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By JANET DAILEY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Janet Dailey
All rights reserved.
Kelly Johns smoothed her suit, waiting for the countdown in her earbud mic as a news cameraman a block away focused a zoom lens in her direction. Seventeen stories of concrete floors towered behind her, open to the wind and weather, with a view of downtown Atlanta in the distance.
The city sparkled. This part of it didn't. A huge crane and flatbed trailers still half-loaded with rusting rebar completed the picture. The construction project had been idled months ago, its dirty-money financing gone and the site locked down by the feds. The empty streets around it were silent, ideal for taping.
"Three, two, one."
The cameraman's voice in her ear made Kelly straighten and look his way. She hoped her long blond hair would cooperate and not blow across her face. Her dark maroon suit was wrinkleproof and the color conveyed seriousness and warmth.
Kelly took a breath. She'd memorized her opening lines en route to filming the segment.
"Another scandal-ridden project shut down by the authorities," she began, gesturing to the unfinished building. "And millions of dollars—your tax dollars—lost to kickbacks. When will it end?"
She maintained an expression of heartfelt concern until Gordon spoke again. "And ... cut. Thanks, Kelly," the cameraman said. "Good take. Sound was solid. Laura wants to get a look at it, though. Give us a minute."
Kelly barely registered his request. She saw Laura Ruskin, the segment producer, come out of the station's unmarked van and talk to Gordon.
Turning, she looked around at the building and construction site, searching for a different visual, knowing there would be several more takes, here or elsewhere. There was no point in removing the wireless lavaliere mic clipped to her lapel or the earbud.
Everything they shot today would be digitally edited at the news studio and used as an intro for her previous reportage and interviews. Hours of tape got whittled down to five minutes when the subject was corruption in the construction industry. Far from thrilling, totally unglamorous, but definitely the kind of feature story that might garner a community award or two if she could manage to make it interesting.
Or so said Monroe Capp, the news director. She wasn't sure if her boss was on her side or not. Monroe had promised the feature—her first for WBRX—would run at some future date during the evening broadcast she now anchored, but everyone knew breaking news came first.
Everything but the intro was complete. It was an important story, she told herself. Atlanta was growing faster than ever, crowded with gleaming skyscrapers and world-class hotels. The sprawl threatened to overshadow the quiet, idyllic suburbs surrounding the metropolitan hub.
Kelly looked around again. No one lived around here anymore. Formerly residential, there were only a few boarded-up houses left of the neighborhood. Small lots had been bought up and fenced off into large parcels by developers waiting for the right time to build. Or not.
She looked at her watch. Kelly was expected back at the station for hair and makeup at least an hour before the evening news. Laura had decided to tape the intro in the afternoon, hoping for dramatic shadows, enlisting Gordon at the last minute and taking out a van without signing for it.
At least the segment producer was gung-ho. Laura had discovered the abandoned construction site last week and connected with someone in charge who gave her the keys to the padlocked gates. The building had no specific connection to the planned story and anything identifiable would be cut from the final tape, but the location had the look Laura wanted.
Grim. Deserted. Lonely.
Supposedly there were security guards somewhere around. Not where Kelly could see them.
She ignored a faint tremor of unease as she reached into her pocket and took out her laminated press pass. If anyone stopped her, it would come in handy. She walked through the half-built structure, her high heels echoing on the dusty concrete, going around supporting pillars and avoiding the deep, shadowy pit for the elevator shafts.
Kelly stopped for a second, wondering why the perimeter hadn't been blocked off. There were no safety cones around it and no yellow tape, and she couldn't see the bottom from where she was standing.
She caught an unpleasant whiff of damp earth from the bottom of the pit. With a shudder, she moved on, going past a concrete-slab staircase with no rails, not tempted to go up for a better view. Kelly glanced upward at a raw ceiling stained by water damage, thinking that she should have worn a hard hat. The rough walls were stained, too, but completely free of spray-painted tags and scribbles.
It was odd that there was no graffiti anywhere. And not so much as a crushed cigarette butt or snack wrapper marred the concrete floors, which were covered with an undisturbed layer of dust.
Someone was keeping the riffraff and the taggers out. Maybe a maintenance company—Laura must have gotten the keys from them. Owners of abandoned properties usually disappeared without bothering to secure their properties, with disastrous results. Squatters. Fires. Violence.
Kelly could see clear through to the back of the site, green with tall weeds. Here and there a tossed beer can gleamed against roughly gouged tracks made by bulldozers, long gone. The huge crane in front was all that was left of the heavy equipment. Kelly continued toward the open area, peering out and up at rickety scaffolding that had pulled away from the building in back. She stopped before the unfinished floor did and surveyed the scene, her arms folded over her chest.
"Kelly?" The cameraman's voice crackled in her ear-bud. "Where'd you go? We can't see you."
"I walked to the back," she answered. "It doesn't look like anyone's been here for a while, but the building hasn't been trashed. There aren't any footprints other than mine."
"Great. That makes you easy to follow. Stay there. We'll find you."
She heard a slight commotion, then Gordon's voice came in again. "Laura wants another take, different setting, same lines. Anything visually interesting where you are?"
"Maybe." Kelly didn't elaborate, suddenly noticing a luxury car on the other side of the chain-link fence behind the weeds. The car was the sole occupant of the parking lot, a wasteland of cracked asphalt and litter.
The expensive vehicle's dark-tinted windows and gleaming black finish seemed out of place in the desolate setting. There was no sign of a driver or passengers, but the slanting angle of the afternoon light might hide both.
She heard Laura and Gordon enter and follow her trail, their sneakered footfalls quiet on the concrete. Kelly turned toward them. The segment producer was carrying Kelly's bag and her own, and some of Gordon's equipment.
Laura, a short brunette in no-nonsense jeans and jacket with the station logo, stopped several feet away when the cameraman did. Gordon was a burly man with thick hair drawn back in a ponytail. Going out as a team, they got teased about the short hair on her and the long hair on him, but neither seemed to care.
He hoisted the camera and looked through the viewfinder at Kelly. Then he put on a pair of glasses and took his time about adjusting the lens.
Gordon liked to do things right and he didn't take crap from anyone. Kelly wasn't going to tell him to hurry up. He wouldn't.
Most days Kelly believed in picking her battles. She'd seen Monroe Capp and the cameraman get into some doozies more than once. Gordon Lear was the best in Atlanta and the head of the WBRX camera team, two things Capp didn't seem to care about.
"Nice pose. Hold it," Gordon ordered. "Let's get a light balance and a sound level," he said to Laura.
Kelly said her full name twice and waited. The assistant producer and the cameraman seemed too preoccupied with what they were doing to notice the car on the other side of the fence—or the faint noise of its doors opening and closing.
She was curious. Kelly shifted on her feet. "How much longer? These heels pinch."
The ploy didn't work. Gordon glared at her. "Stay still. I mean it."
With a sigh, she obeyed. The cameraman had read her body language right: she had been about to turn around.
No question there was someone in the black car, possibly more than one person. So what? A late-model luxury car like that wasn't going to be filled with teenagers. No one would sneak into the background to make faces and wave, hoping to get on the evening news.
All the same, Kelly hated the feeling of not knowing what was going on behind her back. But they were inside the building's open walls. Protected, more or less.
"Kelly, you with us?" Gordon said loudly. "Let's get this over with. Ready for your close-up?"
That old joke. As for the rest, the cameraman didn't mince his words. Which meant he got on her nerves sometimes. Especially when he caught her in a moment of inattentiveness.
"Yes," Kelly said. "That's why I'm standing here."
Laura frowned and shook her head. "Wait a sec."
She craned her neck to get a glimpse of the viewfinder that jutted out from the video camera. "Gordon, do you want that parked car in the background?"
He squinted. "Nothing but a black blur. Not a problem. We can edit it out if need be. Kelly, we're rolling. Three, two, one—"
"Hold on. Who are all those guys?" Laura demanded. "Wait, there's a woman too. In the other car."
Kelly whirled around. A second car, a near twin of the one she'd seen, pulled into the parking lot behind the chain-link fence. Two men in dark suits had gotten out of the first car and stood behind the open rear doors, as if they were shields.
A woman gestured from the rolled-down passenger side window of the second car. Kelly picked up details automatically: pale lipstick, a patterned scarf, wavy red hair. But the woman's eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. She was speaking, but Kelly couldn't hear her words.
None of the men moved.
Instinct made Kelly step sideways and back into the shadows.
"What are you doing?" Gordon asked, concentrating on the task of taping. "I can't see you there."
"And neither can they," Kelly hissed, easing along the wall toward him and Laura. "Let's keep out of sight, shall we?"
"Why?" The cameraman looked up at her, baffled. He'd moved his glasses atop his head. Kelly doubted he could see more than a foot in front of him without them. He peered into the viewfinder again.
Kelly kept on coming, filling it. "Something tells me they're not here for a church picnic."
"What makes you think that? They didn't bring a pie?"
"Just stop taping and go!"
She reached him and grabbed for the camera. Gordon hung on to it as Kelly saw Laura's eyes widen, taking in whatever was happening in the parking lot. Laura's mouth opened in a wordless gasp.
A male roar shattered the silence.
"Get down! Down!"
Not Gordon's voice. Much deeper. Urgent. Kelly spun, too startled to figure out more. She heard a muffled crack and the faint, unmistakable zing of a bullet.
Someone shoved her behind a pillar and held her there.
She couldn't see his face. Strong arms pinned her between his chest and cold concrete. Kelly tried to jerk free and hit her head. The man's breath felt hot against her hair. He was taller than she was, a lot taller. And unquestionably stronger.
"Let me go!" Kelly struggled to get the words out. The pressure of his body made it hard for her to breathe.
"Not yet. Sorry," he growled.
Dimly, she realized that thugs didn't usually apologize. But she wasn't out of danger. Her nose was crushed against a holster slung to the side of his chest under a thick leather jacket. The man moved a fraction of an inch. Kelly dragged in a raw breath that hurt her throat.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
"Your goddamn guardian angel," he muttered, looking warily to the side, the cords in his neck straining against tanned skin.
She made a mental list of what she could see. Strong jaw. Definite cheekbones. Dark hair. Somehow ... familiar.
He moved back another fraction of an inch, but she was still pinned. The exchange of gunfire coming from the parking lot stopped—then started again. She struggled to free herself without success. Long, muscular legs on either side of her own withstood her kicking.
Suddenly the man let her go. Kelly looked around wildly and saw Laura crawling through the dust toward her, dragging their bags, followed by Gordon in a crouch, still clutching the camera.
"Get out of here, all of you," the man growled savagely. "Now!" He reached into his holster and drew a gun, heading toward the weeds and the fence, his back to her. Kelly didn't wait to see why.
She hauled Laura up off the floor and they ran together, headlong, scrambling through the gates and racing up the block to the news station van. Gordon got behind the wheel and floored it, making a wild swing into the cross street.
Kelly clutched the handhold and switched her gaze between the rearview mirror and the side mirror. As far as she could tell, they weren't being followed. At least not by the cars from the parking lot.
"Oh my God. We could have been killed." Laura cowered on the backseat, looking up after a minute when Kelly told Gordon sharply to pull over.
"There's a gas station up ahead." She pointed. "Use the pay phone and call in a shooting."
"Why?" he asked in disbelief. "Don't you have a cell phone?"
"I don't want my number recorded on the 911 database. And I don't want to sign autographs at the gas station."
He went faster. "So I get to be the fall guy? I'm not volunteering. We walked right into the middle of a gang war, and you know what they say. No one loves a snitch."
"No one followed us, and you don't have to say who you are!" Kelly grabbed the steering wheel and the van swerved into the next lane.
Cursing, Gordon pulled over by a concealing hedge and left the key in the van's ignition as he got out, slamming the door. Kelly clambered from her seat and slid behind the wheel, jamming on sunglasses as she drove over a low curb into the side lot of the gas station. The maneuver got a sidelong glance from a passerby, but nothing more. The place was busy. Without the WBRX logo, the plain white van didn't draw attention.
"We have to call. It's the right thing to do." Laura shrank back against her seat. "But what if the attendants remember us?"
"They're not even looking," Kelly reassured her. She rolled down her window to watch Gordon stuff coins into the slot and punch 911, barely able to hear him mutter the information but not his name. He hung up and tore around to the passenger seat she'd vacated.
"Duty done." He climbed back in and slammed the door. "Not that I want to be a hero. They usually die first."
Kelly pulled out into traffic. "Someone just saved our lives, Gordon. Return the favor."
They dashed into the WBRX station complex by the back way, shoving through the double doors into a long corridor. Kelly stopped for a moment to peer through the glass wall at shoulder height, surveying the newsroom cubicles.
Relative quiet prevailed. The night shift hadn't come in and the day shift was mostly gone, though there were still a few reporters and researchers at work inside the maze of low walls. Newsgathering was a twenty-four-hour operation.
"No one's looking. Just keep going," she ordered in a whisper. "I don't want to explain anything to anybody."
Her dull feature story was suddenly looking a whole hell of a lot more interesting. Monroe Capp might take it away from her. If there was a link between the gun battle and the disintegrating building, Kelly intended to find it. Intuition told her that there was. Facts first, she reminded herself.
"You might not have to explain just yet," Laura said slowly. "I—I didn't have official permission from the station manager to bring you and a cameraman and equipment to that building."
Excerpted from BANNON BROTHERS by JANET DAILEY. Copyright © 2013 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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