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Dark Prison (Gray Tower Book 1) by J. M. Brister (1)

Prologue

Congratulations, Keira,” everyone at the party said in unison as they lifted their glasses for a toast.  A group of twenty or so people were gathered around a large, ornate dining room table.  Everyone had finished eating, so a toast seemed appropriate.

Keira Amherst smiled and thanked the guests, taking a sip of her wine.  She hadn't wanted her father to throw her such an elaborate bash for finally graduating with her MBA, but he had insisted that he wanted to do something special.  She would have preferred to not have the celebration at Amherst Manor, a large estate in Virginia that was only an hour drive away from D.C.  However, her father, Damien Amherst, had gotten his way as always.

Everything seemed a little over the top in the formal dining room with the dark, paneled wood walls and the one hundred-thousand-dollar chandelier that loomed overhead.  She would have rather had a small intimate bash with her friends.  Instead, she was staring out into a sea of faces that she barely recognized.  They were a lot of her father's business associates.  Keira had been told all throughout her life that she was being groomed for a top spot in her father's business.  The get-together felt more like a coronation than a graduation party.

One of her father's colleagues turned toward her and asked, “When do you think you'll start at Amherst Global?  Do you know what you want to do there, yet?”

“I don't...” Keira trailed off.  

She had been concentrating so hard on school for so long that she hadn't quite thought that far ahead.  It had all been about graduating with her masters.  Now, everything suddenly felt so real.

“I'm sure there will be time to discuss that later,” her father interrupted, sensing her apprehension.

Keira smiled at him.  He was always so overprotective of her since her mother had died years ago in a fatal car crash.  It had just been the two of them since that time.  

Well, it was more like the two of them, a slew of staff that kept the mansion running, her dad's personal bodyguards and security associates, and his work colleagues who visited quite often.  Somehow, though, she always felt lonely when she was home from college.  It felt empty without her mother.

“I've interned at several companies every summer that I've had off,” she said, suddenly snapping back into business mode.  

If this was what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, she was going to have to learn to schmooze.

“I'm sure I'll find an appropriate spot,” she continued and smiled as best as she could.

Then Keira realized: Was this even what she wanted to do?  It was a sinking feeling that wouldn't quite go away, even though she had largely ignored it while dutifully working through school.  It had always been expected that she would take over her father's business eventually.  She had never been given the option otherwise.  She was an Amherst.  Taking some part in Amherst Global was inevitable.

“Since we're all finished with dinner, why don't we all move to the drawing room for some cognac and cigars?” Her father said with one of his dazzling smiles.  

Her father was a handsome man and was also extremely charismatic.  Damien Amherst stood a little over six feet tall with a great head of pepper and salt hair, but he always felt like the biggest guy in the room.  Keira knew that was how he had amassed his wealth from almost nothing to owning one of the largest privately-owned companies in the world.

Her graduation party guests were mostly made of men from Amherst Global, so it that was appropriate to do the “good old boys thing.”  Keira didn't like cognac, and she really hated cigar smoke.  However, her father had always told her to suck it up.  This was apparently the way things had to be if you wanted to connect with the higher-ups.  In a way, Keira felt like this was more about her father than her.  His progeny now had an MBA from an Ivy league school.  It was really all about him.

Keira sighed as she got up from the table and followed the chatty group down the long corridors of Amherst Manor to the drawing room, a favorite place to entertain for her father.  More of the same dark-paneled wood followed the hallways until they reached a large room with a fireplace, a bar with bartender ready to serve, and a grouping of soft brown leather seats.  Yes, this was the good old boys club.  She felt out of place among the sea of expensive suits in her little black cocktail dress and strappy heels.

“Keira, you are the spitting image of your mother,” one of the guests told her as they gathered into the room.  “We all miss her very much.”

She didn't really want to be reminded constantly that her mother, Lily Amherst, wasn't here to share in this celebration, but she did have to agree that the resemblance was uncanny.  They both had straight mousy brown hair, a tall frame, doe-like hazel eyes, and a slender build.  Keira liked to wear her hair a little bit shorter than her mother’s at about shoulder length, and she had surpassed her mother in height by an inch at five foot eight.  Yet, they looked so much alike that their pictures had an eerie resemblance.

“Yes, I miss her a lot,” Keira said, smiling as politely as she could, though she wanted to do nothing but shrink back into the crowd and disappear.

She dodged most of her father's associates and went straight for the back of the room.  Cigars were passed out, and the high-end booze was flowing.  Keira declined.  She had had enough.  Wanting desperately to get away, she ducked outside to the hallway.  Happy for a bit of peace and quiet, she shut her eyes for just a moment and began to take a few deep breaths.

“Are you all right, Keira?” Asked a familiar male voice from behind her.

Opening her eyes and turning around, she saw John Stratton, one of her father's closest friends.  Damien Amherst may have been the head of Amherst Global, but Stratton was the one working behind the scenes, making sure everything ran smoothly.  Because of the nature of his job, Keira saw him constantly at the house and used to call him “Uncle John” when she was younger, even though there was no relation.

John was a tall man, like her father, with dark brown hair and eyes.  They were both around the same age from what Keira understood.  While her father was more of a commanding man, John seemed softer somehow.  He wasn't the flashy type, and he rarely went to any of her father's events.  He liked to stay on the business side of things and wasn't much for socializing or small talk.  However, she knew that he could get whatever he wanted done just like her father.  They were like opposite sides of the same coin.

“I'm fine,” she told him, though she wasn't quite sure if that was the truth.

John cocked his head slightly.

“You don't look fine.  What's bothering you?”

Did she really want to open this can of worms in front of her father's right-hand man?  She's always thought that John had been more approachable than her own father, but she didn't want it to get back to her dad that she was having second thoughts about joining the business.

She sighed.  

“It just feels like my whole life has been planned out for me.  It's a bit overwhelming.”

John frowned, and asked, “Have you ever told your father about this?”

Of course, she hadn't.  Trying to talk to her father about anything important was always intimidating to her.  He was hard to approach and had extremely high expectations of her.  She didn’t want to let him down.

“I don't want to disappoint him,” Keira replied, beginning to get flustered.

“I try not to get involved between you and your father, but have you ever thought about talking to him?  It might not be a bad idea, especially before you start to really get involved in the company,” he told her.

“I suppose,” Keira said with a sigh.  “I’ll try and talk with him later.”

One of John’s eyebrows raised slightly.  He wasn’t going to let this one go.

“I’m sure he has time right now,” he told her.  “This is your party, remember?”

Keira shifted uneasily in her heels.

“Yeah, sure,” she agreed, though she wasn’t sure if she meant it.

John pulled a small headset from his pocket, put it in his ear, and turned it on.

“Stratton to security.  Where is Mr. Amherst?  Over.”  

There was a slight pause before he continued.

“Okay, tell him I'm bringing Keira by.  Over.”  

He turned toward Keira.

“Your father stepped out of the party and is in his office.  Care to come with me?”

That was the way things worked in Amherst Manor.  Keira usually needed an appointment to see her own father, even during her own graduation party.

“Okay,” she agreed, though she really wasn't all that keen on talking to her father about the whole thing.  

As they walked the long hallways of the Manor, she had butterflies in her stomach.  Why did she agree to this?  She didn't want to upset her father, especially during her graduation party.  Yet, she knew (and probably John as well), that if she didn't say something now, she would stay on her current path forever.

When they arrived at her father's office doors, she had to do a couple of quick breaths.  Her father was a workaholic, and it wasn't uncommon for him to slip off to work during any of his parties.  She was a little peeved that it was her party that he chose to leave, but that was typical of him.

John opened the door and showed Keira into her father's office.  It was a little over the top in design (at least for her taste).  There were expensive pictures on the wall of people hunting foxes on horseback.  Lush couches lined the perimeter, while her father's massive mahogany desk sat in the middle.  The whole room was lined with bookshelves, displaying leather titles that had probably never been read.  It was all for show, just like most of the décor in Amherst Manor.

Her father was sitting in his huge leather-backed chair, still on a phone call.  When he noticed them, he held up a finger for them to wait.

“Just get it done,” he said in a stern voice into the receiver and slammed down the phone.  

Then, he looked up at Keira and smiled thinly.  

“Sorry about that, sweetheart.  Business as usual.  What did you need?”

“I just wanted to...” Keira trailed off for a moment.  

There was a short pause.  

“Hey, can we talk?”

Her father's face remained emotionless as he said, “Certainly.”

Keira turned around to see where John was, but he had slipped out without saying a word.  She was now alone to face her father.

“What do you need?” Her father asked, the tone of his voice gave no emotion. 

It was all-business with him.

She walked forward hesitantly.  Her black heels clicking on the hardwood floor a little too loudly for her liking.  She attempted to speak, but her father interrupted her.

“Before you say anything, I really have something that I must show you.  I believe it's appropriate for today, since you are getting ready to be an important member of the company.  Eventually, you will run everything.  You understand that, right?”

Keira couldn't really respond.  She had lost control of the conversation before it had even started.  Her father was getting too sentimental about his legacy.  Perhaps her objections were a lost cause at this point.  He would probably break if she told him she didn't want to work for Amherst Global.

“Yes,” she said, trying to keep herself calm.

“It's important that I have an offspring who will continue this company to its fullest.  It's always been my greatest dream.”

Why did he have to say it in such an impersonal manner?  She suddenly felt small, like her father couldn't care less about her feelings in the matter.  To him, she was still a child who needed to be guided.

“Come here.  I want to show you something,” her father continued.

Keira stepped forward to his desk, her stomach in complete knots.  The opportunity had passed.  Her courage was suddenly gone.

“I know you just graduated, but I want to make sure we are on the same page,” her father said.  “Amherst Global is a great organization.  Its reach crosses the globe, and it is one of the most influential companies in the world.  But I want you to realize that it does much more than what you think.”

He pushed a manila folder toward her.  Keira reached out and took it in her hands, trying not to tremble.  She pulled it open and began to study its contents.  It was an Amherst Global file.

As she began to read, she furrowed her brow.  What was this?  It didn’t make any sense to her.  Although finance was not her specialty, there was a set of earnings reports that seemed off to her.

After a few moments of studying, she began to feel sick.

“What is all of this?” She asked, a knot in her stomach had formed, and she suddenly wished that she hadn't had any wine.

Her father stared at her intently and said, “There's more to Amherst Global than you think.  I want you to be completely on board before you take a leadership position in the company.”

Keira continued to study the files intently for a few more moments.  Then she suddenly jerked up her head.  What was her father trying to pull?

“These are business transactions that I don't recognize.  What is all of this?”

Her father gave her a wide smile, and it was a bit disturbing to Keira.  Something felt wrong.

“I don't understand,” she told him.

“I know you don't,” her father said. “But I want you to truly comprehend what you are getting into with this company.”

Keira's hands began to tremble, so she tried to steady them as best as she could.  What was he talking about?

“My company has expanded to many different avenues,” her father said.  “Some are off the books.  That hadn’t initially been the plan when I started my business.  But as with anything, time and pressure can change a man.”

Keira's throat was so tight that she couldn't even speak.  She wasn't sure what her father was about to reveal to her, but she just knew it would be bad.  

When she hadn't responded, her father continued, “There are a few dubious transactions that I wish you to know about.”

Something didn't feel right, and she wanted to flee.  But it was her father, what exactly was she supposed to do?

“The company does more than just shipping regular goods, Keira.”

Oh, no. No. No! She thought.  

What was he saying?  She almost stumbled backwards, but she caught herself on one of her father's plush leather sofas.  The huge office suddenly felt small.

“No,” he said with more intensity. “I want you to understand exactly what I’ve had to do to make my company what is has become.”

Her father reached out to her and grasped her arm, hard.  Keira gasped.  Her arm throbbed with the pressure.  Was he drunk?  She couldn't tell.  She had never seen her father this way.  He appeared to be dead serious.

“We don't just ship electronics.  Or cars.  Or materials.  Since the very beginning, the company has done some very special deliveries.

“I found that as I was struggling to keep the company afloat with local delivery that I could gain more influence and power by adding illegal items to the shipments: drugs, guns, and sometimes even people.  Within a short amount of time, my struggling business took off because I could make things happen for some very influential people.  I got a lot of investors from my back-room deals and the small Amherst Freight company transformed into Amherst Global.  That was almost thirty years ago.”

Keira felt sick, and she couldn’t seem to say anything.  What was she supposed to say?  The man who she had loved, respected, and looked up to was just a crook?  How could she have been so wrong about him?

“Don’t look so surprised, Keira,” he continued.  “This family would have never gotten as far as it has without some of my decisions.  Besides, you’ve certainly benefited from it.”

Keira wanted to fling back some kind of retort, but her mouth had gone completely dry. 

“You need to understand all of this before you take on responsibility for the company.  I’ve done this for you and for your mother…”

He trailed off for a moment staring away from her, seemingly looking at nothing.  His expression was emotionless. 

Then he continued.

“You’ve always had a good head on your shoulders, but you’ve always been naïve to the way the world really works.  It’s time that you open up your eyes.”

At least the last part of what her father said was true.  It was time to open her eyes and realize how much of a creep her father was.  How could she have been so blind not to see it before?

Or, maybe she had known all along and had never been able to admit it to herself?  The warning signs had been there the whole time.

“I don't want to be a part of your company,” she told him firmly.  It had been the first time that she had ever stood up to him, and it felt damned good.  “And I don’t want anything to do with you.”

Her father crossed the space between him and her so quickly that Keira didn't have time to react.  It was only an instant later that he slapped her hard across the face.  Pain and shock stung across her face.  The force of his blow made her jerk back so suddenly that she fell to the floor.

“Keep your mouth shut!” Her father growled harshly.  “It would have been a lot easier if you had just gone along with my plans.”

He stood over her and glowered.  The man had to be insane, Keira realized.

“You'll learn to go along with whatever I say, eventually.”

Looming over her, he pulled one of his legs back and kicked her forcefully in the gut.  Keira cried out in pain and tried to shield herself before another blow connected with her.  The wind seemed to get knocked out of her as she tried to crawl away; she was in too much pain to try and stand up.  It seemed to radiate up and down her entire body.

“This is for your own good,” her father bit out and kicked her again.

It was another blow to her chest and gut that left her breathless and in agonizing pain.  She gasped and tried to scream, but she could barely catch her breath, let alone call out for help.

Her father sneered down at her, a creepy smile forming on his face.  He kicked her again and again.  She instinctively clutched her abdomen to try and protect herself.  Pain radiated throughout her body.  Meanwhile, she was still in disbelief that this was happening.  How could her own father do this to her?

For a moment, the kicks stopped, and Keira thought that it was over.  She struggled for breath while she tried to crawl away.

Then, there was a forceful knock to her head.  Her vision shook for a moment; reality seemed like a blur.  A wave of nausea overcame her, and everything went cloudy.

Then, there was darkness.

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