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My breath is shallow and fast and the sound of my beating heart resonates in my ears. This is the first field assignment I've had for a while and I'm a little rusty. I steady my breath. We'll be moving soon.
I study the area, waiting for my cue. I've parked on the right-hand side and have a good view of the street and the apartment building that's our target. The street is quiet. Eerily quiet, as if everyone's hiding in their homes, somehow aware of what's about to go down and waiting for the storm to pass. Then again, it is 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday. The only sign of movement is a mother pushing her stroller about thirty feet in front of me on the footpath, and a few people waiting at a bus stop sixty feet down the road. I take in my surroundings, counting the people, entering information about them into my memoryI may need it later. For the moment, nothing looks suspicious and Boxley, our target, entered the building about half an hour ago. I take another deep breath. Soon. It will be soon.
I love this feeling; love knowing that finally the hunter has become the hunted. I bet he feels like this when he's stalking a victim, knowing that any minute she'll be his. But he's in the wrong, and we're in the right.
He's probably already selected his next victim. I imagine him closing in on her, just as though she was my sister, best friend or even me. My teeth clench and my hand goes instinctively to the gun in my ankle holster. My fingers tighten around the bulge it's guys like the creep inside who drew me to law enforcement.
"This is Mad Dog, are you in position one?" Detective Flynn's voice crackles softly through my earpiece. It's a joint task forceD.C. police and FBIwith Flynn from D.C. Homicide taking the lead.
"Check," says the leader of the first unit.
"Two?" Flynn says.
I listen to the units sound off, ending with the one headed by Agent Josh Marco. We've worked together closely on this case and have become friends. Maybe more than friends.
"Okay, Goldilocks, we're ready to roll," Flynn says.
Flynn is with two other officers to the left of the apartment, covering the fire escape. He looks up and nods at me. From this distance I just make out a smile.
I get out of the car we organized for the operation, a red Ford, and grab the briefcase of samples and my black coat from the passenger seat. I ease one arm into the coat, eager for its warmth, and then slip in the other arm. For the job I've chosen black pants that flare slightly at the ankles but hug my hips, and a tight-fitting red V-neck to show off as much cleavage as I can bring to the party (with some major help from a push-up bra). I am a little vulnerable without my bulletproof vest, but guns don't seem to be this perp's style. Besides, we can't risk arousing his suspicion with added bulk on my upper body. Over the outfit I wear a black scarf and a black coat. The look is completed with black leather gloves.
Here I go. I've been living and breathing this case for the past five months and it feels good to almost have the bastard in our grasp.
The perp lives in a fifteen-story building that's in pretty good condition despite its obvious sixties look. The pathway is concrete, lined with a waist-high box hedge. The sides of the long path are framed by lawn, and a few flowering shrubs add color to the grayness.
I go over the routine one more time my name is Lauren. Lauren Armstrong. I work for Clean-a-way Living and I'm here to sell our perp I mean, my client our effective and environmentally friendly range of cleaning products.
Flashes of the victims lying in pools of their own blood intrude on my thoughts. I push the images away. Focus.
I scan the apartment buzzers on the inside wall. Robert Boxley is written next to apartment 104. I ring the buzzer. A couple of minutes drag by like ten, and finally I hear the hiss of the intercom system.
"Who is it?" a husky male voice asks.
"Hi, it's Lauren from Clean-a-way." I use a richer, throatier version of my natural voice and play on my Australian accent, broadening it slightly.
"Lauren. Yes. Come up."
The buzzer sounds and I walk in through the security door. My stomach does a flip and my "spider sense" tingles. I've got a bad feeling about this. I push it aside and flick the ring on my little finger with my thumbnail. It's just nerves because this is my first field assignment for a while.
"I'm in." Confirmation for Flynn and the rest of the task force.
The small inside foyer is decorated with brown speckled tiles and the walls are painted a dull green. A faded safety certificate hangs on the left wall next to a rusty fire extinguisherprobably both from the sixties. Opposite the entrance is a small elevator. I look above it and notice that number eleven is dimly lit. The elevator isn't moving. Our suspect's only one floor up, so I head for the stairs on the right. I grasp the wrought-iron banister, which rattles in my hand. With each step my heart seems to pound even faster, sending vibrations through my body with every beat. It's so loud the guys can probably hear it through my mouthpiece. That's not good. I want to make a strong impression on my first bust.
I knock on apartment 104's door. I hear two locks rattling in the door frame, and then I'm greeted by Robert Boxley. He looks a little different than the picture we got from his employer, but I recognize him nonetheless. Five-ten and stocky, with a paunch. He's clean-shaven and his skin is smooth and translucent, though a few beads of sweat hang above his top lip. Nervousness? His black hair is cut tightly. He wears blue jeans, a loose white T-shirt and sneakers. If I didn't know what a monster he was, I'd think he was good-looking.
"Hi, Robert." I immerse myself in my character, shoving my revulsion way down into the pit of my stomach.
"Hi, Lauren," he says, eyeballing me with intense dark green eyes. "Come in." He steps away from the door and motions me inside.
I walk past him, momentarily turning my back on him. I'm not keen on the physical advantage he has over me for these few seconds, but it can't be helped. Besides, I'm safe. Not only because of the size and skill of my backup, but also because it's unlikely he'll nab me. I'm his type, but he likes to stalk his victims for a couple of weeks. He might mentally enter me into his victim pool for another time, but he's already picked his next girl and he's too orderly to let me jump the queue.
I take in every detail, hyperaware of my surroundings. Even an odor could mean something. But I smell nothing, other than the remnants of last night's curry.
I put my case down on the carpet and slowly take off my coat. He watches me carefully, running his eyes across my body. The look penetrates me, but I smile and hand him my coat and scarf. It sickens me to be civil to this man, but it's all part of the job. Soon the tables will be turned.
He hangs my coat and scarf on a peg near the front door.
I look around. His apartment is immaculate.
"Nice place you got here."
He's gone for the minimalist approach that a lot of guys like. Truthfully, I don't know if it's the look they like or the lack of dusting duties. From the door I can clearly see the main living areas. Directly in front is the living room, which contains a large-screen TV, a DVD player, a coffee table with the latest edition of Premiere strategically placed, and two two-seater couches. The living room also has an oversize window. A bar separates the living room from a spotless kitchen. I notice a few magnets and one photo on the fridge. It's a woman, but I can't see her face.
Boxley doesn't take his eyes off me. "It's not much, but I call it home."
"It's great. You should see my place. It's a dump." I hand him the position of power that he enjoys.
"I'm sure it's not that bad." He motions me farther inside. I pick up my briefcase and follow him into the living room.
"Have you been in the States long?" he asks.
"Only seven months." I see no reason to lie. I arrived here seven months ago, gave myself a month to settle in and then started working at the FBI.
"Oh yeah. I love it here." Also true.
As we exchange small talk I look for signs of his other, more sinister occupation. I focus on the fridge once more, and the photo.
"She's pretty. Your girlfriend?" I move in for a closer look. Bingo. It's a picture of one of the victims.
He moves in behind me and I can feel his eyes on the back of my neck. He's only a couple of steps away, and he's invading my personal space.
He hesitates. "Ex, actually. We came to a" he pauses, seemingly trying to find the right word "messy end."
I've seen the photos, it was messy all right. What a sick bastard.
"These things can get messy, can't they," I say, talking about both relationships and murders. "I can tell you're still a bit sweet on her."
He pulls up next to me and leans on the fridge. "No, not really. I must take that photo down."
"What's her name?"
"Kathy. She's very pretty," I repeat, happy that he used the victim's real name. Flynn and Marco will know who I'm looking at. Kathy's picture is evidence. The bust is looking good.
"Clear your throat if it's our Kathy, Goldilocks," Flynn says through my earpiece.
I clear my throat, then turn it into a slight cough.
"Do you want a glass of water?" Boxley asks.
"No. Thanks, I'm fine." I move back into the living room. "Before I start, do you have a roommate or someone who'd like to see the products too?"
"No, there's just me."
Good. No roomie. We'll be going ahead.
"Well, Mr. Boxley, I can see you take pride in the cleanliness of your home and you're going to love our products," I say, getting into my well-rehearsed sales spiel. I put my case on the coffee table in front of the windows, right where I want to be positionednear the sharpshooters in case they need to take a shot at our Mr. Boxley.
I have the suspect's full attention.
I open the black vinyl case. Inside are several compartments that contain cleaning products and a few cloths. The lid of the case has elastic stretched across it horizontally, holding in place two small pieces of laminate. From the main section of the case I select the all-surface cream.
I hold the bottle up with the label facing Boxley. I glide one hand in front of the bottle, hovering over the label like the girls do in the game shows. I've always wanted to do that.
I start. "This gentle cleansing cream is our top seller because you can use it on just about everything. Stove tops, washrooms, toilets, kitchen counters and so on."
I take a piece of predirtied laminated board from my bag. "This has got a couple of red-wine stains on it here, and this is a curry stain." I point to a reddish-brown mark. "Always a tough stain."
I'm rushing it. I need to slow it down.
I take out a cloth. "Now, you don't need much of this little baby." I purr the words, in character again. I squeeze the bottle so the white foamy substance oozes onto the cloth. I lean forward and reveal just enough cleavage to get his mind, or more likely his body, going.
Boxley responds, shifting ever so slightly to get a better view. Creep.
"Then it's just a gentle wipe." I speak slowly, softly and let the "p" sound pop on my lips.
"Goldilocks, you're getting me going." It's Marco's voice. I don't react. I'll get him for that later.
"Very impressive." Boxley is clearly talking more about me than the cleaning products.
I smile, let my eyes linger on his, then cast my gaze quickly down his body, averting my eyes at his groin as though suddenly aware of, and embarrassed by, my own actions. I follow it with a small yet forceful push of air through my nose that verges on a giggle. While he's absorbing this development, I cast my eyes around the room once more, looking for any sign of a weapon.
"See." I show him the clean piece of laminated board.
I take the appropriate bottle out of my sales bag.
"Our next product is the window cleaner."
I turn around and walk toward the window, exaggerating the swing of my hips. I spray the window and before I start the wiping action I look around at Boxley with my head down slightly, eyes up, and I smile.
"You're going to love this one." My voice has a more serious, tougher tone and I'm out of character for a split second, knowing that soon he'll be mine. I wipe the product away, giving our guys the signal. The bust is a go.
"Mad Dog, this is seven, we have the signal. Repeat, we are a go," a voice says in my earpiece.
"Move in, people," Flynn says.
I turn around and notice a strange look on Boxley's face. He's looking at my feet. No, my ankle. Oh God, my ankle holster. Have my pants edged their way upward as my arm completed the wiping motion, high above my head? How could I be so stupid? My cockiness might cost me dearly.
"Anything wrong?" I keep my voice casual, steady.
Boxley looks at me, silent. I know that look. He's about to take action.
He lunges, arms outstretched. I dart to the side, just in time to escape his lethal hands, then immediately take a step forward with my left leg and send a swift, hard right kick his way. I aim for his back, targeting his kidneys, and the top of my foot meets its mark. He stumbles forward from the force of my kick and winds up on his knees in front of the window. He turns around to make another run at me. I grab my gun from the ankle holster and draw it, taking the safety off.
"FBI!" It's the first time I've announced myself as FBI and I like it. The adrenaline is well and truly pumping now.
"I will fire, Robert, so don't even think about it." I look at him and all I can think about are his victims. I lower my gun from his heart to his crotch. It has the desired effect.
"There are twenty police officers and agents on their way up here right now and we've got sharpshooters on the surrounding buildings." He's standing right in their line of fire. "Try anything and you're dead."
"Flynn, I have the suspect."
"Okay, Goldilocks, we're a minute away."
I walk backward and unlock the front door, keeping my eyes and gun trained on Boxley. "Roger that, Flynn, door is open."
"You bitches are all the same," Boxley says.