Authors: Jordan Dane
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
Jessie’s Achilles’ heel had gained her a reputation that kept her from garnering better money in her line of work. The more successful bail bondsmen wouldn’t work with her, so Jess hustled for money as a freelancer, catching odd jobs for lesser-paying recovery work. And the local cops resented her tenacity, especially if she targeted their paid snitches. Sam had learned to trust her friend’s instincts, but Jessie had few advocates within CPD ranks.
She only hoped that when Jessie got involved in Seth’s case, she wouldn’t make matters worse. But there’d be no holding back the floodgates of Jessie’s support after she found out what had happened to Harper.
Death, taxes, and Jessie’s loyalty were things to count on.
“Do they have anything else on him that I should know about?” she asked.
“Since they’re still working the scene, it’s too early to tell. But the kid has been close-mouthed about where he’s livin’, and his background is real sketchy. Apparently he’s been livin’ off the grid, and that ain’t helpin’ his case any.” Garza shook his head. “And he remembers goin’ to meet someone at a bar, but so far, he’s stickin’ to some lame story that he…get this…he doesn’t remember. Like forgettin’ is a legit alibi.”
“From what I know of the kid, he might be protecting someone,” Sam speculated, then turned to face him. “And if he’s telling the truth about not remembering, a smart detective might have to work hard to unravel what really happened.”
She ventured a faint smile. “Are you gonna be that smart detective, or will I have to step in?”
He raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “This isn’t my case. I was only doin’ you a favor, Coop.”
In the small, dark room, his low voice sent a gentle flurry of pinpricks over her skin.
“Does that mean you aren’t up for a side wager, Raymundo?” She inched closer to him, rolling her tongue with the Spanish pronunciation of his name. “I mean, if CPD has such a strong case, what are you afraid of? That my instincts are better than yours?”
“This isn’t about your instincts. It’s about your loyalty to a friend…” He touched her cheek with a finger. “…somethin’ I happen to respect.” Then he grinned, cocksure of himself. “Besides, I’m not sure you can handle the truth about this case if it goes south.”
“And I have serious doubts you can deal with a woman beating you to it, macho man.” She matched his stance. “So what’s it gonna be?”
Garza narrowed his eyes, and said, “What kind of bet do you have in mind?”
In a cramped room off her kitchen, Wilhelmina Smart sat at her worn Formica table, contriving ways to steal a baby.
She swapped a peek out her dingy miniblinds between swigs of lukewarm coffee and a suck of her cigarette. Dust from the blinds mixed with the smoke that stung her eyes as she stubbed out the cigarette in an ashtray that should have been dumped days ago. To ease the throbbing of her tailbone, Wilhelmina stood and lumbered to the kitchen for a refill on coffee, lighting up again as she did.
Michelle would be on her doorstep soon, pregnant with a grandbaby she might have a shot at keeping if she played her cards right. This girl, and plenty more like her, had spread their legs for her boy Eddie. She loved him, despite his ways, but he never had good taste when it came to women.
“That boy humps anythin’ breathin’,” she mumbled, pouring coffee and having second thoughts about the breathing part. “Never can keep it in his pants.”
If she couldn’t convince the girl to give her the baby outright, then she’d take it, legal or not. Knowing Eddie, that girl wouldn’t make a fit mother.
“Would serve her right, the whore.”
She unloaded her ample frame onto the chair again, sloshing coffee onto the stained tabletop. With a swipe of her hand, she made things right, tossing the spill to the floor. Her strapping boy Eddie carried sturdy seed, like his daddy, but a bitch like Michelle had no business raising his baby. Only family could do that.
Her boy didn’t know what was good for him, but she’d make him see.
Eddie would be asleep for another hour, but he’d want to eat before heading to work. He serviced big-rig engines for a friend, with money passing under the table. Since he’d come to stay a month ago, avoiding the problems in his life, her small subleased rental house smelled of motor oil and the body odor only a man could make. And he constantly left lights burning, but since she didn’t pay utilities separate, she didn’t make a big deal about it.
But sharing one bathroom was a royal pain. Every day she dealt with the toilet seat being up and the boy’s dribbles. Hell, sometimes he’d miss the bowl altogether.
She wouldn’t mind if he paid her something for her troubles, but the boy had a nasty habit of being a taker, even with his own momma. How the hell did he get
When she peeked out the window this time, she saw a girl walking to her front door.
“Well, I’ll be.” A smile spread across her face. “You’re about ready to pop, ain’t ya?”
The girl’s round belly tented the oversized NASCAR sweatshirt she wore with swollen boobs bouncing underneath. She had on a faded ball cap, pulled down low. And a dark pair of sunglasses hid her plain-looking face. Getting knocked up was obviously an embarrassment.
Before her visitor rang the bell, she trudged for the door. When she opened it, the girl stood with one hand raised, ready to knock, with the other on her belly.
“You must be Michelle.” She forced a smile and opened the screen door. “I recognized you from your pictures on MySpace. You’re even prettier in person.”
The girl was taller than she expected. And her pregnant belly looked to be filled with more than one kid. After she stepped inside the door, she took off her sunglasses, revealing a noticeable scar over her eye. Intense dark eyes stared back at her, and she wondered, for the first time, why such a woman would have anything to do with her son. A momma’s gut reaction. Something didn’t sit right, but before she said anything, Michelle beat her to it.
“You said Eddie would be here.” Her eyes searched the room and peered down the hall toward the bedrooms. “So where is he?”
The way Michelle glared made her think twice about her chances at tricking the girl out of her baby. Something in her eyes wasn’t right.
“If you were lying to me, I’m out.” The girl turned to go, not waiting for her answer. She meant business.
“No…wait.” She reached for Michelle’s arm. “He’s here. I just gotta get him up, that’s all. You stay right there. Don’t move.”
She held both hands up as she headed for the hallway. A part of her didn’t want to leave the girl alone, unsure whether she’d bolt or steal something.
“Eddie? We got us a visitor,” she yelled. “Get your ass out here.”
At the sound of her voice, the dog next door started to bark. But it took a while for Eddie to get moving. Eventually, he stumbled down the hall, his face scrunched, his eyes squinting from the light. And his reddish blond hair looked more like sunbleached tumbleweed.
All he had on was a pair of boxers, ones she’d given him last Christmas with the Superman logo on them. His trucker’s tan made his skin look like a cotton tee—and with him scratching his bare belly with greasy nails—he looked a far cry from the man of steel, even through a momma’s eyes.
“Where the hell are your manners, boy?” As he walked by, she smacked him upside the head and kept talking, “Get yourself dressed.”
“Ow.” He winced. “What did you do that for?”
But when he spotted the girl, his face blotched red. And his eyes flared in anger.
“Momma, what the hell did you do?”
“Hello, Eddie.” The girl smiled, rubbing a hand over her swollen belly. “I’m fixin’ to send Junior to college. What do you say? Care to make a contribution to our boy’s college fund?”
What happened next took Wilhelmina by complete surprise. Michelle pulled a shiny silver gun from under her baby bump and leveled it at her son’s face. That little girl was packing heat. And she’d brought this trouble to her own doorstep. All things considered, her day was swirling down the crapper. And she had no desire to find out what would come next.
“Now hold on, honey. What’s going on?” She raised both hands, careful not to get between her son and the crazed girl holding him at gunpoint. After all, if that thing went off, she didn’t want to get hit by mistake.
“She’s a damned bounty hunter, Momma. Her name’s Beckett.”
“Jessica Beckett, ma’am.” The girl pulled out something from around her neck that had been covered by her oversized sweatshirt—a badge as shiny as her gun. “And I prefer Fugitive Recovery Agent.” To Eddie, she said, “You up for playin’ nice, or are you gonna piss me off again?”
With a downright lethal glare, Eddie raised his hands, but faster than Wilhelmina knew he could move, her son bolted down the hall toward his bedroom. A half-naked Superman moved faster than a speeding bullet, his version of it.
“Oh, hell!” The bounty hunter lowered her weapon and chased after him, pregnant belly and all.
The girl ran by her, full tilt.
“What are you doin’?” she cried after her. “You’re gonna hurt the baby.”
Chasing Eddie Smart, Jessica Beckett hit the déjà vu zone, remembering the last time this guy pulled a rabbit on her. She tucked her new .357 Magnum Colt Python away under her fake baby bump, knowing this would be another footrace. But this time, seeing his butt jiggling in Superman boxers would leave her scarred for life.
Another hazard not covered by workman’s comp.
“Shut ’er down, NASCAR. You’re only making me mad,” she yelled, only seconds behind him.
But the guy slammed his bedroom door in her face. In stride and not stopping, she hit wood with her shoulder, hurling open the door. It hit a wall with a loud crack. And the dog next door went into a frenzy. Close on Eddie’s heels, Jess had burst into the room and grappled him onto the mattress before he crashed through the nearest window.
“Oh, God.” She winced as she pinned him to the bed.
His whole room smelled like feet.
“Get off me, damn it!” He drooled on the bedsheets. “Watch it!”
With his nose mashed to one side, it was a definite improvement. She straddled his body, fumbling to keep Junior out of the way. Her fake pregnancy gear had worn out its usefulness, leaving only one purpose now. It kept Eddie’s hot sweaty skin at a distance.
“Eddie, come on, man.” She bent his arm back and slapped on a cuff. “You skipped on bail. Did you honestly think Momma would be an asset?”
After she secured his other arm, she backed off him, heaving for air. She caught a peek from a dresser mirror. Eddie’s momma stood in the doorway, her skin flushed.
“Honey, are you okay?” She shook her head. “You ought to not jostle the baby like that.”
Jess stared for a long moment, taking in the absurdity of her situation. She glanced in the mirror again, seeing herself in NASCAR gear and baby bump. And a slow rumble of laughter started deep in her belly, her real one.
“I’m not kidding, honey. You maybe ought to go to a doctor or something.”
And Momma Smart made it worse. She fought to keep her laughter to a minimum, but the harder she worked at it, the more maniacal she sounded. Jess knew Eddie’s momma needed to see things for herself. As the woman’s son lay sprawled on the bed, whining and complaining, Jess stripped off the fake pregnancy belly, a suffocating outer layer when worn with her Kevlar vest underneath. She tucked the phony belly under her arm and pulled her weapon again, not sure Eddie’s momma would let her pass.
“Your son skipped on bail, and he’s under arrest. You got anything more to say?” She stood over Eddie, waiting for his mother to register the truth on her face.
“So you ain’t Michelle?”
“Not today.” Jess rolled her eyes and pulled Eddie to his feet, heading him for the door.
The name Michelle had been a random pick. Jess had taken a chance with it, but she doubted Eddie would ever remember a woman’s name, even if he’d slept with her.
“But your blog…the NASCAR. And your picture with my boy,” the woman’s voice trailed off as realization hit her between the eyes. Luckily, the woman kept her distance, allowing Jess to haul Eddie’s ass safely to the curb.
“I heard Eddie used to be on MySpace. I figured it was worth a shot to set up a page with his picture on it…to see if someone recognized him.”
Jess didn’t explain the marvels of Photoshop, the only place where dismemberment wasn’t against the law.
Seth Harper would have done a better job at splicing the two images together, but she hadn’t found Harper yet. The guy she jokingly called her summer intern had vanished from her life without a word. Thinking about him made her sad. She sure missed her baby-faced computer genius, someone she had believed was her friend.
“But…what about my grandbaby?” the woman whined, her face knotted in a strange pout.
Jess had used Junior as bait for an old girlfriend or someone from Eddie’s family. The gamble had paid off in spades. Even though she hated coming between a mother and her pride and joy, after meeting Momma Smart, she figured they deserved one another.
That nut hadn’t fallen far enough from the tree.
Cursed by a name he could never live up to, Eddie Smart was dumber than a heaping pile of pea gravel. And taking him out of the gene pool, in any meaningful way, was too much to hope for. Men like Eddie always found a way to breed.
His original arrest had been in connection with an alleged assault of an old girlfriend. After taking his fists to that little snippet of a girl, Eddie didn’t like his odds with the court system, so he’d skipped. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be incarcerated long enough to do the world any good. As a Fugitive Recovery Agent, she’d seen this drama played out far too often.
“Lady, just knowing Eddie could unleash his progeny on the world scares the hell out of me. But after meeting you? Well, it explains a lot.”
The woman narrowed her eyes and pooched her thick lips, but she was done asking questions. She left the woman on the curb, still scratching her head over what had happened. Her boy walked slump shouldered down the sidewalk with his hands cuffed behind his back. She had her ride parked on the street, down the block.
Jess had figured right. It appeared Momma Smart harbored regrets about Eddie being the only legacy for her efforts as a reproducing human being. She craved a second chance to redeem herself with a brand-spanking-new grandbaby, fresh off the line.
Well, that wasn’t going to happen—at least not anytime soon.
And Jess breathed a sigh of relief, empowered by the knowledge she’d saved a woman or two from the shock of waking up next to Eddie Smart, a man who single-handedly put the ugly back in coyote. She’d done her part for the sisterhood and earned some cash to boot.
After she’d secured Eddie Smart into the back of the blue monster—an old Econoline van Seth Harper had loaned her three months ago after her car had been blown up—she ditched the pregnancy contraption in the front seat and climbed behind the wheel. She called in her arrest to the bail bondsman on the job, but when she was done, her cell phone rang. Caller ID pegged the incoming call as coming from her best friend, Samantha Cooper, a cop with CPD Vice.
“Yo, girlie. What the hell ya doin’?” She grinned, grateful for the reminder that humanity wasn’t wholly defined by the Smarts.
“Hey, Jessie. I know you’ve been looking for Seth.” Her friend got down to business, minus her usual smart-ass banter. Not a good sign.
Getting a call from a cop regarding a missing friend sent chills over her skin, a wave of needle pricks that cut deep. Seth’s sweet face flashed through her mind, a contradiction to the way her gut twisted under the grip of a dark premonition.
“Is he…is he still breathing, Sam?” It pained her to ask, but waiting for
wasn’t in her nature, even bad news.
“Yeah, he’s still with us, but he’s in a lot of trouble.” Sam gave her location, Pullman Station. “I’ll explain when you get here. Where do you want to meet?”
“Booking works. I’ve got an arrest to drop off. I’m heading in.” Before her friend hung up, she asked, “Sam, I gotta speak to Harper. Can you arrange it?”
“Already done. And Jess?” Sam’s voice grew more somber. “You’re gonna want to clear your plate. He’ll need your undivided attention. They’re booking Seth for murder.”
Cook County Jail
Jess couldn’t claim to know Seth Harper well, but she’d be willing to bet big bucks that murder wasn’t part of his playbook.
After she’d gotten the skinny on Harper from Sam, Jessie went to see him in lockup at the Cook County Jail, allowing her friend to report for her shift. She walked down a long hallway with dingy ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights overhead, escorted by a cop on jailer duty. Her steps echoed down the corridor, a lonely sound that she’d always associated with institutions. While she was being raised a ward of the state, she’d seen plenty.
Bland cinder-block walls were painted the color of oatmeal. And a few signs on rules of conduct were posted, screwed into the wall as if someone would steal them even here. The holding-cell area carried a smell—a mix of ammonia, glass cleaner, and an underlying odor she didn’t want identified.
When her escort got to the end of the hall, he unlocked a door with a keycard and gave her instructions that went in one ear and out the other. Her eyes had found Seth Harper sitting behind a wall of Plexiglas at one of the five visitor stations. After the door slammed shut, they had the room to themselves.
Under the stark lights, Seth looked tired, with dark circles under his eyes. Jessie hadn’t seen him in three months. And until now, she hadn’t realized how much the boy had taken root in her world, like a damned tenacious weed. He had severed their tie, and it hurt to know he had done it so easily.
Letting people into her life had never been easy.
From her earliest childhood memories, her best friend Sam Cooper had always been part of her, like a vital deep-seated bone marrow. And recently, Payton Archer had gotten under her skin, too, even though their paths had crossed in the blink of an eye. They still talked on the phone, but distance had taken its toll. He lived in Alaska, having chosen to stay and help his family mend, a choice she respected. Months ago, the abduction of his niece had given them common ground, but for them to move forward in a real relationship, they’d need more. She’d come to that conclusion far sooner than Payton. He still called from time to time, refusing to give up the ghost. And she missed him terribly.
Some people left marks, good and bad. But anyone who’d gotten under her skin had come away with a piece of her. And Harper had been no exception.
“So…it took handcuffs to get you to look me up?” She turned the chair around and straddled it, resting her chin on the heel of a hand.
“I didn’t exactly look you up, Jess.” He shrugged and avoided her eyes. “Sam did.”
“Thanks for reminding me you never lifted a finger. A woman doesn’t like hearing she’s been dropped from a guy’s speed dial, Harper. You didn’t give me much of a chance. I grow on people.”
“So do tumors.” He slouched deeper into his chair with arms crossed, fading behind smudged Plexiglas. His voice sounded tinny through the speaker, and it echoed in the room.
She’d seen Seth Harper in a diverse array of garments, from his signature jeans and Jerry Springer wear to slick upscale slacks and shirt suitable for a five-star hotel in downtown Chicago, the last residence she’d seen him. But in his red prison jumpsuit, he looked washed-out and sad. Warm puppy eyes had grown distant and lifeless. Jess didn’t think she had a maternal bone in her body, but seeing Harper like this made her think twice about that prospect. She wanted to hug him and tell him it would be all right, but she wouldn’t lie to a friend.
“You gonna tell me what happened?” When he didn’t answer, she pressed, “Look, Harper, I’m not seeing a long line of acquaintances outside, clamoring to help. And unless you’ve got one of those Get Out of Jail game cards they sell on the streets of Hollywood, I suggest you think long and hard about answering me. Your options are limited.”
When he resisted her considerable powers of persuasion, she made her point a different way.
“At the risk of stating the obvious, you’re not like the guys you’ll meet in prison, Harper.”
, she thought. “Not all of them are innocent, you know. And with your luck, you’ll get bunked with a guy named Bruno who’s just waiting for you to drop the soap.”
“Thanks for the visual.” He sat up and leaned forward. “You’re not exactly helping.”
“Then give me something. I thought we trusted each other.”
“Trust isn’t your strong suit, Jess. Who are you kidding? But I respect your privacy. Why can’t you do the same for me?” he pleaded.
“Because being arrested for murder ranks a little higher than sneaking a peek in your diary, my friend.”
Jess knew she’d be treading on thin ice if they continued to talk about trust and privacy. Harper had her pegged. A change in subject was in order.
“So where are you staying now? You noticed I used the word ‘staying.’ You like to keep your toiletries bag packed, ready so you can jump.”
“I’m not giving you that.”
“You’ve given me your addresses before, why not now?” When he stalled, she made a leap in logic. “Who are you protecting, genius?”
“I won’t drag innocent people into this mess. So please drop it.” He raised his voice for the first time. “I got myself into this. Me, alone. And I’m not protecting anyone ’cause no one else knows what happened. Hell, not even me.”
He wasn’t making much sense, and by the look on his face, he knew it, too. She needed another way under his defense mechanism.
“Look, let’s start from the beginning. Tell me what you
remember,” she said, then smirked. “And if it helps, picture me looking like a wart or some insidious skin rash. I’m not going away until you do something about it. Do us both a favor and throw me a bone, Harper.”
Not even the skin-rash analogy worked. Her best material. He tightened the arms across his chest, his body language not telling her anything she didn’t already know. But eventually he loosened up, ran a hand through his dark hair, and started to talk.
“I recall making a note of Dirty Monty’s, a bar on the South Side. But I can’t remember if I actually made it there.”
She knew the joint. A sleazy bar that wasn’t Seth’s style. She had a feeling someone else would have made the suggestion. Jess tried picturing who could have gotten Harper to do it, and the extent of her wild machinations only reminded her how little she knew of the guy sitting across from her. Harper’s life was clouded in mystery, and he liked it that way. As much as she wanted to believe she’d broken into his inner circle, she hadn’t even scratched the surface in understanding what made him tick.
But having the name of the bar was more than the cops had. And that gave her a place to start poking around.
“You gave me the blue monster for safekeeping, and I appreciate the loan. That old van has grown on me.” She smiled. “But what are you driving these days?”