Chapter 1 (partial)

My breath is shallow and fast and the sound of my beating heart resonates in my ears. This is the first field assignment I’ve had for a while and I’m a little rusty. I steady my breath. We’ll be moving soon.

I study the area, waiting for my cue. I’ve parked on the right-hand side and have a good view of the street and the apartment building that’s our target. The street is quiet. Eerily quiet, as if everyone’s hiding in their homes, somehow aware of what’s about to go down and waiting for the storm to pass. Then again, it is 2 pm on a Wednesday. The only sign of movement is a mother pushing her stroller about thirty feet in front of me on the footpath, and a few people waiting at a bus stop sixty feet down the road. I take in my surroundings, counting the people, entering information about them into my memory — I may need it later. For the moment, nothing looks suspicious and Boxley, our target, entered the building about half an hour ago. I take another deep breath. Soon. It will be soon.

I love this feeling; love knowing that finally the hunter has become the hunted. I bet he feels like this when he’s stalking a victim, knowing that any minute she’ll be his. But he’s in the wrong, and we’re in the right.

He’s probably already selected his next victim. I imagine him closing in on her, just as though she was my sister, best friend or even me. My teeth clench and my hand goes instinctively to the gun in my ankle holster. My fingers tighten around the bulge…it’s guys like the creep inside who drew me to law enforcement.

‘This is Mad Dog, are you in position…one?’ Detective Flynn’s voice crackles softly through my earpiece. It’s a joint task force — DC Police and FBI — with Flynn from DC Homicide taking the lead.
‘Check,’ says the leader of the first unit.
‘Two?’ Flynn says.
I listen to the units sound off, ending with the one headed by Agent Josh Marco. We’ve worked together closely on this case and have become friends. Maybe more than friends.
‘Okay, Goldilocks, we’re ready to roll,’ Flynn says.
Flynn is with two other officers to the left of the apartment, covering the fire escape. He looks up and nods at me. From this distance I just make out a smile.

I get out of the car we organized for the operation, a red Ford, and grab the briefcase of samples and my black coat from the passenger seat. I ease one arm into the coat, eager for its warmth, and then slip in the other arm. For the job I’ve chosen black pants that flare slightly at the ankles but hug my hips, and a tight-fitting red v-neck to show off as much cleavage as I can bring to the party (with some major help from a push-up bra). I am a little vulnerable without my bulletproof vest, but guns don’t seem to be this perp’s style. Besides, we can’t risk arousing his suspicion with added bulk on my upper body. Over the outfit I wear a black scarf and the black coat. The look is completed with black leather gloves.

Here I go. I’ve been living and breathing this case for the past five months and it feels good to almost have the bastard in our grasp.

The perp lives in a fifteen-story building that’s in pretty good nick despite its obvious sixties look. The pathway is concrete, lined with a waist-high box hedge. The sides of the long path are framed by lawn, and a few flowering shrubs add color to the grayness.

I go over the routine one more time…my name is Lauren. Lauren Armstrong. I work for Clean-a-way Living and I’m here to sell our perp….I mean my client…our effective and environmentally-friendly range of cleaning products.
Flashes of the victims lying in pools of their own blood intrude on my thoughts. I push the images away. Focus.

I scan the apartment buzzers on the inside wall. Robert Boxley is written next to apartment 104. I ring the buzzer. A couple of minutes drag by like ten, and finally I hear the hiss of the intercom system.

‘Who is it?’ a husky male voice asks.
‘Hi, it’s Lauren from Clean-a-way.’ I use a richer, throatier version of my natural voice and play on my Australian accent, broadening it slightly.
‘Lauren. Yes. Come up.’

The buzzer sounds and I walk in through the security door. My stomach does a flip and my ‘spider sense’ tingles. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I push it aside and flick the ring on my little finger with my thumbnail. It’s just nerves because this is my first field assignment for a while.
‘I’m in.’ Confirmation for Flynn and the rest of the task force.

The small inside foyer is decorated with brown speckled tiles and the walls are painted a dull green. A faded safety certificate hangs on the left wall next to a rusty fire extinguisher — probably both from the sixties. Opposite the entrance is a small elevator. I look above it and notice that number eleven is dimly lit. The elevator isn’t moving. Our suspect’s on the first floor, so I head for the stairs on the right. I grasp the wrought-iron banister, which rattles in my hand. With each step my heart seems to pound even faster, sending vibrations through my body with every beat. It’s so loud the guys can probably hear it through my mouthpiece. That’s not good. I want to make a good impression on my first bust.

I knock on apartment 104’s door. I hear two locks rattling in the door frame, and then I’m greeted by Robert Boxley. He looks a little different to the picture we got from his employer, but I recognize him nonetheless. Five ten and stocky, with a paunch. He’s clean-shaven and his skin is smooth and translucent, though a few beads of sweat hang above his top lip. Nervousness? His black hair is cut tightly. He wears blue jeans, a loose white T-shirt and sneakers. If I didn’t know what a monster he was, I’d think he was good-looking.

‘Hi Robert.’ I immerse myself in my character, shoving my revulsion way down into the pit of my stomach.
‘Hi Lauren,’ he says, eyeballing me with intense dark green eyes. ‘Come in.’ He steps away from the door and motions me inside.

I walk past him, momentarily turning my back on him. I’m not keen on the physical advantage he has over me for these few seconds, but it can’t be helped. Besides, I’m safe. Not only because of the size and skill of my back-up, but also because it’s unlikely he’ll nab me. I’m his type, but he likes to stalk his victims for a couple of weeks. He might mentally enter me into his victim pool for another time, but he’s already picked his next girl and he’s too orderly to let me jump the queue.

I take in every detail, hyperaware of my surroundings. Even an odor could mean something. But I smell nothing, other than the remnants of last night’s curry.
‘Your coat?’

I put my case down on the carpet and slowly take off my coat. He watches me carefully, running his eyes across my body. The look penetrates me, but I smile and hand him my coat and scarf. It sickens me to be civil to this man, but it’s all part of the job. Soon the tables will be turned.

He hangs my coat and scarf on a peg near the front door.
I look around. His apartment is immaculate.
‘Nice place you got here.’
He’s gone for the minimalist approach that a lot of guys like. I don’t know if it’s the look they like or the lack of dusting duties.