The assassin lay concealed in the dark shadow cast by the huge, silent air conditioning stack on the flat roof of the old high school. The blistering summer sun had been baking the dark roof all day, and even early in the evening, the asphalt was still hot and slightly sticky to the touch. It gave off a nauseating tarry smell that she could taste in the back of her throat.
Sweat formed on her upper lip and even more rolled down between her shoulder blades to wet her black sleeveless tee.
The nine-pound, bolt-action hunting rifle felt cold and smooth in her hands. She rested her flushed cheek against the Teflon-coated stainless steel of the barrel for a moment.
The magazine had a five-round capacity but she had only inserted two. Her initial plan had been to use accelerator cartridges, but identification no longer mattered—getting out alive was not the aim.
Her fingers trembled and she took a few deep breaths to calm her hammering heart and steady her hands.
It didn’t work. If anything her shaking seemed to worsen and the intake of air made her chest ache. More sweat beaded across her forehead and on the backs of her hands under her black leather gloves.
What’s wrong with me?
She looked at her watch. The target would be visible in the next five minutes, like clockwork.
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and tried to calm herself. Her head was pounding. Every time she moved, the motion surged through her skull, pain spiked in her belly, and she felt dizzy.
Sweat was pouring down her face now, stinging her eyes.
Any moment now . . .
Just as she’d expected, the target jogged into view at the end of the street. She gripped the rifle firmly, nestled the black synthetic stock into the crook of her shoulder, and rested her finger lightly on the trigger—waiting . . . willing her heart rate to slow.
But her trigger finger didn’t obey.
The cops will be here soon. Take her out! You’re gonna miss the shot!
Her head throbbed incessantly as she argued with herself—the pain almost unbearable. The pounding in her skull was so loud. It seemed to be coming from outside her body, near the jammed stairwell door.
She felt unconsciousness coming as the edges of her vision went black.
No! You have to save the baby!
One thought played over and over as she sank into nothingness:
Don’t take another child from him!
You’re just like time.
Except you can still feel the shame.
All hands on deck now.
The sea is getting rough again.
–The Black Keys, “All You Ever Wanted”
Detective Alicia Raymond, better known as Berg, looked down into the glassy, staring eyes of the dead woman lying in front of her on the cool, unforgiving concrete.
She was crumpled like a paper doll on the downtown Chicago parking garage floor, shot in the back of the head, execution-style, in broad daylight.
Berg noticed the woman’s eyes were brown, similar to her own, in fact. She tried to shake off the strange realization, but she couldn’t stop staring into the glassy chocolate gaze of the poor woman in front of her.
There was an unspoken bond between them now, and she wouldn’t rest until this woman’s killer had been brought to justice.
It was her promise to all of the victims whose cases she worked on.
She looked one last time into the woman’s eyes. Soon, they would cloud over with a milky film, the pretty irises existing only in photographs and in the memories of her friends and family.
Berg flicked a glance down to the woman’s impressive engagement and wedding rings.
Yeah, there’s definitely a family involved.
“What do you think?” Detective Marco Arena asked. “No one saw anything; she can’t have been offed in public in the middle of the day. She must’ve been killed overnight.”
“No. Her eyes are open and clear. If she had been dead for more than a few hours, they’d be cloudy by now.”
“Shit, you’re right,” Arena replied.
Berg refrained from stating the obvious to her new partner: she was almost always right.
“Carjacking?” he asked, running a hand though his thick, black hair in a move Berg had come to realize over the last two months was a sign of exhaustion and frustration.
Lately, it seemed the number of murders in Chicago was out of control. Thanks to growing gang crime, their city was nearing the top of the murder capital list. Neither of them had had a full night’s rest for weeks. For Berg, it was standard operating procedure—even on a good night she never caught more than four solid hours—but Arena was fraying around the edges. Sad part? This latest murder of what appeared to be an innocent shopper didn’t even reach the top of the list of the macabre and violent deaths they had seen in the last two weeks alone.
“Car’s still here,” Berg muttered as she stooped to get a better look at the body, blowing away a loose strand of long, dark brown hair that had somehow escaped her tight ponytail. It was getting so long and thick as to be unruly, and it was getting on her nerves, but she resisted the urge to yank out the disobedient strand by the root and concentrated on the victim in front of her.
The top of the dead woman’s head was a matted mess of blood and gray matter—the bullet had passed straight through the back of her head and out through her shattered upper forehead. Berg moved the caked, dyed blond hair aside as best she could with her gloved hands—there were contact burns on the scalp. The gun had been pressed hard against the back of her head when she was killed. She looked to be in her midfifties, and was lying on her side in a pool of blood, facing the rear tires of a very expensive, custom built, black SUV.
Definitely not something straight off the lot.
“The killer probably didn’t want it seeing it’s splattered in goo,” Arena replied.
The vehicle’s cavernous trunk, which was open, had borne all the blood, bone, and brain from the killing. The bullet was likely lodged in there somewhere as well, and Berg had tasked the forensics team with finding it.
“Possibly.” She moved the woman’s head slightly—it still moved easily. She fingered the red streaks on ether side of the neck. “Looks like a necklace was ripped off here,” she said. “But the wedding ring is still there.”
Arena crouched down next to Berg and tried to wiggle the woman’s wedding rings off with his latex-gloved fingers. After several seconds of maneuvering, they came free. “He might not have wanted to wait around to get them off,” he said.
Berg frowned but didn’t answer as she looked away from the victim and took in more of the scene.
Groceries were scattered in a four-foot radius around the woman’s body, the brown paper bags spewing their contents on the cold, hard concrete like a college student at their first pledge. The woman’s purse lay where it had fallen, seemingly untouched. Her nearby shopping cart was still half-filled with bags.
“Looks like she was transferring her bags from the shopping cart to the trunk of the car when she was ambushed from behind, killed with a single shot to the back of the head, execution style. My guess is a handgun, possibly a nine-millimeter. We’ll need to find the bullet to be sure. Blood and gray matter sprayed the car, she dropped the groceries, and fell to the ground,” Berg said.
“No witnesses have come forward.” Arena double-checked his notebook. “Which is strange since the gunshot would have echoed through the parking deck. You think it would have gotten someone’s attention, but no. A fellow shopper found her like this an hour ago and called 911.”
Berg watched the forensics team from her Harrison Street precinct, the 12th, as they combed the scene, photographing, and then bagging and tagging anything in the vicinity.
She frowned again.
“Oh no.” Arena sighed. “I know that look. Please, don’t sa—”
“This whole thing stinks,” she said. “It makes no sense.”
“In what way?” he asked, his dark eyes—darker than hers by several shades—flashing with both annoyance and curiosity.
“If it was a carjacking, why is the car still here? Along with her purse and jewelry. And what’s this ring? At least five carats?”
“Don’t ask me. You ladies are better at the bling,” he replied before blanching.
Berg glowered at him. She hated when he spoke in clichés, and he knew it. “I care as much about diamonds as I do about dresses and makeup, you Neanderthal.”
“I know, I know. Sorry.” He ran his hand through his short hair again. “I haven’t slept in several centuries.”
He hadn’t been able to stop the glance at Berg’s simple pantsuit at the mention of her wearing a dress. She caught him leering just like she did so many of the other officers she worked with, and shot him a look that left no doubt just where he could stick his leer.
“This looks more like an execution, not a carjacking.” She turned from the body to the surrounding area. “And, if no one heard the shot in this busy parking garage in the middle of the day, then the killer may have used a silencer. What carjacker does that? For that matter, what carjacker kills a woman, renders the car unsellable, then takes off without stealing everything else he can get his hands on?”
“There is more to this,” Berg muttered.
“You think there is more to everything.” Arena said and wandered toward the car grumbling.
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