BOUNDLESS: Chapter Four

The process of re-writing Boundless continues. Here’s chapter 4!

Dental records had confirmed that it was, in fact, Madison DuvalBoundless Final_Resizestuffed in the supply closet with his jaw blown clean off. While the preliminary analysis pointed toward suicide, the ME working the case had his doubts. Harrison Sloane had worked for the Baltimore Police Department for nearly twenty-five years, and if he said it wasn’t a suicide, everyone was inclined to believe him.

For one thing, they had found the murder weapon in his left hand. Not only was Duval right-handed, but there was no residue on either of his wrists. As far as Sloane was concerned — and Jill was inclined to agree — that meant someone else had shot Duval at point-blank range and stuffed the gun in his hand.

 

The FBI was quietly celebrating Duval’s death — an agency liaison Jill had never met had told Captain Richards over the phone that Duval’s death freed up so many resources that the beancounters in D.C. were probably doing cartwheels. The truth was, though, that Jill now had two murders to solve. Duval’s death was a setback in the Johnny Ruiz investigation, and for the first time, she wished she had a partner.

The combination of department-wide layoffs and a hiring freeze, borne from a fragile economic recovery and politicians who insisted on cutting, cutting, cutting instead of finding new revenue streams, meant some officers and detectives worked solo. Most of the time, Jill enjoyed the relative freedom, but times like this she longed for a partner off whom to bounce ideas and theories.

Then again, she was fortunate to not be one of the city’s layoffs — yet — so she wasn’t about to make too much of a fuss. But she was mentally reeling over the knowledge that she had gone a few rounds with Duval himself the previous night; she was surprised both that he was that hands-on and that Riggins and his boys clearly had something to do with his death.

Jill’s theory had been that Riggins and his posse had been working for Duval. But if she was right and the bullet that blew Duval’s jaw to hell came from Riggins, then there was a new player in the mix.

But who?

The pain in her left leg was completely gone by this point, and Jill found herself once again taking inventory of the abandoned office space on the twentieth floor. If an office space could be pristine, it was now. There wasn’t even any evidence the police and forensic crews had been there earlier that day. But there was something here everyone else had missed. She was sure of it.

Earlier that day, Jill had spent her dinner break watching security footage and just as Sorenson had said, a bald-headed man approached the file cabinet before the feed gave out. It was nine at night by the time Richards had ordered her to go home. That happened far too often for the captain’s liking, and Jill couldn’t think of why he was so insistent that she go home every night. It wasn’t like she had a family to get home to.

So after changing her bandage once again, Jill had opened her armoire and slipped on the mesh armor. It had taken five minutes before she was fully decked out in black leather again, peeling the skin graft off her face and placing it in the box on the bathroom sink. She hoisted the sheath carrying her katana over her right shoulder, then turned around to take one more look at herself in the mirror.

Jill’s hair was still done up in a tight ponytail, which was no good. She flicked off the black headband and let her brown locks spill out over her shoulders. A shorter hairdo would probably be more convenient, but Jill had always liked having long hair. Besides, it now had the added benefit of concealing her face.

Not for the first time since they discovered Duval’s body, Jill’s mind went back to Riggins. He was definitely in on this, considering he had been here at the scene after Duval’s murder. According to Sloane’s autopsy report, Madison Duval had been killed almost two hours before Jill had first shown up to the office building. She couldn’t link Riggins to the murder with actual proof, but Jill was convinced Riggins had been the one to shoot Duval’s face off and shove him in a nondescript closet.

But who was pulling Riggins’ strings? He had boasted about things running much deeper than Jill realized, and at first she thought he had meant Duval. Someone as well-connected as him would’ve easily fit the bill. But considering Duval was now lying on a metal slab in a morgue, missing half his face, that wasn’t an option anymore.
So the question remained: who was Riggins working for?

Jill hadn’t returned to the office building with realistic hopes of finding a missing clue; she had been to this scene three times by now, and at no point did she find something she had previously missed. An infrared swipe of the supply closet turned up nothing unexpected: just a lot of blood and two teeth CSU had missed when collecting and cataloging evidence. Considering they already had an ID on the victim, the teeth held no significance.

No, Jill was back because some part of her hoped she would run into Riggins again. As expected, running his name through the BPD database had turned up nothing. If Jill were a betting woman, she would put down ten bucks on national and international databases faring no better. Her original theory that Riggins wasn’t his real name appeared to have weight to it, and Jill wanted him to come to her.

Ideally, he would be alone the next time they squared off. Jill had already had to fight off her share of lackeys once, and she tired of it. Lackeys were no better than suspects in the box whose sole purpose was to waste her time.

Jill wanted Riggins.

More importantly, she wanted whoever was above him, the one calling the shots. As far as Jill was concerned, Riggins was nothing more than a puppet. Maybe if she snapped off Pinocchio’s nose, Geppetto would come calling.

The thing about Riggins was, he didn’t see himself as a pawn. He thought he was the big dog. In a way, that made him dangerous, but that also made him vulnerable. People drugged up on their own self-importance were more prone to leave openings. Their vulnerabilities would be on display, giant neon arrows pointing at them.

The trick was knowing when to strike. For Jill, that time was now.

“I was wondering when you’d find him.”

Jill smiled when she heard the voice from behind. Every so often, her wishes did come true. Fighting the urge to go straight for her sword, Jill instead balled her hands into fists and kept her back to Riggins. She didn’t really want to use the sword anyway; it was for show as much as anything.

As far as Jill knew, the blade had never before sliced human flesh. It had come into her family as a gift, a show of gratitude toward her grandfather Wyatt for his heroics in the middle of World War II. Her father had treated the sword as if it were one of his own children, and Jill didn’t want to sully that by staining the blade with blood. She would do it if she had to, but the katana was little more than window dressing, an intimidation tactic. That and she couldn’t use her gun. Firing a police-issued firearm wouldn’t do much for keeping her identity a secret.

Riggins’ boots were heavy against the carpet as he approached. “Gotta say, finding out you’re a badge was a bit of a surprise. I did not see that coming.”

By the time Riggins finished talking, Jill could feel his breath against her. Her right elbow shot backwards in a blink, connecting with his nose. As he stumbled back, hands over his face, Jill twirled and kicked him in the stomach.

Riggins dropped to his knees, doubled over himself. His arms were now cradled against his midsection, blood pouring from his nose onto the carpet. He coughed with such force that Jill thought he might become ill.

“Guess you didn’t see that coming, either,” Jill said before kicking Riggins again, this time in the chin.

◊◊

By the time Riggins regained consciousness, he found himself sitting up against the wall, hands tied behind his back and his legs tied together at the ankles. His chin throbbed and his nose was swollen. Dried blood ran from his nose, over his lips, and down his chin. His stomach was sore, and Riggins doubled over as he fought the urge to gag. The sensation would bubble up inside him, and he would have to suck in as deep a breath as he could muster to fend it off — and that hurt as well.

Looking up, Riggins spat blood onto the floor. “And here I thought you fought fair.”

“Says the guy who threw a knife at me as I walked away.”

“Touché.”

He spat another mouthful of blood onto the carpet. Riggins looked up through hooded eyes at the woman hovering over him, decked out in black leather from head to toe with a sword on her back and what he could only describe as a Terminator eye shining somewhere behind a wall of scraggly, unkempt hair.

He wouldn’t believe it if he wasn’t staring right at it. All these years, he thought of superheroes as little more than figments of imagination, useless doodles in the funny books or some awful movie that still managed to rake in billions of dollars. And yet… there was one, right in front of him.

Riggins smiled despite the pain. The rumors had been true. All the rumblings he would hear in the middle of nowhere about the government looking to create super soldiers… he had assumed they were little more than flights of fancy, as if the wrong people had read too many issues of Captain America. But here stood living proof. Riggins still didn’t know her name, but he knew she was former military, and now he knew she was a cop as well. This was quite the discovery.

“This how it works now?” He chuckled. “Police can’t do something, they send their pet robot?”

“What makes you think I’m with the police?”

“Well, the fact that you were in here earlier today with a badge and gun, mostly.” Riggins shrugged and spat again.

“So you’re a spy now.” Jill shook her head. “What happened to the macho my-gun-is-bigger-than-yours tough guy?”

“Who says I can’t be both?”

Jill lowered herself into a catcher’s crouch. “Look, I don’t give two shits about you. You could be the second coming of John Riggins, for all I care. What I want is the person who killed Johnny Ruiz.”

“What about the person who killed Duval?”

“How do I know I’m not looking right at him?” The smallest of smiles crept onto Jill’s face. “Hell, for all I know, the same person committed both murders.”

“Say that’s all true.” Riggins raised his chin and looked down his nose at Jill. The dried blood on his face wasn’t all that different from the camo paint he had worn the night before. “What then? Sure, I get hauled off to prison, but you haven’t really accomplished anything, have you? A deadbeat’s still dead. And you can celebrate Duval being gone all you want, you know as well as I do someone else is just gonna take his place.”

“I don’t care about that.”

It probably wasn’t as convincing out loud as it was in Jill’s head, but there was some part of her at least that felt that way. Her job wasn’t really all that macro; a dead body would pop up somewhere and it was up to her to figure out who killed them. In that regard, Johnny Ruiz and Madison Duval were her sole focus. But she was starting to see that if she was really going to make a habit of being a vigilante, sometimes the big picture would be unavoidable.

“You’ll want to,” Riggins warned. “Because the man I work for? He can make your life hell if you’re not careful.”

“So can my boss. Who’s yours?”

Before Riggins could open his mouth, his head flung backward in tune with a gunshot from behind Jill. His body slumped back onto the floor, and by the time Jill whirled around, she saw five men covered from head to toe in specialized military gear. Heavy-duty helmets, might-vision goggles, Kevlar vests. The most advanced automatic weaponry America’s tax dollars could buy, far more advanced than the guns she had faced the night before, and they were all pointed directly at Jill. Without another thought, Jill sprinted away from Riggins’ body and ran along the wall, hoping against hope that she could outrun the spray of bullets she knew was coming.

Sure enough, the men all opened fire at once. The burst of gunfire rang in Jill’s ears, and she ducked her head as she bolted full-speed toward the tarp covering the broken window. There was no way Jill was going to get by the men and to the stairwell, and there was nowhere in the empty office to hide. Her only option was to jump, even if it meant a plummet that might severely injure her. If not worse.

She felt one of the bullets whiz past her ear. Clenching her jaw, and ignoring the dull throb that had reignited in the back of her left leg, Jill leapt at the tarp. It ripped with ease when she pushed through it.

Freefall was instant.

Jill could still hear the gunfire as her body began its rapid descent. She didn’t dare look down. Her hair whipped violently against the wind. The pressure of the breeze against her face was like a punch.

But then, much to Jill’s surprise, she landed. Not on the sidewalk, but on a metal plank that swung back and forth when she slammed into it. Scrambling back to her feet, Jill frowned and frantically searched her surroundings.

As it turned out, she had landed on a scaffolding often used for high-rise window washing. In the heat of trying not to get shot, Jill had never even noticed it. But now she was face-to-face with a thin elderly man grabbing onto the railing and staring at her. His mouth dropped, as did the squeegee in his hand. Jill could only smile and wave in return.

Jill looked up in time to see one of the military men peeking out the broken window, his weapon trained down on her. She drew her sword and ducked into a crouch, thankful that when the man opened fire again, the bullets all ricocheted off the blade.

Once the gunfire ceased, Jill sheathed the blade again and grabbed the railing before flipping herself over the edge and somersaulting downward. She then grabbed the bottom edge, still too many stories up to let herself drop to the pavement.

Gunfire resumed, severing one of the ropes. As the left side of the platform tilted downward and the entire thing started careening toward the ground, Jill flipped back over the railing and cradled herself over the old man. The rope caught on the spindle once the platform was hovering just over the second story. The sudden stop nearly sent both Jill and the old man over the ledge, but she grabbed the rail with a free hand to keep her balance. She gritted her teeth, tightening her grip and doing her best to ignore the pain in her shoulder.

Once the gunfire quit again, Jill lifted the man into her arms and jumped over the edge. She landed with a grunt before setting the man back down to his feet.

“You alright?” she asked.

The man, who wore a bushy white mustache and large-rim glasses, nodded and glanced up at the sky. He straightened the dirty hat atop his head and shrugged, adjusting the strap of his faded overalls threatening to slip off his left shoulder.

“Don’t s’pose I could get workman’s comp for this?”

Jill looked skyward, reaching up to initiate her infrared sight again. Another tap of her temple allowed her to zoom in, but the man was no longer positioned by the broken window. If she had to guess, Jill figured the commandos were tending to Riggins. Whoever was controlling him had decided he was no longer of use, conveniently right as she was trying to get information out of him.

That told Jill she was close, a lot closer than she realized.

“Sue your employer. That’s what everyone else does.” She looked at the old man again, who appeared to be none the worse for wear. “Listen, I need you to do me a favor. Call the cops, tell them there’s been a murder on the twentieth floor. And whatever you do, don’t mention me. Got it?”

By the time the man turned to reply, Jill was already gone.

 

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Read Chapter 1 here | Read Chapter 2 here | Read Chapter 3 here

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.

BOUNDLESS: Chapter Three (AND COVER REVEAL!)

The process of re-writing Boundless continues. Here’s chapter 3! Also, check out the new cover, another fantastic creation from Sarah Anderson!

As she had hoped, a good night’s sleep had done wonders for Jill’s leg. It still hurt, and Boundless Final_Resizeshe still had a minor limp, but the bleeding had stopped. The red stain in her bandage was far smaller than Jill had expected, and her biggest issue upon slipping out of bed was how stiff she was.

When she had finally conked out the night before, Jill had fallen into such a deep sleep that she hardly moved. It took several long stretches before Jill could lift herself from the mattress and stagger to the bathroom.

Cringing at the sight of the leather pile on the floor, and the katana in the bathtub, Jill shook her head and stared at herself in the mirror. Several times in recent months, she had considered seeking a roommate — but her double life ruled that out, even if it meant expenses occasionally overwhelmed her. Snatching her outfit and boots, Jill wandered back into the bedroom before tossing them into the armoire on the far side of the room.

She did the same to the sword before placing the lock in its place. Her phone chimed as the lock clicked into place, and Jill leaned over to see the screen. Captain Daniel Richards had sent a text letting her know there had been a break in the Ruiz case and he was on his way to pick her up.

Heading back to the bathroom, thanking whatever deity would listen that her limp was almost gone, Jill pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail before applying a healthy dose of deodorant to her underarms. Another glance in the mirror, and Jill quirked a brow. Last night, her nose was slightly swollen; now, it appeared to have returned to normal. The bruises she had sustained had also disappeared, and aside from the dull throb at the base of her skull, Jill appeared the picture of health. Accelerated healing was a wonderful thing, even if it hadn’t finished the job yet.

She could at least hide a headache. Or blame it on a lack of caffeine.

Opening a small blue box sitting on the right side of the sink, Jill pulled a skin graft and gave herself another long look in the mirror. The eyeplate surrounding her left eye was the most obvious reminder of Project Fusion, the only thing she truly had to hide from the rest of the world. Originally, it was simply a matter of not wanting to startle everyone. Now she had a secret identity to keep.

Fortunately, an old contact of hers once affiliated with Project Fusion had created the graft for her. The patch matched her skin tone perfectly, with the added benefit of making it look as if her left eye was as green and vibrant as her right. Jill never bothered to ask how it worked — mostly because she wasn’t sure she’d understand it.

Sweat didn’t both the graft, which was great for those humid July afternoons, and Jill could shower with it on and go swimming with it.

Wearing the graft gave Jill a brief sensation of normal. But it was fleeting, and she was glad for it. Jill wasn’t normal, whatever that word meant anymore, and she liked it that way. Wanting to be a cop wasn’t normal, for most people, and neither was wanting to be a superhero. Physically, Jill was the picture of health, and aside from her titanium skeleton and the chip in her head, her insides were just like anyone else’s.

The skin graft in place, Jill removed the bandage on her leg and placed a damp washcloth to clean what was left of the wound. The process of cleaning and applying a new bandage was far quicker this time, given her increased range of motion, and by the time Jill finished, her phone buzzed again.

Captain Richards was outside, waiting in his squad car.

Unlocking her armoire again, Jill produced her badge and service piece from a small wooden box. She holstered both to her belt, locking the armoire again before leaving her apartment, taking two flights of stairs to street level. It helped stretch out her leg, and she got rid of what was left of her limp. The pain was still there, but it was more of a dull throb than anything. She could easily ignore it.

Jill slipped into the passenger’s seat of a black Crown Vic and immediately reached for the cardboard cup on the console between her and Richards. Her shoulders relaxed after the first sip.

“Hazelnut,” she said with a smile. “Just what I needed.”

Daniel Richards, a black man sporting a thick black mustache with flecks of gray on the ends, stared at Jill with a quirked brow. “Rough night?”

Jill shrugged and took another swig. “Late night. Was studying case files.”

Richards shook his head and pulled into traffic. “Ruiz or your dad?”

Jill kept her gaze on the windshield, mindful of the conversation they’d had several months ago when Richards had found her in the archive room, thumbing through Paul Andersen’s file. Richards had threatened Jill with demotion if she removed files from that room or didn’t inform him of new developments, but he hadn’t told her to stop.

Richards probably knew telling Jill not to look into her father’s case would have only driven her deeper into it. Then again, Richards had been a damn fine detective, so he was pretty smart.

“Ruiz,” she admitted around another sip. The coffee was as much a habit as anything else. It was far better than the muck they served at the precinct; how no one could brew a decent cup of coffee in a work environment where people relied on the stuff was beyond Jill. The soda machine in the back corner saw more action at the Seventh than the coffee maker, even if it had a habit of eating dollar bills and giving nothing in return.

“What have I told you about bringing your work home?”

Jill glanced out the passenger’s side window. “That I’m better off getting a dog.”

Richards pulled the Crown Vic into an open spot by the curb, fishing his badge from the inside pocket of his brown leather coat and pulling the door open. He adjusted his black-rim glasses and stared skyward “Just don’t want you to get burnt out.”

Jill stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind her, chugging the rest of her coffee. When she tossed the empty cup into a nearby trash can, Jill noticed where they had stopped: a high-rise business complex at the corner of Cider Alley and Paca Street. Her heart leapt into her throat, her mind instantly going to the trail of blood she had left the night before — to say nothing of the carnage on the twentieth floor.

“Another body?” she asked, hoping her nonchalance held.

“Not quite.” Richards nodded at the informed officer standing on the corner before yanking open a heavy door leading to a dimly-lit stairwell. It resembled the stairwell Jill had descended the night before, but there was no sign she had ever been there. No blood stains. No trace of anything. Jill hung behind Richards as they climbed the stairs, frowning in confusion.

“Ugh.” Richards shook his head. “Just the thought of climbing all these steps makes me wanna puke. But the elevators are down.”

Jill’s stomach churned and her leg started aching again. What would they find up there? Little more than an empty office space with a shattered window? Bodies littered everywhere? Blood stains in the carpet, maybe even a blood-soaked knife that would put Jill on the scene once the forensics team did their thing?

She held back on her fear, though, because to give it voice was to arise suspicion and risk blowing her cover. There was no use admitting to something her captain didn’t know about yet. Besides, she shuddered to think what the man who was basically her surrogate father would think of her double life.
Captain Richards had been Paul’s partner when they were both detectives. Not only had they been one of the city’s best crime-fighting duos, but they were practically brothers. Jill had lost count of how many times her family had gone to Daniel’s house for dinner, and she fondly remembered how Dan and his wife Evelyn considered Jill and Brian their own children. The Richards were never able to have kids of their own, and they had doted on the Andersen children whenever possible.

That continued even after Paul’s arrest. Daniel had been the one to slap the cuffs on him, and ever since then, he had done everything he could to be there for Jill. She still had weekly dinners with Daniel and Evelyn, and even though Brian was never as close to the Richards as Jill, Daniel had always made it clear that were Jill and Brian to ever reconcile, he would be just as welcome.

She was glad to be assigned to his precinct. Not just because of how close they were, but because there was no telling how Jill would be treated at another precinct. For one thing, she was a woman working in a masculine field, and the fact that she was the daughter of a cop brought about its own baggage — and that didn’t even get into the fact that her father was on Death Row.

At least this way, she knew someone had her back.

By the time they got to the twentieth floor, Richards was struggling for breath. He was trying to play it off, act like he was fine, but those years of smoking had clearly taken their toll. Jill frowned when she took in her surroundings. Not only was there no blood on the floor, but there were no bodies anywhere. The window that had been broken the previous night — no thanks to her face — was covered with a white translucent tarp.

“Uh, Dan? There’s nothing here.”

“That’s because,” Richards paused, gulping down one more deep breath, “that’s because something was stolen.”

“Stolen.” Jill shook her head and took another long look at her surroundings. This wasn’t making any sense. “But… we’re Homicide, not Robbery.”

A stocky uniformed officer named Greg Sorenson approached the captain and Jill with a wooden clipboard. He adjusted his hat and nodded his greeting. “Security cam footage shows a man breaking in through the stairwell around midnight last night and approaching a metal file cabinet in the far corner.”

Jill’s eyes instantly went to the spot in question. There was nothing there.

“Greg? Hate to burst your bubble here…”

“But here’s the thing.” Sorenson set down his clipboard. “The footage stops right as the man got to it. Fade to black, cut to snow, all that shit. Cameras were still disabled when we got here.”

“How’d we know to come here?” Jill asked.

“Tip came from Robbery.” Richards gave a one-shoulder shrug. “Once they found out the building was leased in Duval’s name, they called me.”

“Couldn’t have been easy, luggin’ that cabinet outta here.” Sorenson pointed at the empty spot against the wall. “Thing was almost six feet tall. Probably heavy as fuck.”

Now that Jill thought about it, the file cabinet hadn’t been there last night, either. So whoever stole the file cabinet did so and left before Jill got there. Fortunate for her, because that meant her little exploit hadn’t been caught on camera.

Still… what happened to the men who had attacked her? Where was all the blood? Someone had gone to an awful lot of trouble to make it look like nothing happened the previous night, including a clean-up job that extended down twenty flights of stairs and out to the sidewalk.

Comforted as Jill was by the fact that she wouldn’t be outed so soon into her superhero career, having someone tailing her and cleaning up her messes was an unnerving thought.

She turned back to Sorenson. “Please tell me we got a good look at the guy.”

Sorenson shook his head. “Just the back of his head.”

“What was in the file cabinet?” Jill asked.

“According to our tip,” Richards said, “everything that would implicate Madison Duval.”

Jill shook her head. “Why not go to the FBI with that? They’re the ones investigating him.”

“Not for the murder of Johnny Ruiz.”

Jill’s mind wandered back to the military types she had encountered the previous night, Riggins in particular. He had made it a point to tell Jill just how in over her head she was, how whoever was pulling the strings on all this was untouchable. Duval certainly fit the profile, and it made sense that he would get rid of files implicating himself. Get police investigating the “stolen” file cabinet and they won’t think twice about the murder he committed.

It was Super Successful Businessman Bad Guy 101.

Having slipped on a pair of gloves, Jill approached the door next to where the file cabinet had supposedly been. The door was completely nondescript, probably leading to a simple supply closet. Jill hadn’t noticed the door in the scrum the previous night, and it probably meant nothing. Another dead end, like so many other things about this case.

Only the dead ends in this case weren’t the result of police incompetence; more likely, they were intentional on Duval’s part. He was just smart enough to pull the strings, to keep the cops guessing until the trail ran cold and he could move on to the next shady deal. But what kind of cop would Jill be if she didn’t exhaust every possibility, no matter how unlikely?

“Dan,” she called out over her shoulder. “Back me up here.”

There probably wasn’t anything on the other side of the door, but Jill wouldn’t be a good cop if she didn’t prepare herself. Her free hand went to the gun on her hip, fingers wrapping around cold metal. She kept her grip on the weapon loose as she turned the knob. Jill and Richards exchanged a nod before she stepped back and pulled the door open. She drew her weapon at the same time, only to watch as a body slumped over and fell to the floor.

The lower part of the man’s face was destroyed and there was a hole in the back of his head. His jaw was completely gone, as was the lower row of teeth and most of the man’s tongue. Dried blood stained his white dress shirt and dark gray suit. Eyes rolled back into his head. A handgun hung loosely in his left hand.

Jill glanced back at the open door, seeing a good amount a blood spatter on the back wall of a supply closet. A broom had been knocked over, along with a roll of paper towels. Several teeth and chunks of muscle were strewn about the floor.

While Jill was no medical examiner, her first guess was that the gun had been placed in his mouth and the trigger pulled. If that were the case, then they were looking at a suicide — either that, or something that was supposed to look like a suicide. More importantly, the man resembled the first man she had encountered the previous night: the one with the red hair and scruff. Even with half his face blown off, Jill could tell who this was.

She stood with a sigh and shook her head, fishing out her smartphone and pulling up the camera before snapping a series of haphazard shots. Forensics would come by later and take better pictures, but for now, her grainy phone would have to serve as a baseline.

“Holy shit,” Richards said.

Jill glanced over her shoulder and frowned. “What?”

Daniel pointed to the bald spot on top of the man’s head. “I think that’s Duval.”

 

 

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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.

SHORT STORY: Ghost of a Life, Chapter 3

If you’ve never been held at gunpoint before, let me tell you: it’s not fun.

It’s even less fun when the guy who hired you in the first place is the one pointing that cold hunk of metal in your general direction. My arms go up on their own, because I’ve seen enough TV shows to know this is the appropriate thing to do when someone’s pointing a gun at me. Not that I ever expected to be in this situation – barring the rare instance of Casper having an arsenal – and yet here I am.

“What are you doing down here?” Grayson asks, flipping on the light with his free hand.

“My job,” I answer, noting the white gloves he’s wearing. I arch a brow at the sight; it really does detract from the intimidation factor. He’s threatening to blow a hole in my chest, but God forbid there be any germs on that gun.

“I don’t remember hiring you to break into my file room.”

“No, you hired me to look into your little haunting over at McGuinnis.” I shrug as best as I can with my arms up around my head. The muscles are starting to ache. “I can’t help the fact that it’s led me right back to you.”

Grayson chuckles, an unnerving sound coupled with a look in his eyes I’ve never seen before. It’s almost a cross between amusement and anger… and frankly, it’s a look I hope I never have to see again. “Let me guess, those slimy bastards told you I’m the bad guy, right?”

“Something like that.”

“And you’re taking them at their word? You’re believing a bunch of dead things over me?”

“They said they could prove it.” I shrug again. The pain in my arms is getting so bad that my fingers are twitching. Part of me wants to go ahead and lower my arms, but knowing my luck, he’d pull the trigger at the first movement. Not only would I not get a fat payday, but it’d almost certainly mean the end of my career.

Unless I become a ghost, too. That would be kinda cool.

“Proof.”

“They poofed me straight over here.” A knowing grin creeps onto my face as I chin-nod toward the floor next to Grayson. “The evidence of my trip is right there.”

He glanced down to the floor, the pile of vomit inches from his right foot. I can’t help but laugh at the way he yelps and jumps back, as if he were leaping away from a rat or some other foul creature. He lowers his weapon and fights back a gag – at which point, I lower my arms and bum-rush him, tackling him to the floor and jarring the gun from his hand.

Springing back to my feet – because really, I’m not interested in fisticuffs – I grab the gun and return to the file cabinet. I ignore Grayson’s groans and coughs, flipping open the manila folder and squinting at the tiny handwriting that greets me. I can barely make out every other word, frowning because my supposed jackpot is turning into nothing more than useless scribbles.

I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. I raise my arm to point the gun in Grayson’s general direction. I have no intention of firing, but he doesn’t need to know that. I just need him to stay still while I look for something of value in this heap of intel. I glance up to see Grayson in the corner, far away from both me and the mess on the floor. It’s actually sort of funny to see him up against the wall like that, but at the same time, it’s kind of pathetic.

“You were awful eager to claim that building for yourself, weren’t you?” I begin my interrogation, flipping through more pages. Many of them were now typed over, most likely by a typewriter, so the legibility had slightly improved.

“We needed more on-campus housing,” Grayson argues with a stutter.

“And you had plenty of land on which to erect a new building.”

“C-cost prohibitive.” Grayson swallows thickly, and I catch him glancing over his shoulder. Did he call campus security on his way over here, or was he hoping to take care of me himself? My gut tells me it was the latter.

At least that’s my hope.

“The only way to do that would’ve been to hike up tuition,” he adds.

“So instead of screwing your students,” I argue, “you decide to screw some mental patients.”

“Hey, nothing I did was illegal.” Some of his bluster’s come back. He’s kinda cute when he’s angry – in that impossibly out-of-touch old man sort of way. “The hospital’s lease was up, they weren’t near being able to afford it… I merely jumped on the opportunity.”

“Without giving the hospital a chance to re-locate its patients and doctors in a timely, orderly fashion.”

The way Grayson shrugs his shoulders and purses his lips makes me want to pull the trigger. Not to kill him. Maybe not to even hit him. But scaring the shit out of him would be oddly gratifying. I’d love to watch the bullet lodge itself into the wall next to his ear, then have my nostrils catch the faint stench of him soiling himself. But, entertaining as that thought is, I don’t pull the trigger – because with my luck, I’d actually hit the bastard.

“Good luck proving that.” The smarmy grin on his face damn near makes me shoot. “And even if you do, what are you gonna do? Go to the cops? They won’t work a case on behalf of some half-baked ghosts.”

“Maybe.” I shrug. “But I bet they’d like to know what happened to all those patients.” I squint as I read over one of the redacted files, inconsistent streams of text broken up by solid black lines. “Like, say… Vernon Gomez. I bet his wife would love to know he committed suicide not long after being told he was no longer eligible for treatment.”

His face goes pale. Well, paler than it already is. “You wouldn’t. You won’t.”

“You sure about that?”

“You will refund the money I paid you.” Oh good, Grayson’s reached the bravado portion of the tour. “And I will make sure you never work a case in this godforsaken town again.”

“But I haven’t finished your job yet.” I give the man a coy smile and bat my eyelashes. I’m mocking him more than anything, though I doubt he possesses the self-awareness to figure that out. “You wanted me to get rid of the ghosts, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Grayson opens his mouth to protest when I click the safety back on the gun and pocket it. He almost lunges toward me when I close up the file folder and tuck it under my arm, my free hand slamming the cabinet shut. He flinches at the sound and I have to suppress a grin; if nothing else, I plan on scaring him so badly that he’ll never toy with supernatural forces ever again.

“What are you…?”

“I’m Samantha Blanchard, paranormal investigator.” I give him another coy grin, cocking my head to the side. “And you and I are gonna go on a little trip.”

His eyebrows scrunch in confusion. “If you think I’m going anywhere with you –“

My hand on his shoulder cuts him off before I glance up at the ceiling with a shit-eating grin. “Any chance of a return trip, Sparky? You’ll never guess who I ran into.”

It occurs to me in this moment that Merle is the only ghost name I know; the one who originally sent me here still doesn’t have a name, as far as I know, and I hope beyond hope that Sparky isn’t some ghost slur. I’d hate to not give Grayson his just desserts because I’m not well-versed in ghost etiquette.

But in the blink of an eye – an expression I never completely understood until now – I find I worried for nothing. Though for the record, teleporting to another dimension isn’t any more pleasant the second time around. By the time it registers that I’m once again surrounded by pitch black, I drop to my knees and gag so hard that my ribs hurt. Nothing comes up this time, but the sensation is no less painful.

But at least I’m conscious, which is more than I can say for my travel companion. No sooner do we arrive wherever this is, he’s sprawled out on the ground we can’t even see. I swear I can even see him drooling a little.

Pathetic.

So, being the good Samaritan that I am, I kick the guy in the side. “Hey, numbnuts… wakey wakey. Don’t be rude, you’re a guest here.”

I look up and find that we’re all alone. No ghosts to be found. No Merle, no big, long-tailed guy… it’s just Grayson and me. Which is unnerving on several different levels. I don’t care for being stuck in a pitch-black dimension of nothingness, and I like it even less when I’m stuck here with a passed-out douchebag who started this whole mess.

So, to recap: Grayson calls me three days ago, swearing up and down McGuinnis Hall – the psych hospital turned dormitory – is haunted. I check it out and Sweet Holy Jeebus, the supernatural activity is off the charts! But it turns out the spooks aren’t haunting the place; they’re stuck there because of Grayson.

Documents show that Grayson, in a fit to expand his campus and increase dorm housing, snatched the mental hospital out from the previous owners’ hands and just… converted the joint without caring much what happened to the patients. Many had been relocated to other hospitals. A few wound up in foster care. Many of them died not long after the ordeal – and if I had to guess, they were the ones floating around making life miserable for everyone.

So basically, this whole thing started cause Grayson is an ableist douche.

I am so not giving him his money back when this is all over.

“Hello?” I call out, wrapping my arms around myself and fighting back and shudder. It’s not cold or anything; I just hate being surrounded by nothing. If this is what the proverbial abyss is like, then I’ll pass.

“I’ve got President Douchebag here to see you,” I try again.

Still nothing.

This can’t be right. Why would the ghosts send me off to investigate Grayson, and then not be around when I actually have Grayson with me?

A pained groan tells me Grayson has re-joined the Land of the Living – even if that’s not where we physically are at the moment. I bite the inside of my cheek, trying not to bust out laughing at the reaction I know is coming once he realizes we’re no longer in his records room – or anywhere else on Mountain Oak’s campus, for that matter.

Sure enough, he doesn’t disappoint.

“What the…?!”

He leaps to his feet far quicker than I would expect for a man his age. His forehead is coated in sweat, and his eyes are a wide as I’ve ever seen this side of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. He’s in a full-on panic, limbs shaking and breath shallow. It’s simultaneously funny and unnerving, and the sooner my ghost pals show up to deal with this, the better.

“You!” Grayson’s angry now. “Where did you take me?!”

I didn’t take you anywhere,” I argue, because technically, that’s true. “We’re wherever the ghosts are.”

“Then how come I don’t see any ghosts?”

I shrug, not willing to admit I’m thinking the exact same thing. Their disappearing act has me on-edge, mostly because it makes no goddamn sense. They didn’t bring us here so I could take care of Grayson myself, did they? That thought makes me shudder again, because one thing I am not is a professional hitman. Grayson might be a douche to end all douches, but he’s still a human being. I have my limits – to say nothing of the laws I still have to follow.

Grayson’s pacing now, which is grating on my nerves. If these ghosts don’t show up soon, I might just pop him one to knock him out again. Grayson is far less irritating when he’s unconscious. I try not to watch him wandering back and forth, muttering under his breath and running his shaky hands through his hair. In fact, he doesn’t really catch my attention again until he stops in his tracks.

I find him standing perfectly still. No, it’s more than that, actually… Grayson isn’t just not moving. It’s as if all of his muscles have seized up on him. His limbs are perfectly straight. His jaw is clenched. Eyes are wide. They find mine and I can tell me trying to call out for help. A muffled noise escapes from his mouth, but with his teeth mashed together, I can’t make out what he’s trying to tell me.

I glance all around me. “Hello?” My heart rate picks up. “Guys?”

You should not have brought him here.

Okay… I can hear them now. That’s something.

“Why not? I thought you wanted to confront him.”

Oh, we want much more than that…

Something about the way the echoing voices say that sends off all sorts of alarms in my head. I turn to glance at Grayson again. He’s still as stiff as before, but his hands are starting to tremble. Soon enough, the rest of his body follows suit. He screams as best as he can through his gritted teeth, but his eyes are still wide open. I bet he’d squeeze them shut if he could, but something isn’t letting him.

I take a step toward him. A small trail of blue ooze seeps from his tear duct. Another drop of the stuff is coming out of his nose. I cringe in disgust, and I can only imagine how that must feel. I have to briefly cover my mouth and take a step back, shaking my head to try to regain my composure before approaching Grayson again. I touch his arm, which is hard as a rock. He’s growing paler by the second, and he can do little more now than stare at me and whimper.

“What are you doing to him?!” I demand.

He must pay… he must suffer for what he has wrought upon us!

“No!” My hands ball into fists, and for a brief moment, I feel awkward standing up to a vast nothingness. “Not like this! You can’t kill him!”

Why not?

“Because that’s not what I agreed to!”

Presumptuous of me? Perhaps, but my first meeting with these ghosts led me to believe they still had a bit of human decency in them. They had left me with the impression they just wanted to be set free. I never once got the vibe that I was dealing with vengeful spirits.

This is not your concern, human.

“Like hell it’s not!” My voice carries far more than I expected. “I’m here to help you!”

And we no longer require your assistance.

Before I can open my mouth to respond, something slams into my midsection and sends me flying back. I never saw anything more than the pitch black that has greeted me since my return, yet now I’m on my back, gritting my teeth in pain and trying not to lose my lunch again. I double over myself in pain, squeezing my eyes shut before a high-pitched wail startles me and damn near pierces my ear drums.

I look up to see Grayson – still rigid and unable to move – floating higher into the air. The panicked look in his eyes has only intensified, and streaks of blue ooze similar to tear tracks decorate his cheeks. His entire body is trembling, and I can’t help but wonder how he’s still conscious.

“Don’t,” I manage between gasps for air. “Don’t do this. Please…”

Another force wallops me, in the chin this time, and I can’t help but see stars. In fact, they’re the last thing I see before everything really does go black. But before I go, I hear a horrific sound – something like a gargling scream. I can tell it’s Grayson, but before I can react, my eyes slip closed and my head slumps to the side.

Read Chapter 1 | Read Chapter 2