Authors: Lorie O'clare
"You can leave a name and number and I'll give it to him when he comes in," Jake said.
"Is this Greg King?"
"No. Do you want to leave your number?"
"Who is this?"
Jake tried not to sigh too loudly. "This is Jake King."
"How are you related?"
The man didn't know much about KFA if he was asking that question. "I'm his son. What can I do for you?"
"Are you familiar with the game?"
Jake quit clicking the pen. He stared at Natasha's desk but didn't focus on the paperwork scattered across it. The game, which was a very loose title for one of the deadliest war games taking place on this planet, had been responsible for dragging them down to Mexico, where Jake's father had taken a bullet and wound up flat on his back in a hospital for a couple weeks. Eight months later a case took them to Phoenix, where they'd been held captive underground and first learned about the drug that apparently now was being labeled slave juice. Marc had met London while the Kings worked that case.
"Who is this?" Jake asked, feeling his chest tighten, and straightened while a knot formed in his gut. He would kill to bring down the players of the game once and for all. Twice his family had been pulled into the sick, warped world of the too rich and too demonic who believed they could make the planet their game board and whoever lived on it their players. It was a sick form of terror, manipulation, and greed. Worse yet, slave juice was being used to control the players' pieces, or abducted citizens, to make them commit the horrendous crimes needed to advance in the game.
"That's what I thought." The man on the other end of the line paused for only a moment. "I'm already aware of your past involvement with the game and know KFA has tried ending it twice now. That is why I need to hire Greg King. No one else will do."
"Who is this?" Jake demanded.
"I know about your involvement with Marty Byrd in Mexico and I know Greg King is responsible for his death."
Jake didn't see the pen in his hand anymore. Instead he remembered standing in the hot, dry desert for hours and staring at a mansion that had been built out in the middle of nowhere, waiting to learn if his father was alive or dead. They had stuck it out in that desert, parched and melting under a sun too hot to bear, and watched the FBI blow that mansion to smithereens, while Jake's father was in it.
KFA had been responsible for locating Marty Byrd when the FBI couldn't. Jake's father had suffered a gunshot wound and was damn lucky to make it out alive. Byrd wasn't so lucky, which prevented them from learning the truth about the game.
"What is it you want?" Jake asked. "And I didn't catch your name?"
"James Huxtable. I'm flying out to L.A. tomorrow and will discuss the details of the assignment your father will handle for me at that time. Name the location. I will meet you anywhere."
"I don't set up my father's appointments. Leave a number and he'll call you back. But Mr. Huxtable, I can tell you now we don't handle private investigation."
"I don't blame you. Chasing around cheating spouses gets old in a week." Huxtable's laugh had no humor in it. "Evelyn Van Cooper's slave juice has taken the game to a dangerous level, even deadlier than it was before. I can't put off my meeting any longer. I'll be in L.A. tomorrow at two
We'll discuss the details at that time."
"Leave your number," Jake repeated. He wouldn't admit his interest was piqued, but he couldn't plan his father's schedule. At this point, though, Jake would be willing to bet Greg would meet James Huxtable.
Jake wrote the number down and James Huxtable's name above it. He stared at it, unsure whether Huxtable was a good guy or criminal. It sounded like they would find out tomorrow.
* * *
"What did he say?" Jake joined his parents on the back porch later that evening, taking his time enjoying the beer he hadn't been able to enjoy earlier. It was after nine and already he felt like crashing. He was too young to be living like this.
"I just got off the phone with Marc." Greg King sat in one of the large wicker chairs surrounding the table on their screened-in back porch. The sound and smells of the ocean drifted toward them, adding to the peaceful setting.
"I thought you were talking to James Huxtable." Jake took the chair next to his mother. In the King family, furniture was large, since none of the men stood under six feet. Haley King, however, was a lot shorter and looked dwarfed in the large high-back chair.
"I did talk to him, but when I hung up I called Marc." Greg nursed his beer, taking a long drink, then staring at the bottle for a moment before lifting his dark gaze to his son. "James Huxtable approached London in Colorado when she first started seeing Marc."
Jake didn't know London very well other than that his brother was in love with her. He felt a wave of protective energy surge through him, though, as he stared at his father. "Why did he do that?"
"According to Huxtable, he was searching for evidence of who was part of the game."
"He thought London was part of it?" Jake asked.
"No. He thought her parents were."
Jake remembered London's parents. They were criminals, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. After the ordeal in Phoenix, London's parents had bowed out of the scene quietly, leaving before Jake ever had a chance to talk to them. More than likely all of the law enforcement people who were present when they were released from their underground prison made them nervous.
"His story checked out. Marc confirmed James Huxtable came around the ski resort, asking London questions about her parents." Greg took a drink of his beer. "London said he made her nervous."
"Why does he want to see you?" Haley asked before Jake could.
"He's flying out here." Greg focused on his wife before shifting his attention to Jake. "He wants to meet in person to discuss the game."
"What does he know about it?" Jake had a weird feeling about this Huxtable guy. That he knew Jake's family had involvement with the game was unnerving enough. But to seek them out, ask to discuss it, didn't sit right with him.
Apparently his thoughts were easier to read than he realized.
"It doesn't sit right with me, either, and I don't know what he knows about the game," Jake's father said. "Yet."
"I'm going with you," Jake decided.
"I'm good with that. We'll figure out what this Huxtable guy is all about."
"So what do you think? Is Huxtable coming here because he wants to play the game, or bring it down?"
Greg King's hand tightened noticeably around his beer. "I don't know yet."
"Either way, if he's coming to talk about the game, it can't be good." Jake met his dad's gaze and knew he agreed. The game brought trouble and death, neither of which Jake had time for in his life.
* * *
Jake followed his father through the crowded restaurant. The popular steak and burger place was heavily air-conditioned and felt good with temperatures already hotter than they'd been the day before. Summer couldn't end fast enough for Jake. He was sick of it being so hot.
"I'd say that's him," Greg muttered over his shoulder.
When James Huxtable called after his flight arrived at LAX, he told them he'd meet them at the restaurant and be in the last booth by the windows. Jake wondered how long Huxtable had been sitting here, since he knew an hour ago where he'd be sitting.
The man at the last booth stood when they approached. "Greg King," he offered, extending his hand in greeting and smiling. The arrogant, determined son of a bitch seemed to have transformed into a relaxed, peaceful soul. He nodded to Jake after shaking Greg's hand. "You must be the son. Jake, right? I definitely see the family resemblance.
Greg slid into one side of the booth, making room for Jake when James sat again opposite them. "I haven't ordered yet." James looked past them, searching the restaurant, then holding his hand up and snapping his finger. "But I hear the food is incredible here."
"It is," Greg said, his tone serious as he watched a waitress approach. "We have a very busy schedule today," he continued.
James nodded knowingly. "Understand. Shall we do burgers all the way around? My treat, of course."
Jake let his dad take the lead and was surprised when Greg didn't argue over who would pick up the tab. Jake couldn't remember his father ever allowing anyone to treat. The King men always paid their own way. It was best never to be in debt to anyone.
Greg interrupted when James tried ordering for all of them, though: "I'll take my burger plain, well done."
Jake took his cue: "I'll have the same."
When the waitress left with their order, Greg straightened in the booth, clasping his hands on the table, and faced James Huxtable. "What's this all about?" Greg asked, the rough growl in his tone enough to intimidate most men.
James' smile faded. "How much would it take for you to clear your schedule and handle a case for me?"
Greg leaned back. Jake shifted, easing to the corner of the booth, where he leaned, fingering the corner of his paper napkin, which was wrapped around silverware, as he focused on James. The man's brow appeared damp, although his expression was determined.
"I can't think of any case I would clear my schedule for," Greg said without hesitating.
James leaned forward. "What if it were to bring down the game?" he whispered.
"Is this what you've been working on, ending the game?" Greg didn't whisper, but his soft growl didn't carry to the next table. Jake would have a hard time hearing if he weren't paying attention.
"For over a year." James leaned back when the waitress returned with drinks. "My daughter and I run a private investigation firm based out of Chicago," he continued when the waitress had left. He reached inside his tweed jacket, complete with patches on the elbows, which made him look like some kind of absentminded professor. "This is my card."
Greg took the card, glanced at it, and handed it to Jake. The card didn't say much. There was no address, no contact number, nothing more than what James had already told them about himself.
"Since I've instigated this meeting and the two of you need to be sold on my credibility, I'll start with the exchange of knowledge." James looked serious, as if he sincerely believed that if he told them what he knew, Greg and Jake would then spew out what knowledge they possessed. Neither of them stopped him from continuing. "We were very aware of Marty Byrd being a game player. He was too loud about it. I'm sure you would agree. It was the beginning of the end for the acclaimed assassin. We followed him to Mexico, as did you and your family," James said, nodding at Greg. "We didn't guess he would abduct you to be a piece on his board. But then, possibly he wouldn't have if you hadn't gotten too close to learning the truth about his strategies. Don't you think?"
Jake thought James just had insulted his father. He straightened and was acutely aware of the two men ignoring him. Greg stared into James' eyes and the PI returned the hard stare.
"What else do you know about this inscrutable board game?" Greg asked instead of answering James' question.
"My daughter and I discovered the Van Coopers were players of this game shortly after she returned from Mexico."
"How did you find this out?" Jake asked. He was suddenly curious about this daughter James Huxtable kept mentioning. If he had a partner, why wasn't she here with him? If the answer was that James was protective of her, he certainly wouldn't have let her go down to Mexico and become involved in such a deadly investigation.
"You weren't the only one who didn't die when Byrd's hideaway was blown up down in Mexico. A handful of people were hospitalized after the explosion that killed Marty Byrd. My daughter is a master of disguises." When James smiled there was something different in his gaze than when he'd first began their conversation, something almost sad. He shifted his attention from Greg to Jake when he continued explaining. "Angela, that's my daughter, went into the hospital in L.A. where most of the men pulled out of that mansion were taken. She went undercover as a nurse. As I just said, she is the best when it comes to posing as someone she isn't, almost too good. I've never seen anyone like her and I've been in this line of work over half of my life. Angela got a lot of information out of the men recovering after Byrd was killed."
"And that is when the two of you learned about the Van Coopers." Greg didn't make it a question.
"Two of the men hospitalized worked for Marty Byrd, helping gather the people he'd use as his board pieces." James stopped talking and folded his hands in his lap when the waitress returned with their food.
Jake stared at his plate for a moment when it was slid in front of him. The waitress asked the usual questions, making sure they had everything they needed, before leaving them alone again. He didn't pay attention to anything she said. Nor did he have a large appetite for his food. His thoughts raced over what James Huxtable had told them so far. If his daughter had been in Mexico and also in the hospital while Jake's father had recovered there for two weeks, quite possibly Jake had run into her at least once. There had been a couple nurses tending to his father who stuck out in Jake's mind. Both had been rather hot. Had one of them not really been a nurse but James' daughter working undercover and just waiting for Jake's father to be alone so she could pump him for information? The thought made Jake's skin crawl.
"Where is Evelyn Van Cooper now?" Greg asked after taking a bite out of his burger.
"Damn good question." James also bit into his sandwich but put it down on his plate and used his napkin to wipe his lips. He fingered his silverware, straightening the knife and fork on either side of his plate with meticulous care. "We think she's out of the country, but she isn't our primary concern right now."
"Why is that?"
"She's not playing the game."
"You know this for a fact?"
"We're pretty sure her interests have turned elsewhere." James waved his hand in the air. "That isn't what matters right now." Something shifted in his expression. "My daughter is on the inside and needs a good partner. Your reputation precedes you, Mr. King."