Here's A Sneak Peek at WAR BETWEEN THE STAKES

Book four of the Mayson-Dickson Mystery Series!!!

READ CHAPTER ONE

This is the latest release in four-book series Mayson-Dickson Mysteries!

WHEN NORTH MEETS SOUTH....IT'S MURDER!

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“So, are we calling a truce?” Jackie Dickson sat on the edge of the couch, legs crossed, flip-flop smacking the bottom of her foot and familiar eyes boring into Emme. The eyes were familiar because recent, extremely extenuating circumstances, like dead bodies, had brought them together only to learn they were twins. There’s an entire backstory to that, but for now, Emme just wanted to maneuver out of the house. 

“A ceasefire is more like it.” Emme eased behind the kitchen island. It made her feel safer putting a large object between them. “Fender and Meechum are in neutral corners, and I haven’t seen Super Spy Sydney in a few days.” Sam Fender was a property caretaker who turned out to be a special ops guy and part of their protection detail, another backstory. FBI Agent Chris Meecham was on loan to the local Virginia Beach, Virginia police as part of a gang task force. They’d gotten tangled up with him over the dead body of a gang member.

Just a week earlier Emme Mayson and Jackie Dickson of the recently formed Mayson-Dickson Investigations, had been investigating a murder, and ended up at a Russian gang leader’s estate with bullets flying. Their inherited, yes inherited, he came with the house, hacker extraordinaire Zack Prentiss had taken a bullet for Emme during the fire fight. Now, he was sitting in a hospital bed recovering, which was suddenly looking a lot better option than being here.

“What? No southern detente?” Jackie snorted. “I thought you genteel Southern girls had cornered the market on sugary resolutions.” She flipped her long brown hair back, her gaze never leaving Emme. “Ehhh,” she made a rude buzzer sounding noise. “Strike that one. Would you like for me to call Meecham and deliver a little Boston temper?” 

Her sister could be a, well, not very tactful. She could teach a course to sailors in ‘colorful adjectives’. She was tough as nails and rarely let her guard down. That made it extremely hard to, um, how could Emme put this politely? Very hard to like Jackie some days. She’d never had a sister before, so maybe that was part of the entire sibling dynamics. 

“My Southern-ness is not in question, my diplomacy however,” she leaned her butt against the counter, “it might need a little tweaking. “

“Oh, ya, you did use the word ‘darn’,” Jackie laughed, “that sure told Meechum off.” She flopped back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. “Next, you’ll be adding a gosh to that darn.”

“I’d,” the doorbell rang before she could finish. It was a good thing too, because she was all out of sarcastic retorts.

“Are you expecting someone?” Jackie sat straight up. There was an edge to her voice. 

“No.” Emme walked to the door, hesitating as her hand reached for the doorknob. Since they’d been thrown together, they had been—shot at, had dead, a secret agent shove them out of an office where a contact from their past was assassinated in front of them, sent to a ‘safe house’ where one hot, sexy caretaker who happened to be a protective agent lived next door, and a Russian gangster shoot at them. Paranoia had struck deep and hard. For all of her bravado, Emme Mayson was suddenly afraid to open the door.

“Peak out the side window.” Jackie was on her feet, flip-flops smacking across the wood floor. 

Emme leaned to the right, squinting through the side of the curtains. Whoever was ringing the bell was too far to the left to be seen. 

“This is ridiculous. I am not going to be afraid to open a door.” Emme took in a deep breath and twisted the knob, realizing the deadbolt was locked. Rolling her eyes, she turned the key and twisted the knob again. 

Jackie was so close to her back, she could smell the expensive perfume her sister wore. She didn’t like it. The stuff smelled like licorice and laundry soap. 

Standing on the deck was an older, gray-haired man in a dark olive-green U.S. Army uniform. A full chest of fruit salad covered one side, and four-stars decorated his shoulders. His eyes were the same color green as his uniform, his face was chiseled, he stood over six-foot two, and for a man on the far side of fifty, he was extremely fit. 

“Emme? Or Jacqueline?” His eyes sparkled, and his voice was soft as he smiled down at her. 

The question had barely left his lips when the man’s eyes went wide, his mouth dropped open and his breath left in a rush.

“Ahhh!” Emme screamed as the man lurched forward. She put her arms out to catch him. He went completely limp, and she was squashed like a spider underneath him. “Ewww, ewww! Help me!” Her voice was muffled against the man’s chest.

* * *

 

“I don’t care.” FBI Special Agent Chris Meechum’s voice was hard, angry and frustrated. “We need that Yustov found.” He pushed the button on his cell, ending the call. Since his last encounter with Edwin Yustov, leader of a massive east coast Russian gang, he’d been shot at, had a civilian—Zack Prentiss shot, and nearly lost the one woman that drove him insane and made his heart skip beats, Emme Mayson. 

Meeting Emme and her sister, Jackie, had turned his life upside down. They were mystery women. With all of his federal connections, he couldn’t find out anything about their past, other than what he’d managed to squeeze out of them when their lives were in danger.

They refused to stay under surveillance and even their handler Department of Defense Agent Sydney McClure, and Special Ops protector Sam Fender were hard pressed to keep track of them. 

His cell rang again.

“Meechum.” Again, it was his office at the Bureau calling to inform him that Yustov was nowhere to be found—not on any street or security cameras, not leaving the country aboard any commercial flights, not using any known funds. “Then he’s holed up here in Virginia Beach.” He stopped at a traffic light. “Focus your search here.” He offered a few more suggestions, hung up, and was about to head toward the hospital to give his FBI hacker Zack Prentiss a new assignment, when the phone rang again. Staring at the screen, he saw Emme’s number. He hesitated. 

The last time he refused to take her call, she’d called his assistant deputy director. Emme had taken it upon herself to give his director details of Edwin Yustov’s international art forgery network, giving him names, details, files, and where forgeries were located and gave all the credit to him. 

While it was one amazing feather in his career cap, it infuriated him. Emme and Jackie had been able to piece together more of the forgery network than him or his FBI team. He squeezed the phone, hard. The phone kept ringing. 

“Meechum.” He answered, not wanting another issue with his boss. 

“We have a problem, y’all need to get here, now.” She nearly screamed the now. 

“Are you hurt?” Meechum kicked up the speed on the Virginia Beach Freeway. He was still thirty minutes away. 

“Nope.” Her voice squeaked. “Bring Fender.” 

“Emme, what’s going on?” As much as those two drove him insane, he couldn’t bear it if something happened to her or her sister. 

“Just get here, please.” She hung up. 

Two seconds later he put in a call to Fender. Every bad scenario he’d ever witnessed in his law enforcement career suddenly played out inside his head. He shook it off. It was a job, nothing more. Oh, but it was more. 

* * *

 

Emme scooted backwards on her butt, one flip flop squeaking, one lost somewhere under the general. 

“Holy muther.” Jackie stared at the blood covering Emme’s chest. 

“No, I’m good.” She wiped at the wet stain.  “It’s his blood, not mine.” Emme crawled back to the man. His Army dress jacket was covered in blood, his body rigid. She was about to say a prayer, just way Rosie had taught her to do for a person’s passing, when he coughed. 

“Jackie call 911, he’s still alive.” Ripping open his jacket, she saw the gaping bullet wound. Yanking off her t-shirt, she pressed it hard against the wound. 

“Crap.” Jackie said a string of curse words, patting herself down not finding her cell. 

The general’s hand went to Emme’s face. He smiled, and his eyes held her for several seconds. “Emmaline?” He coughed, struggling to talk. 

“Do I know you?” Emme leaned down toward his face. 

“You, you and Jacqueline,” the general coughed, his voice raspy, “trust only Fender, no one, no one, else." He squeezed her hand tight and let out a long, ragged breath.

“Jackie,” Emme let out a sob as the general’s hand went limp. “Never mind, he’s gone.” Jackie knelt on the floor beside her, cell phone dangling in her palm.

“Who is he?” Jackie stared at the blood covered man.

“I don’t know,” Emme tucked a hand into a jacket pocket, “but we need to find out. He knew us.” 

“What?” Jackie stared at her. 

“He called us by name. Help me look.” Emme checked the other jacket pockets.

Jackie picked up his hat and began inspecting its interior.

“What are you doing?” Emme asked, confused.

“I’ve known a few military men,” Jackie winked, “trust me.” Inside the hat she pulled out a small leather pouch. “See.” She shoved it into her bra just as Fender and Meechum burst in the door.

Meechum’s eyes were in a panic as his eyes focused on Emme’s pink sports bra with the large, Flamingo in the center. It was covered in a massive and ugly blood stain right across the bird’s head. 

“Emme,” he instantly knelt beside her. 

“I’m fine, it’s his blood.” She nodded toward the general. Meecham and Fender stared down at the body on the floor. 

Fender bent down, staring at the man, then his gaze met Meechum’s. Neither man said a word. Emme and Jackie took a quick glance at each other. The expression on the men’s faces told Emme they knew the dead general. 

“It’s too late for the paramedics, we need to call the police.” Jackie pulled her cell phone up.

“No, no police. Call no one, you got it? Stay put.” Fender ordered, nodding toward the door. Fender’s 9MM was suddenly un-holstered and in front of him. “Where’s Blake’s staff car? No four-star general travels without a driver, a very well-trained driver.” 

“Blake? Y’all know this man?” Emme looked up at Meechum. He avoided her eyes, standing beside Fender, his weapon in his hands. They eased out the door without another word.

“They know a lot more than they are telling.” Jackie nodded toward the general.

Emme stared at the poor man on their living room floor. He’d mentioned their names twice before he died. Their tangled mess of a life just got a lot more tangled. 

“I didn’t get eyes on anyone.” Meechum was out of breath, still holding his weapon when he and Fender burst back inside the house. They circled the large living room and kitchen, lowering window blinds and checking locks. 

“There are no footsteps in the sand, no boats on the water, no military vehicles on the street, nothing?” Meechum gripped his gun, staring at each window, each entrance to the house.

“The area is clear, but there is no sign of a staff car for him.” Fender shook his head.

“How did he get here?” Meechum peeked out the side of the blinds on the door. 

“I have help coming.” Fender holstered his weapon, peering out from the side of the blinds.

“Help? You need to call the police.” Jackie was on her feet and in Fender’s face. “There’s a dead Army general on our floor.”

“This isn’t a job for the police. This is national security, and right now, we have to get you two out of here before all hell breaks loose.” Fender’s eyes scanned the room, his body taut and rigid.

“Excuse me?” Emme stood alongside her sister. “This is our home, and I’m not leaving.” 

“Emme,” Meechum put a hand on her shoulder. Taking off his jacket, he gently covered her shoulders and the pink Flamingo sports bra with his black leather jacket. “This is an American general, a four-star general, with a bullet hole in his chest on your floor. Every alphabet agency you can imagine will be here.” He put a gentle hand to the side of her face. “With the background you two have, or should I say, don’t have, this is not where you want to be.” 

“What he said,” Fender winked at Jackie. “Pack a bag, and I’ll get you to a safe house while Meechum handles ground zero here.” Just as Jackie was about to walk upstairs, he grabbed her arm. “You two didn’t mess with the body at all, did you?” 

“No.” Jackie rolled her eyes. 

“Ewww”. Emme curled her lip.

A knock on the door put all of them on alert. Fender ushered the sisters behind the kitchen island bar, and Meechum poised by the door, weapon drawn. 

“Agent Meechum, it’s me, Doctor Jamison.” A voice sounded through the door.

Of all the people Emme would have guessed were outside that door, the local coroner was not one of them. 

“Jamison?” She stared at her sister. Jackie shrugged, just as confused. 

“I arrived as soon as I got the text.” He glanced around the room, his round glasses perched high on his nose, his cherubic face flushed, which with the balding head made him resemble a cute chipmunk. Emme wondered where his bright red coroner ball cap was hiding. It was one of the few times she’d seen him without it. 

“How could you know?” Meechum shoot a glare to Fender. 

“I’m on speed dial for the Department of Defense, Justice, and Homeland. I was on my way to Taco Sam’s, so only a few blocks away.” Dr. Jamison laughed, sat his bag down and pulled out latex gloves. He held up his cell phone. “I’m former Army medical, forward units mostly.”

“Well,” Jackie came from behind the bar, “who knew you were such a bad-ass?”

“My wife.” Jamison smiled. “How else do you think a balding, short guy who cuts up dead people for a living snagged Miss Virginia Beach?” 

“You called the DOD?” Meechum’s jaw was clenched, his shoulders tight, and his angry gaze fixed on Fender. 

“Necessary.” Fender gave him a hard look, then turned toward the sisters. “Pack a bag now, I need to get you out of here.” 

“I’m not leaving.” Jackie’s hands went to her hips.

“You don’t have a choice.” Fender pulled himself to full height, standing toe to toe with her. “I’ve been tolerant, I’ve far been more than patient with you two. A U.S. general was just assassinated at your doorstep. Pack a bag and be ready in five minutes. This is not up for discussion.” 

For the first time, well, ever, Emme watched her sister stay silent. 

Two hours later Emme and Jackie were sitting in a small brick ranch in a cul-de-sac, with a bag of takeout hotdogs, and a million unanswered questions. 

* * *

 

Meechum watched Doctor Jamison inspect the dead general’s body. Two short knocks rapped on the door. Fender nodded through the glass. Meechum opened the door. 

“The sisters are secured.” Fender announced, locking the door behind him, giving an extra look out the window behind them.

“For now.” Jamison snorted. “How long do you think they’ll stay put?”

“They have no car, no cash, and a burner phone that can only call me and 911.” Fender knelt beside the body, a smile on his face. “They’ll be there until I move them.” 

Jamison snorted again.

Fender had only met General Franklin Blake two weeks ago through mutual acquaintance, Max Sheridan. It was an introduction at the Army base just down the road, inside a safe room, where a scant few details about Emme Mayson and Jackie Dickson were revealed. 

”There’s nothing of significance here." Fender laid the contents of Blake’s pockets on the floor. “There is one military ID with an electronic strip, and one photo ID for base privileges.” 

“You two need to be wearing gloves.” Jamison snapped. “Here,” he yanked two pairs from his medical bag. “Don’t screw up my crime scene.” 

“Your crime scene?” Fender raised an eyebrow, glancing at his watch. “The Department of Defense forensics team will be here in twenty minutes.”

“They called me, remember. Until the federal CSI unit tells me otherwise, this is my crime scene.” He looked over his round glasses lens. “however, intend to make sure most of the evidence remains with me.” Jamison sat up on his knees. 

“That’s probably a good idea, Doc.” Meechum watched him open the general’s shirt, remove his tie, pull off Emme’s pink T-shirt and inspect the bullet wound. He swallowed down a lump of bile. ”The call to the DOD was premature, Fender.”

“It was protocol.” Fender snapped. He worked for the DOD. This murder happened on his watch, in the house where his assets lived, and to a man who was military. 

“It could have waited an hour.” Meechum stepped in front of him. 

“I was following orders. It’s what the military does.” They were toe to toe. 

“I never said anything about not following orders, or breaking protocol. Delaying things for an hour to give us time to secure Emme and Jackie, and secure this house.” Meechum’s jaw flexed, and he talked through gritted teeth, trying not to raise his voice. “I hope,” he glared at Fender, “I hope I managed to get everything taken care of.”

Fender turned at Jamison’s obviously loud throat clearing. 

“Then again, I’m sure the federal forensics team would have established time of death, and I would have had a lot of explaining to do.” Fender didn’t back down from his decision.

“They aren’t that good.” Jamison snickered. “Here,” he handed Emme’s bloody t-shirt to Fender, “you need to dispose of this, we don’t have enough time for a testosterone dust up.” 

Yanking open several kitchen cabinets, Fender found a plastic bag. Shoving the t-shirt inside, he wadded it into a small ball in his jacket. 

“Did you find anything of importance on the general?” Jamison asked.

“Nothing unusual. Wait.” Fender reached for the general’s hat. “I used to put stuff I wanted to keep private in here.” Inspecting the brim, and the inside band, he felt around the satin lining, coming up empty handed. Staring at a small area at the very front of the hat where the visor was sewn in, he pointed out an indentation in the satin. 

“Something’s missing.” He showed the spot to Meechum.

“Emme and Jackie?” It wouldn’t be the first time they’d tampered with evidence. 

“Fender.” The doctor stood, giving him a nod. Both men bowed their head for several seconds, eyes closed. They gave a salute to the general, then Fender gently placed the hat over his face.

“End of watch.” Jamison whispered, took a breath and returned to his job. “The federal meat wagon will be here soon.” Jamison cleared his throat and was once again the professional coroner. “In case I do get pulled off this case, I want most of the evidence kept with me.” He looked up at Meechum and Fender, pushing up his glasses up on his nose. “This bullet went through. Find me that bullet, gentlemen.”

 Meechum stood near the spot where the general had been shot, using his arm to point in the direction the bullet would have traveled. Fender joined him at the wall. They searched the area in a haphazard grid pattern.  

“The thing that bothers me?” Meechum whispered, glancing back at Jamison, who was busy collecting samples from under the general’s fingernails. 

“There’s only one thing?” Fender smirked. 

“Was the bullet intended for General Blake, or was it intended for Emme and Jackie?”

* * *

 

“Eww, this place stinks.” Emme nearly emptied a spritzer bottle of perfume dancing around the living room, spraying the air. “We need to get some disinfectant spray.” 

“Are you trying to single-handedly kill the ozone?” Jackie coughed and hacked, making her way to the front door through watering eyes. “Great, now it smells like a gardenia scented garbage truck in here.”

“We need to find out who killed that general.” Emme wandered around the small house, opening doors, and holding her nose. “Eww wee, Fender sure can’t find a safe house like Zack can.”

“Or who tried to kill us.” Jackie’s eyes locked onto hers. “We don’t know for sure who that bullet was meant for.” She’d wondered if the general had just gotten in the way of the bullet.

“I really hate your voice of reality.” Emme stood next to her. 

“Ya, well, me too.” Jackie propped the interior door open with her foot, curling her lip at the dusty door screen. “Geez, this place is nasty.” Her hand wrapping around the red heart pendant she always wore. Holding it tight in her fist, she glanced over, seeing a matching one around her sister’s neck. They were from their parents. Holding it tight made her feel, somehow, better. 

“It makes me grateful for our beach house.” Emme coughed. “There ain’t enough air fresheners in the world to help this place.”

“We need to find a way out of here.” Jackie took in a deep breath of fresh air out the door staring around the quiet neighborhood. “We have no car, no money, nothing. I can’t believe Fender left us like this.” 

“Oh, I have money.” Emme straightened her leg slightly, reaching into her jeans pocket and pulled out a handful of folded bills. “Rosie taught me to never to go anywhere without enough money to get myself back home.” It was one of the few moments Jackie was glad her sister was old school with money. She never carried cash, just credit cards. She thought it was much safer. Jackie sat on the couch, staring at the floor. 

“Emme, I’m not sure I can take this life anymore.” Holding her head in her hands, she felt defeated. “Dead bodies, assassins, protective government custody? It’s like I’ve fallen into a really bad, bad episode of the Twilight Zone.”

They’d met just a few months ago. Each one had lost what they thought was a single parent. What they discovered was that their entire lives had been a lie. Jackie and Emme were not only sisters, but twin sisters. Over the last few months the DNA tests they’d taken all mysteriously vanished, were lost, or were overlooked in place of the dead bodies that kept falling into their lives. Aside from one being blonde and one being a brunette, they looked exactly alike. Yet until a few months ago, they never knew the other one existed.

In a blink, they were whisked away from their former lives in Boston, Massachusetts and Scruggs Corners, Alabama to a beach house in Virginia Beach, Virginia as part of some off-the-books witness protection program. Fender was the first person they met, and he was supposed to be the property caretaker living in a cottage next door. Over the summer, and a few dead bodies, they discovered he was a Special Ops agent acting as part of their protection detail. 

Fender was one sexy, hot beach bum, and Jackie was slowly, some days slowly, some days she didn’t talk about it, losing her heart to him. 

“I know.” Emme put a gentle hand on her back.

“I miss the Hub.” Jackie’s voice was a whisper. “I miss snow, and Nor ‘Easters and people that don’t have accents.” 

Emme laughed, laid her head back on the couch. 

“You find that funny?” Jackie glared at her, eyes hard. 

“Accents? Where’d y’all hide that that letter “R”, Boston?” Emme folded her legs Indian style under her. 

“Smaht-ass.” Jackie smiled. “I just miss home.”

“I miss Scrugg’s Corner, fried food, NASCAR races, and sitting on the front porch on hot summer nights. Mostly, I miss dad and Rosie.” A tear rolled down Emme’s cheek.

They shared the same history. They’d discovered both parents had lied about their jobs, both parents died on the same day, and Jackie and Emme were called to the same law office in Washington, D.C. where their contact was assassinated in front of them. 

“We need to focus.” Jackie sat forward, taking a deep breath and pulling her long brown hair to one side. “No more murder investigations of dead bodies, no more pretending we’re big time private investigators. What we need to do is follow the crumbs our parents left for us.”

“That’s hard to do when those crumbs are so few and far between, and we are so good at detective work, and dead bodies keep falling on us just wanting us to investigate.” Emme shrugged. 

“You mean keep falling on you.” Jackie leaned back, giving Emme a hard stare. 

“Just because one washed up on me, doesn’t mean,”

“One washed up, one fell on your truck as we were driving down the road, one fell on you in a sand sculpture, and don’t forget the general in our living room that fell on you. It’s you.” Jackie pointed at her. 

“It’s coincidence.”

“I don’t believe in coincidences. Those bodies fell on you because they knew you would investigate. You have this annoying soft spot for dead people.” Jackie shuddered. 

“I have a soft spot for people.” Emme corrected.

“Yes, I know.” Jackie walked to the small kitchen, yanking open the fridge door. “You would think Fender might have left some food besides that disgusting bag of hotdogs. There’s not even a bottle of water in here.” 

“As I said, I have money.” Emme patted her pocket. 

“Do you have enough to rent us a car?” Jackie leaned against the fridge, arms folded over her chest. 

“I have enough for dinner and Uber.” Emme smiled. 

“Fender took our cell phones. Just left that useless burner phone. So, what’s your plan for calling an Uber?” Jackie dropped onto the couch, arms still folded.

Emme smiled, rummaging through the tote bag Fender allowed her to take. 

“Fender searched our bags. If you put a phone in there, it’s gone.” Jackie smirked.

Pulling out a box of tampons, Emme gently shoved a pink manicured nail under the lid, opening the top. “I do love double-sided tape.” She smiled, pulling out one layer, and laying the pink packages on the floor. Reaching back inside the box, she pulled out a cell phone. “Like money, I don’t ever leave home without a cell phone.”

“Ya, well Boston girls never leave home without their black belt.” Jackie held out her hands in fists. “I would have my 9MM if Fender hadn’t taken it.”

“We have money, phone, and muscle.” Emme smiled, repacking her tote bag. “Let’s blow this place.”

* * *

 

Half an hour later, Jackie and Emme were sitting in a pizza place. “I really wanted pancakes.” Emme whined, staring at the pizza. 

“Eat the pizza.” Jackie snapped. “You know Pocahontas Pancakes is the first place Fender and Meechum will look when they discover we’re missing.” 

“What did you find in the general’s hat?” Emme took a bite of pizza. “And how did you know military men kept things hidden in their hat?” 

“This is the first place in this town that has Sam Adams beer. I have died and gone to heaven.” Jackie shrugged, taking a drink of beer.

“You’re evading.” 

“I dated a guy.” Jackie took another sip of beer. “He was Navy, and, you know.”

“Was it serious?” Emme pushed the pizza away, sipping on her beer. 

“No.” Jackie smiled. “But it was one helluva lot of fun.” She stared at Emme’s uneaten pizza. “You’re not eating.”

“Between that poor general getting shot, and realizing Fender, and Meechum now know about our parent’s,” she made air quotes, “safe house, I just realized we have no place to go."

“You can certainly kill an appetite.” Jackie dropped her slice of pizza on the plate. “I found this.” Reaching inside her bra, she put a small leather pouch on the table. After several quiet minutes of staring at it, Emme pulled it toward her. 

“After all we’ve been through, I’m afraid to find out what might be inside.” Roughly two-inches square, the brown leather looked well worn, like it had been inside the general’s hat for a long time. A small flap, like an envelope, covered one side.

“We’re in this together.” Emme patted her hand. “We’ll deal with it together.” Sliding her chair closer to Jackie, she slowly pushed the flap open. 

“You want more beer?” The waiter’s voice made both of them scream. “Whoa. Sorry ladies.” Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be staring at them. 

Jackie snatched the pouch off the table, holding it tight in her clenched fist.

“It was a bee. I’m deathly allergic to them.” Emme flapped her hands in the air like she was being attacked by a swarm of the things. “Whew, it’s gone.” 

“This fell off your chair.” He reached down and picked up Emme’s backpack. 

“Thanks.” She gave him a smile and a nod, tucking the strap across the back of the chair. He walked behind the bar, turning to look at them, then went back to work. 

“Let’s just open the pouch.” Jackie dropped it on the table.

Emme’s hand shook as she eased a finger inside the small flap. Gently pulling out a small metal heart, rather like a feminine dog tag. 

“There is an etching on it.” Emme moved it so the light over the table illuminated it. “Blake 7R99L41L53R7L“. She held it for several seconds before putting it on the table. 

“Uh-oh.” Jackie grabbed the pouch and the paper off the table and shoved them into her tote bag. “Drop some of your cash on the table and let’s get out of here.”

“What? Why?” Emme was confused. 

“Captain Vince Parker of the Virginia Beach Police Department just arrived.” Jackie had her tote bag on her shoulder and was already on her feet.

Emme’s head snapped around, seeing the local police captain taking a seat at a table in the small outside dining area. “Who is he sitting with?” She dropped some bills on the table, squinting to see through the tinted windows.

“We’re not waiting around to see.” Jackie grabbed her hand, yanking her toward the door. Emme pulled away, walking around the salad bar, leaning toward the back windows. 

“Are ya kidding me?” Jackie lurched for her arm, clamping on and dragging her behind. This time Emme couldn’t get loose. Jackie smiled, those weight-lifting classes were finally paying off.

“Just keep walking.” Jackie ordered, finally letting Emme’s arm go when they reached the sidewalk. 

“Well, ain’t you the bossy one?” Emme adjusted her tank top, shoving her tote bag back on her shoulder, and glanced behind them. 

“Ain’t is not a word, and you know Parker will tell Meechum he saw us. I had to get you out of there.” Jackie stomped down the street. 

“I was completely unnoticed until you decided to yank me out of there like a bad tipper.” Emme jogged to keep up. “Just for that, I ain’t,” she said the word loudly, “going to tell you who was sitting with Parker.”

“Who?” Jackie stopped and turned to face her. Emme kept walking. “Fine.” Jackie sat on a bench near the boardwalk. 

“You ain’t going to believe it.” Emme sat next to her, unable to keep silent. “Edwin Yustov.”

Jackie felt her heart skip several beats. Their last case involved Edwin Yustov, head of an east coast Russian gang that Agent Meechum was in Virginia Beach investigating. The last time they saw the Russian mobster, he’d escaped his estate and hadn’t been seen. Yustov’s men were the ones who shot their tech guru aka hacker, Zack Prentiss. He’d jumped in front of Emme, saving her life. He was still in the hospital recovering from the wound. 

“Wait, I thought Parker was helping Fender and Meechum?” Jackie was completely confused. The police captain had infiltrated the Russian mob and was working undercover. “Isn’t he still undercover?”

“Maybe, but they sure looked friendly.” Emme raised an eyebrow. “Yustov bailed after that firefight at his estate. Meecham and his FBI task force have been on the hunt for him. He’s on the Most Wanted list, or at least number eleven or so.” Emme wasn’t sure he was exactly on that infamous list, but the FBI wanted him. 

“Then why is he walking around town free as a bird and having lunch with a police captain?” Jackie raised an eyebrow. 

“I don’t know, but I was about to snap a picture when you dragged me out of there.” She waved her cell phone in Jackie’s face. “Now, we have no proof. We need to tell Meecham.”

“I thought he wasn’t talking to you.” Jackie reminded her. 

“He isn’t. That doesn’t mean I ain’t going to tell him about Yustov. Maybe there’s a reward.” She smiled.

“Well, at least Parker didn’t see us.” Since being in the south, Jackie was beginning to lose her Yankee sarcasm. This was bad, very bad. She prided herself on her exceptional use of curse words and snark.

“Well, if it isn’t the dynamic duo of crime fighting sisters.” Vince Parker’s voice brought both of them to their feet. 

“Fancy seeing you here.” Emme smiled. “After all the gunfire at Yustov’s estate you disappeared in a hurry.”

“My job there was finished.” Parker’s jaw flexed. Then his practiced smile returned and took a metal tin from the breast pocket of his jacket, popping a breath mint into his mouth.  “Are you two looking for another dead body?” 

“Are you volunteering?” Jackie stared at him happy her Boston snark was still working.

“I do love the wit of a sarcastic woman.” Parker buttoned his suit coat, giving them a cop’s inspection. “It’s getting cold out here. I’d advise you to grab a jacket.” He gave Emme a cheesy pat on side of her backpack and walked down the sidewalk, his Italian leather shoes clicking against the asphalt. 

Jackie grabbed Emme’s shoulder, pushing her down the sidewalk in the opposite direction of Parker. “Inside.” 

“I thought you hated this place?” Emme pointed toward the sign for the Pink Pagoda bar. 

“I need a margarita here.” Jackie looked around anxiously for the waiter. She waved a hand, frustrated when no one saw her. 

“Maybe Parker’s undercover job didn’t end at the estate?” Emme strummed her fingers on the table. “Or maybe he really is on Yustov’s payroll?” 

“No.” Jackie held up a hand. “No. We are not getting involved in another mess. Let’s see what those numbers mean on that dog-tag before someone else shows up.” She looked around the restaurant.  

Emme mumbled the numbers over and over, Jackie searched the Internet on her phone for  Blake 7R99L41L53R7L and dozen variations of it. 

“Are they GPS coordinates?” Emme asked, doing her own search. 

Jackie shook her head, reading the string of numbers, seeing nothing online that indicated coordinates. 

The last cryptic message they’d received contained GPS numbers and lead them to a safe house their parents had left them. Not the witness protection program beach house, but one that was off grid, out of sight, and not even allowed to be photographed by satellite. 

They’d found nothing personal about their parents, however, they did find a glass heart containing two USB flash drives with highly encrypted data. The encryption was so sophisticated even Zack couldn’t break it. He told them they needed two additional USB drives for the encryption to be broken. They had no idea where the other two USB drives were.

Then their search was interrupted by the arrival of two military drones, shot down by Emme. 

Because of the last dead body they’d found, Meechum and Fender discovered that house. That meant they couldn’t go back there, at least not if they wanted to stay out of that smelly safe house and do any more investigating on their parents.

“Could this be General Blake’s military serial number?” Emme suggested snapping her from her thoughts. “We need Zack’s help.” Emme copied the number onto a napkin, then put the metal tag back into the pouch and handed it to Jackie. “I’m keeping a copy,” she raised an eyebrow, “just in case.” 

“The way our lives have been going, that’s a good idea.” Two margarita’s they’d ordered arrived at the table both sporting extra large pink umbrellas. “I seriously hate pink.” Jackie pulled her middle finger back and gave the umbrella a flip. It sailed high toward the ceiling, banged against the light over the table and landed with a thud in the middle of the peanut bowl. 

They stared at it for several minutes before Emme burst out laughing. “You have got to get over this morbid hatred of the color pink.” 

“Never.” Jackie downed half her margarita. 

* * *

 

“I’ve turned over all my findings to your forensics team.” Jamison’s raised voice caused several agents’ heads to turn. “The next time the DOD doesn’t want me to take the lead on an investigation, don’t have them call me.”

Fender caught the frustration in the coroner’s voice. Considering the circumstances, Fender kept the bullet he’d found wrapped in a latex glove in his pocket. He’d spied it just seconds before the Defense Department’s team burst into the house. He’d never admit it, but maybe Meecham was right, maybe he should have waited an hour. The team crawling all over the house was not the one he expected.

Jamison snapped his medical bag closed, adjusted his glasses and headed for the door. 

“Open it.” A young, and very smug junior agent ordered Jamison. 

Fender leaned against the bar separating the kitchen from the living room in Emme and Jackie’s beach house. While Doctor Jamison appeared to be a pudgy civil servant, there was an entire side of the man very few knew. The doctor kept his temper in check.

“You are aware I have a  higher security clearance than your entire team combined?” Jamison’s jaw flexed.

“I don’t care.” The agent snapped. “Open the bag.” The agent pushed up the sleeves of his windbreaker jacket with Homeland Security printed across the back. 

Jamison unsnapped the latch on top of the medical bag opening it wide. The agent unsnapped a selfie-stick using it to riffle through the contents. 

“You may leave.” He loudly retracted the selfie-stick and nodded toward the door.

“You are far too insecure and immature for this job.”  He gave a glance at Fender and headed out the door. 

The junior agent rolled his eyes, walked to a team member and whispered so Fender and Meechum couldn’t hear. 

“I wonder if they are talking about us?” Meechum opened a bottle of water, chugged it, and crackled the plastic in his hands. The noise made nearly every agent in the room jump. 

“You can bet on it. Did you notice this team is working awfully hard to put on a grand show. I’d say they are trying to cover the fact they are searching for something.” Fender watched the agents rummage through drawers, toss couch cushions, look behind artwork, they even checked the hem of the curtains in the window. Something or someone had set them on a hunt.  

“Yes, they are.” Meechum stood beside him watching. “Information on the girls? Or the bullet that went through the general?”

”Agent Snyder, we’ve found two autos in the garage.” A young agent snapped off his gloves.

“Man, I forgot about the cars.” Meechum let out a long sigh.

“Let’s see what we have.” Snyder followed the agent down the stairs and into the basement garage. Meechum and Fender edged toward the door, listening. Snyder burst out in laughter. “Seriously? A pink Jeep Wrangler and a Midnight blue BMW? This is like a bad episode of Barbie Does the Beach.” He snorted. “Impound them. I don’t want these broads sneaking back in for them.” 

“Oh, they are going to be ticked.” Fender smiled as they eased back to the bar. “When did Emme get a Jeep?”

“Right after the last dead body fell on the bed of her pickup.” Meecham shook his head. “She said she couldn’t bear to drive it ever again. So,” he glanced over at Fender, “pink Jeep.” Fender laughed. The woman did have a thing for the color pink.

“Help the team upstairs.” Snyder ordered the agent as they walked up the stairs. “Two women sharing a beach house and a dead general on the floor. There is a lot more to this story.” 

“Boy, I’m glad Zack locked up.” Fender folded his arms across his chest watching. 

“Yup, that safe room could land all of us in a lot of trouble.” Meechum watched the agents swarming like ants over the house. 

“You took care of any personal items upstairs, right?” Fender asked. They’d cleared the house in a hurry. He probably should have waited, but he’d expected a team from his group, not this cluster of a mess.

“I did. You secured the downstairs?” Meechum’s voice was just above a whisper. 

Agent Snyder kept glancing over at them between barking orders at his agents. The man was sickly slender, with dusty blonde hair, cut military short, and a face that reminded Meechum of an ad for Calvin Kline underwear, all hard angles.

“My duck squad is protecting the assets.” Fender smiled. “Including that incriminating t-shirt.”

“Never underestimate the power of a bas-ass Mallard, huh?” Meechum laughed.

Fender loved to carve wooden ducks, he said it was his stress reliever. The wall of his small cottage next door was lined with shelves of aquatic birds that he’d carved, some award winners. Behind that innocent looking duck covered wall was an arsenal to make any Army man proud.

There wasn’t a federal agent alive who could breech the barriers Fender had set up to keep them out. Any of Emme and Jackie’s personal items, what few there were, papers, driver’s licenses, and assorted guns were secured behind that wall. 

The team had only found the usual items of two young women sharing a house. That fact was greatly frustrating Agent Snyder. He stomped across the living room to Meechum and Fender.

“So, why were you two here? A Special Agent for the FBI and a beach bum just happened to be standing on the beach when a shot rang out?” His eyes were very penetrating for a man who looked like he hadn’t eaten in a week. 

“That about covers it.” Fender chimed in before Meechum could offer some official explanation. 

“Right. Do I look that stupid to you?” Snyder was inches from Fender’s face.

“You want to take that one?” Fender smiled, not stepping back.

“Nah, too easy.” Meechum took a step next to Fender, and Snyder took two steps back.

“I’ll find out the reason you two are here, and why those two women were with General Blake.” Snyder snapped his fingers, his eyes going wide. “Hookers, that’s it, they’re hookers. “

Meechum shook his head. Fender snorted. This guy was a piece of work.

“That’s it, I’m finished with you.” Snyder pointed at them. “Get out, but don’t leave town.” He leaned toward them. “I will have a team on your tail, and I will find out where these two women are, and what they were doing with a general in their living room.”

“How old do you think Agent Snyder is, twenty-five?” Meechum asked as Fender headed out the door.

“My guess, it’s his first time in charge and he is determined to make points.” Fender nodded toward his cottage. 

“It’s going to be a big surprise when he ends up at the point of a gun. You know it always ends that way with Mayson and Dickson.” Meechum glanced back at Agent Snyder watching them out the window.

 

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