I’ll…I’ll shoot you.”
Saturday, February 18. 12:35 a.m. The Promenade. Boston, Massachusetts.
Lark tightened her grip on the gun, her mind a blank. Her life had been threatened. Why? And what the hell was she supposed to do now?
“I’m calling the police.” She tried to reach her right front pocket with her left hand, but it shook so badly she couldn’t manage it.
“What?” She stopped fumbling with her phone out and stared at him.
“No. I can’t allow you to call the police. Either I’ll have to vacate the area or they’ll arrest me. Either way, I can’t protect you.”
He seemed so calm. Did he know she wouldn’t shoot him? The gun Kaley had insisted she buy felt heavy in her hand. In fact, Kaley had all but dragged her to the gun store, explaining to the owner that Lark often worked late at night, when Chelsea was dark, deserted, and dangerous. The box of bullets in the bottom of her purse made it worse than useless, but she’d barely had time to register for a class in how to use the gun, let alone load it. Not that she’d admit such a thing to him.
His words finally penetrated her panicked mind. “You should be arrested. Attacking defenseless women on the street? Kidnapping? You should be in jail.”
“I did none of those things.” Mace nodded toward the nightclub. “This is too public. Someone is going come into the parking lot soon. Someone will have called the police by now. We need to get out of here.”
She snorted. “So you can protect me?”
“Yes.” He remained maddeningly calm.
“Bullshit.” Call the police, her rational mind told her. Let them handle it. It was their job, after all. But some buried instinct agreed with him. In her experience, the police were the enemy. You’re not a hacker any more. You’re legit. You work for the FBI. You have nothing to fear.
Except maybe being arrested for carrying a gun in her purse without a permit. She’d worry about that little detail later.
But old habits died hard. If Mace were arrested, the odds that the cops would share information with her were minimal, and she would still be in the dark. And it pissed her off that her big brain couldn’t find a logical solution to her current dilemma. “We’re going to walk to my car. If the police show up, so be it. You become their problem. Get your hands up higher, and walk in front of me.”
Common sense dictated she force him to leave. To get into her car and drive away. To call 911 and hope for the best. But she’d still know nothing. Mace was clearly working with those other men with guns, and she needed him to tell her what was going on. That meant keeping him with her. Not her smartest idea ever, since he’d been sent to kill her. But what choice did she have?
She’d make him spill the beans. Somehow.
Right now, she needed to get out of this neighborhood before any more black-clad thugs came within grabbing distance of her.
“Move,” she said, deepening her voice and snapping off the words. Hopefully he couldn’t see the tremors in her hands. Thankfully he obeyed, strolling down the line of cars as though she didn’t have a gun trained on him. She scooped up her purse and followed.
“Go to the left. Down this row. There…no, stop. The orange Jeep Liberty.”
He paused beside her car. “Good God. You actually drive this thing?”
It had been her first purchase after getting her Master’s degree, even before the FBI hired her. She’d been so relieved to ditch her junker and drive a new-ish car, and she’d gotten a smoking deal on it. Her hackles rose, and for a moment, she forgot to be terrified.
“It’s a sweet ride. What do you know?”
He grinned at her. “Whatever you say.”
For a moment, she wished she’d gone through agent training with the FBI, instead of as a computer scientist. She’d know, for instance, how to shoot her shiny new gun. Computer scientists received training at Quantico, sure. But in reverse engineering of malware, digital forensics, and intrusion detection. Administrative processes. She’d received no training in firearms, tactics, or taking smokin’ hot men prisoner.
Who else could she call for advice? Trevor’s mobile was number five on her phone’s favorites tab. It would be, what? Nine in the morning in London, assuming he wasn’t on assignment. She put a hand to her head. Her gun hand, she realized, as it thumped her temple. “God damn hairy ass wrinkly old man balls!”
Mace laughed. “You don’ mess around, do you? Dat was an impressive bit of cussing.”
“Lark, I’m serious. It won’ take those yahoos long to come back. We need to be long gone by then. Please trust me.”
First thing first. Before her innards melted from his honeyed Cajun drawl, she switched the revolver to her left hand, keeping it trained on him as she fished her phone out.
“Please don’t call the cops,” he said again. “Say they show up. You tell them what happen’. I tell them what happen’. Maybe they take me down to the station, maybe they just put me in a squad car while they check me out. Either way, the cops will release me. But while all the fuss is going on, you might decide to just walk away. Bad people are gunning for you. Keep me with you.”
She shot him a warning glare and pressed Trevor’s number. It went straight to voice mail. Now what?
She swung her bag forward so she could scrabble inside for her keys. Damn it! She risked a quick look inside her purse and spotted them. Hooking the ring out with a finger, she tossed the whole thing to him. He caught it one handed.
“Get into the driver’s seat,” she commanded.
He obeyed, squashing his six-foot-three inch frame into the driver’s seat. “Gawd damn. This t’ing built for a child.”
He reached down and pulled the seat lever, sighing in relief as the seat moved back. He stretched his legs, reaching across to unlock the passenger door for her. She dropped her bag at her feet before easing inside, keeping the gun trained on him. He glanced at her and away. She could have sworn he hid a smile.
“Now what?” he asked.
She had no earthly clue. Putting a hand to her aching head, she made a sound of pure frustration. Only he could provide the information she needed.
She couldn’t take him to her home; that would be insane.
It would have to be her room at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge. Kaley had insisted the entire wedding party stay at the hotel the night before the wedding.
“Good choice. I know one down by—”
“No,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere anyone knows you, or can find you.”
“All right. You’re calling the shots.”
Why did he seem so calm? She’d threatened to shoot him.
“Get on the freeway.”
He put the car into gear and drove on surface streets till he got to the highway, then took the entry ramp and merged with traffic. They headed northwest.
“Take this exit.”
“Why this one?”
“Just do it!” She couldn’t help the way her voice rose. “Turn left.”
Mace made a soothing motion with one hand, then returned it to the wheel. “Look, I know what I said back there. I played along to get them away from you. I’m not trying to hurt you.”
“Yeah, you’re just trying to kill me.” Anger replaced her fear. She lifted the gun and pressed it against his head. “Turn in here, asshole.”
Mace slowed and turned into the parking garage for the Hyatt Regency Cambridge. Lark cringed, already regretting her choice to bring him back here.
In for a penny, in for a pound. That sounded like something Trevor would have said. Remembering his cool competence steadied her. She squared her shoulders. “Park it.”
Mace did so. “Now what?”
Lark felt like tearing her hair out in frustration. How could she get him up to her room without him just walking away? “Now you tell me what’s going on. Now you tell me who the fuck Palachka is, and why he wants me dead.”
Surprise lifted his brows. “You don’t know?”
“Aagh!” She thunked her head against the headrest. “Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. All right. This is what we’re going to do. You’re going to open your door and come out with your hands where I can see them. Is that clear?”
What would she do if he attacked her here, in the still, dark parking lot? He’d already caught her once because of her high heels. She could threaten all she liked, but, ultimately, she had no control over him.
“Stand by the hood and don’t move.”
When he’d complied, she dug frantically in her purse for the box of bullets. The store owner had shown her how to open the cylinder thingy so she could put the bullets into the holes, but hadn’t allowed her to load it inside his store. Pulling the box into her lap, she fumbled it open, spilling most of the bullets down her leg and onto the floor mat. Swearing and sneaking looks at Mace to ensure he hadn’t moved, she pressed the button to swing the cylinder open, and got it on the third try. Shoving some bullets into the holes, she pushed the cylinder closed again. According to the gun store owner, all she had to do now was pull the trigger. She reached down and scooped as many bullets as she could find back into her purse.
Time to face the music. Or the firing squad.
Excerpt from Framed by Leslie Jones. Copyright © 2017 by Leslie Jones. Reproduced with permission from Leslie Jones. All rights reserved.
Leslie Jones was an Army Intelligence officer for many years and she brings her first-hand experience to the pages of her work. She resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, and is currently hard at work on her next book.