Earl Stevens couldn’t remember the last time he was this angry.
Maybe when he was a linebacker at Nebraska and had been called for a facemask penalty that cost his team a spot in the Big 12 championship game (well before that nonsensical decision to join the Big Ten). It had been third-and-long late in the fourth quarter, with the Cornhuskers leading by two. He had sniffed out a slant route and tackled the receiver two yards shy of the first down — but his fingers had gotten tangled in the other player’s helmet, and he had twisted his head just so to give the refs the visual of the ball carrier’s head yanking to the side.
Fifteen yards and an automatic first down.
Seconds later, the football sailed through the uprights and Nebraska’s hopes for a national championship were done.
That night was the only time Stevens had ever felt the need to hit someone outside the confines of the gridiron. It hadn’t been his proudest moment, even as he did and said all the right things in the immediate aftermath. But merely thinking of lashing out against the referee had embarrassed Stevens, even though no one else ever knew what had been in his head. He had carried that memory throughout his law enforcement career, using it to keep him calm when dealing with uncooperative suspects or departmental red tape.
But right now? There was a dead body in a hospital within his precinct’s jurisdiction, and someone with the FBI wasn’t letting him by.
The FBI was keeping Earl Stevens from doing his job.
That was unacceptable. He didn’t care if federal law enforcement was around. He didn’t care if the body in question was an FBI agent, as was rumored. Stevens was a homicide detective, and the burly agent standing in front of the hospital room in question was not letting him through to do what he did best. He wondered how many years he would get if he simply drove the guy to the floor. His knees were shot, but Stevens figured he had one more tackle left in him.
What was that song Juanita said reminded her of Stevens? I ain’t as good as I once was…
“See this, hoss?” Stevens smacked his lips and waved his badge in the FBI agent’s face. Again. “This means I get to go in that room and poke the dead body.”
The agent, whose own badge read Bryant, stood motionless. Bulging eyes were hidden by black sunglasses, and his upper lip curled into a sneer. His shoulders lifted, then fell, and he stretched out his hands, fingers interlocked, until knuckles cracked in unison. “See this?” he asked, smacking his large thumb against the badge protruding from his breast pocket. “This means I’m FBI, which means I outrank you.”
“But see…” Ramon Gutierrez seemed to appear out of nowhere, placing a gloved hand on Stevens’ shoulder before he could respond. “I’ve got one of those too, and as the lead investigator here, mine says the good detective here can poke away.”
Stevens quirked a brow, because that was as close to assertive as he had ever seen Ramon. Not that he thought his former colleague was weak or a pushover, but Stevens had been under the impression Ramon simply wasn’t that sort of person. Maybe he had changed in recent weeks; between marrying his longtime boyfriend Jorge Santos and landing a pretty sweet gig with an off-the-books task force at the FBI, it made sense.
FBI badges were different, after all.
Still, it was quite the sight, Ramon standing up to someone nearly twice his size. Someone who likely would have no qualms about snapping Ramon like a twig under different circumstances.
Bryant’s nostrils flared. His hands curled into fists, and he straightened his spine even more. Stevens thought he saw a dull throb above the agent’s left eyebrow. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, the fists unfurled, the eyebrows relaxed, and the shoulders fell. Bryant stepped aside.
“As you wish, Agent Gutierrez.” Bryant still scowled at Stevens as the pair passed by. “Detective…”
Stevens was too busy putting on the latex gloves he’d had in his pocket; otherwise, he would’ve responded with his trusty middle finger. When he and Ramon crossed over into the room, they didn’t see a body at first. After all, the FBI’s forensics crew — a team so numerous, it felt like there were fifteen people in a room no larger than Stevens’ freshman year dorm — was huddled around the body.
A camera flash caught Stevens by surprise, and he bumped into a forensics tech who was placing an IV tube in a clear plastic bag. The flash had been so bright that Stevens hadn’t seen the glare the tech threw his way, even as he muttered an apology.
Ramon sidestepped two techs on the other side of the room, nodding in greeting and whispering to one of them — Janine, Stevens thought he heard the agent call her. The two forensic techs leaving the room coincided with Stevens’ vision finally clearing. Only then, when he saw Ramon crouching, did Stevens finally see the deceased. He blinked twice and cocked his head, too dumbfounded to have any other reaction.
“Uh, hey,” he said. “Ain’t that…?”
“My boss,” Ramon muttered with a single nod. “FBI Special Agent Richard McDermott.”
Stevens crouched on the other side of McDermott’s body, trying not to cringe when his knees popped in unison. It was impossible to crouch, or get back up, anymore without his knees protesting. The ravages of age and an adolescence overrun with a violent game played with reckless abandon. While Stevens had been fortunate to avoid the head injuries some of his teammates had suffered, his lower legs hadn’t been so lucky.
Stevens studied the body in front of him, pursing his lips and making a tsk sound. “Well,” he began, pointing at McDermott’s neck, “looks like we got ID and cause of death.”
Ramon leaned in to study the red line that ran across his late boss’s neck. That, combined with McDermott’s eyes frozen wide and mouth hanging agape, a soft blue tint to his face… well, even a fresh-faced rookie two weeks out of the Academy could’ve figured out how he was killed.
Ramon sucked in a deep breath and tore his gaze away from the body, instead staring at the bed. He frowned at the sight of the sheets bunched up at the foot of the bed, the pillow indented at the middle.
“Whose room was this?” Ramon asked.
The female voice caught both Ramon and Stevens off-guard. They stood in unison as Jill Andersen entered the room. Her hair, normally tied back into a tight ponytail when she was at a crime scene, instead hung down over her face. It shielded red, hooded eyes. She had her hands in her pockets, and even though her FBI badge was prominent on her chest and she was very much dressed for the part — where she got the pantsuits, Ramon would never know — she was pale and her shoulders slouched.
“Jill.” Ramon took a tentative step forward, lifting an arm to rest his hand on her shoulder before thinking better of it. “What –?”
“I came here earlier tonight,” Jill explained, standing in front of McDermott’s body and studying his prone frame. His eyes were devoid of life, but the fear was still there. Fear at the realization he’d been had. Fear that he was staring his own death in the face.
It was a look she knew far too well; almost every victim whose murder she had to solve since the city of Baltimore had first given her a badge had that look. McDermott was so much like all the others. Only he really wasn’t.
Yet Jill couldn’t tear away her gaze. Not because she was enthralled by the sight of another body; she had long ago become numb to seeing dead bodies up close. Rather, keeping her focus on McDermott’s corpse meant she didn’t have to look Ramon in the eye. He had questions. Questions she couldn’t answer.
Stevens folded his arms over his chest. “Why?”
Jill sniffled. “I wanted to confront Gregor. After my dad died.”
“Wait. What?” Stevens stared at the door, wishing it would close on its own and the three of them could talk amongst themselves without other FBI agents listening in. He didn’t trust the vast majority of them simply because of the way they had looked at him when he first arrived, and he certainly didn’t want any of them hearing about Jill’s dirty laundry. He was the protective big brother in that regard, though it was probably for naught. Chances were, all her new colleagues already knew about her other life and her past.
No secrets among the Feds.
Even if most everything was classified.
“Castillo said Gregor was the last person McDermott spoke to on the phone,” Ramon said.
“No, I mean…” Stevens sighed and sucked in his bottom lip. “Actually, never mind. I probably don’t wanna know.”
“You really don’t,” Jill muttered. “McDermott must’ve paid him a visit after I left.”
Stevens shook his head, because he couldn’t think of anything else to do at the moment. “But why?”
“Clearly, they were in league somehow,” Jill said. “I don’t know how. I don’t know why. McDermott sold me on this task force by telling me this was my shot to go after Gregor. But now Gregor killed him. So… does that mean McDermott was shady the whole time?”
Ramon nodded. “And was this entire task force just a front?”
An unsettling notion, considering how many agents Operation: Flashlight employed. Not to mention the fact that Jill had personally vouched for Ramon’s inclusion. Part peace offering after she had quit the BPD, part offer to help Ramon advance his career. After all, what was a bigger move than jumping from city cop to federal agent? But if it was all a lie, if Jill had sold her best friend a fraudulent bag of goods…
That was quite the elaborate ruse just to stick it to Jill.
“Are we sure Gregor killed him?” Stevens offered. “I mean, okay, that seems obvious — dead guy in his hospital room — but think about what you’re sayin’ here.”
“I know exactly what I’m saying.” Jill finally looked up at Stevens. “David Gregor finally got his hands dirty for once.”
“Okay, so let’s say David Gregor killed an FBI agent.” Stevens stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked back on the heels of his black cowboy boots. “What now? Somethin’ tells me leadin’ him away in handcuffs is out of the question.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Ramon asked.
“No one knows.” Jill shook her head. “Hospital won’t say anything other than he checked himself out.”
Stevens arched a brow. “And no one noticed the dead body he stepped over on the way?”
“His security detail stuck around for an hour after he left,” Jill explained. “Wouldn’t let anyone in or out.”
Ramon sighed and stared at McDermott’s body. “There’s no telling where he is by now.”
Jill pursed her lips. “I don’t think he’s running.”
Stevens couldn’t contain the laugh that burst from his lips. “And here I thought Gregor was smart.”
Casting a glance over her shoulder, Jill walked away from McDermott’s body long enough to close and lock the door. She returned to her partner and the detective she had her first shot of whiskey with. Even now, she could feel the burn in the back of her throat if she thought about it. The tiniest of smiles tickled at her face at the memory, but she shook it off with a clearing of her throat. She glared at the two men standing on either side of her. “What you’re about to hear stays in this room. Got it?”
Ramon nodded. Stevens quirked his brow again and scratched at his temple.
“Earl,” she added. “I need you to say so.”
“Yeah,” he offered. “Yeah, sure. I won’t say nothin’. You gonna give us a presidential briefin’ or something?”
Jill folded her arms, mostly because it kept her hands out of view. She didn’t need Ramon and Stevens seeing how shaken this had her. Not just Paul Andersen’s second death, but what David Gregor had become. He wasn’t just someone who used money to get out of his problems anymore. He was done hiring others to take care of his messes. No, he was doing things himself now. Which meant he was either desperate or fed up. Maybe both. Either way, she hated what that likely meant for her.
“Project Fusion’s back,” she said. “If it ever went anywhere.”
“Dr. Lo,” Ramon picked up on the thread. “He was the one who brought back all those dead guys and made them into The Collective.”
Jill locked eyes with Stevens. “Including my father.”
“Holy shit…” Stevens muttered with a shake of his head, staring at the floor and rubbing a hand along the back of his neck. He’d been so busy dealing with the shooting at the Inner Harbor, and catching the two men responsible, that he had missed the part where Jill’s father had been brought back to life. The entire concept of reanimation sat heavy in Stevens’ gut, but the fact that Paul Andersen, of all people, had been brought back… it was almost enough to make him gag.
“That’s not all Dr. Lo did,” Jill added. “He… well, he gave Gregor some upgrades.”
Stevens frowned. “Upgrades?”
This time, Jill kept her gaze fully on her partner. Out of everyone, he would understand the gravity of what she was saying. After all, he was the first person to find out Jill was Bounty. He was the first person she ever trusted with that secret, and he hadn’t yet let her down. She hated burdening him with this, on top of everything else, but if he was willing, who was she to tell him no? Besides, she probably owed him for how much they hadn’t been working together of late.
Some partner she had been.
Ramon’s eyes went wide. “You mean… Jill, don’t tell me Gregor underwent the same procedure you did.”
“The very same.” Jill sighed. “I wouldn’t have believed it either, if he hadn’t already gone toe-to-toe with me.”
“Well, shit, then we need to get you into hiding,” Stevens said.
“I said we went toe-to-toe,” Jill bit back. “I didn’t say he beat me.”
Stevens took a step toward Jill. “And did you beat him?”
Jill opened her mouth, then closed it. The word yes almost spilled from her lips, but could she say that? Could she potentially lie to her partner and a former colleague like that? Who was to say who won that fight? Both she and Gregor had walked away under their own power. If anything, the battle had been a draw. Not to mention the ever-sickening reality this battle wouldn’t truly be over until one of them was dead. She didn’t want to think her brother was right about that, but Jill’s gut couldn’t convince her otherwise.
Jill so badly wanted this done by the book. But there was no book for this. Not when she dressed up in leather and prowled along the shadows at night. Not when Gregor was aligning himself with resurrecting doctors and letting them carve him up to stuff titanium into his bones.
Truth was, nothing short of death was going to stop Gregor.
Ramon frowned and bit his lip. “You said you came here to see Gregor. What did you talk about?”
Jill refused to meet either man’s gaze. “We came to an understanding.”
“An understanding?” Stevens scoffed. “Jill, the fuckwad got all cut up just so he could beat you to a pulp. What makes you think you can reason with him?”
Without saying anything else to either her partner or Detective Stevens, Jill turned and walked out of the room. She let the door hang open behind her, missing the glance Ramon and Stevens shared with each other.
Ramon bolted to follow his partner. Even when she was walking, she easily outpaced him. It wasn’t that Ramon was out of shape; Jill had always been a fast mover, even before her Project Fusion upgrades. She covered more ground in one stride than some did in two. Long, powerful legs developed after years of soccer as a kid.
“Jill,” Ramon called after his partner. She didn’t turn, instead jamming a button to summon the elevator. “Hey, Jill!”
Sucking in a deep breath, and combing her fingers through her hair, Jill turned to face her partner. Her eyes were red, and she folded her arms over her chest. The idea was to keep Ramon from seeing her fingers shake, but he had caught a glimpse just as she began moving her arms.
“Jill, go home,” Ramon said. “I can take care of things for the rest of the night.”
Jill was shaking her head before Ramon had even finished speaking. The elevator doors opened behind her, and she stepped back into the car as soon as there was enough room for her. She stabbed the button to close the doors. “Ramon… no.”
Ramon took a step forward but stopped. “But…”
“Focus on McDermott,” Jill interrupted. “Find out why he was visiting Gregor in the first place.”
“It’s me he wants,” Jill answered, staring straight ahead as the doors began to close in front of her. She was looking in Ramon’s direction, but it was as if she didn’t actually see him. “It’s me he’ll get.”
The doors shut and the elevator descended before Ramon could say anything else.
Bitter End releases on Friday, April 28 — National Superhero Day. Pre-order your copy here.
About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.