Below is a sample of Lost Highway, the third John Tyler thriller.
Nothing in John Tyler’s life prepared him for this.
He’d felt similarly before. Not ready. In over his head. The first time he went on a Special Operations raid in Afghanistan. When Lexi was born, and he held his baby daughter for the first time. While life with his daughter turned out well, Tyler didn’t like feeling he wasn’t ready. He made sure to put in the work and be prepared. It had kept him alive many times over the years. “How the hell does anyone own and run a business?” he wondered.
Lexi, filing her water bottle from the fridge, glanced at him. “With help, Dad.”
“Smitty is helping.”
“As much as you’re letting him,” Lexi said. She capped her bottle and pointed at the papers sitting in front of her father. “I know it’s a lot to deal with. Don’t you know anyone from the army who’s a good accountant?”
“I did,” Tyler said, “but he was a Braxton toady.” Ryan Anderson had indeed been a savant when it came to numbers, but he couldn’t escape the thrall of their corrupt former commander. “I shot him.”
“Find another one, then.” Lexi slung her backpack over her shoulder. “Try not to kill this one.” She wore a light denim jacket over jeans whose tightness Tyler didn’t appreciate. The red bookbag matched the ponytail holder in her dark brown hair. Despite living with his daughter full-time for less than two years, Tyler knew this wasn’t an accident. He’d seen other bags on her back before, and they always coordinated with whatever hair accessory she chose. For a moment, Tyler wished his own problems were so simple. “I gotta go, Dad.”
“Right,” Tyler said, snapping out of his quick reverie. He glanced at the oven clock. Lexi’s drive to the University of Maryland would get her to her first class right about on time. “Have a good day. Love you.”
“Love you, too.” She walked toward the door and turned before she got there. “Don’t forget to meet with Cliff.” Tyler waved his hand. “I mean it. You could use a distraction from being a new business owner.”
“I guess.” Having something take his mind off of everything would be welcome. The door shut as Lexi left for class. When he decided to open his own classic car repair business, Tyler never thought it would be so complicated. He didn’t want to hire a lawyer on general principle, so he’d leaned on his old boss Smitty for advice. The buck stopped with the guy whose name was on the paperwork, however.
Tyler looked at the wall calendar pinned near the fridge. It was late February. He hoped to open in a week or so. Things went in fits and starts. A flurry of activity preceded a period where nothing seemed to happen. Tyler learned to hurry up and wait in the army, so he was used to it even if he didn’t like the rhythm. Currently, the process languished in one of its many lulls. Cliff, one of Tyler’s bosses when he worked in private security, wanted to know if he could handle a simple job for a few days. If nothing else, it would be a good distraction, and the extra money wouldn’t hurt.
Tyler picked up his phone.
* * *
Farzaad Durrani looked around the empty room. It was the third he’d visited today, and he got the feeling it would also be the last. To his eyes, the listed measurements of twenty by thirty looked correct. Plenty of outlets lined the walls. A small bathroom opened off to the left. Durrani looked inside. Sink, tub, shower, but no escapable window. A door to the front and one out the back. Easy to guard and defend. All good so far.
His trusted associate Josef joined him. “I think this one may be right.”
Durrani was diligent about hiring men from his homeland of Afghanistan. Josef, a Serbian mercenary, proved to be the sole exception. He stood out thanks to his blond hair and lean, angular face, but the man proved himself time and again. “I agree, my friend.”
“The minimum time we can lease it for is three months,” Josef said.
Durrani waved a hand. “Whatever they require. We won’t need it more than a few days.”
Josef walked the perimeter of the room. He, too, checked the outlets and walked into the bathroom. “Do we know what’s behind the drywall?”
“Cinder blocks.” Durrani rapped on the wall and nodded. “I think this place used to be industrial before they prettied it up. Business has been slow, though, so we’re getting a pretty good deal.”
“The second door?”
“Hallway to the back entrance and a small office.” Durrani shrugged. “Easy to keep locked . . . or guarded if we need to.”
Josef’s head swiveled as he took in the area. “I’m surprised we’re mobilizing again so soon.”
“I know,” Durrani said. “I prefer to wait at least half a year before we work in an area again.” He held up his index finger. “However, we have a unique and lucrative opportunity. It’s been in the works for a while, but this is the right time and place. Make sure the men are ready and know what they’re looking for.”
“I will,” Josef said with a nod.
“Have the usual crew deliver the supplies we’ll need, too.”
“It sounds like we’re moving quicker than normal this time.” Josef frowned. “Compressed timeframes can lead to mistakes. I’m concerned about some of the men being sloppy.”
“Deal with it if it comes up,” Durrani said. “We’ll be able to hire their replacements several times over when this is finished.”
“Maybe we can even take a few months off,” Josef said. “Let the heat die down before we start working again.”
Durrani clapped Josef on the back. It felt like slapping the wall again. “You will be able to enjoy yourself anywhere you want, my friend.”
Josef’s head bobbed slowly. “We’ll start working on her security. I’ve heard they’re down to one man but looking to bring in another.” He paused. “I’m also concerned people might look for her.”
“They will,” Durrani said. “We won’t be able to avoid it. It’s one of the reasons we’ll need to move quickly. A couple days might be all we get. I want to start acquisitions tonight.”
“I’ll make sure this room is ready,” Josef said.
* * *
Cliff asked Tyler to meet him at the offices of Patriot Security. Tyler considered it for a moment. It could be worth it to see the puzzled look on Danny’s face. He made the expression often enough. In the end, Tyler decided the headquarters of his former employer wouldn’t be the best place. He chose Rizzo’s in the Little Italy neighborhood of Baltimore. He valeted his vintage Oldsmobile 442 and walked inside a few minutes before his reservation.
The maitre d’ led him to a square table for two. Tyler took the seat facing the front door. Stairs to the second level and a hallway leading to the kitchen were off to his right. He could keep them in sight easily enough. At the appointed hour, Cliff strolled in. He was a tall light-complected black man whose wiry muscles looked unchanged from his active duty days. “Tyler,” he said as he slipped his light jacket off. Tyler stood, and the two men shook hands.
“Good to see you, Cliff.” Tyler touched the hair on his own forehead. “You’re finally joining the rest of us in going gray, I see.” Tyler would turn fifty-one in a couple months. Cliff was at least as old, but his short hair remained completely black the last time Tyler saw him.
“We’ve had a lot of turnover recently.” Cliff nodded as the waiter filled their water glasses. “Danny doesn’t make things easier, either.”
“He never did.” Danny’s attitude and meddling in Tyler’s work compelled him to leave the company about a year ago. Cliff had been a silent partner for a while. It sounded like he’d started taking a more active role. “Good to see you stepping up.”
“Yeah.” Cliff sighed. “I know I was less involved for a while. Had some stuff going on, you know?”
Tyler offered a congenial nod. He noticed his old boss no longer wore a wedding ring. “Everything good now?”
When the waiter returned, each man ordered. Cliff opted for lasagna with meat sauce, and Tyler chose the veal parmesan. “I’m all right,” Cliff said. “Don’t worry about me. Patriot being short-handed is the reason I’m coming to you.”
Tyler took a swig of his water. “Does Danny know we’re having this conversation?”
“No. The potential client came to me directly. I didn’t think we had anyone to spare . . . but then, I thought of you. This seems like something up your alley.”
“How many people do I get to shoot?”
“Hopefully none,” Cliff said.
“I’ll pass, then,” Tyler said.
Cliff grinned. “I know Danny gave you shit for the job in DC. Hell, I thought you played it right. You got the client back, killed a few drug dealers, and none of it landed on our doorstep Worth a medal in my book. He couldn’t get over it, though.”
“What’s the job?” Tyler asked. “I’m not really interested in rehashing the many failings of your comrade.”
A different server dropped off two salads. Once he left, Cliff said, “It’s a simple protection detail. You get to wear a suit, look menacing, glare at people . . . the whole nine yards. It’ll probably last a few days.”
“Who’s the client?”
“Interested enough to ask the basic questions,” Tyler said. He poured some oil and vinegar on his salad and picked around the pepperocini. “Don’t get your hopes up yet.”
“Fair enough,” Cliff said. “You ever hear of Alex Anne?”
Cliff’s eyed widened. “Wow. I figured you were way too old to know who she is.”
“My daughter listens to her albums,” Tyler said. “She’s among the few modern acts Lexi actually likes.”
“You’ve trapped her with your classic rock?”
Tyler smiled. “I can’t help it if the girl inherited good taste in music from her dad.”
“All right, so you know who she is,” Cliff said. “She’s got some local appearances and a concert this week. Kid’s from the area, so they’re expecting big crowds, media, and probably a few crazies here and there.”
“I don’t know, Cliff.” Tyler swirled ice cubes around his water glass. “I’m working on opening my own car repair shop. It should be ready to go soon. There’s a lot of stuff on my list right now.”
Their waiter returned with the entrees, and he topped off their waters before leaving. “Businesses ain’t cheap,” Cliff said as he cut into his lasagna.
“Good,” Tyler said, “because neither am I.” He closed his eyes and inhaled the steam rising from his veal parmesan. The sauce smelled tangy with enough oregano to make it interesting. The meat was so tender he could cut it with only his fork. “If I do this, I’m going to need more than the normal Patriot rate.”
“I had a feeling you’d want some good coin. The client’s willing to pay well. They have a guy on the detail already but want another.”
“You know much about him?”
Cliff shrugged. “Client says he’s good at his job. I got the impression he’s not very warm and fuzzy. They can’t seem to keep a second man.” Cliff spread his hands and smirked. “With some of the more charming aspects of your personality, I figured you’d fit right in.”
Tyler pondered the offer as he ate the delicious veal. He could use the cash. All new businesses could, and while he didn’t know much about being an entrepreneur, he knew money was a good thing to have in abundance. On the other hand, a few days protecting a pop singer would take him away from the shop at a crucial time. Maybe he could delegate some tasks to Smitty. In a pinch, he could ask his girlfriend Sara for some general management advice. It had been a few months since he’d seen any action, and hours of poring over spreadsheets made Tyler realize how much he missed it. Cuffing around a crazy fan would barely count. “I’ll think about it,” he said after a moment.
“I was hoping to leave with a yes,” Cliff said.
“We might still get there. When do you need to know?”
“As soon as possible.”
“You paying for dinner?”
Cliff frowned. “Why?”
“It’s an extra tally mark in the yes column if you are,” Tyler said.
“Patriot Security would love to buy your meal, then.”
“Thanks.” Tyler used the knife to push about half the remaining entree to the other side of the plate. He’d take it home for Lexi. “I’ll let you know soon.”
“Thanks,” Cliff said. “It’s just protection detail. You’ve done it a bunch of times. How hard could it be?”
Tyler knew the answer.
Durrani slapped a thin manila folder onto the table in front of Josef. The other man picked it up and opened it. “Not much here,” he said. “Who’s this guy?”
“The security detail,” Durrani said. “A few others have come and gone over the last couple years. This man is the constant. Donnell Rodgers.”
Josef frowned at the contents. “You looked over this already?” Durrani offered a small nod. “He doesn’t seem like anything special. No military history . . . a few years with the Baltimore County police.” Josef closed the folder and shrugged. “No wonder they’re looking to bring in another man.”
“Her father is cautious. I mentioned he’s the constant, but he’s never alone for long. Your intel is solid as usual. I expect them to have someone else in place before the concert.”
“We could just grab her from her house,” Josef said. “Even if this guy lives with them—”
“He does,” Durrani interjected.
“Fine. Even so, he’s one guy. The dad’s not much. Shoot two guys and grab the girl. Easy.”
Durrani shook his head. “In theory, perhaps. In practice, not so much.” He slid another paper toward Josef, this one showing a picture of a nice house. “They have an excellent alarm system. Video. Multiple redundant backups. The dad is a major contributor to local police charities. Even if it only takes a couple minutes to do what you suggest, we would be on camera. There could be fans near her house hoping for a look at her. It’s too big a risk.”
“All right.” Josef stood and walked the documents to the cross-cut shredder. It turned them into confetti. He learned years ago not to leave a paper trail. “You’ve obviously thought about this. I know you said you wanted to test her security. What’s the plan?”
“She has two events before the concert,” Durrani said. “Some appearance and album signing at a mall. It’s a good venue to see what they’ve got. Make sure you have someone lined up. The other is her rehearsal. Her fan club members can get some tickets to see it.”
“You’re a member?”
“I am.” Durrani smiled. “We’ll need someone to go there as well. Think of it as the final rehearsal for us, too. You and I can wait in the garage.”
“You must have a very wealthy buyer on the hook,” Josef said.
“We will both be able to live the good life for a few months.” Durrani already did, but he knew downtime and exotic destinations appealed to Josef. “There is always demand for the services we provide. In a couple years, there will be another pretty singer, and someone else will want to own her, too. Who are we to deny the wealthy men of the world the pleasures of a young woman?”
“Who indeed?” Josef echoed.
* * *
Tyler checked his appearance in the mirror. At the repeated urging of Cliff, he agreed to meet with the potential client before making a decision. A perk of serving in the army was never needing to wonder about your wardrobe. Tyler missed those days. He’d never considered himself a fashion plate—something Lexi reminded him of from time to time—and he wondered how to dress. Would a suit be too formal? Would a shirt and pants be too casual? “Bah.” Tyler undid his tie and tossed it onto the bed. He slipped the jacket on. If a navy blue suit and pressed white shirt weren’t good enough for the client—tie or no tie—the hell with him.
The person interested in hiring him requested the meeting at a small conference room inside the Lord Baltimore Hotel. It was a nice place—not the high standards Tyler ascribed to a pop singer, but good enough. The historic nature of the building lent some extra cachet. It was also convenient to the Baltimore Arena. Short drives minimized security risks. Tyler arrived at the venue and secured a guest parking pass. A hotel staffer led him to the “breakout room,” according to its signage. It offered no further explanation of what the hell a breakout room was.
Inside, a rectangular table offered comfortable seating for six. Audio conferencing equipment Tyler remembered from his army days sat atop it. A blank whiteboard hung on the otherwise barren walls. The client occupied the seat at the far end. He was about Tyler’s age and twice his size. Beady brown eyes peered over glasses no longer big enough for his face. They may have fit well ten years and seventy pounds ago. He stuffed himself into a polo shirt one size too small and dress pants whose overworked button threatened to break free with every breath. He didn’t stand when Tyler entered. “Jeff Wilkinson,” he said from his seat.
“John Tyler.” The two shook hands, and Tyler took a seat to Wilkinson’s right facing the door.
“Tell me about yourself.”
“I used to work for the company you hired,” Tyler said. He inclined his head toward a leather portfolio. “Unless I’ve missed my guess, you have my file from Patriot in there.”
Wilkinson sat there like he expected more. Tyler often left people feeling this way in conversations. They could learn to get over it. Eventually, Wilkinson said, “I do have your C.V. here.”
He seemed like exactly the type to call it a C.V. Tyler wondered if he knew what the initials meant. The company provided a few pages detailing the qualifications of every person they sent into the field—a courtesy Cliff apparently extended to former operatives, as well. Tyler did a little research of his own. The porcine man at the head of the table was both Alex Anne’s father and manager.
“Do you have anything to add to it?”
“I’m sure it’s very complete,” Tyler said.
“You were in the army for twenty-four years.” Not a question.
Wilkinson tried to lean back in the chair but only made it a couple inches. “Your C.V. doesn’t mention much about your experience.”
“There are several good reasons.”
Wilkinson frowned but continued. “And you worked for Patriot Security for eight years?”
“Eight years and two months,” Tyler said. “But who’s counting?”
“Why did you leave?” Wilkinson asked.
“You’ve dealt with Cliff so far, right?” The other man nodded. “His partner Danny is an asshole.” Tyler shrugged. “I got tired of taking orders from him.”
“How old are you, Mister Tyler? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Fifty,” he said. ”I’ll turn fifty-one in a couple months.”
“I’m fifty-one,” Wilkinson said. “I wouldn’t hire myself to protect my daughter.”
“Well, there are . . . a few differences between us.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m not sure of your ability to protect her,” Tyler said.
“Are you implying I’m fat?”
“No, but I also don’t need to, do I?” Wilkinson crossed his arms under his chest. “I’m not trying to be rude. We all have our limitations. Mine’s probably in what people like to call soft skills. You’re obviously concerned enough about your daughter to hire someone to protect her. It means you don’t think you can do it yourself.” Wilkinson didn’t say anything. Tyler understood the power of silence. Normally, he was content to lapse into it and wait. Cliff wanted the favor, however, so he filled the conversational gap. “I’m extremely overqualified to be extra muscle for a teenaged girl, regardless of her profession or popularity. If my ‘C.V’ doesn’t make it clear, nothing I say is going to help.”
The client made a show of frowning, pursing his lips, grimacing, and any other expression he could summon to show how put out he was. Tyler offered nothing else. Eventually, the other man said, “You’re very direct, aren’t you?”
“Don’t know any other way to be.”
“I’m not sure Donnell is going to like you.”
“Am I here to augment your daughter’s security,” Tyler said, “or win a popularity contest?”
“You shouldn’t take Donnell lightly.”
“I don’t. I’m sure he’s capable. You wouldn’t hire a clown. The reality, however, is if he were doing a bang-up job on his own, you wouldn’t need me.”
“I have concerns,” Wilkinson said. “My daughter is popular. A lot of it is great, but it comes with an ugly side, too. People always wanting to take her picture. Creepy fan emails and social media posts.” He shuddered. Tyler wondered if people still sent good old-fashioned death threats in the mail. “Those have been on the rise recently. We haven’t toured in well over a year, and it all starts soon. She has a couple appearances coming up, a concert at the Arena in two nights, and then we’re on to Philadelphia and up into the northeast. I’d like you to stick around for a few days, maybe a week.”
Tyler wondered what the appearances were. Celebrities needed attention. Some for a pathological reason, but their careers would wither on the vine without it. Proximity and accessibility to fans often clashed with good security practices. Tyler wondered where Wilkinson and Donnell fell when the topic came up for debate. He didn’t relish the idea of leaving town now, but they could figure it out at the appropriate time. “Do you have a specific concern in Baltimore?”
Wilkinson shook his head. “No, but she’s from Baltimore.”
“So am I,” Tyler said. “I’m not hiring extra security.”
“You’re not a popular singer.”
“A relief to the ears of millions, I’m sure.”
Wilkinson smiled for the first time in this sit-down. “If you’d like to come aboard, we’d love to have you.”
“I’m thinking about it,” Tyler said. “I want to know the chain of command, though. Would I work for you or Donnell?”
“Me.” Wilkinson patted his chest a few times. “If you see something, I want you to act on it. I don’t think Donnell will be a problem, but I’ll address it with him if there’s an issue.” He paused. “What do you say?”
Tyler wanted to accept. On the off chance the job provided any excitement, he could use it. The money wouldn’t hurt, either. Concerns about being away from the shop nagged at him. Tyler chided himself for being indecisive. Trying to open a business left him out of sorts. He could use the break, but he also needed to do the transaction through Cliff. Tyler stood. “I’ll talk to Cliff, and we’ll let you know tonight.”
“What?” Wilkinson frowned. “Cliff told me—“
“I don’t work for him anymore,” Tyler said. “I’m a free agent. We’ll let you know tonight. If it’s not good enough, feel free to call another company.”
The scowl continued a few seconds before Wilkinson nodded. “All right. I’ll look forward to your answer, then.”
Tyler left. He had a good feeling what the answer would be.
(Text is copyright 2021 by Tom Fowler)
I hope you enjoyed this preview. Lost Highway released on October 19th.
To order it today, please visit this universal link.