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No Going Back: Chapter One

No Going Back

Backed Into A Corner

Sean

The sun crested the horizon as Sean spotted a highway sign for Miami, Oklahoma. It made him smile, and think of his own Miami down in Florida. A place he hadn’t been in far too long. Maybe that should be his next destination

His last construction job was in the rear view mirror and he hadn’t signed on for anything new yet. The restlessness that gnawed at him had settled into his soul again. Since leaving the Army behind, he’d drifted, unable to find his place.

Sean took the next exit north, leading to the famous Route 66. He’d never traveled it, and it was as good a destination as any. Maybe he’d feel a connection to something.

The stars he loved faded as the sun rose, and he finally turned onto the historic highway. He’d grown up in a crowded downtown big-city neighborhood. He’d spent his years with Uncle Sam travelling from deserts to mountains to tiny villages. This route was something different altogether. Farmland everywhere he looked. His buddy Oz would love it.

He should have been turning into one of the motels he passed, but the road pulled him on. He’d been driving since he’d finished his job the day before, but stopping meant making a decision, and he wasn’t up for that yet.

Stopping for gas wasn’t an option he could avoid, so he pulled his truck into a station alongside the highway. It looked like no one had made any improvements on the building or the pumps in the last half-century. Which meant it matched his truck perfectly well.

He wasn’t sure the place was open, but he pulled alongside the pumps and hopped out. The pumps were unlocked, so he opened his tank and started to fill up. Better to give his money to small businesses than the major chains.

Although it was getting close to time to upgrade his truck to something better for the environment. Which made Sean think of Troy and Marcus. The two of them had settled in an eco-friendly small Vermont town with the ridiculous name of Phail. Named after Epic’s family, of course.

As he was filling the truck, his phone rang with a call. Not a text. A call. Which meant he’d conjured up his buddy by thinking of him. He checked the readout. Sure enough. “Hey, Epic.”

“Hey, Falcon. How was your Christmas? Did you have a good vacation?”

Huh. He’d forgotten about Christmas. “It was good.”

When he didn’t add anything, Troy laughed. “All that incredible detail makes it sound awesome. Do you even know when Christmas was? Or what the date is today? Or if the New Year passed?”

“Nope. I’m between jobs. Don’t need to know any of that shit.”

Troy laughed again. “You need a home, man. You need a place and a reason to remember all that shit.”

“One day. Today is not that day.”

He could almost hear the eye roll across the phone line. “Well, aside from helping you remember you’re part of the human race, I’ve got a reason to call.”

Sean knew what it would be. Troy’s reason for calling was always the same. Come to Vermont. Maybe it was time to think about it.

Another chuckle came through the line. “Actually, two reasons. The first is I’ve found someone I’m going to spend my life with.”

Whoa. Sean hadn’t expected that. “Congratulations. I hope she plans to keep her own name.”

Troy’s laugh was contagious, and Sean chuckled along.

“Her name’s Piper Keenan, and we haven’t talked surnames at this point. But I’d like you here for the wedding. Actually, I’d like you here before the wedding. I need your help getting things ready for it.”

Epic never asked for help. He was always the one looking out for others. “What do you need?”

“Your expertise and a lot of elbow grease.”

“On what?”

“It’s a show, not tell situation.”

Sean shook his head. “That’s not the way to entice me to travel across the country.”

Troy laughed again. “Yes, it is. Let me know when you’ll be here.”

And the jerk hung up. Leaving Sean hanging. Which was as annoying as it was effective.

Damn it.

Sean shoved the phone in his pocket and went inside the dilapidated building to pay for his gas. The man behind the counter had to be as old as the country. The crinkly face broke into a grin. “Hey, young fellow. What can I do for you?”

Hadn’t he seen him filling up the truck? Sean glanced around the store to see what he could grab. He wasn’t buying any food with a layer of dust on it, but he grabbed some oil and a jug of antifreeze.

When he put them on the counter, the man nodded. “Muffins are fresh. My granddaughter made them up this morning. You need a wife? She’s a great baker. Cook, too.”

Sean grinned. “No to the wife, but I’ll take a couple of muffins and the gas along with these.”

The man cackled and totaled the price on a notepad. Sean rounded it up and dropped cash on the counter. If the man was totaling with a pencil, he likely didn’t pay the monthly fee for a credit or debit machine, so he didn’t bother to ask.

The blueberry muffins smelled delicious, and he tossed the bag onto the seat after he’d stowed the antifreeze and oil in the tool box attached to the truck bed.

He had time to decide on direction before he reached the next highway. North to Vermont and his Army brothers? Or continue east? South? Back home to Miami and all its memories?

A sign pronounced that Bad Choices Road was a mile ahead. He’d have to mention it to Troy to see if he wanted to add a similar one to his town.

Grinning to himself, Sean took the road out of nothing more than curiosity and a desire to put off making a decision about direction for a few more miles.

For twenty minutes, there was nothing but empty land. Then a few farms popped up. Peanuts maybe. Of his Army buddies, Levi was the farmer. He’d know for sure.

Sean wondered what his friend was doing these days. Last he’d heard from Troy, Levi was picking up short contract work, similar to Sean himself. Apparently, his buddy wasn’t over their last mission in the Army either. While Sean was taking construction contracts, Oz was working farms.

Just thinking about his buddy’s call sign made Sean smile. Levi wasn’t fond of his Oz nickname. But that’s what you got when you were a farmer from Kansas and everyone had seen the Wizard Of Oz movie.

The couple of houses he passed were abandoned. Smaller homes that had likely been passed over for something more modern. Like everything else, farms were more automated, and he imagined the people who’d lived in these homes had moved out, whether by force or by choice, he couldn’t say.

He was past the next abandoned house when he slammed on the brakes. There was no one else on the road, so he backed up to make sure he hadn’t been imagining things.

Nope.

Sean swung the truck into the driveway and pulled up in front of the porch. An enormous dog, highland cow, or Yeti, stood on the porch howling. A thick chain attached him to the porch railing, and the behemoth was yanking at it for all he was worth.

The house looked long-abandoned, and Sean’s blood heated. Who the hell would chain a dog to an empty property? There had to be a special level of hell for people like that.

The dog sat on its haunches and howled as Sean exited the truck. “Hey, buddy. It’s okay. We’re going to get you unchained.”

Closer up, the beast looked feral. Dirty and matted. His eyes were barely visible behind the mop, and he looked like he was all filthy fur and had no meat on his enormous bones.

Sean thought about calling out to see if anyone was in the building, but he decided to deal with the dog first. Anyone who owned this dog didn’t deserve his respect. He went back to the toolbox and dug through his tools until he found bolt cutters. He also grabbed a water bottle from his cooler and a mug.

“Okay, bud, we’re going to get you out of here. First, we’ll get you a drink. Are you thirsty?”

The dog looked from Sean to the water and whimpered. Sean poured water into the mug and held it to the dog’s mouth. “Can you lap that up? I don’t have a water bowl.”

It didn’t take any time for the beast to slurp back all the water, barely wasting a drop. While he was drinking, Sean ran his hand over him. Definitely male, underfed, and abandoned.

Fury ripped through him. “I’m totally pissed, my friend, but not at you. I’m going to cut the chain further away from your body first. Don’t be scared of the noise. I’m going to help you, so no eating me. I’m a tough old bastard and wouldn’t make a good meal. But we’ll get you something soon.”

Sean used the cutters to snap the chain. Instead of being afraid, the dog tried to get his gigantic nose in the way to watch the proceedings. In the end, Sean had to sit on the porch with the dog under his arm while cutting through the metal.

He kept talking, getting the animal used to his voice. He’d worked with another Army buddy, Garrett, aka Scooby, long enough to know some tricks around animals. Not that this one needed a lot of tricks. He was a friendly giant.

“What’s your name, boy? We’re going to need to call you something. Shaggy would work, but that was Garrett’s dog’s name.” The memory made Sean smile sadly. Shaggy had been the best dog he’d ever met. She’d been a hero that day, but none of them were likely to get over that loss completely. Especially Scooby.

He drew his attention back to the mutt. “Sasquatch? Tiny? Marmaduke? Tank? Jabba?”

At the final name, the dog barked and licked Sean’s face. “Jabba? That’s the one you want?”

Jabba licked his face again, and Sean nodded. “Okay, Jabba. Glad you’re a Star Wars fan. You’re free, but I can’t get the chain off your neck without risking hurting you. Let’s find a vet and see if they can help us.”

Jabba followed him to the truck and jumped right into the passenger seat. “I think you had a family at one time, Jabba. Maybe someone’s looking for you.”

By the time Sean reached his seat, the dog was face deep in the bag containing the muffins. Laughing, Sean reached in to pull off the papers before the mutt ate those, too.

His phone showed the nearest vet with emergency hours was thirty minutes away. “Hold on, Jabba. And don’t eat the seats.”

Branna

Branna O’Dea wondered if the grief would swallow her whole and reduce her to nothing but dust. Her dad was dead. Run over by a car. Murdered.

The police officer she’d spoken to had blown her off, but she knew her dad had been deliberately killed. She had a recording to prove the threat, but Detective Lewis had dismissed it as nothing more than a misunderstanding. And then he’d dismissed her.

She squeezed her phone and forced herself to think. She had arrangements to make. People to call. And she was the only one who could do it because she was alone.

How was she supposed to call Sean and tell him her dad was dead? That the two of them were the only ones remaining of their respective families? They’d grown up together. He and Charlie had been best friends, but Branna’s brother was gone, too.

After she called Sean, she had to call the funeral home and make arrangements, but that was too final. Too real. She needed a bucketful of courage to make those calls and her bucket had run dry.

With a deep breath, she let her gaze roam the snug and remember the good times their families had enjoyed here. According to her dad, every good Irish pub needed a snug, even if that Irish pub was in Florida.

The small room was a private booth directly behind the bar. The tradition dated back centuries when it hadn’t been acceptable for women to drink in public. Of course, that hadn’t stopped the Irishwomen.

Snugs had become very popular, with their entrances out of sight of the main bar. Every snug boasted a pass-through where the barkeep could pass the drinks without the room at large seeing the people within. Like this snug, many also had a hidden closet, where the patron could hide from even the bartender’s view. Apparently, this had been popular with people having secret meetings and liaisons.

Seamus O’Dea had insisted his pub with its snug was the most authentic in the country. Or at least the neighborhood. Her dad had also declared that every neighborhood was in need of a good pub. He hadn’t been wrong. Until the gangs had taken an interest in this tiny neighborhood, business had been good.

Now, he was gone. Murdered. And she was going to prove it. But first, she needed to call Sean. She hadn’t seen him since Charlie’s funeral. He’d been granted leave from the Army to bring Charlie’s remains home and stay for the funeral.

Miami held hard memories for him, and he hadn’t been back. She missed him. Probably more than she should, but Sean Falcone had always stirred big emotions in her.

He’s too old for you, Branna. Charlie’s voice echoed in her head and she swiped away more tears. Enough crying. Time to suck it up and call her friend.

Outside in the pub, a loud crash caused Branna to jerk and drop her phone. She snatched it back up off the ground as another crash sounded.

A few cheers followed the crash. Harsh, male cheers. It had to be that jerk Prince Hawley, who acted like he was a real prince, and the neighborhood was his actual kingdom. In reality, the cocky thug suffered from delusions of grandeur.

“Branna O’Dea. It’s time for you to pay.”

Branna shuddered, and for a moment, considered heading out into the pub, and confronting the jerk who’d had her father killed. But Prince never traveled anywhere without his herd of thugs, and she wouldn’t stand a chance. Especially if he was high, his usual state.

“Come on out, Branna. I know you’re here. You can’t hide from me.”

Wanna bet? Branna slid off the bench that ran along the back of the snug and slipped into the hidden closet. She didn’t think anyone outside of her family and Sean knew about its existence. As soon as she closed the door behind her, she activated the camera on her phone. The video would be useless, but maybe this time Hawley would say something stupid and the police would believe her.

“Did you hear me? It’s time to pay. Your old man was too stupid to pay, and you saw what happened to him. Didn’t even manage to cross the street on his own.”

Laughter followed his pronouncement, and Branna had to close her eyes against the tears. Not only because she didn’t want them to find her but because she didn’t want to clog up the recording with her sobs.

Here was confirmation they’d killed her dad. They’d snuffed out the bright light that was Seamus O’Dea by deliberately running him over.

She’d suspected it, but now she had proof. Would the police think this was enough?

“We can work out a payment plan, Branna. I’m sure that sexy mouth of yours knows ways to make a man happy. You can work off some of your old man’s debts with me. And when I’m done, some of my guys will want a turn.”

Branna’s stomach roiled, and she slapped a hand over her mouth to keep in the terror. She slumped against the wall and slid to the floor, arms wrapped around her knees. The walls touched her on all sides of the tiny closet, but her legs wouldn’t hold her.

Prince’s voice rang out. “Search the place. Bring her to me. It’ll be easier on you if you come out on your own, Branna.”

No way in hell.

If they found her in the hidden closet, she’d fight with everything she had. Which wasn’t much. She was a pub owner, not a martial arts expert. The only weapon she had was her phone.

She debated turning off the recording to call 911 but decided against it. She should be safe if she remained quiet. The recording would be the proof she needed to get Hawley arrested.

Footsteps thumped up the stairs and around the bar. The door to the snug banged open, and she clamped her teeth together to keep the scream inside. “She’s not in here.” She didn’t know the voice.

“Where the hell is she? You told me she was here.” The rage in Prince’s voice had chills running over her skin.

She could hear male voices responding, but they weren’t shouting like Prince, so she couldn’t hear the words.

Then the voice escalated, and she couldn’t distinguish anything except grunts. Tables and chairs crashed, and Branna struggled to keep her breathing even.

After a few moments, a gunshot sounded, and she tried to shrink into herself. Who had been shot? If she was lucky, it was Prince, and his goons had turned on him.

Her hope was short-lived when he shouted. “Leave him where he lies. Now, burn it to the ground. Cover the exits so the bitch doesn’t escape. I want her alive and begging.”

Terror raced through her. Burn it? Burn O’Dea’s? Had he shot one of his friends? If a police officer had arrived to stop them, they’d be running, not planning arson. But, if he burned the bar, it would cover the murder.

He was going to burn the bar. With her in it. He was trying to smoke her out.

If she left her secret closet, she’d be at the mercy of Prince and his friends. Dying from smoke inhalation wouldn’t be as bad as what he probably planned to do to her. She’d heard the tales.

But she didn’t want to die, and she wasn’t going to.

A memory from childhood niggled in her brain, and she latched onto it. Was it possible? Could she still do it?

Maybe none of this was necessary. Maybe they were playing a game out there. Once the firefighters and police arrived, she’d be safe. But no sirens approached.

There were no more voices, so she took a risk and stopped the recording. She uploaded the file to the cloud as proof. If she lost her phone or they took it from her, the proof would still be there.

She’d have to turn off her phone before she left the building. Prince had more than a few techies in his gang. The hackers did loads of illegal stuff, and she bet they could track her phone.

Tears threatened, and Branna had to take a few moments to pull herself together. She couldn’t die crying in a closet. Her dad and Charlie would be so ashamed. Although her brother had been dead for years, she could hear him telling her to be brave. To take the risk.

And to trust his friend.

She knew Sean would come. No matter where she was or what she needed.

He hadn’t been able to stay long after Charlie’s funeral, but he’d made her memorize his phone number as well as put it in her phone. “Any time. Anything you need, Sally.”

The memory had her smiling and battling back the tears. She’d been the tagalong just like Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally. Charlie and Sally.

He’d always called her that when he was in a teasing mood.

She coded a text to the number she remembered, but didn’t send it. Not yet. Not until the last minute. Maybe she could find her own way out.

Instead, she turned the video back on, hoping to get pictures along with the sounds. The smell of smoke reached her, and she heard a few whoops and cheers. They’d done it. O’Dea’s Pub was on fire.

She worried they could have set a small fire in the pub to flush her from her hiding place, so she decided to stay where she was until she was sure.

But the smell got stronger, and the smoke got thicker. Whatever was on fire, it was big. She caught the odor of gasoline as well, and her heart sank. Her dad’s legacy was burning.

Branna slowly stood and eased her aching muscles. She gripped her phone and slid the door open. The wood might have creaked, but the noise of the fire was louder by far.

The snug was hazy but empty. She slipped out of the closet and to the snug’s door. Smoke was thick in the main room, but she didn’t see anyone. Still, she kept her phone recording.

With a deep breath, she crouched and moved behind the bar. She needed to get to the opposite end of the pub and up the stairs.

When she reached the end of the bar, she saw that every table had been piled with its chairs and then lit on fire. The curtains blazed, and ribbons of fire crossed the ceiling. Outside, she could hear people yelling but couldn’t hear individual words. If Prince told them not to, no one would dare to call for help.

Hoping the smoke was thick enough to cover her movements, Branna kept low and raced across the room and through the door leading upstairs. The stairwell was clear, and she ran up.

The door at the top had been broken down, and she could see her family’s dining table and chairs on fire in the closest room.

Her mom had picked out that set, loving the patterns carved into the wood. With a sob, Branna turned her phone to record the damage, then raced up the next set of stairs. Smoke poured from the bedroom doors, but she didn’t stop to see.

With tears pouring down her face, she raced up the final flight. The door to the roof was closed, and she took a moment to get her breath back.

She stopped the recording, then sent the file to the cloud. Heat had chased her up the stairs, and her fingers trembled as she pulled up the text she’d coded. With a tap, she sent it. As soon as it went through, she turned off the phone and shoved it in her pocket.

She closed her eyes briefly and cleared her thoughts of everything but the task ahead.

When she was as ready as she’d ever be, she shoved open the door and ran as fast as she could toward the edge of the roof.

She didn’t allow herself to think of the gap or the drop to the alley below. She poured every ounce of herself into the speed building in her arms and legs.

And when she reached the edge of the roof, she leaped.

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