In a dark room on the thirteenth floor of a nondescript federal building, FBI Special Agent Beckett O’Halleran stared into the soulless eyes of a monster. Nikolai Radoslav couldn’t see through the two-way mirror, but he would know Beck was there.
Thanks to a complaint from Radoslav’s attorney—some bullshit about “disrespectful treatment of his client by members of the task force—Beck was stuck observing while his commander got to sit face to face with a psychopath. After what the sick son of a bitch did, he was lucky to be alive.
Black eyes peered out from beneath the Russian mob boss’s thick, bushy white brows. A conspicuous road map of very fine, red veins spread across his bulbous nose, an unsightly side effect of a life spent dumping rotgut vodka into his system. Too bad it hadn’t killed him. He dipped his shoulder sideways for his attorney to whisper in his ear. He threw back his head, and his fat neck bobbled with laughter. His attention returned to the mirror, and a slow smile slithered across his bloated face.
The douchebag’s defense attorney dug into his expensive, hand-stitched briefcase and pulled out a tin of mints then offered one to his client.
Beck’s hands fisted at his sides, and he ground his molars until his jaw hurt.
Something was wrong with this picture. Radoslav was staring down the barrel of being charged with the murder of a federal agent. A capital offense, punishable by death. Yet, here they were, relaxed and shooting the shit like they were hanging out at a bar.
Commander Samuel Simmons walked in the door, dropped a folder on the table, unbuttoned his jacket, then sat across from the two men. A consummate professional, he gave away none of the repressed rage churning just beneath the surface. Beck knew it was there because he was feeling it too.
Beck reached over and flipped on the speaker.
Without saying a word, Sam opened the folder and, one by one, laid out a series of grisly crime scene photos, each one more horrific than the one before.
Sweat beaded across the lawyer’s brow, and all the color—and arrogance—drained from his face. His throat bobbed up and down, and he quickly covered his mouth and nose with his handkerchief, as if he could actually smell the blood.
His client, on the other hand, looked bored as he sucked his teeth and looked at his perfectly manicured nails. The overhead fluorescents flashed off the blood-red ruby in his ring.
For the next forty-five minutes, jaw tight, muscles tensed, Beck watched and listened to Radoslav’s lawyer do all the talking.
“No, the warehouse does not belong to my client.”
“No, Mr. Radoslav was nowhere near the warehouse where the body was found. He was having dinner with friends.”
“No, my client has never seen that knife before.”
“No, my client does not recognize the body in these photographs.”
The “body” he so callously referred to was that of Jodi Andrews, a young agent on her first undercover assignment. She was part of the Organized Crime Task Force. Until Radoslav kidnapped, raped and tortured her.
Beck reached for the doorknob, ready to charge into the interrogation room and beat the truth out of the Russian bastard, when Sam’s cellphone vibrated on the table.
“Simmons.” He listened for a moment. His shoulders stiffened, and his spine visibly straightened as he looked across the table at Radoslav. “But sir, we … Yes, sir.”
Beck’s boss stood. The chair screeched across the floor, and Sam shoved his phone in his breast pocket.
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Radoslav.” He gathered the photos and slipped them back in the folder. “The agent on the other side of the door will show you out.”
The Russian smirked.
What. The. Hell?
Radoslav stood, smoothed his silk tie and buttoned his three-thousand-dollar Armani jacket over his large belly. He smiled as he shook his scumbag lawyer’s hand, then turned to Sam.
His commander glanced down at the extended hand, back up at Radoslav’s smug grin. Then Sam turned and walked away without so much as a “kiss my ass.”
Was that … ?
Beck stepped close to the window, his nose almost touching the glass. Yeah, that was a twitch in the Russian’s left eye. Seems the old man wasn’t used to getting the brush-off and didn’t like it much.
He hung back long enough to ensure Radoslav and his lawyer had left the building before he charged into his boss’s office.
“What the hell was that?” Beck pointed his thumb over his shoulder toward the interrogation room.
Sam stood, and his shoes scuffed across the old carpet as he crossed his office to shut the door.
“Have a seat, O’Halleran.” He pointed to a chair in front of his desk.
“Have a seat? You have got to be fucking kidding me.” Beck jammed his hands on his hips, exposing the gold shield and weapon clipped on either side of his waist.
“Fine, stay standing. I can do this either way.” The old chair Sam had been using since he started with the bureau creaked when he dropped into it with a heavy sigh. The only personal item in the cramped space, an outdated picture of his wife and two daughters, sat hidden behind a stack of files teetering on the corner of his gray, government-issued desk.
“Why’d you cut him loose?” Beck was confident they’d nailed the old psychopath this time.
“The call I got was from someone providing an alibi for Radoslav.” His boss’s jaw jumped, and his eyes blazed with anger.
“Said they were at dinner together during the time of death.”
“Let me guess … ” Beck hesitated. “Barlow?”
Simmons gave one quick nod.
“Come on, Sam.” He threw his hands up in frustration. “We both know that’s bullshit.”
“Maybe.” Resignation settled into Sam’s shoulders. He yanked off his reading glasses and tossed them on the desk. “But I was given a direct order to cut him loose.”
Beck shook his head, then stared at the hand-carved bureau emblem mounted on the wall behind his boss, a gift from his team when he hit his twenty-year mark. It pissed him off that the deputy director was dirty. Even the rank and file within the bureau—the men and women in the field doing the real work—knew he was, but proving it was the challenge. The guy was Teflon.
“Looks like I need to add the deputy director to my investigation.” Beck scrubbed his hand down the scruff on his face, started pacing back and forth.
“You know how this works, O’Halleran. You’re out.”
Beck stopped midstep and turned to his boss … his friend.
Sam’s hand went up to cut off any protest. He leaned forward, his elbows on his desk. The dark circles under his eyes suddenly made him look twenty years older. Shit like this did that to you.
“You’re too close to this thing—you’ve lost your objectivity—not to mention you’re burned out. I’m moving you to another case.” Sam pointed at Beck. “And I’m ordering you to stay clear of Radoslav and especially Barlow.”
“I have been tracking this psychopath for three years. Three years, Sam. And Jodi was my responsibility.” Beck shook his head, his voice steady, resolute. “No, you can’t pull me off this now. Radoslav is mine.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. As of right now”—Simmons rose from behind his desk and got in Beck’s face— “you are off this task force. If I find out you’ve disobeyed my order, I will yank your shield, your creds, and your weapon, before I notify the Office of Professional Responsibility. Are we understood, Special Agent O’Halleran?”
Beck didn’t flinch at the stern edge in his old friend’s voice. He knew it came from a place of concern. And being reported to the OPR no longer mattered to him. His course had been set the minute he’d found Jodi lying dead in that filthy warehouse.
He pulled his creds from his pocket, unclipped his shield and gun from his belt, then leaned over and carefully placed them in the middle of the cluttered desk.
“No need, Sam. I’m done.”
Gwen Tamberley stood on the top step and stared up at the old building. Feelings of sorrow and loneliness wrestled with her excitement. She tried not to feel intimidated by the task ahead. Easier said than done.
She turned, scanned the length of the street and sighed. There were a lot of risks involved in her plan. After all, most people had given up on this part of San Francisco. Considered it nothing more than a stain on an otherwise pristine city.
“Maggie’s Embrace” would be a community center and shelter named in honor of her mother. It would serve the homeless as well as the good, honest, hardworking families who had lived here for multiple generations. People just trying to eke out a life in the neighborhood they loved. You could see signs of optimism everywhere. In the flowers and plants growing from window boxes here and there. In the shop owners struggling to survive day in and day out.
You could hear it in the sounds of children laughing as they played jump rope or wrote with chalk on the sidewalk. You could feel it in the two old neighbor ladies leaning out and talking to each other from their front windows, their hands flying as they told their stories. In so many other ways, this area proved it was worth saving.
The center would offer a reprieve from the drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps brazenly conducting business on every corner.
“This is for you, Momma,” she whispered as she admired the boundless hopefulness, “and them.”
Six months, two days, nineteen hours and—she glanced at her watch—twenty-seven minutes. That’s how long it had been since her mother died in her arms. The result of a still-unsolved hit-and-run. The shelter was Gwen’s way of helping others improve their lives and to give them something her mother never seemed to have—a sense of safety.
She took a deep breath and released it, casting off the lingering guilt and melancholy that tried to sabotage her happiness.
Chin high, she hiked her tote onto her shoulder and turned to the front door of the dilapidated corner building. She jiggled the key in the beat-up lock and, using her shoulder, like a pint-size offensive lineman, managed to partially shove open one of the large wooden doors. She picked up the broom and bucket of cleaning supplies and squeezed through the narrow opening into what would become the fulfillment of a dream.
She set down the supplies, flipped on the overhead light and pulled out her legal pad. Call locksmith and Repair door were added to her growing list of things to do. She’d been inside the building several times, but standing here now, holding the keys, it felt different—more real.
The dream was real, all right … and it reeked. The stench of dust, backed-up plumbing, and plain old neglect wrinkled her nose. She shivered when she saw all the cobwebs—lots of them. She desperately tried to convince herself those webs were absolutely uninhabited. Anything else was unacceptable and would have to be dealt with immediately.
Glad she’d worn her work boots, she shoved aside a pile of garbage with her foot and headed down the long hallway. At the far end, sunlight spilled through the doorway of the bright, airy kitchen. Gwen could imagine the family who must’ve lived here in the past. She was proud to play a part in filling this old place with life again.
Over the sink was a large window. She stood on her tippy-toes to peek through the grime at a small, fenced-in backyard. “Yard cleanup” was added to her list of things to do. Maybe she could pay a couple of the kids from the neighborhood to help.
Across the hall, she stepped into a room she hoped would be big enough for her double bed and dresser. There were larger spaces within the building, but this one adjoined her office. Someone had even left behind a massive oak desk. She was pretty sure the only reason it hadn’t been taken was because it was too darn big to move. A little TLC and some wood cleaner, and it would be as good as new.
In addition to the beautiful crown molding and built-in bookcases, one of her favorite features of the room was the generous brick-faced fireplace with a large stone mantle. Stepping over and around garbage, she tentatively approached it. As she got closer, a strange scratching sound stopped her dead in her tracks. She gulped as she strained to hear. The noise would seem to indicate there was at least one family of birds or—heaven forbid—some other less friendly creature currently in residence. She cursed her vivid imagination as a shudder ran through her.
Thinking about doing battle with spiders already had her on edge; add this latest unseen foe, and she had to fight the urge to run screaming from the room. Introducing herself to her new neighbors by running into the street like a crazy woman was probably not such a great idea.
“You’re being ridiculous, Gwen. It’s just a cute little bird.” As if saying it out loud would make it so. Without taking her eyes off the fireplace—convinced the creature currently living there was just waiting to sneak up on her—she backed away.
Her heel caught in a tear in the carpet.
She shrieked, and her arms cartwheeled through the air.
As if in slow motion, her big bag slipped from her shoulder and fell to the floor just before she landed in a less than delicate heap on her butt.
The dust settled. She did a mental inventory of her body. Other than bruising her pride, she’d escaped injury, thanks to a ratty old cushion.
Gwen reached for her scattered belongings just as a very large, very hairy spider crawled across her wallet before disappearing into the floor vent. She let loose another scream as she scooped up her stuff and ran behind the desk. Because, you know, the spider would never think to look for her there. She rolled her eyes and shook her head at her silliness, then hastily added “HIRE CHIMNEY SWEEP & EXTERMINATOR” to the top of her list.
Her head tilted at the sound of someone struggling to open the front door. She peeked around the doorjamb and saw Joseph Chadwick standing just inside. He looked around the large foyer, disgust obvious on his face. Dread raised goosebumps across her arms. The urge to flee out the back door was powerful.
Those feelings snuck up on her sometimes, the result of her unorthodox childhood. She’d been raised by a mother who spoke to no one and expected the same of her daughter. A mother who kept them isolated, practically living off the grid. Heck, Gwen had even been homeschooled, when all she’d ever wanted was to be around other kids. Often, she’d felt cheated, had wanted to rebel. The desperation and fear that lived in her mother’s eyes had always stopped her. Gwen was left with an ingrained inability to trust, especially a guy like Chadwick.
He represented the large faceless corporation who owned the building before her. As the sale progressed, he’d begun showing up at fundraisers she attended. She hadn’t paid him much attention until he began standing unnervingly close, giving the impression they were together. Using any excuse to touch her, a lot. Taking advantage of the fact she wouldn’t dare make a scene in front of so many potential investors.
Repeatedly deflecting his efforts and tactfully letting him know she wasn’t even interested in a platonic friendship had become exhausting. She’d stopped attending fundraisers weeks ago … and it really ticked her off. She needed to be out there, raising money. Hiding herself away to avoid an egocentric lothario was reminiscent of her mother’s behavior. Gwen vowed she would not live her life that way ever again.
Still, he was the last person she wanted to see today … or any other day.
“Okay, you’re being ridiculous.” She focused on calming her nerves. “He’s just here to make sure I didn’t have any issues getting into the building. That’s all.”
Just in case she was wrong, she hustled to stand behind the big desk. Crazy as it sounded, the old, solidly built piece of furniture made her feel safer, less exposed.
He muttered derogatory remarks as he passed piles of garbage and debris. Stuck-up jerk didn’t realize sound carried down the hall like a funnel.
Her shoulders stiffened, and she felt indignation on behalf of the old building.
Chadwick stepped into the room and looked around. In the past, every time she saw him, he looked like he spent a great deal of time on his appearance. Clean-shaven, never a hair out of place. With his high-priced tailored suits and shirts with engraved cufflinks, he exuded wealth. She was pretty sure she could run the shelter for a month with the money he paid for the expensive Italian shoes on his feet. The man was downright obsessive in his fastidiousness.
As he approached the desk, he looked mussy and wrinkled, like he’d slept in his clothes. The bead of sweat running down his temple was out of place, considering it was a typical cool San Francisco day. Strangely restless, he frantically wrung his hands together. His eyes continually darted around the room, never stopping to focus on any one thing.
Gwen had seen this type of behavior many times in her job as a social worker. She’d never noticed anything before to indicate he might have a drug problem. Which, of course, meant nothing. People got really good at hiding things when they were high, and their behavior could radically change in the blink of an eye.
That happy thought now cluttering her brain, the idea of having a giant wooden barrier between them no longer seemed quite so crazy, especially when he stopped directly in front of her, leaned down and put his hands in the middle of the desk. He was close enough she could smell alcohol on his breath. Troubling, considering it was barely 11 a.m. His pungent cologne mixed with his strong body odor was enough to gag her, and she stuck a surreptitious finger under her nose to diffuse the odor.
Tension radiated from him.
As if the lecherous smirk on his face wasn’t creepy enough, his eyes slowly wandered to her chest and lingered. Unwilling to give him the satisfaction of seeing her discomfort, she resisted the urge to squirm or to shift the tote on her shoulder to cover herself.
As his eyes slowly drifted to her face, he said, “Hey there, Gwen-do-lyn? You’re looking awful”—his tongue dragged across his bottom lip— “tasty today.”
Seriously? Ew. This went beyond the not-so-subtle passes he usually tried on her. And the way he’d said her name was new … and pretty annoying … and disturbing.
Stubborn pride wouldn’t allow her to cower. Disregarding his crude comment, she forced herself to look directly at him and noticed his dilated pupils and runny nose. These indicators, combined with his general fidgetiness, gave her cause for concern. Experience and training taught her the important thing was not to agitate him but to keep him calm.
She plastered on her most believable smile.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Chadwick. This is certainly a surprise.” Not a pleasant one, either. “What can I do for you today?”
“Always so formal.” He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket, scrubbed it under his nose, then jammed it back in his jacket. “Don’t you think it’s about time we move on to something more … personal? I’m bored by this little game of yours.”
Gwen had dealt with clients in this condition many times, even a few who mistook her professional concern for personal interest. She’d always been able to transfer them to another social worker. With him, that wasn’t an option.
Shoulders back, jaw set, she moved around the desk, stopping just out of his reach. He wasn’t a large man. She would guess he was around five ten, maybe a hundred fifty pounds. Gwen topped out at an unremarkable five feet two inches, so Chadwick was plenty big enough to be a threat, especially in his current condition.
Determined to be as honest with him as possible, she said, “Joseph, I appreciate all you did during the sale of the building, but I’m just not interested in—”
He lunged at her, jerked her into his body and trapped her arms against her sides. Lifting her off her feet, he shoved her against the desk hard, and pain shot across the backs of her thighs. She thrashed and fought. Old rags and newspapers scattered everywhere. An abandoned, half-empty bottle of soda tipped over and poured onto the floor. Her resistance seemed to encourage him. He managed to clamp one hand around her wrists and held them behind her back. With his free hand, he grabbed her jaw in a punishing grip to hold her head still and slammed his mouth over hers. She whimpered and attempted to pull against his hold. Her lips pressed tightly together against the assault of his tongue.
Gwen kicked and twisted until he lost his balance, giving her an opening to push him away and break free. He fell backward and tripped over the same cushion she’d tumbled over earlier, then crashed to the floor.
Gasping for breath, chest heaving, she used the back of her hand to wipe her mouth, leaving a trace of blood from where her tooth cut the inside of her lip. No longer worried about losing any supposed donors he could bring to the shelter, she looked him straight in the eye and said, “You’re wasted out of your mind, Chadwick. I want you out. Now. You are no longer welcome here.”
“Yeah, right. Kick me out?” he scoffed. “You need me, you pathetic twit.” He laughed as he stood, wiped his forearm across his face, then brushed off the butt of his pants. “You really should think about what you’re doing, Gwen-do-lyn.” He straightened his jacket and speared his fingers through his hair to straighten it.
When she didn’t back down, his condescending laughter suddenly stopped. He exploded, sent spittle flying. “I know all sorts of people, and with one phone call, ONE”—he held up his index finger—“I can destroy you and this pathetic little shelter of yours!”
He reminded her of a spoiled, petulant child who didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas.
Gwen wasn’t foolish enough to turn her back on him as she moved to put the desk between them. She felt around in her bag for her phone, grabbed it and dialed 9-1-1. Her finger hovering over the “call” button, she stiffened her spine and looked directly at him.
“Get. Out. Now. Or I will call the police.”
His entire body tight, hands fisted at his side, he took a menacing step forward.
She stood her ground.
The twitch in his eye made her nervous enough to lay her hand over a broken piece of glass on the desk.
Chadwick clenched his jaw, opening and closing his fists several times, then rolled his neck and ran his hand down his tie. With a sneer, he turned and stomped out of her office.
Gwen didn’t move. She waited. Listened. Waited some more. Hearing nothing but the blood pounding in her ears, she rushed to shut the doors and flipped the old locks into place. She turned, and her head fell back against the door with a thunk. The sturdy surface of the wood supported her until her knees gave way and, like a lifeless rag doll, she melted to the floor. The old, rough wood barely registered as it scraped along the backs of her bare arms. Her insides felt like they would shatter into a million pieces. She hugged her knees to her chest, closed her eyes and waited for the adrenaline rush to subside.
After a few minutes, she opened her eyes, took a deep breath and let it out, then picked herself up off the floor. There was too much work to be done, and she didn’t have the luxury of sitting around, feeling sorry for herself.