It was supposed to be a simple assignment--follow a woman. As an operative with the elite team of Equalizers, Dakota Garrett had faced hell and lived. So why was he left with dead bodies, a kidnap victim and a damsel in distress?
Wannabe Colby agent Lucky Malone was in over her head. Only the dark stranger could save her and her kidnapped boss. But like Lucky, Dakota had demons that haunted him, a past that shadowed him. And this case forced him to face his biggest fear. Lucky would give anything to help the man she'd come to love, but her fate was in Dakota's hands. Could he play the role he'd always avoided--hero?
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May 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Damaged by Debra Webb
Thursday, June 2, 6:15 a.m.
Dakota Garrett waited in the darkness.
The garage smelled faintly of gasoline and oil. The mark evidently preferred servicing his vehicles at home. He didn't look the type in his meticulously pressed suits and little bow ties. How many high-level accountants could, much less would, change the oil in the family sedan? Only one terrified of trusting another with any aspect of the family vehicle's operation.
Darnell Raspberry manipulated and supervised every asset possessed by his boss, Devon Wallace--the single most powerful man in the Midwest. Wallace had built an empire of wealth and power during the latter half of his life. Too bad he'd started using innocent people as his stepping stones. One of those people had come to the Equalizers for help. Wallace operated above the law. And, thus far, no one had been able to stop him.
It wasn't Dakota's job to stop Wallace. He could care less about the man or his activities. At some point in the past half decade he'd stopped analyzing right from wrong. Dakota's singular goal was to accomplish his mission.
Get the job done.
What else was there?
Anger whispered through him, making his jaw clench. Dakota pushed it away. The past was the past. Dead and gone. Emphasis on the dead. He operated in the moment and only in the moment.
Justice could be served outside a courtroom. That was sufficient for Dakota's conscience.
The door leading from the kitchen of the Raspberry home to the dark garage opened. Dakota braced for action.
Darnell Raspberry stepped into the garage and carefully locked the door behind him. The three quiet tones that followed assured him that he'd properly set the home's elaborate security system.
The makers obviously hadn't counted on someone like Dakota Garrett needing to get past their so-called state-of-the-art system. For him, cutting off the link to the home's attached garage had been as effortless as taking his next breath. Raspberry had no clue that a cold, harsh reality waited for him just a few steps away.
Raspberry rounded the hood of his two-door hybrid, the one he used for traveling to and from work. Nothing pricey, not at all like the fine home attached to the double-car garage or the luxury sedan he'd purchased for his family. The garage's overhead light as well as the interior one in the vehicle stayed dark as Raspberry climbed into the driver's seat. The smart little accountant had thought of everything. He had a careful routine. Don't turn on the light. Start the engine and hit the remote. Barrel out of the garage and close the door.
His goal was simple: protect his nice little family.
Didn't matter that his boss ruined the lives of nice little families every day.
The hybrid's engine started. Dakota pushed away from the wall. Until the vehicle shifted out of Park, both doors would remain unlocked. Dakota had the passenger-side door open before the unsuspecting man had time to blink or to shift into Reverse.
Dakota pressed the muzzle of his weapon to Raspberry's pale temple. "Drive to the office as usual," he ordered, "and we won't have a problem."
Raspberry's eyes bulged with fear. The faint lighting from the dash allowed him a peek at Dakota from the corners of his eyes. "What do you want?"
Dakota breathed a chuckle. "To make an honest man out of you, Darnell."
"I..." Raspberry swallowed hard. "I don't understand."
"Just drive." Dakota applied a bit more pressure. "No."
The protest surprised Dakota. He hadn't figured the man for the gutsy type. "Fine. We'll just do this right here."
A gasp imprisoned the accountant's breath. "But...but my family."
"Still asleep in their beds." Dakota knew precisely where each member of the Raspberry family was at the moment. East and west ends of the second floor. The master suite was actually on the first, but the wife didn't like being so far away from the kiddies. She and the two kids didn't rise until seven.
"What do you want?" Raspberry asked again.
"To take care of business without having to bother with the nasty business of killing anyone."
"My family has nothing to do with my work," the accountant argued, his confidence seeming to build since Dakota hadn't put a bullet in his brain just yet. "They're completely innocent."
Impatience nudged Dakota. "True, but, as you well know, innocence matters little in the grand scheme of things. Now, let's go."
Raspberry's fingers tightened on the steering wheel. "What if I refuse?"
Well, well, more of that unexpected bravado. "Then I'll have to go in there and drum up a little motivation." Dakota grunted his regret. "I never did like to frighten small children." He leaned close to the man who was his mark. "But that doesn't mean I won't do my very best if necessary."
"All right. All right." Hand shaking, Raspberry tapped the garage door remote pinned to his sun visor and shifted the vehicle into Reverse.
"Very good, Darnell."
As soon as he'd backed into the drive, Raspberry hit the remote again, closing the garage door. Once in the street, he pointed the hybrid in the direction of the Wallace Building.
"You'll never get past security," Raspberry charged. "The Wallace Building has the best security available."
Dakota smiled. "I won't have to get past security. We'll enter the building from the parking garage, just like you do every morning. You arrive well before anyone else so it'll be just the two of us."
Raspberry shifted in his seat, fear and tension obviously making him uncomfortable. "What about the video surveillance? Security will see you in the garage."
Dakota lowered his weapon, but kept a bead on the rattled man. "Details, details. You don't need to concern yourself with those. All you have to do is exactly what I tell you."
The fact was Dakota had planned for that nuisance. Security would indeed capture him arriving in the parking garage with Raspberry. And when the two of them boarded the elevator, Dakota would scan an authorized entry badge. Security might not know the face or the name, but they wouldn't be able to deny the approved access. Questions would be asked later, but Dakota would be long gone by then.
"You'll never get away with this." Raspberry shook his head. "The police will have your description. Your face will be all over the news. You'll be a wanted man."
"Probably." Dakota wasn't the slightest bit worried. The face the security cameras would record was not one that could ever be connected to Dakota Garrett. His mother had never been a true mother to Dakota, but she had passed on to him an invaluable asset--the art of disguise.
A lifetime ago.
"Are you going to kill me?"
The bravado had vanished. If Raspberry's voice had been any smaller it would have been inaudible.
"Not unless I have to." No point lying to the man.
"What're you going to do?"
Dakota leaned in close to the driver again, making him shudder in fear. "I'm going to take back what your boss stole from his clients."
Raspberry seemed to chew on that for a moment. "One of Mr. Wallace's competitors sent you," he accused. "I should have known."
"Nope." Dakota relaxed into the seat. "I have no affiliations with any of his competitors."
"You're a thief." A nuance of anger shadowed the words.
"I've been called worse."
"Mr. Wallace will hunt you down and make you pay."
"He'll kill me." Raspberry's voice quaked.
"Possibly." Even the best resources were at times tossed away. Wallace wouldn't hesitate to find himself another accountant. Finding one as talented as Mr. Raspberry might take some time though. "That's why," Dakota offered, "when we're done I would rush home, pack up my little family and disappear."
Raspberry shot him a look. "How am I supposed to do that? You can't give me witness protection."
Dakota shrugged. "True. But that nest egg you've been building all these years should take care of you and your family quite nicely for the rest of your lives. You're a man of above-average intelligence, I'm certain you'll find the perfect place to become invisible."
Raspberry had no rebuttal for Dakota's suggestions.
Downtown Chicago came into view. They were close now. Dakota checked his wristwatch. Right on time.
"This is insane. You'll never get away with this."
"I guess we'll know soon enough." The subject had grown boring.
"If he doesn't have you exterminated like a bug," Raspberry warned, "you'll spend the rest of your life in prison."
Dakota had to laugh at that one. "I don't think your boss is going to call the police."
"He...he..." Raspberry's face turned as red as the succulent fruit his forefathers had no doubt grown, earning the surname. "He has friends in high places in law enforcement."
"An official investigation is the last thing your boss would want," Dakota countered. "I'm certain you're aware of the extent to which he goes in order to cover his illegal activities." Raspberry was a master at fixing the books. Wallace had experts all around him, shielding his every move. He wouldn't like this one little bit, but unless he could resolve it without involving the police, he would take it like a loss in the stock market. This was the risk one took when gambling with the highest stakes.
"Who are you?" Raspberry braked at a light and dared to meet Dakota's eyes.
Dakota could tell him that he was an Equalizer and that he was here to equalize the situation, but he wouldn't. "I'm the man who's giving you a chance to do the right thing, Darnell."
"It's probably the last thing I'll do," he mumbled.
Possibly. That, too, was the chance a man took when he chose the dark side.
Dakota knew this from experience.
Problem was, once a man crossed that line, finding his way back was not a straight or an easy path. The line was blurred, the way obscured.
And nothing ever looked the same through the haze that lingered after that waltz on the dark side.
Not even in the bright light of day.
Colby Agency 6:45 a.m.
Lucky Malone stopped on the sidewalk and peered up at the gleaming building before her. Her pulse scrambled with the pounding in her chest.
She really worked here.
A smile spread across her lips.
The Colby Agency.
Her life was perfect now.
"You'll get over that soon enough."
Lucky turned to the man who'd spoken. Lucas Camp. The Lucas Camp. She recaptured the breath that had rushed from her lungs at the sound of his voice and her lips stretched back into that big smile without any prompting. "Good morning, Mr. Camp." Good grief, she must look like a total idiot standing out here staring up at the building this way.
His wise gray eyes glittered with mirth but his lips never even twitched. "Good morning, Ms. Malone."