A Taste of... Storm's Rite

Chapter One

Celebrating the Life of Viola Poteracki.

Massaging his temples, Lars Poteracki dropped to sit on the center cushion of his micro-suede couch and stared at the black and white funeral pamphlet on the coffee table.

“Celebration, my ass.” The words were filled with so much bitterness and pain, they tore at Lars’s throat as he whispered them.

Somehow, Lars’s heart managed to thud in his chest, though he didn’t know how it was possible. As far as he was concerned, his heart had been buried tonight, right alongside the body of his twin sister.

He wished he’d been buried beside her.

His stomach lurched as the taste on his tongue turned bitter. With a trembling hand, he loosened the black tie around his neck. Funerals had always made him queasy, but the weariness from this one ran deeper than just nausea. It had cored him out. His bones felt like beams of an old house hollowed out by termites and years of rot.

For the past few days, every morning had been a battle just to get out of bed. All he had left of Viola were memories, and though he cherished each remembrance, he wished his mind would go blank.

Even the damn furniture reminded him of Viola. The sofa and accompanying loveseat, along with a bookshelf housing a respectable collection of battered paperbacks, had all been given to him by her. She’d furnished more than half his apartment after he’d finished rehab and gotten clean.

Viola had been so excited to share her love of reading with her brother. Once he’d obtained his own apartment, she’d shown up twice a week to dump a heap of books in his arms.

Lars had never taken to studious activities like his sister. Just like the idiot he was, he’d chosen a more self-destructive path. While working as an industrial contractor, he’d blown his respectable wages on the mounting addiction that eventually swallowed him whole.

Viola was the only one who’d ever believed in him. Teachers, family members, so-called friends. They’d all been adamant that Lars would never amount to anything.

They were right. He was troubled, and wherever he went, despair followed.

But Viola never lost faith in him. She’d known who he was before the world had sunk its claws into his heart and mind. And unlike the others, she’d believed that person was still there.

Older by six minutes, Viola had always asserted herself as the protective big sister, even when Lars had surpassed her in height during their final years of high school.

When their mother’s alcohol addiction had left them in the care of their abusive grandfather for more than three years, Viola had looked out for him and he for her. She supported him the best as she could after learning that the vile man had made a habit of slipping into Lars’s room late at night after he’d downed three-fourths of a bottle of whiskey. He’d…

No!

Lars ripped off his tie, tossing it into the corner, refusing to let his grandfather’s nocturnal visits penetrate his mind.

In addition to the years Lars had spent in the throes of a vicious heroin addiction, that had been the worst period of his life. But in the seemingly impenetrable darkness, he’d always had a light. He’d always had Viola.

And now she was gone. Dead, just like their mother. Just like anyone else who’d been an important part of his life.

Maybe I’m cursed.

Tears stinging the corners of his eyes, Lars lowered his face into his hands. The ache in his chest—the feeling that a part of him had been ripped away—hadn’t lessened since he’d lost his twin.

A few days earlier, Viola had been on her way home from work when she was killed in a head-on collision near the outskirts of Chicago. A drunk driver had drifted into her lane, and the crash had claimed both their lives. Viola’s death was instant, and the man who’d hit her had passed a couple hours later in the intensive care unit.

Lars had been at work stocking groceries when the accident occurred. A surge of nausea had struck him seemingly out of the blue, and he’d assumed his dinner was to blame. The subsequent ache above his ribs had puzzled him even more, but then he’d gotten the call.

The following day, his desire to use, to feel the familiar weightlessness as dopamine flooded his brain, had driven him back to Washington Park—the part of Chicago he’d frequented during the height of his involvement in the drug scene. He’d spotted a couple familiar faces, but he’d slunk back to the elevated train system known in Chicago as the L before any of them had noticed his presence.

Viola wouldn’t want this. She wouldn’t want me to relapse. She’d want me to…to…

To what? Live out a full and productive life?

The thought was almost funny…if it hadn’t been so sad.

He was already thirty-six, and he’d been effectively blacklisted from obtaining work as an industrial contractor. The felony conviction that had landed him in prison for two years was a guarantee he’d never rise above his current status.

Sure, he didn’t mind his work at the grocery store. The mindless hours of stocking shelves gave him plenty of opportunity to come up with guitar melodies and song lyrics. Most of his coworkers were younger by a decade or more, but there were a handful who’d tripped, fallen, and pulled themselves out of the mire.

They had kids, spouses, family members who believed in them. They had a reason to keep going.

But for Lars, the dark curtains of despair had begun to fall closed, blocking out the dim light of hope that had guided his way for the past two years. This time, he wasn’t so sure he had the strength to open them again.

Throat clenched by an invisible hand of despondency, Lars slumped forward and picked up a framed eight-by-ten of him and his sister. Tears blurred his vision, but his mind’s eye recalled each detail of the image with vivid clarity.

Resting one arm on Lars’s shoulder, Viola wore a wide grin revealing bright white, slightly crooked teeth. She leaned on him in the same manner she’d lean against a doorway, showcasing the seven-inch gap in height between them. Sunglasses held the stray strands of sandy blonde hair from her bright blue eyes, and her Hawaiian shirt was just as tacky as his.

“I’m sorry, Viola. I’m trying. I swear I am. But I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. I just feel like the world’s trying to squeeze every drop of happiness out of me before it throws me aside. With you gone, I’m just an imposter. A junkie pretending he’s something more.”

Lars blinked away the tears and turned his focus to the image of himself. With his shoulder-length, dark blond hair pulled back in a low ponytail, eyes the same bright shade as Viola’s, and the handful of tattoos on his arms, he could have passed for a normal, functional member of society. A mechanic, maybe, or a bartender.

He’d been thirteen months clean at the time, though most of his income was still earned by slinging dope in Chicago’s shadier neighborhoods. Between his lack of relevant work experience and the felony that marred his criminal record, he hadn’t even tried to obtain a legal job when he was released from prison.

Only his run-in with the FBI had changed that mindset. If the Feds had sent him back to prison instead of utilizing him as an informant, he’d have undoubtedly relapsed.

Not that it mattered anymore.

Melancholy tightened its grasp on his throat. He returned the photo to the coffee table, facedown. He didn’t want his sister to see what he’d become.

Fuck it.

Jaw clenched, he pushed to his feet. He couldn’t stay here. Not in this apartment where even the furnishings called to him from the grave.

He needed this ache to stop. The pain was worse than opiate withdrawals, worse than the handful of beatings he’d received during his days in Washington Park.

There was one way to make the hurt subside. He’d used it to numb himself for years and to avoid confronting the demons that had haunted him since childhood.

“Screw it.”

Swallowing the sting of bile in the back of his throat, Lars set about changing into a pair of worn jeans, a zip-up hooded sweatshirt, and an olive drab jacket. He considered changing his dress shirt too, but the thought of working all those buttons just seemed like too much to deal with.

He was so very, very tired…but he had one last thing to do.

Each step toward the door added weight to the sinking stone in his stomach.

Hand resting above the light switch beside the doorway, he glanced over his shoulder to take in the sight of the tidy living room.

“I’m sorry, Viola.” The apology was barely a whisper. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Guilt sawed at his heart. Maybe he could fight his way past the agonizing loss, attain some semblance of normalcy, but his entire life had been one battle after another. It was like a boxing match that never ended, where the opponent never tired, never showed so much as a shred of weakness. Deep within his gut, Lars knew the rounds would never stop, and he was tired of fighting.

Fighting the memories…the pain.

Though the past year was a slight improvement, making ends meet by working for a hair above minimum wage and taking occasional handouts from his sister wasn’t much better than slinging heroin in Washington Park.

If the good Lord wanted to take him, then here he was. Hell couldn’t be much worse than fighting the demons on this side of the grave.

He just wanted to rest. It seemed fitting that his end came about with the same substance that had driven him under in the first place.

Switching off the lights, he stepped into the hall, locked the door, and headed toward the stairwell. Crisp December air greeted him when he stepped out into the night. The cold, coupled with the colorful, twinkling lights wound around the rails of a handful of balconies, reminded him that Christmas was only a few weeks away.

He ignored the onslaught of memories and increased his pace to a brisk walk. He was more eager to get this over with now. He certainly didn’t need to be around for the holidays and the profound loneliness that was his new reality.

I really don’t need to see the start of another miserable year.

Side streets in Chicago could be treacherous at this time of night. Typically, Lars kept a keen watch on his surroundings, especially after the work he’d done with the FBI at the beginning of the year.

The agent with whom he’d interacted had assured him his name and likeness would be kept out of publicly accessible records, but Lars had never fully trusted the government. He’d heard about far too many cyber-security breaches to remain confident in his supposed anonymity.

However, he was almost a year removed from his stint as an informant. If anyone in the scene was going to kill him, they’d have already done it.

At least, that’s what he told himself. Tonight, he didn’t care.

The walk to the L, as well as the train ride itself, was uneventful. He and a handful of others departed the car at the same stop in Washington Park. After only a couple blocks, Lars was on his own. None of the men and women who lived above board wanted to follow him. They didn’t want to cross into this part of the city.

Shadows closed in around him as he drew farther and farther from the main street. His footsteps echoed off the tall, derelict buildings as he cut through a narrow alley. After a few more blocks and another alley, he emerged on the same street he’d visited earlier in the week.

A handful of working girls mingled around the condemned building on the corner, and he turned to make his way in the opposite direction. The man for whom he was searching was nearby. Lars knew this because the dealers never strayed too far from where the prostitutes set up shop.

Sure enough, Lars spotted the figure of a man leaning casually against a metal railing in front of a vacant duplex.

He and the dealer were familiar with one another, but they didn’t exchange pleasantries. Buying heroin wasn’t quite the same as running into an old friend at the grocery store. Lars simply slapped the cash in the man’s palm and accepted the little baggie of powder.

As he began the return journey, the heroin was like a pool of molten lava in the pocket of his jeans. He was relieved to be done with the deed, but a shroud of doubt weighed on his shoulders.

You can still turn back. Throw it away. Toss it in the dumpster when you get to the alley. Go home and sleep. It’s what Viola would want. She’d want you to try.

His heart clenched. Viola had always believed in him, and he was about to let her down.

Again.

Strides growing slower, Lars reached into his pocket to touch the baggie.

Before the forlorn introspection could swallow him whole, he caught movement—the shape of a person on the other side of the street as they ducked around the corner of an apartment building.

A resident? Or was someone following him?

Holding his breath, Lars stood still as the seconds ticked away.

Traffic hummed in the distance, and a dog barked somewhere farther down the block. Otherwise, there was nothing.

Blood pounded in Lars’s ears as he resumed his trek, albeit at a faster pace. Perhaps this was his punishment. Another addict had spotted him, and they’d determined he was a newcomer to Washington Park. With his clean clothes, neatly brushed hair, and healthy complexion, he didn’t quite blend in with the neighborhood’s usual occupants.

He scowled at the thought. If a scrappy user assumed he’d be easy pickings because he didn’t belong, then they were in for an unpleasant surprise.

No one was going to take his one-way ticket from this miserable life.

He patted his pocket to make sure his drug of choice was still there.

Twice more before the alley, he could have sworn he spotted someone lurking in the shadows. He couldn’t decide if his overactive imagination was taunting his poor decision, but he wasn’t keen on taking an unnecessary risk with his stash. In the end, the alley only shaved a few blocks off the walk anyway. When he came upon the shortcut, he ignored it and kept going.

By the time he made it to the next street, he was sure he was jumping at shadows. Greystone houses, almost all of which had been converted into cheap apartments during the nineties, loomed to either side. The sickly white glow of the streetlights caressed the sides of the crumbling buildings, revealing pockmarks, gouges, and crude graffiti. Over the years, the neighborhood had changed hands from one gang to another, and the city only occasionally bothered to fund crews to paint over the tags.

Just past a condemned, three-story apartment building was the entrance to the alley. The exit from the shortcut he’d been too chickenshit to take.

Glancing toward the shape of a rusted dumpster, he sighed. “There’s nothing here. I’m losing my mind.”

There wasn’t a single strung-out person in the damn city who’d have been able to maintain enough stealth to catch Lars unaware. Some users were dangerous, sure, but their motivations made them predictable. And if an enigmatic figure was out for vengeance, they’d already had plenty of opportunities to put a bullet in Lars’s skull.

No one was waiting to ambush him.

He had enough on his mind. The last thing he needed was to manufacture more problems for himself.

Swallowing a resigned groan, he started to make his way past the alley.

His mind began to drift back to the baggie in his pocket and the peace it would provide, but the quiet scuffle of a shoe stopped his thoughts in their tracks.

A rush of adrenaline jerked him from the cloud of melancholy. As he spun around on one heel, Lars clenched one hand into a tight fist, preparing to take a swing at his newest opponent in the endless boxing match that was his life.

All he caught was a sideways view of a man clad in jeans and a dark jacket as he followed Lars’s sudden movement, like a prizefighter anticipating his opponent’s jabs. Like he’d wanted Lars to whip around with his fist leading the way.

Before Lars could throw a punch, a gloved hand slammed a sweet-smelling cloth over his mouth and nose. The stranger’s arm circled around Lars’s chest and clamped him in place with vicelike strength. Lars tried to throw himself forward to at least loosen the grip, but the arm didn’t budge.

As best as Lars could tell, the man stood almost as tall as his six-two. He’d find no height advantage against this adversary.

At first, Lars resisted the urge to breathe as the true-crime documentaries he’d watched flashed through his mind. Within those shows, he’d learned that chloroform—if that’s even what this was—wasn’t an immediate knockout like popular media tended to portray. Four to five minutes of constant inhalation was needed to render a person unconscious, depending on their size and the chemical’s potency.

He could fight his way out of the man’s grip in that amount of time, surely.

Of course, the surge in availability of drugs like fentanyl made it possible for would-be kidnappers to create their own chemical concoctions to render a victim helpless, quickly and efficiently. As he thrashed against the iron grip that held him in place, his lungs burned, and his eyes watered from whatever mystery drug coated the cloth.

He was fighting a losing battle. Sooner or later, he’d have to take a breath. Unless he wrested himself away from the stranger’s grasp, he would inhale the noxious chemical.

He needed air. He needed to breathe.

Lars jerked his head to the side, hoping he’d free part of his face from the cloth. Like the arm clamped around his chest, however, the man’s hand didn’t budge.

Clawing helplessly at the sleeve of the man’s jacket, Lars’s lungs took over, forcing him to drag in a frantic breath. But instead of fresh, life-preserving air, he sucked in more of the foul chemical.

Darkness shimmered at the edge of his vision, and the world around him was little more than a blur. Weren’t they on the street? Why couldn’t anyone see them? How had no one called for help or stopped to intervene?

Because he was in a crime-ridden part of Washington Park. That was why. Even if anyone had spotted his struggle with the man from the alley, they’d be just as likely to hurry on their way than they would be to call for help.

Though his muscles were rubbery and seemingly weighted down with lead, Lars half pulled, half flung himself forward in a last-ditch attempt to wrest out of the man’s hold. His boxing-match life had been turned into an MMA fight for which he was unprepared.

Have I been fighting the wrong battle all this time?

After another reluctant breath, his vision dimmed. Each movement was weaker than the last, but he knew if he gave up now, he was as good as dead.

Wasn’t that what you wanted?

The question took him by surprise, and his answer was even more surprising.

No. It wasn’t what he wanted at all. Not like this, at least.

There was no way for him to tell how long he was locked in the struggle against the stranger. A minute? An hour? The concept of time eluded him.

Lars’s eyelids grew unbearably heavy, and the little remaining strength evaporated from his tired body. Knees buckling, he gave in and let the darkness claim him as the bell clanged, signaling the end of the round.

* * *

As Lars drifted back toward consciousness, each beat of his heart sent shockwaves from his throbbing head down to his toes. The inside of his eyelids felt as if they’d been swapped for sandpaper, and his mouth was crammed full of invisible sawdust.

Where am I? What the hell happened?

Based on the faint musty scent and the cool, rough concrete floor beneath Lars’s cheek, he was in a basement. And based on the details he could discern, it was a residential space, not the underground level of a warehouse. He’d spent more than enough time in industrial settings to tell the difference between the two.

He tried to move his arms to assuage the ache in his shoulder, but he was greeted with a sharp sting as hard plastic dug into his wrists.

His hands were bound in front of his body, and his mouth was taped shut.

The night’s events rushed back to him. A sweet-smelling cloth. Hands covered with black leather gloves. A dark jacket. Those were the only details about the assailant he could recall. He hadn’t caught the man’s face, but he’d spotted enough of his figure to be certain he was indeed a man. One more thing he was certain of…

He was still alive!

When he’d finally given in and inhaled that drug, he’d been certain he’d never awaken. But here he was. Not only glad to be breathing in and out but happy about this realization.

Now, he just needed to make sure he stayed that way.

His mind raced as he thought through his options. He was alive, yes, but if the stranger from the alley had kept him alive, he wanted something.

Swallowing the grit in his mouth, Lars cracked open one eye, just a slit at first. He fought to keep his breathing even as he searched for movement or any other sign that would indicate the presence of another person.

Golden light shone from the lamp perched atop a shelf at the other end of the room. No, not a lamp. Candles. The glow illuminated the uneven divots and crags in the cinderblock walls, and ominous shadows surrounded a high-set window.

The candles weren’t quite sufficient to chase the darkness from the far reaches of the open room, but as Lars held still and waited, he didn’t spot even a hint of movement.

So, he was in the basement of a house.

Why?

He blinked to clear the film from his vision and peered around the space. Other than the shelf, a laundry sink, and a set of stairs that led up into the gloom, the basement was empty. With no other item to give him an inkling of his captor’s identity, Lars turned his focus to the shelf.

Light glittered off an ornate, golden cross situated in the center of the top shelf. Two jar candles were spaced evenly to either side of the religious symbol.

As Lars’s gaze settled on the red paint scrawled on the wall above the cross, his blood froze in his veins.

1 John 2:17.

And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

Were the words actually written in paint, or was it blood?

He blinked again and studied the wall even harder. Paint. It had to be paint.

Please let it be paint.

Though Lars had never been an especially religious person, religion was often at the core of drug and alcohol recovery. During his stint in rehab, he’d picked up on a handful of bible verses. He’d found many of the texts inspiring at the time, but down in this veritable dungeon, the passage was ominous.

Was the kidnapper part of a religious cult? Had he taken Lars to forcibly convert him? To use him as a sacrifice?

Terror prickled the base of his scalp.

He needed to get the fuck out of here.

Pulling in a deep breath of cool but musty air, Lars glanced down to his bound wrists. His time as an informant for the FBI had been fraught with risks, and one of the tricks he’d researched on YouTube was a method to break free of zip ties. There were techniques to loop the ties and make them virtually impossible to escape, but Lars’s captor must not have known about them.

As Lars propped himself up with an elbow, he flexed his fingers to encourage blood circulation. He didn’t have the first clue how long he’d been unconscious, and his captor could return at any second.

Weak as he was, he needed to hurry.

Once he’d managed to sit up, he looked over his shoulder in hopes he’d find a door. All that greeted him was more dusty concrete and another high windowsill. The only ways out were either through one of the windows—though there was no guarantee Lars would even be capable of pulling himself through the narrow opening—or up the stairs. Again, ascending the dilapidated wooden steps was no guarantee of success. More than likely, each creaking step would call out to his jailer. The door leading to the main level of the house could be locked, or worse, barred.

Only one way to find out.

Gritting his teeth, he staggered first to his knees and then to his feet. His muscles ached with the effort, but to his relief, he had full control over his extremities. The pounding in his head was the only apparent side-effect of the substance used to knock him out.

He started toward the base of the stairs, but a faint scuff overhead froze him in place. Ice-cold dread crept in to take hold of his heart.

Shit.

The faint drum of footsteps followed. They were headed for the stairs.

Stomach churning, Lars tightened both hands into fists, raised his arms, and brought his bound wrists down against his hip bone with as much force as he could manage. He nearly shouted in victory at the light snap of the plastic breaking but managed to remain silent.

Hurry. Hurry.

From the stairwell came the metallic click of a lock and the squeal of rusted hinges.

Jaw clenched to brace himself, Lars slowly peeled back the silver duct tape from his mouth, careful to conceal the sound of his flesh fighting to break free. A hundred little pinpricks of pain followed the motion, but thankfully, he’d shaved his face that morning.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to die like this. Prepare for a fight, you son of a bitch.

Determination settled in alongside the adrenaline, and Lars searched desperately for a weapon. Aside from the typical basement dust, however, the cement floor was clean. There were no tools, no small appliances he could use to bludgeon his attacker. Nothing.

When his gaze reached the shelf—the shrine—against the wall, his attention quickly fell on the polished, golden cross. The length was close to that of Lars’s forearm, and it looked solid.

As quiet as a ghost, he hurried across the room. Wood creaked beneath booted feet, and from Lars’s periphery, he spotted the black-clad man as he descended into the twinkling candlelight.

He was out of time.

Lars closed his hand around the base of the cross just as the man reached the bottom step. As he lifted it from where it had leaned against the cinderblock wall, his heart fell to the floor along with his momentary optimism.

What he’d thought was metal was light as a feather. Nothing more than cheap plastic coated with a layer of gold paint.

Disappointment was like a physical assault as Lars ran through his options.

He could try to reason with the man, could promise to keep his mouth shut if he let him go. Or, if he was affiliated with the traffickers that Lars had helped the FBI put away almost a year earlier, he could try to explain himself.

Or he could fight.

Based on the physical strength the man had displayed during the one-sided brawl in the Washington Park alley, Lars would be facing an uphill battle. Though his captor was clad in black cargo pants and a matching sweatshirt, Lars could tell his shoulders were broad, and his arms filled out the sleeves.

Whatever in the hell he was going to do, he needed to do it now.

“What do you want?” Lars’s voice was hoarse and weak, his tone more akin to a dying bird than a man. “Do you want money? Revenge? Who are you?”

A glimmer of anticipation sparked to life in the man’s eyes. “I don’t want anything from you, Mr. Poteracki. In fact, I’m here to help you.”

Alarm bells clanged in Lars’s head. “What? What the hell are you talking about?”

As the captor took the final step onto the basement floor, Lars knew he was cornered. His only route to the stairs, and to escape, was through the musclebound kidnapper.

He didn’t waste any time.

Just as the man started to speak, Lars threw the cross at him, then rushed forward, hoping to catch him unaware. Using his momentum, Lars slammed both hands into the man’s broad chest.

As the guy stumbled backward a couple feet, eyes wide with shock, Lars clambered up the first few stairs. For a beat, he thought he might actually make it to the freedom that loomed above. If he could get out that damn door, he only had to make his way to the street. He’d rush to the first house he could find, bang on the door, and tell them about the madman who’d kidnapped him.

Maybe they’d believe his story, maybe not. He didn’t care. He’d let the cops sort through the situation, or maybe even the Feds.

His optimism came to a crashing halt as a gruff hand clamped around his ankle. The man jerked Lars’s leg out from under him, and he barely managed to throw an arm in front of himself to prevent his face from smashing into the sharp edge of a step.

Flipping over to face the kidnapper, Lars brought his free leg up in a haphazard kick. The man leaned away from part of the blow, but the toe of Lars’s boot still connected with his chin, snapping his head to the side. Lars jerked his other leg out of the man’s grasp before he could regroup.

As Lars balanced one hand on the stairs to steady himself, a thick splinter pierced his palm. Ignoring the sting, he shoved to his feet.

The abductor grunted, and wood creaked as he lunged toward Lars. A shoulder collided with Lars’s knee, shattering his precarious balance. He pitched to the side, and his upper arm crashed into the wooden handrail. The railing groaned loudly beneath his weight.

Flailing his other arm, Lars made a desperate attempt to right himself as he caught the first crackle of splintering wood. If he fell to the ground below, he’d have to fight his way past the madman all over again.

Like a viper coiled and waiting to strike, the man’s other hand snapped out to take hold of Lars’s forearm. Rather than immediately jerking away, Lars used the powerful grip to pull himself the rest of the way upright. Once his feet were steady, he tightened his free hand into a fist, dug his heel into the stair, and swung with all his might.

At the awkward angle, the left hook didn’t connect with as much force as he’d wanted. The captor didn’t loosen his hold on Lars’s right arm, even when Lars’s knuckles grazed his chin. Lars had dropped men with a well-placed blow in the past, but now, when he most needed to land a solid hit, he’d failed.

Story of my life.

With one swift yank, the kidnapper pulled Lars down the handful of stairs he’d worked so hard to scale. The man finally relinquished his iron grasp on Lars’s arm, but Lars didn’t have a chance to take advantage of the momentary freedom to put distance between them.

He was a split-second too late to spot the dark shape of the man’s fist. Though Lars lurched backward to dodge the punch, he only managed to avoid a fraction of the forceful blow.

Stars exploded in the side of Lars’s vision as his teeth slammed together. Like a spiderweb of lightning, sharp pain lanced through his already aching head. His vision swam, and he struggled to keep himself from slumping to the dusty ground.

As Lars staggered to the side, the man flung one arm around his neck, securing the other beneath Lars’s armpit to hold him upright. Desperate to clear his swimming vision, Lars blinked repeatedly as the man’s grip constricted. He tried to take in a much-needed breath, but his airway was closing, and he managed only a weak gasp.

Seemingly spurred on by the choked sound, the man squeezed tighter.

Dread in the pit of Lars’s stomach became a living thing.

Keep fighting. Don’t let it end like this. Don’t give this bastard what he wants.

Lars raked his eyes over the basement room again, hoping he’d simply missed an item he could use to turn the tide. Nothing.

His flailing arm touched the wall, but like the rest of the space, it was unadorned. No glass frame or decorative item was there for Lars to smash over the man’s head.

Lungs on fire, Lars dug the fingers of both hands into the man’s forearm. He pulled and pulled, searching for even the slightest leeway.

“Stop fighting,” the man grunted. “This is what you were destined for. You’ve spent your life in sin, but this is your chance to make the world a better place. You give your life so that others might live in freedom from your missteps.”

Lars barely heard the ominous statement. He couldn’t breathe, and he didn’t give a shit what this lunatic had to say.

He sank his fingernails into the exposed skin of the man’s wrist and dragged, pushing up the sleeve of his sweatshirt.

Grim consummation crept to Lars’s mind as the captor hissed in pain, and for a beat, the pressure on Lars’s throat lessened.

Sucking in a feeble breath, Lars dug his nails deeper into the man’s skin. He didn’t give the guy a chance to reposition himself before he sank his teeth into the exposed flesh like he was taking a bite of an oversized drumstick. The iron tang of blood filled his mouth, and the hiss escalated to a howl.

As the bastard tried to yank his arm away, Lars clamped his jaw down even tighter. A chunk of muscle and skin came away, as did the crushing pressure on Lars’s throat. Blood dribbled down Lars’s chin as he spat out the flesh and gulped a lungful of precious oxygen.

Before Lars could lunge out of the lunatic’s range, a hand closed around the back of his neck. Strands ripped away from Lars’s scalp as the seemingly possessed man took a handful of his hair. The devil smashed Lars’s head into the cement wall.

Pain exploded from his temple, but he barely registered the crippling sensation. The world changed all around him in an instant. Instead of the insidious basement, he stood in the small foyer of his apartment.

I’m here.

As if she’d heard his unspoken words, the door swung open to reveal his sister’s blue eyes. At the sight, his heart grew lighter.

“Welcome.” Her voice was even more beautiful than the angel she was.

A wide grin brightened her face, and she held up the armful of paperbacks she’d brought for him.

He took them gladly.

Chapter Two

As Special Agent Amelia Storm ducked beneath the yellow crime scene tape behind her partner, Special Agent Zane Palmer, she swept her gaze over the marina. In the dark of night, red and blue lights glinted off the shifting waters of Lake Michigan like sparkling sapphires and rubies. A white boat bobbed to one side of the boardwalk, but other than a second, larger vessel in the distance, the small marina was empty.

Due to the nature of the FBI’s jurisdiction, instances where Amelia was called directly to the site of a body retrieval were unusual, at least compared to the number of murder scenes a homicide detective might see. But a little more than a half hour ago, a Chicago Police detective had reached out to Zane to advise him that the corpse of a federal informant had just been fished out of Lake Michigan.

That put the case firmly in their jurisdiction.

The drive to the small, private marina hadn’t taken long, but Amelia had used the opportunity to conduct a cursory check of the scant information they’d received from the CPD.

Fiona Donahue, a special agent who had been part of the Organized Crime Division that specialized in drug trafficking, had worked with the victim at the beginning of the year. Since Fiona had taken a position at the FBI’s Portland office four months earlier, Zane and Amelia had been summoned to the scene of her informant’s murder.

Amelia’s cheeks heated as she recalled the precise moment Zane had received the call. He’d pulled her close, and she’d gladly melted into his lean, muscular frame as their lips met for the first time.

Though they’d been friends since their first case together more than half a year ago—roughly three months after they’d each arrived in Chicago—the past couple months had seen a shift from platonic to something more. As much as the prospect of a romantic relationship made Amelia nervous, the idea of being with Zane brought on the stomach full of butterflies she never thought she’d experience again.

Cold wind buffeted the side of Amelia’s face, reminding her she’d have plenty of time to mull over Zane Palmer when she wasn’t at a crime scene. She’d only been with the FBI for two years, but the ten years she’d spent in the military beforehand had taught her the art of self-discipline.

Especially since, for most of the decade in the armed forces, she’d been a sniper. Her dream had always been to land a spot in the Army’s elite Green Beret forces, but until a few years ago, specialized warfare factions of the military didn’t even permit women to enlist.

The stagnancy of her military career had come to a head with the combined stress of her older brother’s death a little more than two years ago. Trevor Storm had been shot to death in the line of duty as a Chicago homicide detective. The crime had been investigated and the case closed, but recently, Amelia had begun to suspect there might be more to the story than what the CPD had uncovered at the time.

Rather than remain where she was stationed on the East Coast, Amelia had elected not to renew her contract with the U.S. military. She’d had her eye on investigative work ever since her brother had made detective, and she’d followed in his footsteps. After training at Quantico, she’d worked in the Bureau’s Boston field office for close to a year before an open position allowed her to transfer to her hometown of Chicago.

She was good at her work in the FBI, and though the job was stressful, the work was gratifying. To be sure, the Bureau was still a boys’ club, but she knew damn good and well that she’d have more luck advancing a career with the FBI than she would in the military.

Amelia pulled up the collar of her knee-length trench coat as a gust of wind swept past her and Zane. A cold front moving in from the north was predicted to pick up energy over Lake Michigan and dump a truckload of snow on the city. Lake-effect snow wasn’t particularly common in Chicago, but it seemed to have become more frequent in recent years.

A man drew her attention away from the orange-tinted sky. As a piece of dark hair blew in front of Amelia’s eyes, she mentally cursed herself for neglecting to pull the strands back in a ponytail. When the temperature dropped like it had over the last few hours, she preferred to leave her hair down to keep her neck warm. Not that it mattered when the wind was blowing at twenty-five miles per hour.

Clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering, Amelia followed Zane over to a man with a silver badge draped around his neck.

He pocketed a small notepad as he met them halfway. “Agents, I’m Detective Clark. Thanks for getting here so quickly.”

Though a normal person’s first inclination might have been annoyance at being pulled away from the warmth of their homes at nine o’clock on a weeknight, her job as a special agent for the FBI’s Organized Crime Division wasn’t the typical nine-to-five grind.

She was here for a damn good reason. A man—a federal informant, someone who’d put his life in harm’s way to help law enforcement—had been murdered, and his body had just been pulled from Lake Michigan.

Whoever he was, he was someone’s son, someone’s brother, uncle, or friend.

As Amelia glanced to Zane, she noted the same determination on his unshaven face. He’d pulled up the collar of his black frock coat, and the wind rustled his sandy hair. His gray eyes shifted between Amelia and the detective. Since he’d received the call, Amelia decided to let him lead the conversation.

“It’s no problem, Detective. Could you tell us where we’re at so far?” Zane had been in Chicago for nine months at this point, but a trace of his native Jersey accent still tinged his words.

Detective Clark beckoned her and Zane to follow him toward a gurney. “The vic is Lars Poteracki. The body was found by a civilian who was at the marina to work on their boat. They saw the vic and called us around sundown, but it took a little while to get to him. There’s a cold front coming in, so currents are a bitch right now. Vic’s wallet was in his back pocket. There were a few credit cards, a hundred, and a couple twenties still inside, so it doesn’t look like robbery.”

Not that the CPD would have called the FBI in for an apparent robbery turned homicide. Amelia kept the thought to herself. “How’d you know that he was a federal informant?”

The detective jammed both hands in the pockets of his coat. “I recognized him. The wallet confirmed his identity. Back at the beginning of the year, I worked a triple homicide. The vics had rap sheets, but they’d mostly just been popped for petty shit like possession and shoplifting. Two males, one female.” He tightened his jaw, his expression darkening. “They were dealing in Washington Park, but they were just kids. Ballistics confirmed all three were killed by the same weapon, a Beretta nine-mil that was used to execute two other small-time dealers the week before. Long story short, Poteracki helped us put the guy away.”

And now he was dead.

“Joint task force between the CPD and the Bureau, right?” Amelia hadn’t needed to ask the question, but she wanted the confirmation anyway.

“Right. The killer was Kevin Ersfeld, a dealer with a violent rap sheet that read like a horror movie. Domestic abuse, rape, assault and battery, attempted murder. You name it, he’d been charged with it. Ersfeld was terrorizing Washington Park. All the small-time dealers and the working girls out there were scared shitless. All of ‘em except Poteracki, anyway.”

A bright light shone on their backs, and Amelia reflexively shot a venomous glare to the group of bystanders clustered behind the crime scene tape. A small news crew powered on their camera lights, illuminating the onlookers in the otherwise dark marina.

Zane ignored the lookie-loos. “You knew Poteracki and Ersfeld?”

As Zane took over the dialogue, Amelia scanned the handful of civilians who’d clustered away from the reporter and her crew in an effort to catch a glimpse of the CPD and the body they’d just pulled from Lake Michigan. The old adage about killers returning to the scene of their crime was cliché, but it had become routine for a reason. Murderers loved to revel in the fallout of their actions. It was part of what got them off.

Clark rubbed his hands together to combat the frigid air. “I wouldn’t say I knew either of them. I met Poteracki a few times. Enough to know that he was a decent guy who’d been dealt a shitty hand. From what I could tell, he was trying to make things right. Trying to stay on the straight and narrow.”

“Poteracki had a rap sheet too, didn’t he?” Zane asked. “A lot of informants do.”

“Yeah. He did time for possession with intent to distribute, and he got clean while he was on the inside. He went back to dealing when he got out, and one of yours popped him for it while she was undercover. That was around the same time that Ersfeld was starting to terrorize Washington Park, and as luck would have it, Poteracki was familiar with the guy.”

Zane pulled a pack of gum from his coat. “Agent Fiona Donahue. She did a lot of undercover work before she moved out to Portland a few months ago. Poteracki was her informant for about six months, give or take. He helped her and the CPD take down Ersfeld, and then all his accomplices.” He offered a piece of gum to Detective Clark, who declined, and then to Amelia.

As she popped the gum into her mouth, she was surprised at the rush of cinnamon where she’d expected mint. If she hadn’t been fully awake before, she was now.

Prisoners successfully completing rehab while in prison didn’t happen often, Amelia knew. The hostile environment filled with repeat offenders, plenty of whom were violent, wasn’t conducive to sobriety. Drugs and other contraband were readily available, no matter the strict policies and searches conducted by prison staff.

For Lars Poteracki to break free from a heroin addiction while behind bars was no small feat. The man had to have been driven.

The trio came to a halt by a broad-shouldered man standing behind the metal gurney. The lettering on the man’s dark blue jacket proclaimed him as a forensic pathologist—part of a small group of licensed professionals who worked under the umbrella of the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Clark made the introductions. “Agents, this is Dr. Adam Francis. Dr. Francis, this is Special Agent Palmer and Special Agent Storm.”

“Evening, Agents.” The forensic pathologist gestured to the body bag atop the gurney. “We’re about to load him up. Did you want to have a look before we take off?”

Amelia stepped closer. “If you don’t mind. Detective, you said that there was a message carved in his skin. Any idea what it says?”

Clark dropped both hands to his hips as he peered at the black bag. “Couldn’t quite tell, no. It’s on his chest, and we could only see a little of it without removing the clothing. But we didn’t want to disturb anything we didn’t need to.”

A sense of foreboding wriggled into the back of Amelia’s mind. “Let’s see it.”

Snapping on a fresh pair of nylon gloves, Dr. Francis slowly tugged on the zipper of the body bag, pulling down to the middle of the victim’s torso.

Lars Poteracki’s skin was the same shade as pale moonlight, though a short, neatly trimmed beard shadowed his face. A series of scratches ran from his forehead to his angular cheekbone, either the result of whatever scuffle had killed him or drag marks from his time at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Sandy brown hair hung in ropy strands beneath his head, dotted with the occasional speck of debris from the water.

When her gaze reached the vicious gash on his neck, Amelia’s stomach clenched. Though faint, a hint of white was visible amidst the mutilated flesh. The man’s spine.

The wound was so garish, Amelia almost didn’t notice the neat line that had been carved just under Poteracki’s collarbone. Beneath an olive drab jacket and a black, hooded sweatshirt, the first few buttons of his white dress shirt were undone.

Amelia leaned a little closer to study the cut on Lars’s chest. It was a straight line, but whoever had carved it had taken care to add a slight tail at the top as well as another at the bottom. “It’s a number.”

Detective Clark crossed both arms over his chest. “That’s what I thought. It looks like a one.”

Who the hell carved a number into the flesh of their victim? Was the mark a hitman’s calling card, or was the killer trying to send them a message?

With a gloved finger, Dr. Francis pushed aside a piece of hair at the victim’s temple. “There’s a nasty contusion on this side of his head. I thought at first that the slit throat was likely the cause of death, but these blows look like they were sustained antemortem.”

To Amelia’s side, Zane rubbed a hand over his unshaven cheek. “So, the killer smashed his head in and then slit his throat for good measure?”

Dr. Francis lifted a shoulder. “Possibly. I’ll know more when I have him on my table.”

Peering down at the victim’s lifeless face, Amelia noticed the physical resemblance between Lars Poteracki and Zane Palmer. Hell, the two of them could have been brothers.

Her stomach constricted even tighter, and she pushed aside the sudden urge to wrap Zane in a protective bear hug.

She gave herself a mental shake. “There’s not a lot of visible decomposition yet. How long do you think he’s been in the water?”

The forensic pathologist glanced over his shoulder at the shifting waters of the lake. “Depends on the water temperature. Cold temperatures can delay almost all signs of decomposition.” Dr. Francis pulled the zipper down and reached for Lars’s arm. Gingerly, he took hold of the man’s wrist and tugged. The limb hardly moved.

“Rigor mortis.” Zane tapped an index finger against his side, a common tic Amelia had noticed when he was thinking. “Rigor usually dissipates after about forty-eight hours. But like you said, Dr. Francis, that all depends on temperature.”

“It does.” Dr. Francis weighed his empty hands. “The fact that rigor is still present is a good indicator that he hasn’t been dead long. The temperature of the lake, depending on how long he’s been underwater, would have prolonged the rigor. But chances are still good he’s been dead fewer than two days, three at the most.”

Zane pressed his lips together. “Bodies don’t usually float to the surface until they’ve been dead longer than that, though. What’s different about this one?”

“Currents,” the pathologist replied. “The cold front that’s been bearing down on the city today. High winds can impact the speed of the water.”

Amelia’s gaze drifted back to Lars’s pale face. When a shadow shifted beneath one of the man’s nostrils, she assumed at first the movement was the result of the odd lighting. A combination of harsh white streetlamps, strobing red and blue police lights, and blazing lights from the news crew gave the entire area an otherworldly feel.

As the supposed shadow under the victim’s nose grew longer, Amelia froze. Zane asked Dr. Adam Francis another question, but she didn’t even hear him.

Was the victim’s nose bleeding? How was that even possible?

This was certainly not the first dead body Amelia had seen, but admittedly, her experiences with corpses who’d been submerged in water for days or weeks before discovery was limited. Back in Boston, she’d stood by as divers had recovered the decomposing remains of a teenaged male.

The kid had spent almost two weeks in the Atlantic in the middle of August, and the recovery of his body was still one of the most disgusting sights Amelia had ever witnessed.

Skin had slogged off his bones like melting wax, and his eyelids, lips, and cheeks had been mostly consumed by marine scavengers. His abdomen had swelled to more than twice its usual size, and a putrid mixture of water and liquified tissue had oozed onto the gurney beneath him. Then, of course, there were the bottom-feeders that had burrowed into the corpse to feed.

Amelia was still impressed she’d managed to keep herself from vomiting. Even the twenty-year veteran agent working the case with her had stepped away for a breath of fresh air.

This was different.

The shadow beneath Lars Poteracki’s nose kept growing until Amelia finally realized what was happening. As a dark, wormlike creature slid out of the dead man’s left nostril, she spat out a series of four-letter words.

Zane’s stunned expression must have mirrored her own. “What the hell is that?”

If the macabre sight fazed Adam Francis, the man gave no indication as the creature wormed its way into the corpse’s mouth. “Looks like a parasitic lamprey. Probably a sea lamprey, which are an invasive species to the Great Lakes. Ever since the government and NOAA took note of the havoc they were wreaking on native fish populations, their numbers have declined. But we still see plenty of them when we pull bodies out of the water.”

Detective Clark tucked both hands into his pockets. Like Dr. Francis, his expression had changed little. “I thought those damn things fed on fish, though?”

“They do. At least, they’re supposed to. But lampreys have been around for millions of years. If they’re hungry enough, they’ll go for other sources of nutrients.” He waved a hand at the body. “Like a corpse on the bottom of Lake Michigan. They’re opportunistic little bastards.”

Scratching his temple, Zane faced the doctor. “All right. When will you be conducting the autopsy?”

Dr. Francis zipped up the body bag, peeled off the gloves, and checked his watch. “Within a couple hours, I hope. I called in my assistant, so she ought to be in the office soon, if she’s not there already. With bodies we pull from the water, even if they don’t look all that decomposed, we want to get to them as quickly as possible. Being out of the water can sometimes accelerate the decomp process after a body’s been submerged for a time.”

“We’ll be there. We’ll head that way as soon as we finish up here.”

Amelia blinked in surprise, flashing Zane a quizzical we will? glance. She wasn’t sure what good their presence would do in an autopsy room, but she kept the skepticism to herself.

“I’ll see you there, then.” Adam Francis beckoned to a uniformed officer, and the pair disappeared with the gurney and Lars Poteracki.

The case had barely begun, and already, Amelia had a sinking feeling they were about to spiral down a rabbit hole.

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Storm's Rite by Mary Stone and Amy Wilson

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