Authors: Jordan Dane
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
To my sisters Denise and Debbie
in the cookies of life, you’d be the nuts
At the end of the bar, Seth Harper slouched, nursing…
Lights flooded the room, and beams spiraled through the dark,…
Chasing Eddie Smart, Jessica Beckett hit the déjà vu zone,…
The city and its welcoming familiar sounds stirred with a…
Jess knew something about Desiree’s world because she lived on…
“I hear you been looking for Desiree,” the smoker said…
Once she hit the gas, the car behind her sped…
“I didn’t lie to you, I swear,” Seth insisted, sitting…
Harper was protecting someone else. At first, Jess thought it…
Jess pocketed her license and kept her eyes on Jonathan…
Now she knew why Anthony Salvatore’s Pinnacle Real Estate Corporation…
“Who says opportunity don’t come knockin’?”
All Jess thought about was taking a long, hot shower…
Her day of reckoning had come, wearing worn jeans, a…
Being the bearer of bad news about Seth Harper didn’t…
Hookers don’t get workman’s comp. And forget about sick days,…
Alexa hadn’t come to kill, but if these men were…
After Ray Garza’s visit to her home last night, Sam…
In the back of her mind, Jess always suspected this…
Luís Dante had followed the blue van from the nursing…
Alexa sensed she was being watched, but nothing gave her…
“Jessie, I need my van back. Give me the keys?”
A rush of guilt swept over Jessie as she stared…
Sam had a smile on her face when she walked…
Her eyes took in the rest of the room for…
When the smoke got so thick she could barely see,…
“Jessie!” Sam cried. “Where are…you?”
Jess looked for anything familiar to orient her, but as…
After she and Alexa made their formal statements to the…
“Glad you could meet me on such short notice.” Sam…
Dirty Monty’s Lounge
South Side of Chicago
At the end of the bar, Seth Harper slouched, nursing his lukewarm beer and keeping his dark eyes on the door, waiting. Not even a good beer buzz made him forget why he’d come—or why he still sat alone.
Given the grand scheme of the universe, he distracted himself by contemplating the big picture. Dirty Monty’s and places like it existed for a reason. And several libations had given him the clarity of mind to reflect on it. Sleazy dumps gave the socially unacceptable a place to hang out, even on a Thursday night. And if these folks packed a thirst, Monty’s served the cheap stuff and charged enough to trick its marginal clientele into believing it was worth it. When alcohol was involved, things
got real simple. And he appreciated the irony of his half-tanked epiphany, especially since he’d be counted among the socially unacceptable here tonight.
Yet he was a few beers shy of being easily duped by any redeeming nature of the shoddy bar. The pungent odor of cigarette smoke, liquor, and cheap perfume had marked him. And the carpet smelled of mold, a borderline improvement over the collective tang of the bar patrons. His dark tousled hair, well-worn jeans, and favorite black Jerry Springer tee already reeked of the bar’s seedier elements. And well into the night, he’d be hearing a steady thrum of bass in his ears, courtesy of the nonstop jukebox music—a mix of country, classic heavy metal, and top 40 pop. He sighed and stared into his beer mug, bracing himself to accept what had happened and hail a cab home.
What the hell are you doing?
The question had stuck in his head, reminding him he’d been played for a sucker. She wasn’t coming
And insult to injury, the piss factor had kicked in again. Every time the bartender shot tonic into a glass or hit the spigot for a draft beer, Seth’s bladder reacted. He made a quick trip to drain the vein and slumped back on his stool. But after another fifteen minutes of nursing his beer and a fragile spirit—shifting his gaze between the front door and his watch—Seth decided to call it a night. He downed the rest of his drink and fumbled in his pocket for a tip.
As he stood, he caught sight of a blond woman near the door.
to be her, but from where he stood, her face had morphed into an unrecognizable blur. He narrowed his eyes and struggled for a better image, but nothing more would come. When he moved toward her, he staggered against the edge of the bar, feeling suddenly light-headed. The sensation took him by surprise. He hadn’t drunk
“What…the hell?” he slurred under his breath.
When the room undulated in shadows, he knew something was terribly wrong. He felt sluggish and weak. Out-of-sync voices and warped music amplified into an irritating blare. He looked around, but everything was the same. Faces of strangers and the distant memory of a blond woman jutted in and out of the dark, distorted and overlapping in a jumbled mess. Blinking hard, he couldn’t change what he saw. Colors bled from the ceiling and walls, creating a macabre and shifting canvas.
Fear took a firmer grip.
He imagined calling out, but wasn’t sure the words were his. Could
hear him? His arms went slack. And when standing became a chore, he collapsed. Before he hit the floor, strong hands grabbed him. He turned to look for a face, but the room spiraled out of control. His world switched off.
And he was powerless to stop it.
Losing track of time, she worked the keyboard without effort, no longer the novice she’d been when she first started.
For the last two weeks, she had a MySpace account under the name of
. Being cautious, she had created the anonymous handle as her main online identity. Most new friends to her page didn’t bother to read her posts. If they did, they would have found the first name of Michelle buried in her blog entries. Anyone taking the time to address her by that name got extra attention when she rechecked their site.
Being picky, she hadn’t gotten above a hundred friends, but she did her best to expand her cyber-reach. Although she’d worked hard to design her page, it hadn’t been easy to attract the right people. With her profile marked as private from public viewing—except for her default photo—most didn’t bother with sending a request to befriend her.
That left her with being the aggressor in searching for “friends” and she liked that.
Creating the most appropriate cyberpersona felt like assembling the pieces to an ever-changing puzzle with no right answer. She’d started with photos of driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who graced the background of her blog page with his short reddish blond hair, chin stubble, and blue eyes covered in dark shades. Bit by bit she had added more images and designed the page, making sure anyone visiting the site would see her obsessive tribute to all things NASCAR. A cyberspace masterpiece in the making.
But compiling the photos had taken the most time.
The main photo on her blog—the one everyone saw online—had her standing next to a pudgy version of Dale Earnhardt Jr. with longer hair. A sunny day at the races with both of them wearing shades. But over the last week, she had posted a series of photos, each with personal commentary about the swollen pregnant belly she sported and had nicknamed
After her last photo upload, she got a new friend request that got her attention. And with it came a surprising message.
Hello Michelle—Saw your name at a friend’s site. The young man in your photo is my son. How do you know him?
The message had been straightforward and to the point. She stared at the monitor and reread it.
Before sending a return message, she clicked over to the woman’s blog and began reading. She wrote down the details that interested her. The woman’s birthday checked out from what she knew. And she lived in the same city. So far, so good. But it took reading through a few blog posts and scanning the woman’s online pics and slide shows to find what she’d been looking for. She took a deep breath and e-mailed her reply.
Everything hinged on how she worded her message.
Yes, ma’am. Looks like he’s your son, all right. But I have to be honest. He’s not exactly speaking to me since I told him about his baby. I don’t even know where he is
The woman’s reply came back fast.
Do you know what the baby is? A little girl or boy? Am I going to be a grandma?
She chewed her lower lip and typed a response.
I can’t raise this baby by myself, without a daddy. I’m giving it up for adoption.
Once again, a return e-mail didn’t take long.
Please. Don’t do anything until we talk. I can make things right. You’ll see.
But now it was her turn to plead.
If you tell your son that we talked, he’ll think I contacted you first. He’ll take off again and leave us BOTH.
You leave that boy to me
, was all the woman wrote.
Her e-mail was short and to the point again, tough love from a momma who indeed knew her son. After another exchange of e-mails, she’d agreed to meet tomorrow morning. Risky business to make actual contact with an online stranger, but she’d run out of options with her search.
“Well, Junior,” she said under her breath. “We may find your daddy yet.”
Seth stared into blackness, his thoughts the consistency of primordial ooze. Although his brain sent a questionable message to the rest of his body that he could move, he chose not to try. His senses were gathering intel, and he was content to let the process happen at its own pace.
He blinked his eyes—slow and easy—the only motion he could muster.
It took time for him to recognize that something else moved in the dark. A faint edge of red stabbed through the shadows, a light blinking at a steady and insistent rhythm. He had no idea where it came from and didn’t care. The left cheek on his face hurt, and his head throbbed at the same measured beat as the light, inflicting a growing ache from behind his eyes and through the base of his skull. And with it, a chill sent a rush of pinpricks over his skin that cut deeper, especially with his back pressed against something cold and hard.
In front of him, images gradually took shape and emerged from the dark, pieces of a puzzle for his consideration. And like an artery, the red light pulsed, repeatedly teasing him with a glimpse and swiping it away. Crimson lunged across a blanched palette like a strobe effect, capturing a wild array of blotches that marred the surface. At first, the scene over his head looked like a harmless rendition of an artist gone berserk until a metallic sweet odor triggered something else.
Now a strong feeling of dread spoiled his creeping drift through oblivion. Muddled thoughts mercifully tempered the sensation, but he felt it all the same.
Urging his body to move, he lifted an arm and dropped a hand to his belly, a sluggish, awkward struggle. His fingers felt dampness on his clothes. And a second bout with the cold swept over him, causing his teeth to chatter. He fumbled a hand to his cheek. It felt warm to the touch and throbbed a little, but he had no idea why. To get his blood moving, he rolled to his side and shoved an elbow under him, the cold tile pressed hard against his joint. When he lifted his head, dizziness brought on a surge of nausea. He nearly gagged but managed to control it.
What had happened? He pried through his memory, recalling nothing of how he ended up here. And where
here? He peered through the shadows of what looked like a cramped bathroom. And beyond where he was, the remnants of a cheap motel room, but none of it looked familiar.
Through it all, the flashing light persisted. Its grim red doused everything. He looked across two small beds and saw the light came from a window that had thin drapes partially drawn. Outside, a neon VACANCY sign flared its message, but he couldn’t see all of it. And after only a quick glimpse, the light sent shards of pain through his eye sockets and challenged his night vision. To recover, he shifted his gaze to the dark corners of the bathroom again, looking for anything that would trigger a memory.
Instead, he came face-to-face with a nightmare he would never forget. Dead eyes stared back at him from the edge of a tub, opened wide and accusing. A slack head tilted at an odd and unnatural slant. A woman. Her mouth gagged with a soiled towel. Dark hair matted to her head, a bloodied mess.
He gasped and shoved his back to the far wall, scrambling for a place to hide. But he couldn’t shift his gaze from the filmy white eyes and gagged mouth. A face frozen in terror and awash in flashing crimson that stippled eerie shadows over the corpse.
“No…no. What…?” His mind couldn’t grasp what he saw.
The body smelled of violent death, the metallic sweet odor tinged with something more than he wanted to imagine. And the artist’s blotches he had seen when he first opened his eyes had morphed into the reality of blood splatter. He clutched at his damp shirt and pulled away his hand to see it colored by a dark substance. He knew in an instant that it was blood.
This time Seth couldn’t hold back. He emptied his stomach, even knowing dead eyes stared down at him as he retched.
Sick and confused, Seth got to his feet and backed out of the bloody bathroom, but the eyes of the dead body followed him. He turned away from the gruesome scene and staggered off-balance. To catch himself, he leaned a shoulder into the doorjamb and gripped it with a hand. His legs barely supported him. And even in a stupor, he realized his brain was fried. Trusting his senses and his perceptions would be out of the question.
When he stumbled into the next room, he caught the motion of a shadow outside the window. He only had time to blink, but it was too late. A loud crack, and the door burst open. He lurched backward, his spine jammed against a wall, the only thing that kept him from falling.
He heard a man yell and had no time to react. His heart hammered the inside of his chest. And when he sucked air into his lungs, he couldn’t let it out.
Everything happened way too fast.