Flash Bang [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Melanie Atkins
eBook Category: Romance/Suspense/Thriller EPIC eBook Award Finalist
eBook Description: When Allie Robbins broke his heart, Noah Sterling couldn't leave Magnolia Springs fast enough. He joined the military, then the FBI. Ten years later, a domestic terrorism case forces him to return, only to discover that Allie is now a widowed mother with one young son--and that she's suspected of aiding the group responsible for setting area churches ablaze. Allie can't believe her eyes. Noah is back in Magnolia Springs, and he's asking questions. She's not worried about the investigation, because she's innocent. But she's willing to do anything to keep him from asking the one question that could destroy her life--a question about her son. Then the boy is kidnapped, and she must reveal the truth in order to save him by turning to the one man she can trust--and the only one who can take her son away. Noah. His father.
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, Published: 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2011
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The phone's sudden peal echoed through the night. Allie Robbins bolted up in bed. The room was dark. So dark, she could see nothing but the bedside clock's brilliant blue numbers. Two-thirty-two in the morning. Another ring made her mouth go dry. Who could be calling at this hour? No one except her landlord knew she and Caden had moved into this aging, double-wide trailer in central Mississippi.
A third loud ring sent a shiver skittering up her spine. She snatched up the cordless phone.
"H-hello?" The word stuck in her throat like a wad of cotton.
"Hello?" She tried to swallow past the lump. "Is someone there?"
"Just me." The gravelly voice chewed at her nerves. "I have a surprise for you."
Oh, God! Tears stung her eyes. It's him.
"H-how did you--"
"Doesn't matter. Folks are gonna pay 'cause you won't cooperate."
"I've told you before--I don't know where that flash drive is."
"And I've told you, your scared little girl act isn't working. You were his wife."
"He didn't share anything about the organization with me."
"Bullshit. We want the files on that drive, and we want 'em now," he growled. "I know you got our other message. Next time, we'll do a helluva lot more than just overturn a few lamps."
"Are you kidding me? You ransacked our trailer."
"Had to show what we can do."
"You didn't find the flash drive, did you?" Cold fury entwined itself with the terror stinging her chest. She sat up and gripped the sheet. "Do you know why? Because I don't have it!"
"Same song, second verse. Find the flash drive and put it in a bubble mailer in your mailbox. You have until Tuesday afternoon."
"Wait--" Allie's heart skipped a beat. "That's not enough time. Marshall never told me--"
The line went dead.
Fear squeezed the breath from Allie's lungs. This was the second time she and Caden had moved since Marshall had been murdered, and each time the stalker had found them.
"Mama?" Caden's quivering tone broke the terrifying silence.
She jerked her startled gaze to the door.
Her ten-year-old son stood in the hallway, his eyes wide with uncertainty. "Is everything okay?"
She gulped back her fear and dropped the phone into its cradle. She had to stay calm, for Caden. Even though her heart was pounding like a jackhammer. She reached up and turned on the lamp.
He padded across the rug. "Who was on the phone?"
"Nobody. It was a wrong number."
"You're lying." He drew his brows together. "I heard you. It was about the files again, wasn't it? The stalker's found us."
"Don't make up any more stories. I'm not a baby. You have to tell me the truth."
"I know you're not a baby." She wanted to give him a hug but instinctively held back. He'd grown up so much since Marshall died. He wasn't a little boy any more. She sat up against the headboard and patted the mattress. "I'm sorry, honey. Come here and let's talk."
He chewed his lower lip, and she watched the child inside of him war with his new tough guy persona. Finally, he gave in and sank onto the bed beside her.
She put her hand on his shoulder. "I shouldn't have lied to you," she said. "I apologize."
"It's all right." He met her worried gaze, and she couldn't help but notice how much his sky blue eyes resembled another intense pair of eyes. His father's eyes.
A lump rose in her throat. "I'll be honest with you from now on. I promise."
"All I had to do was look at you, and I could tell it was him."
"That was very perceptive of you." Allie dropped her hand.
He stared at the floor.
She took a deep breath. No time like the present to start telling the truth. "Caden, about the break-in on Monday--"
"That was him, too, wasn't it?" Her son's eyes widened. "He's gonna kill us, just like he killed Dad."
"No, he's not." She had no choice but to reassure him. She'd gone from wealthy corporate wife to struggling single mom in one deafening blast of gunfire, and Caden had lost the only father he'd ever known. "I'm going to find those files. Somehow."
"We've searched everywhere. We don't know any other places to look." He vaulted off the bed. "I hate Magnolia Springs."
Allie flinched at the contempt in his tone. "I've told you why we moved here."
"I know. Dad spent all our money." Caden shot her a fiery look. "Still, Mom, come on. We could have moved somewhere else."
"Magnolia Springs is my home."
"Maybe so." He glared at her. "But I had to leave my friends."
"I'm sorry. It couldn't be helped."
She wrapped her arms around him and, to her surprise, he didn't protest. He simply hugged her back. Her heart swelled with love...and fear. She tightened her hold on him. For all his new-found maturity, he was still a little boy. Her little boy. She kissed the top of his head.
"I'm thinking we should maybe get a dog."
"A dog? Really?" Caden pushed away from her, and his eyes lit up. "Can I name him?"
"Sure." She smiled. "We'll go to the animal shelter after school one day soon."
"Aw, Mom. Can't we go today?"
"It's Sunday." She tousled his hair. "The shelter's not open."
"Oh, yeah." His face fell.
She smiled. "Meanwhile, I'll do everything I can to keep you safe. I promise."
"Okay," he said, looking serious and very grown up. "I'll keep you safe, too."
"Thank you." She touched his cheek. "You're my hero, you know?"
"Yeah, right." He turned away and tried to hide his wry grin. Then he abruptly sobered. "You think he's gonna call back?"
"Not tonight," she said, trying to convince herself as well as her son. The caller hadn't threatened bodily harm. But if she didn't find those files...
Caden nodded. "Okay. I'm going back to bed. Wake me if anything else happens."
"I will, honey," she said, hoping she wouldn't have to keep that promise.
He turned away, and her eyes misted. Thanks to Marshall's involvement with that damned paramilitary group, her son was in danger. Her heart ached at the thought.
A loud boom echoed from somewhere in the distance. She caught her breath.
Folks are gonna pay because you won't cooperate.
The stalker's words rang like warning bells inside her head. She hurried to the window and peered past the tall pines standing like silent sentinels along the fence. A strange orange glow lit the sky beyond them.
Oh, God. A cold chill iced her skin. He'd followed through on his promise. The idea that the group might have hurt someone else to prove their point disturbed her on a visceral level, yet it also galvanized her defenses. No way would she let them hurt Caden. Ever.
He was her world.
Rayford's black heart filled with glee as he watched swirling gray smoke and ash float up into the star-flecked night sky. He loved fire. Loved watching it lick at brick and wood, turning mundane structures into flaming works of art. Loved the way it suffocated the unsuspecting and dashed the hopes of folks trying to save their precious belongings. Fire, fierce and powerful, provided the ultimate cleansing, ridding the earth of unnecessary scum and buildings that had outlived their usefulness.
That's why he called himself The Dragon inside his own head, after the vigilant, mythical creatures able to ignite a fire with a single breath. The higher-ups in the organization thought he liked fire a damned sight too much though and believed he was a danger to their carefully laid plans. Their presence in Mississippi was increasing and the General Council feared he might jeopardize their campaign to cleanse the state of undesirables. He laughed.
If they only knew.
His father had always said that tolerance breeds weakness, and he was happy to do all he could to keep his race strong. He'd been carrying out his own purification campaign for years, before the organization ever came into the picture. Never once had he been caught or even suspected of starting a fire and certainly not one in which people died. He was an upstanding, church-going man. A good man, with a wife, two grown children, and a nephew who'd been a Marine. A virtual pillar in his community.
Ha ha. He had the community, his wife--hell, even his badge toting nephew--totally fooled. Not an easy task in anybody's book. Since the organization had entered the state, his quota of fires had increased, and so had the number of lies he'd told. He had to scramble to keep them all straight. At least now, he was getting paid for his hard work. And setting fires was hard work.
He got very little sleep, had to explain to his wife why he often slipped out of bed in the middle of the night, and still had to show up on time for his day job without letting on that he'd been up all night watching churches burn. Then there was the incessant odor of smoke and sweat that clung to his buzz cut and leached from his pores. He bathed so often now, his water bill had tripled.
Still, so far, so good. Evelyn hadn't questioned it.
He focused on the inferno before him and smiled grimly.
The flames engulfing the tiny church had finally reached its pristine steeple. A keen sense of justice washed over him as its bright, white paint bubbled up and melted away, leaving a fiery orange spire pointing straight to heaven.
His pulse thrummed with satisfaction. Soon the blaze would eat through the remainder of the roof and the tall steeple would collapse into the ruined sanctuary in a thrilling shower of sparks. That was his favorite part. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Too bad no one was inside the building. That would have made this night even more special.
A loud wail suddenly cut through the roar of the flames. Startled, he jerked himself from his worshipful trance and whirled to see a set of spinning blue bar lights zooming down the road leading to the church. The fucking cops.
His heart rate increased. He had to get moving before they and the volunteer fire department arrived. The Council would leave him to rot if he got his ass thrown in jail.
He stared at the flames for another satisfying moment and then bolted for the trees. He'd left his truck inside a friend's detached garage about a half mile away, so there would be nothing here tying him to the scene. No tire tracks, no refuse, no footprints. He'd been careful to stay on the thick grass and not leave tracks in the dirt.
As he loped off through the darkness, a sense of accomplishment spread through him.
Another church gone for the cause.
FBI Special Agent Noah Sterling's gut churned as he stood in the shadows fifty yards away from the burning country church. His counter terrorism unit, along with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, had been in the area for over three days and still the sons of bitches had torched another one. The paramilitary organization had absolutely no regard for people or religion.
"Sick bastards," he muttered.
The heat radiating from the fire seared his skin. He edged back a few steps, and his fellow agent and mentor, Lamar Benton, turned to meet his furious gaze.
"At least nobody was inside this time."
"Do we know that for sure?"
"Yeah. That's Reverend Hall." Lamar nodded toward a tall, mahogany-skinned man standing behind the first fire truck. "He swears the place was empty when he locked up tonight after choir practice."
"Hope he's right," Noah said.
He'd grown up in Magnolia Springs, back when the place was so remote he had to drive thirty minutes to see a movie, which was one reason he'd signed on with the Marines after high school. Now the town bustled with new growth and with it came the element they'd come to Mississippi to fight.
Lamar scowled. "It's gotta be them. Has their signature all over it. A bottle of gasoline mixed with soap flakes, tossed in a window, and boom! Instant napalm."
"They have to know we're here, and they don't care."
"Patriotic Alliance for a Free America, my hind leg. They're terrorists, pure and simple. They killed Jobe, and they almost killed you, too." Lamar sent him a sidelong glance. "How's the hip, by the way?"
"Better. I'm fine," Noah said.
Physically, anyway. The shrink had released him, but he still had flashbacks from the explosion that had buried shrapnel in his hip and slaughtered his former partner. He sometimes broke out in a cold sweat and had nightmares at least a couple of times a month. Hell, his nerves seemed to stay on edge no matter what he did. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He shook his head. What a bitch.
His cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket. "Sterling."
"Noah, this is Jack Claiborne."
Noah eyed the red-orange flames finally dying down, thanks to the water blasting from the fire hoses. He'd been expecting this call from Claiborne, the Supervisory Special Agent from the Jackson field office, their current base of operations.
"We have information that PAFA has set up a training camp somewhere in north central Mississippi, meaning they're here for the long haul. We're doing our best to root out the location."
"Make it fast, will you?" Noah massaged the back of his neck. "ATF says this one has PAFA written all over it, like the church that went up outside Silver City last month, killing those two sisters."
"We have to stop those cruel bastards before anybody else dies."
"We'll get 'em. It's what they pay us for." Noah dropped his hand. "You have my word, sir. Just get us the logistics and any other information you can get your hands on."
"You've got it. I trust you to do your job." The SSA paused. "Although we might want something else from you."
"What's that?" Noah frowned and turned away from the fire, hoping to hear better without the roar of the flames in his ears.
Claiborne coughed. "You're from the area. And you knew Marshall Robbins, right?"
"Come on, Sterling. I've done my homework," the SSA said matter-of-factly. "You dated Robbins' wife before they were hitched."
Allie. Noah's heat skipped a beat. He hadn't laid eyes on her since the summer after high school graduation. Back then, she'd been Allie North. Beautiful and shapely, with gleaming blonde hair and bright green eyes. The proverbial girl next door. His chest tightened.
"Yeah, she and I went out in high school." His throat burned from the smoke. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. "What about her?"
"We think she's involved."
"With PAFA?" Disbelief flooded Noah.
Hell, no. Not the Allie I know.
He'd heard she'd moved back to Magnolia Springs, but he'd figured she simply wanted to return to her roots.
"I don't see how--"
"Call it guilt by association, if you will. She's been living on PAFA money for the past ten years, thanks to that jerk she married. He controlled the group's purse strings."
"That doesn't mean she had anything to do with the organization."
"Maybe not, but we have to consider her a suspect." Claiborne coughed again. "The area's seen other church burnings in the past, but nothing on this scale until she moved back to Magnolia Springs two weeks ago."
"She didn't set these buildings on fire." Noah's eyes watered from the roiling smoke. Allie and arson? The idea made his stomach churn. "She's not like that."
"You knew her a long time ago, Noah. A lot can happen in ten years. Living with Marshall, hearing his hate-filled harangues--I heard he nearly lost his job at the bank because of his rants."
"She has a kid. No mother would put her child's life in danger just to further some hate group's sordid agenda."
"That remains to be seen. We've had her under surveillance," Claiborne said. "But we need more. You two used to be friends. I want you to go see her, feel her out. Let me know what you think."
The thought of seeing Allie again, under any circumstances, jarred Noah from head to toe. The last night they'd been together, she'd finally given in to him. Hours later, her parents had died in a violent explosion. Allie retreated into a shell. Unable to reach her, Noah had eventually given up and enlisted. Life had to go on. Yet the guilt of leaving her had dogged him ever since.
"Sterling? If you're not ready to do your job," Claiborne said, "I'll let Psych know, and you can haul your happy ass back to Texas."
"No, sir," Noah snapped. He'd do whatever it took to avenge Jobe's death and take down PAFA. "I'm ready. It's just...like you said, it's been ten years. People change. Allie might not want to see me."
"I don't give a damn if she does or not. Make it happen. We need whatever intel you can gather."
Noah agreed to follow the SSA's orders and ended the call. He'd known coming here would dredge up old memories, but he certainly hadn't counted on coming face to face with Allie. Tomorrow, he told himself as he stared into the dying fire. Tomorrow, he'd go to her house and pay her a visit.
Because he had a job to do. He couldn't let her or anyone else get in his way.
Lamar tapped him on the shoulder. "I'm heading back to the hotel. There's nothing more we can do here tonight, unless that was Claiborne giving us another assignment."
"He had another directive for me, but not for tonight." Noah needed some breathing room.
Lamar nodded. "Okay, I'm done. ATF says they'll get with us tomorrow on the origin of the fire."
"No problem. Twenty bucks says you're going to visit Etta before turning in for the night." Noah quirked his mouth and shot his old friend a knowing glance. They'd only been in town three days, and Lamar had already met a woman. One with no ties to PAFA.
Lamar shook his head and angled for his car. "Not at this time of morning. Woman already thinks she owns me. If I go over there now, she'll think I can't get enough."
"You're a smooth operator." Noah fell into step beside him. "You've got a woman in every town."
"Don't I wish." Lamar's deep chuckle echoed softly beneath the trees.
Noah hitched up his jeans. "Yeah, plenty of women, good looks. Almost got your time in. When are you gonna settle down, old man? It's been a long time since Mary divorced you."
"Tell you what." Lamar's dark eyes gleamed. "I'll marry when you do. How 'bout that?"
"Guess you're safe, then," Noah said, reaching the SUV. "I like my life uncomplicated."
Too bad uncomplicated also means lonely.
"Sure you do." Lamar grinned. "That's why you have that hang-dog expression on your face all the time. You need to meet a good woman. Go out on the town, get laid."
"Sure I do. Go see Etta."
Noah punched his key fob and unlocked the vehicle. As usual, Lamar was right. He'd love having a woman to hold him on those long, lonely nights. Someone to stroke his ego and patch him up when the job got tough, like in Dallas when Jobe died and Noah took that shrapnel in his hip and thigh.
But I might as well forget it. No woman in her right mind would want to put up with that or with me. I live for the job.
He massaged his sore hip as Lamar rounded his beat-up Bureau car. "I'm heading back to the room for some shuteye. See you in a bit."
With a brisk nod, his partner climbed into his vehicle and drove off toward town.
Good. Noah took a deep breath and got into his black Trailblazer. He didn't want Lamar behind him, because he planned to take a little detour on his way back to the Deep South Inn and Suites.
Within five minutes, he was on the road running past Allie's tired trailer, which she rented from his aunt and uncle, Ray and Evelyn Wiggs. He wanted to get a good look at the place. He killed the lights and slowed the SUV.
The trailer was dark.
He pictured Allie the way she'd looked when he had known her, her young, lithe body stretched out beneath him inside his truck. The way he'd always dreamed of her, on those many nights when he'd been weary but his body had still demanded release.
He'd had her just that one time, on that fateful July night, and right then he'd known it would never be enough. And it hadn't been. Sure, he'd been with other women over the years. A lot of women. But he had yet to meet anyone like Allie. Now he was about to come face to face with her again. Only this time she was a suspect in a federal investigation, and he couldn't let her know he was FBI.
Now if that wasn't the mother of all dilemmas...
Determined to not let that stop him, though, he tightened his fingers on the wheel and put his foot on the gas. He turned his head just as a dark figure darted from the side of the trailer and ran into the woods behind it.
Fear slammed into him. He stomped the brake and blinked, unsure of what he'd seen. He rubbed his stinging eyes.
Nothing moved. Not a tree, not a blade of grass. Even the warm summer air had gone still. He didn't care. He pulled off the road and exited the vehicle, careful to make sure the interior light didn't come on. His heart whump-thumped as he pulled his weapon from his shoulder holster and slipped across Allie's dark front lawn. Once he reached the corner of the trailer, he studied the backyard.
He jogged into the trees where he thought the man had gone and settled himself against the trunk of a large pine. The chirp of crickets and the steady croak of bullfrogs from a nearby creek tripped across his nerves. Even the faint trickle of water met his ears. Yet he heard no human sounds. No one crashing through the underbrush trying to get away.
Maybe he'd only imagined the darting figure.
His head ached. He scanned the area for another five minutes then slowly edged back into the yard. Still nothing. He checked the rear of the trailer, the deck, and the storage building behind it. Nothing seemed out of place, although he noticed a faint dead animal smell whenever the wind blew. He circled the trailer and finally spotted a small dark blob sprawled on the front porch near the door.
His heart rose into his throat. He didn't want to wake Allie, but he had to know what it was. So he gingerly treaded up the steps, praying none of them would creak.
They didn't, but the dead animal smell grew stronger the closer he got to the door. Noah held his breath and sidled across the porch to the dark object. A dead raccoon.
Surely it hadn't just climbed up there and died. Someone had put it there.
The person he'd seen running into the woods.
Noah grimaced. He needed to dispose of the creature before Allie found it. If only he had a jar of the menthol salve he used to buffer odors at crime scenes. No time for wishes now. He pulled a pair of non-latex gloves from his pocket and made fast work of disposing of the smelly carcass, thanks to a shovel he found in the storage shed behind the trailer.
He eventually made his way back to the SUV knowing full well thoughts of Allie--and the strange figure he'd seen darting into the trees--would dog him when he tried to go to sleep.
Daylight couldn't come soon enough for him.