By Jean Majury

Each Sky Ridge mansion sprawls over an acre of land. Each possesses spectacular valley and mountain views. And each is owned by a multi-millionaire. I'm not a multi-millionaire and I don't own a Sky View mansion. What I am is a full-time watchdog guarding a secret in one.

I'm only thirty-five, but already an ex-cop. Not by choice, but by happenstance. One night while working patrol, I shot and killed a guy I thought was a house burglar in a seedy area of the city. Turned out he had locked himself out of his house and was trying to force his way back in.

The prosecutor's inquest found my actions justified, but the police department's internal investigation worried about what it called my "poor judgment." I lost my job. A ten-year police career dead just like the guy I killed.

Fortunately, a lucrative watchdog gig popped up a few weeks later. Somebody named Jeff Kincaid called me. I liked him the minute he brought up my lost job and said, "You got a raw deal." When he set up an interview for another that paid $80,000 a year, I liked him even better.

Before I met Kincaid, I checked him out on the net. His credentials overwhelmed me. A software genius, he worked for Core, a premier corporation. The sites labeled him "reclusive" and "a loner."

Apparently, Kincaid was so tight-lipped Core claimed it never knew what he was working on until it was a done deal. Despite this claim, the sites hinted his current project might render "cloud" obsolete.

The last tidbit indicated Kincaid was "an avid baseball fan." A blurred photo alongside the bio showed him wearing his team's baseball cap. Other than the cap, all I could make out was a bland, narrow face. Typical egghead, I thought.

Kincaid and I met at Chuck's, a remote dive in a former lumber town located about 15 miles from Sky Ridge. I recognized Kincaid right away because of the Mariners' baseball cap. Still, the blurred photo didn't prepare me for the ice cubes which doubled as his eyes.

"Chuck's a rustic place," said Kincaid, "but the food is great." The food consisted of chili burgers and limp fries, which I washed down with Bud Light. Kincaid sipped a diet cola.

"Here's what I envision," he said. "Business trips occupy my time. I need someone who's qualified to protect my research. That someone is you."

"Outline it for me," I said, pushing the remnants of my chili burger to the side.

Kincaid leaned toward me as if he were ready to unload a virus. "I need someone to kill for me if necessary."

I blinked. His sentence was harder to digest than the foul food. "Why?" I asked.

"I'm almost finished with my current software project," he said. "It's original. It's break-through technology." He brought his thumb up to his mouth, bit on the cuticle, and said, "People outside the corporation would kill to get it."

"So, I'm supposed to kill, too?" I waited for an answer, all the while staring at his thumb.

Kincaid finally stopped gnawing on it and said, "No, not unless someone tries to steal it from me."

His voice, hovering below the soft zone, provided no other information except the so-called "breakthrough technology" was hidden in a place I was to guard, but never enter. "I'll tell you more if you accept the job," he said.

Something right then hit me as off. But before I could refuse, Kincaid shoved a written agreement in front of me. In a dramatic hand gesture, he slashed through the $80,000 number first mentioned to me, wrote in $100,000, and initialed it.

That much money for guarding the house five days a week for a year while he was gone and during the brief times he was present. Still, I hesitated.

"Well?" Kincaid's one-word question forced my answer.

"It's an offer I can't refuse," I said, and signed the agreement.

After grunting out a "Great," Kincaid provided additional details. Details I should have asked about before I accepted his offer.

"You must remain inside the house, and I stress 'inside,' 24 hours a day, five days a week. Wally will relieve you on the weekends. You'll use his car when you leave. When you return, you'll hand the car keys over to him. Once he leaves, reset the code."

Stunned over the setup, I asked, 'What's this 24/5 all about?"

"It is what it is," he said. "You've got an exercise room, a giant TV and access to any film you want to see. Time will go by fast."

"You didn't mention 24/5 or Wally before I signed," I said.

"You missed the fine print when you signed the agreement," Kincaid said. "It's all there."

I took a deep breath. I reminded myself I'd get two days off a week and it was only a year's contract. For a hundred thousand, I could suffer a little. I decided to move on.

"How will I recognize Wally?" I asked.

"He's similar to you in height, weight and coloring, but older. He wears dark glasses and has a scar on his right cheek."

"What about his car? What kind is it?"

"A gray Chev sedan. Year, 2008."

"I guess that's enough to go on," I said.

Kincaid ignored my sarcasm. "Since you're unemployed, I assume next Friday works as a start date."

"I could do it this Monday," I said.

Kincaid ignored my alternative. "I'll pick you up outside your apartment around 9 PM this Friday," he said. "I'll drive you to my home, show you the layout, and then head off. I've got a red-eye flight to London to catch."

Everything Kincaid said sounded rehearsed. I wondered how many security guards had worked for him before me.

The following Friday, I gathered up my meager assortment of clothes, the agreement, and personal items, and met him outside my apartment. Kincaid's car was the same unimpressive hybrid he drove when we met at Chuck's.

It took us 45 minutes to reach Sky Ridge. Once past the gated entry, Kincaid drove up a winding road and parked behind an impressive French Chateau.

Kincaid guided me to a back door. After he coded us in, he led me through a mud room, past a kitchen and bedroom, and finally into a huge living room. From there we toured an exercise room, where he pointed out equipment I'd probably ignore.

We ended up in a study. Computers, huge monitors, printers, copy machines, and books covered desks, tables and shelves. It was here that Kincaid played office with me. He sat down behind a steel desk in the study's center and motioned me to the chair on the other side of it.

"Let me give you a few instructions," he said. "Memorize them because they're not in print, nor will they be."

"In a few minutes, I'll show you your bedroom and bathroom area. We passed by them when we came inside. They're located next to the kitchen."

"Close to the food, huh?" I joked.

Kincaid didn't crack a smile. "No, close to the area that must be protected," he said. He then outlined what protection procedures I should follow. After verbalizing the gate and door codes and demanding I repeat them after him, he handed me the interior door keys.

Once that spate of information ended, he took me back to the kitchen. For a man needle-thin, the kitchen suggested gourmet excess. An Aga stove, two microwaves, a refrigerator as big as a bank safe, and more hogged the space.

Kincaid stopped in front of an open pantry and pointed at the ceiling-high shelves filled with staples to the side and back. "This area is off limits," he said. "No one, including you, can enter, take, remove, use, or do anything inside this pantry."

"So what am I supposed to eat?" I asked

Kincaid moved over to the refrigerator and opened its double doors. "There's enough inside here to feed a frenzy."

"So, what I protect is either in the pantry or behind it, right?"

I didn't get an answer. Instead, Kincaid handed me $7,000 in cash as an initial down payment for my services.

He also gave me a couple of index cards and a pen. "Write these numbers down," he instructed. "The first is my cell phone number. The second is Wally's."

Once Kincaid left, my watchdog job began. I roamed every room in the place every other hour. I even snooped in the study, but I wasn't about to turn on a computer or anything else in that room.

The only thing I found there was a gum wrapper lying on the floor by a table leg. I bent down and picked it up. Before I tossed it into the waste paper basket, I noticed three letters written on it, an "I," "O," and "N."

That night I watched a lot of TV and forced myself to exercise. I also cracked a couple of foreign beers from the supply stashed in the refrigerator. I wanted more, but restrained myself .

After I did a look-see after midnight, I stepped inside the bedroom next to the kitchen, plopped into bed, and fell asleep. I kept the security alarm system rigged. If it went off, I'd hear it.

Around two o'clock the next morning, I heard shouting. I got out of bed, pulled my gun from under my pillow, and rushed toward the kitchen and pantry area. Both were unoccupied. I glanced around, pivoting from side to side.

No alarm had gone off. No one was around. I thought maybe I had imagined the shouting until a guy jumped out from the mud room and bolted into the kitchen. He wore a baseball cap pushed down over his forehead and a raincoat. It was as if he expected an impending storm.

He held a computer carry case in his left hand and a revolver in his right. He stopped midway in the kitchen. "What are you doing here?" he asked in a controlled voice.

I pointed my Beretta at him and said the same thing back to him.

"I own the place," he answered. "Stay where you are. I'm going to call the police." He dropped his laptop on the floor and reached into his raincoat.

I moved in front of the pantry. "You don't own this place," I said. "Jeff Kincaid does."

The guy frowned and waved his gun at me. Kincaid's warning about competitors who would do anything to get his secret pounded through my brain.

"Drop the gun," I snapped. "I'm security in this house."

The guy's calm manner changed. "Tell me another story." He straightened his arm out and leveled his gun at me.

The old burglary scene replayed in my mind, but I didn't want to repeat it. I warned, "Back off, man, or I'll shoot."

"Get out of here," the guy yelled and stepped toward me.

I heard a clicking sound which I assumed came from his gun. That's when the old cop instincts took hold of me. I shot him straight in the chest, right in the heart.

But that didn't end it because I heard the clicking sound again. Someone else, somewhere close by, shot me. Not in the chest, but in a place close to it.

When I awoke two days later, bandages encased my mid-section. A detective stood at the foot of m bed.

"You're lucky to be alive," he said. "How you managed to crawl back to the bedroom, dig out your cell phone and call 911 was awesome."

Groggy, filled with dope, I didn't need a compliment. I needed an answer. "Who shot me?" I asked.

"Who shot you?" I got a wise-guy smile. "Don't play dumb, Murphy," the detective said. "You shot and killed Jeff Kincaid."

My head buzzed like a hornet's nest. "No, no, I didn't kill Kincaid," I said. "He wasn't even there." My mind played with scenarios, but the detective sliced into them.

"What were you doing in Kincaid's house?" he asked. Again and again.

"He paid me to keep an eye on it," I muttered. he detective laughed. "What a story."

"No, no, it's not," I said. "Kincaid paid me to look after his house." After I gave him the complete lowdown, he said, "I don't believe you."

"Look in the bedroom by the kitchen," I begged. "Look in the bedside table. That's where I left the contract."

"We looked and found nothing except $7,000 in cash."

"That was a down payment."

The detective's eyes shot up to the ceiling. "You mean on a burglary," he said.

"Wait." I suddenly remembered the two index cards. "Go into my wallet. Check the cell phone numbers on the cards."

"We did already. They're fakes."

"No, no," I said. "Kincaid gave them to me." The detective shook his head.

"What about the pantry?" I asked. "That's where Kincaid hid the breakthrough technology stuff."

The detective threw up his hands. "Been there. Done that. Now why don't you admit you killed the guy and be done with it?"

My chest hurt, my mind was maize, but I knew enough to deny his request. And finally I asked for a lawyer.

But as time went on and I recovered, denials proved useless. For a while, Kincaid's employer, Core, even insisted I had stolen the new software program he was working on. They kept asking about a "dumb drive." After several hours of questioning me about what was really called a thumb drive, they stopped.

But the prosecutor's office didn't. They claimed I attempted a burglary in Kincaid's house, he caught me, I shot him, and he shot me before he died.

The problem was I knew Kincaid didn't shoot me. I kept insisting someone else had with the same kind of gun. I told them it was a fix to blame me for everything. They just didn't count on me surviving the bullet.

If my past had been clean, maybe someone might have believed me. But no, the old shot at the burglar who turned out to be the owner haunted me. Everyone thought I was guilty. The trial was over before it began.

I hoped an appeal would prove my innocence, but I remained skeptical. Until one night I was in the high-security wing with a few other prisoners watching television. A news broadcast blabbed about breakthrough technology. Normally, that would have faded into a background of non-news for me. Except for the guy staring at me from the screen.

"Atlas has reached a new software sphere," he said. "We are finally into the ionosphere with Ion." He spelled the three letters out, I-O-N. They were the same ones on the gum wrapper I had found in Kincaid's study.

The guy who spoke had eyes like ice cubes and gnawed on his thumb like it was a corncob.

I yelled, "I need to call my lawyer."

Jean Majury's mysteries have been published in Woman's World and received mention several times in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine's write-a-plot type monthly contests.

Copyright 2013 Jean Majury. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.