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Evil Without a Face
Excerpt

South Chicago—9:50 pm

Evil Without a Face The cheap motel room reeked of cigarettes, stale beer, and pizza—the best thing Charlie Swain could say about the four walls that closed in on him now. A heat wave kept his AC cranked. And he had the TV blaring to cover up the sound of sex from the next room. The woman was a real screamer.

He loved sticking it to a woman who knew how to scream, but having to listen to someone else do it, left him frustrated with no options except a five-finger spankfest. He raked fingers through his thinning hair and lit another cigarette, pacing the floor.

This dump had been his home for five days, but for the last two weeks he had lived out of a suitcase, moving from place to place. While he waited for new ID and a gig with a connected dealer up north, he'd severed all links to his old life in the mean time, including his wheels. Buses had become his new mode of transportation to make his limited funds stretch. Fake ID would cost him serious coin.

But Charlie knew boredom would be the real test. So when his cell phone rang, he wanted nothing more than to answer it, breaking up the monotony. Instead, he let it roll to voice mail, cautiously screening his calls. He finished the last of his warm beer and sat on the edge of his mattress until curiosity needled him into retrieving the message. He didn't recognize the phone number, but the caller had left voice mail.

A woman's voice. Crying. Cursing. The melodrama made him chuckle until he heard a familiar name. The message was intended for his ex-girlfriend, the bitch. He replayed the call, trying to make out the words between the curses and sobs. Leave my Danny be ... he got me pregnant ... and when I find out where you live, Annie Rae Miller, I'm gonna ... What the hell kind of name is that?

Charlie might have found the whole thing entertaining, except that Annie dumped him before his life went into the crapper. And now everything made sense. That whore had been cheating on him with Dan the Man.

"Shit." He threw the beer bottle across the room, shattering it against the wall.

When his cell phone rang again, he looked at the display and recognized the number. The same woman was calling back. This time, he answered it.

"Yeah."

The woman didn't say anything at first, but he heard her crying. In a soft voice, she finally spoke.

"I'm sorry. I m-must have the ... wrong number. Do you know w-where I can find ... Annie Rae Miller?"

"I got your last message," he offered. "You think your man's with her now?" "Hell, yeah. I know it for a fact. That's why ... "

Rage flooded through him like water hitting a fast boil. He didn't even listen to what the woman said.

"What's your name again?"

"Sophie."

"Well, Sophie girl, I know this is gonna sound crazy, but please ... come and get me. I don't have a car at the moment, but I know where you can find that bitch," he pleaded. "But you gotta come pick me up first."

It took him time to convince the woman that he was on the level, but she eventually agreed to pick him up. Women! Sometimes, they were real gullible. He gave her directions and twenty minutes later he heard a knock. He crept to the door and peeked out the peephole, checking out the woman dabbing her eyes with tissue.

Not bad. He smiled. If things worked out, he might have a screamer of his own before the night was done. But when Charlie flung open the door, he came face to face with the business end of a .357 Magnum Colt Python.

"Hello, Charlie." The woman grinned, aiming the weapon between his eyes. "Looks like my man Danny isn't the only one getting screwed."

Taller than he was, she was lean and athletic, glaring at him with unflinching dark eyes. The woman wore a windbreaker with the top of her kevlar vest showing, prepared for business. And she had a scar above an eyebrow, the jagged mark too nasty to ignore. No shrinking violet, the bitch was intimidating, even if she weren't carrying a gun.

"You're under arrest for jumpin' bail. You skipped a court date." She flashed her badge. "Now turn around."

Over her shoulder, she yelled, "I've got him."

She wasn't alone. Resisting arrest would land him in more trouble with the law, not to mention getting the crap beat out of him. He'd heard stories about bounty hunters and even seen them in action on cable.

He took a deep breath and did as he was told. She shoved him against the wall and cuffed him, frisking him for weapons after she'd subdued him. He heard her speaking to someone he couldn't see, but when she shoved him toward a blue van outside the motel room door, he realized he'd been tricked again.

"Shit! You were working alone." He launched into a tirade of curses.

"Not exactly, Charlie. I've got my summer intern with me ... and if you don't cooperate, he might give you a paper cut."

Charlie shut his eyes and kept walking toward the van, conceding his fate. After securing her prisoner in the back, Fugitive Recovery Agent Jessica Beckett jumped into the front passenger seat next to Seth Harper, a new hire she jokingly called her 'summer intern'. She hadn't lied about everything.

Harper greeted her with a big grin, handing her ten bucks. "I'm not betting with you anymore. All you had was his cell phone and an old girlfriend's name and you still tracked him. Un-fuckin'-believable."

"Just remember the horn dog factor, Harper." She took his money. "You can always track a guy through his woman. The love muscle is nothing but an Achilles Heel. Beckett rule number one."

Charlie Swain was a no account scrub—a fringe dweller on the edge of humanity—hustling drugs and stolen merchandise. He was wanted on two warrants, including skipping a court date on robbery charges. A real charmer, but relatively harmless in her world. She made a note to the file she'd compiled on the guy, a record of the case and her authorization for the arrest—a certified copy of the warrant.

Top-notch Fugitive Recovery Agents got paid better working directly for specific bondsmen. Most were ex-military or former police officers. She didn't have the qualifications, discipline or temperament to land her anything more than being a freelancer, catching the odd jobs that usually didn't pay as much. She had to work twice as hard to make ends meet, earning her negotiated percentage of the bond money.

As a woman, building a reputation in this business had been tough. She realized she could have done better, but kissing ass wasn't her thing, not even if the ass was Grade A Prime. To date, cops had been her biggest critics, mostly because she had to live down the cable TV bounty hunter image. Yet she had to admit that some of her rep had been well deserved.

It had been a gamble to hire Harper, but she hoped that with the proper training, she might gain an eventual partner to help with the tracking aspects of each case. The quicker she gathered intel, the better the cash flow would be. Although she'd never put him at risk by placing him in the line of fire, Harper had been the one asking to come along on her arrests.

"Call it in, will ya? And let's get this guy to the cops. A girl has gotta pay the bills." Jess took a long swig of water, listening to Harper as he made the call to the bondsman for the Swain job. "God, this heat is killer. I'm sweatin' like a pig with an invite to a luau. "

To cool off, she took off the kevlar vest that she wore under a windbreaker as Harper finished up. After he started the van and pulled from the motel parking lot, Jess got another call on her cell. She recognized the phone number, even though NO NAME appeared on the display. Fingering the scar above her eyebrow, she prayed the call meant what she thought it would. Jess took a deep breath and answered.

"Yeah."

"I got a lead on Lucas Baker, but it's gonna cost ya. And you have to move tonight. No guarantees he'll be there tomorrow."

After a quick glance at her watch, Jess clenched her jaw and pictured the face of Baker. The image triggered a flood of dark memories that she thought she had under control ... until now.

"Gimme what ya got." Jess grabbed paper and pen. "I'm ready ... more than ready."

***

Chicago, Illinois—Mid-June

On the other side of midnight, the nasty oppressive heat lingered and made the air dense and sluggish. It clung to the body of Jessica Beckett like a film of wet gauze, stifling her breath. The customary cooling effect off Lake Michigan cowered from it, avoiding the thick and stagnant mass of unseasonable heat. Dressed in dark jeans, a black tee under her kevlar vest, and a ball cap, she jogged down the street, keeping to the shadows, then made her way across the road. Her gaze shifted to the second floor as she did, counting the windows so she'd know which room. A dimly lit one had its shades partially drawn.

A man inside.

She'd paid good money for the tip that the bastard had a room here, living off the grid trying to escape his pathetic excuse for a life. And Jess had done her best to contribute to his problems, targeting Lucas Baker with her obsession. He had been one slippery weasel to corner, but she recognized his ugly mug, even from the street below.

Once Jess got across the street, she headed for the side entrance, down and to the right. Nearing an alley, she reached for her .357 Magnum Colt Python with its four-inch barrel and a trigger as smooth as butter. With gun in hand, she thought of a thousand other places she could've been tonight, but being a woman on a mission left her little choice. And she wasn't one to squander an opportunity.

"You see our target?" She spoke into a two-way com set with radio on her belt, a mic clipped to a sleeve of her tee, and an earbud. With a shoulder to a brick wall, she peered down an alley to make sure everything was clear and maintained her position.

"Affirmative." Her backup, Seth Harper, cleared his throat and nearly blew her eardrum with the sharp abrasive noise. She winced.

"Uh, 10-4," he added.

Jess fought a smile when she heard Seth dishing out the cryptic lingo, resisting the urge to add 'good buddy' after everything he said. She could picture him now. The kid was situated in his old beat up Econoline van across the street and down an alley, probably using binoculars.

"Talk to me. What's he doing?" she prompted, keeping her voice low. "He got any company?"

Out of habit, she traced a scar along her right eyebrow with a finger, an old injury from a lifetime ago.

"Negatory. Target at a table, working on a computer. Laptop, I think."

Baker would have his life on that computer. She could score big if things went as planned. Jess wanted to avoid the clerk at the front desk. The tip she got on Baker's whereabouts warned her the sleaze was tight with the so-called management of the joint. She had to find another way in. With plan B in mind, she ducked into the dark alley and crept along a brick wall, dodging Dumpsters and broken bottles, keeping a firm grip on the Python. The faint stench of puke invaded her nostrils, the rank odor made more caustic with the heat.

She held her breath and moved on, hoping she hadn't stepped in it. With her luck, she'd be wearing it home.

As Jess neared the back of the dilapidated hotel that rented rooms by the hour, she flipped her black White Sox ball cap backwards, rally style. Sweat drenched strands of her dark hair stuck to her neck, aggravating her mounting discomfort. She wiped her palms down a pant leg. Carrying a weapon, now was no time for a slick grip.

Once she got to her destination, she tested the alley door into the old hotel. Locked. After Jess slipped the Python into the custom holster she carried at the small of her back, she pulled out a lock pick kit from her pocket. She didn't need a light to work by. She'd done this a thousand times. When the door creaked open, she stashed the kit and reached for her weapon again.

"I'm going inside. Let me know if he moves." She muttered into her mouthpiece. "No matter what happens, you stay put until you hear from me. You understand? No heroics, Seth." She repeated the instructions she'd given the kid an hour ago. "Call 911 if things get dicey. Going to radio silence, now."

"Dicey. Got it."

Seth did his best to maintain radio silence, in his unique way, but his heavy breathing into the mouthpiece reminded her of a late night call from a pervert. The kid held the mic too close to his lips and didn't always release his transmit switch when he was done, another practice she had to correct.

Eventually, Seth broke the silence.

"Define dicey."

With no time to set him straight, she slipped through the back door and shut it behind her, grimacing at the creak of its rusty hinges. Time to get to work. Jess squinted as she got inside, looking toward the front for a way to the second floor. The hallway looked as dismal as the alley she'd left behind. Gang signs were spray-painted on the walls in an array of colors. And trash was strewn along the baseboards and over a stained ratty carpet that had definitely seen better days. Shoddy wall sconces were positioned down the hall, but with every other bulb burned out, the old hotel looked more like a cheap horror flick. Maybe the dim lights were a blessing in disguise.

Jess walked past each door with caution, not ruling out an ambush, but the place had one purpose for most of its patrons. The sleazy hotel rented by the hour. At the next door, that thought was reinforced with the unbroken rhythm of a bed squeak and the steady bang of a headboard against a wall inside the room. A woman's breath caught as she panted her encouragement.

"Yeah, baby, do it." She tossed in a theatrical moan and a gasp. "Harder, that's it. Oh, you're so good."

It didn't take long for the woman's companion to cry out, a loud pitiable groan. Prone to a cynical nature, Jess wondered what Mr. Stopwatch would do with his remaining fifty-five minutes. She rolled her eyes and kept moving toward the stairs in front. Her weapon held in a two-fisted grip, she drifted down the hall with eyes alert.

Until--

"Jess? Target's on the move. You read me?" Seth cried out through her earpiece.

"He's spooked."

Her eyes grew wide. Baker must have heard the noisy door hinges or been warned by the front desk. Jess broke into a sprint toward the stairs. She collided with an old wooden banister as she rounded it, bruising a hip. Damn it!

From the front desk of the hotel, a sleazy guy in a wrinkled T-shirt and a scraggly beard yelled after her.

"Hey, where're you goin'? I'm callin' the cops, lady."

Jess looked over her shoulder, her sarcasm on full throttle.

"Then you better flush the hookers. I'd hate to see you lose your Triple A rating."

She barely had time to respond to the clerk's warning when she heard Seth screaming in her ear.

"He's out the door. I can't see him, Jess. What do you want me to do?" She heard the panic in Seth's voice, but the slam of a door coming from the second floor drew her attention. She had to move. Fast. Jess bounded up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, gripping the banister with her left hand to propel her body up the stairs. When she got to the top, she raised her weapon, ready for anything. The stainless steel of the Python glinted under the pale light as she moved the barrel right, then hard left.

That's when she heard the footsteps down the hall, running away from her. She rounded a corner in time to see Baker slip through a door marked exit, but not before he turned to grin. A shaved meaty head set atop no neck on a square muscular body, the physique of a wrestler. Scumbag! Baker had a lead and the laptop under his arm.

"Not gonna happen, asshole!"

Jess chased after him. She knew he might stage an ambush at the exit door, but it didn't matter. She'd risk anything to get this jerk. Anything!

"He's going out the back. The fire escape." She took time to let Seth know what was going on. Otherwise, the kid might do something she'd regret later. "Hold your position. Don't do anything."

She ended the communication, but muttered under her breath.

"This bastard's mine."

© Jordan Dane


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