—John J. Geddes
Lightning struck somewhere in the distance, illuminating the dark night with sparks of effervescent blue neon. It wouldn’t ordinarily bother me except for the fact I was being hunted by a monster.
Run! Run! Run!
The little voice inside my head poked and prodded, pushing me harder. I had to run faster. Harder. There was no other way of getting away from him.
I’d thought he was sexy and mysterious in his dark suit and dangerous-looking mask, the illusion of seduction drawing me to the kink club in the first place. The invitation had been unused by my roommate, time with her boyfriend taking precedence.
Now I was regretting my decision to accept.
I didn’t want to die today.
After thirty minutes of playing cat and mouse on the dance floor, neither one of us saying a single word, I’d allowed the mysterious man in a mask to buy me a drink. Every night held a different event at the club, the masquerade party sounding like fun. But he’d been able to hide his true identity behind the black face mask. I’d found it sexy at first. I should have known better. The sweet scent of sin had lingered in the air, the anticipation of enjoying time spent with a masterful man intoxicating. I’d let my guard fall, engaging in flirtations and a single taste of his bourbon-tainted lips.
Then I’d realized there was something off about him, my need to flee rushing into the front of my mind. When I’d tried to leave, he’d been right there, confronting me. If it hadn’t been for a couple entering the club, distracting him for a few seconds, something terrible would have already happened. I was certain of it.
The moment I’d refused his advances he’d become mean, nasty, the kind of forceful that had sent shivers dancing down my spine. I shouldn’t have come to the club alone. I should never have thought I could get away by myself for even a little while, pretending to be someone else.
Pretending I could live anonymously.
And he’d said something I hadn’t understood in a language I didn’t know, but there was no doubting the man’s evil intent.
All three and more.
Oh, God. If only this was about my overactive imagination.
I’d always known there were monsters lurking in the shadows, but there was something so twisted about the masked man from the club that my instinct had finally kicked in. I was fighting for my life, and I knew it.
But getting away wasn’t just about running. It was about being more cunning than the beast himself, hiding in the shadows that made me feel invisible. He’d targeted me, singling me out from all the beautiful women in skimpier attire inside the club, including those already performing masochistic deeds on machines and tables that reminded me of something I’d find in the Middle Ages. Why me?
Unless I had a target on my back.
There was no reason. I had no enemies that I knew of. Yet the feeling remained, something about the way he’d looked at me as if he knew who I was. His eyes had been dark, full of rage the moment I’d told him I was leaving.
Prickles remained dancing on my skin, the darkness surrounding me blanketed by the humid air, my heart racing. While I heard nothing but the rumble of thunder and my thudding heart, I could sense him getting even closer. I had no choice but to run.
I blasted through the parking lot, tears of terror stinging my eyes. I wasn’t prone to crying, never had been, but my skin crawled from anticipation, my stomach in knots. No one had ever terrified me like the asshole hunting me.
The streets surrounding the private, secret club were dark, barely any streetlights on the road. If I could only get to my roommate’s car, maybe I’d be able to get away. He had no clue who I was, the costume I’d worn hiding any chance he’d learn my identity. Since I’d used Ginny’s invitation, I prayed to God that would ensure he couldn’t find me.
Still, I had to warn her.
But first, I had to get the hell away.
Hearing a slight whistle, I crouched down behind a parked car, placing my hand over my mouth. He was closer than I’d thought. Oh, God. I was shaking all over, ice trickling through my veins. He’d caught me in the funhouse, using the mirrors as a disguise. Blood trickled from my wrist where I’d cut it trying to find my way out, the shattered glass something he’d done, not me, his anger evident by the bellow he’d issued.
No one had come to my defense inside the club. No one had cared whether I lived or died, every guest determined to keep their precious identities secret. And I was one of them.
I shifted to the edge of the bumper, darting a quick look around the fender. While I couldn’t see anything, I sensed he was close, his aftershave unique; the strange combination of moss and exotic spices left me feeling nauseous.
I couldn’t stay here. I was a sitting duck. After taking a deep breath, I scurried away, remaining low to the ground. Then I heard a pinging noise, sucking in my breath as I noticed a coin rolling down the pavement. Dear God. The fucker was playing games with me. Still shaking, the moment I heard his dark chuckle, I knew I was a dead woman.
“You can’t get away from me. I will find you and when I do, you will pay for your sins.”
The man was obviously deranged, so much so I was almost as angry as I was petrified. But I refused to play the victim to some insane asshole. The keys were in my hand, my roommate’s car not that far away. At this moment, I was thankful mine was in the shop, the vehicle far too easy to spot. At least my roommate’s Monte Carlo was older, the kind of car that would fade into the woodwork. I crawled forward on the cracked pavement, grabbing the coin into my sweaty hand, clamping my fingers around it. This was about survival, and I refused to come in second in the game.
I moved closer, holding my breath. He’d cut me off from the club and there was no one else on the street, no one that would come to my assistance. The moment I heard him laughing again, I shifted forward past several vehicles. Now I had to cross over an open space. Dear God. He was continuously walking between the cars. I glanced down at the coin in my hand. Then I reared my arm back, pitching it as far away as possible.
As soon as I took a single step, I heard him chuckling in a dark and demonic way, growling under his breath and racing toward the sound, I bolted toward my car, remaining low. My hand was shaking like a leaf, but I managed to slide the key into the lock, panic rushing in when I opened the door. Thank God the hinges didn’t creak. After closing the door, I shoved the keys into the ignition, glancing out the windshield before turning the engine.
Or at least I tried.
My God. I’d flooded it immediately. Really? Another wave of terror rushed in as I watched him turning around slowly. Oh, my God. He pulled something shiny from his pocket. A weapon. I couldn’t care less whether it was a knife or a gun. I had to get out of here.
He took his time, scanning the parking lot as he moved closer. I sucked in and held my breath, counting to five before trying the engine again. When it turned over, I was gleeful, but that was short lived as he took off running. A screech left my mouth, but I managed to throw the gear into reverse, backing out then forced to slam on the brakes, barely missing hitting another car. As soon as I changed gears, throwing it into drive, I hit the accelerator hard, perspiration trickling down my forehead, but I refused to remove the mask in case I was a random target.
I hit the road and refused to stop, but in the rearview mirror, I could see him still running after me.
By the time I hit the highway, I could finally breathe. I couldn’t go to the police; they’d make a big deal out of it. My contract. Morals clauses. Tears formed in my eyes, but I was safe. If there really was such a thing?
“Answer the damn phone,” I said in passing, the fifth ring the same thing I’d gotten the last time I’d called. And the time before that. The first time, Ginny’s voicemail had been full. Why hadn’t she answered?
She spent so much time with her boyfriend, which was why she hadn’t been home the night before when I’d raced back to the apartment, shaking like a leaf when I’d tried to lock and bolt the door. I’d remained in the dark, staring out the front window, half expecting the monster to burst in through my door at any time.
I’d fallen asleep only when light had drifted over the horizon.
I ended the call, disgusted that I couldn’t get in touch with her. At this rate, I’d be forced to drive over to her boyfriend’s place, even though I wasn’t entirely certain where he lived. Shit. I was sick inside, butterflies taking up residence in my stomach.
The photo shoot had been arduous, more so than typical. And long. I’d worked ten hours and was exhausted. At least it paid well and had gotten my mind off the horrors from the night before.
But someone had sent weird, horrible roses to the photoshoot. Maybe they’d been beautiful once, a dozen white roses, but the edges were already dark from age, drooping in the vase. The card had simply been addressed to me. I’d spoken with the florist, but the girl was only able to determine the order had been placed through the internet. After that, I’d rushed home without saying another word, constantly looking over my shoulder for ghosts and goblins. Jesus Christ.
My hands were shaking as I fumbled with the key, finally jamming it inside and opening the door. There was a light on, which meant she’d come home. Thank God. I took a deep breath, trying to calm my rapidly beating heart.
“Ginny! Are you here?” I called as soon as I closed and locked the door. “I need to talk to you.” I dropped my things, smiling from hearing her favorite heavy metal music blaring from her room. She was okay. Everything was going to be okay. We’d figure out what to do together. I laughed, imagining her in her usual attire. The girl managed to make leather and chains look good, something I’d never been able to do.
I’d be forced to tell her I had a stalker. Then she’d convince me I needed to go to the police. God. This was so bad. I’d fucked up everything. Why? Why? Why had I wanted a night out by myself? Why had I wanted to pretend?
Ginny and I were an unlikely pair of friends, but it worked and we’d been roommates for a couple of years, although I’d been successful in modeling where she’d been struggling. Still, she had a rich boyfriend, rarely staying home any longer. Maybe I’d advise her to go stay with him for a week or so. Just to play it safe. That was the best plan.
Then what about you?
I couldn’t just pick up and leave, although the strains of modeling and the hatred for Los Angeles and all the fake people were intensifying. But going home wasn’t an option. I laughed. My home was no longer in New Orleans. And my mother couldn’t give a shit. I was nothing but a bother to her. Jesus. I wasn’t even thinking straight.
Calm down. Breathe.
“Ginny!” I called again, trying to ignore the sick sensations tearing through me as I reached the kitchen, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge. She’d left the kitchen a mess as usual, which forced me to roll my eyes. Other than that, she was the perfect roommate. I cracked open the bottle, taking a sip before heading down the hallway to her room. The closer I came, the more intense the nausea became until I felt faint. I could swear there was a strange smell coming from her room.
The door was partially open, which meant she wasn’t with Rory. Still, I knocked. “Hey. Are you in there?” There was definitely a disgusting scent. What the hell?
When she didn’t call out, I pushed open the door.
No matter where you go, I will hunt you down. You will pay for your sins.
The words skittered in the back of my mind, starting and stopping several times as if a broken record skipping and repeating. My stomach lurched and I slapped my hand over my mouth and nose, the bottle of water slipping from my fingers. I watched as it tumbled to the floor, water splashing everywhere.
Everything was suddenly in slow motion.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think.
Mortal Sins Must Be Paid in Like Kind
The horrible words were written across the wall in red ink. No, blood. Strings of it oozed from the letters.
There was no way to describe the scene of horror. She was dead. Dead. Her body lying in the middle of the bed, blood… Oh, no. No!
I stumbled backward, hitting the hallway wall. There was blood everywhere, strings of it on the walls and the floor.
Her head was turned, her lifeless eyes depicting the horror she’d been through.
He’d gotten the wrong person. Because of me. I killed her. Me. Oh, God. Oh…
“Ginny. Ginny!” I slid to the floor and wailed.
“You’re out of your mind. You do know that. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
As if death bothered me in the least. I was used to bloodshed and violence, dead bodies, and twisted limbs. However, not today.
Grinning, I grabbed the helmet from one of the pit crew. “So what? You only live once.” I couldn’t help grinning at my buddy of two decades before buckling the strap under my chin, taking long strides toward the specially designed Corvette I’d had a hand in designing. Racecars weren’t my forte, simply a love I’d had since my father had taken me to the Daytona 500 when I was eight or nine. After that, I’d been addicted to speed.
Owning not only a racetrack outside of New Orleans but also a racing team had been a dream come true. My buddy and I were business partners in the venture, utilizing not only combined capital but our powerful influences to ensure the project didn’t run into any hiccups. I held extreme power not just in New Orleans but all of Louisiana, as well as several other states. Politicians were terrified of what my family and I could do, the influence we could wield. Elections were won and lost on who we supported.
And those we destroyed for crossing us.
Brandon Baxter had taken the high road where I’d been forced on more than one occasion to use more… down and dirty methods of achieving our goals. Weeding through the red tape had been eye-opening. Getting the project to this point hadn’t been without significant hurdles or threats. At least I’d kept the bloodshed down to a minimum. I grinned at the thought.
The first race was in a few days, but I was testing out the track and the racecar Brandon and I had commissioned almost eight months before. We’d had a hand in every detail, right down to the perfect paint color. Fire Engine Red. We’d built our pit crew and secured the driver of our choice through providing top of the line pay scale and benefits. However, I wasn’t in this as a hobby. I had no intentions of us losing. Period.
Nothing I touched had ever lost, both naysayers and admirers admitting I had a Midas touch. I was fortunate in that I was wealthy and brutal enough to demand and get what I wanted.
With no exceptions.
“Incidentally, I won’t be able to make the race,” he said far too casually.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I wish I were.”
“What’s happening, hot date?” I was shocked but could tell by the look on his face he wasn’t happy about missing something we’d planned for almost a year.
“Just a business meeting with some clients flying into Germany, which isn’t by choice. I’ll hate missing it.”
I knew he was struggling with certain clients, many of them international. He was building his wealth, branching out, the man substituting money and power for a relationship, something I knew far too well.
“Bullshit,” I said, laughing. “You still think the venture is a money pit.” Which was the truth, but I sensed he didn’t want to get into his business woes.
“Only if we don’t win.” He finally grinned, his sour mood broken. Still, I often wondered why he rarely asked for my advice any longer. Hell, we were stubborn as fuck.
We both laughed, but the reason we’d been friends for years, even though we’d lost touch for a few of them, was because we both had such intense drives. Money fueled us, power and influence a close second.
“You’re all set, Mr. Thibodeaux,” Marty, the team leader told me. The powerful engine was already idling, waiting for me to slip in through the driver’s window. I could sense the aging man was anxious, more so than I’d seen since starting the project together. I knew why. The old boy knew me and what I was capable of, including wrecking the prized possession.
“Perfect. Let’s take this baby out for a spin.” In addition to the new track, the Vette was making her debut, our seasoned driver standing by the sidelines, eager to get in some practice time. Production time of the pristine vehicle had been far too long, but I was confident in the talent we’d hired.
“Maybe take it easy on the new girl,” he added. “At least for the first few laps.”
“Of course,” I lied. I had no intention of babying her. If she was going to win races, we had to know what she was made of.
Brandon had his arms folded as he walked closer. “You’re not going to listen to me or to Marty. Are you?”
“You know your father will skin me alive if you die on this racetrack. Not to mention what our bankers will do if you wreck the prized possession.”
“Yep. And for the record. Only women are truly prized possessions.”
“Whatever you say, Romeo.”
I kept the grin on my face as I purposely revved the engine, drowning out whatever else he was trying to tell me.
His expression soured, turning to one of amusement a few seconds later. He knew better than to attempt to stop me. I was the kind of man who enjoyed taking risks and had done so for as long as he’d known me.
Besides, if it was true that only the good died young, I’d live a very long life. I checked the gauges, glanced through the windshield at the empty stands, and shoved the gear into drive. There was nothing like the feel of an intense rumble between my legs, the roar of the engine in my ears. Maybe I’d change careers.
Not possible given my family’s brutal regime. After all, I was the Capo of the Thibodeaux Crime Syndicate out of New Orleans, considered one of the most powerful mafia families in the country. While our ancestry and roots were in Quebec, Canada, we were N’awliners through and through. My brother, a man known affectionately as the Kingpin, was continuing to try to legitimize the billion-dollar corporation, often denying our bread and butter was still made through less scrupulous means.
That’s where I came in, handling the darker side of operations on a day-to-day basis. I was also in charge of land development in addition to running two clubs, one in the heart of New Orleans. I was a busy man with zero time for hobbies or vacations. This was my one real vice.
I pulled away from the crew, eager to see what the nearly three quarters of a million-dollar hunk of steel could do. There was no reason to hesitate. I was on the track all by myself, but the kid in me allowed me to enjoy the moment, pretending as if thousands of people were in the stands. Seconds later, I twisted my hands around the steering wheel and pressed down the accelerator.
I’d trained for this for years, the feeling of freedom a far cry from my everyday world. A smile slowly crawled across my face as I hit speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour. Then one ten. One twenty. When I hit one fifty, I knew both Brandon and Marty would be sickened, but the superspeedway allowed for speeds up to two hundred miles per hour. I planned on pushing the girl to her limit.
I shifted gears with ease, appreciating the feel as well as the level of control. However, she was still too heavy by a few pounds. That would slow her down. But damn, this was heaven on Earth. I rounded the corners as if on rails; this was my ultimate dream. When I hit one ninety-five, my chest heaved from the rush of adrenaline. Two laps turned into four then eight. That’s when I noticed the flag. The pit crew were frantically trying to pull me over, likely at Marty’s direction. I resisted until I realized I’d soon need gas. Laughing, I finally allowed myself to slow down, backing off the acceleration, finally able to take a deep breath.
To say I was exhilarated was an understatement.
I finally stopped the steel baby a few yards from where I’d started, immediately noticing Marty was running in my direction. I didn’t need to look at his face to know he was pissed. But he was likely secretly thrilled I’d broken her in. I shoved myself from the window section, immediately removing my helmet. The moment had been incredible.
As soon as I made it a couple of feet from the Vette, Marty bolted in front of me, shoving me hard.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” he demanded. Although he knew who I was and what I was capable of, that had never stopped him from reading me the riot act if he felt it necessary.
I purposely allowed myself to tumble backwards by a few feet, thinking he would stop before he got himself hurt.
But as soon as he took a giant stride in my direction, a flash from the stands caught my eye. I’d been around enough assassination attempts to know exactly what was happening. As if in slow motion, I issued a loud bellow, but it was too late. Marty’s body pitched forward and into my arms.
The man had been shot.
“What the hell?” Brandon called from where he remained standing.
“Get down. All of you. Get to safety.” Hissing, I glared up at the stands, able to notice the would-be assassin standing to his full height, probably realizing he’d failed in his attempt to kill me.
I pulled Marty behind the car, shielding him from any additional injuries, feeling for the pulse in his neck. He’d been shot in the shoulder, the lucky son of a bitch’s anger the reason he was still alive. “You’re going to be okay, Marty.”
I’d fucking make certain of it.
While the pit crew raced for cover as demanded, Brandon stood with his hands on his hips, shielding his eyes as he stared at the stands. What the fuck was wrong with him? I raced toward my friend, the force when I threw myself on him knocking him to the pavement. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” My snarl was full of rage. I twisted, trying to locate the assassin again.
The motherfucker wasn’t getting away from me.
“What is going on?” Brandon fought to get out from underneath me.
I yanked us behind a concrete barrier on the sidelines, taking the time to peer up into the stands, scanning the seats. That’s when I noticed the asshole had already made it to the exit, a dark case in his hand. The indication was clear. He was a marksman hired for the job. I should know since I’d been trained as one years before. “Listen to me. Get Marty to the hospital.”
“I’ll call 9-1-1,” he insisted.
“Don’t do that. He’ll live but he needs medical attention. I need to trust you to handle it.”
“Where the fuck are you going?” He struggled to his feet, remaining crouched down beside me, staring at the stands in the same direction. “Who the hell is on your shit list now?”
“This time I don’t know. But I’m going after him.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Just do what I ordered. The last thing we need is the cops sniffing around.” I didn’t give him time to object, jumping over the barrier toward the exit where my personal car was parked. The assassin had missed his mark and knew better than to hang around.
He’d had one shot at completing the job. He’d failed. Thank God Marty had been furious, confronting me or I’d be dead. I made it to my Corvette seconds later, jumping inside and immediately grabbing my weapon from the glove box. There was one way in and one way out. What the fucker who’d dared make an attempt on my life didn’t know was that my beloved sportscar had been retrofitted not only with bulletproof steel but also with a souped-up engine.
I’d be able to catch the son of a bitch with ease.
As I maneuvered my way from the parking lot of the venue, it didn’t take me long to locate the speeding dark car. While it was obvious the perpetrator was an expert driver, he had no clue what I was capable of. I laughed softly, my grip on the steering wheel tightening.
Whoever was driving suddenly realized I was on his tail, pressing down on the accelerator and racing from the venue, going airborne before hitting the street. If he made it to the highway, it would be difficult to catch him, dangerous to continue. I had no plans of allowing that to happen. After making a couple of turns, I grabbed my weapon, pressing the button for the window.
I was a damn good shot. Thank God, I could shoot with my left hand. A grin remaining on my face, I aimed carefully, holding my level of concentration, accomplishing my goal of blowing out the tire. Then I backed off on the gas, waiting as the assassin lost control of the car. When the massive piece of steel slammed into a curb, the can spun in a complete three hundred and sixty degrees, tires screaming before coming to a full hard stop.
I was out of the car in seconds, not giving a shit about who paid any attention to what I was doing. Rage tearing through me, I kept my weapon lowered as well as in both hands as I took long strides toward the driver’s door, easily throwing it open in a matter of seconds. Then I yanked the asshole onto the street. “Who the fuck sent you?” I demanded.
The assassin attempted to act as if he had no clue what the hell I was talking about. “Who are you?”
I pressed the barrel against his temple, taking a deep breath. “Don’t fuck with me. I’m not in the mood. You have five seconds to tell me who hired you.” I quickly scanned the interior of the SUV, finding nothing of use. If I had to guess, I’d say the man had been hired for the sole purpose of ending my life, likely carrying nothing that would identify who he was working for. Not that he would care. It was a well-paid gig and nothing more. I’d been taught the various techniques by my father when I’d barely hit eighteen.
He’d wanted to ensure his sons were well protected against this exact type of attack. Fortunately, with my brother shifting the business into more legitimate activities since taking the helm, assassination attempts had become less frequent.
Which was one reason I needed to discover the identity of the person or group who’d hired the fucker.
“I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.” The man had no detectable accent, his white shirt and trousers meant to blend in with the seats in the stands as well as the sunny day. He’d known the best vantage point to take his shot as well. That meant he’d had the time to study the speedway, learning I’d be in attendance for the test run. Sadly, it had been on the calendar for a full month, several people having access.
The single shot was all I needed, although I’d wanted nothing more than to torture the worthless fuck for hours. Then I shoved him back into the driver’s seat, immediately hitting the unlock button inside. After kicking his legs into the vehicle and closing the door, I tugged my cellphone into my hand, dialing the man who usually insisted on shadowing me to every event. Today was a rare exception given his daughter had an earlier function at school.
I trusted few men, which had helped keep me alive in my almost forty-two years.
I rubbed my jaw as the call went through, glancing from one side of the street to the other. In this area, no one was paying any attention to what was happening on the street, the chosen location for the track required to be rural given the noise and pollution.
“Boss. Everything okay?” Rocco asked as soon as he answered the phone.
“No. I was attacked at the track.”
“What the fuck? Do you need me?”
“Only a cleanup crew, Ruffin Road behind the track. You can’t miss him.”
“Any idea who he is?” he snarled.
“Not yet. I’ll search the vehicle, but I guarantee you I won’t find anything.” While this type of maneuver wasn’t unheard of, the wealth of the Thibodeaux Empire creating an entirely new set of enemies, there’d been no advance warning of any kind. Zero threats. Although I had to admit my spidey sense had been raised, things going far too well. It had reminded me of the calm before the storm. I hated when I was right.
“Have Daniel scour the streets,” I ordered. Although I doubted using a brigade of soldiers to glean information was going to provide any additional information. At least not yet.
“Will do. Do you want me to loop Arman into what’s going on?”
“I’ll take care of talking to my brother. Just get it cleaned up. I don’t want any issues for the track.” My older brother, the great Kingpin, would be furious. While he wasn’t prone to doing anything rash, now that he had a family, he made certain to take extra precautions, something he’d recommended I do as well.
“You got it, boss.”
After ending the call, I checked the interior of the SUV. As expected, I’d found nothing useful. There wasn’t a scrap of paper, a gum wrapper, or a bottle of water. However, getting the assassin’s DNA or fingerprints wouldn’t matter. Until the responsible person wanted to issue another threat, or purposely make himself known, there would be radio silence.
Just like the old days before my father had retired, the good old days of blood and violence.
Maybe it was time to revisit the legacy methods of doing business prior to another attack.
Before it became too late.