The process of re-writing Boundless continues. Here’s chapter 2!
No sooner did Jill push through the door to her apartment, she collapsed. The bleeding had slowed to a trickle, so she hadn’t left much of a trail down the hallway, but the loss had left her lightheaded. Jill had somehow managed to shut the door before rolling onto her back and gritting her teeth. Why couldn’t Project Fusion have made her skin impenetrable? Though the bleeding had nearly stopped, the pain was, in a way, worse than when she still had a blade buried in her leg. The burning and throbbing were almost unbearable.
Jill reached for the back of her leg. The second her fingers touched leather, a jolt shot up her spine and she cried out. Jill clasped her hand over her mouth; the last thing she needed was a concerned neighbor checking on her or asking for help. Ms. Reynolds in 4D was a lovely woman, but she didn’t know Jill’s secret — and it needed to stay that way.
Someone calling the paramedics would be even worse. Word would almost certainly get back to the Baltimore Police Department, and that would be bad for Jill on several fronts. So whether she liked it or not, Jill was on her own in this.
Gritting her teeth, Jill looked up at the wall for something to grab onto for leverage. She had to find a way to get up again without moving her leg. Even with her considerable strength and other enhancements, the exertion took nearly as much out of Jill as the fight over an hour ago.
She huffed several breaths before digging her fingers into the dingy carpet and lifting herself onto her elbows. It took three tries, but eventually Jill hoisted herself upright again. Clutching the wall, she kept her leg hovering just off the floor. The carpet was so rough that Jill refused to walk barefoot over it, so there was no telling what it would do to stab wound.
Jill blew a strand of hair out of her face. “Fuck…”
Her first night as a costumed vigilante had been going well, all things considered. Sure, she’d had her face smashed into a high-rise window and wound up staring down an arsenal of military-grade weaponry. But Jill had defeated all those men with surprising ease. Not only was she in shape from a personal history that included high school soccer, a stint in the Army, and breezing through the Police Academy, but she had an advantage most could only dream of.
While in the Army, Jill had volunteered to undergo a secret scientific experiment called Project Fusion. The brainchild of noted cybernetics expert Dr. Trent Roberts, the project took human prosthetics and cybernetics to the next level. By the time Jill had recovered from the procedure, her entire skeleton was grafted in titanium, she boasted super strength, speed, and agility, and her left eye was capable of infrared sight thanks to a supercomputer the size of a bread crumb embedded in her brain. Jill was practically the Bionic Woman… despite being remarkably human in every other respect.
Even now, she could feel the wound stitching itself closed. Accelerated healing was also on her laundry list of abilities, even if it paled in comparison to a certain Canadian comic book hero her brother loved as a child.
Jill took a step and promptly lost her balance before grabbing the edge of the kitchen sink. For once, her apartment’s diminutive size worked in her favor, even if the bathroom was still too far away for her liking.
She hopped on her right leg, keeping the other leg as still as possible until she crossed into the bathroom and flipped on the light switch. The bulb overhead flickered as Jill reached for the white First Aid box sitting on the back of the toilet, tossing it onto the sink and ripping open the lid.
Her First Aid kit was essential even when only taking into account Jill’s day job. But now that she had added “costumed vigilante” to her resume’, it was even more important. But Jill had known that to be the case long before she ever put the leather on. To this point, she hadn’t told anyone of her plan — not just because it would mean she didn’t have a secret identity, but because she knew they would all try to talk her out of it.
Then again, who was there in Jill’s life at the moment? To call her younger brother Brian estranged would have been generous. Daniel Richards, captain of the Baltimore Police Department’s Seventh Precinct, was like a father to her — but he was also her boss. Her actual father, Paul, sat on Death Row. Her mother, Janice, had been buried for almost a decade after hanging herself.
Richards would call Jill a damn fool if he ever found out what she was doing, and he’d probably be right. But Jill could never talk herself out of this. Not once did she ever doubt what she was going to do. Not a night went by anymore when Jill stared out her window, overlooking her hometown, and didn’t think of how she could make things better.
But now, staring at her own reflection, seeing the way the harsh light reflected off her eyeplate, Jill couldn’t keep the doubts at bay. She cried out in pain when she tried to lift her leg onto the sink. The wound might have been healing, but she was sure she had just torn it open again. So she hobbled to the toilet instead, lowering herself onto the bowl with a hiss.
What a night this had turned into… a stab wound, an accompanying muscle cramp, and Jill was no closer to finding out who killed Johnny Ruiz than she had been when the day started.
A homicide detective with the BPD, like her father before her, Jill had been the first on the scene almost twenty-four hours ago when a call came in about a body stuffed in a dumpster between the city’s football and baseball stadiums. Jill was aghast not just at the state of Ruiz’s body, but at the thought of someone being murdered near the city’s most iconic backdrop. After all, the B&O Warehouse that ran behind the right-field fence at Camden Yards was as close to sacred ground as the city had now that Memorial Stadium was gone and replaced by senior community centers, a YMCA, and a youth baseball field.
As it turned out, though, Ruiz had not been killed there — just dumped. A gunshot wound in his forehead gave away cause of death, but there was no blood pool or spatter in the dumpster or the surrounding area. A forensics unit later discovered an abandoned Cadillac near One Charles Center, blood spatter all over the back seat, as well as gunpowder residue and a slug matching the bullet in Ruiz’s brain.
The car had been reported stolen the week before, leading Jill to a man named Madison Duval. Duval was rumored to be a powerful crime boss in the city, running an underground drug syndicate that perpetually fed cocaine into West Baltimore. Drug arrests in that part of the city had increased by fifty percent in the past two months, and Narcotics officers believed Ruiz was a runner for Duval.
Captain Richards had received a call early that afternoon from a contact with the FBI, claiming Ruiz had actually been an informant. So the running theory was that Ruiz had been feeding Duval’s secrets to the feds and Duval had been tipped. One late-night car ride later, Ruiz had a bullet in his brain and Duval didn’t seem all that concerned with being caught.
Ruiz had been dressed to resemble a homeless man, but his attire and the location where his body was found were as far as the charade went. Had any other precinct caught the case, it might have worked. But Jill wasn’t one to let things go without digging as deep as she could; if she didn’t know any better, she could swear Duval was practically rubbing law enforcement’s nose in it. Like he wanted everyone to know what he did and that he was probably going to get away with it.
The problem was, he was probably right. Duval was one of the city’s most untouchable men, regardless of how legitimate his business was. His wealth and connections made quite the shield. He knew just enough people in the right places to keep scrutiny pointed elsewhere. The only reason the FBI had been tailing him was because he hadn’t yet infiltrated that agency.
The case had hit a standstill by the time the sun set, but the minute Jill heard Duval’s name, she decided this was as good a time as any to do a little unofficial investigating. After all, if law enforcement couldn’t touch him, she might as well try with her still-developing alter ego.
A contact in the mayor’s office had tipped her to the high-rise office building on the corner of Cider Alley and Paca Street. The twentieth floor supposedly held all the files that would implicate Duval, not just in Johnny Ruiz’s murder, but in several other illegal dealings. If the FBI could get its hands on the files that were reportedly housed on that floor…
Only once Jill had gotten there, the place was empty. There had been no files. Instead, Jill wound up squaring off against a handful of G.I. Joe wannabes, including head honcho Riggins — who swore up and down this went far deeper than Jill knew. To say nothing of the original assailant, whose identity she still hadn’t discovered.
If Riggins was telling the truth, the police stood no chance.
Earlier that night, when Jill had first slipped into her costume, she thought she had it all figured out. Between the leather, the armor, and the sword on her back that was actually a family heirloom, Jill had left her apartment as confident as ever. Now, as she slipped the sheath from her back and leaned the weapon against the tub, cringing at the pain and questioning why she ever thought this was a good idea.
Nothing in the First Aid kit was suitable for a knife wound like this, but Jill would have to improvise because going to the hospital was out of the question. She was not going to blow her cover on the first night.
Jill sucked in a deep breath, removing her gloves before running a washcloth under the faucet and wringing it out once the warm water had soaked through. She then removed the sword from its holster, laying the weapon in the tub and biting down on the leather sheath. She could already tell cleaning this wound was going to be excruciating, and the last thing she wanted was for her scream to wake kind Ms. Reynolds.
Biting down harder and squeezing her eyes shut, Jill pressed the damp cloth to her wound. As expected, the pain was grueling. Her scream was muffled by the strap and Jill’s leg trembled, but she held the cloth in place. A sharp pain rippled throughout her body, catching Jill by surprise. She let go of the strap and bit down on her lip. Even if she cut her lip open, it beat crying out in pain.
In some ways, this hurt worse than the initial injury. Even as the wound slowly but surely stitched itself back together, the slow trickle of blood seeped through the washcloth. Jill shook and her human eye rolled into the back of her head.\
“Fuck,’” she hissed. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck…”
Was this her life now?
Huddled up in the bathroom at all hours of the night, tending to her own wounds?
Once the cloth lost its dampness, Jill removed it from her leg and stared at the dark stain in the center. Her leg was still shaking and the pain was slow to dissipate, lingering just below the surface of her skin. Jill tossed the rag into the sink and sat back against the commode with a ragged sigh.
What on Earth had made her think this was a good idea?
Gritting her teeth against the pain so hard her jaw started to hurt, Jill unzipped her bodysuit and pulled her arms from the sleeves. She then untied her combat boots, which proved difficult given her lack of mobility. But she managed to get the laces loose and push the shoes off without reaching down any further than necessary.
Forcing herself to stand, Jill kept her left leg inches off the floor. She pushed the leather the rest of the way off until it pooled at her ankles. A black pair of compression shorts stopped mid-thigh, just above the wound. Jill sat on the toilet again and grabbed a roll of heavy-duty bandage.
Wrapping the bandage around her leg hurt worse than Jill expected, but she steeled herself against it, adding several layers before cutting the bandage from the roll and securing it with medical-grade adhesive. Expensive stuff, but apparently worth it if she was going to make this double life a recurring thing.
Gingerly, Jill pressed her left foot to the floor. It still hurt, but far less than she expected. Lifting herself upright again, Jill left the costume and the sword in a heap to be tended to the next morning. She wasn’t on-call until noon the next day, despite the fact she was working an active case. As thankful as Jill was for the chance to sleep, she wondered how she was going to explain her limp the next day. Hopefully, it would have healed enough by then that there would be no limp, but she had to be prepared.
She spent her days surrounded by detectives. They would notice.
Most nights, sleep was immediate. The rigors of her day job were often enough to wear Jill out so much that she would be asleep the moment she walked through the door. Add in the night’s festivities in that office building, and Jill was sure she would pass out the second her head hit the pillow.
Yet once she got to her bed, Jill found herself wide awake. The pain wasn’t keeping her up, nor was the case. Jill rolled onto her right side, tucking her arms under the pillow and staring into the bathroom. Her costume was clear as day, even with the light out.
Again, Jill wondered what the hell she was doing. As bad ideas went, this probably ranked up there with the time her brother tried to eat a bowl of chili while playing video games. Three months later, the Nintendo still smelled like cheese and that stain had never come out of the rug. Then again, Brian’s stunt all those years ago hadn’t resulted in him taking a knife to the leg. Their mother might have reminded Brian that his father had a gun — in jest, of course — but no physical harm had come of it.
The double life always seemed so easy in those comic books Brian used to read. By day, the hero was a dashing businessman or an intrepid reporter or a fighter pilot or even a professor. By night, they transformed into a brave, death-defying crime fighter dedicating their life to saving those who couldn’t save themselves. That was all Jill wanted to do. Her badge went a long way in that regard, but it wasn’t enough.
Not in this city.
Over the past calendar year, Baltimore had averaged almost two homicides a day — to say nothing of drug-related offenses, robberies, and the like. The police were, among other things, overworked. Depending on which newspaper one read, they were also incompetent. Truth was, a lot of them were taking money under the table from outside sources, so what some saw as incompetence might have actually been willful neglect.
Then there was the worst insult of all. Her father had once been Baltimore’s most decorated cop. He had a key to the city, the highest closure rate in his precinct. He had a loving wife, a good son, and a daughter who worshiped him. But over a decade ago, Paul was arrested and charged with three murders. Gruesome acts that left bodies unrecognizable and appeared to be the work of a deranged serial killer.
Yet all of the state’s evidence pointed to Paul and he was found guilty. As such, he had been sentenced to die. His lawyers had drug the process out with appeals and injunctions, but as it currently stood, Baltimore’s greatest hero was two years away from being put down. Not even a recently-elected governor vowing to abolish the death penalty would save him.
Jill became a cop because of her father. When she was little, she was in awe of the way Paul fought for all that was good in the world He put the bad guys behind bars and came home every night with a smile on his face. Her father and her boss, who had been his partner at the time, were like Batman and Robin to her.
In those formative years, Jill never understood her brother’s fascination with comic books because, as far as she was concerned, they lived with a real-life superhero. Paul was what she wanted to be when she grew up. As much as Janice had hated the thought, nothing was going to keep Jill from getting her badge.
A stint in the Army, and two tours in Iraq, couldn’t even do that.
But Jill could see that being a cop wasn’t enough. Her hometown was still in trouble, and her efforts thus far to clear Paul’s name had been in vain. There was no way she was going to let the state of Maryland kill an innocent man. Jill didn’t care what the prosecution said, she didn’t care what some jury decided. Her father did not kill those three people, and she had a little over two years to prove it.
But not before she figured out a way to tie Duval to Johnny Ruiz’s murder.
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Behind the Mask, the fourth entry in the Jill Andersen series, is now available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple iBooks! Be sure to check out the entire series, no matter your reader of choice.