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KATE SHOULD HAVE kept her eyes on her job, restocking the little refrigerator behind the bar, but she was so bored it was hard not to look around. All day, five days a week, pushing her cart in and out of rooms, checking how many little bottles of vodka, bourbon or gin had been used, how many candy bars and packets of peanuts had been nibbled. It was ridiculous that she had to spend so many hours doing this, while she should be putting all her energy into getting her life back.
Unfortunately, she needed to eat and she preferred a roof over her head. So she worked for room service at the Meridian Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Laying low, staying as invisible as possible.
Kate preferred empty rooms where she was able to sail in and out quickly with her cart, ignoring the bland decor, identical in every room, down to the tan-colored, easy-to-disinfect imitation leather upholstery.
She shuddered at the memory of the couple in 1242 on Monday afternoon who'd forgotten to hang out the Do Not Disturb card or bolt the door. She'd walked in on them having wild sex on top of the bedspread. Kate had just muttered her apologies and left, conveniently forgetting to return before the end of her shift. Undoubtedly the hotel manager would have docked her wages if they'd complained, but they hadn't.
At least this guest, a nice-looking man in his thirties who'd barely acknowledged her when she'd come in, had stayed in the suite's living room. At first she'd thought he was talking to her, then she'd realized he was rehearsing a speech. One part of a speech. Something to do with changing neighborhoods for the better.
She tried again to concentrate on her job as the man paced across theroom. She still had six more suites on this floor to do before lunch and couldn't afford to have her pay docked. She just wished the job was more interesting. It left her with way too much time to think. To be afraid.
She looked up, not at the man, but at the mirror behind the bar, and saw him cross the room. She'd grown accustomed to being on the alert, always conscious of any and all entrances and exits. It had taken time to grasp that nowhere was safe, but she got it now. Behind every door, every smile, lay the potential for danger.
There was a knock at the door just as she crouched down to stock the fridge. The mirror gave her a clear view of the room, while the bar hid her from sight. She stilled, trying to convince herself it was probably nothing. Room service. A friend. Not about her at all. Then she smiled at her own paranoia. There were two sodas and a couple of candy bars missing, and she reached into her cart to dig out the replacements.
The guest opened the door, not cautiously as she would have, but calmly intent. Two young men, both Asian, dressed in baggy clothes with hoodies under their coats, rushed in. The guest cried out and tried to block them. Before Kate could even reach for the gun in her ankle holster, the men drew their automatic weapons. Gunfire exploded, and she watched as the guy was torn apart, his blood seeping into the pale carpet.
Terrified, she held her breath, knowing she wouldn't stand a chance against automatic weapons, knowing this man, this nice guy practicing his speech, was dead. Was it because of her? Was she the real target?
The gunfire stopped and the killers left as swiftly as they had burst in. A shout echoed from the hallway; in the room though, there was nothing but quiet and the awful stench of death.
It took her a moment to realize she wasn't next. That she had to leave. This second.
She eyed her cart. There was no way she'd be able to wheel it down that hallway. Too many people had heard the gunfire. There was a fire exit just down the hall, away from the elevators. She walked to the door. Once there, she snuck a glance down the hall. There were two men, guests. They were looking around frantically, clearly reacting to the sound of the gunfire. With just two of them all she had to do was wait, and the moment they were distracted she'd make her break for the exit.
The ding from the elevator gave her her chance. The two men turned, and she was out of there. No running. Just a fast, steady walk to the fire exit door. She was on the fourteenth floor, and with every step down to the parking garage, she thought about that poor man.
Death was no stranger to her. She'd seen so many horrible things in Kosovo, where her whole universe had turned upside down. She'd been a forensic accountant, a pencil pusher. Then she'd stumbled upon a horrible secret perpetrated by her own government, and from that moment on, nothing had been the same. She'd almost been killed. Not just her, but six others who had uncovered the deadly truth. Now they were all back in the States, living under the radar, trying like hell to bring about justice and truth, all the while knowing there were men trained by the CIA who wanted them dead.
This man? This poor guy gunned down in front of her? She had no idea who he was or why those two men had killed him. The way they were dressed suggested they were gang members. The way they handled the killing made her certain of it.
Her stomach rebelled and she had to pause for a moment, breathe deeply to stop from throwing up. When she could handle it, she started down again, moving faster now, afraid that the police would see her and want to question her.
Her steps slowed as the realization sunk in--they were gangbangers. Not CIA agents. Not Omicron. Oh, God. She hadn't been their target at all. She'd just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. She would have laughed if it hadn't been so horribly tragic.
She'd witnessed a murder.
In her old life she would have stayed. She would have done everything she could to help. That wasn't possible now.
She was one of the hunted. The people who'd tried to kill her in Kosovo wanted her dead. Silenced. She'd seen things the government, her government, hadn't wanted her to see. They'd meant for her to die in a lonely warehouse in a small Serbian village. Her very existence made them vulnerable. She'd seen the lengths to which these people would go to stop her.
It would have been easier if she had money. But there was none. Not for any of them. No legitimate jobs, absolutely no using their real names. Her entire family thought she was dead.
She paused in front of the garage exit. There were probably police behind the door, and she needed to make it to her car without being spotted. The best thing she could do was act as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
There was, in fact, a police car. And an ambulance. But they weren't that close to the exit, and she had, as always, parked with an eye toward a quick getaway. Walking across the parking lot ramped up her heart rate, but the rubber soles of her shoes muffled her steps, and there was so much chatter from the cop's radio that by the time she was in her car she was pretty damn sure she was going to make it.
It occurred to her that she wasn't coming back. And that she had a full two-weeks' pay that she hadn't collected. That left her with maybe a hundred, which wasn't going to take her far.
She started her car and drove slowly to the busy downtown street. Once she reached the freeway heading toward the Valley, she started shaking.
DETECTIVE VINCE YARROW stared at the body on the
floor. He tried like hell to think in terms of weapons, trajectories, points of impact, but this wasn't just another body. It was Tim Purchase, a man Vince had grown to respect and admire. A friend.
"Christ, they didn't leave much."
Vince glanced at his partner, Jeff Stoller, who looked small and weary in his heavy coat. "Just a message."
Jeff shook his head as he went over to the department photographer, there to capture the scene for the detectives and for a jury that would probably never be called.
The room was starting to get crowded, and that wouldn't do. There wasn't going to be much evidence, that much Vince knew; still he'd collect what he could. Then he would leave Tim to the coroner while he and Jeff went room to room looking for a witness.
He also knew that no one would talk. No one would admit that the perpetrators had been gangbangers. Everything about the murder screamed colors. The question was, which gang? Tim had worked against most of them, from the MS-13s, Crips and Bloods to the Aryan Nation. He'd dedicated his life to stealing kids from the gangs, to giving them opportunities to make something of themselves. He'd been a hero. A savior to hundreds. If it took him the rest of his life, Vince would catch the pricks who'd done this.
He got out his notebook and began the work. Most of the time, getting into the case soothed him. The familiar procedures helped distance him from the inhumanity of the crime. Not today. With every notation, every cold observance, his anger grew until he could feel the heat in his face and the grinding of his molars. God damn them. All of them. All the selfish little bastards who thought nothing more of murder than they thought of taking a piss.
He looked up from his book to find Jeff scowling. The reason was Corky Baker, a reporter for the Times who was a walking pain in the ass. Whenever there was a high profile murder, Baker would attach himself, leechlike, to whomever he could. Vince was all for freedom of the press and the public's right to know, though not at the victims' expense. Baker had caused him problems too many times in the past with his sleazy version of crime reporting. He owed it to Tim not to let that happen this time.
"Get him out of here." Vince looked pointedly at the bottom-feeder. "This is still an active crime scene."
Baker didn't move. "Yarrow, you never fail to enchant. I have a couple of questions--"
"Go jump off the roof."
"Can I quote you on that?"
"Jeff. Ask the officers to come in and remove Mr. Baker."
"You got it." Jeff smiled broadly at the reporter.
"Should I tell them to use all necessary force?"
"Sounds good to me."Vince went back to his notebook, reading what he'd written before the interruption.
"All right, I'll go. Just tell me, was it crack? I heard Purchase was taking a hefty percentage as hush money."
Vince dropped his notebook as he crossed the room. He hit Baker so goddamned hard his head bounced off the doorframe. It wasn't nearly enough. As he moved in for round two, the bastard slid down the wall, landing in a messy heap on the floor.
Jeff stepped in front of Vince carefully. "You might have made your point there, buddy."
"Not even close."
"He's an asshole. Let it go."
Vince took in a deep breath, his body still thrumming with the need to pummel. "Get him gone, Jeff. Now."
"Why don't you go get some water, huh?"
Vince sniffed as he looked at the reporter who was just coming to. A small trickle of blood had started at the corner of his mouth, which wasn't as satisfying as one would think. The bruise would be a good one though, large and painful.
He headed for the bar, wishing he could have something a lot stronger than water. His thoughts of bourbon were interrupted by the sight of the room service cart. It was open, with all the little liquor bottles, candy bars and fruit drinks in neat order. He turned to Jeff, but cut his remark off as he saw Baker rise to his feet. The last thing Vince wanted in the paper was that there had been a witness in the room.
Baker raised his hand, swatted at the blood on his face and stared at the evidence on his fingers, then at Vince. "Thank you, you miserable prick. I'm going to sue you and your department for so much money they won't have enough left over for toilet paper. You got that?"
"Fine. Just do it somewhere else."
One of the uniforms put his hand on Baker's elbow, but he shook him off. "You'll be hearing from me."
Vince turned back to the cart. As Baker's voice receded, Vince crouched down in front of the small refrigerator. From there, he looked up into the mirror. Shit. Whoever had been here had likely seen everything. Tim opening the door. The rush inside. The blaze of bullets. They'd be able to ID the gunmen, if not by face, by colors, clothing, tattoos, headgear, weapons. It would all help him identify who'd done this. The question was, who had been behind this bar, and where were they now? "Vince?"
"Come here, Jeff."
His partner walked over to the side of the bar.
"Whoa, what have we here?"
"Excellent. I'll go to the manager and ask who was working."
"I'll go with you."
"I think you'd better call Emerson," Jeff said. "The second he hears about Baker's lawsuit, he's gonna blow a gasket."
Vince stood, his knee cracking with the effort. "I don't give a shit about Baker."
"You assaulted the man. He can have you arrested."
"No, he won't. He'll get more mileage from a lawsuit."
"Yeah, the Captain's gonna love that."
"I'll tell Emerson what happened. But first I need to find this witness."
Jeff, who'd been his partner for almost three years, shrugged. That's what was so good about him. He wasn't just a fine cop, he knew how to roll with the punches.And he put up with all Vince's bullshit. "I'll wait for the coroner. Come back up here when you're done."
Vince picked up his notebook on his way out, his bruised knuckles making him wince.