Authors: Michael Prescott
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
By Michael Prescott
Copyright 2006 Douglas Borton
All rights reserved.
The Tess & Abby Books
The Shadow Hunter
(introduces Abby Sinclair)
(introduces Tess McCallum)
The knife was how he would do it.
Sure, strangling would be better, but she was a wiry little thing, and he was afraid she’d find a way to wriggle out of his grip. If she got loose long enough to scream, one of his neighbors in the apartment building might call the police. That was how it had gone down the last time, and why he’d spent the last twenty-two months in a maximum-security state prison. He wasn’t ready to go back.
Anyhow, the knife would be good enough. Poking her with the long sharp blade was almost as good as sex.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
Leon blinked, glancing at the woman who sat beside him on the couch. Her face was pale in the dim lamplight. “Huh?”
“It means, what are you thinking about?”
“You, baby. How good you look. Like a movie star.”
“Like candy.” He slid closer to her. Country music played on the AM radio he’d bought at a pawn shop for ten bucks. Tammy Wynette,
Stand By Your Man
. “Want me to give you some sugar?”
She giggled. She was too old to giggle—thirty, maybe thirty-five—but some women never grew up. They were high school girls their whole lives.
Thinking of her as a high school girl made him stiff. She noticed.
“Somebody’s getting hard.” Her hand brushed his crotch. “You have quite a package there.”
“Baby, you got no idea.” She hadn’t seen his real package yet. She hadn’t seen the knife. “Mind if I, uh, loosen my belt?”
“Well”—another giggle—“I wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortable ...”
His hand moved to his belt buckle, which was the handle of a concealed knife with a three-inch double-edge blade. He could draw it in less than a second, then punch the blade into her abdomen, driving it in up to the hilt, while his other hand covered her mouth to stifle her cry. And all the time he would watch her eyes, her pretty brown eyes, as the light in them faded out.
It was almost too easy. He hadn’t even bought her dinner. Picked her up in a bowling alley—a goddamn bowling alley, for Christ’s sake. He hadn’t even been trying. He’d already set his sights on the schoolteacher in Reseda. Didn’t know her name, but she’d caught his eye while leading a troop of kids on a field trip to the museum where he worked as a janitor. He’d staked out the school and followed her home. She had a hubby and a kid, a nice suburban life. For the past week he’d been watching her come and go, at home and at the school.
Then this bitch fell right into his lap—while he was bowling, if anyone could believe that. He ought to visit the lanes more often.
Of course, he would get to the schoolteacher soon enough. This babe was a warm-up job, a way of getting back into the swim after two years out of action. Then he would be going on to better things, once he got through with ... with ...
“This might sound stupid,” he said, “but I don’t think I ever caught your name.”
“Abby. Nice.” He drew the knife. “I’m Leon.”
He lunged, but she wasn’t there. The blade gouged the sofa cushion, ripping out foam.
She’d sprung off the couch the instant before he struck. He saw her smile, and there was something in her face that was all wrong—a coldness and a calmness, and the coiled menace of a snake.
“No need to introduce yourself, Leon,” Abby said, her voice an octave lower, a throaty, slightly scratchy voice, not so girlish anymore. “I know who you are.”
The flat of her hand connected with the bridge of his nose, and something crunched like a snail.
Blood on his face, waves of light pulsing across his field of vision. She’d broken his nose, damn it.
Tammy Wynette was still urging women to stand by their man. It didn’t seem like Abby was listening.
Leon lurched to his feet, swiping the knife at her. She hopped to one side, evading the stroke without effort. Her leg snapped up. A leather boot caught him under the chin. He spat blood. He’d bitten his tongue—bitten part of it clean off.
The taste of blood only made him madder. “Fucking kill you,” he wheezed.
“No, you won’t, Leon.” Her voice had a surreal gentleness that scared him. “You’ve had all the fun you’re going to have.”
Distantly it occurred to him that she wasn’t just some piece of ass he’d picked up at the lanes. She was a pro. A cop or a PI or some damn thing.
He swung out again with the knife, a wild sweep of his arm that crossed nothing but air, and suddenly she was up close, delivering three or four rabbit jabs to his belly, then clapping both hands over his ears.
Pain dazzled him. He was pretty sure his eardrums had ruptured.
And he’d lost the knife. She had it now. She’d taken it from him so deftly he hadn’t even noticed.
He got in a punch to her chest before she spun behind him. Her hand chopped the back of his neck. He fell to his knees, throwing a fist at her thigh in a blind effort at retaliation, and then her hands were on his face, blocking his nostrils, sealing his mouth. He couldn’t breathe. Crazy bitch was smothering him.
He flailed under her, trying to get a grip on her legs or arms. No use. He needed air. His throat burned. All pride left him, and he made a low pleading noise that barely escaped his pursed lips. A mewling whimper, a sound a beaten dog would make. She ignored it.
He fought to raise his head. If he could make eye contact, she would have to let him go. If he showed her how desperate he was, how abjectly helpless ...
His eyes rolled in his head. He saw her, leaning close. He saw her face, her eyes.
And he knew it would do no good to ask for mercy.
In the morning, the first thing Abby noticed was the blood. It had spattered her jeans and blouse. Funny she hadn’t seen it last night, but of course she’d been tired as hell. She hadn’t even removed her clothes before collapsing into bed.
Eight hours of dreamless sleep had left her newly energized. She swung out of bed and peeked through the curtains at the traffic flowing on Wilshire Boulevard, ten stories below. At 8:30 a.m., rush hour was in full swing, which was hardly surprising, since rush hour in L.A. lasted roughly twenty-three hours a day.
Her clothes were stiff and tight, like an unwanted layer of skin. She preferred to sleep naked. She’d kicked off her boots, at least. She retrieved them from the floor and found blood on them, too. How did you get bloodstains out of leather? She didn’t have a clue.
The boots could wait. Right now she was feeling dirty, and not just because of the blood. She stripped, ran the shower hot, and spent a long time under the steaming spray. Her hands and forearms had caught some of the splatter, and the water running off her arms was pink at first. She watched it spiral down the drain.
She shampooed, rinsed, and repeated, then toweled herself dry and examined her fingernails. More blood under them—a rich harvest of DNA evidence for anyone who wanted to look. She scrubbed her nails clean, then studied herself in the mirror.
The damage wasn’t too bad. A fist-sized bruise under her left breast. Another contusion on her right thigh. No cuts or scrapes. None of the blood was hers.
That’s how you know if you’ve had a good night, Abby thought. If none of the blood is yours.
Dressed, she decided to go out for breakfast. According to her calendar, on Thursday, August 10, she had nothing on her schedule. She’d been busy lately, too busy. She knew from experience that it wasn’t smart to push herself too hard. Fatigue was her enemy. Fatigue meant slowed reflexes, and in her business even a half-second disadvantage could mean death.
As usual, the
had been left in the hallway outside her door. She flipped to the Metro section, found the story she wanted, and took that page, leaving the rest of the paper in her condo. She donned shades for the L.A. look, then rode the elevator to the ground floor of the Wilshire Royal condominium tower, which had been her home for nearly ten years.
The guards in the lobby saluted her with a wave. She smiled back. Vince and Gerry had been here forever, long enough to have figured out that she wasn’t really a software company rep as she claimed, but loyal enough to never breathe a word.
She walked out the door into the bright morning. “Morning, Miss Sinclair,” the doorman said, shutting the lobby door behind her.
“Hey, Sean. You’re showing a little bit.” She pointed discreetly to a bulge in his jacket near his underarm. Sean, a crew-cut blond who looked like a lifeguard, carried a Colt .45 in a leather holster under his red livery.
The bulge wouldn’t be noticed by most people, but Abby had an eye for that sort of thing. From experience she knew there was no good way to carry a concealed firearm. She opted to tote her Smith & Wesson .38 in her purse, in a special compartment that could be accessed without undoing the clasp. The purse was weighted so she could carry it by the strap without compensating for the list of the firearm. The strap itself was reinforced with wire to prevent a tearaway. Not a perfect solution, but the best she’d come up with.
Sean frowned. “Damn. Gotta get this thing tailored. Been working out, made my shoulders wider. Now the gun’s printing.”
“Working out?” She took a closer look. “Yeah, I see it. Better definition of the trapezius.”
“Put on five pounds—all muscle.”
“You still won’t go it with me, though. Right?”
“Sean, I’m pushing thirty-five. I’m too old for you.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Miss Sinclair. You’ll never be old.”
The remark could be taken as a compliment or a prognostication. The first option seemed preferable.
She walked on before he could press the point. She had nothing against Sean, but there were other priories in her life. Besides, she was still seeing a cop named Wyatt from time to time, and one man in uniform was enough.
A short hike into Westwood Village brought her to a health food café, where she purchased a yogurt-and-granola breakfast, then sat by the window and read the newspaper story.
At approximately eleven thirty last night, a woman was heard shouting for help from a fire escape outside the apartment of Leon Trotman, age twenty-six. Police were summoned. They discovered Trotman unconscious on the floor. Once revived, he complained of having been assaulted by an unidentified female, no longer on the premises. Trotman changed from victim to suspect when police discovered a small cache of weapons in his bedroom, including several firearms. As an ex-convict, Trotman was not permitted to own guns. The parole violation would put him back in jail.
And—Abby added a silent postscript—a certain schoolteacher in Reseda wouldn’t be bothered by a stalker anymore.
Things had worked out fine. But there had been a moment, just a moment ...
Eyes shut, she remembered holding Leon down as he struggled for air. She’d felt the frenzied shudders of his body, heard the puling noises from the back of his throat. He’d thought she was trying to kill him. And it would have been easy, wouldn’t it? Easy to maintain the pressure just a little longer, keep the air out of his lungs for a few more seconds after he lost consciousness. Easy to make him die.
If he didn’t deserve it, who did? He had attacked one woman, served time, and immediately reverted to form upon his release. Put him back in jail, and in a year or two he would be out again, trolling for new prey. Why not just end it now? No one would miss him. She would be saving lives. Taking one life, yes, but saving others.
She hadn’t gone through with it. But the temptation had been real. And it worried her. More and more often she found herself thinking that way. At first she’d assumed it was only stress. Now she thought it was something more—the cumulative toll the job had taken on her over the past eight years. The slow shift in perspective from protector to predator. She had spent a long time in the shadows, among violent, paranoid men. Too much time, maybe.
But what was she going to do, quit? Not likely. The job was her life. There was nothing else for her. She would just have to tough it out. It was only a phase, probably. She would get over it. Anyway, she’d never acted on those thoughts. She wasn’t a killer. In her whole life she’d killed just one person, and that had been pure self-defense, a kill-or-be-killed situation that any jury would have understood, assuming the matter had ever gone to trial.
The bottom line was, Leon had lived, and he was headed to prison, where for the time being, at least, he would be a menace only to his fellow inmates. Score one for the home team.
Abby put away the news story. She was finishing her granola-yogurt concoction when her purse rang. More accurately, the cell phone in her purse.
She hated to answer it because it was probably work. Because she was so very responsible, she answered it anyway, giving her real name because this phone, unlike some of her others, was not registered under an alias. “Abby Sinclair.”
A crisp female voice said, “Please hold for Congressman Reynolds.”
Congressman? She’d never had any dealings with a politico, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to start now. She wasn’t even certain who Reynolds was. Heck, he might be her own congressman. She had a tough time remembering any politicians below the level of, say, vice president.
A smooth, mellow voice came over the line, a good speaking voice, the kind that went down like aged whiskey and made you feel all warm inside. She didn’t need to be told who was talking. He told her anyway. “Miss Sinclair, this is Jack Reynolds. It’s good to talk to you.”
“Likewise, umm ...” How did you address a congressman? Your Honor? She settled on “sir.”
“I understand you offer assistance to people who have certain difficulties.”
This was vague but not inaccurate. “That’s right,” she said. She didn’t ask how he knew about her.
“I wonder if it would be possible for you to meet with me.”
“In Newport Beach. Congress is out of session now. August recess.”
“Oh.” Sure, she’d known that.
“I’m back in my district to do some campaigning. My schedule is tight, but I have an opening at four. Why don’t you meet me in my office?”
It didn’t sound like a question. More like the casual command of a man used to getting what he wanted.
Abby didn’t much care for being ordered around, and besides, she’d promised herself the day off. “I’m afraid my schedule is pretty full at the moment, too.”
“This is important.”
It was always important. Always life-and-death. Sometimes literally. That was why Abby hated to say no. But she was tired. She was worn out. “Maybe if you call again in a week or ten days—”
“I require your help
, Miss Sinclair, not a week from now. If it’s a question of money, I’ll double your usual fee. I’ll pay it in cash, and you can decide whether to report it. How does that sound?”
“Kind of desperate. And potentially illegal. You
a congressman, right?”
“I was given to understand that you have no compunctions about breaking the law when it suits your purposes.”
“And I guess you feel the same way.”
“I’m in a difficult situation. I urgently require your assistance, and I am willing to do what it takes to obtain it.”
Although the money didn’t tempt her, curiosity did. She had to know what this was all about. Tired though she was, bruised like a peach, she couldn’t say no.
“Okay, I give in. Four p.m. it is.” So much for her vacation. “Where is your office exactly?”
“My assistant, Rebecca, can give you that information.” Suddenly the congressman’s warmth was gone, replaced by the curtness of a busy professional. “See you then.”
Click, and Abby found herself speaking with the same crisp-voiced female who’d been first on the line. The assistant gave directions to an office building in Newport Beach, about twenty miles south of L.A.
“You wouldn’t happen to know what this is about?” Abby asked Rebecca in hope of eliciting a little sisterly understanding.
“I’m afraid I have no idea. Have a nice day.”
Apparently sisterhood wasn’t powerful, after all.
Abby pondered the situation. It didn’t make a lot of sense. She was in the security business. Members of Congress had all the security they needed. Reynolds ought to have had no use for her services. Unless he was arranging protection for someone else—or keeping secrets that even his bodyguards weren’t allowed to know.
The phone rang again. Another politician? Maybe it was the president on the line.
“Abby Sinclair,” she said.
“I just saw the paper. Thank you.”
It was that certain schoolteacher in Reseda, who’d been unlucky enough to catch Leon Trotman’s eye.
“No problem,” Abby said.
“You saved me. You saved my life.”
“I’m not sure that’s true.” Actually, she was pretty certain it was.
“He was after me. He would have killed me. And the police couldn’t do anything except talk about a restraining order. As if a restraining order would stop a man like him—”
Abby had heard the same song from dozens of clients. She didn’t need a reprise. “He’s back where he belongs, so don’t sweat it. Just get ready to write me a big whopping check when my bill comes.”
“It’s worth it. Whatever it costs—you’re a lifesaver, Abby. Literally, a lifesaver.”
Abby accepted a few more compliments of a similar nature and managed a graceful exit from the conversation. She put the phone back into her purse.
A lifesaver. Yes, that was what she was.
Not a killer. Of course not.