By Debra Webb
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Debra Webb
All rights reserved.
Five Points, 7:35 a.m.
The appearance of those two words on the screen of her cell phone should not have stolen her breath or weakened her knees, but they managed to do both in the space of a single heartbeat, forcing her to wilt down onto the toilet seat.
Jess Harris shoved a handful of damp hair behind her ear, then hugged her knees to her chest. It wasn't really the words that had her crouched on the toilet seat of the cramped bathroom. It was the identity of the sender.
Eric Spears ... the Player.
Jess curled her fingers into her sweaty palm to stop their trembling. She pressed her fist to her lips and fought the trepidation howling inside her. Answer him! This might be the last time he reached out to her if she didn't do something.
She touched the text box on the screen and prepared to enter a response. Before she tapped a single letter another bubble of words appeared.
I watched you on the news last night. Your ex has impeccable timing. I can't wait to see who wins this round.
Pulse fluttering wildly with an infusion of anger, she considered telling Spears that, as he was no doubt aware, his current location could be tracked via this connection and that she intended to promptly inform the bureau.
But that would be a lie. Worse, he would recognize the lie. Spears knew her far too well.
Using the pad of her thumb she tapped one letter at a time until she'd filled the text box with the message she wanted to send the sociopath who had murdered dozens of women, maybe a hell of a lot more, in his sadistic career as a serial torturer-murderer. Jess smiled as she reread the words she hoped would prompt his need to grow ever closer to her.
One thing's for sure, it won't be you. I'm the one who got away, Spears. Guess that makes you a loser and a coward.
After hitting send, she reveled in the idea that her words would burrow under his skin and fester like boils until he just had to claw at the itch. Eric Spears's malignant narcissistic side wouldn't deal well with failure. Not only did he not like to lose, he hated the idea of being wrong about anything or anyone. He'd made several mistakes of late. Skating so very close to getting caught was one of them. Allowing Jess to live was another.
Whatever it took, she would get him.
Her cell clanged that old-fashioned tone, announcing an incoming call. She jumped. Nearly dropped the damned thing. Spears wouldn't dare ...
Harper calling appeared on the screen, banishing the stream of conversation between her and Spears.
"Jess, you are truly pathetic." She swallowed back the lump of undeniable fear that had risen into her throat and forced herself to breathe normally. "Harris."
"We have a homicide, Chief. Shady Creek Drive off Columbiana Road."
Jess dropped her feet to the floor and banished thoughts of Spears. "How many victims, Sergeant?"
"Just one ... but ..."
The silence that filled the air for several endless seconds had Jess's pulse revving with the surge of adrenaline charging through her veins.
"It's bad, Chief. Really bad. It's the wife of one of our own. Lieutenant Lawrence Grayson's wife, Gabrielle."
Oh damn. "Crimes Against Persons isn't working this one?" No need to start the week off like the last one, in a pissing contest with Deputy Chief Harold Black, bless his ornery heart. Today's staff meeting was supposed to clarify some ground rules and cement the team spirit to ensure better cohesion as they moved forward. That meeting likely wouldn't happen now. Couldn't be helped. Justice was the last thing the dead should have to wait for.
"I got the call since the first officers on the scene felt the murder might be connected to the Lopez situation," Sergeant Chet Harper explained. "The wife was decapitated and there's a message including some of the buzz words from this weekend's hit on your place."
"Jesus Christ." Jess scrubbed at her eyes with her free hand. Images from the destruction that had been her room at the Howard Johnson Inn flickered through her mind. They had to get a handle on this escalating gang situation. It was turning into a blood bath and resurrecting the ugly memories of the city's violent, racially unjust past.
The MS-13 clique operating in Birmingham, once lorded over by Salvadore Lopez, was at war with a faction that had split off to follow his younger sister, Nina. The sister was currently in custody for kidnapping Jess, among other charges. Salvadore had gone into protective custody with the promise of rolling over on his infamous father, Leonardo. The elder Lopez was the messiah-like leader of the West Coast's rampant and ruthless MS-13 activities. Every three-letter agency in the country wanted him to go down, and now they had their chance.
Squaring her shoulders, Jess began the process of tuning out her personal frustrations with the whole damned Lopez family and the regret for the loss of life—particularly an innocent life—that would only get in the way. "Is Captain Allen on the scene?" Allen headed up Birmingham PD's Gang Task Force. His insights would be invaluable if a gang connection was substantiated.
"En route as we speak."
"I'll be there shortly, Sergeant. You know what to do."
Jess ended the call as she pushed to her feet and headed for the door. She caught her reflection in the mirror over the pedestal sink and paused mid- stride. Her damp hair would just have to dry on its own. She shoved her phone into her robe pocket so she could pile her blond locks into a manageable mass that was annoyingly curly when wet and snapped a claw clip in place. Makeup she could take care of en route. A flick of mascara and a dab of lip gloss would do.
She silently repeated the mantra she'd clung to for the past thirty-six hours or so. I'll be okay. It would take more than being kidnapped by some ditzy, power-hungry teenybopper and having her place and her things destroyed to knock Jess off her game.
The tone that accompanied an incoming text had her rummaging for her cell.
I'm deeply wounded, Jess. I thought by now you would miss me as much as I miss you. See you soon.
"The sooner, the better," she grumbled. Jess Harris was not afraid of anything. Except maybe the possibility of failing to get Spears before he added more victims to his heinous résumé.
With renewed purpose she deleted the conversation and emerged from the bathroom to find Lori, on her cell, probably getting the news about the murder. Jess grabbed the one suit that had survived last night's kill-the-deputy-chief's- stuff episode and ripped it free of the dry cleaner's plastic. She'd failed to pick it up from the dry cleaner on Friday, which was the only reason it had been spared from the carnage.
Since her Audi had been at the lab for processing related to her abduction—and still was, damn it—the car and this one suit were about all that remained of the belongings she'd rolled into Birmingham with. Well, except for the dress and the turquoise pumps she'd been wearing last night. The pumps would just have to do until she had time to shop.
"You need a cup of coffee to go?" Lori asked as she headed for the kitchen with her own mug. Her Five Points studio was one big room with a small bath and closet carved out of the already-tight floor space. Any level of privacy was basically impossible.
"That'd be great." Jess stepped into her pumps while she picked through the bag of undergarments, cosmetics, and necessities she'd purchased at Walmart late last night. Living out of a plastic bag was no fun, and though Lori insisted she was happy to have her as a guest, Jess was anxious to get a place of her own. She liked Lori a lot, and was proud to have the detective on her team, but staying on Lori's couch was going to get old, fast. Maybe it had something to do with being in her forties and set in her ways, but having alone time felt immensely important, especially when she hadn't had any in about forty-eight hours. She needed her space. Along with a new wardrobe and almost everything else a woman required to operate on a day-to-day basis.
Unfortunately, all of that would have to wait.
She had a homicide to get to.
Shady Creek Drive, 8:30 a.m.
"Whoa." Lori surveyed the crowd gathered as she turned off Columbiana Road. "This is going to be complicated and"—she blew out a big breath—"messy."
News vans cluttered the intersection of Columbiana and Shady Creek. Birmingham Police Department cruisers lined the street on either side of where they needed to turn. This tragedy had befallen one of their own and a show of strength was expected. The gesture was heartfelt, but there was no place for crowds at a homicide scene. At least not until after complete scene documentation and thorough evidence collection. The potential for contamination and/or loss was far too great with every warm body that entered a crime scene.
"Do you know Lieutenant Grayson?" His name sounded familiar but Jess couldn't recall meeting him. She'd been introduced to so many of Birmingham's finest since her arrival scarcely three weeks ago that she couldn't say for sure whether she'd met him or not.
"I've seen him around but I don't really know him." Lori powered down her window and showed her badge to the uniform controlling access to the block. When he'd waved her through, she went on, "Grayson is with Field Operations, South Precinct."
Still didn't click for Jess.
"What kind of reputation does he have?" As wrong as it seemed, close family members were always the prime suspects in a case like this until evidence and alibis proved otherwise. Lawrence, aka Larry, Grayson was a cop, so the fundamental steps in a homicide investigation would be no surprise to him.
"A good one as far as I know. I've heard his name a few times when accommodations were handed out." She glanced at Jess. "If you're asking me if he would kill his wife, I don't know him that well, Chief."
"I guess that's something we'll need to learn." They were on duty now. Jess was the deputy chief of SPU, Special Problems Unit, and Lori Wells was one of her detectives. Their ability to be friends and step back from those roles as needed fascinated Jess. After nearly two decades doing investigative work, this was her first time to have friends, in the true sense of the word, on the job. She'd certainly never been the houseguest of a coworker.
Maybe an old dog could learn a new trick.
The houses along Shady Creek were modest Brady Bunch –style ranches and split-levels, circa the seventies; it was a typical blue-collar neighborhood. Good folks who were forever stuck on the low end of middle class while being overworked and underpaid. Crime scene tape circled the yard, using trees and shrubs for support and announcing that bad things had happened to those who called this address home. Outside that gruesome yellow line a host of cops had surrounded an emotionally distraught man and were struggling to get him into the passenger seat of a sedan.
"That must be him." He looked vaguely familiar, but Jess still couldn't say for sure if she'd met him.
"Yeah. Damn." Lori shook her head. "Looks like he's lost it."
Jess grimaced at the emotionally charged scene. "Who wouldn't?" She steeled herself in preparation for what was to come. No matter how experienced the investigator, when murder hit this close to home—a fellow cop—it was difficult to take in stride.
"You see any sign of the coroner's wagon?" Between the cruisers and all the other vehicles crowding the street, not to mention what looked like a brigade of cops and no shortage of neighbors, it was difficult to see beyond the driveway.
Lori guided her Mustang as far to one side as possible considering the middle of the street was about all that was left in the way of unoccupied pavement and shut off the engine. "It's the van right behind that Camry riding my bumper."
Jess craned her neck to see. There appeared to be a male passenger but, with the sun glinting on the other side of the windshield, she couldn't see the driver. Opting to jerk to a stop in the middle of the street, whoever was at the wheel of the van didn't seem to care if more of a bottleneck was created.
Jess climbed out of the low-slung Mustang. Instantly the heat crushed around her. The humid air was as thick as molasses. Last night's storm had ensured a sweltering morning and that little or no viable evidence would be found outside the home.
With one more glance behind her, she checked to see if the ME had climbed out of the van yet. She probably wouldn't be lucky enough to get Schrader again. For all she knew Dr. Harlan Schrader could be on his way to the job offer at the Mayo Clinic by now. They'd worked a case together last week and not having to go through that awkward first time business again so soon would be nice.
The driver's side door of the van opened and a female emerged. Shoulder-length brown hair, pale complexion. No one Jess had met so far, that she recalled anyway. The woman wore a lavender wrap dress with matching strappy stilettoes. Her sophisticated—scratch that—arrogant body language confirmed they had not met. Jess was one hundred percent certain she would remember that cocky stride, not to mention the haughty tilt of the woman's chin.
"This should be interesting," Lori murmured as she moved up to the front of the Mustang, where Jess waited.
"What's that?" At the scene perimeter, Jess showed her badge to the uniform.
"That's the associate coroner, Dr. Sylvia Baron. She's the lieutenant's ex-wife." Lori ducked under the crime scene tape and Jess followed. "She's a little pushy. No one likes getting stuck on a case with her."
Pushy or not, sounded like a conflict of interest to Jess.
An older man had gotten out on the passenger side of the van and joined the woman's purposeful movement toward the house as Jess and Lori made their way up the sidewalk. He looked vaguely familiar. Sixty maybe. Tall. Broad-shouldered. Blond and tanned. All he needed was a diamond stud in one ear and he'd have the whole Harrison Ford thing going on.
At the front door she and Lori stopped long enough to drag on shoe covers and gloves. "Who's the man with her?"
"That's Dr. Leeds."
That was Martin Leeds, the Jefferson County chief coroner? Jess really had to find some time to get to know the various chains of command in Birmingham. She was woefully uninformed. In her own defense, she'd held the position for only two weeks and she'd been embroiled in murder and mayhem all fourteen or so of those days. Well, maybe she'd had a small break here and there. The unbidden memory of steamy, stolen hours spent between the sheets with Daniel Burnett the weekend before last had butterflies taking flight in her belly.
Those frantic and breathless minutes in his fancy Mercedes just last night wouldn't exactly be dismissed any time soon either. Particularly since he was her boss.
"I don't want that bitch anywhere near my wife!"
Jess's attention snapped back to the street as Lieutenant Grayson's angrily shouted words reverberated in the impossibly thick air. Those closest to Grayson were trying to calm him, but he was having no part of it.
Jess decided that an introduction to Leeds and the former Mrs. Grayson could wait until they were inside and had surveyed the crime scene. The situation outside was a ticking bomb and it wasn't going to get any calmer until Lieutenant Grayson had been removed from the scene. The man's wife had been murdered. The ability to think clearly or to reason was long gone.
Inside the house the atmosphere was somber and cold. Jess shivered. It was a sweltering dog day in August here in Alabama but she was wishing she had a sweater just now. Her nose twitched. Even the frosty temperature couldn't completely conceal the distinct odor of coagulated blood hanging in the air as if she'd stepped into a meat locker rather than a home where a family lived.
Excerpted from Rage by Debra Webb. Copyright © 2013 Debra Webb. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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