THE MARINE'S LAST DEFENSE

 Prologue

 

Six Months Ago


"Keep the girl alive. I'm telling you it would be less complicated," Griffin Tyler said. "More money for us, too."
"You don't tell us nothin', Tyler."

Sabrina Watkins flattened herself to the hall paneling. They wanted to kill her? She'd been three years behind Griffin in high school, been in youth group with this man who had become her business partner. And recently she'd thought of him as a very close friend. Their mothers even still went to the same church every Sunday morning.

"She has too many friends," the unknown voice continued. "Too many that will believe her when she claims she's innocent. If we leave her alive to chat `em up, everybody gets sympathetic. It's better to kill her. Make it look like a suicide and then evidence comes out proving how guilty she is. We lose a little money framing her, but overall the operation survives. You set up shop somewhere else. Insurance, no one's the wiser."

She didn't know the second voice. Average tone, not deep or high. She didn't think he'd ever boarded a pet with her. She'd only seen the back of the man's head as she'd rounded the corner from the offices into the clinic. She had no description for the police and didn't even know his hair color since he was wearing a ball cap.

"Whatever," Griffin agreed, not trying hard to sway his partner. "Suicide works. She's surrounded herself with the business for the past two years. Everything she has is tied up in it. When it goes up in flames, our hometown will think she was too depressed to start over." He put his hands on his hips, a gesture she'd seen a thousand times when he was ready to move on from a subject. "When will you do it?"

Oh my Lord, they really are going to kill me, she thought, panicking. Why? What did I do?

"Listen, Tyler, you're the one that screwed up. Too many fingers in the pie. You should never have involved the local cop who's getting greedy. The higher-ups want them both gone, along with all traces of the connection to us. You're damn lucky they don't want you gone."

Who have you gotten involved with, Griffin?

Sabrina's heart pounded faster than Tweetiepie, the miniature Chihuahua she'd groomed at the truck stop that afternoon. Her hands shook even while she was plastered against the wall. She wanted to close her eyes and have someone explain why this was happening. Could someone wake her up from this nightmare so she could go back to her simple life of boarding pets?

Her thoughts drifted through her last conversations with Griffin. As far as she knew there had been no indicators that he was upset with her. But, then again, how did your best friend speak to you three hours before casually mentioning no one would miss you if you were dead?

Wait. Flames? Had he said flames?

Was Griffin speaking in metaphors or were they going to really burn the clinic down? "Gone…all traces." She had to get to the police. No. The stranger had mentioned involving a cop. Which one? They didn't mention anyone by name. Who could she trust? But they couldn't all be bad. Right?

What could she tell them if she did trust them? She'd overheard her business partner plotting to kill a "she," but unfortunately there were a lot of "shes" in Amarillo, Texas.

She'd look like an idiot. Griffin continued his discussion with the stranger. She couldn't distinguish their words as they walked to the rear exit. She dropped to the floor and crept around the corner into the operating room.

Griffin was right about one thing—she had no other life outside the clinic or pet sitting. He was also right that every dime she had was tied up in her half of the business. She'd actually paid him to add her pet grooming and boarding to his established veterinary hospital.

But right now, she needed help.

No one worked in the clinic on Sundays. She made a special trip with the house-call van once a month, working with truck drivers. It was five o'clock and she'd spent the afternoon grooming dogs at the I-40 truck stop and let Amber borrow her car for a baby shower. If she hadn't finished an hour early, decided to restock the van while waiting on her assistant's return, she wouldn't have a clue about their plot to kill her and burn the clinic.

She'd been so dumb. Well, not anymore. It was time to get closer, find out what they were doing.

On her hands and knees, she scooted across the painted concrete floor. Staying close to counters and then behind the stainless steel exam table, she was careful not to knock any of the rolling trays full of instruments. She'd never felt comfortable in this room. It wasn't organized and certainly didn't function effectively according to what she'd seen over the past two years.

There were many times she'd wondered how Griffin made any money. Now she knew…he made it illegally. She dared to look around the side of the table. There wasn't enough light in her section of the room for her to be seen, but she was still very careful.

"So we're agreed. Tonight," the stranger said. "Get your cop friend to patrol nearby. I'll nab the girl before the fire's set and make it look real enough."

"You think it's necessary to burn the place with the animals inside?"

"You want the fire to look genuine, don't ya?"

The stranger was near the back door. She caught a tilt to his lips when Griffin's back was turned. Her stomach twisted in fear. Whoever this stranger was, he enjoyed killing. Animal or human, that smile indicated he looked forward to it.

She swallowed the bile in her throat and hid behind the island table again. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. They were going to kill her.

What should she do? Remember his voice. Remember that deadly smile and his thin, flat lips. She had no evidence, no proof that someone wanted her dead. And from what she'd overheard, they'd planted evidence that she was responsible for something. Dear Lord, she didn't even know where to start. She knew nothing about police procedure except that they needed more information than she had to begin an investigation.

Fading daylight briefly filled the room as the back door opened and closed. The sound of the dead bolt turning echoed through the cold room. Oh no, the van was parked out front now. How long had they been here? Would they notice? Would they come back?

Silence.

She sank to the floor. There was nowhere to hide and if they did return, what could she do?

The faint whine of an abandoned pup bolted her into action. No one was going to kill the animals left in her care. She tugged on one of the rolling tables and opened a bin. She yanked a scalpel, wielding it like a hunting knife. She could defend herself a little, maybe deter them long enough to race out the front door.

Explanation or no, she could get to the police to save her own life. Panda and Pogo barked.

The animals. She had to get them out of the building. She took a peek through the windows and didn't see any cars. She ran through the clinic to the back of the boarding kennels and unbolted the door, slightly propping it open for quick access. Then another dash through the building and out the front, moving the van to the back.

Thank goodness, she didn't have a lot of animals at the clinic or being boarded for the weekend. The three dogs and kitty would fit inside the van and be safe. She closed the van door with a sigh of relief, dropping her forehead to the cooling metal. She could meet Amber at the house and have her drive the animals to their owners.

Then she would drive her car directly to the police station and take her chances. Crazy sounding or not, she had to report Griffin to the authorities.

"Back early?"

She yelped like one of the puppies. "Oh, Griffin. You scared the living daylights out of me." Her partner jerked her away from the van in a constricted grip. "You're hurting me."

"Don't play dumb, Sabrina. I saw you loading the animals. You heard us inside and are moving them before we torch the place."

She pulled. His grip tightened. "I don't understand any of this, Griffin. What's going on?"

"Get inside." He shoved a gun in her ribs. "Now."

"Don't do this. Don't kill me, please? Whatever the problem is we can work it out." She stumbled as he propelled her through the door. "I'm sure the police can sort through everything."

"No they can't. I don't give the orders, I follow them. My office."

The gun was securely in his hand and she shuffled through the kennels sideways, unwilling to turn her back to him. What if he had the same maniacal smile as the stranger?

Had Griffin shot someone before? He couldn't have. He wasn't the man who drowned kittens—he was the veterinarian who saved them. Right? But he was an excellent marksman who wouldn't miss when he fired.
How am I ever going to get away from you, she wondered.

"Is it drugs? Money laundering? Who are you working for?" she asked, stalling. Think, think, think. She couldn't allow herself to be trapped in his office. There was no way out. Only a slit of a window, high above her head.

"None of the why or who matters anymore, Sabrina. There's nothing you can do."

"Doing nothing is exactly what I did for the past two years while you plotted to set me up to commit suicide." She stopped at his office door, so close to her own.

Unfortunately, her box of an office would be just as bad as his. The window was just as high. There weren't any weapons inside. The can of pepper spray her father insisted she carry was on her key chain, in the van. Her only path out of the building was blocked by Griffin.

"I didn't think they'd really kill anybody. You were supposed to take the blame, but they never said they'd kill you. But it's you or me and I won't let it be me. I'm lucky I came back for my insurance before they torch this place. Otherwise, we'd both be dead by morning."

The light in his office was already on. The door was ajar enough to see an open satchel overstuffed with paper. His insurance?

"I can't believe you're going to just kill me." But she knew he meant what he said. What if she got his "insurance"?

Tears of fear trickled down her cheeks. She covered her face with her hands, leaning close to the picture of puppies they'd rescued last year. But she wouldn't voluntarily move another inch to her death so she spread her feet for a stronger fighting position.

He'd relaxed, leaned lazily against her office door. If she could just delay him long enough to grab the satchel and get to the van…she might have a chance.

"It's no use," he said. "You might as well stop stalling."

Sabrina looked up, plucking the scalpel from her pocket. "Would you stop?" she shouted, lunging at his leg, stabbing him as deeply as she could.

He screamed. Fell. The gun went off. She darted into his office, grabbed his satchel of "insurance" and ran for her life.

 

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