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By SHANE GERICKE
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Shane Gericke
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMidnight, November 18 Black River Falls, Wisconsin
Thunderbolts attacked from the rioting sky.
Most zigged. Some zagged. One ripped a spectacular Z-for-Zorro that stained the storm clouds mildew green. Homes ignited on each side of Interstate 94. Cyclonic wind punched the worn cargo van dangerously close to the flooded-out median.
"Could be worse!" Cancer shouted from the back.
"How's that?" Gemini said from the wheel.
"Could be snow."
A gasoline tanker roared by in the fast lane, throwing a hurricane of water. The van's wipers sputtered across the windshield like a failing heart, trying to keep up. A wolf pack of semis pursued the gas man, throwing their own hurricanes. The van jittered and jigged, then skittered and slid.
The teenager screamed from the back.
"Shut up," Gemini snapped, feeling his nuts tighten as he white-knuckled the van through the exploding water.
"Please," she whimpered. "Let me out. I won't tell, I swear, just don't hurt me any more-"
Vicious slaps from Aquarius, Cancer, and Virgo. Yips and cries from the girl. A rat-a-tat of thunder, followed by rain so intense it felt like the inside of a fire hose.
"Could be snow," Gemini muttered.
An earsplitting ka-blam jerked the van sideways, banging Gemini's triangular head off the window. He blinked away stars as he wrestled the Ford Econoline straight, muttering every curse he'd learned collecting debts on the shrimp docks in the Easy. He'd give anything to wait out this monster at an off-ramp honky-tonk, with a bartender asking no questions except, "Nuther, brother?"
Wasn't gonna happen. They were hours behind schedule, thanks to the dickhead narcotics supplier in Minneapolis who'd rope-a-doped them on the handoff, whining that he needed more money because Katrina was so hot it smoked. Six bloody rips with a can opener convinced the screaming maggot that money really wasn't the most important thing in his life, was it? But the convincing slowed them, and Gemini was acutely aware that Maxximus would be, um, displeased if they were late-
Ah, Christ. Now she's blubbering. Gemini snapped his eyes at the rearview.
The crew beat her to mumbles, went back to splitting her logs.
The booty call started east of Minneapolis, where they'd spotted the teenager thumbing a ride on eastbound I-94. She'd hopped in, putting extra wiggle in her hips because there's no such thing as a free lunch. The crew kidded with her awhile, sharing their Pepsi and Fritos, asking her what was up with the midnight run. She said she was hitching to Chicago, gonna find a fancy job to pay for her big dreams. They blew her some smoke about being a Hustler video crew and did she want to make ten Ben Franklins then and there.
"A video crew?" she'd said, eyeing the paint cans, brushes, plastic, and drop cloths littering the cargo area of the extended-length van. "You're, like, kidding, right?"
Gemini, like, wasn't, and held up the cash to prove it. Virgo worked the videocam as she expressed her appreciation. Gemini loaded the first three minutes into his cell phone.
Video-texted it to Freddie-Boy.
"Are you a moron?" Freddie-Boy yelled. "I said young. This one looks fifteen for chrissakes. Throw her back and grab up baby sister." Since Freddie-Boy paid five figures per child delivered, Gemini said he'd find what he wanted.
"You damn well better," Freddie-Boy warned. "By close of business today. See what happens if you don't."
Gemini protested the ridiculous deadline, but heard only dead air-the child trafficker had already disconnected. Scowling, he told the boys to have some real fun.
Sometimes you eat the bear, he thought as the teeny shrieked from the frenzied rape and mauling. Sometimes the bear eats you.
Something dear old dad liked to pound into Gemini growing up, that bit about the bear, not realizing his firstborn would someday grow mean enough for grizzly-sized payback. After ruining Gemini's fourteenth birthday with a foul, drunken rant-the old man hated anyone but him getting attention-he chased Gemini into the basement then stomped down himself, swinging the orange electrical cord he used to whip his kid's back into streamers.
The moment the fat bastard hit the last step, he was scrabbling the cold concrete floor like a stepped-on roach. When the pain of the broken legs finally broke through the shock of Gemini's blitz attack with the galvanized pipe, he shrieked. Just like the drug maggot had during his can-opener scraping-girly high, a wheeze almost, hairball strangling a cat, not understanding what just happened, yet there it was, all over the floor. The can opener in Gemini's hand, with its rusty steel head and Drink Blatz Beer on the handle, flayed twenty-seven strips off dear old dad, ending only when mom said, "Don't kill him, boy, he'll haunt us like them Dracula vampires...."
He checked the rearview, saw nothing but rain and bouncing asses. He pinched out a smile. The runaway, who'd introduced herself as "Kandy, with a K," was a pleasant way to kill the eight-hour drive from Minneapolis to Naperville, the Chicago suburb where they'd drop their load of drugs and collect their suitcase of dead presidents. Gemini checked his watch. Not bad. Even with the storm they were moving all right: Naperville by six, rich by seven-
Another wail erupted from the back.
Gemini sighed. What the hell should he do with her? The teenager was more appealing than he'd expected from a hitchhiker. Polo-shirted, blue-jeaned, and knob-kneed. Loose swingy hair, legs up to her armpits, narrow hips, grapefruit boobs. Creamy face with a smile to make a corpse stiff. Exactly the kind of girl Freddie-Boy should wet himself to own, the picky goddamn pervert ...
"Enough," Gemini said.
A moment later he heard the distinctive clack of a forearm breaking a windpipe. It wasn't loud like in the movies. More like a dry stick across a knee.
"Women," Cancer said, wagging his finger in mock dismay as she thrashed like a gaffed marlin, trying to suck air.
"Can't live with 'em," Gemini said.
She turned blue.
Virgo spread her dancer legs. "One for the road?" he asked.
"Thanks, baby, you're great too."
Five minutes later he was done.
So was Kandy, with a K.
"Onward and upward," Gemini said, tapping the GPS map suctioned to the dash.
Cancer crawled up to the shotgun seat to find a place to dump the body. Aquarius and Virgo bundled her into a paint-spattered drop cloth, tied it neat with clothesline.
The van roared sideways through the rain.
Chapter TwoMidnight, November 18 Naperville, Illinois
The wasp crawled into Emily's ear.
She couldn't swat the beast-one of the psychos might notice the jerky movement. It took a blood bite, crawled into her hair for dessert. She gasped at the searing pain.
Then brought her eyeballs to the window, peeking through the gap between Budweiser's neon bowtie and the flashing green bikini of Coors Light.
Two bulky shadows raced up the aisle, waving flashlights. They stopped every few seconds to look toward the back, then shoved liquor into bags.
The cold bite of adrenaline scoured her arteries.
She inched to the entry door. Squatted till her rump smacked her heels, examined the quarter-inch gap between door and frame.
She tugged the door's handle.
Too freely for midnight, when the store closed at ten.
Armed robbery in progress, she decided. Time to call in the cavalry.
Vibrating with excitement, she crept backwards, brushing the yellow brick wall with one hand and pulling her pistol with the other. She glanced around every few seconds, made sure she wasn't a target herself. The walking crouch blowtorched her thighs. She ignored it. She had to stay below the windows while moving. She couldn't chance alerting the heavily armed bandits inside.
She settled in twenty yards west, pulled her iPhone from her Wranglers. Her hands were dewy with August humidity. She pushed nine. Her thumb slipped sideways, mashed the pound sign instead. Scowling, she dried her fingers on her jeans, pushed more carefully. Connected. She clamped the phone between shoulder and ear, bashed the wasp with her free hand. Looked at her palm. Grinned. Suck my blood, will you ...
Anybody home? she fumed, impatient to get the attack rolling. Let's go, c'mon, let's-
"Naperville nine-one-one," said a nasally voice. "What's your-"
"This is Detective Emily Thompson," she interrupted. "Officer needs immediate backup at Premium Wine and Spirits, One Hundred Eleventh Street and Route Fifty-nine."
"Armed robbery in progress. Two robbers, maybe more." The adrenaline made her voice squeak. She elbowed it out by clearing her throat.
"Any chance it's our bad boys?" the dispatcher said.
"I hope so," Emily said.
A three-man stickup crew-two goons and a wheel man-had terrorized bars and liquor stores throughout the Chicago area since Memorial Day. Sometimes they burgled. Mostly they robbed, brutally and efficiently, whipping out steel guns and beating employees toothless if the cash register was even a penny short of expectation. One such victim was in a coma. Another had undergone complete facial reconstruction.
She hoped the bastards chose to shoot their way out, rather than surrender.
"Describe the suspects," the dispatcher said.
Emily shook her head as if he could see. "I saw only silhouettes from their flashlights," she said. "They're still inside. What's the status of backups?"
"Ten units inbound, running silent," he said. "I've mobilized SWAT. What else you need?"
"An armored car," Emily said, feeling naked without her bulletproof vest. She'd been heading home from the gym, so exhausted from cardio kickboxing she could sleep for a week. But Chief Kendall Cross had asked everyone to eyeball liquor establishments during their drives around town, on duty and off. She took that job seriously-the first coma victim had been behind the register because his Social Security didn't stretch far enough. The bandits bounced his head off a refrigerated case, cracking his skull in three places. "Just kidding. I'm fine. I've moved west of the store's front entrance."
The dispatcher repeated her new location. She confirmed.
"Tell me how you're dressed," he said.
"Blue jeans, mango top, running shoes. Black leather jacket. I'm carrying a Glock and a SureFire." Pistol and flashlight. "My badge is on my belt."
"Got it. I'll describe you to all units," he said.
So they don't shoot me by mistake, Emily translated. His heads-up play impressed her. Friendly fire was a serious risk for plainclothes cops, as adrenalized responders sometimes mistook them for bad guys and bombs away. She owed him a margarita.
"No imminent danger," she said. "I'll stay put and observe till backup arrives."
"Understood. Let me know when-"
She didn't hear the rest because her face began to pulse heat. Her arms trembled, and her thighs went numb. Disemboweled bodies spun and danced in her brain.
No, no, no! she screamed at herself. Not now, dammit. Not now.
The feeling disappeared.
"Uh ... sorry ... repeat that, dispatch?" she said, trying to catch her breath.
"Let me know when backup arrives," the dispatcher said.
From the corner of her eye, she saw a black-and-white bump into the sprawling asphalt lot of the strip mall. Per the drill on silent runs, its sirens, flashers, and headlights were off. She straightened herself, fanned November air under her jacket. The Crown Victoria Police Interceptor aimed her way. Twenty seconds later it was angled into the curb, out of the line of vision of the liquor store's windows.
Another on-the-ball colleague, she thought.
The door opened without sound or interior light. The driver unsnapped a hip holster and hustled her way. The orange anti-crime lights turned his navy-blue Naperville Police uniform mildew green.
She smiled at the driver's gelled, spiky hair.
"Hey, Hawk," she whispered, glad for such fearsome backup.
"Back at ya, Em," said Sergeant Robert Hawkins. He was five-nine and rangy, with wide eyes and a smile that displayed a gap between his top front teeth. The gap made the smile charming, not hillbilly-ish. He had ginger-colored hair, spatters of reddish freckles on his face and neck, and ropy veins along his muscled arms. He was a computer crimes cop, cracking felonies committed via Internet. He kicked down doors for SWAT. Occasionally, he filled in as a night-shift patrol sergeant, to keep his street skills fresh. "Situation?"
"We're eyes and ears only?"
"Till the rest of the circus arrives," she said.
"Cool. I'll go around back," he said. "In case they-"
A long, wet shriek erupted from the store.
Hawk moved forward a quarter step. Emily's heart kicked as fresh adrenaline scoured her body. Her vision sharpened; her muscles tightened. She hardened her grip on her custom-made 9-millimeter Glock.
"So much for waiting," she said.
"Screams in the building," Hawk spat into his radio. "We're going inside."
"First three backups are one minute out," the dispatcher objected.
"She doesn't have that long," Hawk said, holding out the mike to the rolling wail.
"Jesus," the dispatcher said. "Uh, go."
Hawk hustled to the cruiser, pulled a Heckler & Koch MP-5 machine gun from the trunk.
They sprinted to the unlocked front door.
Emily crouched next to it, breathing fast and shallow. Hawk jammed up behind her, so close she could smell his cologne. They peered through the door, saw no one. She gripped the door handle. "Three, two, one ..." he counted.
She yanked the door and exploded into the gap, staying low as she swung her pistol into the left side of the store.
Hawk followed high, sweeping his machine gun right.
Their SureFires lit the aisles like miniature lightning strikes.
Just Chivas and Ketel and Bud.
"They moved," Emily stage-whispered. "Let's try-"
Another curdling female scream.
"Shut up, or I'll kill you now," a male voice warned. A dozen slaps followed. The scream tailed to a whimper.
Emily pointed to a vertical hole in the darkness at the rear of the store.
Hawk nodded to show he understood.
They raced down the tiled hallway, her in front, him trailing, muzzles up and hunting, staying as quiet as possible. The only light was a doorway next to the back exit. It was triple the brightness of the usual office fluorescent. Music poured out with the whiteness.
They crept the final ten feet.
Hard-core rap thumped their spines. "Bitches" and "whores" and "pig-ass Five-O" blended with "slaughter, maim, destroy." The woman's howl became so toxic Emily strained to not shoot her tormenters through the wall.
"All right, scream all you want," male voices taunted. "It'll hurt that much more when we drink your blood."
Hawk stiffened, and put the machine gun's red laser dot on the wall next to Emily. She snapped her Glock to eye level.
Three, two, one ...
Chapter Three12:09 a.m. Black River Falls
Cancer tapped the GPS with a fingernail loosened by blood blisters. "Found our dumping ground," he said.
"Where?" Gemini said, wiping the fogged windshield with the sleeve of his hoodie.
"Millston," Cancer said. "It's right off the interstate, so small it won't have a separate police department. Only the sheriff's patrol. And those guys are so busy with this storm they don't know whether to shit or go blind. They'll never know we were there."
"How far is it?"
"Thirteen miles," Cancer said.
"That could take forever in this rain. Anything closer?"
"Nope. It's the next exit."
Gemini nodded approval.
"All right, boys," he said. "We're dumping the chick at the next exit."
"Can't hear ya," Aquarius said over the thunder crash.
"We're dumping Kandy in Millston," Gemini repeated. "Next exit, small town, no cops, easy in and out."
"Cool," Aquarius said.
"Think they got a mill?" Virgo said.
"Uh ... what?" Gemini said as the van plunged into a deep road pond. The engine sputtered. He cranked the wheel this way and that, looking for high ground-if it died, they were done for. A moment later the tires bit into solid pavement. The engine recovered. His shoulders joined his head pounding with pain.
"A mill," Virgo repeated. "Millston. I wonder if they got a mill?"
"Who cares?" Gemini said, digging a knuckle between his eyes.
"I do," Virgo said. "I like history. Lots of these towns have mills from the old days. Just wondering if this one does, that's all."
"They do or they don't," Gemini said, "or they did and it burned to the ground and the smoke killed all the fuckin' cows. It makes no difference to me."
"Grain," Virgo said.
"You said cows. Mills are for grain. Not cows."
Gemini glared in the rearview. "What part of 'I don't care' don't you understand?"
Virgo shrugged. "I'm just sayin'."
"Say it to yourself," Gemini said. He whipped his head to the shotgun seat. "Cancer, you give a damn about some stupid mill?"
"Nope," Cancer said cheerfully.
"Not me, boss."
"See?" Gemini said. "So shut up about it already."
Excerpted from TORN APART by SHANE GERICKE Copyright © 2010 by Shane Gericke. Excerpted by permission.
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