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Arriving at a murder scene before breakfast wasn't Rachel Long's idea of a good way to start the day.
She leaned against the lamppost at the corner of Ninth and Perkins and pulled her coat tighter. The December wind that whistled around the deserted storefronts and run-down apartment buildings lining the street sent a shiver down her spine. Unlike other neighborhoods in Lake City, there were no holiday decorations anywhere in sight. In fact, nothing about her surroundings gave a hint that Christmas was only a few weeks away.
A young man's lifeless body sprawled twenty feet away spoke volumes about what life was like in this part of the city. Several uniformed policemen stood to the side as crime scene investigators gathered their evidence.
Her stomach rumbled and she pressed her hand against her abdomen to suppress the hunger pains. Coffee would have to come later. As chief investigative reporter for the Lake City Daily Beacon, her job was to cover the news.
One of the policemen backed away, and Rachel caught sight of the victim's leg twisted underneath him. She made a quick note in her journal of his white canvas tennis shoe with a five-pointed star on the sideone of the identifying marks of the Vipers, the gang that boasted control of this neighborhood.
She pursed her lips and tried to mentally recall how many gang-related deaths she'd reported in the past two months. Four? No, five. This one made the sixth victim.
A car pulled to a stop across the street and Detective Matt Franklin stepped out from the driver's side. He tugged at the cuffs of a white shirt and they slipped over his wrists from underneath the sleeves of his navy blazer. Even this early in the morning he looked like he belonged in a fashion magazine spread. The wind ruffled his brown hair. He smoothed it into place as he waited for the man who climbed from the passenger side of the car.
"Matt," Rachel called out.
He stopped in the middle of the street and glanced around. Catching sight of her, he turned and walked toward her. The corners of his eyes crinkled with a smile. He stopped in front of her and tilted his head to one side. "Rachel, how did you find out about this so quickly?"
"My scanner." She glanced toward the group examining the body. "Another gang killing? "
He sighed and nodded. "Looks like it."
"I noticed the boy's tennis shoes. He's a member of the Vipers. Do you think this is the work of the Rangers?"
Matt shrugged. "It's too early to know. Some in the department think the Vipers from the north side of the city and the Rangers from the south have decided to declare open war on each other. But so far neither gang is talking."
"May I quote you on that?"
"You probably would even if I said no." His mouth curved into the lopsided smile she'd first noticed when they met two months ago at the scene of the first gang member's death.
Rachel closed the notebook she held and dropped her pen into her bag. "When I was growing up, I never thought we'd someday have two gangs in a town this size. They were in urban areas like New York and Los Angeles, not in a small city in the heart of Illinois."
Matt nodded. "No town, no matter how small, is safe from the threat of gangs. Pressure from large-city police departments is forcing many gang members from the cities into more rural areas. Once there, they recruit locals into the groups. It's a growing problem all across the country."
Rachel glanced back at the body down the street. "So now we have six kids dead. Three Rangers and three Vipers. And because of what? Their neighborhoods aren't any better because they died. In fact, now it's worse for the people who live there and want to raise their children in a safe environment." She shook her head. "What a waste."
Matt regarded her with a steady gaze. "I didn't realize you had such strong feelings about the fate of these kids."
Her eyes grew wide. "Of course I do. Most of them don't have a chance of escaping their lives of poverty. They're looking to neighborhood gangs to save them and instead they're ending up dead."
Matt's gaze flitted across her face for a moment before he responded. "Once they take that step into the gang life, though, they're also dangerous. When I saw you standing over here, I thought it might be a good time to give you a friendly warning. You've written some hard-hitting articles in the past few weeks since this string of killings started. I'd hate to see you anger the wrong people."
She shrugged. "I don't make the news. I only report it."
Matt nodded. "I know. And I don't make the crimes. I only try to solve them. All I'm saying is just don't get in over your head."
Rachel smiled. "It's nice of you to worry about my safety, but I don't think I'll have any problems. The gang members only know me as a name in the newspaper. I doubt if they even care what I think."
Matt shook his head. "I don't know about that. Your picture is right beside your byline. Someone wanting to find you wouldn't have to look far."
Rachel had never thought of that, and her skin tingled with a rush of fear. "Don't try to scare me, Matt. I can't back off my job. Good reporters follow the facts and print them."
Matt's dark eyes clouded. "I know what these gangs are like, Rachel. I deal with them on a daily basis. As a friend, I thought I should warn you. Just be careful."
She nodded. "I will be. And don't forget to read my story." She glanced around at the local residents, some in their pajamas and robes, standing along the sidewalk. "I think I'll try to get some quotes from a few of the people who live around here. Of course they'll refuse to give their names, but you can't blame them. They're afraid of retaliation from the people who control their streets."
"We run into that problem all the time. It sure makes catching a killer harder." Matt glanced over his shoulder at the crime scene. "Well, I'd better get busy. I just wanted to pass along my concern." He turned to leave but then he faced her again. "By the way, I saw you at church last Sunday with your friend Mindy. You left before I could speak to you."
Rachel smiled at how surprised she'd been to see Matt there. That day he was dressed in jeans and a knit shirt as he played the drums in the praise band for the worship service. He'd looked so relaxed and completely absorbed in the music. Today he was every inch the professional policeman.
"Mindy has been after me to go with her, so I did."
"Maybe you'd like to come to our Singles Bible Study. We meet tonight."
She shrugged. "Maybe. If I have time. My job keeps me busy."
He looked back at the crime scene. "Mine does, too. I'd better get to work. See you later."
Rachel watched as Matt jogged back to the officers still beside the body. She'd liked Matt the first time they'd met. Perhaps it was the sorrow she saw in his eyes as he gazed down at the young victim who'd died alone on a dark street. And now a sixth person had also met his end.
She turned her attention to the small crowd of onlookers who'd gathered in front of an apartment building across the street. At the edge of the cluster of residents, a woman who appeared to be in her early thirties gripped the hand of a young boy beside her.
As Rachel watched, the woman spoke to the boy who stared into her face. The child didn't move as the woman accented her words with gestures toward the body across the street.
Fascinated by the exchange between the two, Rachel ambled toward them until she stood in front of the woman. She smiled. "Good morning, my name is Rachel Long. I'm a reporter for the Lake City Daily Beacon, and I noticed you standing here. I wondered if I might speak with you."
Suspicion flashed in the woman's eyes and she gripped the boy's hand tighter. "What about?"
Rachel glanced at the boy. "Is this your son?"
The woman straightened her shoulders. "Yes."
"I couldn't help but notice that you were talking to him as if you really wanted to impress something on him. It reminded me of how my mother used to talk with me."
The woman pointed across the street. "I was tellin' him that he's all I got in this world, and I don't aim to see him end up dead on no street corner. That's what gangs do for you. Promise all kinds of things but they ain't true."
Rachel nodded. "You're a very wise woman. I know it isn't easy living in a neighborhood where gangs roam the streets."
The woman's eyes grew wide and her mouth pulled into a grim line. "Easy? There ain't nothing easy 'bout life around here, and these hoodlums with their drugs and guns just make it harder for folks like us who workin' to get by."
"Do you have something you'd like to say to the people of Lake City or to the police about what the gangs are doing to our city?"
She started to speak but stopped. Fear flashed in her eyes. "You ain't gonna use my name or tell where I live, are you?"
Rachel shook her head. "I'll just quote you as a concerned mother."
"Well, then I guess I'd say to the folks who live in the nice neighborhoods, you ain't got no idea what it's like to be afraid of where you live. My son can't play outside 'cause I'm scared a stray bullet gonna hit him. We don't get out after dark, just stay inside with all the curtains pulled. And we stay away from the windows. I can't afford to move nowhere else, so I'm stuck here. When is somebody gonna help us clean up the filth that's turned what used to be a good neighborhood into a battlefield?"
Rachel had promised herself when she became a reporter that she would keep her personal feelings under control when she was interviewing someone. The anguish in this mother's eyes, though, made her forget that intention.
Her heart pricked at the predicament of this woman and her child. She blinked back the moisture in her eyes and smiled down at the boy. "You have a smart mama. Do what she says and stay safe."
The boy's somber brown eyes stared at her. "I will."
The mother pulled her son closer. "You gonna write how bad it is down here?"
"I am." She reached out and squeezed the woman's hand that rested on her son's shoulder. "I'll be thinking of you."
With a sigh she headed back across the street. She saw Matt bending over the victim. He straightened and smiled when he saw her. They stared at each other for a moment before they both waved, and Rachel turned down the street to the spot where she'd parked.
When she climbed into her car and cranked the engine, she held her breath. To her relief, the motor purred to life. She really had to do something about a car soon. Hers had already exceeded its life expectancy by a few years. Maybe by this time next year she'd be driving a new vehicle.
The Beacon was just the first step to success. If things went as planned, this job would be her springboard to a larger newspaper or even a television station. And stories of rival gangs killing each other just might be the ticket to jump-start the journey.
Rachel thought again of the mother's fear for her son. Her own mother had dealt with many problems in raising Rachel and her sister, but gangs weren't something they had to worry about. She couldn't imagine what life must be like for that woman and her son. Maybe if she dug deeper into the killings, she would find something to help the police.
Matt's warning drifted through her mind but she shook it away. There were reasons why she wanted to succeed at her job. No, had to succeed. She only had one choiceto go anywhere and talk to anybody to get the story she needed.
Rachel stared at the computer screen and scanned the article she'd just written once more before sending it to the copy editor. "It seems almost like a rewrite of the other murders," she grumbled aloud.
She leaned back in her chair and tapped the desktop with a pencil. The police might believe gang violence was the reason for the similar killings, but according to what Matt had told her they still couldn't be sure. With no clues left behind, the police didn't appear to know where to turn. Gang members weren't talking, and most residents who lived in the neighborhoods controlled by the groups were too afraid to tell what they knew.
Somebody in Lake City knew what was going on with these killings but so far no one had come forward. She reread the last two lines of the article she'd just completed. "It's time for every resident of Lake City to say, 'We will not stand quietly by and let the gangs destroy us.' Only by joining forces can we safeguard the future and provide a secure way of life for our children and those who will come after us."
Whether or not her call for unity would work, she didn't know. All she could do was try to rally the citizens to fight what was happening around them. She sighed and, with a click of the mouse, sent the story on its way to the copy editor.
She picked up her coffee cup and took a drink just as the phone rang. Setting the cup back on the desk, she wedged the receiver between her ear and shoulder. "Rachel Long. May I help you? "
"I don't know. Maybe I can help you." Rachel's eyes widened at the curtness in the man's voice. This was no friendly call. She pushed her cup away, reached for a pencil and slid her notepad across her desk.
"Help me with what?"
"I been reading your stories in the paper."
Rachel took a deep breath to still her thudding heart.
"The gang murders."
Rachel's fingers flexed and gripped the pencil tighter. "I'm glad. We always like to hear from our readers."
"I ain't calling to brag on your writing. I gots a story I want to talk about."
She poised the pencil above the pad. "And what's your name?"
A low laugh came over the phone. "That don't matter. Let's just say I'm a confidential source. Okay?"
Rachel could almost hear her heart pounding. "That depends on what you have to tell me."
"Oh, you gonna like this. 'Cause I got a story that'll rock this city."