THE HIDDEN KEY
When Navy veteran Kevin Jones answers the door for two men he doesn’t know, he can’t foresee the Pandora’s Box he’s opening. One week later, attorney Steve Stilwell meets with a billionaire businessman in a London eatery. As two men burst into the restaurant, Steve’s new client cries out “I’ve sold my soul.” Moments later he is dead, leaving Steve to figure out why.
Steve finds his first clue in a package addressed to his dead client containing an ancient map etched into a clay tablet. Soon powerful people descend on him and his wounded warrior law partner, Casey Pantel, to take the tablet from them. Not knowing who can be trusted and who should be feared, they dig deeper and deeper to decipher the tablet’s secrets. Their quest takes them along a trail of murder and intrigue winding from Italy to India. With time running out and their own motives being questioned, Steve and Casey must unmask those seeking to exploit the tablet’s secrets before they, too, fall victim to its power.
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Excerpt from THE HIDDEN KEY
10:32 p.m. on Wednesday, September 22, 2004–Independence, Missouri
The doorbell to the brown-shingle bungalow rang just as Kevin Jones settled deep into his leather sofa to watch the Late Show. Alfalfa, his six-year-old yellow lab, didn’t alert to the visitors before the doorbell rang. Now he sprang from his blanket on the far side of the living room and charged the front door, barking as he crossed the room and positioning himself to welcome whoever was there.
“Who in the world can that be at this time of night?” Jones asked Alfalfa as he got up to answer the door. He didn’t care that he was wearing only an undershirt and jeans. When someone came by this late on a Wednesday night, they took him as he was. He set the can of beer he had just popped open on the coffee table’s glass top, turned down the TV’s volume, and headed for the door. “This better be important.” More out of habit than necessity, he turned on the living room ceiling light with the switch by the front door.
Jones reached down and grabbed Alfalfa by the collar and forced him to sit. Alfalfa whimpered but begrudgingly complied. “Now you be good,” he cautioned Alfalfa. The lab looked at him with his big brown eyes, eager to please and even more eager to see who was there. He let loose a staccato bark, still sitting with Jones restraining him by his collar.
When Jones opened the door, two men he didn’t recognize stood before him, their faces illuminated by the front porch light protruding from the siding just above their heads. Both men, one black and one white, looked t0 be in their mid-thirties. They both wore jeans while the African-American man added a lightweight navy blue jacket, wet from drizzle. His partner had closely cropped sandy blond hair and sideburns. Jones surmised they were Marines he’d met in Iraq, although he couldn’t place either man’s face or fathom how they might have found his house.
Neither looked like he was coming to visit a fellow veteran. They appeared instead as if they had something they needed to get done, and that something involved Jones. He suddenly felt vulnerable, like when he was exposed to Iraqi mortar fire randomly pocketing patches of desert. He never knew if the patch he occupied would take the next hit. Alfalfa began an uncharacteristic growl, showing his teeth.
Jones’ instinct told him to slam the door. He felt his right arm trying to throw the door shut until his rational self took control and held the door open just in case these were kindred military spirits. That left him with only one defense—show no sign of weakness or fear. If they were there to roll him, he had to make them believe it wouldn’t be easy. He and Alfalfa would make them feel pain, and his chiseled upper body, accentuated by an undershirt one size too small, reinforced the message.
“It’s pretty late to be ringing doorbells,” Jones began, stooping just enough to restrain Alfalfa by the collar.
“You Kevin Jones?” the man in the jacket asked, ignoring Jones’ remonstrance.
“Yeah, that’s me. Who’s askin’?”
“You advertised a clay brick on the Internet and we want to see it.” The man in the jacket did all the talking, while his buddy stood behind him, staring at Alfalfa. Alfalfa’s growl grew meaner. Jones didn’t do anything to discourage his dog’s warning, especially after what he’d just heard. He hadn’t posted his name or address in the ad, so he figured these guys had to be undercover cops. There was no way he was going to own up to posting the ad, especially since it had to do with a clay tablet he’d smuggled into the United States from Iraq when he and his Seabee unit returned from the war.
“Not me. I got nothin’ posted online.”
“Look, man,” the guy continued. “We know you got a brick to sell, so cut the shit and let’s talk business.”
“Like I said, you got the wrong person.” Jones reached out and tried to shove the door closed, but the guy in the jacket stuck out his work boot and stopped the door short of closing. Jones wished he’d followed his initial instinct and slammed the door in their faces. Now it was too late.
The man reached forward and shoved the door open, leveraging his way partially inside. Alfalfa barked and then lunged at the intruder. Jones, still holding onto Alfalfa’s collar, yanked him back. Alfalfa’s growl grew deeper and more vicious. The intruder took a half step back, leaving his other foot in place so Jones couldn’t close the door. His accomplice moved up close behind him. The two men looked like they were ready to exploit the open door and force their way inside.
“Here’s how we’re doing this,” the intruder commanded. “We’re coming in and you’re get’n us that brick. Then I give you one hundred bucks and we leave.” He forced a grin. “Now ain’t that easy?”
Jones flashed a defiant smile. “How about you guys piss off or I call the cops. That’s easy too, ain’t it?”
The intruder shed his grin and stepped forward, pushing Jones away from the door and bumping into Jones’ shoulder in a display of machismo as he strutted to the center of the room. His accomplice moved to block the door, coming in just far enough to close it behind him. The intruder spoke as he pivoted to face Jones.
“Look man, we both know you ain’t calling no cops. What you gonna do, tell ‘em somebody’s trying to steal the brick you stole from Iraq?” He laughed at the irony. “Come on, man, you’re smarter than that. Just get me the brick.”
Jones knew if something went down, it would turn out badly since he had no way to escape. He would just have to play along until they made a mistake he or Alfalfa could take advantage of. Alfalfa was ready, too. For the first time in his life, the usually friendly lab seemed primed to tear into someone. It was all Jones could do to hold him back.
“So how do I know you ain’t cops?”
“You don’t,” the accomplice countered for the first time. “But it don’t matter, ‘cause one way or another, we’re taking us a brick, ain’t we Charles?” He smiled and laughed a foul laugh, like one that presaged evil. Alfalfa lunged forward when he heard it, catching Jones off guard. Alfalfa’s collar slipped through his fingers and he leapt toward the accomplice, snarling like a trained attack dog. His jaws clamped onto the man’s outstretched left arm and he started to shake it violently, like he did with stuffed toys in the back yard. The man screamed, popped open a switch blade Jones hadn’t seen before and jammed it deep into the dog’s neck. Alfalfa yelped and let loose his grip, crying as he dropped off the man. The man stabbed the dog again as he fell to the floor and wrenched the knife upward, mortally wounding Alfalfa.
“Nooooo!” Jones screamed. He charged the man bending over the stricken dog, kicking him in the face with as much force as he could muster. His target flew backward and landed on his back with blood streaming from his nose, still holding the knife he’d used to fend off Alfalfa. Jones jumped on him and pinned the knife-wielding hand to the floor, while his free hand pummeled the man’s face. Rage fueled every blow, making him impervious to fear and pain. “You killed my dog! You killed my dog! I’m gonna kill you, you bastard!” With two successive blows, he could feel the man’s nose break and his cheekbones cave in.
Jones didn’t see Charles run to the melee. Charles’ work boot struck him in the ribs with an uppercut, cracking something and throwing him off his bloodied opponent, who lay there groaning. Jones felt a crushing pain in his left chest. He tried to suck in oxygen, but his lungs refused, so he lay on the floor immobilized trying to breathe. He twisted his head toward Charles, who stood a safe distance away pointing a pistol at him. Alfalfa’s killer moaned and rolled over on his side so Jones got a glimpse of what used to be the man’s face. His left eye was already swollen shut and his mouth and tooth-torn lips oozed blood and saliva. His nose was no longer a recognizable shape. Seeing how he’d at least partially avenged Alfalfa had a morphine-like effect and Jones’ lungs responded by allowing him to gasp in just enough air so he could struggle to his feet. He couldn’t let himself be in a defenseless position should the wounded accomplice revive enough to seek his own revenge.
“You happy now?” Charles shouted. “Your dog’s dead and you and my man are messed up.” He pointed his gun at Jones, shaking it to the rhythm of his words to drive home he was deadly serious. “But you’re still gonna get me that brick. You got that?”
Jones glared at him, his eyes filled with rage. Alfalfa’s dying shrieks reverberated in his ears and his adrenaline commanded him to take Charles down. But his Navy Seabee training yelled louder and told him to get control of his anger or he was dead. He had to find a way to counteract the gun. He tried to breathe deeply but couldn’t, so he took a quick, shallow breath just to get some air inside. He didn’t know if they intended to kill him, although he figured his actions thus far had increased the chances of that outcome. At least until Alfalfa’s killer revived, it was one-on-one.
There was one obvious option. He could give them the clay tablet. At this point, he really didn’t care about losing it, but figured he was safest when only he knew where it was. Once they had it, he was a witness they might be inclined to snuff out. On the other hand, murder was a long way from theft, so they might be content to lick their wounds and leave if he gave them what they came for. He could also tell them to piss off again, but that hadn’t worked so far. Plus, separating Charles from his wounded ally opened up one additional possibility.
“Man, you deaf?” Charles shouted angrily. “I said get me the damn brick.” He brought the pistol to the ready position, sighting it at Jones’ head. Jones could see the man’s fist tightening its grip on the pistol. He was a hair’s breadth away from pulling the trigger.
“It’s not here,” Jones asserted. “No way was I keeping it at the house. I got it in storage.”
“You’re one lying piece of shit,” Charles quipped. He jerked the gun and pulled the trigger. A bullet ploughed through Jones’ muscular thigh, exiting out the back of his leg. Jones screamed in pain and fell to his knees, covering the entrance wound with his hands to stop the bleeding.
“Look man, I’m done playing games. One way or another, I’m leaving here with a brick. Whether you’re dead or alive don’t make no difference to me. Now are you gonna get it for me so we can leave, or are you gonna make me shoot you again so you can bleed to death while we’re looking for it?
Jones grimaced, still on his knees and pressing hard on his thigh with both hands. Blood ran between his fingers and streamed down the back of his leg from the exit wound. “Alright,” Jones assented. “It’s in my bedroom at the back of the house. You’ll find it on the floor underneath the corner bookcase.” Jones doubled over in pain, groaning as he did. He tried to straighten up but couldn’t. His leg hurt too badly.
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Charles’ subtle smile returned. “That’s where you’re gonna find it. You’re gonna limp your ass back to that room and get it for me. I ain’t letting you out of my sight.”
Still scrunched over, Jones looked up to beg Charles to get the clay tablet and just leave. “Look, I can’t—
“This ain’t no negotiation. Get me the brick.” Charles pointed the gun at Jones’ stomach. Failure to comply meant a painful death.
Jones forced himself to his feet, letting out a gasp. He turned and started moving toward the hall to the back bedroom, taking small steps with his good leg and dragging the wounded leg behind. His lungs weren’t cooperating either, so he moved slowly, each step zapping pain through every nerve in his body. When he reached the hall, he steadied himself using his bloody hand, sliding it along the wall to keep himself upright. When he reached the bedroom door on the left, he let go of the wall and slipped forward, falling on the foot of the bed just a few feet inside the door. Charles was right behind him, switching on the light to the room and revealing a trail of blood on the floor.
Jones pointed to the bookcase in the room’s corner across from the foot of the bed. “I swear to God,” Jones promised, “it’s on the floor under that bookcase. All you got to do is slide the bookcase forward and you’ll have what you came here for. Please, just take it and leave.”
“You don’t listen too good, do you?” Charles chuckled. “You move the bookcase and get the brick. If it ain’t there, you’re a dead man.” He coaxed Jones on with his gun. “Come on now, get going.”
Jones slid along the foot of the bed until he got to the other side. Still putting pressure on the entrance wound with his left hand, he put his right hand behind him on the dark brown bedspread and pushed himself upward to his feet. He fell toward the bookcase and grabbed onto the third shelf from the bottom to steady himself, but lost his balance and fell backward, pulling the bookcase with him. Books and framed pictures of his Seabee shipmates spilled from the shelves, cascading to the floor. He would have been crushed by the heavy oak cabinet, except he fell to the floor on the side of the bed while the bed stopped the bookcase mid-fall. Jones’ head hit the shag carpet with a thud.
“Ahhhh,” he shrieked in agony. He wriggled himself backward toward a nightstand with a glass lamp at the head of the bed. Charles moved further into the room toward where the bookcase lay across the corner of the bed.
“Get up on that bed where I can see you,” he demanded. He kept the gun pointed at Jones and used his peripheral vision to see whether there was anything on the floor where the bookcase had been. A big smile covered his face.
Jones tried to pull himself onto the bed then fell back to the floor, hitting the nightstand on the way down. The lamp wobbled as Jones braced himself on the floor with both hands. Now it was Jones who wanted to sit up on the bed as close to the nightstand as possible. Unwittingly, Charles had facilitated his final option. It was a nuclear option, but at least it was an option. “Ahhhh,” he screeched as he jolted himself onto the bed. He doubled over in pain, still only able to take short, shallow breaths.
With his gun trained on Jones, Charles reached down behind the base of the bookcase and grabbed the sand-colored clay tablet he had been looking for. He held it up to admire it, or at least to show off to Jones that it was now in his possession. Still pointing the gun at Jones, he brought the tablet closer to his eyes like a nearsighted old man trying to read the instructions on his latest prescription. He looked at the side with compass-like carvings first, then twisted it in his fingers until he could see the other side covered with the intricate characters of an ancient alphabet. Satisfaction flooded his face, as if he had read the writing and understood what it said. He laughed and stuck the tablet into his jacket pocket.
Jones had to decide quickly whether to use his nuclear option. Charles had what he wanted, so if he intended to finish Jones off, now would be the time. The moment of indecision answered the question for him when Charles lowered his weapon.
“See?” Charles asked, vindicated by leaving Jones in the room alive. “All I wanted was the brick. It didn’t have to be this hard. All I wanted was the damn brick.” Charles eased backward to the doorway, when a hand came from behind and slap-grasped the doorframe. Jones flinched and Charles jumped forward, startled by whoever was behind him. He aimed the gun toward the silhouette leaning against the door.
“Charles, it’s me!” shouted his accomplice, the right side of his face all black and blue and his eyeball invisible behind ballooning flesh. “Don’t shoot, it’s me!”
“You idiot!” Charles chided. “You ever sneak up on me like that again and I’ll kill you. You ain’t got no sense, man. You just ain’t got no sense.”
The accomplice bent over and breathed deeply before he stood up semi- straight and continued talking. “You got the brick? You got the brick yet?” His words sounded eager, like someone trying to please.
“Yeah, I got it. Now let’s get out of here.”
“You just leaving him here, Charles?” the wounded man protested. “He’ll call the cops! You can’t just leave him here. I ain’t going back to jail for no brick. You got to shoot him.”
“I ain’t shooting no one,” Charles countered. “We ain’t getting paid to kill somebody. We got the brick, now let’s get out of here before the cops come.” He pushed past his partner and started down the hall.
The remnants of the accomplice’s face looked crestfallen. Still propped against the doorframe, he looked over his shoulder with his good eye as Charles retreated toward the living room. “Man, look what he did to my face. He ain’t getting away with it, Charles. It don’t work that way.” A knife reappeared in his hand. Jones could see the blade, still streaked with Alfalfa’s blood.
Charles stopped and pivoted toward his partner. “Look. I’m pulling out of the driveway in one minute, with or without you. If you got some business to do, you get it done. But I got no part of it. You got that?”
That was all the leash the accomplice needed. He pushed himself from the doorframe holding the knife in front of him at a slash-ready angle. He maneuvered around the bed and neared the bookcase, his eyes locked on Jones.
Jones had no choice—it was time for the nuclear option. He leaned over to the nightstand and threw open the drawer. As he reached inside, the accomplice waved his knife and said something, but Jones couldn’t recognize what it was. He flung some papers out of the way, grabbed a steel object, and pulled it from the drawer. The accomplice leapt onto the bed and Jones pulled the trigger, blowing the man backward with blood spurting from his neck. Jones started to drop to the floor behind the bed for cover when Charles rushed back to the door. Two more gunshots burst through the room, followed by the moans of dying men.