A Taste of… Storm’s Fury
Leila Jackson’s stomach growled as she poured what little of the off-brand shredded wheat cereal was left—crumbs and all—into her plastic bowl and sank a partly melted plastic spoon into the dry mix. As per usual, there wasn’t any milk to go with the cereal. There was never milk.
In fact, pretty much everything Leila wanted was either unavailable or a sad approximation of what a real family would have in their kitchen. Their home. In this den of sin, as her grandmother would’ve called it, any remotely valuable dishes or silverware would grow legs and walk away.
The men in charge of the house didn’t care about the squalor surrounding them, though Leila felt sure that the use of plastic cutlery and dishes was a tactical move on their part. Sure, the men weren’t willing to put in the money for anything better, but more than that, they wouldn’t dare risk one of the girls using a broken plate as a makeshift weapon. Not that any of them would have had the guts to do such a thing.
To avoid the hassle and hard stares, Leila and the others normally ate with their hands. Which wasn’t often, since they rarely had much to eat. Try as she might, Leila couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten a proper meal off a real plate. Most of the women who lived in the house had turned to drugs to escape the hunger and degradation that was their reality.
Leila wasn’t that far gone…yet.
From the corner of her eye, Leila spotted a flicker of movement as a tall man in a black leather jacket strode through the arched doorway. His presence jerked her from the moment of reverie, and every system in her body seemed to halt.
The quiet chattering from girls on the other side of the room stopped. It was almost as if a mage from one of Leila’s beloved fantasy novels had cast a spell over them, freezing time.
She had only been at the rundown Victorian mansion for just over a week, but Leila recognized the man’s flat brown eyes and five o’clock shadow. Women who lived outside of this house might have considered him handsome, with his sleek hairstyle and muscular stature, but to Leila, he was every bit as disgusting as the perverts who had frequented the last house she’d been kept in.
Leila squared her shoulders and met his stare. Not with a look of defiance. She’d learned over the last four years that insubordination caused more problems than it solved. She might be new to this particular house, but she wasn’t new to the world of sex trafficking and forced prostitution. Nor was she new to the men who controlled her every move.
For the better part of four years, she’d been kept captive in a brothel where sleazy men paid to have their way with underaged girls. Now that her body had matured, and she fit the coveted “barely legal” category, she’d been sold and transferred to this house, with the expectation that she’d make double the profits on the streets.
But just because the scenery had changed, it didn’t mean the men in charge were different. They were all the same brand of twisted, and they all wanted the same thing.
Obedience. Subservience. Complete and total control. So, yes. She knew all too well where defiance would get her.
Despite the relentless cadence of her heart against her ribs and the sweat that dampened her palms, she met the man’s stare with a look that displayed as much emotion as a stone. Best not to react…negatively or positively. That would draw unwanted attention, which was the last thing she needed.
She got it anyway.
The floor creaked beneath his booted feet as he closed the remaining distance. Though Leila’s stomach churned at the scent of his cologne mingled with the smell of stale cigarettes, she maintained her dispassionate façade even as her pulse pounded in her ears.
His hand snapped forward without warning. The movement was a blur, like the strike of a deadly snake. Leila’s charade fell away as she let out a squeak and leapt backward, colliding into the edge of the counter. It bit sharply into her spine.
Try as she might, Leila couldn’t help but wince as tears welled up in her eyes. Adding insult to injury, trapped against the cabinets as she was, Leila had nowhere to run.
The corner of the man’s mouth turned up, clearly enjoying her sudden display of fright. He lifted his hand once again, and it was only then that she recognized the articles of clothing dangling from his finger. Whore clothes. Swallowing hard against the churning bile threatening to erupt from her mouth, Leila hesitantly pulled the outfit from his outstretched hand.
“I know it’s your first night working out on the street, but this…” his hateful smile widened as he plucked at the flimsy fabric of her t-shirt, “this isn’t going to work, doll. I got you something to wear, courtesy of The Captain.”
Leila tried in vain to back away from his touch, but the counter only dug deeper into her spine. If she hadn’t already given herself a bruise, she had one now.
His eyes bore into hers as he cupped her chin. “What do you say?”
Though Leila wanted nothing more than to rake her long nails over those soulless eyes, she merely tightened her grasp on the skimpy outfit—a pair of Daisy Dukes and a backless halter top that would barely cover her chest. June in Chicago was hot and humid, but the clothes were so tiny that Leila couldn’t help but think she’d freeze as soon as the sun went down.
Her knuckles had turned white by the time she finally managed a nod. “Th-thank you.”
She hated herself for saying those words. He didn’t deserve her gratitude. She wanted to punch him in the throat, but she shoved those thoughts of retribution to the back of her mind.
Lashing out at the creep wouldn’t get her away from here. She had to remember that.
The smirk took on a devious edge as he trailed his hand down to grasp her waist. Leila knew that look. It was an expression she’d seen more times than she should have in a hundred lifetimes, much less in her meager sixteen years.
When a man donned that expression, the outcome was never good.
“Let’s try that again.” His voice was quieter and bordered on sultry. “This time, how about you show a little gratitude, huh, doll?”
Leila’s thoughts swirled like a vortex, equal parts rage and fear, or perhaps rage inspired by fear. In the wild, when an animal was cornered, violence was the typical outcome. And at that moment, she was a cornered animal.
She should have gone along with his request. After all, today wasn’t the first time she’d been in such a scenario. She could have faked a small smile and forced her voice to remain even as she tacked an affectionate nickname to the end of her “thank you.”
That’s what they all wanted—to bathe themselves in the illusion of being desired and worshiped by beautiful women.
According to other girls who’d been in the house for a while, he acted like he owned the place. Leila didn’t know his name, but she knew if she gave into him now, she’d regret it for the rest of her time in this part of town.
Wherever this part of town even is.
“Well?” A twinge of impatience edged into his tone.
Lifting her eyes up from the clothes, Leila met his expectant stare. She willed as much moisture to her mouth as she could manage, and before she could think through the action, she spat in his face.
His head snapped sideways as if she’d slapped him.
The air was sucked out of the room. Over the rush of her pulse, Leila barely made out the slight gasps of the two women at the other end of the kitchen.
Leila wouldn’t have dared to do such a thing to The Captain—the Main Man in Charge. He scared the living hell out of her. She still couldn’t believe she’d been bold enough to do this to his minion.
Did she have a death wish?
Shadows moved along the man’s unshaven face as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. With one hand, he brushed the spittle from his cheek and the side of his nose. She was prepared for an outburst or even a physical blow, but the low chuckle in his throat unnerved Leila more than an overt act of violence.
He glanced down at his fingers, and the hateful smirk reappeared. “You know, I always did like them with a bit of fire. But this…” he returned his unsettling gaze to Leila and held up a hand, “this isn’t going to fly, sweet thing.”
A surge of adrenaline raced along Leila’s spine. Her mouth was even dryer than it had been at first, and she had to fight to keep the expression of sheer terror off her face. From the corner of her eye, she spotted movement as the two older girls slunk out of the kitchen.
Leila managed a slight shake of her head. “I—”
His hand clamped down on her throat. “Save it, sweetheart.” It was Satan’s voice, she knew. He’d come to take her from this living hell to the eternal one far below.
Horrified, she tried to swallow, but his grasp was too tight.
This was it.
The split-second of defiance was the last act Leila Jackson would ever make. Maybe she should have been terrified, but if she went out swinging at one of these sick bastards, then she was a warrior. Like the Vikings she’d watched on television in her previous life, she’d meet Odin in Valhalla.
Only those who fell in battle went to Valhalla, and what was Leila’s life if not a constant battle?
The hand tightened even more, and her life flashed before her eyes.
She remembered her tenth birthday, the first time her parents had been able to afford to rent a party room at a pizza and arcade place back in her hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. She’d beaten her older brother at Street Fighter for the first time that evening. Her friends—even her parents—had all stepped up to challenge her after she’d bested Pierce, but Leila had still been undefeated when they went home.
Did her parents still think about her? Her brother? He would be twenty soon. Had he gone to college, joined the military, or had he become an electrician like their father?
As the tall man’s fingertips dug into the sensitive skin of her neck, Leila was sure she’d never learn the answer to her questions. She’d never see her family again…all because she’d been foolish enough to believe a hysterical woman begging for help with her unresponsive toddler.
Leila had been warned all her life about the importance of avoiding strangers, from her parents and from school, but no one had ever told her that the danger might come in the form of a desperate mother. Of course, Leila knew now that the whole encounter had been an act. There was never any toddler—the woman probably didn’t even have any kids. It had all been a ruse to lure her into a stranger’s van and knock her unconscious.
Like she was going unconscious now.
All at once, the pressure at her throat lifted. The air along the raw skin felt like a cool breeze, though she hadn’t moved from her spot in the kitchen.
Leila would have dropped to the dingy tiled floor if it hadn’t been for the cabinets at her back. She lost her grip on the skimpy clothes as she grasped at the edge of the counter. Her other hand flew to her neck as she took in a violent breath.
She was still here, for better or worse, in this shoddy house with sixteen other girls and the men who guarded them. A stone sank in her stomach as a new realization hit her.
There was no Valhalla. There was no Odin. There was only Leila and this leather-jacket-wearing creep.
Leering with malevolence, he rapped his knuckles on the worn countertop. “I’d bash your face into that counter until your own mother wouldn’t recognize you, but lucky for you, you’re worth a lot more if you’re pretty.”
Leila sucked in a breath. “G-go ahead.” Her throat was raw, but she forced the words out. “I’ve b-been gone for so long, my m-mother wouldn’t recognize me, anyway.”
His soulless eyes bore into hers as he held up an index finger. “Mark my words, you little whore, this ain’t over. If you think you can pull some shit like that and get away with it, I’ll show you just how wrong you are. You’re headed out to the street soon, but you’d best believe that I’ll be here waiting when you return.”
Bile stung the back of Leila’s throat. Of course that’s what he wanted. He was just like all the others. So hungry for power that he wouldn’t hesitate to exert his control by forcing a helpless girl to have sex with him.
He stepped back, snickering victoriously at her inability to respond to his implied threat, and his gaze lowered to the cereal Leila had poured only moments ago.
With another malicious twist of his lips, he swiped the bowl off the counter. Plastic smacked against the linoleum with a resounding clatter, sending chunks of shredded wheat skittering across the floor.
Leila jumped at the sudden disturbance, and his faint smile escalated into mocking laughter.
He held both hands out at his sides as he backed up toward the door. “Just looking out for your figure, doll. I’d hate for you to go and ruin that smoking hot body of yours, you know?”
Leila didn’t let her eyes leave him until he disappeared through the arched doorway.
Clutching her throat with one hand, the other covering her mouth, she leaned all her weight against the cabinet. As she slid down to sit on the sticky linoleum, she bit her tongue to stave off the tears she knew were coming. Even though her throat felt like she’d swallowed glass, she wasn’t crying for the brutal treatment of the pervert who had just left the room. He wasn’t the first violent man she’d dealt with, and she doubted he’d be the last.
That was the real reason for her tears. This life. These soulless monsters. The cutthroat girls and women who never looked out for one another. This was her life, and now, she’d make it official by working as a prostitute on the streets of Chicago.
And when she returned to the house…
Bile clawed its way back up her throat as her stomach lurched. Clamping a hand over her mouth, Leila leapt to her feet and sprang to the sink. Hunched over and struggling to keep strands of ebony hair from her face, she emptied her stomach into the stainless-steel. Acid stung her throat while tears blurred her vision. She heaved until she was certain the nausea had passed.
After she drank a few handfuls of lukewarm water from the tap, Leila leaned heavily against the counter and turned to the spilled cereal. Glancing from one piece of shredded wheat to the next, she covered her mouth and squeezed her eyes closed. The only meal she was allocated for the entire day had been scattered over the pockmarked linoleum.
She’d been told by one of the other girls to turn her mind to happy memories when she felt overwhelmed, but any time Leila tried to heed the advice, she only felt more defeated. Though none of the women trapped with her in this house were here due to favorable circumstances, Leila had come to realize that not all of them had fallen victim to the traffickers quite like she had.
That was to say that most of them hadn’t been kidnapped at age twelve and sold into prostitution.
Even now, she couldn’t believe four years had passed. She hadn’t even known what sex was back then, and in the snap of a finger, all her innocence had been forcibly erased. Stripped of her dignity, she’d been tossed into a closet of a room and told to “do whatever the men want.”
She cried a lot in those early days. But tears didn’t matter. Often, it only made things worse.
Most enjoyed that sense of power they had over her. The consequences of an unsatisfied man were far worse than her feelings, anyway. When men didn’t get their way, the response was always violent. Eventually, she learned to close her eyes and just accept the constant stream of men visiting her room. She lost count of how many she’d serviced over the years, but the lesson stuck. Doing whatever disgusting thing a man demanded, without question, made life a lot easier.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood in front of the sink, her blank stare fixed on the crumbs of cereal at her feet. As the minutes ticked away, she knew she had to prepare herself for the night ahead. Her makeup was a mess, and she still had to change into the barely there outfit she’d been given by Leather Jacket Creep.
A shadow moved at the edge of her vision, and Leila jerked away from the counter. She was sure that her tormentor had returned to claim his retribution early.
She wasn’t ready for that. She had expected to have the entire night to steel herself for the confrontation.
To her relief, the newcomer was a different soldier. This one had the same tall, muscular frame, but he looked younger. Though his dark eyes lacked the same malice as his counterpart, the expression on his clean-shaven face seemed as if it had been carved from stone. As he brushed the strands of jet-black hair from his forehead, the waning sunlight caught the polished chrome of the handgun holstered beneath one arm.
Leila’s relief was short-lived. As soon as she spotted the weapon, she froze. “Did he send you in here to kill me?” The question came out in a rush, and she wasn’t sure which answer she hoped for.
The newcomer frowned. “What? Who? What are you talking about?”
She swallowed past the tightness in her throat. “The guy who just left. The guy who did this.” She gestured to the cereal.
With a groan, the man shook his head. “Giorgio. ‘G,’ as he prefers to be called. Is that who you’re talking about?”
Leila swallowed again. “I don’t know his name.”
The soldier scratched his temple. “Yeah, Giorgio’s a real piece of work. Just because he’s The Captain’s cousin, he thinks he can do whatever the hell he wants.”
Leila flashed a paranoid glance around the room. Was Giorgio listening? If she agreed with this man, would he pop out from one of the cupboards like a twisted jack-in-the-box and put a bullet in her skull?
“He’s not in here.” Although the soldier’s reply was flat, Leila caught a twinge of a sentiment she couldn’t immediately place. Was it sympathy?
No. None of the men in this godforsaken place are capable of genuine human emotion.
Leila lifted her chin and met his gaze. She was sick of being scared. Sick of it all.
He spread his hands and took a step forward. “Look,” his voice was almost a whisper, “I know it’s your first night working the street. I’m not going to pretend to know how that feels, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have a choice. Now that you’re here, it’s their way or a hole in the ground.”
Tears pricked the edge of Leila’s vision, but she clenched her jaw to will them away. “What’s to stop me from just leaving while I’m out there tonight? Why wouldn’t I just have one of the Johns take me somewhere outside the city?”
Did I really ask this stranger these questions? Maybe she did subconsciously hope to die.
Instead of putting her out of her misery, the man frowned, though the look was more resigned than menacing. “You can’t. Too many of the women who come through here think they can Pretty Woman their way to freedom. You can’t.”
Anger and frustration warmed her skin. “Why not?”
He took a step closer. “Because they’ll find you. They’ll find your family. You ought to know by now that there’s nothing to stop them from getting who or what they want. Not even the cops. They own the cops.”
Leila’s stomach sank. Pretty Woman had been her mother’s favorite movie. But the soldier was right, at least as far as Leila could tell. The world of prostitution was nothing like Julia Roberts’s portrayal in the iconic film.
As defeat weighed on her shoulders, Leila took hold of the countertop. She still had one option left. “Fine. I’ll just kill myself.”
She could almost feel the sweet release of letting it all go, of sinking into the nothingness of death. Was she brave enough to do it herself or could she goad this man into doing it for her?
“If you do, then I’ll be the one who pays for it.” He tapped his chest with an index finger.
“I don’t care.” Leila’s voice was scarcely above a whisper. Her vision blurred again, but she held his gaze. “You’re just like all the rest of them, anyway.”
Through her tears, she could have sworn he winced at the callous remark. “I’m not like them.”
Her laugh was filled with bitterness. “Then why are you here? Trying to play like you’re one of the nice guys? I’ve got your number. I’ve been seeing nice guys like you for the last four years.”
She took a step toward him, the cereal crunching under her foot. The sound added to her fury.
“Now look where I am!” She waved her hands at the squalor of the room. “Being forced to walk the streets. Like that’s supposed to be some kind of upgrade from waiting in a bedroom for the next man to do whatever he wants.”
She held up a hand. Now that the words had started, they didn’t seem to want to stop. “I never had a choice, but you do. Like you said, if I try to leave, they’ll kill my family. But you, you can just walk out that door any time you want. You can go home to your family, your warm bed, and your nice house.”
The muscles in his jaw twitched as seconds ticked away in silence. Leila half-expected him to turn and march back out the door. Or wrap his hands around her throat and finish Giorgio’s job.
Kill me. The thought was like a whisper in her ear.
Instead, he blew out a long breath and raked a hand through his hair. “You’ll be leaving soon. You need to hurry and get ready.”
Her shoulders sagged. There would be no reprieve today.
Leila glanced again at the spilled cereal. “I still have to clean this up.”
He held up a hand to stop her before she dropped to her knees. “I’ll clean it up. You really need to hurry.”
She bit down on her lip to keep her voice steady. “I haven’t eaten today. This is all I have.”
Muttering a slew of four-letter words under his breath, along with at least one mention of Giorgio, the man reached to the back pocket of his dark wash jeans.
Leila flinched at his sudden movement.
“Here.” He held out a five-dollar bill and a handful of ones. “There’s a gas station close to where you’re going. When you get a break tonight, go get yourself something to eat.”
Even as Leila mulled over his words in an effort to discern whether he was setting a trap, she reached out to accept the offer. “Why are you giving me this? Why are you doing any of this?”
He pressed the cash into her palm as his brown eyes met hers. “Because I’m not like them.”
Leila glanced at the money and back to him before shaking her head. For the last four years, she’d been conditioned to interpret any gesture of kindness as a trap.
She swallowed hard. “I don’t know if I can pay you back.”
“It’s okay. This isn’t a trap. Just take the money and get something to eat tonight. I’ll beat nine dollars out of Giorgio if I have to. He might be the boss’s cousin, but I’m still in charge of that idiot.”
In a different world, Leila might have laughed at the comment. But as she pocketed the cash and scooped up her skimpy outfit, she honestly couldn’t recall the last time she’d made a sound that even came close to sounding like joy.
* * *
Leila’s five-inch heels clacked against the pavement as she stepped over the curb and onto the street corner. Clasping the strap of her small handbag, she glanced over her shoulder to watch the black Town Car pull away.
The drive hadn’t taken long, but even if she’d been inclined to make a break for freedom, she didn’t have the first clue where she was. The other girls had told her they did the majority of their work in a community called West Garfield Park, but Leila couldn’t identify the location on a map if her life depended on it.
Before her kidnapping, she had only been to the state of Illinois once. Her hometown, Janesville, was a good-sized city, but it was a speck compared to Chicago.
The sun hung just over the city skyline, and streetlights buzzed with life. The street she had been given to work was home to a handful of vacant lots and a poorly maintained expanse of grass, which the house girls referred to as “Needle Park.” It didn’t take much deduction for Leila to figure out why it had earned that nickname.
The soldier pulled into an empty parking lot and pointed toward a group of girls standing under the glow of a streetlamp. “This is where you work and will be picked up at the end of your shift.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Leila’s stomach churned with anxiety.
“Watch and learn.” The soldier nodded at a car as it slowed to a stop beside the street corner.
A thin blonde in six-inch heels and shorts that were almost as revealing as Leila’s sauntered over as the driver rolled down his window. Over the distant hum of traffic and the rush of her pulse, Leila couldn’t make out the dialogue, but the body language said enough.
Blondie’s hips swayed hypnotically as she bent forward to speak to the driver. She moved her hands as she spoke, drawing attention to her breasts and her lips. All the areas men loved to covet. And finally, with a sultry smile, blondie nodded, made her way around to the passenger side door, and got in the vehicle. Before she’d even closed the door, the driver took off so fast, his tires chirped on the street.
“Is that what I’m supposed to do?” Leila asked the soldier. “Just supposed to hop in the car with some creep and hope that he doesn’t kidnap or murder me?”
“Hop in the car with a paying customer, yes.” The soldier met her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Someone will be nearby to keep a watch out. Stay close. Find somewhere quiet and out of the way to do your job and have them drop you back here when you’re done. There’s a payphone nearby. You have the number to call if there’s any trouble, and the watcher is busy with something else. Someone will be back to collect you when your shift is done.”
Watcher. Leila shuddered at the word.
Someone was always watching…waiting…
“That’s it?” She didn’t want to get out of the car and hoped that stalling might buy her at least a few more moments.
“Clock’s ticking, and you’ve got a quota, so get out there.”
Swallowing against the onslaught of nausea, Leila clasped her handbag and exited the car.
The soldier rolled down the window and turned to face her. “A word of advice. Stay close enough to the girls who are working. At least for tonight. They know how to spot a cop if one comes by. But don’t get too friendly. They are your competition.”
The soldier drove off, leaving her alone and exposed. It was one thing to know men were coming to screw her in a private room. But now, she was being put on display, side-by-side with the competition, who were vastly more experienced.
What if she didn’t make her quota? Leila was so focused on reigning in her mounting anxiety that she didn’t notice the attention she’d gained until she turned to find a woman staring at her.
By Leila’s best guess, she was at least in her mid-twenties. Her ebony hair was pinned atop her head in a messy bun, and her outfit—stilettos, a skintight black miniskirt, and a semi-sheer halter top—was just as skimpy as Leila’s.
Her high cheekbones and smooth, tan skin were memorable, but Leila was sure she’d never seen her before. Whoever the woman was, she ran in a different circle than Leila.
The woman lifted a sculpted brow as she held out a tin of Altoids. “You straight, kid? You look like you’re about to puke.”
Leila pressed her hand against her stomach. “I’m…queasy, I guess. I’ve never done this before.”
The other woman’s honey-brown eyes didn’t leave Leila as she popped open the mints.
“First night? No wonder you look shook. Here, get some. These mints will fix your stomach right up.” The tone of her voice was amicable enough, but Leila didn’t miss her carefully guarded expression.
Leila managed a small smile as she picked out two mints. Without hesitating or even caring if they were laced with poison, she popped them in her mouth. “Thank you.”
“Baby girl, you’re gonna have to get straight real fast if you want to survive out here.” She gestured to a group of girls milling about less than a block away from them. “Ain’t none of us picked this work, but we’re all in the same business, with bosses to keep happy. You wouldn’t be out here if you didn’t have the assets, so work what you got. If you don’t…” her eyes met Leila’s as she shrugged her thin shoulders, “then you’ll be out here for the rest of your life.”
Leila wasn’t sure what the woman expected her to say, so she nodded absently as she crunched on her mints. She was already bound to this work for the rest of her life, and she knew better than to think she’d ever be able to make this so-called job work in her favor.
A spell of silence descended over them, though the sound of traffic along a major street nearby was steady. Shifting from one foot to the other, Leila glanced back to her companion.
She forced a slight smile to her lips as she stuck out a hand. “I’m Leila. Thank you for the mints.”
With unabashed skepticism alight in her eyes, the woman accepted Leila’s awkward handshake. “Ain’t no problem. And the name’s Angel.” She stepped backward, and the glow of a streetlight caught the polished silver of a cat-shaped pendant at her throat.
Leila’s smile came a little easier as she touched her own cat necklace. “We have something in common.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Angel didn’t seem impressed.
“My mom gave this to me when I was eleven.” Leila gingerly clasped the silver cat—the last piece of her former life. “The next day, she took me with her to the shelter so we could adopt a cat. We had a dog too, but I think my mom secretly always wanted a cat. I thought I was going to get a kitten, but there was this sweet calico cat I loved. All her kittens had been adopted, so I just knew it was time for her to go home too.”
Angel’s gaze remained fixed on Leila, but the older woman’s countenance changed little.
Though the threat of tears loomed behind Leila’s eyes, she forced herself to smile. “I named her Hup, after the hero in a show called The Dark Crystal. I hope my parents still have her. I hope they didn’t get rid of her after…I…was gone.”
Angel responded with a meager nod, and Leila wished she could vacuum up all the words she’d just uttered. Angel clearly didn’t care about Leila’s old life, and for all Leila knew, Angel’s life might have always been the streets. She might not have even had a mother to look out for her.
Leila tugged at the hem of her too-short shirt. At least the threat of puking had subsided. “Hey, um, Angel?”
Angel lifted a brow as she angled her head back toward Leila. “Yeah?”
“I don’t know this part of town well…at all, actually. Is there a gas station or something close by where I can get something to eat?”
With an impatient sigh, Angel pointed to the abandoned grocery store kitty-corner to where they stood. “Go past that old store. There’s one at the other end of that block. But you’d better get over there fast.”
Leila readjusted her handbag over her shoulder. “Why?”
“All the businesses around here close up by nine.”
“Nine? Why so early?”
Angel shifted from one foot to the other and slapped a hand down on her hip. “You’re in West Garfield Park, kid. This ain’t exactly a place for law-abiding citizens after the sun goes down.”
Before Leila could speak, a silver coupe pulled up to the curb. Angel didn’t even bother to glance back at Leila as she strode over to the driver to strike up a conversation. After a quick exchange, Angel sauntered around to the passenger’s side.
“West Garfield Park,” Leila muttered to herself.
She waited for Angel and her client to pull away before hastily crossing the street. Headlights flashed on, and she wasn’t surprised when the watcher followed her from a distance.
Maybe the gas station would have a map of the city so Leila could start to decipher the treacherous puzzle that was Chicago.
Special Agent Amelia Storm popped a piece of cheese tortellini in her mouth as she squinted at her computer. The machine might have been official FBI property, but she hadn’t hesitated to download Netflix to pass the time during her breaks. She hated watching shows on her phone’s tiny screen, especially when she had a nineteen-inch monitor right in front of her.
Tonight’s dinnertime feature was a new documentary series that honed in on a handful of missing persons cases that had grown cold across the United States. Even though Amelia worked in law enforcement, she was still a sucker for a good crime show. She especially liked to watch for accuracy and rail at the actors when they did something wrong.
Propping her elbows on the laminate desk, she stabbed another tortellini and scooted closer to the computer. An episode about a girl who had been abducted at twelve had just finished, and Amelia carefully watched the short summary at the end.
Heart squeezing for the child, Amelia glanced at the calendar. She’d been gone for four years now, almost to the day.
The chances of her still being alive were abysmal, and a small part of Amelia hoped that death had claimed her quickly. That the young girl was now resting in peace instead of enduring forty-eight months of unknown cruelty and torture.
There were things worse than death. Much worse.
And the families…she didn’t want to think of the hell they’d been through.
All four cases in the series had been placed on the proverbial back burner once the trail of evidence dried up. Initial suspects had been ruled out due to alibis, and all the leads had been investigated and dismissed one by one.
Law enforcement agents who were responsible for the cases could store the evidence away and move on with their duties, but it wasn’t so neat and tidy for the victims’ families.
Amelia could sympathize.
Two years earlier, her brother had been killed in the line of duty as a detective for the Chicago Police Department. Trevor had been following a case lead when a routine stop to pick up a person of interest turned into a shootout. The case had been what some would call a slam dunk, closed with all its files archived after the suspect was tried and convicted.
But just because the box of evidence had been tucked away somewhere in the basement of the Chicago police department, that didn’t mean Amelia and her family had the same ease in storing away their grief.
She pushed the thoughts from her mind and returned her focus to the monitor. The show was called Vanished, and that was exactly what all four of the victims had done.
The cases featured in the ten-episode series were from different cities across the country—Boulder, Tacoma, Miami, and Janesville. There were no signs of violence, no indications of a break-in, just nothing. Each victim had disappeared without a trace.
Amelia reached the end of her leftover pasta as the credits rolled across the screen. Blowing a few strands of dark hair from her face, she leaned back in her chair and brushed her fingertips along the braid that started at her temple and ended in a wavy ponytail. For good measure, she double-checked the piece of hair she’d wrapped around to cover the elastic tie.
It had grown many inches in the two years she’d been out of the military, and her hairstylist sister-in-law often hinted about “shaping it up.” Amelia had no time for that. Besides, she liked it long. Liked the ease of pulling it back as well as the security of running the thick rope of it through her fingers when she needed to think.
From around the corner of her cubicle, she spotted the Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago field office, Jasmine Keaton.
Her glossy black hair was pulled away from her face in a neat ponytail, and her white blouse and gray slacks were crisply pressed, as always. Her silver hoop earrings caught the overhead fluorescence as she tilted her head to point at one ear.
Amelia took the cue and pulled out her earbuds. Aside from the drum of raindrops against the row of windows at the other end of the room—a reminder of Chicago’s unpredictable summer weather—the Organized Crime Division’s corner of the sixth floor was quiet.
Amelia pushed away from the desk. “SAC Keaton. You’re here late.”
Jasmine shrugged as she glanced at Amelia’s computer. “More true-crime documentaries? This is what you watch in your spare time, Storm?”
With a grin, Amelia returned the shrug. “Hey, it seemed work appropriate.”
Jasmine Keaton’s dark eyes moved to Amelia’s two monitors as she leaned against the edge of the desk. “Have you ever thought about watching something that isn’t so depressing?”
Amelia sucked in a breath through her teeth and made a show of leaning farther back in her chair. “Have I thought about it? Yes. Have I acted on it? Also, yes. Just not at work. I could throw on some Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but I’d be a little out of place if I was over here cackling at my desk in the middle of the FBI office.”
From the other side of the partition separating Amelia and her neighbor came a quiet snort of laughter.
SAC Keaton crossed her arms and turned her attention to the chuckling agent. “What about you, Agent Palmer? Do you watch murder and cold case shows on your break?”
Like a gopher emerging from underground, Special Agent Zane Palmer stood to his full six-two height. His slate-gray eyes were alight with mirth as he glanced between the two women. Though his sandy brown hair was styled with whatever mystery product he used, he’d discarded his black suit jacket and had rolled his sleeves up to the elbows.
Scratching the side of his face, he made a show of pondering the SAC’s question. “No, I can’t say that I do. I usually go sit in my car and play solitaire on my phone.” Though faint, there was enough of his native Jersey accent to confirm that he wasn’t from the Midwest like Amelia and Jasmine.
The SAC drew her brows together. “You spend your break in your car?”
Palmer clicked his tongue as he pointed a ballpoint pen at the SAC. “I smoked for fifteen years, from the time I was sixteen to a few weeks after I turned thirty-one. Since smoking bans kept popping up while I was working in the D.C. office, I’d drive around on my breaks and chain smoke. I haven’t had a cigarette in three years, but by now, I’m so used to driving around during my lunch break that it’s weird not to do it.”
Glancing from Agent Palmer to Amelia and back, Jasmine shook her head. “So, you drive around in Chicago traffic, and you watch cold case documentaries…for fun.”
Zane held up a hand. “No, I used to drive around on my breaks. I don’t hate myself enough to spend my free time in Chicago traffic. Now, I just go sit in my car. Maybe do a few laps in the parking garage.”
Amelia crossed her arms. “See? At least I’m indoors watching television like a normal human being.”
“Normal,” Zane mouthed, wiggling his fingers to add air quotes.
Even as Amelia rolled her eyes, she couldn’t suppress her amusement. Ever since the great pizza debate—Chicago versus New York—Amelia and Zane took every opportunity to throw sarcastic jabs at one another.
The pretend spat was all in good fun. With the universe of dark details that came with their jobs as FBI agents, a little sarcastic humor was necessary for the sake of their sanity.
Amelia just wished that everyone she worked with had the same sense of humor.
Especially her fellow agent, Joseph Larson.
Try as she might, Amelia hadn’t been able to convince her friend and frequent case partner that the interactions between her and Zane were harmless. Though Larson wouldn’t vocalize his concern, Amelia was convinced that he suspected that Zane was trying to get into her pants.
At that thought, a snort of laughter slipped from her lips, earning Amelia curious looks from Jasmine and Zane. She waved them away. “My show’s over. I’ve got work to do.”
With a little salute, the SAC continued on her way to the breakroom while Zane lifted a shoulder and offered her a quick grin. “Normal is boring anyway.”
Amelia flashed him a thumbs-up before he disappeared behind the partition. She stared at the empty space he just occupied, wondering if Joseph Larson might possibly be right.
Not that it mattered. If Palmer’s intent was to woo Amelia to his bed, he was sorely out of luck.
Ever since the borderline traumatic breakup with her high school sweetheart ten years earlier, Amelia hadn’t the faintest interest in a romantic engagement. Her career in the Army hadn’t allotted her the free time to fret over boys, and neither had her new career in the Organized Crime Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Her work and her family were all she needed.
Her beloved sister-in-law, niece and nephew, and her now-sober father were why she’d moved back to Chicago. Joanna had been widowed when Amelia’s brother was killed two years before, prompting Amelia to leave her military lifestyle behind. She’d returned home to help her sister-in-law juggle her ventures as a small business owner and a newly single mother of two.
She closed her eyes as a flash of pain shot through her. She still couldn’t believe that her brother was gone.
“Focus,” she muttered to herself. It was too easy to fall into the quicksand of sadness and grief.
But even as Amelia went back to finishing the paperwork for a case they’d recently wrapped up—the drug traffickers who had nearly killed her fellow agent Fiona Donahue—she struggled to keep her thoughts focused.
She’d been a morning person for the better part of her adult life, but for the past few months, she and Zane had adjusted their shifts to cover for Fiona while she recovered from the brutal beating she’d received at the hands of a group of Irish gangsters. Since Fiona worked nights and weekends, that meant Amelia had been forced to flip her sleep schedule to hours she hadn’t kept since high school.
The buzz of her cell rattling against the desk snapped her from the lazy contemplation. Before it could vibrate itself to the floor, she snatched it up. The area code was from Wisconsin, that much she recognized. At close to midnight, a call from an unknown number usually meant one thing—her younger sister, Lainey, needed money.
Lainey hadn’t bounced back from the rough upbringing like Amelia and Trevor had. She was the youngest, and Amelia suspected that the downward spiral of events after their mother’s death had impacted Lainey more harshly than it had Amelia or Trevor. Lainey, much like their father, had taken to self-medicating as early as her freshman year of high school.
Amelia shook off the unwelcome thought of her troubled sister and answered the call. “Agent Storm.”
“I’m glad I got ahold of you, Agent Storm,” a woman with a distinctly folksy Wisconsin accent chirped through the phone. “I was worried I might not reach you so late at night.”
Amelia connected the dots almost immediately. “Detective Schauss. Yeah, I’ve been working some night shifts lately, so you actually caught me in the office.”
“Oh good. I’m glad I didn’t wake you.” The detective’s voice was upbeat. She was clearly used to working these nocturnal hours.
Come to think of it, when she and Joseph had worked with Schauss on one of Amelia’s first cases in the Chicago field office, the detective had been upbeat and chipper with every interaction. Not even Irish drug traffickers could dampen the Janesville detective’s perpetual positivity.
Stifling a yawn, Amelia reached for a pen and pad of paper. “Nope. You sure didn’t. What can I do for you, Detective?”
“Well, I’m in a bit of a pickle right now, and it’s looking like this might be something we ought to hand off to you guys down there in Chicago.”
“What kind of pickle?”
She could have sworn she heard the hushed sound of Zane’s laughter.
“You know that new Netflix show about those four cold cases that just came out yesterday? Well, technically late at night the day before, but anyway, I digress.”
“Right. I actually just finished watching the fifth episode on my lunch break. Well, dinner break, I guess.” Amelia propped her elbow on the armrest of her chair. “What about it?”
“Oh, good. That saves a lot of explanation.” Detective Schauss chuckled quietly. “Well, you know how there was one on there about a girl from Janesville?”
The poor girl who’d been snatched four years ago.
“Janesville, yeah. I remember her. Leila Jackson, right?”
“That’s her, yep. She’s been missing for about four years, it looks like.” The detective’s chipper voice darkened. “She disappeared when she was twelve, and no one’s seen hide nor hair of her since. We used that new federal age progression software to generate a picture of what she’d look like now.”
Amelia pulled up the Netflix show again. “Right, and they showed it next to the picture of her when she was twelve.”
“They put the phone number for a tip line at the end of the broadcast. I didn’t really expect anything to come of it, but, well…we just got a call from someone who says they saw her.”
“Really?” Propping the phone against her ear with a shoulder, Amelia pulled up the FBI’s case database.
The only information she knew about Leila Jackson’s disappearance was from the television show, and those details were often hyped up for dramatic appeal. Amelia’s fingers flew over the keyboard as she typed Leila’s name into the search bar. Scanned copies of statements, photographs, and interview transcripts popped up from the initial investigation four years earlier.
“Here…I’ll shoot you an email real quick with the recording.” Furious keyboard clicking followed. “You can have a listen, though you probably know the places he talks about better than I do.”
As Amelia dragged the photos and documents over to her second monitor, a pop-up in the bottom corner of the screen showed she’d received a new message from Detective Schauss.
“Thanks, Detective. It says here that her disappearance was investigated by the Janesville PD. At the time, they didn’t think there was any evidence to suggest she’d crossed state lines, so they didn’t involve the Bureau.”
“That’s right. Case went cold after a few months, and not much has been added to it since. But the call we got tonight was from a gentleman who says he saw someone who looked an awful lot like Leila there in Chicago.”
Amelia scrolled through the old case report. “When did the caller say they saw Leila?”
Amelia sat up straighter, the case going from cold to crucial with the single word. “How long ago?”
“Couple hours. Said he saw her in West Garfield Park, but I’ll be honest, I don’t really know where that is.”
“West Garfield.” Amelia tabbed down to the bottom of the report. “Yeah, I know that park. It can be a tough place.”
She left out her intimate familiarity with “tough” places. For close to ten years, Amelia had called Englewood her home. Year after year, the Englewood community area turned out some of the highest rates of violent crime in all of Chicago.
“One more thing.” Uncertainty was plain in the detective’s voice. “Just so you know, the caller said that she was a working girl.”
Amelia hated that she wasn’t surprised. “Okay. Yeah, that’s going to be our jurisdiction. It looks like we’ve got most of the case file already in our database but send me anything else you’ve dug up. Oh, and anything on the Jackson family too.”
“Will do. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”
“I will. Thanks, Detective Schauss. Take care.”
“You too, hon.”
As Amelia set the phone back on her desk, she replaced her earbuds and pulled up Detective Schauss’s email to play the recording of the phone call.
“Janesville Police Department anonymous tip line.”
“Hey, yeah.” The caller—a young male—cleared his throat. “So, I think I might have seen one of those missing people…from a Netflix show. See, we were slow at work tonight. I work at a gas station on Madison Street. I was watching that new cold case show between customers.”
Amelia chuckled. She’d known she wasn’t the only one.
“One of those girls, the one from Janesville. Leila Jackson…that was her name, I think. Well, I saw a girl come in here who looked a hell of a…sorry. A girl who looked an awful lot like that age progression picture they put up on the screen. She came in to get some soda and chips. She paid cash, and the whole time she was looking over her shoulder like someone was following her or something. I don’t know. It was weird, you know?”
Amelia mentally shrugged. From what she remembered, most people looked over their shoulder in that part of town.
“I kept an eye on her after she left, just to make sure that no one jumped out at her or anything. And I mean, I don’t judge, but she was dressed like a working girl, you know? Seemed like she was a little young for that, but I keep my nose out of that stuff. I stepped out for a smoke after she left, and sure enough, she was walking back over to where those working girls like to hang out.”
Though the caller gave a rough estimate of the last location he’d seen the woman he thought might be Leila, he provided neither his name nor the name of the gas station. Amelia couldn’t say she blamed him. She’d lived in neighborhoods like West Garfield Park and had a keen memory of how residents viewed law enforcement.
After typing a short explanation, Amelia sent the recording to SAC Keaton. Leila had been spotted a couple hours ago, and if Amelia was lucky, she might still catch the girl.
As she stood, Amelia grabbed the black zip-up hoodie she’d draped over the back of her chair. Though outdoor temperatures that week had hovered around ninety degrees, the FBI kept their building about as cold as a meat locker. Even on the hottest summer days, she still came to the office prepared to freeze her butt off.
Tonight, she donned the hoodie more to make herself look less like a federal agent than to ward off a chill. Even this late at night, temperatures still hovered in the low eighties.
Before she had shrugged into the first sleeve, Zane rose from his chair. “You bailing out already? It’s not even midnight.”
Amelia zipped up the hoodie. “If bailing means searching for a missing girl in our least savory part of town, then yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Zane headed her way. “What girl?”
“The Janesville PD got an anonymous tip about a girl who matches the age progression picture of Leila Jackson from the cold case show, Vanished. The one who disappeared four years ago.”
He scratched the side of his nose. “So, you’re going to Wisconsin?”
She scoffed. “Yeah, Palmer. I’m going to drive to Wisconsin at quarter ‘til midnight on a Saturday.”
His confused expression relaxed into a sarcastic grin. “Then where?”
“The caller said they saw her in West Garfield Park, somewhere around Madison Street. I’m going to drive through the area and see if I can locate her.”
Amusement drained from Palmer’s face. “You’re just going to drive through West Garfield Park in the middle of the night…by yourself?”
With an exaggerated eye roll, Amelia lifted the hem of her hoodie, revealing her holstered Glock. “I’m a big girl.”
“I’ll go with you.” He shot her a matter-of-fact look as he scooped a set of car keys from his desk. “I’ll drive while you look for her. Unless you’ve grown an extra set of eyes I don’t know about, I don’t see how you’d spot anything this late at night while trying to navigate those dark streets.”
Though Amelia had been prepared for him to protest on the grounds that West Garfield Park was a treacherous neighborhood after sunset, his actual suggestion, sarcastic though it may have been, made much more sense.
Amelia shrugged. “Good point. Sure. It’s basically like a break for you anyway, right?”
Zane snorted as he stepped away from his desk.
Amelia held up a hand. “Hold on. That’s what you’re wearing?”
He glanced down at the white dress shirt and shiny blue tie. “Good point. I look like a Fed.” He jerked his tie off and tossed it on his chair.
Amelia pressed her lips together, trying not to laugh. After a second, she gave up. “Wow…that’s a real transformation. I almost didn’t recognize you.”
Zane shot her a double middle finger before pulling a hoodie from a drawer. “Better?” He did a little twirl to give her the full affect.
She applauded. “Much.”
They set off for the parking garage attached to the building. Zane’s music preferences were a refreshing change from Joseph Larson’s. If Amelia was forced to listen to “Old Town Road” one more time, she wasn’t sure she could be held accountable for her actions.
Though Amelia considered Joseph to be a friend, their tastes in music couldn’t have been more different. Joseph had grown up in rural southern Missouri, whereas Amelia had been born and raised in the heart of Chicago.
In fact, the more she thought about her frequent case partner, the more she wondered if they had any commonalities aside from the fact that they’d both been in the military.
Not that the differences were a bad thing. Before her death nearly twenty years ago, Amelia’s mother, Bonnie, had told her that having friends who were different from her made for an enriching experience.
Well, Mom, if you could see my friend now, you’d know that I followed your advice to a tee. A corner of Amelia’s mouth turned up at the thought.
As she and Zane pulled onto West Madison Street, Amelia reached for the dial to lower the music’s volume.
Zane shot her a curious glance.
“It helps me concentrate,” Amelia replied to the unasked question. “I turn down the radio when I’m trying to find a new place too. It’s a thing. They did a whole piece about it on NPR the other day. Something about not having enough cognitive resources to devote to all the sensory stimuli around you.” She waved a hand. “Or something like that. I’m not a psychologist.”
The light turned green, and Zane spread his hands along the steering wheel, chuckling softly. “Okay, okay. I believe you. Just thought for a second there that you hated my music.”
Amelia shook her head. “No. You have no idea what I have to put up with when Larson’s driving. I don’t know what we were just listening to, but it’s a vast improvement from songs about blue jeans and trucks.”
Zane’s quiet chortle turned into full-blown laughter. “I’m going to tell him you said that.”
“Wouldn’t be anything I haven’t said to him before.” She tapped the screen of her iPad and searched for Leila’s file. “Okay, enough of that. We’re looking for Leila Jackson. The guy who called into the anonymous tip line said that he worked at a gas station on West Madison Street in West Garfield Park.”
“I don’t suppose he said which gas station?”
Amelia scoffed. “Nope, but he mentioned the last place he’d seen Leila. We can start there. It wouldn’t hurt to look through the area around that block too.”
As they pulled up to another red light, Zane leaned forward, glancing around the intersection. He nodded in the direction of a vacant lot across the street. “There’s a lot of people out and about, but I’m not seeing anyone who looks like our girl.”
He was right. A group of young men milled about near the corner. Amelia didn’t miss the side-eyed glances or the way they closed ranks around one another. Though there were other cars on the road, the number was small, and Amelia suspected the new make and model of Zane’s Acura stuck out. More than likely, the neighborhood residents thought they were either tourists who’d gotten lost, or cops.
Various groups of young men, boys, and even some women stood in clusters. They congregated around street corners, in vacant lots, and huddled under the glow of outdoor lamps of closed businesses. Zane cruised up and down various streets north and south of Madison, but Amelia didn’t see any working girls who remotely matched Leila Jackson’s description.
Zane’s gaze flicked over to Amelia as he prepared to turn around to head back to the FBI building. “Nothing?”
Tapping her index finger on the doorframe, Amelia squinted to look deeper into a dark alley. “Nothing. If Leila is a working girl, maybe some John picked her up, or maybe her pimp had her move. Something could’ve spooked them. The anonymous tipper might have looked a little sketchy. In his call-in, he said he had been watching her for safety.”
“True. Hard to tell.” Zane stepped on the accelerator as they neared an on-ramp for the interstate. “What’s next? Is this even our case?”
“I’m claiming it.” Disappointed, Amelia sat back in her seat. “If the girl the gas station clerk saw was actually Leila, then that means she’s part of an underage prostitution ring, and that’s definitely in our wheelhouse.”
Zane craned his neck to check the blind spot before he merged onto the highway. “Okay, then we need to go back to basics, pull up all the case files, get a little history here, and try to trace the steps. Maybe I should take a look at that cold case show too. I don’t even know what the girl looks like.”
“Detective Schauss said she was sending everything over to the Bureau. I had a chance to look at the original case file a bit, but you’re right. It wouldn’t hurt to shake the dust off that whole thing. I think I’ll circle back to the parents, get their statements again, and see if anything’s changed since the initial investigation.”
“You’re going to drive to Wisconsin?” He reached to the cup holder for his coffee. “Maybe you should get started on that drive right now.”
“No.” Amelia popped a stick of gum into her mouth. “The report says Leila’s parents moved to DeKalb about six months ago. It’s only an hour away.”
“Great.” Zane finished off the last of his coffee. “When are we leaving?”
“Does Chicago have different rules than D.C.?” He arched an eyebrow. “Doesn’t the FBI like to have more than one field agent present when interviewing a witness?”
Shit. It was Saturday. The past few weeks had been a blur.
“Right, I keep forgetting this is the weekend. I figured I’d have to suffer through Larson’s Spotify playlist again, but he’s out of town until Monday morning.”
Zane held up his coffee thermos like it was a glass of expensive champagne, ready to pour yet another cup. “Guess it’s you and me then, partner.”
Storm’s Fury releases on January 7! Add to your Goodreads shelf now!