Minneapolis, Minnesota, Monday, September 20, 12:00 a.m.
They'd shown up. He had to admit he was surprised. He didn't think they'd had the cojones, especially the girl. Of all of them, he hadn't thought she'd follow through.
Four college kids, all dressed in black. Four college kids with way too much time. Two of them with way too much of their daddy's money. If all went according to plan, a great deal of their daddy's money would soon belong to him.
It was rule number one of his world – if people didn't want to be blackmailed, they shouldn't do bad things. Rule number two – if they did bad things, they should be smart enough not to get caught. The four college kids weren't very smart.
From the cover of the trees the condo developer had taken such pains to preserve, he watched the four approach, while he filmed every step they took. Their faces were plainly visible in the moonlight, and although he'd bet their daddy's money they believed they were being stealthy, they moved with enough noise to wake the dead.
“Wait.” One of the four stopped. His name was Joel and of the three young men, he had been the most enthusiastic proponent of their plan. “Let's think this through.”
Interesting. Conflict always added a little excitement. Unseen, he kept filming.
“No waiting,” the girl said. Her name was Mary and she was a bitch. “We agreed. All of us, Joel. This condo has got to go. We have to send a message.”
“She's right.” This from Eric, the so-called brains of the group. As if. “This is our one chance to make a difference to these wetlands. If we do nothing, this whole lake will be nothing but condos.” He turned to the large brute standing behind him. “The guard will be doing his outside sweep in two minutes. He'll exit the building from the service door in the back. You know what to do. Come on, people. Let's roll.”
The brute was Albert, pronounced without the t. French Canadian, he was at the university on a hockey scholarship. Right wing. Hell of a checker. Albert set off around the building, obediently. His research had revealed Albert had been quite the juvenile delinquent, back in the day. He was quite certain Albert would know exactly what to do.
The show was about to begin. Hurry, he told himself, taking his second camera from his pack. This was his stationary camera and was attached to a small tripod which he stuck into the soft ground, positioning the lens just in time to capture Mary, Eric, and Joel entering a stairwell door on the east side of the condo.
The door had been propped open with a rock, probably by a construction worker who'd wanted to save a little time and effort. The best security system in the world could be neutralized by lazy workers. Apparently the College Four had done their homework to know exactly which door would be open. Kudos to them.
Leaving his stationary camera running, he moved the way Albert had gone, arriving just as the guard exited, right on schedule. Five seconds later the guard lay unconscious on the ground. A satisfied Albert slid a small club back in his pocket.
All caught on my tape. Albert's family was dirt poor, so there was no money now, but there was a good chance that Albert would someday have an NHL salary ending in lots of zeroes. I can wait. Eric and Joel both had daddies rich enough to fill his bank accounts for now. As for Mary's daddy … some paybacks didn't require a dollar sign.
Some paybacks are personal.
Within another minute, Mary emerged from the side entrance and joined Albert. Both stared up at the windows, waiting.
He waited with them, from a safe distance away. He saw the first wisps of smoke rise in the upper floors. Mary threw her fist in the air, with a whispered, “Yes.”
Minutes later there was lots of smoke, on every floor. But the side door had not opened again. Mary took a step forward, the triumph on her face turned to concern, but Albert stopped her, his beefy hand closing around her arm.
“They're still inside,” she said, yanking at her arm. “Let me go.”
Albert shook his head. “Give them another minute.”
And then the door burst open, both Eric and Joel gasping for breath. Mary and Albert ran to the wheezing boys, pulling them away from the building.
“Goddamn idiot,” Eric snarled, jerking in huge breaths. “You nearly got us killed.”
Joel fell to his knees, spasms of coughing shaking his body. He looked up, his eyes terrified, desperate. “She'll die.”
Mary and Albert shared shocked looks. “Who will die?” Albert asked carefully.
Joel scrambled to his feet. “A girl. She's trapped. We have to get her out.” He started to run. “Dammit,” he cried when Eric and Albert dragged him back. “Let me go.”
Mary grabbed Joel's face. “There's somebody in there?” She flashed a panicked glare at Eric. “You said nobody would be in there. You said it was safe.”
“Nobody's supposed to be in there,” Eric gritted through clenched teeth. “Joel didn't see anything. Let's go before somebody sees the smoke and calls 911.”
“She's in there,” Joel insisted, hysterical now. “I saw her. Look!”
As a group they looked up and he followed suit, pointing his lens upward as a collective gasp rose from the group. In that moment, he saw her, too. A girl, her fists banging on the window that had been designed to provide a view of the lake, not an escape. She was young, a teenager maybe, her mouth opened on a terrified cry they could not hear. Her fists pounded weakly now, her face pressed to the glass. Then her hands flattened against the window as she slid from their sight.
Joel gave a final, desperate yank. “She's going to die. Don't you care? Nobody was supposed to get hurt. Let me go. I've got to get her out.”
Mary grabbed his hair. “Stop it. You go back in there and you'll both be dead.”
Joel was sobbing now. “Then call 911. Please. Dammit, please.”
“Listen to me,” Mary said, her voice low and urgent. “If we call 911, we all go to prison. Prison, Joel. That's not going to happen. Stop this, right now.”
But Joel wasn't listening. He thrashed, trying to escape their grip like a man possessed. Behind his head Eric gave Albert a grim nod. Albert pulled the club from his pocket and a second later Joel collapsed, just as the guard had done.
“Let's go,” Eric said tersely and he and Albert picked Joel up and carried him through the woods to where their car was parked.
Mary gave a final look back, up at the now empty window. “Shit,” she hissed, then turned and ran, passing the struggling boys to pull at the chain link fence they'd cut on their way in. “Hurry. Shove him through.”
Well. He lowered his camera, watching as the taillights from their car disappeared. That had been a lot more exciting than he'd thought it would be. A simple arson would have been good for years of blackmailing fun. But murder trumped arson and just about anything else. He had several clients that would agree to that.
He packed his two cameras and the tripod quickly. Smoke was billowing into the sky and he heard the pop of glass as windows began to burst. The authorities would soon be here. And I will be long gone. Hefting his backpack, he jogged around the building to the lake side where he'd left his boat tied to the dock.
“You there. Stop.” It was a thin, ragged cry, but he heard it. Spinning around, he found himself face to face with the security guard, who staggered forward, dazed. Blood oozed from the open wound on his head. Albert hadn't hit him hard enough. The man held his radio in one bloody hand, a gun in the other. “Stop or I'll shoot. I will.”
Not today, Pops. Calmly he drew his own gun and fired. The guard's mouth fell open in shock. He dropped to his knees, then collapsed for the second time that night.
“Shoulda' stayed down, Pops,” he muttered. He ran to his boat and dropped his pack inside. With a quiet roar, the motor engaged. Quickly he pulled off the ski mask he wore. If anyone saw him now he could claim he'd seen the smoke and was coming to help, versus trying to flee. But nobody saw him. Nobody ever did.
Which made listening to their whispered secrets so much easier. He patted the cameras in his pack. Which made taking their money so much easier still. I love my job.
Oh my God oh my God oh my God. From behind the tree where he'd hidden, Austin Dent watched the small boat speed away, his hands pressed to his mouth. The guard was dead. That man had shot him. Dead.
They'll say I did it. Run. I have to run. He took a few unsteady steps backward, lifting his eyes to the burning building once again.
Tracey. She'd been behind him as they'd run from the building. But when he got out, she wasn't behind him anymore. And when he'd turned back … All he could see was smoke. A sob of anguish rose up in his chest. Tracey.
In the distance he could see the lights flashing. They were coming. The cops were coming. They'll take me away. Put me in a cage. No. Not again. I can't do that again. He stumbled back a few more steps, then turned and started to run.
Minneapolis, Minnesota, Monday, September 20, 12:40 a.m.
“Higher, Zell,” David Hunter said into his radio, his voice muffled by the mask covering his face. He turned his shoulder into the wind that blew the acrid smoke into the night sky. Suspended four stories up, the bucket in which he stood, held firm. The belt anchored him to the apparatus, but his legs still clenched as he held his position.
“Going up.” Jeff Zoellner, his partner, operated the lift from the base of the ladder.
David adjusted the angle of the nozzle mounted on the bucket as he rose, aiming at the flames that had consumed the lower two floors of the structure before they'd arrived. None of them had gone in. Too dangerous. Their only hope was to control this fire so that it didn't spread to the trees surrounding what had been a six-story luxury condo.
Thank God this place isn't finished. In a few weeks there would have been people inside. There may be one. The guard was missing. If he'd been on one of the lower floors, he was dead. If he'd made it a little higher, there was still a chance of saving him.
Arson. David's jaw clenched as the platform rose. Had to be. He'd seen it before, up close and way too personally. The wind shifted again and he flinched when the flames lurched his way. For a split second he lost his footing. Focus, boy. Stay alive.
“David?” Jeff's voice was urgent amid the crackling. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” The platform rose a few more feet, lifting him alongside a large picture window. Every condo on the upper floors had them. He saw no flames, but smoke billowed from the smaller windows which had already burst from the heat.
But all the picture windows were intact. Made of impact-resistant glass, they didn't burst. They also didn't open. They were for the view of the lake. Not for escape.
And then he saw it. His heart began to race faster.
“Stop.” He leaned over the edge of the bucket in which he stood, so he could get closer to the window. It couldn't be. Nobody's supposed to be inside. But it was.
“What is it?” The platform lurched as Jeff hit the brakes.
Hand prints. The faint outline of small handprints that somehow … shimmered in the light from his spotlight. What the hell? “Handprints.” And streaks, made from fingers, clawing at the window, trying to escape. “Somebody's in there. We have to go in.”
“Hunter?” Captain Tyson Casey's voice cut through the static. “Do you see a body?”
Using the controls mounted in the bucket, David edged closer until the platform bumped the wall. Straining to see through the smoke, his racing heart sank. “I see arms.” Thin, bare arms and a slim back. Long blonde hair. Not the missing guard, a man in his fifties. “It's a woman. Appears unconscious. Window is impact-resistant.”
“Hold your position,” Casey told him. “Sheridan, cut the nozzle. Zell's on his way up with the saw.”
David felt the pressure in the line lessen as Firefighter Gabe Sheridan closed off the valve from the ground. He looked down to see Jeff steadily climbing the ladder. Hurry, he wanted to hiss, but knew Jeff was doing it right. Doing it safe. For a moment he considered taking his own axe to the window, but knew the power saw would do the job on the impact-resistant glass a lot faster than he could, so he conserved his energy.
He glanced back through the window at the woman inside. She hadn't moved.
She was probably dead. Don't be dead. He peered through the glass, wondering if anyone else was in the room. Wondering if she could have set the fire.
Jeff climbed into the bucket, power saw in hand. David pointed to the far edge of the glass, away from the victim and her handprints, blocking out the mental picture of how terrified she must have been as she pounded and clawed, trying to escape. She might have set this fire. They needed to preserve her prints on the glass for the cops.
His air can was almost empty so he switched it while Jeff forced the saw through the nearly impenetrable glass until the hole was big enough for David to push through.
Jeff grabbed his shoulder. “She could have done this,” he shouted. “Be careful.”
“I will,” he shouted back. He climbed through, landing close to the wall as possible, in case the floor was weak. He crouched low and searched the room for anyone else.
But there was no one. Go. Get her out and go. She was light, her weight barely registering when he hefted her over his shoulder. He handed her to Jeff, then climbed back through the window and radioed Gabe Sheridan to take them down.
The platform backed away from the building, away from the flames that were still licking at the second floor. The paramedic was waiting on the ground to take the victim.
David pulled off his mask the moment his feet hit the dirt, Jeff doing the same. For a moment David closed his eyes, letting the air cool his face. The night air that would have been otherwise brisk was still hot all around them, but compared to wearing that damn mask it was like stepping into A/C. Medic Scotty Schooner looked up, grim.
David knew. “She's dead?”
Scotty nodded. “Yeah.”
Jeff's hand clasped his shoulder. “Sorry, buddy.”
“Me, too.” David remembered the handprints on the window. “Check her hands.”
Scotty knelt next to the gurney holding the body of a girl David could now see was no more than a teenager wearing ratty jeans and a thin t-shirt. What a waste.
Scotty was frowning at the girl's hands. “They're covered in some kind of gel.”
David's captain and two uniformed cops joined them, the three of them bending over the gurney to see her hands.
“What is this shit on her hands?” one of the cops asked.
“I don't know, but whatever it is, it reflects light. I saw her handprints on the window,” David told him. “My light hit the glass and the prints shone. Fire investigator's going to want to sample it. If she set this fire, she got stuck up there and panicked. There were lots of fist-sized prints, like she pounded, trying to get out.”
“If she didn't do this fire, it's murder,” the other cop said. “I'll make the call.”
“Tell them it's a double,” a female voice said behind them. Carrie Jackson stood behind them. Her engine team had been spraying the west side of the structure, next to the lake. “I was laying line and nearly tripped over the guard. He was shot in chest.”
Scotty stood up. “I'll go check him out.”
Carrie shrugged. “Go ahead. But he's definitely dead. Has been for a while.”
“I believe you,” Scotty said. “But it's regs. Show me where he is.” Together Scotty and Carrie set off around the building with the first cop.
The second cop straightened with a sigh. “I'll get Homicide, the ME and CSU out here. They'll want to talk to all of you. Especially Hunter, since he brought her out.”
Homicide. David's throat closed as the word left the cop's mouth and for a moment another thought scrambled to the top of his mind. There were lots of detectives in Homicide. Odds were it wouldn't be her. And if it was? I'll cross that bridge when I get there. He cleared his throat harshly and nodded. “Of course. Whatever they need.”
“As soon as we're done,” Casey added. “We've got to get the second floor under control. Hunter, you and Zell go back in. Search the upper floors. Find out if anyone else was where they shouldn't have been and make sure we got no fire in the walls.”
“Will do,” Jeff said.
David pushed homicide detectives from his mind and took a last look at the girl on the gurney. What the hell was she doing in there? Why wasn't someone taking care of you? But he knew all too well that life wasn't nearly that idyllic. “I'll check where I found her, see if I can find some ID. She's just a kid. She's got to belong to somebody.”
“Don't touch anything,” the cop said and David fought the urge to roll his eyes. Cops treated them like damn kindergartners sometimes. “Got it?”
“Don't worry. I got it.”
Copyright © 2010, Karen Rose Books, Inc.