DARK DEEDS

(the Mindhunters series, Book 4)

(ISBN: 9781426898051)



Chapter One


Friday, 4:03 p.m., early February

Hoboken, New Jersey


Becca followed the instructions—both parts—to the letter. She’d told no one, and she arrived at the diner alone. The window that separated her from the sleet-slick street outside proclaimed the breakfast specials in ketchup-red and mustard-yellow stencil, which only accentuated the day’s shades of gray.

Then again, it was February. In Hoboken.

“Another refill?” The waitress’s attitude had gone from cheerful to weary over the past hour.

“No, thanks.” Three cups had already shifted her usual state of heightened awareness into downright jittery territory. It went against all her self-protective instincts—and in a personal security specialist and bodyguard, those were strong—to continue to sit and wait, but she wanted this interview. Had worked for months to chase down this lead that might provide new information about Samantha Manchester’s disappearance. The trail had been cold for twenty years, which was why Becca needed Selina. So she didn’t protest when the tired waitress misheard her and moved to top off her cup yet again.

Her hand shook slightly—adrenaline and caffeine were a potent mix—as she lifted her cup to her lips. She set it down too hard, sloshing a bit over the rim, splashing droplets onto the table. As she reached for the napkin dispenser, the tiny diamond stud in her nose reflected in the metal surface, winking at her like sun on snow. During the weeks they’d exchanged emails, Becca had learned that eighteen-year-old Selina loved piercings, extreme hair color and all things city-chic, so Becca had opted to wear the stud she normally removed for her daily job. Her nearly white-blond hair was a constant. Still a year shy of thirty, Becca was short enough, her appearance young enough, to get away with wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt advertising a popular punk band.

Another minute ticked by. Resigned, she took out her phone and sent the text she’d been composing in her mind. So sorry. Going to miss rehearsal but will be at party. Will make it up to you.

She was, technically, in New York City to serve as a bridesmaid in a wedding, but the proximity to this lead in Hoboken had been crucial to her decision to fly in early. However, she hadn’t counted on her lead being late for their appointment. She was going to miss the next train back to the city.

A moment later, Vanessa texted a reply. Because of Diego?

Becca’s body went still. Months ago, she’d reconciled herself to seeing her ex-lover again, since Diego was the groom’s best man. She was dreading it, but she would pull on her big girl panties for the sake of her friends’ wedding. Vanessa and Noah deserved happiness.

She texted back. No. Work.

I know this weekend is tough for you. If you want to talk, I’m here.

Though Becca appreciated the offer, sharing wasn’t in the cards. Her two-week affair with Diego last summer would be forever locked away in a vault in the back of her mind. Unfortunately, her masochistic side occasionally whipped out those memories like little jewels and re-examined them in all their sparkling, stunning detail.

A young woman peeked through the diner’s ketchup-and-mustard window and Becca hastily returned Vanessa’s text. See you soon.

Swallowed up by a trench coat that appeared secondhand, the woman looked all of twelve years old, especially when she rapidly blinked away snowflakes as if she were lost and confused. But the highlights in her hair were expensive—not homegrown, but from a quality salon. She winced as the tinkling of a bell announced her entrance, then she spied Becca in the corner.

With halting steps, as if she were facing a firing squad, she made her way to the table. “Becca?”

“That’s me.” Becca smiled warmly and gestured to the opposite side of the booth. “Thank you for coming.”

After another glance around, Selina slid onto the bench. “I almost didn’t, but I had to meet the woman who thinks she can take down the Circle.” Selina’s gaze flicked over her. “Kind of small, aren’t you?”

“The best things come in small packages.” It was something Becca’s brothers used to say to her, before ruffling her hair. Or trying out the latest wrestling moves on her. Not that they’d dared to attempt such a thing in years, not since she’d shown up to a family dinner wearing her black belt in Tae Kwon Do. “I’m tougher than I look.” And at five and a half feet tall, she wasn’t that tiny.

“Me, too.” For an eighteen-year-old, Selina’s eyes were hard with life experience, her jaw set in concrete.

“You’d have to be tough, to survive what you’ve been through.”

The waitress approached, some semblance of her cheerful smile back in place at the prospect of another paying customer. Selina ordered a cup of coffee, then waited until the waitress was at the other end of the diner before speaking. “How’d you find me?”

“I’d been looking for anything about the Circle. You were mentioned in a police report.”

Selina stiffened. “There’s not supposed to be anything to connect me to them.”

“It was under your previous name, not your new one. That took some more digging. The rest you know.”

“You bribed my friend for my email address.”

“Pretty much.” There had been weeks of trust-building there, too, during which they’d exchanged increasingly lengthy emails until Becca had convinced Selina she could be trusted.

Selina ducked her head, pretending to be absorbed in stirring her coffee. “You believe the police report?”

Becca sensed her response was critical to the success of this interview. “There was very little to it, which surprised me. You were a witness, a survivor, one of a kind, who could have testified against a major crime syndicate. But then you disappeared. I’m guessing the former is the motivation for the latter.”

Selina set aside her spoon and met Becca’s gaze. “I’m only here because you think you can take those monsters down. I want to help, but…”

“But you’re afraid. I don’t blame you for not trusting anyone. I know what the Circle is capable of. I’ve been gathering information on them for months now. I’ve read every police report I could get my hands on from Chicago to New York to Las Vegas.”

“To find out if they took this Samantha Manchester girl like they took me.”

“Yes, but she was taken in Chicago, so it’s a little different. My boss at SSAM—”

“Damian Manchester…he’s Samantha’s father?”

Becca nodded. “Sam was thirteen years old when she was taken from a mall in the North Shore area of Chicago twenty years ago. A year later, they found her skeletal remains in a wooded, rural area outside of the city.”

Selina shuddered. “That could have been me. If I hadn’t been rescued, death would have been the easy way out.”

“Except she might not have died.”

Selina looked up sharply. “What?”

“Recently, we found evidence that suggests it might not have been Sam’s body in that shallow grave after all. The Circle may have taken her, then faked her death and identification to throw the police and Damian off the trail.” It was precious little to go on, but it was something new, when hope of finding justice had nearly been lost.

Becca waited a moment and watched Selina absorb her words before she continued. “From what I’ve learned, I believe the Circle deals in the trading of human flesh, including sex slaves and children for pornographic purposes. You were almost one of their victims.” That was only a part of their extensive operation, and looking for information about Samantha had been like trying to chip away at an iceberg, searching for that one bit of helpful information.

“Help me stop them,” Becca pleaded when Selina remained quietly thoughtful.

“You don’t know for sure that the Circle was involved in Sam’s disappearance.”

“True. That’s why I need your help. You’re the only person known to have escaped the Circle and survived.” Others had been killed before they could testify. Selina had taken off before she could suffer the same fate. And the police report had been notably vague.

Selina seemed to weigh this, then sat back, her shoulders dipping a notch as she made her decision. “It’s not a pretty story.”

“In my line of work, few stories are.”

“You see this kind of thing at SSAM often?”

The acronym for Damian’s agency, the Society for the Study of the Aberrant Mind, was a tribute to his daughter Sam. SSAM’s clientele enlisted Becca and her fellow agents to hunt violent repeat offenders when local law enforcement agencies or FBI failed to apprehend the criminals, for whatever reason—often a lack of resources or a case that had gone cold or fallen out of the public eye.

Like Samantha Manchester’s case.

Becca leaned forward on the tabletop scarred by water rings and knife marks. “I can teach you ways to protect yourself. You’re doing a good job hiding, but I have a lot of experience in staying safe.” And plenty in getting hurt, too, and how to avoid it in the future. “My job, my entire world, is all about personal security.”

Selina pressed her lips together, then shook her head. “I’m here now, and I’ll talk. But then we can’t meet again. I can’t risk it.”

“I understand.” Becca hoped to get what she needed and leave this woman in peace.

“I hope so, because it’s a matter of life and death…and not just mine.” Absently, Selina’s left hand rubbed her upper right arm as if warding off a chill.

Who else was she protecting? “I made sure nobody followed me,” Becca assured her. “I haven’t told anyone I’m here. Not even my boss.”

Selina stared out the window for so long Becca wasn’t sure she would share her story after all. When she spoke, it was in a bitter, miserable tone. “I was at a party where there was alcohol. I was out beyond curfew. My parents didn’t care. I’d run away so many times, they’d stopped trying to get through to me. Besides, I was going to be eighteen in a month. An adult.” She huffed out a breath. “As if I knew what that meant. I was an idiot.”

Stealing Selina’s innocence was yet another of the Circle’s crimes.

Selina shook off her self-flagellation and refocused. “My phone’s battery died so I went to the car to charge it while I called a friend who was supposed to meet me. Before I could dial, two guys opened my door and yanked me from the front seat.” She paused and swallowed. “It was dark, and everything happened so fast. They put something over my head and tied me up so I couldn’t see or move. In a matter of seconds, they had me…it was all so efficient. I was scared, but that was just the beginning.” Remembered fear contorted her face.

“It must have been horrible.” Becca resisted the urge to reach out and comfort with a touch of the hand. Her source still looked as if she might bolt at the slightest provocation.

Selina’s lips pressed into a hard line, and a flash of warrior-like determination glinted in her eyes. “It was a fucking nightmare. But I got away. And then nobody believed me. Do you know what that’s like?”

“Yeah, I do,” Becca said quietly. Inside, her heart rate spiked with memories. Years of repressing fear and anxiety, pleading with the authorities to listen to her story. Years of being dismissed. Just when she thought she’d moved past it, the horrible memories would pop up again. And now that the man who starred in her nightmares had been released on parole, those moments had occurred more frequently.

Selina must have seen the truth in Becca’s face. She took a deep breath, then continued. “When they pulled the bag off my head, I was in a basement with no windows and barely any lighting. There was a row of cells…maybe four or five metal doors, side by side. They—” She broke off and put a hand to her opposite shoulder…the same one she’d been rubbing earlier. Tears shimmered in her eyes. “They branded me.”

“Branded?”

Selina traced a circle on the table. “With a hot iron. A symbol that I was theirs. Then they put me in a cell with nothing but a cot and a scratchy blanket. One guy tried to touch me, but the other guy stopped him. Said to save me for the clients. I’d bring in more money if I was pure.” Her laugh hitched in her throat. “The other guy said I was nowhere near pure. Assholes. Later, a third guy came to film me. I was so scared they were going to send it to my parents or something.”

“What did they film?”

“That’s just it…I wasn’t doing anything interesting. They encouraged me to plead with them, like they enjoyed seeing me begging for my life. It was bizarre.”

An introduction to the merchandise, possibly? Something to show potential clients? No doubt, interest from buyers would have led to worse scenarios for Selina. Chills ran down Becca’s spine at the thought of what could have happened if the teen hadn’t escaped…and what had probably happened to many similar girls, maybe even Sam.

“If Sam was a victim, do you think she could still be alive?” Becca asked. “Or maybe she escaped like you did?” And somehow didn’t find her way back home. If there was hope for Selina, perhaps there was hope for Sam, though she would be in her mid-thirties by now. She’d be an entirely different person than the daughter Damian remembered, but at least he’d have closure.

“I don’t know. Part of me hopes she isn’t alive if she didn’t escape early on.” Selina’s eyes met Becca’s. “The things I’ve read online about human trafficking…these people have to be animals. Fucking monsters.” Selina glanced away to compose herself, but she couldn’t hide a shudder. “When they were taping me, the camera’s light was bright. It lit up the walls of my cell. There were names everywhere, like a warning or something. It didn’t matter what we did—or who we were before—now we were theirs.” Her hand moved to her arm again. They’d marked her as Circle property, but she’d reclaimed her life.

Goosebumps erupted on Becca’s arms. Had Samantha’s name been on that wall? She’d been taken in Chicago. Would they have trafficked her through New York City, maybe to keep the authorities from locating her when Damian was putting the pressure on?

“How did you get away?” Becca asked.

For the first time, a small smile curved Selina’s lips. “I was lucky. I had a guardian angel who let me out. Told me to be quiet and follow him. The guard was passed out, snoring. I think my angel might have drugged him.” Selina’s gaze flitted away from Becca’s. “And don’t ask me any more about my angel because I don’t know. And I wouldn’t tell even if I did know. He took me to another man who helped me set up a new identity. He saved my life.”

Someone in the Circle risked his life for this one young woman? It had to be an undercover agent. The Circle was known for a wide range of crimes in a number of big cities—New York, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were all infected with their influence. This man could be FBI, CIA, ICE or DEA. Or maybe he worked alone.

“The police report says you couldn’t remember where you’d been held,” Becca said. “Or how you got out.”

“That was for my own protection. I was stupid.”

“How so?”

“There never should have been a police report. The guy who helped me…my angel told me to forget everything I’d seen. To run like hell and start a new life. But I went home to get some things I thought I couldn’t live without…and to say goodbye to my parents. I told them what had happened, hoping they’d care.” She pressed her trembling lips together and looked away. “Stupid.”

When Selina looked back, she’d wiped her expression of all emotion linked to the memory. “My parents called the police while I was up in my room. Just in case I wasn’t lying, I guess. Or maybe they wanted me admitted to the loony bin. I wasn’t home more than fifteen minutes before a cop was there, asking me questions. Almost like he’d been watching for me to pop up somewhere. That’s when I knew my angel was right. I should run.

“I told the officer I couldn’t remember anything. As soon as I could, I snuck out my bedroom window and never looked back. Started a new life with my new identity.” She met Becca’s gaze. “Until you found me, I had become Selina. Now I’m back to dealing with the old me again.”

“Sorry about that.”

“I thought I could keep in touch with a friend or two from high school, but I guess I should stop that, too.” Selina’s anger faded quickly. “If telling my story will save someone else from the Circle, I’m happy to help. But if you tracked me down via a police report and figured out how to get my email address, then the Circle can do it, too. Or the NYPD mole.”

“Mole?” Becca was sure her eyes had gone as wide as the rims of their coffee cups. A mole working on the force was leaking vital information to a crime ring? It would explain why the police closed Selina’s case so quickly. And why the Circle had operated for decades, seemingly without interference from law enforcement. They were usually one step ahead of police raids. It made sense that they might have a reliable source of information within the NYPD. Besides, money could buy almost anything.

But an undercover agent within the Circle and a police officer leaking information to the Circle? As this investigation proceeded, Becca would have her work cut out for her figuring out who was friend or foe.

“My rescuer said that there was a cop who was dangerous and might kill me to keep me quiet. At the very least, I was afraid the Circle would come looking for me, especially if they thought I’d testify.”

“Let me assure you, you’re difficult to find.”

“And yet you found me.”

“I’m very careful. I know my words might not be worth much, but I promise you can trust me. You call me and I’ll come running to help.” This time Becca did reach out to touch Selina’s wrist lightly. She was encouraged when Selina didn’t pull away.

“But how can I help you?” Selina’s eyes brimmed with misery and regret. “I won’t put myself at risk again.”

“Do you remember where you were held?”

“I do.” Selina took a napkin from the dispenser. “Got a pen?”

Becca promptly handed her one, and a moment later, Selina pushed the napkin toward her. She’d written down an address in Brooklyn. Below it was a name that froze the air in Becca’s lungs.

“What’s this name at the bottom?” Becca asked, hoping her words sounded normal when she was nearly choking on them.

“That’s the name of the mole. My angel warned me not to talk about it, but I figure you’d better know who you can or can’t trust.”

“Diego Sandoval? You’re sure that’s the name your angel gave you? That’s the name of the guy working for the Circle, betraying the NYPD?” Becca’s stomach twisted.

“No way I could forget it.”

And there was no way Diego would sell out his brothers in blue. No freaking way.

The Diego she’d known, the man she’d held in her arms, the proud NYPD detective who’d vowed to rebuild his career, would never accept bribes from a crime ring. Unless she’d never really known him at all.



Friday, 3:12 p.m. Central Time

Chicago


Deathbed confessions were rarely light. Often, they were heavy, like “Jane is adopted.” Or “I stole that silver from Grandmother’s cabinet before my sister could get her grubby hands on it. It’s in the attic.” Where, over the past fifty years, the silver had probably served no purpose, denied the warmth of some relative’s fingers pulsing around it because of the dying person’s greed.

Light wasn’t what he craved, anyway. Dark was more his speed. Dark was real.

Which was why he had the woman in his basement.

He tightened the noose around her neck, ignoring her whimpers and focusing on the thundering in his ears. Blood, adrenaline, endorphins—a cocktail that produced a natural high. And if it was natural, it was right.

“What kind of name is Fanta, anyway?” he asked his victim. “Your mother had to have been a crack addict, too, to choose a god-awful name like that. Was she a whore like you?”

The woman moaned a response. Probably because she couldn’t do anything else with duct tape across her mouth. Her mascara smeared as tears and snot ran down her face. He reached for a tissue and gently wiped the mess, then checked the bandage on her upper arm. The wound wouldn’t completely heal in time but the symbol he’d branded there was legible.

“It’s not your fault. Destiny is predetermined by genetics, then shaped by environment. You were at a disadvantage in both areas.” He adjusted the chair she was strapped to, balancing it on two legs against the wall so that if she tried to shift, it would slide out from under her, the noose would engage, losing its bit of slack, and she’d be gone within minutes. No muss, no fuss.

“You should be thankful.” He reached for his camera. “Nobody noticed you before, standing on that street corner. Not the real you. But now they will. Thanks to me. Your contribution to society will go down in history.”

Her deathbed confession—that she was a drug addict and a prostitute, which he already knew, since he’d used both to lure her into his basement—was certainly no ray of sunshine. But her lifestyle ensured he could get what he wanted without repercussion.

More important, it would prove his loyalty to Tony.

He shifted the camera to the side so that he could look into eyes wide with surprise. “I’ve even written a glowing obituary for you. And once I talk to people at the church, you’ll be considered a victim of society, ignored and neglected. I’ll make sure you get a proper funeral.”

Tears of gratitude streamed down her cheeks. Again, he dabbed at them around the duct tape.

“It’ll be beautiful. The organist is a friend of mine. I’m sure she’ll donate her time. I bet I can even get a couple of choir people. Mother is a member of the ladies’ ministry. There’ll be casseroles and cakes. I’ll make sure people notice you. Understand you.” Nobody had given her a second look before…unless they’d been looking for a cheap quickie in the alley.

He would make Fanta fabulous. He’d also satisfy his cravings and ensure Tony’s continued cooperation. Win-win-win.

He snapped a few more pictures. “Now don’t you move, or this’ll be over too quick. Although, I do have to be kind of quick. I have places to be.”

The airport, to be exact. He’d have to leave Mother alone for a day or two, but it would be worth it. He had a job to do.

He grinned as anticipation fizzed in his blood, adding to the addictive natural mixture already pulsing through his body and making him lightheaded. It was the same kind of buzz he got pre-kill, though he was a man of caution and had restrained himself from killing as much as he would like. Nobody seemed to understand that burning need.

Except for Damian Manchester and his agents. At the wedding this weekend, he would be among people who understood the necessity of death, the beauty of it. He strived to be like them, to channel his urges—his gift—to better society. This weekend, he’d be among the SSAM group, even if they didn’t know about him.

Or what he did in his basement.

In New York, he might even get a hint of what the SSAM agents’ consciences hid. Certainly not prostitution or drug addiction…but every conscience had burdens to bear.






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