The young girl’s panicked screams filled the car. As Hannah’s lungs seized, lights danced in her vision. She watched, detached, as another figure appeared in the passenger window, a metal bar in his hand. Tire iron? He was shorter and darker than the first man. She caught a glimpse of a square face and mean black eyes. He raised the iron over his shoulder and baseball-batted the glass, shattering it. Small bits of glass rained into the vehicle. Jewel’s screams melted to sobs. He reached through the opening and pressed the unlock button with his knuckle. He wrenched open the car door. Jewel went feral, arms and legs flailing. But her kicks and wild fists had no effect on the big body that leaned into the car.

A second shadow slanted across the windshield. “Get that blond bitch. She saw me. And hurry up. She called the cops,” the first man said.

The driver’s door handle rattled. “You’ll have to pull her out that side. The door’s stuck.”

“Fuck it. Just go. We need to get out of here.” They dragged Jewel from the vehicle. One of them reached back into the vehicle and took Hannah’s purse and phone from the floorboard.

Minutes later, men shouted. Footsteps approached. Hannah’s vision blurred as her eyes teared.

“Miss, are you all right?” Someone was at the car window. “Hold on. The police are pulling into the lot.”

Too late. Sirens blared, and voices shouted. The emergency crew arrived, pried the door open, and lifted her out of the vehicle. A single idea dominated her thoughts: in the span of five minutes, she’d failed, and that poor girl was gone.

Chapter Three

Mother. Fucker.

What to do?

Smoothing his goatee, Mick glanced over the seat at the girl lying prone on the floor of the SUV. “You just fucking don’t get it, do you?”

Her only response was a whole-body flinch. The two girls who shared the second row of seats in the big SUV had drawn their legs up onto the seats. Three more girls crowded the third row. None would so much as look at Jewel, as if the sight of her was enough to earn them a pounding.

Maybe it would.

Mick had learned early on in this business there was nothing like a good beating to make a girl behave.

“What are you going to do with her?” His little brother, Sam, glanced at him from the driver’s seat. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. One hand dangled over the top of the SUV steering wheel. His white wifebeater showed off full sleeves of multicolored tats covering wiry arms and shoulders.

“I want to kill her.”

“That would be fun.” At twenty-three, his skinny brother was a Chihuahua, small but always eager to attack. Regret filled Sam’s words. “The boss would be pissed.”

They both went quiet for a second, remembering their last meeting with the boss, when Mr. K had personally castrated one of his other lieutenants before slitting the man’s throat. Bad management skills weren’t tolerated.

“You’re right,” Mick said.

Sam was the only person on earth that Mick trusted.

His little bro could kill effectively with any weapon, explosives, or his bare hands. The US Army had trained him well, then kicked him out when his love for violence became too apparent over in Iraq. Sam had never been the same after he’d come back. Instead of PTSD, Sam had acquired a bloodlust that he couldn’t legally satisfy back in the States. Killing was as natural to him as swimming to a dog.

“She’ll pay.” Sam flicked his cigarette out the window. “Just in another way.”

Curled on the floor of the SUV, the girl cringed. Mick craned his head over the seat. “I’ve told you this a hundred times: We own you. If you try to run, we will hurt you. What is it about that statement you don’t get?”

Sam steered the SUV off the main highway and drove into a residential area. Small, cracked houses squatted on small, cracked lots of dried earth. He turned right and passed two vacant properties before pulling into a stained concrete driveway. A small whimper sounded from the backseat as he shifted the car into park.

“You gonna kill the blond?” Sam asked. “She saw us.”

Mick scratched his goatee. “Maybe.”

“It’d be fun.” The gleam in Sam’s eyes caught the moonlight. “No restrictions on her. I’ll do it for you if you want to keep your hands clean.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Sam had killed for him. At the age of twelve, he’d taken out the neighborhood bully with a hammer to the head to defend his brother. That kind of loyalty couldn’t be bought. Not that Mick had needed the help, but he’d wanted to consider all his options. He had a tendency to overthink a situation. They hadn’t been caught, and Mick had learned to trust his little brother’s killer instincts.

Jewel groaned.

Mick leaned over the seat. “Hear that, Jewel? Whatever happens to that bitch is on your hands. You involved her in this.” He got out and opened the back door. “Let’s go.”

Five girls made a hasty exit, but Jewel, with her hands tied behind her back, was wedged in tight. He pulled the knife out of his pocket and unfolded the blade. Her eyes widened as he leaned over her. His hand trembled. He wanted to do it. But she didn’t belong to him. She belonged to Mr. K.

The boss had hammered the math into Mick’s head. An ounce of cocaine or a hit of crack can only be sold once. A girl can be sold hundreds of times.

“Get the fuck out of the car.” He reached in, sliced the plastic ties, and grabbed a handful of her hair. “I said now.”

Jewel stumbled across the curb. She went down on her hands and knees on the hard-baked earth of the front yard. Mick closed the vehicle door. Anger flowed into his chest. Hot and thick, it fueled his body almost as well as coke. He kicked her in the ribs, sending her sprawling. He reeled in his excitement. You break it, you buy it was the boss’s motto.

“Get up.” He stalked toward her.

She rose onto her feet, swaying like a drunk. Mick grabbed her by the arm. “Inside.” He opened the door and threw her across the threshold. She fell to her knees on the stained carpet, balled up like an armadillo, and stayed there.

The living room was empty except for Lisa, Sam’s girlfriend. The other girls, smart little bitches, had scurried for their holes like rats. Leaning over the glass table with a rolled dollar bill up one nostril, Lisa was halfway through a short line. Stringy white-blond hair hung over her pasty face. Sound effects—bells—from the game show on the TV clanged through the room. She snorted the last of the powder in one quick sniff, then swiped her hand under her runny nose. “What happened?”

“Bitch tried to run.” Mick crossed to the glass table. “You’d better not have done all my coke.”

Lisa shrank onto the couch cushion. “You said I could have one line. That’s all I did. I swear.”

Still eyeballing her, he stepped up, opened the square tin, and checked his supply. The glimmer of fear in her eyes pacified him. He nodded, and she exhaled.

That’s what he wanted to see: obedience and appreciation. He was in control. It didn’t matter that Lisa was Sam’s girlfriend. Mick could have her any time he liked. But he was done with whores. The finer things in life were trickling into his grasp, one by satisfying one. He’d come up in the world, and he wasn’t letting anything shove him back down again.

“What are you gonna do with her?” Lisa gave Jewel—curled, shaking, and smelling like fear—a glare. Lisa wasn’t going to let that little bitch ruin what she had going. If one girl escaped, what would stop the others from thinking they could do the same? Mr. K demanded a high level of efficiency, and no one who could testify against Mick would ever walk out of this house alive.

“I don’t know. I have to think.”

He turned to Jewel. Her eyes were squeezed shut, as if she didn’t want to see what was coming.

Smart thinking on her part.

Anger flared fresh in his veins. Tonight’s act of rebellion could ruin everything. This gig was good, but he was tired of worrying about Mr. K’s rules.

He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her toward the back door. She got her feet under her body and stumbled behind him. The yard was a twenty-by-twenty rectangle of concrete and dirt, walled in by a heavy wooden fence that sagged in places. His big pit bull slunk out from behind the garage to greet him.

“Sit.” Cringing, Butch obeyed. If only the girls learned as quick as the dog.

A small metal shed squatted in the rear corner. Jewel stumbled as Mick shoved her into the darkness. She fell onto her knees then curled up into a miserable ball. He handcuffed her to a pipe sticking out of the dirt. Then he walked out, shutting the door and fastening the padlock. Dumb bitch acted like Mick was new at this. He wasn’t. He’d practiced taking a girl to the edge of death and holding her there. Some girls held on a long, long time.

He went back into the living room. His brother was kicked back on the sofa, his posture deceiving. No matter how relaxed Sam appeared, violence flowed just under his skin. His eyes were coke-bright. Mick snorted a spoonful and poured himself a glass of vodka. The numbness slid over him like crushed ice flowing through his veins. Five minutes later, he felt reenergized, as if anything was possible.

Jewel was off-limits, but there was no reason he couldn’t kill the blond. Mick went out to the car and got her purse. Back inside, he flopped in a chair and pulled out her wallet. It was a fancy job with two zippered compartments. He rubbed a hand across the deep gray leather. Felt expensive. He slid a thick stack of bills from the billfold.

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