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The Walls: A Becker Gray Novel

The Walls: A Becker Gray Novel

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The Walls: A Becker Gray Novel

Length:
414 pages
5 hours
Released:
Jun 22, 2018
ISBN:
9780989571487
Format:
Book

Description

When a violent Mexican drug cartel joins forces with a powerful, local gang, Det. Becker Gray is caught in the middle of a series of gruesome murders and grisly attacks. As the violence, betrayals, and pain escalate, revenge fuels the fires that bring a war to the city streets.  
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Detective Becker Gray doesn't have many close people in his life. There's his partner, Jeffrey Parker, and Morgan Beringer, the mayor's wife. In his own emotionally-detached way, he treasures both. Yet, when Morgan and her husband are murdered, he doesn't know what to make of his sense of loss and he doesn't lean on Parker for friendship.

Besides, there's no time to do so anyway because there are more dead bodies stacking up than the city can handle. First, a fire fighter is gunned down in broad daylight. Then eight members of a powerful, local gang are killed. Gray discovers all these murders are connected by ties to a Mexican drug cartel, police corruption, and even state attorneys tampering with cases. For Gray, though, these connections only serve as distractions to his main goal of finding Morgan's killer.

Even his only remaining friendship is a distraction. Parker is instead simply another tool Gray uses to corner the murderer.

Gray puts his life and career -- and that of his partner Jeffrey Parker -- on the line in THE WALLS. He faces his most savage nemesis in this exciting, quick, and breath-catching novel that will leave his professional life and the police department in tatters and upheaval.

Released:
Jun 22, 2018
ISBN:
9780989571487
Format:
Book

About the author

Chris Wendel is an Mystery/Thriller/Suspence author, living in Lakeland, FL. Known for writing the Det. Becker Gray stories, he enjoys putting the majorly flawed character in situations meant to rehab the his emotional damage and bring him back to experiencing the human existence consciously. If you love page-turning and heart-racing action, then these books are for you.An alumnus of the University of South Florida, Chris graduated with a major in English/Technical Writing. He started writing in the 3rd grade on an old Corona typewriter. In 11th grade, he wrote his first novel, then in college he experimented with poetry, screenwriting, and other forms of writing. Eventually, he focused on writing novels after his son was born and the idea for the first Becker Gray novel emerged along with the running theme of home and fatherhood.When Chris isn’t writing, he is reading books, studying stories and writing, attending book signings and book festivals/fairs, meeting readers, traveling, being a dad, and cooking. He enjoys soccer, music, beach and pool days, exercising, binging on TV shows, trying new craft beer, and exploring new restaurants.CONNECT WITH CHRIS: Chris appreciates interacting with his readers and discussing the books, the characters, and stories in general. Join in.➜ WEBSITE: www.cwendel.com ➜ NEWSLETTER: http://www.cwendel.com/mc4wp-form-preview/ ➜ FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/cwbooks ➜ FACEBOOK READER GROUP: https://www.facebook.com/pg/cwbooks/groups/ ➜ INSTAGRAM: https://www.instagram.com/cw_books/ ➜ TWITTER: https://twitter.com/cw_books ➜ TUMBLR: http://cw-books.tumblr.com/ ➜ GOODREADS: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6151467.Chris_Wendel

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The Walls - Chris Wendel

THE WALLS

-

A BECKER GRAY NOVEL BY

CHRIS WENDEL

This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously.

© 2018 Chris Wendel | Holden Publishing, Inc.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-9895714-8-7

ISBN: 978-0-9895714-9-4

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author and publisher.

Holden Publishing, Inc.

BOOKS BY CHRIS WENDEL

BECKER GRAY SERIES

Human After All

Whispering of Echoes

BUSINESS

Converting Customers to Clients: A Guide to Strengthening Your Business Relationships

On Strengthening Business Relationships

POETRY

Unfinished

For my friends

Contents

THE WALLS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

CHAPTER 36

CHAPTER 37

CHAPTER 38

CHAPTER 39

CHAPTER 40

CHAPTER 41

CHAPTER 42

CHAPTER 43

CHAPTER 44

CHAPTER 45

CHAPTER 46

CHAPTER 47

CHAPTER 48

CHAPTER 49

CHAPTER 50

CHAPTER 51

CHAPTER 52

CHAPTER 53

CHAPTER 54

CHAPTER 55

CHAPTER 56

CHAPTER 57

CHAPTER 58

CHAPTER 59

CHAPTER 60

CHAPTER 61

CHAPTER 62

CHAPTER 63

CHAPTER 64

CHAPTER 65

CHAPTER 66

EPILOGUE

READER ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

AUTHOR ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

THE FATE OF LEAVES

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

PROLOGUE

––––––––

Can you hear me?

Static crackled over the transmission.

Shut up, Tony Mason replied. He spoke into a snug-fitted Bluetooth earpiece, a device he detested, but Jevon King – the man who had hired him – insisted on hearing the action. Although Mason previously killed two people for his client, King was far more entertained with these killings for some reason than the first two. That left King excessively vocal.

I need to know everything that happens. The voice came through a little muffled.

Then you should be the one here, Mason said. Shut up. If I tell you again, I’ll throw this fucking thing away.

King became indignant. I don’t like how you’re talking to me.

But Mason was intolerant. I don’t care. The contract killer removed the device from his ear and jammed it into his sweatshirt’s front pocket, careful not to disconnect the call.

The rear of the two-story, red-brick, colonial house opened onto an elaborate lanai, lit up by floodlights at each of the house’s corners. Mason stepped onto the raised wooden deck and noticed the well-tended flowerbeds of yellow, purple, and red blossoms surrounding the structure. A huge outdoor, decorative rug laid center on the deck, creating a community area around an outdoor, seven-piece dining set. In the right corner of the deck, a fireplace built of red brick reached high into the air.

He took the steps down from the deck to a stone walkway that lead to the house’s back door. There was supposed to be a key hidden under the Louisiana State University gnome lawn decoration situated in the flowerbed closest to the French doors. His gloved hands leaned the gnome on its side, revealing a door key. Good, he thought. Despite gathering his own information on the target and planning the murder, Mason still had to rely on the man on the phone for assistance. That reliance made him nervous. People who hire hitmen aren’t exactly trustworthy folks. He was ready to abort the whole contract, if even the slightest thing appeared wrong.

After locating the key, entry was supposed to be smooth and quiet since there was no alarm system installed. Mason hoped that was true. I’m about to find out. The key fit neatly into the dead bolt securing the French doors. He turned the key, releasing the bolt’s protective hold on the entry of the house, then put it in his sweatshirt pocket along with his earpiece.

He turned the knob, feeling each clink of the internal components. He took a breath, preparing his body to run if an alarm sounded, feeling his own tension intensify as he pushed the door open. Luckily, though, there was no sound. No alarm. No reason to run. He released the breath he held, along with the tension in his body. Before stepping into the living room, he locked the back door behind him.

Scanning the house’s interior, he felt relief when he saw it aligned with the layout King had provided him. Mason noticed a digital clock glowing in the living room – exactly three-thirty in the morning. The house was peaceful and still. Quiet – for now. An 80-inch flat screen TV sat perched on the mantle of a grand fireplace. Another fireplace? In Florida? The living room had three expansive, beige cloth couches surrounding a dark coffee table. How mundane. He pulled a snub-nosed .38 from his waistband. He wanted to kill the couple simply for the plain ordinariness of their home.

Climbing the stairs, he had a difficult time ignoring the family portraits along the wall. They reminded him of his own family’s home and the framed photographs strategically lining the walls. Pushing aside the thought, he slowly took each step on the staircase, focusing now on stealth movement. Once at the top of the stairs, he surveyed the surroundings. Master bedroom immediately to the left. A spare bedroom to the right and down the hall just past a spare bathroom. A linen closet in the hallway across from the bathroom. Same as he’d memorized from King’s documentation. Everything was going as planned.

He stepped slowly to his left until he could peer into the master bedroom. The only light in the room came from the large window on the opposite side of the room. A love seat took up space under the window. A six-drawer dresser with a mounted mirror sat parallel to the king-size bed. Bathroom to the left.

Against the backdrop of that light, the killer could only see a silhouette of bodies. Couldn’t tell detail from the door, but he could see there were two bodies in the bed. Lying still. All he could hear was rhythmic breathing, a little snoring coming from the man.

Round the bed to the husband’s side, Mason settled above Douglas Beringer. Physical details became clear. Athletic man. Mid-forties. Graying hair. Slept on his back. That’s the snoring. With the .38 pointed at the man’s head, a surge of power built inside of Mason, making him stronger and his senses keener. It’s time. He gave the primary target three last breaths. One. In and out. Two. In and out. Three. In and – Bang! Bang! Bang! Quick. Successive. Definitive. Blood and bodily debris spit in all directions.

The power washed coolly over Mason, calming him, making him for just a moment forget about the wife – Morgan Beringer. – who sprang to startled life with the gunshot blast. Fear. Shock. Adrenaline. All at once. All overwhelming her, as her eyes absorbed the scene and her mind calculated the threat. Fight-or-flight kicked in instinctively. With an involuntary shriek propelling her to her feet, Morgan ran, not even realizing her husband’s body shrapnel rested on her face, tangled in her hair, and clung to her long silky nightgown. Her heels hit the floor hard as she ran out the bedroom door toward the stairs.

As Mason gave chase and headed down the stairs, he could hear the voice screaming and laughing through the headset in his pocket. Just as Morgan made it to the last step on the staircase, Mason had caught up to her. He gave her a small push, a nudge really, just enough to add to her momentum and force her legs from under her. She hit hard against the wood-planked floor and tumbled wildly to a stop in the dark living room. She was near the front door, but slow to move toward it. After pushing her, the killer quit running and just stood at the bottom of the stairs. Watching her and waiting to act. Again, the feeling of power built inside him, surging for the kill.

On the floor with her back to her husband’s killer, Morgan crawled on her hands and knees. She sobbed audibly as she inched her way toward escape. She moved like she had injured herself in the fall.

Turn around. I need to see you.

Please, no, she whimpered. Please let me go.

Don’t make me tell you again. I need to see your face.

The wife slowly, delicately turned her body toward him. Her hip hurt, bruised for sure. Her right ankle throbbed and was already swelling. None of that mattered to her though. There was something much more important that she worried about.

Please don’t hurt me. I’m pregnant. She kneeled in front of him, sobbing and rubbing her protruding stomach. Hugging it. Protecting it.

What? In his head he rewound and watched the scene from the bedroom. Their silhouetted bodies in the bed as he pushed the door open. Fuck. He had missed it? This is my fault. He had a chance then, in the bedroom, to have stopped this from happening. If he had seen her pregnancy then, he would’ve aborted the whole job, walked right out of the bedroom and down the stairs, out the French doors. He would’ve returned the key under the gnome, like he’d never been there.

No. This isn’t on me. King hadn’t informed him of this important detail either. And neither had his partner, his best friend Jimmy Carpenter, who built the intelligence profiles on this hit, just as he had on all their contracted hits? He had missed this detail, too. Christ, Jimmy!

The feeling of power dissipated. Fury grew. There is only one person to blame here.

He reached into his sweatshirt pocket and pulled out the earpiece. King was still screaming and laughing, but Mason angrily yelled over him. She’s pregnant! He yelled again, You didn’t tell me she’s pregnant!

Who cares? Kill her anyway!

This wasn’t part of the deal.

Please, Morgan said, seeing hope in the man’s hesitation. I’m due in two weeks.

Kill her. King wasn’t laughing anymore. His new concern with the contract not being fulfilled took precedent over Mason’s concern about the baby.

I can’t!

Another whimpered plea. I won’t tell. I promise.

"What do you mean you can’t?! You have to finish the contract." It sounded as if King was pleading, too.

Please ...

You’re wasting time. You’ve already killed her husband.

This isn’t right. He voiced the statement aloud, but he was talking to himself.

You’re a hired killer, not a judge. Right don’t matter.

Mason needed time to decide what to do. He needed a moment to tame his frantic thoughts.

Static crackled again. Someone heard the gunshot. You have to get out of there. What are you waiting for? Kill her already!

Mason couldn’t really hear King any longer. The woman’s desperate weeping, praying, and pleading were the only sounds he could hear. She was an attractive woman, even without makeup. Even with red, puffy eyes. Even with tears merging with her husband’s blood on her face. Yet his hesitation had nothing to do with her. None at all. She didn’t matter. It’s the baby.

What do I do now? His heart squeezed tightly, painfully. Indecision rattled around in his head like a bullet.

Fucking do it now! King was just as desperate as the wife.

Mason realized what he would have to do and whispered to her, almost apologetically. I didn’t know.

Please don’t kill my baby.

CHAPTER 1

––––––––

Yellow crime scene tape lined the property surrounding the red-brick, colonial house owned by the city of Lakeland’s mayor, Douglas Beringer, and his wife, Morgan. Detective Becker Gray took in the scene as he walked from his 1993 Honda Accord toward the house. He had parked six houses away on account of the varying vehicles lining the residential street closer to mayor’s house – ambulances, police cars, crime scene vans, news vans, and a handful of other vehicles. The people who’d arrived in those vehicles buzzed around the area.

Chief Reginald Boudreaux held court in the center of all the chaos with a group of city and county officials gathered around him. Shock, grief, and confusion took turns on each of their faces. A gaggle of nearly 25 reporters and cameramen had been cordoned off to the side of the property and were under the watch of uniformed patrolmen.

This can’t be real, Gray thought.

Noticing Gray slip under the taped boundary, Detective Jeffrey Parker flashed a subdued smile. Gray saw it immediately – something horrible hid behind the warmth of his friend’s greeting. Parker left the front door of the house and walked down the narrow sidewalk toward Gray.

How was vacation? the 6’ 6", 310-pound man asked.

It was fine, Gray responded in a dismissive tone.

They shook hands. Parker noticed Gray avoid eye contact.

You didn’t go on vacation, did you?

I did. I haven’t been to work in two weeks.

No, Parker said. I mean, you didn’t go anywhere on vacation, did you?

Gray didn’t want anything to do with that conversation. Even though he wasn’t seeing his therapist anymore, she had put the wheels in motion for Gray to take a mandatory vacation. He didn’t want a vacation nor did he feel like he needed one, so he compromised. He took time off and told everyone, including the therapist, he was going to Aruba. Everyone got what they wanted.

Gray, changing the subject, nearly whispered when he spoke, which drew Parker toward him. What am I going to see in there?

Parker shook his head, letting silence respond for him.

It’s really both of them?

It’s ugly in there, Becker.

They hadn’t even made it through the front door yet when Gray steered his eye sight around Parker’s broad shoulders. A body was just inside the doorway.

We can wait, Parker said.

No.

Gray walked to the threshold, stepped inside, then paused, taken back by the scene.

Morgan Beringer’s blood-speckled face appeared etched permanently with worry and tension. Her body, just three feet from the front door, had been covered with a plastic sheet, only her shoulders, neck, and head still exposed. From under the edge of the sheet, Gray could see that blood had pooled around her body. The hollowness of shock overtook Gray. He looked away only to see the spattering of blood on the nearby beige couch, on the walls, and even on the stairs beyond her body.

The sight of Morgan Beringer, of her worried face, destabilized him. His legs seemed rubbery. His arms weak. He disconnected from his body. Numbness set in. He didn’t know if he was breathing, blinking, standing, falling.

When’s the last time you saw them? Parker asked, gripping Gray’s arm in support.

The pressure on his arm gave Gray awareness. What? he asked. He could tell the blood had drained from his face.

How long since you saw her? Parker kept his voice low, so their conversation would remain private.

A while. I don’t know right now.

Douglas Beringer was well-liked among the police department staff. He had served as a Lakeland police officer for 12 years before heading into the legal field and later into local politics. Beringer had hosted many gatherings at his home while campaigning, and he’d continued to do so even after he’d been elected mayor. Members of the police force were invited to every gathering he hosted. Gray had attended one of those gatherings – the Beringers’ annual holiday party. Morgan had noticed him taking refuge from the evil of small talk. She had flitted through the attendees and sidled up to Gray. She talked to him, eased his discomfort, even enchanted him. He thought of her smile then – soft and warm.

But, today her face had no smiles left.

I was sitting down the street in my car, Gray said.

I saw you.

I didn’t want to come in here.

I know. Parker also knew no one would stop Gray from going inside, so he didn’t bother trying.

Gray turned back toward Morgan’s body and watched Maddy James, the lead crime scene investigator, place a plastic bag over Morgan Beringer’s left hand to preserve evidence. She wrapped a rubber band around the wrist, securing and sealing the bag. She worked gently. Respectfully. Easing Morgan’s fair-skinned, slender arm back down onto the floor.

Cover up her face. Gray’s voice was quiet and stern.

Maddy hadn’t noticed Gray enter. Gray, you’re back ... Great, she said sarcastically. Her thick, curly hair appeared like, if she were to move too quickly, it would break free of its elastic ponytail holder.

Cover up her face, he repeated. Irritation at an all-time high. He snapped at her. She’s right at the front door. People outside can see her.

All right, Maddy replied. Exasperated. She grabbed the sheet, but before she pulled it completely over Morgan’s face, Gray stopped her.

Wait.

Maddy shot him a dirty look. Are you kidding? Do it. Don’t do it. Make up your mind.

One last look. Yeah. Go ahead.

Upstairs, Parker prodded Gray onward, away from Morgan.

Parker pushed the master bedroom door open, revealing a cluster of technicians working the room. At the center of that effort lay Douglas Beringer. What was left of him. Douglas Beringer’s face had been horribly disfigured by bullet blasts. Blood and matter were on the wall and spread across the bed except where Morgan had been sleeping.

Why? Gray whispered, not even realizing he verbalized the thought.

I don’t know. The booming voice of Chief Boudreaux was unmistakable. This is the kind of shit-storm I hoped I’d never have to deal with again, and you two caught this call? The media’s going to love this. He turned to Gray. How was Aruba?

Parker chimed in. Right, how was Aruba, Becker?

Numbness subsided, and sweat and chills simultaneously broke out across Gray’s body. His breath quickened, and he could hear his heart beating in his ears.

Initial thoughts? Boudreaux asked when Gray didn’t respond.

Parker gave the quick rundown. Clean entry. Door must’ve been unlocked, or the killer had a key. Very organized home. Nothing appears to be out of place. The safe is still locked. Valuables are still present. Doesn’t appear to be a robbery. The savagery of the scene suggests the killer or killers had some sort of personal affiliation with the vics.

For Gray, Parker’s words came into his head muffled. The room and his mind swirled like he had vertigo. Lightheadedness attacked his mind, and nausea took root in his gut. To fight the affects, he loosened his tie and shirt collar, struggling to maintain control of his stomach.

He walked away without a word. He had to get out of there. Gray had only experienced this overwhelming sensation at scenes twice. Once was his first murder case. The left arm of a male had been found in a vacant lot in a subdivision development in north Lakeland. It wasn’t the grotesque images that bothered him. It was the bizarreness of seeing a handless arm unattached to a body he never identified laying in a heap of dirt. The other was the scene of the car accident that killed his daughter.

He made it to the top of the stairs before Parker had noticed Gray stepped away.

Gray?

I’m checking over here? Gray pointed down the hall where the bathroom and spare bedroom were located.

It’s already been cleared.

I’m checking it myself. He didn’t look back at his partner or Boudreaux when he spoke.

It wasn’t out of character for Gray to do his own thing or to ignore other people, so they let him go. It was easier than fighting him.

He pivoted into the bathroom and acted like he was clearing it. He checked behind the shower curtain, thumbed through the magazines on the back of the toilet, lifted the toilet lid and closed it again. But he couldn’t ignore his nausea and lightheadedness. Gray leaned on the counter, measuring his breaths to calm his bodily response to the scene.

This time, like the other two times, it wasn’t the grotesque images that bothered him. It was loss. On his first case he lost the innocence of not fully understanding the depravity of the human condition. The second time he lost his daughter. This time he had lost a friend. The only person in recent years, aside from Parker, with whom he’d experienced closeness.

Gray lifted his head to look at himself in the mirror. In the reflection he saw three photographs hanging on the wall behind him. All family photos. He turned around. The one on Gray’s left showed the Beringers in front of their Christmas tree. They were wearing matching ugly red and green sweaters. The one on the right memorialized a vacation in Washington, D.C. The Jefferson Memorial set in the background. The one in the middle showed the couple at the Polk Theatre. They were dressed in 1920s theme. Morgan looked lovely in her black flapper dress. Her posture seemed off though. Gray leaned closer to study the photo. It was her hands, he decided. They weren’t at her side or embracing her husband. They rested instead on her pregnant stomach. Pregnant?

Horror spread quickly across his mind. So fast, in fact, the bathroom walls converged on him, nearly crushing him and seemingly launching him out the door as if he’d been launched from a canon. Gray rushed into the spare bedroom. The horror intensified when he saw the room had been turned into a nursery. A half-built crib. Walls painted light blue. A dresser with a baby changing station across the top of it. A bookshelf containing diapers, ointments, lotions, blankets and other baby products. A rocking chair in the corner. No!

Gray dashed down the stairs to where Maddy James was still working with the body of Morgan Beringer.

Out of breath, he demanded, Pull it back.

What? Maddy replied.

Pull it back.

Are you kidding me? A bundle of hair came loose from her ponytail as she protested.

Becker. Parker reached the bottom of the stairs.

Gray couldn’t control himself when he heard the tone of contrition in Parker’s voice. He spun around and launched a finger in his partner’s direction. No! You should’ve told me.

Parker knew Gray was right. Go ahead, Maddy.

As Maddy pulled the sheet back, Gray saw Morgan’s long, cream-colored, silk nightgown had been cut clear up to the collar. He disliked how her whole body was now exposed  to all the crime scene personnel standing around and watching. He wanted to step in their line of sight to block their view, but he knew that such an action to protect her dignity no longer served any purpose. No dignity at all, he thought. Her pregnant, stretched-out stomach had been sliced, cut, and sawed open from hip to hip. Its contents had spilled out, flowed over her hips, collected between her legs, and settled in a pool on the floor around her midsection.

And what he saw chilled him to his core.

Where’s the baby?

CHAPTER 2

––––––––

The baby’s crying was nearly unbearable. The sound bounced off every surface inside the car. Flat on his back in the passenger side floorboard, the crying baby boy was still covered with his mother’s fluid, now dried. Maybe he’s cold. The killer reached into the backseat, as he drove down Highway 98 toward historic downtown Lakeland, and pulled his duffle bag into the passenger seat. He unzipped the bag and pulled out a blue T-shirt. At the next red light where the slow-moving herd of vehicles grinded to a halt nearly on top of one another, he unbuckled his seat belt and reached for the baby. He grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled him closer, being careful not to expose the baby to any nearby drivers. Mason wrapped the blue shirt around the baby as best as he could and hoped it would calm him.

The power from killing the targets and saving the baby had been replaced with anger, blame, and a desire for retribution. Before accepting any contract, Mason demanded to know everything. The people, the house, and the city. In this case, who the Beringers were; why he was killing them; how he’d get in; how he’d get out; the escape route he’d take; how he’d collect his money; how the police would route to the house, if called. Everything! That’s how he worked. Carefully. Methodically. But the lack of information provided to him by King, as well as the lack of intelligence in his team’s report, had put him at risk, and that was unforgivable.

After 20 more minutes of navigating the eastern part of Lakeland, the baby fell asleep and Mason steered his getaway car onto Providence Road. This was where he was to meet his contact and collect his money. He contemplated abandoning the money and escaping town, but he hoped he would finally meet King during the pickup. Maybe beat the shit out of him. It was a good idea, and it would make Mason feel better.

Along Providence Road, garbage riddled an empty lot on the low-income residential road. Tires, a rusted-out washing machine, an old refrigerator, car doors, car axles, an old lawn mower, and a bunch of old furniture were strewn among overgrown grass and weeds in the empty lot where the pick up was to occur. Two houses down an elderly woman sat on a wooden picnic bench on her porch while drinking her coffee. A three-legged dog crossed the street. A car backed out of its driveway and drove past Mason’s car. The locals eyed the outsider suspiciously.

Then Mason saw who he assumed was his contact. The person emerged from behind the old refrigerator, and he wore a red sweatshirt, both per the contracted plan. The only pause Mason had was that the contact, the closer he came. appeared to be a teenager. With a sigh of frustration, Mason realized he wouldn’t be meeting King today.

One last look around the neighborhood brought his gaze back to the woman on her porch. She seemed to be watching closely. Like a lookout would. Mason considered grabbing up the teen, forcing him to disclose King’s whereabouts, but the woman would see it all. And he didn’t need that.

So he’d go along with the meet-up.

Mason advanced up the residential street, riding the brakes and keeping an eye on the teen, who looked nervous. He kept checking his watch then jamming his hands into his jeans pockets. His hips swayed back and forth. He stood slender, and he had a noticeable case of vitiligo around his mouth and nostrils. He kept looking over his shoulder and stretching his long, thin neck to peer out at the street.

Then the baby moved.

Shit.

Mason had momentarily forgotten about baby Amal. Fortunately, the baby didn’t wake. But Mason wondered about the baby’s safety now, and that distracted him from the meet.

Mason haphazardly pulled another shirt from his duffle bag and tossed it on top of the baby to cover him. When he looked up again, the young contact seemed more agitated than before. His body language made it appear as if he was about to run. Had the teen seen Mason fumbling in the duffle bag? Did he think Mason was going for a gun? And if he thinks Mason has a gun, then how will the kid react? Will he keep his hand on his own?

Mason pressed on the gas but only slightly. He wanted to hurry this along but not panic the teen and send him running. He flashed his lights four times, according to plan. Maybe that’ll calm him down. He gripped his handgun, a silenced Colt .45 He kept it hidden, and ready.

The teen acknowledged the flashing headlights with a sudden – and Mason suspected a fake – bravado in his gait. The teen’s hands were

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