Their lives are on the line— and a cell phone video holds the key… A routine stakeout turns lethal when private investigator Megan O’Clare videotapes a murder—and ends up dodging gunfire with rival PI Jack Luskie. As the killer fights to destroy the evidence on Megan’s phone—and them along with it—this investigation becomes personal. But can Megan and Jack put aside their rivalry and work together to survive? From Love Inspired Suspense: Courage. Danger. Faith.
Release date: July 27, 2021
Print pages: 224
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Exposing a Killer
Laurie Alice Eakes
The voices rasped through the night too low for Megan O’Clare to hear, but their tone sliced the near darkness sharper than a butcher’s knife. Two voices. Male. Female. Through her binoculars, Megan could only see the male. His broad shoulders blocked the woman from view, towering over her, his hands raised as though he gripped her shoulders.
At least Megan hoped he held her shoulders and not the woman’s neck. The growling of his muted words suggested the latter was not at all out of the realm of possibilities.
Megan shivered on the branch of an overgrown oak, where she had taken up her observation point. Not on the property of her subject, the unseen woman. That would have been trespassing, a no-no, especially for a private investigator like Megan. But she was as close to the couple as she dared get in the branches of a tree that leaned over the backyard fence of the house next door, a house from which she had watched a throng of college students swarm toward food and entertainment elsewhere. Not one had thought to leave an outside light on, for which Megan was grateful. Her subject, Elizabeth Cahill, and her male companion had shared their company under fairy lights strung along the railings of the deck.
The night had started out romantic, giving Megan a twinge of guilt for spying on them, however legitimate her reason for doing so. Or maybe a twinge of envy that she was sitting in a tree observing them dine and dance, while she worked on bringing this case to a close instead of enjoying someone’s company on a Friday night.
At least she had nudged shoulders with the green-eyed monster until the argument began.
If only she owned a device that brought conversations as close to her ears as her binoculars brought scenes to her eyes. Then she could understand the argument rather than guessing at its content.
Cahill shouldn’t have been able to dance. The man shouldn’t have drawn her into the motion. She was supposed to be suffering from an injured back after slipping and falling on a wet floor at work. Cahill’s employer suspected the woman was malingering and had hired Megan to investigate. A week of failing to find any evidence of workmen’s compensation fraud during the day had driven Megan into the tree on a Friday night.
At least the sacrifice of forgoing a silly movie and popcorn with her roommate had paid off—literally. She’d managed to video the woman dancing with grace and ease, and she kept the recording rolling as the argument escalated, the man’s grumble turning into a growl like a dog preparing to attack.
Megan leaned forward, and the branch creaked beneath her. In the quiet of neighborhood, the sound reverberated.
The voices ceased. The man glanced around. For the first time that night, Megan saw his face clearly, lit by a nearby fairy light. His mustache and beard were reddish, more auburn than Megan’s own copper ponytail, his hair trimmed and darker. He had bushy eyebrows, a large, well-shaped nose and eyes, almost too big for good proportion to his other features, even the nose.
And another chill ran down Megan’s spine despite the moderate temperature of the autumn night. She doubted he could see her. He was in little light. She was in less. Her clothes were dark, and she had pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her red hair. Dangling leaves shielded the pale skin of her face. Yet eyes like those surely saw...too much.
The tree rustled around Megan. She couldn’t feel it, but the wind must have picked up. Maybe the man would blame the creaking branch on the breeze.
She snapped a still shot of his face as the video kept rolling, knowing the image would be dark without the flash, but hoping she got something to identify him should she need a witness later for Cahill’s employer.
Rather than turning back to his argument, the man stepped away and strode to the rail of the deck. His hands curled around the wood, and his body bent forward as though he struggled to catch his breath.
Behind him, the woman lay in a crumpled heap against the house wall like a discarded bundle of rags.
Megan’s heart squeezed into her stomach. She swallowed hard to keep the “No, no, no, no” from pouring across her lips.
Not dead. Not dead. The woman could not be—
A hand clamped on her shoulder. Megan jumped. She flung up her right hand to defend herself from attack and lost her grip. She began to slide toward the end of the branch. It bowed and creaked beneath her, then snapped like a gunshot, and Megan tumbled to the ground. To mercifully soft grass. Still, she made a thud loud enough to be heard from her position in the Lincoln Park neighborhood to the Southside neighborhood of Hyde Park ten miles away. The impact drove the wind from her lungs, immobilizing her.
“You can’t stay there.” A murmuring voice close at hand—close enough for Megan to hear without a special device.
Breath catching in her lungs again, she managed to look up at the tall, broad figure against the ambient light of a city at night. Spots danced before her eyes. She needed to scramble to her feet, needed to run. Her simple investigation had just turned somewhere between scary and deadly. Too close to deadly.
“Let’s go before he sees us.” The man bent and grabbed her hand.
But he had already seen them. A blaze of light stabbed the dimness of the yards and a crack followed. Not a breaking limb this time. Not the backfiring car or slamming door she wished for.
She started to drop to the ground to roll into a fetal position against the base of the tree.
“Run.” The stranger clasped her hand.
Megan jerked away from him. “Don’t touch me.”
A second explosion gave her the impetus she needed to apply her running shoes for what they were intended. Her high school track coach had never seen her sprint as she did with gunfire coming closer. Not fast enough. No one ran faster than a bullet, but she gave it a try. If only she were taller, had longer legs like the stranger keeping pace beside her.
Keeping pace. With his height, he should have long left her behind.
The shooter had long legs, too, and wasn’t slowing his stride to match a woman of medium height. He gained on them yard by yard.
Megan ducked between two cars parked on the curb and raced across the quiet street—a street quiet enough someone was sure to call the cops any moment. But any moment might be too late.
She sought an opening between cars again. Trees shadowed the block from the streetlights. In her dark hoodie and jeans, she would be harder to see, though her pounding feet sounded like amplified bass drumbeats. Her heart raced twice as fast and just as loudly. Her breath snagged in her throat, each inhalation whooping. She needed to up her exercise game. She would start tomorrow.
If she survived tonight.
No openings between cars. She leaped onto the hood of something low and sporty and rolled to the other side, landing on all fours on the parkway.
“Nice move.” The stranger landed beside her on his feet, as light as a cat, then dropped to a crouch beside her, his hand on her shoulder. “Stay down.”
“My car’s on the next—”
A gentle finger touched her lips in a warning to remain quiet. Her lips tingled. She caught her breath, inhaling his scent of plain soap and clothes hung in the sun to dry.
And she heard the crackle of a footfall slipping over dried leaves. Once. Twice. Stealthy steps, not a casual stroller.
Though her breathing had slowed to normal in the momentary respite, Megan’s heart began to race again.
Across the street, the snick of someone chambering a round bounced between brick buildings as though he had lobbed a super ball instead of prepared his weapon.
If only it were a high-velocity rubber ball and not a bullet about to soar their way.
But the shot never came. The footfalls receded with the squeak of a sole on blacktop, the swish of fabric, a lessening of pressure in the finger still sealing her lips.
“Let’s go,” her companion began.
Megan was already on her feet, running from the gunman, running from the strange sensation still buzzing through her lips. If she could reach the alley, her car wasn’t far from the other end.
That was a big if.
“Where?” the stranger asked.
She didn’t answer. She needed her breath for running. The shots had ceased. The shooter was bound to hear them and turn around. Maybe he already had. Over the thud, thud, thud of her footfalls and the stranger’s against the uneven concrete sidewalk, she could hear nothing else. Tree roots and winter’s freezes and thaws over the years had shoved the slabs of the sidewalk up and down like miniature hills complete with ledges just high enough to catch a toe and send a body flying face-first onto the unyielding ground.
She didn’t like the idea that a person who had shot at her no doubt still lurked somewhere on the street. Rows of town houses and multiplex apartment buildings offered no form of refuge. She must reach her car, drive into a commercial district. Only two blocks away. But it felt like a marathon, with a gunman on the loose with her in his sights.
Was the stranger at her side involved? Possible. He appeared, and the shooting began. Or they both might have simply been caught in the crosshairs of someone else’s trouble. They were witnesses to a possible murder, which was enough for the killer to want them dead next.
She was ready to collapse. All Chicago blocks were one eighth of a mile, her aunt Sally always told her. This one was surely eight miles long.
She stumbled on a missing piece of concrete and grabbed a utility pole for support.
“All right?” the stranger asked.
“I’d be more all right if you weren’t here drawing fire.”
Perhaps unfair. Perhaps he didn’t deserve the suggested accusation.
He didn’t deny it. He merely passed her with one lengthy stride and turned to his right, then stopped. They had reached the alley. He must be looking for pursuit.
Megan didn’t wait to find out what he saw. She swerved left and sped down the alley. At least dumpsters allowed a modicum of shelter if the gunman came after her again.
Someone came after her. The alley gravel crunched under rubber soles. Megan dove for the nearest dumpster.
“It’s me.” The strange man again.
Like his presence should be reassuring.
With the reek of used kitty litter in her nose from the bin she’d nearly used for shelter, she chose to keep going. Ten yards. Six. Two. Her nondescript sedan crouched against the curb. She shoved her hand into her pocket and clicked the lock release. The chirp reassured her. Though she had no reason to fear it, she never discounted the possibility of a dead battery in a moment of crisis.
She yanked the door open with one hand and shoved the key into the ignition with the other before she fully settled in her seat. She released the parking brake and stepped on the gas, steering one-handed while she yanked her door shut. She barely missed the bumper of a minivan, then a thunkwarned her she might have clipped the fender of a car across the road. She glanced to her right and realized the thunk came from the passenger-side door.
She wasn’t alone in her car.
Jack Luskie thought his chances with the gunman might be better than with Megan O’Clare, who was a private investigator with Gary Flanagan Investigations, as her boss, Gary, had informed Jack when they’d spoken of the Cahill case. Her driving was erratic. Then again, she was frightened by the gunshots and probably by him. He probably shouldn’t have gotten into her car without asking first, but he didn’t have wheeled transportation for a quick getaway. He had taken the L to the town house of Cahill, a woman he needed to catch embezzling from her company if he wanted to be paid.
Of course he wanted to be paid. He needed the income.
He didn’t need to end up smashed against a telephone pole. One loomed terrifyingly close to the front bumper of the woman’s vehicle. He started to shout a warning, then realized if she couldn’t see the danger, they were doomed in this tin can of a car anyway.
She straightened the wheel just in time. The right back wheel hit the curb. They fishtailed on wet leaves in the gutter before catching the asphalt.
“That was close.” Jack heaved a sigh of relief.
“That wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t jumped in my car while it was moving and scared me half to death.”
“Rather scared to death than shot to death.” Jack grinned.
She glared as she blew through streets vacant of traffic that late at night.
Vacant except for a distant wail of sirens.
“About time.” Megan flipped on her blinker.
Jack reached across her and flipped it off. “We’re not going back there.”
“We need to make a statement.” In the dashboard light, the perfect oval of her face appeared as white as a bandage, her eyes even bigger and darker than they had been when she dropped from the tree at his feet. “You can’t stop me.”
“Right. You carry pepper spray.” He carried it himself. “But you wouldn’t use it against me in a confined car.”
“No, but I have a brown belt in karate.”
Jack frowned. He’d only made it to yellow. Once he was at the FBI Academy next year, he could advance in his martial arts. For now, he would proceed with working alongside Megan O’Clare rather than against her. He decided to placate her. “Do you want to drive right into what could be a shoot-out with the cops?”
“We can give a statement later. Right now, let’s just get out of here.”
“Us?” She ground her teeth hard enough for Jack to hear across the console, as she slowed for a stop sign this time. “I think you should get out of my car.”
“I’d rather not.”
“This isn’t a rideshare. I don’t pick up strangers for rides.”
“Jack Luskie, forensic accountant.” He pulled a business card from his pocket and held it out to her. “I’m not a stranger now, so let’s get going. This isn’t a safe place to be at the moment.”
She snatched the card from his hand and dropped it into a cup holder on the console. “Not sure my car’s a safe place to be.”
But Lincoln Park was usually one of the safest neighborhoods in the city due to the high incomes of most residents. Gunshots weren’t as common here as they were in his Southside neighborhood, which oddly made him feel more vulnerable.
The four-way stop they were at was clear and had been since they halted, but she made no move to take her foot off the brake. “I’m not comforted to know your name.”
“I can show you my credentials when we’re safely away. ...
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