Chapter One

        “A friendly game of chess? There is no such thing!” Jack said, as he pulled his chair up to the table.
        Alex walked to the patio and sat down. He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Ready to get whipped?”
        “What happened to friendly?” Jack chuckled.
        “Okay, ready for a friendly whipping?” Alex quipped back.
        Alexander Hamilton Jones was brilliant, wealthy, young, and from one of the most well-known families in the world. He had grown up under the umbrella of privilege and discretion. Alex had never been without a bodyguard, the position Jack now held. Though Jack was ten years Alex’s senior, they got along like brothers. It was a bond that had grown over the years.
        Jack was first assigned to Alex when he entered college. Academics were important to Alex’s family, so going to college was never a question. Jack had the perfect qualifications for the job: intelligence, experience, and he didn’t exactly look as old as he really was. Jack was able to blend in well on a college campus.
        Alex graduated at the top of his class with honors, and he did it in only three years. He had it all, but you would never guess it by the way he handled himself.
        He liked to stay out of the public eye at all costs. He didn’t like the celebrity status he had been tagged with. He liked nothing better than just hanging out with the guys.
        Alex surrounded himself with agents who shared similar interests and were in good physical shape. Alex loved all kinds of sports, and his contingent of guards, of course, was expected to keep up with him. They spent plenty of time biking, kayaking, playing hoops, and jogging. You had to be in top shape to work this assignment. Alex liked having people around, so he always had single agents who lived with him.
        Jack’s lifestyle suited him fine. At times he even forgot it was a job.
        “Are you going to move, or are you already stuck?” Alex’s bantering brought Jack back to the present.
        “You know, patience is not one of your strong suits,” Jack replied.
        “No, I just know your M.O. You stall long enough to make me think I’ve missed an opportunity. Then, while I’m trying to figure out what I’ve missed, you move, distract me, and before I know it, I’m in checkmate.”
        “Well, at least you’ve learned something after all these years.”
        They enjoyed several more games while relaxing on the patio of their beachfront house. “Mansion” would be a better description of it. It had three levels, seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a media room, exercise room, and a great room. It even had a full-sized basketball court in the basement and a private rooftop swimming pool.
        They hadn’t intended for this to be a permanent location for Alex. It just seemed to happen. Alex had come to the beach for some R & R. Security was always difficult in situations like this, but this house had been on the market for some time when Jack stumbled across it. They leased it for a few months, with a pending clause that they could extend their lease if they wanted to. It took several weeks just to set up the security and do background checks on all the neighboring homeowners.
        Alex decided he liked the place well enough to buy it. He had wanted a home of his own and this area fit the security profile and his lifestyle pretty well. The neighbors in this exclusive area were already the keep-to-themselves type, many of them celebrities in their own right.
        In the time that Alex had been there, they had experienced no problems with intrusions or the curiosity of others. The honor code around here was obviously ”live and let live—just don’t talk about it.” Each home had large surrounding yards, monumental walls, and high security of its own. There were neighbors, but everyone was kept at a distance.
        The day had started like any other day, and looked as if it would end like all the others. The sun was beginning its decent over the ocean and the sky took on an amber haze.
        Then something caught Jack’s eye. He turned to see what had reflected off the metal gutter of the roofline.
        “What’s up, Jack?” Alex said to him with caution in his voice.
        “I don’t know. Something caught my eye.”
        “It was probably nothing.”
        “Probably.” But the hair on the back of Jack’s neck rose, telling him to act on instinct. Then he saw it again.
        “Alex, I want you to act naturally,” he instructed in a low voice. “Get up and make your way inside the house. Wave your soda can around like you’re telling me you’re going to get another one. I’ll get up to adjust the umbrella. You make sure you stay in my shadow, understand?”
        Alex had learned, after the first few yelling matches he’d had with Jack, that if Jack said it, he needed to do it. So Alex got up and moved exactly as he had been told. Jack got up, straightened the umbrella, and then followed Alex into the house.
        “What was that all about?” Alex said, trying to stay in control.. Alex knew Jack wasn’t one to overreact, so the serious look on his face matched the serious look on Jack’s.
        “I don’t know, but I need to check something out. Stay in the house.”
        He called to the other bodyguards in the house. “Jerry, Mac, come with me. Mark, Kenny, eyes open.”
        Alex moved back to the couch in the living room. At times like these, his friends turned into agents. He was seldom told what was going on until after a situation was handled. He knew it was the men’s job, but it made him feel off balance.
        Jack filled Jerry and Mac in. “I know I saw some type of reflection. It might be nothing; but it happened twice, and I’d feel better checking it out. The only roofline that is taller than ours is the white and glass-looking tri-level about half a mile down the beach. Mac, you take the car. Go south and double back around the north side of the house. Jerry and I will go on foot.”
        They carefully wove through the wooded areas along the near-fortresses that bordered the coastline. Jack pointed to the house in question; Jerry understood. They would gain access through the back entry. Since they had the schematics of most of the houses and had learned their layouts before Alex had bought his, Jack and Jerry knew the lay of the property pretty well. At least well enough to make entry.
        This particular house was vacant, which led Jack to believe even more firmly that something wasn’t right. There was an outside art-deco stairway that spiraled to the rooftop walkway. These railed areas used to be called “widows’ walks.” Now they were mostly ornamental.
        Jack removed his weapon from his shoulder holster and carefully made his way up the stairs, with Jerry close behind. As he peered over the landing of the stairs, he saw a man crouched near the edge of the roof. It was a lone gunman, with his sights set down the coast. He held a high-power rifle complete with scope and silencer. He was about twenty feet from where Jack was hunched down.
        Jack silently gave a signal to Jerry that they had one assailant, armed. He cautiously made his approach. Jack was able to get within twelve feet of the assailant before he was spotted.
        Jack leapt forward and landed astride the gunman. The other man was still clutching the rifle and was able to get a random shot off before Jerry and Jack were able to restrain him.
        Though it only took a matter of seconds, and the perpetrator wasn’t really that difficult to apprehend, he might have ended up with a few more bruises than necessary. Oh well, Jack thought to himself, the perp could try explaining that to his lawyer. The assailant was writhing and yelling obscure comments about freedom and political slavery. He was clearly a whack job.
        By the time Jack and Jerry got him cuffed and down the narrow staircase, Mac was in the driveway. He re-holstered his gun when he saw that everything was under control.
        “What do we have, Jack?”
        “Single gunman, high-power rifle, political fanatic.”
        The assailant spoke in both English and his native tongue, but none of it made sense. He looked as if he had acted alone, but Jack knew they would have to check things out after they processed him. Jerry and Mac put the suspect in the car and radioed to the house that everything was under control.
        Jack went back to the rooftop to inspect the scene. It looked as if the gunman had been the only one there. The gravel-covered rooftop gave witness to only one other set of footprints, beside Jack’s and Jerry’s. Jack stood deep in thought. It wasn’t the discarded rifle that consumed Jack’s attention at the moment. It was the spent shell casing that gleamed in the setting sun. The shot was random, but anytime a shot goes off, Jack knew it has to go somewhere. It was that somewhere that bothered him.
        He gathered up all the evidence on the rooftop and put it in the trunk of the car before Jerry and Mac headed to the station. Jack walked back to the house, thinking about the random shot.
        Mark and Kenny were on the alert as he approached the front door. They let him in and looked at him with questioning eyes.
        “Got him,” was Jack’s simple comment.
        “You were right, then,” said Alex. “There was something?”
        Alex looked to Jack for straight answers. Jack rarely kept things from Alex, unless it was necessary or a direct command from a superior.
        Jack answered him. “A gunman, not quite a mile down the road.”
        Alex paled. Although he always knew there could be incidents like this, that knowledge still left him emotionally unprepared. The thought that someone had intended to kill him was a very difficult concept for Alex to fathom. He looked to Jack for more details.
        “Jerry and Mac are taking him in.”
        “And?” Alex persisted.
        “And what?” Jack tried to act as if there was nothing more.
        “There’s something else, Jack. I can see it in your jaw. You always clench it when you’re uptight.”
        Jack hesitated for a moment. “It’s just that he got a shot off. Stray shots always bother me—you know that.”
        “But you guys are all okay, right?”
        “Oh sure, we’re okay. We got to him before he could do anything about it. He’s a little worse for wear, but we’re fine.”
        The chuckle in Jack’s voice told Alex the guy probably had a difficult time with his handlers, but Alex didn’t ask. He didn’t want to know. He would never believe that Jack would purposely abuse anyone, but he also knew Jack felt that people who broke the law got what they deserved.
        Alex tried to change the subject, to get some of the tension out of the room. “So do you concede the chess game, or do you want to make your demise official?”
        “No, I’ll call it quits,” said Jack. “I need to report this. I’d better get to the station and see what our gentleman friend has to say for himself.”
        “Dad doesn’t need to know about this, does he?” said Alex. “I mean, nothing actually happened. He has such a full schedule right now. I don’t want him thinking about this, too.” Alex hated to concern his dad with peripheral matters.
        “My superiors will decide who is informed,” said Jack. “You know that, Alex. It’s not my call. Look, I’ve got to get to the station.”
        Jack headed for the door. ”Mark, Kenny, call me if anything seems atypical.”
        
        Ciara juggled with the pizza, a liter bottle of soda, and a foam container of dessert.
        “Danny, come open the door,” she yelled. “My arms are full.”
        She waited, to no avail. She tried the knob, and sure enough, it wasn’t locked. She had told Danny a thousand times to lock the door, but she never listened. Danny was either too trusting or completely oblivious; Ciara hadn’t decided which one. Ciara mumbled to herself as she fumbled with the door and stepped inside the house. She set the pizza on the table and let the bottle roll onto the counter.
        “Danny, come on! I might deliver, but I’m not your personal servant.”
        Still no answer. Ciara figured Danny must be deep in her work. Ciara climbed the stairs quickly in their beautiful home. It was an English cottage-style house, nestled along the West Coast. The architectural details of the two-story home were what drew Ciara and Danny to it. It even had a turret in the main suite. Most people would make it a sitting room, but Danny had turned it into her art studio. She called it her “window to the world.”
        Ciara kept on loudly addressing her friend as she walked the long hallway to her room.
        “Danny, you’ll never make it as a starving artist,” she said jokingly.
        Ciara pushed the bedroom door open and headed to the turret. Then, she saw her. Danny was lying in a heap on the floor. Her easel had been knocked over, and paints and brushes were everywhere.
        Ciara ran to her side. “Danny, what happened?”
        The young woman didn’t answer; she didn’t even move. Then Ciara saw the small pool of blood beneath her temple, and the awkward way Danny’s head was leaning against a box.
        As Ciara gently moved her head, a small moan escaped from Danny.
        Ciara was horrified by the distorted position Danny was lying in, but relieved that she was at least alive. Ciara ran to the phone on the nightstand and dialed 911.
        “911,” a kind voice responded.
        “Please, send an ambulance!” Ciara begged. “My friend has had an accident. The address is 111 Azure Vista Way . She’s bleeding and unconscious. Please hurry!”
        Ciara dropped the phone on the bed and moved to be near Danny.
        “Hang on, Danny—help’s coming.”
        Ciara gently stroked the waves of Danny’s brunette hair, trying to stimulate her to wake up. Danny’s petite form made her look even more fragile as she lay unconscious on the floor.
        Ciara ran downstairs to activate the front gates so the ambulance could get to the house. Then she returned to her friend’s side.
        It felt like an eternity before Ciara heard sirens. She ran to the landing of the stairway. Medical technicians came to the door, and she yelled for them to come in. They came through the door carrying all kinds of boxes.
        “Upstairs—hurry!”
        Ciara took the stairs two at a time, and they followed her lead. As soon as she directed them to where Danny was, she just sat on the edge of the bed, put her head to her knees, and began pleading with God.
        Please Lord, don’t take Danny from me. She’s all I have. I know everything happens for a reason, God, but please don’t take her from me.
        Ciara kept repeating herself, but at the moment she didn’t think God would mind.
        The technicians were rattling off all kinds of medical terms that Ciara didn’t understand. They were radioing a hospital and talking about transporting the victim. Ciara didn’t like the way they said ”victim.” Danny wasn’t a victim, she was a person with a name—and Ciara made sure they knew it.
        “She has a name. It’s Danny.”
        The EMTs were getting ready to move Danny. Ciara heard her let out a whimper, and it brought tears to her eyes. She knew Danny was alive but obviously in a great amount of pain. They placed her on a backboard and started towards the doorway. Finally, one of the paramedics spoke directly to Ciara.
        “Are you a relative?”
        “No.Well, yes—we’re like sisters.”
        He looked as if he was going to question her, but instead asked if Danny was on any kind of medication.
        “Yes, she has asthma. She takes medicine for that.”
        “Okay,” the man said, “then get her identification and any medicine bottles that you can find. The doctors are going to need to know what medicines she’s currently taking. Do you want to ride along with us to the hospital?”
        “Yes, thank you.”
        Ciara got together everything she could find. Danny’s ID and her inhaler were in her purse, and a bottle of pills was in her bathroom. She took all the stuff downstairs, threw them in her own purse and headed for the door.
        Ciara rushed past the paramedic that had spoken to her. He was now talking to a police officer and a man in jeans and dark glasses. He must have been an off duty officer because he showed them what appeared to be a badge and continued talking with them.
        Ciara got into the front seat of the ambulance, and the other two paramedics loaded Danny into the back. It appeared as if they were now waiting for the driver, who was still talking to the police. It angered Ciara. He could tell them whatever they needed to know after Danny was at the hospital!
        She rolled down her window and yelled, “Shut up and drive! My friend is dying, and all you’re doing is talking!”
        Her abrupt comments caught all three of the men by surprise. The man in jeans pulled off his glasses and glared at her. She didn’t care; at least it got the driver moving. He jogged around to the side of the ambulance and hopped in. There was a thump from the back where Danny was laying. Obviously it was a signal to drive.
        They headed for the hospital at a pretty high speed. Even though they were traveling fast, it still seemed like an eternity before they arrived.
        Ciara walked alongside the gurney that Danny was on as she was wheeled through the emergency entrance. Ciara got past the first set of automatic doors, but that was as far as she was allowed to go.
        “I’m sorry, miss—you’ll have to wait out here.” The nurse was firm, but tried to be reassuring. “Someone will come and talk to you as soon as they know something.”
        Ciara was left standing alone. After a moment, she took a chair in the waiting room and sat, with only her memories to keep her company. Every one of them included Danny.