Excerpt

Chapter 1: "A Shot in the Dark"

A Shot in the Dark

Three years ago

Careful not to open the door more than halfway, and to keep her hand firmly fixed to the doorknob, Lorie Destro smoothed her platinum bangs to the side and peered out at the man on her doorstep. As had been her habit for years, she quickly gave him a scrutinous once-over, memorizing the details of his appearance in the event that the information would be needed later. He was blonde and tanned, looked a bit disheveled, and wore faded blue jeans and a brown leather jacket to protect him against the cool morning air of early autumn. Outwardly he seemed harmless enough, but Lorie knew that outward appearances had no bearing on his threat level.

Only ten minutes before the man rang their doorbell, her husband had left the house on business. He had taught her long ago to be wary of strangers on their doorstep. His work, he had explained, was highly sensitive, and he would never tell her more than that about how he earned his six-figure income. He had even made a point just after their honeymoon twenty-one years before to show her the pistol stashed in the drawer of the foyer’s console table, and then he had promptly arranged for her to take lessons at the local shooting range so she wouldn’t be afraid to use it.

In the early years of their marriage, when simple curiosity had moved her to ask what exactly he did, he would come back at her with a nonchalant “it’s nothing you need to worry your pretty little head about”. He would then promptly change the subject with an offer to buy her a new piece of jewelry, or take her to the premier of a play downtown. Though she held a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management, earned only a year before she had met him, she soon realized that her pretty little head was wholly content with worrying about nothing more crucial than what to wear for her lunch date with friends, or whether the spa could fit her in for an entire afternoon of pampering.

Over the years, she rarely regretted her decision to leave behind her goal of becoming the smart, independent executive who didn’t need a man to keep her in favor of simply being the beautiful prize on his arm at prestigious functions. As a result, she had learned to keep her nose out of his business and ignore his occasional affairs while he kept his nose out of her shopping bags and pretended not to notice her frequent excursions with men who gave her the affection that he rarely had the time or desire to give her. It was a tidy arrangement that had been in place for just over two decades, and it satisfied them both.

As she continued to study the man standing on her threshold, the mid-morning sun marched out from behind a gathering of clouds to glare at her through the open doorway. She shaded her eyes against it while she finished examining every aspect of him. His height and build were as average as his clothing, and his disheveled appearance made him look as though he had just come off a hard day on the farm, but he had a pleasant, easy smile that was undeniably genuine. It was the smile that kept her from closing the door with a terse, “We don’t want any.”

“Can I help you?” she hesitantly asked.

“I really hope so,” the man answered as his eyes briefly skimmed over her figure. She was immaculately dressed in snug black jeans and a white form-fitting blouse that defined breasts suspiciously larger than were typical for a woman with her slender frame. “You’re Mrs. Destro?”

Right away, she recognized his accent and began to relax. It was southern, East Texan to be exact, and was identical to that of her husband’s late friend Jack Cortesi, as well as that of Jack’s son who was currently staying with them. She was now certain that the man before her was no threat.

“I am,” she told him.

Confirming her suspicion that he knew Jack and his son, he asked for their houseguest by name. “I’m looking for Silas Cortesi, ma’am. Is he here by any chance?”

“Yes, he is,” she replied, and swung the door open wide enough for him to enter. “He’s been staying with us since he lost his father a couple of months ago. He works for my husband. His dad did, too. Until he passed away, that is.”

With a nod of understanding, the man moved through the doorway into the large foyer and turned toward her while she closed the door.

“How’s he doing?” he asked.

The concern in his voice was sincere and Lorie dropped the last remnants of the guard she had established when she had first opened the door.

A grimace breezed across her attractive face, touching everything but her Botoxed forehead. “Hm, not great,” she told him. “He hasn’t been any trouble at all, but I don’t think that’s such a good thing. I think he’s taking it pretty hard. Working through the grief, I guess. Are you a friend of his?”

The man extended his arm toward her. “Rik Strohm,” he introduced himself as they shook hands. “Silas and I grew up together. Been friends since we were six years old.”

Leading him through the foyer and deeper into the sprawling 5,000-square-foot ranch home, she said over her shoulder: “Maybe seeing you will do him some good then. You have to be a good friend if you came all the way up here just to check on him. That’s a thousand mile trip, isn’t it?”

“Something like that,” Rik told her as he followed behind her. “I haven’t been able to reach him since I found out about his dad’s passing. His cell phone seems like it’s still active, but he doesn’t answer it and he hasn’t returned any of my calls. He never blows me off like this. It’s not like him.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” she replied. “He’s been mostly keeping to himself. I hardly see him. Sometimes I even forget he’s here. My husband seems to think he’ll be fine, that he’ll snap out of it, but I really don’t know. Frankly, I’ve been worried about him, but my husband’s given me firm instructions to leave him alone.” She shrugged as she glanced at him over her shoulder. “So that’s what I do.”

As she led him through several lavishly decorated rooms, Rik was reminded of the flawless rooms in his own wife’s decorating magazines, the ones he called her Wish Books. He would often catch her daydreaming over the expensive furniture and decor and he would feel compelled to remind her that people didn’t really live like that. Those were just showrooms in studios, he would tell her, more to make himself feel better about his inability to give her that lifestyle than to convince her of anything. Now he found himself walking through a real home that proved him wrong and he was glad she wasn’t with him to point it out.

As he glanced down at the toes of his scuffed boots moving across the highly glossed wood floors, he felt awkward and underdressed and painfully aware that it had been a while since he had cleaned the dirt from the sleeves of his jacket. Running a horse ranch kept him so busy that paying attention to his appearance was normally something he let his wife handle for him, and she was usually busy with their three sons and keeping the house in order. The dirt on his jacket was rarely a priority for either of them.

Before long, the primped and polished woman leading him to his best friend stopped at the end of a long hallway and pointed down it. “Second door on the right,” she said. “He’s probably still sleeping. That’s what he seems to do most of the time.”

Giving her a pleasant smile, Rik thanked her and carefully moved down the hall as she turned and headed off in the opposite direction.

At the door, he softly tapped and waited a moment as he put his ear against it, closely listening for the quiet answer of someone who had just been pulled from sleep. When no response came, he turned the knob and cracked the door open enough to peek into the bedroom beyond.

Despite the mid-morning sun that tried to hammer its way through the two windows flanking the bed, the fully drawn shades on each of them kept the room in a cocoon-like darkness. Rik pushed the door open all the way, allowing the light from the hallway to spill in, and his focus landed on the form buried beneath a sheet and comforter in the center of the king-sized bed.

As he approached, he could tell Silas was sound asleep, sprawled out on his back with one arm folded over his eyes and the other extended out to his side across the bed. Despite the dim light, Rik’s gaze immediately fell on the decoration of telltale red spots marring the crook of his friend’s arm along the vein, and then followed the arm as if it were an accusatory arrow that directed him to the nightstand beside the bed. On it sat the tools responsible for the marks: a syringe, a spoon, a lighter, and a vial of white powder. He looked back at Silas and noticed the length of rubber ribbon sticking out from beneath his upper arm, its end coiled near the pillow like a snake patiently awaiting its prey.

Firmly setting his jaw, Rik reached down and snagged the ribbon. It snapped as he roughly yanked it out from beneath Silas’ arm and pitched it to the floor. When the action failed to wake his friend, he spun around and stalked back to the door in search of the light switch. Locating it easily, his hand landed on it and angrily flipped it up, drowning the room and his friend in a searing incandescent light.

“Silas,” he sternly called out. Once. Twice. By the third time, he had returned to the side of the bed with still no response.

He reached down and roughly pushed his friend’s arm away from his face and then slapped his cheek. Much to his relief, Silas finally began to stir.

“Get up,” Rik commanded in a deep voice that rivaled that of the angriest father. “We’re getting you the hell out of here. Now.


Present

With at least a dozen police officers standing around, Kady Swann assumed she would feel safe as she sat on the curb and waited for something to happen. Instead, her thoughts still skimmed over her recent breakup with her boyfriend Greg. Though the purple-black bruise that had sprung to life like a grotesque tattoo beneath her left eye had considerably faded since the previous week, her cheekbone was still tender to the touch. That was the first and last time he had hit her, but once was enough to make her call it quits on him the very moment she had been able to shake the resulting dizziness.

Their date had begun innocently enough with a trip to the grocery store so she could make dinner for them back at her apartment. They had planned to spend the rest of the evening curled up on the sofa watching a movie. It was in her kitchen, as she drained the pasta and he drained the last of a bottle of Zinfandel, that he had received a call on his cell phone and then had promptly informed her that he had to leave after dinner to meet up with some friends.

At first she had asked if something was wrong, certain that there must be some emergency that would make him skip out in the middle of their date. When he had told her everything was fine and that he just wanted to hang with his buddies, the argument had begun and then had rapidly escalated until his anger at what he deemed as her “telling him what to do” had finally exploded. He had sent a right cross slamming into her cheekbone and then had immediately proceeded to beg her forgiveness, swearing that it would never happen again. She had told him in no uncertain terms to fuck off.

True to his recent nature, he had dismissed those instructions and had twice since paid an uninvited visit to her apartment, both times reeking of alcohol. Both times he had insisted that she quit her nonsense and take him back, and both times he had walked that thin line between just a little dose of simmering anger and another frightening boil-over into violence. Luckily he hadn’t made it through her door on either occasion.

The first time, she had been able to get rid of him by the unexpected arrival of her friend Julie. Then, just two days ago, he had confronted her on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building and the heated screaming match that had ensued had caused one of her neighbors to threaten him with a 911 call. He had promptly left, but not without a promise to return.

Greg’s battle with alcohol hadn’t come as a surprise to her. When they had begun to date four months before, he had told her outright that he was a recovering alcoholic, but he had never informed her of what the alcohol would do to him if he ever went back to it. They had spent a couple of good months together before it had happened; he had treated her well at first. Then six weeks ago two of his old drinking buddies had turned up and without blinking an eye he was drinking heavier by the day and becoming increasingly moody. Their dates had gotten shorter and the time between them longer. By the time she had kicked him out of her apartment the night he had hit her, he was no longer the same man with whom she had shared those first couple of good months.

Now she sat on the curb across the street from a nice little protective force of police officers and still did not feel safe. She found her eyes scanning the gathered crowd for Greg’s face not because she missed him, but because if he was lurking about she hoped to see him before he saw her so she could make a quick get-away.

Across the downtown street from her sat a squat little ethnic grocery store, heavily lit against the night with portable spotlights perfectly positioned by the officers. Inside the store were a gunman and his two hostages: the elderly grocery store owner and his teenaged granddaughter. Kady had picked up the call on the police scanner she kept on her kitchen counter next to the coffee pot. As a freelance photographer, the black radio served her well to catch situations as they happened so she could capture shots that she would then offer to sell to the newspapers and television stations. A hostage situation like this one was definitely newsworthy, and the media that had yet to show up on the scene would be scrambling for photos.

Kady glanced at the other two photographers who had positioned themselves next to her, their cameras clutched at the ready and their black bags resting at their feet. As usual, she hadn’t been the only freelancer who had been eavesdropping on the police. The hostage situation had been at a standstill for the past half-hour, so the three of them had taken up a spot on the curb to wait for the excitement, but Kady knew that the longer the delay the better the chance that the local media would get a crew onto the scene. If that happened, the only way the freelancers would sell any of their photos was if there was an exceptional one in the batch.

In her boredom, she leaned back on her elbows and let her head fall backward to gaze upside down at the three-story building behind her. She read the sign by the door and noted that Graeter & Porter, a law firm that frequently advertised during the afternoon court shows on television, occupied the building. At nearly ten o’clock in the evening, all the windows were dark. Her eye for visual detail scanned over the unique architecture framing each of them and saw the beauty of the shapes on the century-old structure.

It was as she studied the architecture surrounding one of the second floor windows, composing in her mind an interesting black and white still, that she saw a brief but bright flash of crimson light from within the black depths behind it. Had she not been staring directly at the window when it appeared, she never would have noticed it.

She frowned and waited to see if it would happen again. When it didn’t, she raised her head and looked back toward the grocery store, assuming that what she had seen must have been the reflection of a light from that direction. After scanning the entire area, she decided it had to have come from within the offices of the law building. Other than the lights on the police cars, which were too low to have caused the phenomenon in a second story window, there were no other red lights anywhere within the surrounding area.

Positioning herself exactly as she had been when she’d first seen the flash, she looked back up at the window with a frown. If she was wrong and one of the cruisers’ lights had somehow caused it, she would still see the reflection and there was nothing there. The flash had happened only once and now it was gone.

Her attention was pulled away from her study of the window by a voice speaking to her from her side. “How about some coffee, Kady?”

She raised her head to see Franklin Burkes, an overly friendly police officer who had latched onto her only minutes after her arrival on the scene, standing before her with his hands on his hips.

“No thanks,” she answered with a quick, obligatory smile.

She had first met Franklin a year before when their paths had crossed on the scene of a fatal bus accident she had been covering. Since then, they occasionally bumped into one another when she was responding to something she had heard on her police scanner. Each time he had asked if she would like to get dinner and each time she had come up with some excuse to put him off.

Franklin was a nice enough guy and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she simply wasn’t attracted to him. His husky build and round, cherub-like face gave the initial impression that he was young, but his thinning and graying black hair gave away his increasing years. It wasn’t just that she had no physical attraction to him. The way he had of clinging to her whenever she was around and his inability to understand the concept of personal space made him seem overly eager and needy. Though she was certain he would make some woman happy with his highly focused attentiveness, she was too independent to view that particular trait as a positive one.

When she saw him here just after she had arrived, Kady had taken the opportunity of his interest in her to gather information from him about the scene, but over the past fifteen minutes he had become his usual overly attentive self. She knew it was only a matter of time before the dinner invitation was offered again and she dreaded it.

To keep him from broaching the subject now, she peered around Franklin toward the grocery store and asked, “Anything moving in there?”

“Nothing,” he told her. He sniffed importantly and puffed up his chest. “The gunman isn’t talking to us right now. We’re looking at the possibility of taking alternative action to force him out, if you know what I mean. Of course, the safety of the hostages is most important, so we have to weigh our options carefully with this situation.” It sounded like the entire speech had been a word-for-word recount of a briefing given to him by one of his superiors.

Franklin continued to drone on about the “situation”, as he took every opportunity to call it, giving details he had overheard about the gunman’s criminal background and trying much too hard to be impressive. Beside her, the other two freelancers were hanging on his every word, but Kady tuned him out and focused her attention back on Graeter & Porter, trying to decide her best course of action.

If she kept her eyes on the hostage situation until something happened, she would end up with a handful of nearly sure-bet photos. A handful of photos that might not be as good as one of the handfuls shot by the other freelancers covering the scene, and quite possibly by the local media if the delay went on much longer and they arrived.

As far as she could tell she was the only one who had seen the fraction-of-a-second flash of light from the interior of the closed law offices. Because everyone around her was focused on the grocery store across the street, the odds that someone else in the crowd had been staring at that particular window at the exact same moment were slim to none. Her gut told her something was going on inside that building and it seemed she was the only one aware of it.

While Franklin continued to drone on, she silently weighed her options. She could sit on the curb and wait for her opportunity to catch photos of the hostage situation and be one of many, or she could hope that her gut was right and go for the shot-in-the-dark of Graeter & Porter. By turning her attention on the law building, she could end up as the only one with a remarkable photo.

“Hey, Officer Burkes,” she interrupted the still-rambling policeman. “That coffee sounds good after all.”

A huge grin cut across his face, connecting his chubby cheeks. “Be right back,” he said, and then moved away from her into the rapidly increasing crowd.

With his attention off her, Kady quickly snatched up her camera bag, stood, and passed a nod to the two freelancers still seated on the curb. Placing her free hand over the expensive digital SLR camera that hung like a giant charm necklace around her neck, she held it down to keep it from painfully bouncing against her chest as she jogged toward the passage at the side of the law firm.

The area that cut between the buildings was only dimly illuminated by the glow from the activity across the street. The further into it she moved, the less light there was to guide her. Midway, she stopped and adjusted the ISO and f-stop on her camera and switched out the lens to allow her to take pictures in low light without the aid of a flash. That task quickly completed, she shouldered her camera bag and continued on her way, glancing up at the still-darkened windows on the side of the building as she moved.

This is stupid, she reprimanded herself.

Her rent was five days late and she had just made the hasty decision to forego the relatively safe sale of the hostage photos to take a chance on a situation that might very well pan out to be nothing more than a trick of the lights. Fortunately she had a backup to cover the rent, but on the unfortunate side she had to wait to get it.

Just a few days after Greg’s fist had made its contact with her face, she had been commissioned by a local news magazine to capture over a hundred documentary photos of prostitutes for a series of cover stories it was writing on the subject. Because of the possible danger she had to put herself in to take the photos in an especially crime-ridden area of the city, the payment for the job was no shabby amount. It would give her money to both take care of her rent and to live on for the next two months.

The problem she faced was that she wouldn’t get paid until she delivered the CF media card containing all of the photos, and she wasn’t scheduled to meet with the magazine editor for another three days. In the meantime, her landlord, while understanding, was growing impatient. Kady had made good on her word with him a few times in the past, which was the only reason he was giving her an extension now. Nonetheless, she knew she wouldn’t lose that feeling of urgency until she handed over the rent check.

She hoped that she might be able to pitch toward the local papers whatever, if anything, she caught from Graeter & Porter and make a quick sale. Especially if what she captured on camera was a crime in progress. Her mind rapidly skipped over the possibilities as she continued through the passageways between nearby buildings to approach the opposite side of the alleyway that ran along the rear of the law offices.

Law offices, the words repeated in her mind. The simple fact that the flash of light had occurred within a law building was the catalyst for her hasty decision. What would cause someone to be inside those offices after hours to do something that had to be covered by darkness? She was certain it wasn’t one of the attorneys working late, not without the lights on. More likely it was someone looking for confidential information, perhaps intent on stealing or corrupting it to alter the outcome of a legal decision.

Finally coming to a rest in the narrow, shadowed path between buildings, across the alley from the one on which she was focused, Kady double-checked her camera. The CF media card containing the prostitute photos was in a tiny two-by-three manila envelope that she had snugly tucked into a hidden zippered pocket on the inside of the two-inch camera strap. She had yet to find the time to back up the contents of the media card to her computer, and since the card containing the photos was the actual deliverable, she kept it with her at all times. She tugged up on the zipper, reassuring herself that it was tightly closed. Just as she pressed the button to pull up the camera’s menu and navigate to the place where she could turn off its shutter sound, her eye caught movement on the metal fire escape mounted like an afterthought to the backside of Graeter & Porter.

Rapidly exiting out of the menu without accomplishing her task, she brought her Nikon up in front of her as her head rose to focus on the movement. She stared into the 3-inch LCD preview pane on the back of the camera and quickly centered her target within it. Her heart at first fluttered, then started into a machine gun staccato as her camera’s view pane locked on a male figure dressed in dark clothing and a black jacket, his form faintly illuminated by the sputtering light from a nearby streetlamp. Within seconds, he smoothly vaulted over the second floor railing of the fire escape and landed in a remarkably quiet crouch on the ground below.

She caught at least half a dozen images of the man on the fire escape and in mid-air before he hit the pavement. As he straightened from the jump, still targeted by her lens, she caught several more. He was tall and athletically built, with tousled waves of light brown hair that fell out beneath a black ball cap worn backward and ended in curls just over the back of his collar. She zoomed in for a close-up of his profile and resumed shooting.

Standing slowly from his crouch, Silas Cortesi remained perfectly still as his eyes scanned the alleyway. The most important part of the exit was making sure he hadn’t been seen doing so. He always took this briefest of moments not only to look for the smallest trace of unusual movement, but also to listen for the tiniest of noises, any sign at all that a witness was lurking somewhere about.

Within that moment of focused observation was when he heard it from off to his right. As he stood at the bottom of the fire escape, the sound came so faintly to him that if he had chosen to forego this precaution it would have easily been masked by his own nearly silent footsteps as he retreated. And this particular sound was a bad one. He recognized it as the repeated electronic shuttering of a digital camera in use, someone not just witnessing his exit, but catching it frame by damning frame. And not only one or two pictures that would never amount to anything, but a whole mess of photos that gave incredibly good odds to the chance of a clear face shot.

His head turned toward the sound and just after it did, the faint rapid-fire noise stopped. Directly across the narrow alley from him, within the blackness of a tight path between the buildings, he could see a very small, very vague illumination that he knew was the glow of a digital camera’s view screen reflecting back on the photographer holding it. Surrounding it, he could just make out the faint lines of a woman’s silhouette.

As the man turned his head in her direction and Kady studied the face looking back at her from the LCD screen, her finger froze over the button. She deeply frowned, unsure of what she was seeing, and zoomed the lens in closer until his face filled the preview pane. Her frown mutated into shock. Though his features were striking, with a defined jaw and cheekbones set into a ruggedly handsome face, it was not his attractiveness that stunned her. Staring back at her were eyes of solid black. No pupil, no iris, no white at all, just total darkness within his otherwise perfectly normal face. If she hadn’t seen the tiny dots of light from the dim streetlight down the alley reflecting off the obsidian orbs, she would have sworn his eye sockets were empty.

As she stared in fascination at the screen, the face she was studying suddenly disappeared from the frame. Her eyes darted from the back of the camera to the place where he had been standing only to find it empty. She urgently scanned what she could see of the alleyway and discovered that, although she had not heard him move, he was nowhere in sight.

At once, her confusion-turned-shock charged headlong into downright fear as a single thought occurred to her: He was looking right at me.

That was all it took to get her moving. She didn’t want to imagine what would happen if he caught her. One thing was certain, if it came to that she wouldn’t have to worry about the late rent. Dead people didn’t need to pay rent.

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