Choked Up

Up to Trouble Book Four

Choked Up Cover
Part of the Up to Trouble series:

Mark Beecher is still recovering from his abduction on Barbados. He and his boyfriend, FBI Special Agent Aaron Pearce, have a lot to process due to those traumatic events, and in the months since, both have experienced accomplishments and setbacks.

When a case in Detroit calls Pearce back to the city where the two met, he grudgingly leaves Mark on his own. The case involves the murders of four gay men, all strangled, and all with a note in one hand. These notes contain clues that point to a case from Pearce's past, and proves what he already fears: Robert Morgan, terrorist mole within the FBI and Pearce's former lover, has invited Pearce back to Detroit to finish things between them.

With Pearce gone, Mark focuses on his recovery, a process that accelerates once he sees a news report from Detroit and realizes the toll this new case is taking on Pearce. Mark decides it's time to stop letting fear control his life. He will join Pearce in Detroit, and together they will stop Morgan once and for all.

Excerpt:

Agent Malak Bata cleared his throat. "Although the city of Detroit has come out of bankruptcy, and the new mayor is fully engaged in bringing the city back, there has been a continuous reshuffling of top police management, and I believe the department is more than happy to hand off as many cases as they possibly can. The Michigan State Police are helping more and more with local law enforcements throughout a number of communities, but their resources are also stretched thin." He reached down to a soft-sided briefcase resting on the floor beside him and extracted several manila case folders. With raised eyebrows, he held up the files. "May I show you what it is we are investigating?"

A stern and frightened voice inside Pearce's head shouted, No! But with growing unease, Pearce felt himself nod and got up to follow Bata to the small round table that took up a corner of Harris's office. His fingertips tingled, and he could hear the blood pounding in his ears.

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Robert Morgan. This had to be about him. It was the only explanation for why both Bata and Harris wanted his help. A ghostly ache started in his right shoulder, the old stab wound delivered by none other than Morgan himself as he'd held Pearce tied to a chair in that abandoned house. Things would have gotten worse for Pearce, too, had Mark not interrupted Morgan and saved him. Now, Pearce caught himself rubbing his shoulder and lowered his hand as Bata spread out on the table black-and-white photographs of four different crime scenes.

Shock sent cold, sharp needles through Pearce, and for a frightening moment, he feared he might pass out, his eyes widening as the images dredged up long-buried memories.

"As you can see, we have a serial killer on our hands," Bata said. "The positioning of the bodies. The way in which the victims were murdered. A few other similar details. All of this points to one killer."

Pearce's mouth was dry. He had questions, quite a few questions. They snapped inside him like live wires, but he couldn't seem to focus enough to decide which to ask first. It was like trying to pick one conversation out of a crowd of people all shouting at once.

"Agent Pearce?" Harris asked, his tone much quieter, softer than Pearce was used to. "Are you all right?"

AD Harris's question and tone brought Pearce back to himself. He swallowed, nodded to Harris, and looked at Bata. "How did he kill them?"

"Strangled."

Pearce's stomach rolled, and the chicken wrap he’d had for lunch seemed on the verge of coming up.

He fought through it and asked, "Why come to me about this? I'm sure you have well-qualified agents in Detroit who can take this on. Why me?"

Bata gestured to the photographs, and Pearce could not keep his gaze from dropping to them again. Four men, all apparently in their early twenties, lying on their backs, arms stretched out to the sides, heads turned to the right. Now that Bata had explained they had been strangled, Pearce could see a dark-colored scarf tied tight around their throats and the dark shadow of bruising just visible above.

"As you can see," Bata said. "There have been four victims. In the right palm of each, a small slip of folded paper was found. A few words were written on each note, but it wasn't until this last victim, found two weeks ago, that we were able to decipher the entire message."

"What was the message?" Pearce asked.

Bata extracted a small notebook from his inner suit coat pocket and consulted it. "The first note read WAITING FOR YOU. The second read COME FIND ME. The next read STILL WAITING, and this last message read, JEREMY GREENE IS THE KEY."

"Fuck me," Pearce said and turned away. He paced the room, fists clenched, teeth grinding together.

Bata's tone was quiet, referential, as he said, "Jeremy Greene was your stepbrother. He was murdered when you were very young."

Pearce nodded. "Yes. But no note was left with him that I ever heard about."

Bata shook his head. "There was no note. And, just to be clear, I do not think this killer we are seeking is the same man who murdered your stepbrother. These murders were committed with one goal in mind: to get attention, specifically yours."

"Jesus Christ," Pearce said and ran his hands over his face. Exhaustion and guilt fell across him like a heavy cloak. Four men had lost their lives just to get his attention. What kind of fucking psychopath did that?

"This is Robert Morgan asking you to come back to Detroit," Bata said. "He wants to finish what was started between the two of you at the beginning of the year."

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