Release Date: February 7, 2023
FBI Special Agent Kendall Black knew she’d been to one too many crime scenes when in the midst of the bloodiest she’d walked into lately—this one in a convenience store—she wondered who had the tedious job of washing off all the blood smeared on the cellophane of a five-pack of Donettes. Or did they throw all the blood-splattered items away because, well, they were covered in blood? Maybe they put them on a clearance rack. But did they then have to disclose they were part of a murder?
Probably the best thing would be to send the tainted snacks back to the station with the patrol cops currently swarming the small store—what looked to be half the force in Denver. None of them cared if the bag of Cheetos had some spatter on the front. Free food. No law enforcement officer would pass up gratis chips and donuts.
Mmm . . . donuts . . . What she wouldn’t give for a jelly right about now.
“Can I help you?” a cop asked, sidestepping around her as she stood in the middle of the doorway.
“Yeah.” She flashed her badge. “Can you point me to who’s in charge of the investigation?”
The cop peered around the store and pointed to a man at the end of the checkout counter. “There he is, dark suit, talking to the balding old guy.”
Kendall didn’t need to see the lead investigator’s face to know it was Adam Taylor. The two had met and worked together on a case, one near and dear to Kendall’s heart—the murder of her best friend. During the investigation, Kendall and Adam had grown close, and she counted him among her tight-knit posse of confidants.
“Thanks.” She signed the crime scene log and strode toward Adam and one of his sidekicks, Saul Chapman.
“Don’t think for one fucking second that catching this case means you won’t be helping me move,” she said by way of greeting as she sidled up next to Adam.
“Oh, goody, they sent you.” He gave her a sideways glance. “I’ve been looking forward to your wit and charm all morning. What took you so long? Decide on a bubble bath before coming in?”
“Full-body massage with a hot Swede.”
“How was it?”
“Hard.” She tipped her head toward the body splayed on the floor in the middle of a large pool of blood. “What’s the story here?”
“Dead guy,” Saul said, pointing out the obvious.
Kendall wrinkled her nose. “I don’t do dead guys. I do kids.” “Got one of those too.”
“Dead?” Kendall hated starting any day with a dead body, but a dead kid made it ten times more revolting.
“No,” Adam said. “But potentially a missing one.” “Elaborate.”
“Bad Guy”—he pointed to the splayed body—“was trying to rob the store. Apparently had the child with him. There was another customer at the back of the store by the coolers, minding his own business. He hears a ruckus at the front of the store. Bad Guy is demanding money from the cashier, who grabs for a gun under the counter and aims it at Bad Guy. Things go sideways, Bad Guy gets a shot off, cashier goes down. Bad Guy kicks cashier’s gun out of the way and puts another round in cashier’s head.”
“Meanwhile”—Saul picks up the story—“the kid is screaming, so the minding-his-own-business guy becomes a Good Samaritan, picks up the cashier’s gun while Bad Guy is trying to empty the till. Bad Guy sees Good Sam, and lifts his gun to shoot him, but Good Sam shoots Bad Guy first. Decent shot—looks like it was center mass. But Good Sam is apparently so freaked out by killing someone, he runs out of the store with the little girl in tow.”
“Cops found them down the alley. Some neighbour called about a guy with a little girl hiding behind his garage,” Adam said.
“Hiding from what?”
“Not clear on that,” Adam said. “I don’t do lost kids. I do dead guys.”
Kendall mulled over the information Adam had given her as she walked across the parking lot of the convenience store to where police were talking to the Good Sam. The sun was breaking through the cloud cover, beams of light bouncing off windows and illuminating the city. This would be considered a rough part of town. Boarded-up warehouses covered in graffiti and store
fronts that hadn’t been painted since they were first constructed competed with the fast-food conglomerates that always seem to thrive in any community regardless of the socioeconomics.
The Good Sam, who looked to be mid-forties, possibly skirting fifty, slouched against the back end of the police cruiser, one hand grooming his closely trimmed gray beard. He wore jeans, a light-gray button-up shirt, and tan canvas shoes. Seemed to be a normal guy, which always set off Kendall’s warning bells. Most “normal” people she met in her line of work tended to be the lowest forms of life. Shit dipped in gold. Shiny on the outside, just don’t scratch the surface.
As she approached the car, the officer stepped forward. She flashed her badge; he nodded and stepped out of her way. “Hi.” She stuck her hand out for the man, who was now standing upright in front of her, an eyebrow raised. “I’m FBI Special Agent Kendall Beck. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
“FBI?” The man asked as he scanned her badge, then met her gaze while shaking her hand. “I already told the police everything about the shooting.”
“I understand, Mr. . . . ?”
“Craig,” the man said. “Melvin.”
“Melvin. I know it’s hard to keep repeating a story that’s sure to give you nightmares, but I’m more interested in the girl who was in the store with you.”
“She wasn’t in the store with me,” he said, placing emphasis on the word, most likely to ensure Kendall understood there was a difference. “She was with that scum of the earth who shot the cashier.” “I was told she was found with you.”
“Yes, that’s true,” he said, drawing out the words. “But I just happened to be in the store. And she was in the store. But she came with the other guy. That’s all. I don’t know who she is.”
Kendall smiled, hoping to put the man at ease. She didn’t want the man on the defensive when it appeared he was trying to help the girl. She had learned a long time ago to start soft. Bring out the barbed-wire-covered bat only as a not-so-gentle means of persuasion when necessary. “Perhaps you should start from the beginning.”
Melvin pulled his hand down his face and stroked his beard while letting out a long sigh. “I stopped by to get a Mountain Dew and a breakfast burrito—my usual breakfast. I was standing at the back cooler when the guy came in with the little girl. He looked sort of sketchy—”
“What do you mean by that?”
The man scratched along his jaw, his eyes squinting just slightly, and Kendall figured this was a subconscious act. “Well, he wasn’t the kind of guy you expected to have a little girl with him. His clothes were dirty, his hair was long, and he looked a bit scraggly. Probably could’ve stood to shower, you know what I mean?”
Kendall nodded. She’d met many a sketchy dude in her line of work.
Craig returned the nod and continued. “And the little girl looked scared. So I kind of hung back and just watched them. Then the guy tells the cashier to give him all the money from the register. Next thing I know, both of those idiots had guns, and then the shooting started.”
“So, just so I understand, both of them were shooting and you decided to get the girl?”
Craig looked up and away, as if trying to recall the scene in his mind. “I don’t remember if they both were shooting—I think the guy shot the cashier first and she dropped her gun.” “And is that when you decided to pick it up?”
“Yeah—I don’t know what I was thinking—the little girl was screaming and I was afraid the guy was going to shoot her. So I just . . . acted on instincts, I guess.” He shrugged and looked down at his feet as he rocked from one to the other.
Kendall gave him a moment. It was never easy to kill people. Even law enforcement agents had a tough time dealing with taking a life. This guy might have only ever shot a gun at a range, taking out a paper man on a target. Not even close to the same experience. Paper men didn’t bleed. And they didn’t cry out in agony. It was a whole different ballgame when the shooting involved live flesh and blood. “What happened after you shot the man?”
Craig looked at Kendall, then swallowed, staring over her shoulder at the front of the store. “I just took off. I knew I had to get the girl out of there—she had already seen too much.” He ran his hand over his beard again, and Kendall decided it was a nervous tic he probably didn’t realize he was doing most of the time. “Truth be told, I was a little shaken up as well. I’ve never seen anyone die. And there was just . . . so much blood.”
There was a great deal of truth to the statement. She had been to many violent crime scenes during her career with the FBI, and it was still unnerving to actually see how much blood the human body contained. “So why were you hiding when the police started canvassing the area?”
He inhaled through his nose and rocked back on his heels. “Honestly, I think I was in shock or something. I truly thought they were trying to hurt us.” He shook his head, seemingly somewhat disgusted at the memory. “I know it sounds silly, but I was just really freaked out.”
“It doesn’t sound silly at all,” Kendall reassured him. “Even the most seasoned veteran on the force gets shaken up in a gunfight. You did just fine.” She glanced back at the store. “You said it’s your routine to come here every morning, is that right?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “I am not usually in this part of town. I live in Arvada and go to the store there.”
“Where is that store? Do you know the cross streets?” “Yeah, it’s off Kipling and Ridge.”Kendall made a note. “So why were you on this side of town this morning?”
“I had a meeting with a client, but he didn’t show up. So I decided to go into the store and grab breakfast before heading back to my office.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a small business owner. Sort of a courier. I do all the running around for businesses whostill deal in documents and stuff. Mostly lawyers, but today I was supposed to pick up some paperwork for a general contractor.”
Kendall hadn’t really considered there were still businesses out there that didn’t do everything electronically. Didn’t seem as if there would be enough work to make a living out of it. But then again, if he was one of only a few who did that type of work, he might be highly sought after by businesses who needed that service.
“And you’re certain you don’t know either of the people in the store?”
The man shook his head and dropped his gaze. “No. Like I said, I’m not usually on this side of town.”
“And you don’t know the little girl—at least you didn’t before this morning?”
“Don’t know anything about her,” he said quickly and firmly, looking Kendall in the eye.
“Okay, thank you,” Kendall said, fishing a business card out of her pocket and handing it to him. “If you think of anything else, please give me a call.”
“Am I free to go now?” There was a slight edge of irritation to his voice. Weird, but perhaps the day’s events were starting to catch up with him. There were many instances where a person went through stages—killing a man was one of them. Craig was probably going through the stage where he was getting pissed at everyone associated with this event, especially the person he shot. But it was difficult to get angry at a dead guy, so he was going to turn it on the next available living human.
Kendall was not up for being in his line of fire. It was too early in the day.
“Best to check with the officer,” she said, and turned away. She wasn’t going to get into a pissing match with Melvin Craig, and she had no idea whether Adam still needed to talk to him. Let the uniform deal with Craig and his attitude. It was good for young pups to learn how to overcome adversity.
As Kendall walked back to the c-store to find Adam, she hit the speed dial for her partner, Jake, and listened to her phone ring until he answered. Loud chatter and children’s squeals nearly covered his “Hello.”
“Where the hell are you?” she asked.
“I had to drop the kid at daycare.”
“They let you in with a gun?”
“They’re not happy about it. I get lots of dirty looks.” “That’s not necessarily because you have a gun.”
“Did you call for a reason beyond damaging my fragile male ego?”
“Yeah, I’m at a crime scene. Looks like we found a possible missing girl.”
“Alive?” His voice was tentative. It sucked having to start the day finding a dead kid.
“Yes, but I haven’t had a chance to question her. Apparently, she’s not talking. Adam had her taken to the PD, so I’m heading over to see if I can at least get a name and inform her parents.” “What do you need from me?”
“I’m going to send you some info on the guy she was with. It appears he’s the reason we’re not investigating her murder. I need you to do some background on the guy, see if the info he gave me checks out.”
She heard the sound of a car door closing and a vehicle engine starting. “Heading to the office now.”