By J. D. Barker
Read by Ryan Vincent Anderson
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On his first night with Detroit PD, Officer Walter O’Brien is called to a murder scene. A terrified twenty-year-old has bludgeoned her kidnapper with skill that shocks even O’Brien’s veteran partner. The young woman is also a brilliant escape artist. Her bold flight from police custody makes the case impossible to solve—and, for Walter, even more impossible to forget.
By the time Walter’s promoted to detective, his fascination with the missing, gray-eyed woman is approaching obsession. And when Walter discovers that he’s not alone in his search, one truth is certain. This deadly string of secrets didn’t begin in his home city—but he’s going to make sure it ends there.
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There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part.
Could a building sweat?
If someone were to ask him, Walter O’Brien would say no. But that was exactly what the square brick structure on the corner of Park and Woodward in downtown Detroit appeared to be doing. The faded red brick had a dull sheen on it, the moisture reflecting the streetlights, the neon from the sign above, and the headlights of the cars as they rolled by, oblivious to what was coming.
Walter wanted to throw his damn binoculars. “Why is there traffic? Shut that shit down.”
Lincoln Sealey’s gruff voice replied in his earbud a moment later. “We can’t.”
“Because nothing’s happened yet.”
They’d had this argument more times than Walter could count, and as much as he felt like he could win this time, it wasn’t worth the aggravation. Something would happen soon enough.
He looked at his watch.
The neon sign continued to blink on and off, pink and purple reflecting off the surrounding buildings and glowing in the street.
At fifty-seven, Walter shouldn’t be out here. He heard the various pops and creaks of his joints as he stood and looked out over the edge of the rooftop. His damn leg screamed. Gripping his cane, his palm was greasy with sweat.
Five stories up.
Across the street from the club.
Direct line of sight to the front entrance.
What passed for music these days churned from inside, seemed to rattle the air. This unforgiving thump, thump, thump, thump, with no break between what could loosely be defined as songs. He missed guitars. Melodies. Harmonies. He remembered when Detroit was all about the music. Music and cars. Now it was someplace you only visited if you were looking for cheap real estate.
A bouncer stood at the entrance, checking IDs with a penlight while another worked his way back through the line of about thirty people waiting behind a faded red rope. His job was apparently to pluck the best-looking girls from the wait and escort them directly in. Both bouncers were ridiculously large. The biceps on the one at the door looked bigger than Walter’s head. He had some kind of tattoo that started behind his left ear and crawled up his bald scalp. Walter couldn’t tell what it was. The tattoo seemed out of place with the man’s three-thousand-dollar suit.
Walter spotted Sealey on the roof of the federal building kitty-corner. Dressed all in black, lying on his stomach, propped up on his side so he could scan the crowd through the scope of his rifle positioned in a break meant for storm drainage. The rifle was a Paratus-16, a folding semiautomatic takedown sniper rifle that traveled in a case not much larger than a lunch box.
Red Larson came through the rooftop door about twenty feet behind Walter, quickly scanned the roof, checked his sight line to the club, and began assembling a rifle identical to Sealey’s. He spoke as he worked. “I phoned in ‘shots fired at a convenience store’ about a block down the road on Woodward. Said it sounded like automatic weapons. Maybe more than one. That should get the locals close and bring in the press. I didn’t get a chance to check the radio, but the Thirty-Second Precinct is less than two miles from here.”
“We need ambulances, not cops. Cops will get in the way.”
“They’ll send ambulances, too. Standard procedure.”
“You should have said heart attack, not shots fired.”
“We’ll need more than one ambulance.”
He was right. Walter dropped it. “Did you destroy the phone?”
Red gave him an aggravated glance, plucked the cheap burner phone from his jacket pocket, cracked it in half, and threw both pieces over the side of the building. “Yes, Mom. Absolutely.”
Walter just shook his head.
Rifle assembled, Red lowered himself to his belly, cringing as his body made more noise than Walter’s had. Red had eleven years on him. “This is a young man’s game, Walt. None of us got any business being out here.”
“We’ve got unfinished business.”
Over their earbuds, Sealey said, “It’s not too late to go back to my motel and catch the end of the Tigers game.”
“I’m saying,” Red replied.
Walter felt a tickle in his throat, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and caught the cough. Loud, but not as bad as some of the others. He shoved the stained cloth back into his pants before Red could see the blood. As if Red didn’t already know what was happening to him. Sealey, too, for that matter.
More unfinished business, he supposed. That one was on track to take care of itself.
He tapped Red’s foot with the toe of his shoe. “When did it rain last?”
“I look like the weatherman to you?”
“The building looks wet.”
“It’s Detroit,” he muttered, as if that was some kind of definitive answer needing no further explanation. “How’s our time?”
Walter looked at his watch. “Three minutes.”
“That’s what I’ve been told.”
“You sure about this?”
Walter wasn’t sure about much of anything, but he wasn’t about to tell Red or Sealey that. The last thing any of them needed was an excuse to back down. Instead, he asked, “You took care of the back door, right?”
It was a stupid question. He’d watched Red tack weld the door less than half an hour ago.
“Only way out is through the front,” Red replied anyway.
“You’re both loaded with regular rounds?”
Red tapped a spare clip on the ground to the left of his rifle. “Got regular in chamber. Oxys right here on deck. I’m not eff-ing senile. Not yet. We’ve got this.”
“You sure you don’t need two guns?”
He tsked. “I can change them out fast enough.”
“I hear sirens,” Sealey interrupted. “Two, maybe three black-and-whites. Coming in from the west.”
Locals responding to Red’s call.
“Copy,” Walter said, although he couldn’t hear them yet. He looked back at the club. “Things looked wet in Chicago. Same with that little pissant town outside of Reno back in ’94. A couple of the others, now that I think about it.”
Red shrugged. “Could be something, or could just be you wanting it to be something. Doesn’t really matter, unless we find a way to use it. If we end this tonight, no reason to give it another thought, anyway. I vote we go that route. I don’t want to do this shit again.”
“It’s raining like a bitch out west,” Sealey told them. “Probably passed through here first. Drop it and stay sharp.”
Walter looked at his watch again. “Time.”
Retrieving a burner phone from the pocket of his pants, he dialed the number he’d written on his palm in black marker.
A male voice answered, shouting over the music. “Club Stomp!”
Walter spoke slowly, doing his best to keep the anxiety from his voice. “I’ve planted a bomb in your club. You have two minutes to get everyone out, or you’re all dead. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?” Walter repeated.
Unlike Red, he didn’t destroy this phone. They’d need it.
He dropped it into his pocket.
A moment later, the loud thumping music stopped.
The world went suddenly quiet.
There was some kind of announcement inside. Too muffled to make out the words.
“Here we go,” Sealey said softly in their earbuds.
Walter’s finger rolled over the rough, nubby burn scar on his left wrist. He raised the binoculars and focused on the door. “Stay sharp.”
“You’re sure about this?” Sealey asked.
Walter thought about the text: Club Stomp 10PM. I miss you. “I’m sure.”
The first bouncer’s phone rang.
He raised it to his ear with a beefy arm and listened.
He hung up a moment later, said something to the second bouncer that caused him to dart around the side of the building toward the back door. He then spoke quickly to the crowd, sent them scattering across the block like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
A girl appeared at the entrance. The bouncer pushed her, and she ran out. Dark hair cut just above her shoulders, black dress.
“Brunette, twentysomething, white!” Sealey called out.
“Agreed!” Red replied.
“Skip,” Walter ordered, although he wasn’t 100 percent sure. No way he could be.
Two men rushed out the door behind her and darted for the parking lot across the street. Walter and his team ignored them.
Screams from inside the club.
Everyone rushing toward the front now.
Screaming was good. It would drown out what would come next.
Another girl appeared in the doorway. Eyes wide. Confused.
“Blonde!” Sealey said. “Hazel eyes!”
“Blonde, hazel eyes, concur,” Red said.
“Skip,” Walter said again.
Two more girls came through the door. Each holding up the other. The one on the left had a deep red patch growing at the thigh of her jeans; the other had a bad cut in the arm from maybe a knife or broken bottle. Blood was rolling off her fingertips as the bouncer shoved them both forward and pointed at the parking lot.
“Skip,” Walter ordered before the others said anything.
Sweat trickled down his forehead and got in his eye. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and pressed the binoculars tighter.
Walter had checked out the club yesterday. Said he was there to check a gas line and walked right in. The entrance was a single glass door, narrow, and it led to an even narrower hallway with a cashier on the right and a glass display case housing the club’s licenses on the left. It opened up once you got beyond the cashier, but the doorway itself, the only exit with the back door welded shut, was a funnel. He estimated there were at least two hundred people inside, possibly more. Tough to say on a Thursday. When he closed his eyes, he could imagine them all in there, running, pushing toward that door, trampling one another trying to get out.
Three more men ran out. Kids, really. Barely legal.
His team ignored them as two more girls appeared. One Black, the other Hispanic. They were coming faster now, everyone trying to get out.
The Black girl had a cut on her cheek and maybe a broken arm. Hard to tell, but she was cradling it. The girl helping her was in a short red dress and was missing a shoe.
Sealey ignored the injured girl and described the other. “Hispanic. Brown hair, two inches over shoulders. Green eyes.”
“Green?” Red huffed. “You sure?”
Walter didn’t hesitate. “Sealey, take the shot!”
The bullet entered the Hispanic girl’s arm just below her shoulder and came out the other side. It cracked against the cinder-block wall with a puff of dust and chipped concrete. She dropped the other girl, grabbed her shoulder. Blood leaked out between her fingers.
“Negative,” Sealey said, an edge to his voice now. “She’s injured.”
“Shit,” Walter said as four more people came out the door. Three male, one female.
“I’ve got no visual on the female,” Red said. “Those guys are blocking my view.”
“Same,” Sealey said.
Walter could definitely hear the sirens now. They were close. “Wing one of the guys if you have to—get a visual on the girl!”
Red Larson shot.
The boy in the front rolled to his left and fell away, clutching his ankle.
Sealey quickly called out, “Strawberry blonde. Pink streak on left. Blue eyes.”
“Her left or your left?” Red quickly replied.
“Her left! Her left!”
Red blew out a breath. “Agreed.”
“Skip,” Walter told them.
The screams were loud now.
The bouncer had realized someone outside was shooting and was now trying to keep people from running out. But even at his size, he was little match for all the bodies pushing against the door.
Sealey’s voice crackled in Walter’s earbud. “I can see the locals. They’re coming in from Woodward hot, didn’t even bother to stop at the convenience store Red mentioned. They’re heading straight here. I see six—no, eight—cruisers. No SWAT, not yet.”
Five more people ran out of the club, the pressure of the crowd behind them propelling them through the door and past the bouncer.
One of the guys from the last group was crouched down, pointing up at Sealey’s rooftop, shouting at the bouncer.
“This isn’t working,” Red quickly said. “We’ve got too many coming out!”
Walter squeezed his cane and quickly turned, started toward the stairs. “Shoot up the entrance! Keep them inside! Sealey, reposition—you’ve been spotted—I’m going down there!”
He limped into the open stairwell and started down; his chest began burning before he made it halfway. By the time he reached the ground level and pushed through the door out onto the sidewalk, he was coughing again. Blood stained his chin.
As the door swung shut behind him, three Detroit PD squad cars squealed to a halt on Park. Four more came in from Woodward. One ambulance. No, two. More sirens screamed in the distance.
Walter looked up and down the various roads and cursed when he didn’t see it. “Where’s the truck?”
“Where’s the damn truck!?”
“Couple minutes out,” Sealey replied. “Five. Maybe ten.”
Too slow. Shit.
Walter shook his head. “Nobody makes a move without my order. This isn’t a firefight with the locals. I don’t want it to turn into that. Remember your instructions.”
“You’re sure about this?” Red asked. “This is what you want?”
Pivoting on his cane, Walter stumbled toward the center of the intersection, lowered his broken body until he was kneeling on the ground, and set his cane at his side. He had both hands above his head when a patrol car skidded to an awkward stop about ten feet to his left.
What Walter wanted didn’t much matter anymore. He’d be dead in an hour.
“You sure you heard screaming?”
The elderly woman from 1A clearly didn’t like cops. But she had only needed a moment to size up Officer Herb Nadler from behind the safety chain on her door before deciding he wasn’t a threat. She unlatched the chain and stepped out into the hallway to get as close to his face as her five-foot-nothing frame would allow. She barely gave Walter O’Brien a second glance, flat-out dismissed him before bobbing her head back at the stairwell. “I ain’t never said it was screaming; I said howls. Up in 2D. You need to do something about it. Can’t let it go on another night.”
“Howls? What, like a hurt dog?” Nadler asked.
“Yeah, but not a dog. It was a person.”
“Think I would have called if I wasn’t?”
Her faded pink terry-cloth robe fell open again and she made no effort to close it. She was wearing a ratty Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes T-shirt beneath the robe along with a pair of cutoff gray sweatpants. No bra. And that was unfortunate, as her no-bra days had ended at least fifty years ago. Purple curlers were knotted up in her hair, several held with rubber bands.
Standing a few paces behind his new partner, Walter tried to unsee the image burned in his retinas. He hitched up his gun belt, the weight of it a constant reminder that the size was wrong. The duty officer back at the precinct had insisted he had nothing smaller when he handed the belt to Walter along with two pairs of handcuffs, knife, mace, radio, spare batteries, baton, flashlight, and other assorted odds and ends. At least thirty pounds’ worth of items, and that was before Walter added the Smith & Wesson revolver and spare ammunition he’d received the day before.
The woman shifted her considerable bulk from her left foot to her right. “This nonsense has been going on for the better part of two weeks.”
“Why didn’t you call sooner?”
“I called eight times. You’re the first ones to show up. Why didn’t you come out sooner?”
Walter’s partner gave her a blank stare. Walter knew what the man wanted to say because he’d said it in the car on the way over here—It’s snowing balls outside and cops who venture into the Forest Park corner of Detroit after eleven tend to get shot at. Half the calls that come in from this shithole are bogus, just a ploy to get a cop to drive out so the bangers have someone in uniform to shoot at. Most situations out here tend to resolve themselves, and it’s always best to question the survivors at the hospital when it’s over rather than arrive early and take part in the big show. Nadler had gone on like that for the twenty minutes it took to get here, breaking it up with complaints about having to haul a rookie like Walter (out on his first night, no less) with him on this death march.
“It’s quiet now,” Walter pointed out, looking up the stairs.
Her eyes became narrow slits. “And you think that’s a good thing?”
A little boy, no more than two and wearing nothing but a loaded diaper, wandered out of the apartment, wrapped his arms around the woman’s leg, and stared up at them.
She patted the boy’s head. “I’m gonna get back inside and put this one to bed for the third time so his momma’s got a chance at seeing him between jobs. You all get up there and take care of whatever the hell is going on, ’cause it ain’t right and nobody in the building wants to listen to it no more.”
With that, she ushered the boy back in and slammed the door behind her, leaving Nadler and Walter alone in the hallway.
Nadler looked back up the steps. “Ready to protect and serve?”
Walter hitched up the belt again and swore when it dropped right back down.
Nadler rolled his eyes. “Goddamn rookie pranks. Gonna get someone killed if they don’t stop that shit.” From his own belt, he took out a knife and held it out to Walter. “Punch out another notch before all that crap falls off you. They love to send you guys out on your first night with a belt too big, loaded up like a private marching off into the jungle on his first tour. You don’t need half that shit. When we get back out to the car, I’ll show you what you really need to carry. The rest can go in your locker. Tell anyone I helped you, and they’ll just do something else tomorrow, so it stays between us, understand?”
“I’m fine,” Walter said, turning toward the stairs.
“Look, you wanna wind up with that thing around your ankles while someone’s shooting at us, be my guest. If not, take the goddamn knife, hitch that thing up right, and save us both the paperwork.”
Walter grabbed the knife, punched out a new hole, and refastened the belt. He dropped the knife back in Nadler’s hand without a word.
Nadler returned the knife and unsnapped the leather clasp on his revolver. He rested his hand on the butt. “Your gun stays put. You don’t draw unless I tell you. I don’t want you shooting anybody on your first night. Most likely, we’re looking at junkies holing up on an extended trip. A lot of ’em score horse around here, then lock themselves in and don’t come back out unless they run out of food or need to score again. I know of at least three dens just in this building where nothing else but that goes on. You go in there, you’ll find twenty bodies all lying around in their own filth, half dead, stoned out of their gourds. Most are harmless, but don’t let anyone spit on you. If they do, don’t let it get into your eyes or your mouth. You get it in your eyes or your mouth, you find the nearest sink and wash that shit out. They got whores around here with so many diseases the rats cross the street when they get too close. Take something like that home to your girlfriend, and she’s liable to cut off your pecker if it don’t fall off on its own.”
Walter glanced back at the closed door for 1A.
Nadler guessed exactly what was going through his head. “You’ll be arresting that kid before you know it. Ask his momma or his grandma there. They know what’s up. Just hope he sees you around enough to know your face and hesitate if he ever draws on you, so you can get a shot off first. Us versus them, rookie. Don’t ever forget that. Day you forget that is the day you die. Come on…”
Nadler started up the worn steps then, one chubby hand on the rail, the other on his gun.
Walter’s hand had drifted into his pocket. He rolled his fingers over the worn leather of the small dog collar he kept there. He traced the creases, the tiny holes, the edge of the metal tag. “Here we go,” he said softly, before following Nadler up the stairs.
The second floor looked no different than the first. A hundred years’ worth of paint covered the walls, peeling wallpaper beneath that. The stale air stunk of piss, and if not for the yellow light of the fluorescents dangling from the ceiling, the shadows would devour the space, making way for the roaches, spiders, rats, and mice Walter could feel watching him.
At the top of the steps, Nadler stepped over a discarded condom and looked left and right before moving cautiously out into the hallway.
Six apartments on this level.
2D was the second door on the right.
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