A Taste of... Storm's Nightmare
“Be safe, hon!”
Sammie Howard smiled and waved goodbye to Diane Beischel, the manager behind the counter of the convenience store Sammie worked several nights per week. As much as she hated working later than ten, she was always glad to be able to catch a shift with Diane.
“I will. Have a good night.”
Pulling up the collar of her faux Sherpa coat, Sammie shouldered open one of the spotless double doors. The glass sparkled as brightly as the day they’d been installed—thanks to the mindless cleaning she’d done for the last chunk of her shift—and stepped out into the February night.
“Crisp, my ass,” Sammie muttered, quoting the weatherman from earlier that day. The temperature wasn’t crisp so much as it was damn near frigid.
Sammie clamped her teeth together to keep them from chattering. The weather app on her phone promised a warm-up in a couple days, but the pleasant temperatures would be short-lived. Such was the norm for the tail-end of winter in the Midwest.
When most people pictured that part of the United States, they imagined cornfields, tractors, and silos. Sammie lived in Chicago, though. One of the largest cities in the country. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a field not holding a sports team or a tall building not made of steel and glass.
As she took the first few steps away from the well-lit gas station, her paranoid brain took the moment to remind her that a city as large as Chicago came with an equally large crime rate. To be sure, she loved her hometown. She loved the amount of culture sprinkled throughout the area, the diverse backgrounds of her fellow Chicagoans, and of course, the food. The Windy City was great, fantastic even, but even the best things came with downsides.
Glancing from the fuel pumps to the coffee shop and pizza joint across the street, both of which were closed at ten in the evening, she shoved both hands into her pockets and hurried onto the sidewalk, scanning shadows as she went. She didn’t mind the actual work during these late-night shifts when the flow of customers slowed, but she never looked forward to her walk to the L.
Chicago’s elevated train system was one of the city’s major forms of public transportation. Though the train stop itself was well-lit and boasted plenty of security cameras, the walk to get there was a different story. Sammie wasn’t in a bad part of town, so to speak, but she wasn’t exactly out in the ‘burbs with all the rich people.
Sammie wished like hell she had her own car, but buying a vehicle was more challenging than it seemed on the surface. She’d been fighting an uphill financial battle for what seemed to be most of her twenty-one years, and things had gotten much worse recently. The situation wasn’t due to college debt like one of her friends and a couple of her coworkers, but medical debt. Six months ago, Sammie’s mom, Amy, had been the victim of a hit-and-run accident when she was walking home from the grocery store.
Sammie shuddered at the memory. She’d been so scared she was going to lose her mom, her only real family, all because some jackass had decided to run a stop sign. Because he was so damn important, he couldn’t wait a few more seconds to get to his destination.
What a prick.
And as it turned out, a broke, uninsured prick who only received a fine and a slap on the wrist for essentially ruining Amy Howard’s life…and Sammie’s to a much lesser extent.
Since the accident, Sammie opted to continue living with her mom in their two-bedroom apartment. She’d earned a full-time position at the gas station, allowing her to help pay for the necessities.
The going was tough, but as her mom healed, things were looking up. Better physical health meant Sammie’s mom could work more, which meant Sammie could start saving some money.
At the thought, Sammie’s heart lightened. Deep down, she knew they’d be okay. She and her mom had always been on their own, and they’d always persevered without anyone else’s help.
“I can do this.”
With her chin held high, Sammie quickened her pace down the sidewalk. She’d left her workplace behind and had just passed a closed thrift store on the right, which meant the worst part of the walk was just ahead. She needed to be vigilant.
She hated walking past the damn bar. Even if she didn’t make eye contact with any of the drunks out front smoking, they’d still catcall her or hurl wolf whistles in her direction. Her mom told her to ignore the creeps, but Sammie wished she could conjure up some ninja fighting skills and pummel them all into oblivion.
As she approached the establishment, she eyed the front of the bar with her peripheral vision. Lit only by the neon signs in the windows and a sputtering streetlight, the place sure looked like the perfect spot for creepers to congregate.
Fortunately, on a Sunday night, there weren’t many patrons present. Only a few cars sat in the adjoining parking lot, and no one was standing outside smoking.
Sammie permitted herself a mental sigh of relief.
No catcalls tonight. Thank god.
Despite the moment of reprieve, the hairs on the back of her neck still prickled like she was in the midst of an electrical storm. Was someone watching her?
A host of nightmare scenarios ran through her head. The details of all the gruesome homicides from the true crime shows her mom loved to watch assailed her at once.
“Hey, kid.” The man’s greeting slurred together into a single word. Maybe even a single syllable, if that was possible. “Can I ask a favor?” Again, the words blended together. As he moved closer, the scent of booze assaulted her.
Sammie wrinkled her nose and took a step back. “Booker, hi. And I think I know what you’re going to ask me, and you ought to already know the answer.” She tried her best stern teacher voice, hoping the tone would convey decisiveness without being hostile.
Booker’s face fell, his glazed eyes rolling back in his head as he let out an exaggerated sigh. “Seriously? Come on, kid. They cut me off across the street, y’know!” He waved a hand at the bar for emphasis. “Said they won’t serve someone drunk like me. A bar won’t serve a drunk! Isn’t that ridiculous?”
You’re a little beyond drunk, buddy.
She kept the thought to herself. “I’m not going to buy you booze, Booker. You should go home and get some sleep.”
He held out his arms, his face contorting in an expression of disbelief. “No, no, you don’t have to buy me nothing. I’ve got the cash, okay? I’ll even give you a few bucks for your trouble.”
The offer to pay for the task was new. Until now, their back and forth had simply involved Booker begging her to take his money and buy him a six-pack. He’d never mentioned compensation.
A couple dollars was chump change in the grand scheme of things, but Sammie couldn’t deny she was tempted by the offer. Chump change or not, a few bucks was a few bucks. If all she had to do was go back to her workplace and buy the guy a six-pack or a bottle of rum…well, that might be worth the minimal effort.
But giving in to him now means he’ll keep on asking in the future. Who knows where it’ll stop?
“Well?” Booker held both hands in front of him like a prayer. “C’mon, kid. Please?”
Sammie pressed her lips together and squared her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Booker. I really need to get home. You should get home too.”
With a loud groan, Booker’s head lolled back like a petulant toddler about to throw a tantrum. “Of course you do. Ain’t got no time for the dumbass failure across the street, do ya?”
Sammie flinched at the sudden increase in volume. She held up a hand, backing away another step. “Look, I don’t want—”
“Hey, leave the young lady alone!”
Sammie spun to face the newcomer, then relaxed a little to find a clean-cut man heading her way. He appeared to be about her age and wore a black leather bomber with jeans.
Relieved but still wary, Sammy took another cautious step away. “It’s okay. He’s just drunk. You were about to head home to sleep it off, weren’t you, Booker?”
Booker was old enough to be Sammie’s father, but in that moment, she knew their roles were reversed. Muttering something unintelligible, Booker began to amble past the newcomer. As he stepped into the street, the toe of his shoe caught the edge of the curb.
With catlike reflexes, New Guy caught Booker’s arm and shoulder to keep him from pitching forward. Miraculously, the drunk was able to get both feet beneath himself.
Booker’s bloodshot eyes flitted from the newcomer to Sammie and then back as he regained his balance. Blinking repeatedly, possibly in an effort to focus his double-vision, Booker combed a hand through his hair and muttered a grudging thank you.
New Guy stared at the drunk’s back as he crossed the street. Once Booker was out of earshot, he turned to Sammie. “You okay?”
Sammie offered the younger man a nod. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
It was a lie.
Now more than ever, Sammie wanted to get home. Back to her mom, to the delicious chicken marsala her mom would reheat, and the new show they’d started last week. She wanted to be away from the chaos created when all she’d done was walk down the street.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Well, thank you for intervening…um…”
Flashing a quick smile, New Guy stuck out a hand. He was vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him. “Sorry. I should introduce myself. I’m Gavin, and you’re Sammie, right?” The fabric of his jacket hitched up just high enough for her to make out part of the shape of a circular tattoo on his wrist, and that’s when she remembered. She’d interacted with him at the gas station a couple times that week.
Sammie accepted the handshake. “Yep, that’s me. Nice to meet you, Gavin. Well, I guess we’ve met before, but you know what I mean.”
He swept an arm at the sidewalk in front of them. “I don’t suppose you’re headed to the L, are you?”
Despite the unease tingling at the base of her spine, Sammie maintained her smile—a skill she’d honed after years in customer service. “Yeah. I just got off work.” She didn’t want to give him too much information.
She’d learned from her mom’s cop shows that astute stalkers could pick up on a person’s routine from a seemingly casual conversation. The technique was much like the stupid so-called surveys littered on social media. Shared chain posts asking about a person’s upbringing, such as the first car they owned, first job, and so on. Questions that just so happened to match the security questions for most websites. Subtle but purposeful.
Gavin’s knowing chuckle suggested he knew the suspicions shifting around in Sammie’s head. “I was headed that way too. Mind if I walk with you?”
Though Sammie figured Booker was most likely harmless, the way he’d emerged from the shadows like a shape-shifting vampire had left her nerves frayed.
What if the drunk came back? Or even followed her home?
She suppressed an involuntary shiver. “Sure. You’re probably ready to get out of the cold too, huh?”
He jammed his hands in his pockets as they started to walk. “A little, yeah. I usually drive, but I was meeting a buddy for a few drinks tonight, so I took the L. Being responsible and all that, you know?”
“That’s good. Smart.”
See, he didn’t want to drink and drive. He’s even leaving the bar at a reasonable hour.
Sammie hoped they’d make the trek in silence. She’d used up most of her kindness dealing with customers all evening, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to make herself seem agreeable.
“How long have you been working at the gas station?” Gavin’s query shot her hope out of the sky like a hunter at the peak of duck season.
“Coming up on two years.” Her response was almost robotic. She couldn’t say for sure how many times per day she answered that exact question. Fifty? Maybe seventy?
“Are you in college? Taking any classes at all?” The genuine curiosity in his tone was all that kept Sammie’s irritability at bay. Chances were, he was just making conversation to pass the time as they grew closer to the L.
“Not right now. I took some when I got out of high school but just couldn’t find anything that really held my interest.”
Gavin chuckled. “I know the feeling. My dad’s always pushing me to get my shit together and plan my future. But I don’t know.” He lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “It’s not that easy, is it?”
For the first time, Sammie could relate. Her mom never pushed her, at least not since the accident. Beforehand, however, she’d been on Sammie’s case to find a subject to study. To attend college and get a degree in something.
Hell if Sammie knew what, though.
Ever since her mom had needed financial help, the narrative had changed. Sammie’s aimless wandering through the start of her twenties was finally beneficial to the two of them. Not that Sammie wanted to work at the gas station the rest of her life. Most of the time, the customers drove her insane. If she could find something she didn’t hate, then maybe she’d take her mother’s advice.
She could have given voice to her conundrum. Maybe the contemplation would have sparked an interesting conversation for her and the stranger at her side, something to alleviate the air of awkwardness remaining between them.
Sammie didn’t want to give Gavin the wrong impression, so she kept the thoughts to herself. He must have picked up on the cue because he didn’t try to rekindle the conversation.
Thank god, a person who gets it. Someone who doesn’t have to fill the silence with small talk and force me to think of civil responses.
She feigned pleasantries for a living. She sure as hell didn’t want to continue the activity after she’d punched out for the day.
Apartment buildings stacked on top of store fronts—some of which were still in business, and some of which had floundered with recent economic hardships—loomed to either side of the street, and the skeletal branches of leafless trees cast spiderweb shapes in the glow of the dim streetlamps. Despite the light poles placed at regular intervals, this part of her walk to the L always felt so damn dark.
“Did you hear that?” Gavin’s hushed query cut through Sammie’s thoughts like razor wire. He stopped in his tracks, and Sammie followed suit. She turned to him, expecting to be met with a contemplative look.
Blood pounded in her ears as she noted his wide, haunted eyes, his face pinched with worry. She licked her lips and willed her voice to remain steady. “Hear what?”
Slowly, as if he’d draw too much attention if he moved too quick, Gavin turned to face the dark mouth of an alley just ahead of them. “I heard a baby crying. It was faint, though…more like a whine than crying, I guess.”
Sammie’s knee-jerk reaction was to ask if he was messing with her, but she bit her tongue. “A…a baby? I didn’t hear anything.” But she’d been absorbed in her own thoughts. If a quiet whimper had come from the alley, she might not have noticed.
Gavin cocked his head. “Did you hear that?”
Sammie stepped closer to the mouth of the alley, putting all her focus into her ears. “No. I don’t—”
A hand clamped over her mouth, and before she could think to scream, she was hauled into the darkness, swallowed by the inky black.
As Sammie’s brain strolled back toward the world of the waking, she was convinced she’d fallen asleep on the couch after stuffing her face full of chicken marsala. She lifted her head and groaned. Her skull pounded with each beat of her heart.
Little by little, her senses returned. The first sensation she noticed was the hard wood of a chair digging into her back and then the numbness at the tips of her fingers. Something was wrapped around her wrists, and the bind was tight enough to restrict blood flow to her hands.
This was definitely not the couch. She hadn’t fallen asleep at home. She’d never even made it home.
Panic swirled in her gut like the event horizon of a black hole.
It had all been real.
Dragging in a sharp breath through her nose, she snapped open her eyes. All she saw was darkness. A musty odor permeated her nostrils. Was she underground?
She blinked to clear her vision, hoping her eyes would adjust to the low light. But they didn’t. Nothing came into focus, just more darkness.
Her breath caught in her throat, panic burning its way into her gut. Had she gone blind? He’d hit her, she remembered, but had the blow been so hard that it had somehow eliminated her eyesight?
A twinge of anger pushed aside the anxiety. She opened her mouth to yell, but her lips wouldn’t budge, either. Tape tugged on the skin of her cheeks, a painful explanation for why she was unable to speak. Her mouth had been taped shut.
“Welcome back, Sammie.” The familiar voice was like shards of ice stabbing her eardrums.
With a click, a faint glow lit up in Sammie’s periphery. She almost sagged back in the chair with relief. He’d blindfolded her. She still had her sight.
The reprieve lasted only a beat.
Fabric rustled, and the faint scent of cologne mingled with the must as the person she could only assume was Gavin tugged the thin piece of fabric off her head. As she suspected, she was surrounded by the bare cement walls of a basement. The room was small, lit only by a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.
Shelves lined one wall, and the contents were normal enough. Bug spray, salt for the sidewalk, weed killer. To her chagrin, there was nothing to give her a better indication of exactly where she was.
Turning her gaze back to Gavin, she was once again face-to-face with the unabashed hatred burning in his eyes. He was so different from the man who’d saved her from Booker.
The abrupt transformation in his demeanor was enough to give her mental whiplash. Where he’d first been so concerned, rage now contorted his features into a mask of hatred. The fires of anger burned in his dark eyes like the smoldering embers of a blacksmith’s furnace.
The fingers of fear sank into Sammie’s heart, sending tendrils of dread spiraling through her veins where they touched. Time slowed to a crawl as the implication of the events became clear.
She didn’t have the first clue what had changed in Gavin’s head, didn’t know what had transformed this man from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.
Was there a mysterious serum in his pocket that had started the transformation?
No. She knew the idea for what it was—bullshit. The truth was, Gavin had always been Mr. Hyde. He’d only hidden the monstrous persona.
And Sammie had bought into the charade. Hook, line, and sinker.
Gavin tore the tape from her mouth, stinging her skin.
“What do you want from me?” She tried to pose the question, but all she managed was a muffled groan.
Yellow light from the bulb overhead glinted off the polished steel of a hunting knife as Gavin brought it from behind his back and waved the blade in front of Sammie’s face. The blood froze in her veins, failing to bring life-giving oxygen to her brain. Her entire focus snapped to the six-inch blade.
Her forearms ached as she strained against the duct tape binding her wrists. She tried to move her legs, hoping perhaps she could tip over the chair to break a piece free, but they didn’t budge. Not only had Gavin bound her wrists, but he’d restrained her ankles as well.
Gavin had done his best to make sure she’d never leave this hell hole. And the knife? She didn’t even want to think of what he planned to use that for.
Perspiration dripped into her eyes, adding a new layer of pain. Blinking rapidly, she strained against the tape, but the effort was both Herculean and pointless.
She knew it. Just as she knew she couldn’t give up.
Chest heaving, breathing more difficult with each passing second, Sammie glanced around the room again. Searching for what, she didn’t know. Something. Anything.
A low chuckle drew her gaze back to the crazy man before her. There was no mirth in his laugh, only mocking derisiveness. Contempt.
He dropped down to a crouch, bringing them eye-level. “You people just think everything in this world is yours for the taking, don’t you? You see a guy show up out of nowhere, and you just assume he’s there to help you, right? You can’t tell me that’s not what you did. I was there.”
Sammie didn’t have the first clue what he was ranting about. She had no idea who you people were. Was he referring to gas station employees? Broke daughters of single moms? College dropouts?
There’s no point trying to make sense of this lunatic. You need to get out of here, stat.
She couldn’t linger on the hopelessness of the situation. She had to try.
Straining against the duct tape, she tried to rotate her wrists. If she could get any leeway, then she might be able to tear the tape a little. One slight rip was all she needed, wasn’t it?
Her hopes sank when her wrists didn’t budge. Gavin had made the binds too tight for her to move. If he intended to keep her captive, maybe she could achieve some success over time, but for right now…
There was no way out.
The slightest smirk played across his face, almost as if he could sense her hopelessness. “You’re not getting out of here alive.”
Even as terror pulsed through her, Sammie threw her weight to one side and then the other, hoping to tip over the chair. If the wood broke, maybe she wouldn’t need to rip herself free from the tape.
For the second time, Gavin seemed to read her thoughts. In a single fluid motion, he snapped up the knife, holding the tip of the blade level with her bottom eyelid, freezing her every movement. “Try it. Try breaking the chair. Try moving at all.”
Terror she didn’t know was possible nearly caused her heart to explode against her ribs. She wanted to scream. To cry. To beg. To lament the unfairness of the entire situation. She barely knew this man, but somehow, he held a grudge against her that was so deep-seated, he wanted her dead.
What had she done to him?
Nothing. I’ve done nothing to him. He’s a psychopath.
He eased the blade closer, and Sammie pulled her head away as far as she could manage in the stiff-backed chair.
The smirk returned to Gavin’s lips. He inched the knife closer. “These are mine now.”
As the cold steel cut into the tender skin beneath Sammie’s eye, she tried to open her mouth to scream. But as the blade sank deeper, as pain lanced through Sammie’s skull, her lips wouldn’t part.
The silent plea would have done no good, even if it had been shouted from the rafters. No one would be able to save her from this madman, she knew, as she began to pray for the pain to be over.
As Sammie’s world grew dark, Gavin’s laughter took on an even more maniacal tone.
The blade touched Sammie one more time, and it really didn’t even hurt before all her other senses disappeared.
As FBI Special Agent Amelia Storm pulled her car to a stop in the shadow of a decrepit warehouse, she was struck with a strangely calming sense of familiarity. Six weeks earlier, she’d parked in almost this exact same spot, unsure of what to expect from the person who’d requested the meeting in the first place.
Senator Stan Young’s son and the former confidential informant of Amelia’s brother.
She still couldn’t believe it.
Her brother—Detective Trevor Storm, who’d been killed in a gunfight on the streets of Chicago three years ago—had been working with Josh.
Or had he?
She still wasn’t entirely sure if Josh truly had information he wanted to share or if he had wanted to meet so he could ensnare her in some sort of trap and take her back to his father like some prized turkey.
It had been January at the time, a little late for Thanksgiving, but who knew with these people. The Young family’s depravity had no limits. Their dubious morality undoubtedly extended to holiday traditions.
She would have been a fool to trust anyone with the last name of Young, and Amelia Storm wasn’t a fool. She met Josh armed both with her service weapon and with Zane Palmer, her partner and lover, as backup. Luckily, she hadn’t needed either.
Would she need them tonight?
She wasn’t sure.
The first meeting had been cryptic, and she’d left with only a slip of paper.
“This is the login information for an email address with a disposable domain.” He’d handed her the handwritten note. “You know how disposable email addresses work, right?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Amelia wasn’t a cyber crimes specialist, but she was indeed familiar with disposable email addresses or DEAs. A person could set up an account with one of the temporary—or disposable—email domains and then use the address for a limited period before deleting it. The ability to throw away the email address after a single message, or a string of messages, made them nearly impossible to track.
“Okay. I’ll send you a message when I figure out when we can meet next. And next time, Agent Storm.” He released his grip on the paper but didn’t break eye contact. “Come alone. Actually alone. You might trust your fellow agents, but I don’t.”
Six long weeks had passed since that night, and Amelia had met with Josh on only one other occasion. Josh had provided Amelia with a few tidbits she was able to verify. Things only someone with insider information would know. Amelia was hopeful Josh could be trusted. Gnawing at the back of her mind, however, was the fact her brother had trusted this man, and Chicago PD Detective Trevor Storm may have paid for that trust with his life.
Though Amelia’s meeting with Josh had been productive in terms of establishing trust, they hadn’t yet gotten to the proverbial meat and potatoes—the murder of Trevor and the extent to which Stan Young’s malevolent tentacles had invaded Chicago’s law enforcement system.
In addition to verifying the intel Josh had provided before today’s meeting, Amelia had researched the senator’s son until she felt she knew him as well as she knew her own family members.
Josh Young, thirty-two years of age, was born to Senator Stan Young and his late wife, Grace Young, née Sutton. Grace had been killed in a car accident when Josh was only a few months old, leaving Stan a single father in his early twenties. Josh graduated from Chicago Booth School of Business with a master’s in business administration at age twenty-three, then was handed control of the Young’s agricultural empire when Stan Young first won his senate seat.
For the past eight years, Josh had technically been at the helm of Happy Harvest Farms. Josh’s title at the multibillion-dollar agricultural giant was largely for appearances and to make the senator appear aboveboard to the Senate ethics committee. The practice wasn’t uncommon among the Washington elite, specifically those who owned successful businesses. On paper, they stepped away from the business when they became an elected official. In reality, they were just as invested in the business as they had been beforehand.
Over the summer, Amelia and Zane had taken down one of the Young’s many agricultural sites. A Kankakee County farm working under the Happy Harvest umbrella had a rogue management team trying to pocket some extra cash while running a forced labor trafficking ring on the site.
Although the FBI had shut the operation down, the blame had fallen solely on the management of the Kankakee County location. The agricultural behemoth’s C-suite officers, including Josh Young, apparently had no clue about the illegal activities, though Wall Street briefly punished the stock.
Poring over Josh’s history, as well as the limited information she’d found regarding Trevor’s final case, Amelia had found no involvement between Josh and the criminal underworld. Knowing what had occurred at the Happy Harvest Farms location in Kankakee County, Amelia had closely scrutinized the details of that case to make sure Josh had not been involved, even if only to turn a blind eye to make an extra buck. She’d found no link to Josh. His father’s hands were not so clean.
Two rival Italian mafia families—the D’Amatos and Leónes—called Chicago home, along with the ever-present Russian mob and a couple cartels who hated one another. Each criminal organization commanded a piece of Chicago’s illegal pie, with the Leónes and D’Amatos especially well-entrenched. So far, all signs indicated to Amelia that Stan Young was in bed with the Leónes.
Hopefully, she’d learn much more soon.
Amelia stepped out of her car and into the strip of sunshine that made it over the warehouse. The light would soon be overtaken by shadow as the sun continued its journey across the sky. Reflexively, Amelia tugged on the collar of her knee-length trench coat. The temperature was much more pleasant today than it had been, but without the warm glow of the sun, she still froze her ass off.
The cold winter wind whipped her long dark-brown, blonde-tipped hair into her face and, to her chagrin, her mouth. She spat out the strands and shoved the hair back over her shoulder, hoping Josh didn’t notice the goofy look on her face as she did so.
Amelia still didn’t know what Josh had revealed to Trevor that had gotten her brother killed, but she was determined to find out. Her fingers brushed the barrel of the tiny Beretta she’d stowed in the coat’s pocket in case she was, in fact, being set up. It would be easier to reach than the service weapon she also carried under her layers of clothing.
Approaching the run-down bus stop and its rusted metal bench, Amelia lifted a hand in greeting. “Nice to see you again. And that’s not sarcasm, trust me. How’s your day going?”
The corner of Josh’s mouth turned up with a faint smile. He raised two fingers from the paper coffee cup cradled in his hands. “It’s fine. Glad you could make it on such short notice.”
“It’s not a problem. It sounded like this was important, so I didn’t want to make either of us wait.” Amelia wished she’d taken the time to pick up her own coffee. If nothing else, she could have tossed the hot brew at anyone sneaking up on her.
Stop with the paranoia. Get the information you need and get out of here.
Taking a sip, Josh lowered himself to sit on the edge of the old bench. Considering the amount of dirt and debris littering the actual seat, she couldn’t blame him for his caution.
As Amelia followed suit, careful to avoid a pile of dried leaves swept up beside the arm of the bench, Josh’s gaze shifted to her.
“You’re a good person, Agent Storm.”
Amelia blinked, surprised. Josh’s voice was quiet, but the words appeared to be genuine, like a compliment given to an old friend. “Thanks. I, um…”
He snorted and waved a dismissive hand. “You don’t have to lie and tell me I am too. I know who my father is. I know what our ‘family business’ gets away with every year.”
A pang of sympathy struck Amelia’s heart like a chime. “Yeah, but you’re trying to change it. That’s worth something, right? It’s dangerous, and you know it’s dangerous, but you’re doing it anyway.”
His jaw tightened, his gaze becoming distant. “I’ll be honest, Agent Storm. It scares the hell out of me.”
Amelia didn’t blame him. If anyone learned that Josh had been her brother’s CI and was now talking to a Fed, a man like Senator Young would make him disappear, related or not.
“You think your own father would kill you?” It was one of the questions Amelia had asked him during the first meeting.
“There’s no doubt in my mind. See, when you’re stuck being surrounded by billionaires for most of your life, you pick up on a few of their universal truths. You’d think having ten or eleven figures in an offshore bank account would be enough to make someone happy for the rest of their life.”
She’d nodded. “I suppose.”
“That’s the thing, though. The thing about guys like my dad. There’s no such thing as enough. They always want more, and they never stop.”
Goose bumps raised on her arms at the memory, and she still felt worry for the young man. Josh was right. Men like his father never stopped, and they didn’t care who they had to destroy to get what they wanted.
Amelia’s family wasn’t perfect, but when it came to being the child of a genuinely evil human being, she couldn’t relate.
Her father had succumbed to an alcohol addiction for seventeen years, having only cleaned up a few years ago. But Jim Storm wasn’t a bad man, not even a bad father. He’d just been…hurt. The loss of Amelia’s mom, of his beloved wife, had broken him, and he’d taken nearly two decades to pull himself together.
Trevor had been a corrupt detective for the Chicago Police Department, but even his work with the D’Amato family wasn’t bad. The D’Amatos were criminals, sure, but they dealt primarily in cyber-crime and counterfeit goods. Amelia would know. Back in high school, she’d dated the son of one of the crime family’s capos. Alex Passarelli was now a capo himself, but he wasn’t a bad person, either.
Stan Young was a different story. Amelia couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be the child of such a detestable human being.
For now, she’d stick to what she and Josh did have in common. Their shared paranoia. “There was an investigation a few months back where another agent tried to frame me for killing someone. When they realized that wasn’t working, they decided to try to kill me. It was a…tense couple of weeks.”
“No doubt.” Josh twisted the paper sleeve around his cup. “I think…I think it’s time I tell you what I told Trevor. The information I think he must have done something with, something to put him on my father’s radar.”
Amelia held her breath even as her pulse picked up speed. This was the moment she’d been waiting for. Needing to see his face and read his expression, Amelia straightened and turned to fully face Josh. “Okay. I’m listening.”
Silence greeted her. For several long, drawn-out moments, the only sound between them was the distant bustle of the city. Just as she was sure she’d have to prod Josh to talk or wind him up like an old-school wooden toy soldier, he met her gaze. “You know I worked with your brother. He never wrote my name down anywhere or kept records, none that were maintained officially by the CPD anyway.”
Amelia was aware. After first receiving Josh’s note under the windshield wiper of her car, she’d scoured high and low to find even a shred of evidence to indicate the identity of Trevor’s CI. But both Josh and Trevor had covered their tracks.
Josh slipped a hand inside his coat, and Amelia reflexively stiffened, her body preparing for a fight.
However, Josh produced not a weapon but a nondescript flash drive. “There’s no legally admissible evidence here, nothing that would hold up in court, but it might be enough for you to flesh out and actually get somewhere. I don’t think your brother and the city had the proper resources, but the FBI might.”
As he handed the device to Amelia, she had more questions than answers. She figured she’d start with the simplest. “What’s on it?”
Josh sipped his coffee. “Dates, names, locations. Photos of old documents. Some notes I added about what I was able to dig up. Your brother and I would trade this flash drive back and forth. Honestly, it’s just dumb luck that I had it when he was killed. If it had been on his person, I’d have been assassinated right along with him.”
Amelia suddenly got the feeling she was holding a miniature bomb. Gritting her teeth, she cupped her hand around the flash drive. This was why Trevor had been killed. Why, though?
As if he could sense her query, Josh held up a hand. “Sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to give you some context. You know Stan has been married to Cynthia Young for twenty-six years, going on twenty-seven this spring. And you know Cynthia isn’t my biological mother. My mother was killed in a car accident when I was about six months old.”
Amelia didn’t miss his emphasis on two key words. “You don’t think it was an accident?”
“No, I don’t.” His expression was akin to that of a person who’d just bitten into a lemon. “I’ve been digging for a long time, Agent. And I’ve found some discrepancies between reality and what Stan’s told me over the years. My mom, my actual mom, was planning to file for divorce when she was killed.”
Anticipation flooded Amelia’s bloodstream, and she gripped the flash drive a little tighter, almost as if she was afraid it would fly away if she let it. “I never saw anything about that in my research. How do you know this?”
“She left me her journal. It was locked in a security deposit box until I turned eighteen. Once her lawyer carried out the final portion of her will—giving me the key to access the journal—I’d moved it and other items I needed to keep out of Stan’s sight into a storage unit I rented under a pseudonym. My mom knew Stan was having an affair, and she’d hired a private investigator to get proof of it. Stan made her sign a prenup, but the prenup would have been void if she could prove Stan was cheating. She’d have gotten half of his stake in Happy Harvest Farms, half of his fortune, half of everything.”
Having lost her own mother at age ten, Amelia could relate to what Josh had been through. “That’s terrible. I’m…I’m genuinely sorry to hear that. There has to be something we can do with this, right?”
“Not by itself. The investigation of the car crash turned up no signs of foul play. The cops who worked the case didn’t even have a reason to look at Stan’s marital status. The only reason I looked into it was because of that journal. There are scanned copies of the pages of everything I’ve shared with you on that flash drive. I don’t know if the records are even accessible anymore. After your brother was killed, Stan probably had someone go in and scrub anything incriminating.”
Her hopes of progress sank. “So, that’s how Trevor is connected? He was getting too close to figuring something out, and Stan had him killed for it?”
Josh appeared to mull over her words. “Yes and no. That’s not where the story ends. My mom had figured out who Stan was sleeping with. Her private investigator even got a few pictures to prove it. Not surprisingly, the PI wound up dead a few weeks after my mom. Stan made sure to get rid of all the loose ends. We’ve talked about Stan’s connections to the Leóne family, but the woman he was screwing was from the other side of the fence.”
Amelia bit her tongue to keep her eyes from popping open wide. “A D’Amato woman?”
The sour expression returned to Josh’s face. “Sofia Passarelli, formerly Sofia Lettiero.”
For a beat, Amelia’s heart froze into a block of ice. She knew who Sofia Passarelli was. Sofia was the mother of Alex Passarelli. The same Alex who Amelia had dated for nearly four years in high school and whose father threatened her into fleeing Chicago.
Clearing her throat, Amelia shoved the sudden shock to the back of her mind. She could process the disbelief later. Right now, she needed to figure out how all these revelations connected. “I take it you think Stan’s affair with Sofia, and my brother finding out about it, has something to do with him being killed? Trevor was investigating Gianna Passarelli’s disappearance when he was murdered. Is that connected too?”
Steeliness descended over Josh’s features. “It has to be. Obviously, the affair between Stan and Sofia didn’t end well. Stan isn’t the type of person to live and let live, or to let transgressions against him go without some sort of reprisal.”
“I’ve looked over the Gianna Passarelli case seven ways from Sunday, though. There’s nothing in there to even remotely indicate Stan had a connection to the Passarellis.”
Josh gave his head a single shake. “There wouldn’t be. Stan would make damn sure of it.”
He had a point. Regardless of the lack of information in the kidnapping case, Alex had never hinted about Stan’s relationship with his family. Wouldn’t Alex have uncovered something by now? Alex had loved his little sister, and Amelia knew firsthand how much her loss still pained him. He’d have left no stone unturned, no avenue unexplored in searching for those responsible for her disappearance.
Or did he already know? Had he been sitting on this information without sharing it with her? Amelia pushed the thought aside. After all, hadn’t Alex been the one to bring Amelia the damning photos of Agent Joseph Larson cozying up to Brian Kolthoff?
Amelia had done her best to keep her and Alex’s relationship to a minimum since her return to Chicago almost eleven months ago.
Now, however, she fully intended to meet with him. Maybe she’d break into his house and wait for him to show up like he’d done after Amelia had ignored his calls and texts.
“There’s more.” Josh’s voice cut through the cacophony of Amelia’s thoughts. “Something I’d come to notice shortly before I started talking to your brother. Something about my younger sister.”
Amelia bit back a dry observation about Josh’s nine-year-old sister being involved in the murder of a homicide detective. “Your sister is adopted, right?”
“Right. Cynthia can’t conceive. They tried IVF and all sorts of other methods, but none worked. So, about nine years ago, they adopted Mae. You know what those nine years line up with? Give or take about another nine months?”
A combination of disgust and anger crawled along Amelia’s skin like living vines. “Gianna Passarelli.”
Alex’s little sister.
His grave expression matched the shift in Amelia’s mood. “Yeah. Exactly. If you compare pictures of the two of them, Mae looks just like Gianna. Mae is home-schooled, and Stan seems too afraid to even let her go outside. For a while, I just thought it was sexism because he was never protective like that with me. But now? I think he’s protecting her from more than just the media.”
Which made perfect sense, given the implication of Josh’s observation.
If Josh was right, then Gianna was Mae’s mother…
…and Stan Young was her father.
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