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Onlookers stood around the yellow tape, their phones at the ready, trying to catch a glimpse of the dead man. There wasn’t much to see. He had a hole right in the middle of his forehead. It was a clean shot, a shot any marksman could be proud of.
“What do you think?” the detective on duty asked.
I stood up to my full height and covered the dead body that lay exposed on the cold hard ground with a crisp white sheet. He deserved some dignity, even if he was a piece of shit wrapped in skin.
Then there was also the fact that this particular victim was a victimizer. It made my job even harder, particularly when I was glad he was dead. He’d killed his wife four years prior, and had gotten away with it because someone forgot to read him his Miranda rights. He’d been walking the streets, using his dead wife’s money to buy hookers and cocaine, for four years.
Now he was gone. I’d say good riddance if this had only happened to him, but I had no less than twelve cases just like this sitting on my desk. Dead men—not to mention a few women—who deserved to be dead. Only they weren’t dying of natural causes. They were dying because someone was taking justice into his or her own hands.
I also had cases of missing criminals that were suddenly solved. One had been found just last week tied up on the front steps of the courthouse. The security footage from that time frame had somehow been wiped; it couldn’t even be found in the cloud. Yet there the shithole sat, a rag stuffed in his mouth as he waited for the sun to come up. Then another the previous month, where a mother who had traded all her children for heroin was found tied to the fountain in the city’s busiest park. Again, no security footage could be found, even though there were cameras all over the place.
Whoever was doing this was really good at covering his tracks.
The detective cleared his throat. “Officer Clark?”
“Just Clark,” I said quietly. I wasn’t with the police department anymore, although they still contacted me when a case needed some special attention. I’d been told I had a knack for finding people who didn’t want to be found. I’d given up my badge, though. I had enough people to take care of in my private life. I didn’t need any more.
The detective looked decidedly uncomfortable. “What do you think, Clark?”
“I think he’s dead.” I popped a piece of gum into my mouth and started to chew. Even though I’d quit smoking ten years ago, I still wanted one in times of stress. My fingers got twitchy and I started patting my pockets. Gum took off some of the edge, but not all of it.
“Well, no shit,” the detective barked.
“The bullet hole in his forehead should have clued you in.” I sent him a sideways grin.
The muscle in the man’s jaw ticked as he clenched his teeth.
“Can’t say I’m sad about it. Whoever took him out did me a favor.” I’d been tracking him for months, trying to catch him doing something wrong, but I hadn’t had any luck.
“You’re going to consult on this one, right?” the detective asked.
“Don’t know why I would.” I lifted the yellow tape that cordoned off the area and ducked beneath it.
I had almost made it to my car when a blue sedan pulled up next to me. “William Clark,” a voice called. I grinned. I knew that voice. It belonged to my former boss, my mentor, my reason for still freelancing for the police department. John Spanner was my connection to my old life. A life where I wore a gun and a badge. A life where I took care of others. Now it was all I could do most days to take care of myself.
“Boss,” I replied. I rested my elbows on the top of his car and leaned toward his open window. I knew he wasn’t my boss anymore. He knew it too, but he’d always hold that place in my life. He was my conscience when I really didn’t have one. “What’s up?”
“Dead body?” He nodded toward the crime scene.
“Anyone we know?”
“Danny the dick.”
His eyebrows rose. “Danny the dick is dead?”
“Ding dong,” I sang back at him.
He whistled slowly. “Can’t say I’m sorry to hear he’s gone.”
“Whoever did it deserves a medal.”
“Any idea who that might be?”
“Danny had more enemies than friends. Could have been anyone.” I turned my head away and blew my gum out of my mouth. It had lost all its flavor.
He nodded. “Get in. I’ll buy you lunch.”
I shook my head. “Can’t. Got to go watch somebody dunk a baby.”
“What?” His brow furrowed.
“Baptism. Friend. I’m going.”
“Someone invited you out in public?”
Okay, so I was a little rough around the edges and I really didn’t give a shit what anyone thought of me, but that one did sting a little. “Some people like me.”
“Let me guess. A former client?”
I grinned. “Solve a case for someone and you become his best friend.” I patted my stomach. “I’m hoping there’s free food.”
A few months back, I’d done some surveillance work for a man named Mason Peterson when his wife Lynn was missing. It was a complicated case, and we’d eventually found her, but not without some problems along the way. They’d just had a baby boy and invited me to his christening. I’d accepted. I might be a cold, hard bastard, but I liked a happy ending. I’d never get one of my own, but I did take pleasure in other people’s.
“You’re looking good, Clark. Better than the last time I saw you.”
I nodded and stood up tall, looking into the distance, suddenly wishing this conversation could be over. “I’m going to be late.”
He nodded and pulled into a parking space. I rushed to get in my car, still thinking about the dead guy. He had been one of my cases, and now he was dead. He wasn’t the first. There had been more like him in the past few months. We had a vigilante killer on our hands. Someone was killing people who were weaker than him—or her. We also had a vigilante fixer. I’d bet ten to one that they were the same person, but I had no proof. There was no profile yet. But there would be soon. I’d keep an eye out.
Lynn was going to kill me. I was late. I couldn’t possibly be late for my nephew’s christening, but I was. I loved that kid desperately, and my sister had asked me to be his godmother. It didn’t matter that everyone else thought I was crazy. Lynn loved me. She accepted me and she had enough faith in me that she was entrusting me with the care of her child, should anything ever happen to her and Mason. At best, she was trusting me to love him and care for him. At worst, she trusted me to guide him through life.
The thought of her trusting me with something so precious made it difficult to swallow, and every time I thought about it, I got that same lump in my throat. Someone trusted me with something. Lynn trusted me. She’d never trusted me, despite all I’d done for her throughout the years. Not until now.
Lynn and I were twins, though we’d never lived together after the age of six, aside from the odd summer or weekend when they let us be together. Our parents had sent me to live with our grandmother. Lynn had stayed with our parents. Lynn had suffered unimaginable terror, and there were repercussions from her having stayed with people who didn’t value her life at all.
Finally, though, Lynn had the life she’d always wanted. At the age of thirty-seven, she was finally the woman she wanted to be. She liked running ten miles every morning, she could often be found with black nail polish adorning her slim fingers, and she liked to tinker with cars. But most of all, she loved that husband of hers. And together, they’d made a baby, a new life. They’d created something miraculous and wonderful and, since I knew I’d never have one of my own, I doted on that little guy like he was everything to me.
His name was Jason and he was named after Mason’s father. Today, Mason and Lynn would dedicate him to God, and even though I didn’t believe in such a deity that could be in charge of my life, they did, and they wanted to impart that knowledge and belief to their son. I would support them in that. I would stand in front of a group of people and promise to lead him in the ways of the church. I’d treat the church like a temple, even if it wasn’t mine. Hell, I’d become a nun if that was what it took to be in his life. Truth be told, I was always in awe of God’s power. Luckily, today, all Lynn needed was for me to stand beside her and agree with the person leading the service.
But first, I needed my good dress. I stopped really quickly at the drycleaner to pick up my favorite dress, one that Lynn gave me on my last birthday. It was a classic tan color with a flared skirt. It could have been a brown paper sack and I’d still have loved it, if Lynn gave it to me. She’d also given me the one I was wearing now, and I loved it just as much.
What most people didn’t understand was that I needed Lynn like I needed air. Without her, my lungs didn’t work, my heart stopped beating, and my brain malfunctioned. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I was only crazy where Lynn was concerned.
Well, where Lynn was concerned and when it came to those who hurt children or other people who couldn’t protect themselves. That drove me a little nuts. Not like homicidal nuts. Just like kick-your-ass kind of nuts. Only one person made me homicidal-nuts, and I’d gotten rid of him quite some time ago.
Now that I didn’t have to worry about Lynn as much, I could focus a little more on me. I dashed into the drycleaner’s and slapped my palm against the top of the tiny bell on the counter. A man came from the back of the building, his eyes dragging slowly up and down my body as he stalked toward me. I had an instant and almost insatiable urge to kick him in the balls. But now I had to be respectable. I had a nephew I was obligated to guide in life. I had to set a good example. I would try to refrain from kicking this guy in the nuts. But I wasn’t above punching him in the throat.
I passed him the claim ticket for the dress, and he dawdled around the front of the shop, letting his grubby fingers linger against mine as he took my credit card and ran it.
“How much longer will it be?” I asked, drumming my fingers on the countertop.
He laid his upper body on the counter, so he could lean closer to me. “Are you in a hurry?”
I didn’t answer. Where I was going was none of his business. “Did you ask someone to go and get my dress?”
“Mm-hmm,” he hummed, licking his lips. His eyes did that slow slide down my body again.
“My dress?” I said, a little less kindly.
He lifted one side of the hinged counter and motioned for me to walk through. “Come on. You can help me get it.”
“Thank you, but I’ll wait here.” I began to tap my foot on the floor.
“Scared?” he teased.
“No, but you should be.” I leaned toward him. “Go get my fucking dress.”
His eyes lost the teasing glint that had been present. “I was just trying to get to know you,” he said, his eyes darkening. It was almost imperceptible, but I knew dark. And I also knew he hadn’t seen dark yet.
“I’m not interested in getting to know you,” I replied. “I am interested in picking up my dress, so if you’d go and get it, I’d really appreciate it.” I bit back the filthy retort that had momentarily rested on the edge of my tongue. Keeping it to myself was tough, but I did it.
He dropped the edge of the counter and closed the divide. “Be right back.”
I kept an eye on my watch. When five minutes had passed, I slapped the bell on the counter again. When no one appeared, I looked at my watch again. I was going to be late. I lifted the countertop so I could walk through, toward the back of the shop. When I rounded the corner, I saw him sitting on a chair, playing a game with popping bubbles on his phone.
“My dress,” I said loudly. He looked up for just a moment, and then back down at his game.
“Just a minute,” he muttered.
I walked over and plucked his phone from his hand.
He looked up at me, his mouth falling open. He reached for the phone, but I stepped back. “Your phone for the dress,” I said.
He reached to grab me, and I slammed my fist into his throat. He dropped like a stone, gasping for breath. I looked down at him. “You should have just gotten my fucking dress, asshole.”
I stepped over him and started searching the racks. They were labeled by date, so I went to the most recent group. I found my dress, laid it over my arm, and walked back across the room. He was still trying to take a deep breath. He’d be fine. I stepped over him again and walked out. I’d already paid, so I wasn’t worried about that. On a normal day, I would have left a tip for him, but this wasn’t a normal day and he wasn’t a normal man. He was one of them. One of those people I despised.
He had better be glad I let him live.
I drove as fast as I could to the church, and then I went in the backdoor. I knew there were some rooms back here where brides changed into their wedding gowns, so I ducked into one and hung my dress on a peg. I really had to pee, so I ran across the hall and skidded into the bathroom stall. As soon as I arrived, I realized I really didn’t have time for a bathroom break after all, and I opened the door to leave, but my dress got hung on the sliding bolt on the door.
I froze, and then very gently tried to pry it free, but it was stuck. The dress I needed was in the other room. Maybe if I got out of this one, I could dash across the hall and get it, but first I had to get out of this one. I unbuttoned it and bent so I could slip it over my head. I stood there for a second, doubting the wisdom of my plan, but Lynn and Mason and their child, they were all waiting. My phone buzzed from the pocket of the dress I no longer wore. I pulled it out. It was Lynn wanting to know where I was.
I took a deep breath, opened the bathroom door, and stuck my head out. No one was in the hallway. I was around the corner from the sanctuary, so no one could possibly see me. Could they? I took a deep breath, stepped out, and then I froze, because he was there. Damn it. Couldn’t a girl have a weak moment once in a while without witnesses? The very day I decided not to wear a bra, I had to streak nearly naked through a church, and he had to be the one to bump into me.
I didn’t really bump into him, because that would mean skin-on-skin contact, and all we had right now was eye contact. That is, until his eyes started that slide down my body. My face heated and my pulse hammered. He looked away almost as quickly as he’d looked down, and his eyes looked everywhere but at me, which was good, I guessed. He could have been a letch. He obviously wasn’t.
He was a good guy, I knew that much. I knew because he’d helped my sister last year. And me, too, for that matter. Had I ever thanked him? I probably should do that.
I pressed my fingertips over my nipples and said the only thing I could think to say. “Why are you back here, Clark?”