I waited until the engine sound faded, then stood, stepping back onto the sidewalk and running as fast as I could, the beat of my feet not catching up with the pounding of my heart.

♦♦♦

The criminal underbelly came to life in a citywide search for Julia Campbell. Her photo was circulated, her plate number scribbled down on the back of receipts and stuffed into dirty pockets, mingling with stale cigarettes and loose change. The price on her head was high, especially for a non-felony action. Find a beautiful brunette and deliver her to De Luca. Piece of cake for the lucky man who stumbled upon her. The fact that she was a future Magiano had no effect. Money was money, and a hundred grand was a universal motivator.

The man came to on a dirty floor, his shoulders shaken roughly, a familiar face in his line of sight. “Wake the f**k up!” He blinked, the urgency in the man’s voice letting him know that something was wrong. But what? Something had happened. Something... f**k. He pushed the man off, reaching out—pushing off the floor, trying to stand, trying to stop the spin of the room—but failed. He fell to his knees, held his head, and tried to think.

“Where is she?” the man’s hoarse voice broke through his fog.

“I don’t know,” he gritted out. “Find her.”

The man above him straightened, moving quickly to the doorway and out of sight. The man blinked, his senses returning, the fog lifting. He rose slowly and walked forward, gained stability on his legs as he moved out of the room and into the hall. Pulling his cell from his pocket, he took the time to re-zip his pants, buckle his belt, his mind working through what this would mean, the consequences that would occur if she was not found. He glanced in doorways as he walked, unsure of where to go, upstairs or downstairs, every dark room a place where she could be hiding. Then the call was answered and he stopped, his mind and feet coming to a resolute silence. “We have a problem.”

He explained the situation, and then waited, making a decision and jogging up the stairwell steps.

The man on the other end spoke. “I’m sending a team. Stay in the building, make sure it is locked, and search every inch of it. Pull the security tapes and find out what happened. Get your head on straight and f**king tell me something other than that she’s gone. Call me when you know more.”

The call was ended, a dead silence meeting his ears. He stood in the hallway, perspiring despite the cool air. He shouldn’t have touched her. Should have sat in that room, gun in hand, and watched. He took a few slow steps, moving toward the electrical room, where the security tapes should grant some explanation of recent events. How long he was out, where she had gone. He should be more aware, but his feet felt heavy, sluggish, like lead was in his shoes. The girl could be anywhere. He could be killed next, his steps never making the complete path to the electrical room. He wondered distractedly if this was what the steps of the damned felt like. Because he was certainly the one the blame would come to rest on. And in this organization, as the case with others, blame always came with consequences.

Chapter 65

The inability to do anything was paralyzing, wrapping a fist around Brad’s heart and squeezing the life out of it. He had bribed, threatened, and begged every contact he knew, questioned Julia’s roommates, friends, and neighbors, searching for anything, any observation or piece of information that might bring her back to him. Late afternoon he had finally spoken to the chief, had gotten them to place a trace on the last signal her phone had sent out. The location had come back on the north side of town, in a residential area that had no connections to anything. They searched and found the phone crushed and tossed on the side of the road, no prints on it. Brad had lost it at the news, punching the closest wall repeatedly until his hand was a mess of blood. He should have overpowered her request, put the damn tracker on her SUV. He had bought the BMW for her; it wouldn’t have been that ridiculous to insist that it be traceable. But she had refused, her face strong, eyes fiery, a stubbornness to her posture that he found irresistible. So he had yielded, letting her have her way, a decision that might cost her life.

Their family had too many enemies, the possibilities for who had taken her too great. But the logic behind it was questionable. He had assumed she was safe as his fiancée; he had been slack in protection coverage because it made no sense for another family to cause her harm. Once married to him, as time progressed and different families warred with the Magianos, there would be times when their life would be at greater risk than others. Diminished risk, since he was estranged from the family, but risk all the same. But right now was a time of peace, everyone coloring inside the lines and minding their own business. For a family to make waves and take a woman, a woman on her wedding day, one who was marrying an estranged member of the most powerful crime family in the city ... the elements were all wrong.

It could be a random crime, one of thousands that occurred each week in the city. Young, attractive women disappeared every day, most never to resurface, sold in the sex trade or killed and disposed of. Another possibility, one he had fought with, defended against entry to his mind, was that his family was involved. The shepherd eliminating new sheep from entrance to the flock. That should not be a possibility. His father had promised to leave her alone, and had never broken a promise before. In their family, their word was everything. That was why he typically despised the words coming out of his father’s mouth. Because they were ugly in their truth, indicative of his father’s real and rotten nature. Now, with that history of truth, he refused to believe that his father threw away a lifetime of ‘honor’ over one twenty-two year old girl.

Then again, Julia had disrespected him. Stood her ground and spoke to him in a manner no one else had dared in over three decades. Anyone who had was now dead. She had been a slap in his face from the moment she had entered his life. They had, with this marriage, forced his acceptance of her. And Dom Magiano didn’t like to be forced into anything. So, with all that considered, maybe he had acted. Maybe he had thrown his honor aside for a slice of vengeance. Brad sent a silent prayer upward, making promises he couldn’t keep, trying to bribe The One who couldn’t be bribed. Anything to get her back. Anything.

Chapter 66

My feet tired first, not from the exercise, but from injury. They were raw, dirt caking into cuts from gravel, rough cement, and small pebbles on pavement. I ran on sidewalks when I could, stopping frequently to hide when a car passed. I needed to find a minivan—a minivan driven by an overweight soccer mom with three adorable kids, preferably listening to Christian music. But minivans didn’t pass through this part of town. This was the area of truck stops, seedy gas stations, lumberyards, and warehouses. At one point I saw a cab, two blocks over, moving slowly through the streets, its top light off. I hesitated, then let it pass. Paranoia dominated my thoughts, every person, car, and business a trap, designed to catch me and deliver me back to those who wished me harm. To make everything worse, my headache, dull when I had woken, was now a full-fledged jackhammer, the pain causing occasional spots in my vision and a piercing pain when I would lean over to rest. I had vomited twice, the horrible aftertaste residing in my dry mouth, and was thirsty, my throat and body begging for liquid of some sort. I eyed puddles as I passed, their dark pools dotted with oil and waste, cursing the lack of public water fountains in industrial areas. In addition to my head and my feet, my shoulder throbbed, every swing of my arms stretching a muscle that screamed in response. There was a bandage there, the adhesive on its edges pulling on my skin, and my mind itched with the desire to pull it off, to reveal whatever it was that it hid. But I didn’t. I ran, I hid, I ran, and I thirsted.

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