A porch covered the entire front facade of the house. Two doors, marked One and Two in black script letters, stood side-by-side in the center. A “For Rent” sign hung in the front window of number two. An exterior wooden staircase ran up each side of the house to the second floor units.
“It’s the one on the right.” Brody pointed.
Pea gravel crunched under their shoes as they walked across the parking area toward an exterior staircase. Stella glanced at the windows. No curtains moved. She surveyed the neighboring houses and lots, but there was no one in sight.
“Do you feel like you’re being watched?” she asked Brody.
“I definitely feel eyes on us.” Brody scanned the house. “It’s a residential neighborhood. I’m sure there are people around.”
Wood creaked as they climbed to a second-floor landing.
They split up, each standing to one side of the white metal door.
“Mr. Crawley?” Brody rapped his knuckles below the peephole. The door swung open an inch.
The hair on the back of Stella’s neck twitched, and a bead of sweat trickled between her breasts. Her hand went to her sidearm. Tilting her head, she listened. The apartment was quiet. Voices floated on the breeze. Stella glanced at the street below. A young family was passing the house in the glow of a streetlight. The man walked a black lab while the woman pushed a toddler in an umbrella stroller.
Brody pushed the door with two fingers and peered through the opening. “Mr. Crawley? This is Detective McNamara of the Scarlet Falls PD. We’re responding to your call to the hotline.”
Stella drew her weapon. Brody led with his gun. In unspoken agreement, he aimed high. Stella crouched as he pushed the door with a shoulder. An overhead light glowed a sickly yellow. Stained beige carpet silenced their steps as they went through the doorway.
Stella swept the living room on the right. She glanced behind a brown vinyl couch. The room wasn’t big enough to hide anywhere else, even in the shadows. “Clear.”
Brody turned left into the kitchen. “Clear.”
The floor squeaked as they went down a short hallway. Brody flipped a switch on the wall to illuminate a black and white bathroom. The shower curtain was drawn over an old cast-iron tub. Stella stood in the doorway and covered the hall while Brody pulled the curtain aside. Nothing but mold and rust inside.
Two more doors opened off the corridor. The first stood open. Boxes and plastic totes were piled from floor to ceiling along one wall.
Stella checked the two-by-two closet. Empty. “Clear.”
She rejoined Brody in the hall. The final door was closed. Brody opened it and they went in, a table lamp lighting their way. The room was empty. Stella checked under the bed. Brody headed toward the closet. “We’re all clear.”
Relief tried to slip through her, but her instincts were still on alert. Post-traumatic stress or real threat? That was always the question these days.
“I guess Mr. Crawley isn’t that anxious to talk to us.” Brody holstered his weapon.
But Stella still had the creeps. She put her Glock away. “I don’t like this.”
“Stella.” Brody was staring at the opposite wall. Stella turned. Over the bed, bright red letters spelled BOO.
Fear prickled hot on Stella’s back. Unfortunately, it wasn’t her PTSD.
“Let’s get out of here.” Brody prodded her with a hand to the arm.
Crack. Something struck the ceiling above her head. Bits of ceiling rained down on her. Gunshot?
Confusion and fear jolted Stella.
“What was that?” She ran to the hall with Brody shoving her from behind.
With his gaze on the floor, Brody steered her to the edge of the corridor. The floor squeaked underfoot.
“Shit. He’s shooting at us from the apartment below.” Brody’s hand dropped off Stella’s shoulder. She turned. He was down on one knee. Blood seeped through his gray slacks. He waved her away and yelled, “Go! Get out of here.”
Not going to happen.
Drawing her weapon, she fired three shots through the floor, aiming at the bullet holes. Then she turned back to Brody, grabbed his wrist, and ducked under his arm. She half-dragged him to the door, staying off the direct path. Another shot came though the floor inches from her foot. Wood splintered. Something stung her ankle.
Stella yanked the door open, and they staggered onto the wooden landing of the staircase. Brody’s weight sagged on Stella’s frame, and she was forced to holster her gun and wrap her right arm around his waist to keep him upright as they hobbled down the steps. Stella’s ears rang as they made it to the walkway.
A door slammed and footsteps on concrete faded.
The shooter was getting away. Stella wanted to chase him. Brody went down, and Stella stumbled. Recovering, she turned to look back in the direction of the gunman.
But Brody was on the ground, pale and bleeding.
She’d have to let the shooter go. Again.
“Have you seen this girl?” Mac held up the picture of Gianna.
A man in jeans and a T-shirt bearing the logo of a local bar emerged from his apartment, closed the door behind him, and locked it. He squinted at the photo. “I think she lives around here.”
“She lives in the next building,” Mac said. This apartment had a good view of the parking area. “She disappeared sometime last night.”
“Sorry. I’m a bartender. I work nights.” He took a step toward the lot.
“Have you seen any weird activity around here lately?” Mac asked.
“Nothing any weirder than usual. I gotta go. Hope you find your friend.”
“Thanks.” Mac tucked the picture into his back pocket. He’d knocked on every door in Gianna’s building, and every door with a view of her apartment or the parking area. Now what?
He walked back to stand in front of Gianna’s unit, facing the rows of cars. A strip mall lined the road on the other side of the cracked asphalt. Tattoo parlor, Laundromat, check cashing. He walked across. Cool moisture in the wind promised another storm.
He stepped onto the curb on the other side. The streetlight was out, and darkness smothered the sidewalk. A shoe scraped on cement. Mac froze, his instincts on alert.
In the storefront window, he caught the reflection of two figures moving in the shadows behind him. Mac ducked into an alley between the buildings. The narrow space would force the men to attack him one at a time, if that was their intent.
Since they followed him into the alley, he assumed it was.
A hulk of a man rushed him, his beefy arm looping over his head. Mac whirled and focused on his attacker’s hand. A knife. The blade ice-picked toward Mac’s head. He side stepped out of the weapon’s path and caught the man by the wrist with both hands. Redirecting his assailant’s momentum, Mac guided the weapon down. Following the natural arc of motion, the point slid into the man’s thigh.
He howled. A second man rushed at Mac from behind the first. Small, lighter, more nimble. Ripping the knife free, Mac swept the first man’s leg out from under him and shoved him at the second. Number two tripped over his pal and went face-first into the cement. He got a knee under his body and turned back, blood streamed from his nose and triangled over his chin. With a roar, he scooped a broken bottle from the ground and charged.
Mac ducked the first wild swing. The bottle came back at his head, number two’s eyes were white-rimmed and wild. He slashed back and forth, the jagged edged of glass sweeping the air in front of Mac’s face.
Mac plucked the KA-BAR from his boot and reverse-gripped his knife.
Hands in front of his face, he dodged the swings and waited. Number two backslashed. Mac leaped forward and blocked the backswing with an upward sweep of the knife. The blade sliced number two’s forearm to the bone. Mac hooked the point of the knife over the man’s wrist, slammed a palm into the back of the man’s elbow, and armbarred him to the ground. Mac pulled the arm, stretching the man out on his belly and pinning him to the pavement.
Still the guy struggled, his feet running in place, the toes of his black trainers scraping for purchase on the blacktop.
Mac checked the status of number one. No worries. The guy was busy trying to plug the gusher in his thigh with both hands.
“Looks like a bleeder,” Mac shouted at him. “If I were you, I’d want to get to a doctor ASAP.”
The big guy’s glare was wide with fear and pain. The man under Mac continued to kick his feet. Mac added a knee in the small of his back. The air rushed out of number two’s lungs and he went still.
“What. Do. You. Want?” Mac enunciated carefully.
“You,” Number two hissed. “You’re worth five grand to Freddie, and he don’t care if you come in a box or a bag.”
Freddie had put out a contract on Mac. He shouldn’t be surprised, but damn, he really hadn’t expected Freddie to go this far.
He called 911. Five minutes later, a patrol vehicle arrived, then an EMT vehicle. The paramedics bandaged the bleeder. The cop handed out handcuffs and took Mac’s statement. A steady stream of quiet radio chatter flowed from the open police car. An ambulance arrived and the thugs were loaded into the back.
The cop’s head swiveled toward his vehicle. “Hold on.”
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