/ Language: English / Genre:thriller,love_erotica,

Skin

Patricia Rosemoor

WHAT READERS ARE SAYING: SKIN was scary, fast paced, had grit, romance and an element of “who done it”. It’s one of those novels that you’re afraid to turn the next page, but you just have to! loved it! Rosemoor has packed this thriller with danger, emotional punch and some sizzling scenes as well! IS HE THE MAN SHE THINKS HE IS, OR IS HE THE KILLER?.. Lilith Mitchell finds her runaway sister dancing at a gentleman’s club. They barely reconnect when a killer kidnaps Hannah. Keeping his victims prisoner for days, he then hunts them in a forest preserve. Determined to save Hannah before it’s too late, Lilith takes Hannah’s place at the club to lure the killer into coming after her. There she meets Michael Wyndham, documentary filmmaker whose current project SKIN is a psychological study of the dancers. Lilith connects with him and falls under his spell… but is Michael the man he seems to be, or is he the one terrorizing her? In a world of deception, where everyone seems guilty, who can Lilith trust?

Patricia Rosemoor

SKIN

Thanks to the family of writers who have encouraged me along the way: members of my critique group, who helped me resolve character questions; my fellow Intrigue and indie authors who helped me narrow down covers until I found the right one; Rosemary Paulas, who read through the first draft and gave me great notes that improved the story. Also thanks to Norman Glick for the professional copyedit.

oOo

Prologue

HER SCREAMS gave him a hard-on that ached so badly he could hardly move. But if he didn’t run, the hunt would be over. His prey would get away.

Rotten leaves and pine needles still damp with that afternoon’s spring rain muffled footfalls made by her bare feet as she scurried away from him between the canopy of trees. Too bad for her she couldn’t keep her mouth shut, couldn’t stifle the obliging squeaks and squeals shooting through the dark that not only told him where she was, but shot a thrill of anticipation through him.

Running faster now, he shifted the rifle to his right hand, fighting disappointment that she would be so easy. The last one had been more of a challenge. He could hear her jagged breath coming faster than his own, didn’t have to see her to know how she would look, all panicked, fleshy ass and full tits jiggling in the breeze. Her panic was the turn-on. He’d been holding her prisoner, terrorizing her for the past ten days, and this was the payoff. He tore through the trees to his right. Circled. Kept vigilant as he pulled alongside her. Not that he thought she would try to fool him.

She wasn’t that smart. None of them were.

Coming alongside a clearing, he realized he’d beaten her out of the forest. He stopped and juggled the rifle until she pounded out from between the trees, then calmly announced, “You lose.”

An anguished cry tore from her throat as she stumbled to a dead stop and faced him. Moonlight silvered her pale skin and cast a blue glow over her. Her dark eyes were wide. Unblinking. When he stood there silently for a minute, letting his own anticipation build, furtively unsnapping the leather holster at his belt, allowing his fingers to caress the knife hilt as he watched her breasts heave, her expression slowly changed from terrified to furious.

“A game?” A hopeful note crept through the outrage. She swept her long, dark hair out of her eyes. “This is a game? Why didn’t you say so? You scared the shit out of me, you bastard!”

“That’s the best part.”

Her features relaxed some, then took on that know-it-all expression he particularly hated. The one that reminded him of her. She drew close enough so he could see her tongue dart out to wet her full lips, and he could practically smell the rivulets of sweat licking her flesh as thoroughly as he’d done a few times himself. His raising the rifle slightly stopped her in her tracks.

“C’mon, honey,” she coaxed in that low, throaty voice that had gotten to him for a while. “I could make it good for you. Real good.”

He knew she could. It was her profession. But he would make it better and without sex. What he was going to do to her would get him off like nothing else could.

“What’ve you got in mind?” he asked.

“Anything. You know I’m good for it.” She gave him one of those burning looks that was supposed to melt him. “Right now.”

Unmoved, he asked, “You want it now?”

“Now, baby, yeah.”

Tossing that mane of lush dark hair, she held her arms out to him.

Lifting the rifle to his shoulder, he aimed at her and squeezed the trigger.

oOo

Chapter 1

KICKING, SLUGGING, BATTERING a padded man while an audience cheered her on, Lilith Mitchell did her best to down him. She backed off for a moment and took a deep breath. Took a quick look around at the other women at the health club who were part of the Street Survival class. Her expression as ferocious as she could manage, she ground out a war cry — “NO!” — and was on the attack once more, her long dark ponytail flying along her T-shirted shoulder.

A few seconds later, the padded man was on his butt on the floor.

Several women gathered around to congratulate her.

The teenager who Lilith mentored, muttered, “I could never do that.”

Carmen Vargas was a pretty seventeen-year-old, slender with long dark hair and big dark eyes. Lilith had convinced her to take the six week self-defense class that met three nights a week and had paid the girl’s fee herself.

“Sure you could do it,” Lilith said with a grin. “It’s all in the body language.”

“Any man that tries to get next to Lilith should be a really good reader,” said her friend and coworker, Elena Gutierrez, another paralegal at Hamilton, Smith and Willis.

They all laughed together, the camaraderie being one of the reasons Lilith repeated the class every year. The other reason being she didn’t want to forget how to protect herself. Even though she wasn’t a small woman and an “I’m in control” attitude now came naturally to her after years of hard work, Lilith knew anyone could be victimized. Staying on guard, prepared, was her best defense.

The women strayed off, some to change, others to pump iron. Lilith noticed her opponent had finished removing his padding and was now gathering his gear to leave. Jack was great-looking, but what she admired about him most was his volunteering to be a human punching bag.

“Tough job,” she told him, holding her hand out for a shake.

“Tough lady.” His grin lent a boyish cast to his face. “Say, do you take bribes?”

“As in, you bribe me with something I want, and I might not have the heart to hit you so hard next week?”

He flicked his eyebrows at her. “That’s the idea.”

Lilith laughed. “I’ll think about it.”

Flirting with an attractive man made her think of hot sex. No strings. No future. Just the now. Simply not in the mood, she forgot about Jack by the time she arrived in the locker room.

There on a bench, a blazing newspaper headline caught her attention: HUNTER-MURDERER FLIPS OFF CPD. Lilith picked up the front section of The Chicago Record and quickly scanned the article about The Hunter Case. The article accused the Chicago Police Department of doing a slipshod investigation of a possible serial killer because the victims had been deemed worthless to society. A waitress and a prostitute might not be high profile, but they were human beings, Lilith thought, feeling badly for the victims. And the families they left behind. Both women had been connected to Club Paradise, a “gentlemen’s club,” both murdered in a county forest preserve less than six months apart.

Wishing the women had been smart enough to take a self-defense course, she signaled to Carmen who was talking to one of the younger women. The teenager smiled, made her excuses and came running.

“Man, you’re good at this,” Carmen said, opening her locker. “No guy should mess with you.”

“Attitude helps.” Lilith asked, “Has someone been messing with you?”

Carmen shrugged. “Not really.” But her mouth tightened, and she didn’t look directly at Lilith.

“Anything you want to talk about, you know I’m here for you. Call me anytime.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Being in the mentor program meant that the girl was at risk, with little hope of getting through high school. Carmen’s grades were good enough to get her into college on a scholarship, just as Lilith had done. Lilith’s job as a mentor was to set an example, give Carmen someone she could relate to outside her tight-knit community.

Working as a legal assistant might not put her on the fast-money track, but Lilith had gotten away from the poverty of her youth. She had a solid income, and she was working at something she loved with plans for her future — law school as soon as she could afford tuition.

Economic freedom. If only there were courses in the subject starting in grade school. Girls needed to be able to take care of themselves before having a family. If Mama had known how, after Daddy died, she wouldn’t have married Marlon Aldrich rather than be on her own with her two daughters. Then Hannah would never have been forced to run away, disappearing without a trace.

Remembering the last time she’d seen her younger sister, Lilith swallowed hard. Hannah had been little more than a kid. She couldn’t even imagine how a thirteen-year-old had survived on her own on the street.

If she had survived.

Lilith didn’t want to think her sister was dead, but guilt kept Hannah in her mind every day. A scholarship to college had been her way out of that house of hell. She’d been gone barely eight months when Hannah had been compelled to run.

It was that guilt that led Lilith to be part of the mentoring program. Carmen would never take Hannah’s place, but she was a great kid, and Lilith wanted to make sure Carmen had opportunities that she hadn’t been able to give her own sister.

Though Lilith had found the strength to overcome her own past, she knew either the lack of money or naivete in managing finances too often trapped women in situations that were humiliating, unbearable and sometimes downright dangerous.

oOo

TOSSING HER DARK HAIR around her bared shoulders, Hannah Mitchell noted the hunger in the faces of the customers sitting along the edges of the stage, read the lust in the eyes that crept up her flesh. Pumped with power to make these men salivate, she flowed along the stage and slithered down the ramp.

“Hey, Anna, c’mon, give us some tits!” a beefy young man called.

She flashed him a smile as fake as the name she was using — Anna Youngheart. As fake as the interior of Club Paradise, the gentlemen’s club where the palm trees were either neon or plastic. Her disguise allowed her a power over men that was as intoxicating as any drug. She never felt so high as when she controlled a man’s wallet for the night.

She changed her look and her identity as easily as she changed towns. New York… Los Angeles… Las Vegas… New Orleans. Fantasy. That’s what she sold.

Sliding scarlet dragon-queen nails down her own thigh past a hot pink satin thong and a black garter belt, Hannah puckered her lips and played with the straps of her top.

“Take it off!”

Ignoring the demand, she aimed her fake-hot gaze at one of the regulars. Michael Wyndham. Longish dark hair. Good looking with that edgy shadow of a beard narrowing his cheeks. He was quiet. Serious. Mysterious. A student of human nature, he sat at the back of the room, mentally dissecting it all: the bouncers in tuxes guarding the place as well as the dancers; the waitresses in loose trousers and backless vests delivering watered-down drinks. She hadn’t quite figured what made him tick yet. But she would.

She held out a net-stockinged leg and let a customer slip a twenty under her garter. When his coarse fingers lingered on her flesh a little too long, she kicked out and shook her finger at him, then whirled away, pulling money from her bra and removing the scrap of clothing just as her music ended.

Her bare back was to her audience, her long hair trailing her breasts at the sides.

Guys whistled and stomped.

“Hey, baby, turn around and give us a better look!”

Smiling, Hannah kept her back to the man, grabbed the clothes she’d stripped off, and with a toss of her head, left the stage to the next dancer.

Power was the name of the game for her, even as it was for the men who mixed business deals with cocktails and lust.

In the corridor that led to the dressing room, Hannah slipped back into the clothing before sashaying around the room and stopping at the bar. No sooner had she ordered a soda to quench her thirst, than a hot breath trailed along her neck. Shivering, she turned to find Rudy Barnes grinning down at her, his pale blue eyes gleaming strangely, as if he were on something, which probably he was.

Hannah frowned at the tall, lanky man with the pock-marked face. “Crawled out of your booth, did you?” she asked the disk jockey. “What’s the occasion?”

“Just needed to wet my whistle, same as you, Sweetpea.”

“Uh-huh.” She took her soda and turned to walk away.

Rudy grabbed her arm. “And I need to eat, same as you. How about we do it together after hours.”

“I would rather eat dirt.”

Hannah pulled her arm free and walked away from the snake she’d dated once. Afterward, he’d expected her to give him head in the booth while he worked. According to the other dancers, that was his thing. Well, it wasn’t hers.

She would stick to well-off customers.

Finishing her soda, she left the glass on an empty table and checked out the manager who stood near the entrance, demanding a kid’s ID. Sal Ruscio was trying to coax back a full head of dark hair with strategically placed hair plugs. And to further his youthful image, he wore his trademark flowered shirt with a thousand-buck suit.

Hannah entered the dressing room that reeked with the smell of weed. The counter below the lit mirror was littered with open cases, a jumble of loose makeup, cheap hair fasteners and equally cheap jewelry spilling from their guts. A dusting of white powder on a hand mirror sat in the midst of it all. Most of the girls were on drugs. Maybe that’s how they got through the night. Not her, though. She wasn’t going to throw away good money on bullshit. On the opposite wall stood several lockers and a rack of scanty costumes. Only two other dancers primped before the mirrors.

A dark-haired girl who looked young enough to be illegal was applying an extra coat of deep red to her bee-stung lips.

“Hey, Melinda.”

“Hannah. So is Paulie out there tonight?”

“Isn’t he out there every night?”

Paul Ensdorf came to watch his sister dance. Melinda laughed about it, thought it was funny, her big brother lathering himself up over her. Hannah thought it was creepy how he kept tabs on his sibling like that.

“It isn’t bad enough that our harridan of a grandmother was on my back when I lived with her,” Melinda complained. “Now Paulie has to follow me around, trying to reform me.”

“Have Sal keep him out.”

“Right. Like Sal’s going to boot a customer who doesn’t mind spreading the wealth.”

Hannah shrugged. “You have a point.”

“Thanks for the thought, though. Later.”

Melinda left, leaving Hannah alone with the other new girl who called herself Caresse.

Sitting before the mirror and applying blush to her dusky face, Caresse looked up. A small frown creased the skin between her dark, almost black eyes. “You look whipped, child.”

Hannah dumped herself in a nearby chair. “Yeah, I’m splitting early.”

She picked up a crumpled pack of cigarettes and tried not to let Caresse’s steady gaze disturb her. The exotic-looking woman was as tough as they came. Tall and raw-boned, she exuded a don’t mess with me kind of attitude. Lighting her cigarette, Hannah took a long drag and tried to blank her mind.

“Something wrong, child?”

Caresse hadn’t worked at Club Paradise long, but she seemed concerned about the other dancers. Though Hannah usually appreciated the caring, tonight she wasn’t in the mood.

“If there was something wrong, could you give me a prescription to make it all better, Doctor Caresse?”

The other dancer gave her one of those looks that made some of the girls shrink. “You got a problem with your life, you fix it.”

Like it was so easy.

The last time, she’d ended up back on the street as she had when she’d first run away. She’d do anything to make certain that never happened again. She was safe now. Money did that for a girl. Besides, she liked having a good time, liked buying herself things. Most of all, she liked having the upper hand for once.

“You got options,” Caresse was saying. “What about a family? You weren’t born in no cabbage patch.”

“There’s nothing for me there.”

“Not even a brother or sister?”

An image burned into her memory, haunted her for a moment. “A sister… who wouldn’t understand,” Hannah said quickly, thinking that if they ever caught up with each other, Lilith might wish that she’d stayed missing forever.

“Maybe not,” Caresse said, “but that don’t mean she can’t love you anyhow.”

“Uh-huh.”

“We’ll talk about your sister later,” Caresse threatened. After swiping a lip gloss across her full mouth, she rose and headed for the door. “Right now, I better get my butt out on the floor before Sal comes gunning for it.”

Hannah didn’t answer, merely stared at herself in the mirror and removed her makeup. After changing into a blazing red miniskirt and white T-shirt, she clamped a thick black leather belt around her waist. From her bag, she pulled out a fine chain, the clasp secured by a tiny gold safety pin, and put it on. A glance at the mirror reflected the transformation that amazed even her. The fantasy creature had been replaced by an almost plain-looking woman who appeared young. Innocent, even.

The eyes told the truth about her.

Hannah touched the heart-half that dangled against her T-shirt and thought about doing something daring, like calling Lilith. That’s why she’d moved to Chicago, right? Because she’d seen that article about all the good works Lilith had been doing for teenagers with her boss here in Chicago? That’s what Caresse would tell her to do.

But that, too, was just a fantasy.

oOo

DETECTIVE JOHN PUCINSKI drank his Pepto-Bismol cocktail straight from the bottle. Thick pink liquid oozing down his throat to coat his gut, he tore the bottle from his lips and capped it.

“Planning on eating raw onions for lunch?” A grinning Gabriel O’Malley stood in the doorway to Pucinski’s glass-enclosed office, file folders in hand.

“Nah, The Hunter Case is starting to get to me.”

“Gotta stop taking it personal,” O’Malley warned.

“I always take it personal when a repeater gives me the finger.” He motioned to the younger detective, one of those virile types with thick black hair and a trim waist that made a more seasoned cop feel plain old. “What you got for me?”

“The computer check on the hooker,” O’Malley said of the latest victim. “Seems she was a cash-only consumer.”

Imagine her filling out a credit application. What would she put under employment history — personal service? Yeah, probably.

“No credit,” Pucinski muttered. “Just like the waitress.”

Another thing the two victims had in common that would make it harder to nail the killer. No families, no real close friends, no credit.

And a connection to a gentlemen’s club.

“So, you have any leads other than Club Paradise?” O’Malley asked.

Pucinski shrugged. The waitress worked there. Seemed the hooker worked it, too, if on a less formal and regular basis.

“Hey, it’s something,” O’Malley said, leaving the glass-encased office and returning to his own desk.

“Yeah, something.”

Something he hadn’t been able to ignore. The connection, no matter how slight, told him the killer had been to the strip bar at least twice. Instinct told him the guy was a regular, the reason for placing a plant at the joint. An undercover cop could scope things out from the inside pretty fast, Pucinski figured, reviewing the victims’ folders. Both had been tall and well-built with long, dark hair.

He wondered how many other women working the club would fit that description.

oOo

Chapter 2

“WANT TO CATCH A MOVIE?” Elena asked at break time the next day, the newspaper spread on the table in front of her. Short and compact, Elena was a powerhouse whether at the gym or working on some client’s case

“So what’s playing?”

Elena didn’t respond for a minute. Then she looked up from the paper and with a smirk curling her full lips, said, “Man, this chick could almost be you.”

“You mean I look like some movie star?”

“Not exactly.” Snorting, Elena immediately handed over the paper. “Give it a look.” She rose and grabbed her coffee cup before heading for the door. “Check out the movies and call me if there’s anything you want to see.”

Lilith obediently gazed down at the entertainment section. But rather than a movie, the photograph on the opposite page immediately caught her attention. The skimpily clad woman in the ad for Club Paradise did kind of look like her. Realizing that was the gentlemen’s club where those women who’d been killed had worked, she shivered.

Long dark hair, big dark eyes, distinctive features. The woman could be her twin.

Or her kid sister.

Staring at the photo made her stomach knot. Lilith fingered the heart-half she still faithfully wore and remembered the last time she’d seen Hannah…

“You’ll come back to see me, right?” Hannah sounds every bit the frightened little girl. “Swear to God?”

Lilith splits the gold heart Daddy bought into its two halves. Her real father was nothing like the horror in the holier-than-thou trappings her mother remarried. She places one half of the heart on a length of chain held together with a tiny gold safety pin.

“Turn around.”

Lilith hooks the chain around her sister’s neck, replaces her own, then nestles her bruised cheek against her sister’s. Lilith stares at their dark-haired images, so similar. But inside, Hannah is like Mama. Quiet and afraid and obedient.

“We’re like this heart,” Lilith says softly, stroking her little sister’s hair. “Two halves of a whole. No one and nothing will keep us apart for long.”

But of course something had.

Lilith took another look at the ad. No, it simply couldn’t be Hannah, not right here in Chicago, not practically under her nose. She chucked the newspaper into the recycle bin, and yet, she couldn’t rid herself of the notion.

What if it was?

Shaking the thought away, she left the break room.

By the time Lilith got back to her desk, the phone was ringing. And then her boss had a rush job for her. She forgot all about the possibility of going to a movie with Elena until the last minute. Back to the break room. The newspaper was still in the recycle bin.

Her pulse picking up a beat, she stared down at it. How ridiculous was she being? She grabbed up the paper, but rather than the movie section, her gaze went straight back to that photograph.

Hannah?

It couldn’t be. Just couldn’t.

After tossing the paper again, all thoughts of movies quashed, she rushed out of the building and raced to her bus stop like her life depended on it. A buzz went through her and her head went light. What if that was Hannah? A girl on the streets — how many work opportunities did someone like that have?

oOo

A HALF HOUR LATER, Lilith was glad to rush up the stairs to her third floor apartment in a greystone six-flat, even happier to be greeted at the door by a loud, “Me-e-ow!”

She picked up the cat and took comfort in the big ball of warmth. “You’ve been neglected, haven’t you?”

Claws hooked in the front of her sweatshirt, and Valkyrie purred contentedly. Lilith crossed the first floor living area filled with more plants than furniture and opened the door to the small balcony with its pots of flowers and herbs. Their light fresh scent welcomed her. The cat’s ears twitched, and she made funny little noises deep in her throat, but she was content to be held and cuddled. Animals never forgot a kindness, and no doubt this one still remembered being lost and Lilith rescuing her.

Lilith knew the feeling of being lost on her own all too well. She’d given the cat a second chance at a full and happy life. Now if only she could do the same for herself. Everything had changed for her when Hannah ran.

During those first months when she was in college, determined to make a new life for them all, she’d called her little sister at least once a week. And every time, Hannah had cried and begged her to come get her. As if Lilith could have. Even if she quit school and got a job, no way would child services let her have custody. Mama had always protected the bastard she’d married, had never filed a complaint against him. Having to leave her little sister in that situation, even temporarily, had broken her heart. And when Hannah finally ran, she’d blamed herself.

Over the years, she’d done everything she could to find her sister. She’d checked shelters, called runaway hotlines, checked the Internet for some mention of a Hannah Mitchell. And ever since she’d gotten stable work, Lilith had spent thousands of dollars on private investigators. Finding her younger sister had been her private obsession for more than a decade.

None of that assuaged her guilt.

Going inside, Lilith tried to eat, but Valkyrie got the best part of the meal. She tried to watch television, but her mind kept wandering from the program. She tried to sleep, but every time she closed her eyes, there was her sister, the last time she’d seen her, the chain and heart dangling from her neck.

She had to know for sure. Had to see this woman up close and personal. Had to look into her eyes and see for herself if she recognized anything in them.

Getting out of bed, Lilith dressed and set off for Broadway, where she waved down a taxi. Sick with excitement and dread, she wondered what she would say to a sister she hadn’t seen in more than a decade.

It was nearly midnight before she stood outside of Club Paradise with its neon sign and billboard of featured dancers. She quickly scanned the black and white glossies and found one of an overly made-up young woman who looked like Hannah, but who was billed as Anna Youngheart.

Who was she kidding by trying to deny it? Youngheart? Young was her mother’s maiden name. Heart could represent the heart-half each them had worn. And Anna? Hannah minus a whisper.

It took her a minute to work up the nerve to go inside.

“No tables left,” the guy behind the window told her, giving her a once-over and a surprised expression. “You’ll have to sit at the bar.”

Lilith paid and entered the noisy arena. At first glance, the place almost looked respectable. Tuxedoed bouncers, vests and trousers on the waitresses. Then Lilith became aware of the skimpily-clad black woman on stage and several sparsely-clothed dancers sitting at tables where they fawned over the customers. Lilith felt overdressed, no doubt the reason she was getting unwanted attention. From every direction, glassy-eyed men seemed to be staring at her.

Her basic instincts told her to get out now.

Hope that had never died made her stay.

oOo

“DRINK?” the bartender asked.

“The usual, Joe,” Michael Wyndham said as he glanced at the new dancer, Caresse, on stage. “And run a tab.”

“You got it.” The young bartender who was working his way through college with what he made here set a bottle of German beer in front of Michael. “How’s your documentary coming?”

Michael shrugged. “Not as quickly as I would like.”

“Yeah, these girls don’t trust no one.”

Sometimes Michael thought he’d been coming here too long and should just give up, but the place kept drawing him back. And the women. “A lot of interviews, but I still haven’t figured out what makes the dancers tick.”

Would he ever?

“Maybe you should stick to subjects closer to home like Fight.”

“What, you think I was part of a fight club? I didn’t even know anyone personally. It was just a subject that had a gut draw. I delved into why the hell guys would take up such a brutal hobby.”

Which gave it a similar thread to Skin.

He guessed that was his theme, figuring out why people did what they did when it didn’t make sense to him.

“Keep at it, then. You’ll get it.” Joe moved away, saying, “Got another customer.”

Michael knew he was going to keep at if he ever wanted to understand his birth mother.

His parents had never hidden the fact that they’d adopted him, and after high school, they’d given him an envelope with information about her. He hadn’t wanted to betray his real parents and so hadn’t opened the envelope. Not for years. But he hadn’t been able to forget about it, and eventually he’d had to look. And then he’d had to track her down.

Breezy Summers. By then, that was his birth mother’s stage name. He’d learned she’d never tried any other way to make a living. Had never wanted to. Nearing fifty and with three failed marriages behind her — none of those men his father — she was still stripping. He just didn’t get it. The thought of how she’d lived her life haunted him.

The idea of a documentary exploring her world, getting into the minds of the women who did what she did, had come to him slowly. He had enough production day work to keep him solvent. This particular documentary was his latest personal project, but he hadn’t yet found the narrative thread that would be the heart of Skin.

He took a swig of his beer, and when he lowered the bottle, it was to see a dark-haired woman at the fringe of the bar area. She was nervously looking around as if trying to orient herself, as if seeing Club Paradise for the first time. Dressed conservatively in loose gray trousers and a looser silk shirt that almost hid her curves, she had a natural beauty that she couldn’t hide.

Now why was she here?

What was her story?

Something he would like to find out.

oOo

REFUSING TO MEET any of their gazes, Lilith wandered over to the bar, wondering how any woman could thrive in such a lurid, sexist atmosphere.

“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked.

“A sparkling water with lime.”

She paid for the high-priced water and sipped, her gaze constantly moving over the room until it rested on a dancer soliciting a customer for a lap dance.

The young man appeared to be about Lilith’s age. He was nice looking and nicely dressed, a boy-next-door type with sandy hair and pleasing features. He appeared embarrassed by the dancer’s direct approach. She laughed at him and turned her back, obviously scouting the crowd for a better bet. The young man glanced around furtively, and Lilith could swear he purposely tripped the dancer as she started off. Then he acted solicitous in helping the young woman up while his hands were all over her.

How could she let him touch her like that? A stranger? Were they all so careless of their bodies? Was Hannah?

Lilith shivered in disgust.

What she wanted to do was charge backstage and demand to see the dancer who called herself Anna Youngheart. How long was she going to have to wait before the woman showed? How long before she was finally reunited with her sister?

“Looking for company?” came a male voice from behind her.

She started and whipped around to stare at a beard-stubbled face, whose attractive owner seemed interested and, unless she was now imagining things, quietly amused at her expense. Her quick impression of him: lean strength; dark, slicked-back hair a shade too long; a beat away from fashionable; spooky gray eyes.

“I’d prefer my own company, thank you,” she said, picking up her drink and sipping.

His eyebrows lifted fractionally. “Strange place to pick if you want to be alone. Or do you really?”

“I said I did.”

He took the empty seat next to her anyway, the deliberately perverse action irritating Lilith, even though he scooted his stool in the opposite direction and gave her plenty of breathing room. So why did she feel like she had just run up a flight of steps?

Everything about Club Paradise made her a little uneasy.

“You’re alone,” the stranger assured her. “I’m not here.”

Her hold tightened on her drink, and her gaze wandered about the room in every direction but his. Still, she was aware of him ordering a beer, which no doubt meant she was stuck with his company unless she moved. Only he’d taken the last vacant stool at the bar.

“But if I were here,” he suddenly went on, “I would introduce myself. Michael Wyndham.”

He didn’t seem to require an answer. He certainly seemed laid-back if perverse.

“And I might speculate as to what it is about a place like this that appeals to a woman like you.”

At that she flashed him an angry glare.

“Well, come on, you’re not the usual customer,” he clarified, paying for the beer.

“Look,” Lilith said, “I’m certain plenty of women would be charmed by you–”

“Knowing why people do things is kind of a hobby of mine. No offense, but you really aren’t the typical Club Paradise patron. Yet you must want something.”

“Peace and quiet.”

“Like I said, you’re in the wrong place.”

“Then try breathing room.”

“I thought I gave it to you.” He slid off the stool. “But if I was mistaken, I apologize.”

Saluting her with his beer bottle, he strolled away from the bar and over to a small empty table also in the back of the club. He folded his length into the chair nearest the wall, leaned back and watched not only the Asian dancer on stage, but other men, as if analyzing their reactions to her gyrations.

Lilith’s gut instinct was telling her that this Michael Wyndham didn’t fit here any more than she did.

Then what was he doing here?

A sudden ruckus on the other side of the room drew her attention.

A chair-back bounced off the floor and the customer who’d been sitting there bent over and drew a knife from his ankle. The weapon flashed at a muscular dark-haired man who looked deceptively calm before he struck out, disarmed the drunk and threw him on the floor, applying a shoe to the guy’s windpipe. Within seconds, two bouncers grabbed the downed man and escorted him out of the club.

The dancer on stage never even missed a beat.

“Who was that guy?” a man asked the bartender.

“Name’s Gabe O’Malley. A regular. Got a temper I wouldn’t cross.”

As if nothing at all had happened, the man in question slipped back into his seat and downed a shot.

The waiting seemed interminable. One dancer blended into another. Lilith’s senses were assaulted by the music that seared her ears, the mixture of thick smoke and cheap perfume that clogged her nostrils and throat, the private lap dances that made her stomach churn.

She prayed it wouldn’t be Hannah. And she prayed it would. No matter what she’d done to survive, Lilith loved her sister and wanted Hannah back in her life.

And then the music shifted to an oldie; and Lilith watched, mesmerized, as the young woman called Anna Youngheart took the stage and began to strip.

She wanted to get closer, to see Anna’s face, to assure herself of the woman’s identity one way or the other.

Photographs could lie.

She white-knuckled her drink glass as the dancer sashayed down the ramp and flirted with the men in the audience who waved money at her. They tucked that money in her garter, and in her thong bottom. They took their time, their fingers lingering on her flesh. Not only did she let them, she seemed to enjoy the attention.

Lilith could still picture her kid sister, a slight figure prancing around their bedroom to some old rock tune. Then the vision of innocence vanished to be replaced by the woman who had command over the men for whom she danced.

She blinked but the image before her didn’t change.

Hannah — it really was her sister!

Hannah licked her lips and leaned forward to give one guy a better shot at the flesh nestled in her sheer bra. And then, to Lilith’s absolute horror, while Anna/Hannah was still bending forward, she deliberately undid the bra and let her breasts swing free in the guy’s face.

Lilith wanted to go up to the stage and rescue her sister, wanted to haul her out of this nightmare.

So why didn’t she do something?

Anything?

Why sit here… frozen… paralyzed?

Lilith felt helpless. Emotional paralysis washed over her like a wave, stripping her of the ability to act.

And then suddenly she realized it was too late to do anything.

The music segued into a different tune as her sister sashayed off the stage.

Lilith set down her drink and forced herself to her feet. Her gaze went to the left of the stage, to a scantily clad dancer coming through a doorway. Not Hannah. But surely that was the entrance to the dressing rooms.

Her stomach fisted. She ignored the eyes that followed her as she made her way to that doorway. She was almost there, within a few yards, when a big guy in a tux stepped between it and her. She tried to waltz around him, but he was fast for someone so big. Still…

“I need to get back there,” she said with a plastic smile.

“Not without an invitation.”

He didn’t have to work to look threatening, but Lilith was pretty sure she could take him if she put her mind to it.

Adrenaline rushed hot along her limbs, but her heart was pounding, and she could hardly breathe. Part of her wanted to get to the dressing rooms at all costs. The other part wanted to run and never look back.

Forget the whole thing.

But forget Hannah?

Isn’t that what she’d done all those years ago?

Another scantily clad dancer came through the doorway into the club. When she saw Lilith, a cunning smile turned up her mouth.

“Lap dance, honey?” She licked her lips provocatively. “Or did you have something more personal in mind?”

Men all around her were staring again. Their gazes felt disgusting, like bugs crawling over her. Men waiting for her answer.

“You’d better get back to your seat, Miss,” the bouncer said, his tone kind.

Sucking in air, Lilith nodded and backed away as the dancer whispered something to the bouncer and then laughed.

Face hot with her humiliation, Lilith turned and fled toward the club’s exit.

She glanced back once only to be caught by the man who’d identified himself as Michael Wyndham. His intense gaze was pinned to her all the way across the room as she escaped into the night.

oOo

Chapter 3

FRESHENING HER MAKEUP, Hannah shook off the weird feeling that she’d seen a ghost. She’d only gotten a glimpse of the lone woman near the bar, but seeing her had given Hannah a start. So when she went back into the club to look around for someone she knew would be good for at least a C-note, she was searching for the woman, as well. Or maybe instead. Though she scanned the room, the dark-haired woman was nowhere to be seen.

Jerked out of her thoughts by a hand clamping down on her arm, she forced a smile to her lips when she saw it was Paul Ensdorf.

“Hey, sexy, how you doin’ tonight?” she murmured as she stopped before Melinda’s brother.

“I’ll be better if you give me a lap dance.”

“Mmm,” she murmured, moving in closer, her thighs spread over his.

Other than to give them tips, the men weren’t allowed to touch the dancers. But after Paul slipped that C-note in her bra, she let him brush his knuckles across her flesh and ran her tongue over her full lips like it was some kind of promise.

Paul practically salivated. And Hannah smiled with satisfaction as she gyrated to the music — an imitation of the sex act.

She liked the mastery she had over men. The music ended, and she slid back, her gaze once more roaming the room.

Paul asked, “What are you doing Monday?”

“You tell me,” she said distractedly.

“High tea — very classy, just like you.”

Sighing, she gave him her full attention and wondered how much that would be worth to him. “Then I guess I’ll like it.”

“Afterward, we can come back to my place. Grandmother will be visiting friends at the nursing home.”

Hannah ignored her stomach tightening at being alone with him in that old mausoleum of a building again. Melinda had warned her about going there. She’d said their grandmother was an old bitch from hell and was keeping Paul’s balls for him. Paul was more than a little weird, but so what? A mortician made big bucks, and no way would Hannah turn him down if he wanted to spend more money on her away from the club. A girl needed some good times to get her mind off the bad, and after all, she didn’t actually sleep with him.

“Monday, then,” she murmured.

“I can’t wait.”

Throwing him a kiss, Hannah floated away as if she was in heaven because he’d asked her out.

Then forgot him the minute the next customer waved a wad of money at her.

WHAT NOW?

A bench at the bus stop right across the street from the club gave Lilith a place to sit and think quietly. The street was nearly deserted. Other businesses were closed. All the action was coming from Club Paradise. Bits of music and raised men’s voices drifted to her across the street. Part of her wanted to leave. To get on a bus and forget what she had seen.

But how could she even think of it?

She remembered Hannah as she’d once been. Remembered the days when her sister followed her around, annoying her, amusing her, and above all loving her. They had been each other’s comfort in a household ruled by the devil himself.

No way could she leave, not now, not without meeting the woman. Not without facing her sister and telling her how much she loved and missed her.

She’d lived with guilt for twelve long years. She wouldn’t add another regret to the list.

So Lilith waited until men began to leave, some alone, others in twos and threes, most laughing, enjoying themselves, but some grim as if the entertainment had only reminded them of how empty their lives were.

How empty Hannah’s life must be, she thought.

There were many forms of abuse, including the kind of objectification the dancers tolerated. Whether or not they agreed, the dancers were victims, perhaps not of violent crimes, but victims nonetheless. And who was to say the victimization would stop there?  Two women connected with the club had been murdered. Who would be next? The place was dangerous. Surely Hannah realized that.

Lilith made her way back to the box office, where the employee behind the glass was locking up for the night.

“We’re closed.”

“I’m here to meet one of the dancers. Anna Youngheart. Can you get a message to her? Tell her Lilith is here and wants to see her?”

“Look, lady, I’m busy. If you want to hook up with Anna… Well, maybe you’re her type. The dancers leave through the stage door in the alley.”

“When?”

He shrugged. “I don’t have no schedules, okay?”

Lilith noticed a sign she’d missed earlier. WAITRESS WANTED. To replace the one that had been killed?

She went around to the alley and stood there for a moment, trying to decide what to do until a big guy, flushed with drink, approached her.

“Hey, honey, looking for a date?”

Lilith backed away from him, hoping he would leave her alone. “Not interested.”

“How much?”

“I’m not for sale.” She only hoped he didn’t try to make a move on her, or he would end up on the alley pavement with her foot on his throat.

“I know you dancers. I got money enough even for the likes of you.”

Even as she prepared to defend herself, a familiar voice said, “Leave the lady be. She’s with me.”

The big guy practically snarled as he looked over her shoulder, but then he seemed to think better of his attitude and backed off.

Lilith’s pulse was racing as she turned to face Michael Wyndham. “I’m not with you, either,” she said.

“No worries.” He splayed his hands and kept his distance. “I was just trying to do you a favor is all. I thought you needed some backup.”

He really had saved her some discomfort — not that she wouldn’t have been able to take care of herself. “Thanks, then.”

He nodded and turned away, glancing back once at her before disappearing around the corner.

Finding the stage door and settling herself in the shadows on the opposite side of the alley, she didn’t have long to wait. The women exiting the club were something of a surprise. Dressed down, makeup removed, they could be just anyone. The woman next door. She’d been there perhaps for fifteen minutes when a young woman with dark hair pulled into a ponytail exited.

Lilith’s pulse began to race. “Hannah?”

The face that turned to her as she stepped out of the shadows was as familiar as her own but was pulled into an expression of distrust.

“What do you want?”

“Hannah, it’s me, Lilith.”

Though she didn’t expect her sister to run into her arms, Lilith was disappointed at the lack of any reaction. Hannah looked at her wide-eyed, the way she used to when she was just a kid. But now there was no adoration. No anticipation. No nothing.

Lilith swept a stiff Hannah into her arms. “I found you. Finally, I found you.”

Hannah pushed her away. “I’m sure you tried real hard. It’s been how long?”

“Years. And I spent them all looking for you.”

Hannah didn’t say anything. She just stared as if she were wondering what to believe.

“Can we get out of here? Go someplace to talk?”

For a breath-holding second, Lilith thought Hannah would refuse. Then her sister shrugged and said, “Yeah, sure. We can go to my place. Car’s over there.”

Over there being a row of diagonal parking spots against the back of the building. Hannah unlocked the door to not just a car but a Jaguar convertible that must have cost enough to pay for a good part of law school.

Tension wired between them as Hannah drove fast and a little too carelessly. Lilith hung onto the handle in the door and prayed they would get to her sister’s place in one piece. When Hannah turned down a dead-end street and pulled up to what looked like an old manufacturing building set along the Chicago River, Lilith asked, “Where are we?” and Hannah said, “Home.”

Home was a conversion. One of only several units in the building. A soft loft of tremendous proportions and with an incredible view of the river. The windows on that side ran floor to ceiling. Lilith looked around her and willed her jaw not to drop. Her own walk-up flat could fit into one corner of the massive double-storied main room. The furnishings were sparse but expensive. Leather upholstery, mahogany furniture, real Oriental rugs.

“We have a dock on the river, too. I’m thinking of getting myself a boat next year,” Hannah said airily. “If I’m still here.”

“The rent on this place must be out of this world.”

“What makes you think I rent it? Because of what I do? I make good money, Lilith. Great money.” She waited a beat. “Yeah, okay, I rent it, but only because I get bored easily and might decide I don’t like things and that I want to move on.”

Undoubtedly the reason she’d been impossible to find.

“What do you like, Hannah?”

“I like living here in luxury. I like driving a fast car, wearing nice clothes, going to the best restaurants.”

“What about what you do to get all that?”

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Your sister, who is concerned about you.”

“My sister abandoned me.”

Even as her stomach tightened, Lilith shook her head in denial. “It wasn’t like that, Hannah. I just went away to school so I could get a good job and take care of us.”

“I know it’s been twelve years, but if I remember correctly, when you were getting ready to leave, I asked you to take me with you, and you said no.”

“I was seventeen!”

“And I was twelve. You left me there, knowing.”

“I didn’t think he would hit you, Hannah. You weren’t like me. I was the one with the big mouth. I was the one who stepped between him and Mama.” She could see Mama now, bruised arms, blackened eye. Horrified that had happened to Hannah, as well — her mother never admitted to the abuse going on in their home — she said, “You were the quiet one, the mouse.”

“When you left, someone had to protect Delores.”

Why was Hannah calling their mother by her first name? Had Hannah cut them both out of her heart?

Lilith shook her head. Someone always had to protect Mama. Someone always had to take care of her. That’s why she’d married Marlon Aldrich when Lilith had been fourteen, Hannah nine. That’s how they’d gotten to this place. Lilith fought buried feelings of resentment and betrayal for her mother from surfacing.

“Have you seen Mama lately?” Lilith asked, wondering if she had known where Hannah was but hadn’t told her.

“Go back to that house? What are you on?”

“She just won’t leave. I keep trying to convince her–”

”Why bother any more?”

“Because she is our mother.”

“Mothers take care of their children,” Hannah said. “They make sure they’re safe. Not the other way around.”

Lilith didn’t say anything. As long as she’d had to deal with it, she still didn’t know why. Why had Mama stayed with a man who used his fists on her? Who used his fists on her daughters? Their real father hadn’t been like that. He’d been gentle and kind, a dreamer as Mama had always told them.

You were like my mother once,” Hannah admitted. “But you turned out to be no better than she was.”

The back of Lilith’s throat thickened. “So you hate us both?”

“Shouldn’t I?”

“I didn’t make you do this.”

“Oh, this. You mean strip. That’s the difference between us, Lilith. I like what I do.”

“I’m not judging you. I realize you had to take care of yourself.”

“I do more than take care of myself. I make terrific money. Look around you to see what it buys.”

Lilith’s gaze skimmed over the expensive furnishings. “These are nice things,” she agreed.

“Things that have value.”

People have value.” As soon as the words came out of her mouth, Lilith regretted them. She couldn’t stand the hurt on her sister’s face.

Then Hannah laughed. “Oh, yeah. Let me count how many worthwhile people I know.” She looked directly at Lilith when she said, “I guess maybe that’s zero, because they all disappoint you in the end.”

Meaning she had disappointed Hannah, Lilith knew. “I wanted to make a better life for us.”

“You wanted out.”

“For all three of us!” Lilith insisted. “I was seventeen and had only a high school degree. What could I do with that? I couldn’t have gotten a job to support us. That’s why I went away to school, to get an education so that I could.”

Not listening to reason, Hannah said, “You were tired of the arguments and the beatings and you took the first opportunity to leave all that — to leave me — behind.”

“I would have come back for you.” The weekly phone calls with Hannah begging to be with her had gotten to Lilith. “I was coming back for the summer after the semester was over.”

“After Marlon broke me the way he did Delores? The first time he beat me, I had a concussion. The second time a broken arm. And Delores lied to the police for him.”

Hot tears seared the back of Lilith’s eyelids. “Mama told me about what Marlon did after you’d left.” She hadn’t said she’d lied to the authorities, of course. That hadn’t been necessary. It had been her pattern of denial.

“I wasn’t waiting for a third time. I wasn’t waiting for him to break me. Or kill me. You can’t hide from abuse when it’s in your own house, Lilith. You know that. And I guess I was trying to be like you.” On the heels of that announcement, Hannah said, “You know, I think you’d better leave.”

Like her? Hannah had been nothing like her, Lilith thought, swallowing a lump too large for her throat. “But we have so much to talk about.”

“We have nothing in common, Lilith. You’re still you and I’m, well, I’m Anna Youngheart now.”

“You don’t have to be. I can help you. We can figure something out together.”

“You think you’re going to walk back into my life after all these years and I’m simply going to give up everything because you disapprove?” Hannah opened the door and indicated she should leave. “Get real.”

Lilith knew she’d handled this all wrong. Having her sister back in her life was more important than what she did for a living. She took out her business card, scribbled her home phone number on the back and left it on the table. “I’m leaving you my work and home phone numbers, Hannah. I want to see you again, and I hope you’ll want to see me, too, when you get done being mad at me.”

“You don’t have that long.”

Lilith might have believed her. Might have believed that there was no hope for the hard bitter young woman who was giving her the boot. But at the last minute, when she took one final look around, and Hannah was standing in the doorway, in the light, Lilith finally saw it.

Hannah was still wearing the heart-half.

oOo

HE SLAMMED INTO his special place where no one could find him and stood surveying the center of his power. A cabinet snugged against one wall housed well-cared-for tools of destruction. Rifles. Handguns. Knives. Opposite were reminders of his prowess. Several stuffed animal heads with glass eyes reigned near the ceiling. Beneath the remains of deer and moose and bear, he’d hung likenesses of the real prizes.

Pictures of women.

Beautiful, dark-haired women. Three of them. So far. Starting with her, the one woman he could not touch.

And next to the carefully framed photographs stood his souvenir case of teak and glass with red velvet-lined shelves. Only the best for his mementos, tokens of the women he’d slain.

Skin.

He was ready to add to the meager collection.

Whipping the photograph from beneath his jacket, he stared at the slut’s face. She could be her, he thought, and soon she would be for him, if only for a short while.

He hadn’t expected the need to resurface so soon. That worried him. What if it meant he’d lost control? The possibility made him almost as angry as she did. It was her fault those women were dead. Her fault that he was ready to strike again. For if he couldn’t punish the woman who really deserved it…

Thinking about his next quarry, he fetched the case and set it on his leather chair. Oh-so-carefully chose and packed his tools. Handcuffs. Rope. Hunting knife. Rifle. Ammunition. Thin leather gloves.

He made an inventory.

Had he forgotten anything?

Lovingly smoothing a hand over the contents, he closed and locked the case.

Not that he was going to use it just yet. But he needed to be prepared for his newest prey. So fast, so fast, he thought with regret. He’d had far more time to ready himself in the past, had gone nearly four months between the first two. He’d been able to think about his actions. Plan them to the last detail.

Savor them.

This time was different.

His need was growing, spiraling out of control. Rubbing himself, he imagined the play-by-play. Barely two weeks after the last kill, the urge to take up the hunt returned as intense as a wet dream.

oOo

Chapter 4

SATURDAY MORNING. Too little sleep. Up all night worrying about Hannah, wondering what she should do — could do — to get her sister back in her life, Lilith dressed fast. She spent several hours of most Saturdays doing something with Carmen, but how was that going to go with her worrying about her sister? If she cancelled, that would disappoint the girl, maybe lose her trust.

Just as she had Hannah’s.

Lilith wanted to return to her sister’s place to make amends. Hannah had done what she’d needed to in order to survive. And now she was proud of her life, or at least that’s what she projected. Lilith could accept that but she didn’t have to like it. She wanted something better for her sister, something safer — she hadn’t forgotten about the murders. She had to admit that while her heart went out to them, she’d never understood how women could stay in abusive situations where men used them up. She’d never understood how Mama could let a man beat her and her daughters.

And now Hannah was at risk, if in a very different situation.

She knew what she had to do if she wanted a relationship with her sister — understand her the way she was now. That meant knowing what Hannah had gone through after running. Though she’d imagined it all, she didn’t know the real horror. She had to ease into trying to find out, though, or she feared Hannah would simply continue to reject her.

If she couldn’t fix this relationship, if Hannah refused to be her sister, Lilith knew her heart would be broken all over again.

She was putting out cat food for Valkyrie, who was whirling around her ankles when the phone rang. Thinking it was Carmen, she picked up and said, “I know, I know, I’m late. How about meeting me at the seal pond — I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“What seal pond?”

Hannah.

Heart pounding so hard she heard blood rush through her head, Lilith tried to sound normal. “At Lincoln Park Zoo.”

“Doesn’t exactly sound like a hot date.”

“It’s not a date at all. I mentor a high school girl named Carmen Vargas.”

“Mentor? What’s that? Like a big sister?”

“Sort of.”

Silence.

Making Lilith realize Hannah didn’t like it. But she had made the first move, and Lilith couldn’t let that go. “Why don’t you meet us at the zoo?”

“Not my thing. Well, I didn’t mean to make you late. Talk to you some other time.”

“No, wait! Please!”

But it was too late. Hannah had already hung up.

“Damn, damn, damn!”

Hannah’s caller ID was there on her phone and Lilith reversed the call, which went directly to voice mail.

“Hannah, I would really like to see you. If the zoo isn’t your thing, then pick something. Anything.” Please.

Hoping Hannah would call her back, Lilith disconnected, then called Carmen, who agreed to meet her in half an hour.

Whipping out of her house, Lilith ran to the corner where she caught the bus that would get her to the zoo. If Hannah didn’t call her back, then what? Should she once more seek her out at the club? The thought of going there, of revisiting what her sister did for a living, depressed her. What if she said or did the wrong thing again?

Within the appointed half hour, she caught up to Carmen at the seal pond, located in the heart of Lincoln Park Zoo. For the moment, she tucked away her thoughts about her sister so she could concentrate on the teenager.

Lilith slid over to the rail next to Carmen and asked, “What animals do you want to see first today?”

Carmen shrugged, making Lilith wonder if she wanted to be there at all.

“Would you rather do something else?”

The girl shook her head. Normally she was talkative, full of enthusiasm. Today she was folded in on herself. Something was wrong.

“Well, let’s watch the seals for a while, then,” Lilith suggested, “and maybe you’ll think of something you’d like to do.”

As in talk?

She’d pushed her own sister away by trying to go too far, too fast. Not wanting to make that mistake with Carmen, she figured she’d better let the girl set the pace.

So when Carmen finally said, “Poppi says I gotta quit school,” Lilith was almost relieved.

“Why?” Did the father not want his daughter to exceed his own education?

“He said that since I’m seventeen now, I don’t have to go no more, that they can’t make me.”

“But you want to go, right?”

Carmen shrugged. “Poppi says it’s best for the family. And me. Better to stop wasting my life dreaming about something I’m never gonna get.”

“College?”

Carmen nodded.

“There are city colleges and scholarships for state and private universities.”

“Any money I make I would need for books and stuff. Poppi says it’s more important to put shoes on the little ones’ feet.”

“What do you think?”

“That I don’t got a choice.”

Lilith wanted to argue the point, but she needed to stay neutral, to give Carmen the support she needed without getting on her case. If she pressed too hard, the girl would push her away the way Hannah had, and Lilith simply couldn’t stand the thought of being estranged from someone else she cared about.

oOo

HANNAH STOOD at the rail of the rooftop café overlooking both the big cats and the seals and watched Lilith relate to the girl who’d been waiting for her.

They stood there for a while, silent, watching the antics of the seals. Hannah became impatient. Questioned herself as to why she was even there. What did she hope to get from playing detective?

They were talking now, and the girl — Carmen — was shaking. Lilith put an arm around her shoulders, and the girl started to cry. And then she threw herself against Lilith, and Lilith comforted her as if Carmen were her kid sister.

Well, they weren’t sisters. She and Lilith were sisters, Hannah thought, her temper rising. Where had Lilith been when she had needed a shoulder to cry on?

Not wanting to see more, Hannah backed off and hiked across the zoo grounds straight for the exit. Lilith hadn’t held her like that for too many years. Not since she’d abandoned her.

And, considering how Lilith felt about her working at a gentlemen’s club, now she never would.

Why did that bother her? Hannah wondered. She didn’t need Lilith’s approval. She was her own woman. An adult. She could do or be whatever she wanted. Lilith needed to know that, needed to stop underestimating her little sister. Well, it was time her little sister let her know what was what.

Then a male voice drifted after her. “Hey, chica, why such a hurry?”

Though Hannah kept moving, she turned so she was walking backward. The Latino guy following her was kind of handsome in a tough way. Dark hair spilled over a scarred forehead. She sized him up. Leather and gold didn’t come cheap.

“Maybe I’m trying to get away from you.”

“Don’t look like it to me.”

“This is me, getting away,” Hannah said, turning again and walking forward toward the gate.

He was at her side in a second. “Not fast enough, chica. Maybe you want me to catch you.”

“You think a lot of yourself, don’t you?”

“If I don’t, who’s gonna?”

An attitude Hannah respected. Still, she wasn’t about to hook up with some guy just for the fun of it. No percentage in that. People she cared about never stuck around for long.

“Listen, I’m not available,” she told him. “Really.”

Though part of her was glad when he dropped back, saying, “Your loss,” another part was disappointed that he didn’t try harder.

No one ever fought for her.

Not even her sister.

Lilith had been the lucky one, Hannah thought. She didn’t know anything about what could happen to a girl on the street. She had no idea of the things she’d had to do just to eat or what it took to pull herself up from that gutter.

Hannah knew.

And even though things were good for her now, even though she liked her life, she couldn’t help hating the people who had made her go through hell to get here.

All of them, including Lilith.

oOo

“THE USUAL,” Michael told Joe when he entered the Club Paradise bar.

“You got it,” Joe returned.

“Hey, good looking, wanna dance?”

He stared at the blonde whose breast implants bulged from a skimpy top and wondered how many lap dances she had done, wondered how many tricks she’d turned. Was it really worth the money? he wondered.

“Not tonight,” he said.

“Your loss.”

She swept by him slowly, rubbing up against his arm, letting him catch the thick scent of her perfume.

He turned to pick up his beer off the bar.

He wasn’t interested in the blonde in anything but a clinical way, the same as he was in most of the women who danced here. Probably most of them came from at-risk backgrounds. He was always looking for answers, but the more he pushed, the less he understood.

Out of nowhere, her image flashed in his mind. The conservatively dressed customer he’d met in here and had rescued from that creep. She’d been troubled. By the place. By the customers. By him. So why the hell had she been here? A woman alone. Not a working girl, of that he was certain. A woman looking for a girlfriend? He doubted that, too. What, then?

Something about her…

He shook the image away, tried to concentrate on the stage, but it was impossible until the one who called herself Anna Youngheart danced.

He studied her. And the men who watched her.

Something about her… something different…

The difference was subtle, but he didn’t miss it. She wasn’t quite herself tonight. She seemed distracted. Hiding emotion. Anger? Discontent of some sort rolled from her over him in waves.

His antennae went on alert.

Now here was something interesting.

Maybe she would open up to the camera, tell him what he needed to know to finally put the past behind him.

oOo

HAVING FINISHED her set, Hannah plopped herself down at an empty table and looked around for a fat fish. A moment later, Gabe O’Malley slid into the chair to one side, and she rubbed her leg along his.

“Hey, darlin’,” he said with a wink. “What can I get you for.”

“You know I only drink champagne.”

“An expensive girl with expensive tastes.”

Yes, she was. Why should she settle for less? Why should she even be thinking about it? Lilith. Her holier-than-thou sister disapproved. Well, tough.

“Want to take me somewhere nice for a late-night supper?” she asked Gabe.

“Not tonight. I have some things I need to take care of.”

“You’re a busy man.”

Yeah, right, Hannah thought, keeping her smile plastered to her lips. That’s why he spent his evenings here at the club. Because he was so busy.

“I’ll just have to find another escort, then.”

“Your time is coming, darlin’.” Gabe gave her a slow and sexy grin. “One of these days I’ll have time enough to give you everything you deserve.”

Why did that sound like a threat?

Telling herself she was being ridiculous, that Gabe had shown her a good time before without any roughhousing, Hannah widened her smile as she thought about how she would do him next time they got together. How she would make sure he would never seek out any dancer but her. She could probably manage it right now if she set her mind to it. She just didn’t feel like expending the energy.

Instead, she looked around for a replacement. Paul wasn’t around tonight, but Michael Wyndham was. The way Mr. Mysterious was looking at her would make a girl think he might be interested.

Undulating her way toward him, she licked her lips the way men liked. She stepped in front of him, raised her arms and fussed with her hair, watching through slitted eyes, expecting him to be mesmerized by her breasts.

His gaze locked with hers, and his lips curled into a smile. He simply seemed amused.

“What can I do for you, Miss Youngheart?”

“Maybe it’s what I can do for you.”

“I’m not interested in a lap dance.”

“What does interest you?”

“Whatever it is you have on your mind. Are you free later?”

Hannah’s heart pounded. He had an edge to him she couldn’t quite read. She sensed he could be dangerous. Lilith’s dire warnings messed with her mind for a minute. All the more reason to hook up with him.

“I’m not free,” she said, “but I am available.”

“What time?”

“How about midnight?”

“Midnight it is. Shall I meet you out front?”

“The stage door on the alley would be better.”

“Then it’s a date.”

A date. That was a laugh. He figured he could fuck her was all. Maybe she’d let him. If he spent enough money on her, she might even let him do anything he wanted.

And then maybe she would rub it in Lilith’s face.

She rushed back into the dressing room and stripped off her costume, then pulled on her clothes and began removing makeup.

Caresse came in and stared. “What’s your hurry, honey? Got a hot date?”

“Give the lady her prize.”

“With one of them jerks?”

“They’re not all jerks,” Hannah protested, thinking Caresse sounded as disapproving as Lilith. “This one isn’t, anyhow.”

“Then what is he?” Caresse threw herself before the mirror and started removing her own makeup.

“Call him a student of human nature.”

“Well, don’t let him study you too hard. It could be dangerous.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Like Rosie Harriman could? And that working girl who was murdered a few weeks back?”

Shaking off the creepy feeling, Hannah muttered, “A coincidence is all.”

“Don’t you believe it. We gotta take care of ourselves, child, ‘cause no one else is gonna. So you be careful out there, hear?”

Already waltzing out the doorway, Hannah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Dr. Caresse.”

“I’m tellin’ you!” the other dancer called after her.

There was nothing to worry about, Hannah thought as she flew out the stage door. She could take care of herself. Michael Wyndham was leaning against a light post on the other side of the alley, his gaze focused on her as she left the club.

“My car or yours?” she asked, cutting across the alley toward him.

“Let me lead you into temptation.” He held out his arm.

From the corner of her eye, Hannah thought she caught a movement in the shadows, but when she turned and stared, nothing was amiss.

Her imagination.

She took Michael’s arm and let him lead her off.

oOo

SHAKING WITH FURY, Paul Ensdorf stepped out of the shadows and watched the vehicle speed away.

How dare Anna cheat on him?

He’d arrived at the club at the last minute, hoping to catch Anna, to tell her the good news that they could have the house to themselves tonight. A friend of Grandmother’s had taken a turn for the worse, and she was holding a vigil at the nursing home. It wasn’t often that he had unimpeded run of the house.

He’d envisioned himself and Anna naked, playing sex games in every room of the house… maybe even taking their play downstairs where he would do her in a top-of-the-line coffin. This time he would finish it. This time he would be hard enough, long enough to enter her and satisfy her.

He was hard now.

Mewling with disappointment, he unzipped his trousers. How he ached for her. He began stroking himself. Imagining Anna sprawled on his bed, handcuffed, begging him to take her.

“Hey, sweetheart, need some help with that?” asked a husky voice from behind him.

“How much?”

He never even looked at her, didn’t want to see what the whore looked like. In his mind, he envisioned long dark hair, dark eyes and an angelic face.

“Well, you’re already started,” the husky voice said. “Cab fare would do. Make it a twenty and you’ve got a deal.”

He gave her the money, and they moved closer to the brick building on the other side of the alley. She knelt before him and took him in her mouth.

“Aah! Hot and wet, you’re so hot and wet for me, Anna.”

She gave good head, sucking and pulling at him, raking him with her teeth, stroking him with the tips of her nails. Eyes closed, he tangled his fingers in her hair and imagined she was Anna. He could see her eyes widen as he pushed her into the wall and shoved himself in as deep as he could. In his mind, Anna’s face gradually transformed, becoming Melinda’s. His sister appeared dazed and grateful that she finally saw him for who he was. Unable to hold on any longer, he let go.

Whimpering, he opened his eyes, saw the woman still attached to him and shoved her off. Wiping her mouth, she cowered against the wall as if she were afraid.

A fact that made him smile in satisfaction as he walked away.

oOo

Chapter 5

LILITH HAD INHERITED her green thumb and affinity to nature from Mama. Her favorite haunts weren’t shopping malls or dance clubs but conservatories and zoos. Luckily Elena shared her interest, so she set out for the Botanic Gardens with her on Sunday afternoon. Her way of distracting herself. Otherwise she would sit at home, waiting for Hannah to call and be disappointed yet again. She couldn’t force Hannah to take her back into her life.

They spent the morning having breakfast overlooking a waterfowl pond, followed by walks through the rose garden and across the Japanese islands. A good, if temporary, distraction for the thing really bothering her.

On the train ride home, Lilith decided to tell Elena about finding her sister.

“You know that ad for Club Paradise? The reason the woman in the ad looked like me… that was my sister. I finally found her.”

Elena gaped at her. “You’re sure it was Hannah?”

“I went to the club myself, Elena. Unfortunately, Hannah wasn’t exactly glad to see me. She thinks I don’t love her. She’s changed so much. Hardened. I can only imagine what she suffered through all these years. I might have recognized her, but she isn’t the same person I remember. Her innocence is long gone.”

“Hey, Lilith, we were all innocent once.”

Lilith’s heart grew heavy as she thought about it. “Now the question is, how do I rebuild my relationship with her?”

“That’s a tough one. Take it slow, I guess. Let her know you’re open to her being in your life and see her reaction.”

“So far, her reaction isn’t good. She blames me, Elena, because I abandoned her.”

“You didn’t abandon her. You went to school so you could get a decent job.”

“Try convincing her of that.”

If only she could understand Hannah’s satisfaction with her life, Lilith thought. Why would any woman want to take a job where she was just a thing to a man? Maybe because she’d never learned to respect herself. How could she, living with a stepfather whose sole purpose in life had been terrorizing women.

She let the subject drop. The rest of the ride played out in an uneasy silence.

When the conductor announced Elena’s stop, her friend said, “That’s me. Stay strong, honey. It’ll all work out. You’ll see.”

“From your lips.”

Lilith hugged Elena good-bye and prepared herself. Her stop came next.

Walking several blocks from the train station to her building, she decided she’d be best off giving Hannah breathing room, at least for a while, before trying to fix things between them. No matter what she thought of Hannah’s job, she wanted her sister close. Now if only that job weren’t so dangerous. To her dismay, she couldn’t save Hannah from herself.

As if thinking about Hannah had conjured her, Lilith spotted a Jaguar parked in front of her building. Her heart raced. She hadn’t thought she would see her sister so soon.

Hannah got out of the car and used a beeper to set its alarm. Dressed in hot pink capris and an embroidered top, her hair intricately French-braided, her feet encased in fancy heeled sandals, Hannah could be the girl next door.

Lilith wanted to rush over and envelop her little sister in a hug, but that hadn’t gone over too well last time, so she held back and, her insides a-tumble, walked the few yards to the car.

“This is some surprise.”

Her expression neutral, Hannah leaned back against the Jaguar and lit a cigarette. “Guess you didn’t expect to see me.”

“I’m really happy to see you, Hannah. I just don’t remember giving you my address.”

“You gave me your telephone number.” Hannah took a long drag, released the smoke over Lilith’s head, then said, “Reverse directory.”

“How resourceful.”

“You learn resourceful on the streets.”

On the streets. Lilith swallowed hard. Life must have been hell for a scared thirteen-year-old without a home.

Hannah asked, “So, who’s the kid? This Carmen. What’s her story? What are you doing with her? ”

Lilith noticed Hannah was playing with the cigarette, as if she were nervous.

“I’ve been trying to help Carmen stay in school, to help her see that there’s a world of possibilities out there, if only she wants something different from what she’s used to.”

Just as Hannah could, if only she would open her eyes.

“Doesn’t she have her own family?”

“She has a big family. Carmen is the oldest of nine kids.”

“Well, at least she’s got company. And on the plus side, she’s first to get new clothes, right?” Hannah joked. “No hand-me-downs.”

“They barely have the money for thrift shop purchases. Thank God for food stamps, or those kids wouldn’t eat.”

Lilith couldn’t miss Hannah’s stricken expression. She wondered how many times her sister had gone hungry. Or what she’d had to do for food. And unless she was crazy, Hannah was jealous of Carmen. Or of her relationship with the girl.

Quickly covering whatever she was feeling, Hannah dashed the cigarette to the sidewalk and ground it out under her heel. “So what’s her deal?”

“Carmen is smart and has decided she wants to finish high school and go to college. But her father just told her that since she’s seventeen, legally she can quit high school and go to work and buy shoes for her sisters and brothers instead.”

“He made all those babies, not her, the pig! So is she going to do it? Quit?”

“I hope not.”

Not that Lilith knew if she did have influence beyond Carmen herself. But she would try to talk to Carmen’s parents and ask them to think about their daughter’s future. About the futures of all the children.

“So you’re really into this Carmen, huh? Sounds like a lost cause to me. People do what’s easiest.”

The words shot through Lilith like an arrow. Did Hannah believe that of her? Surely not.

Lilith wanted to ask Hannah if stripping had really been that easy. The thought of getting on stage and taking off her clothes for a roomful of men tied her own stomach in a knot. Who knew what Hannah’s options had been at the time she took the job?

Now she had other options, Lilith reminded herself, wondering how to broach the subject. Hannah had money. She could set herself up otherwise. Perhaps she would have to live a more modest lifestyle, but at least she didn’t have to continue to play victim to men she didn’t even know.

“The kid’s got to learn to toughen up,” Hannah said. “Crying won’t get her nowhere.”

Crying? She hadn’t mentioned anything about Carmen crying. Had Hannah seen them, then? Had she been at the zoo?

Lilith didn’t dare ask. But her pulse rushed faster as she realized the import of that discovery, that Hannah was jealous enough to spy on her.

Which gave her a ray of hope.

She gazed at the heart-half Hannah still wore, and her fingers crept up to touch its match. They were sisters. A bond that couldn’t be broken.

Lilith smiled at the thought and said, “Why don’t you come in.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

oOo

ACTUALLY, HANNAH didn’t know why she’d come. Curiosity, she supposed. She wanted to see this wonderful life Lilith had made for herself firsthand.

The neighborhood wasn’t bad. Looked safe enough. No gang bangers on the street or graffiti on the walls. But Lilith had approached the building on foot. And now they were walking up enough stairs that she’d be winded if dancing hadn’t put her in such good shape.

“So where do you park around here? Garage in back?”

“I don’t have a car.”

“No car?” Chalk one up for herself, Hannah thought.

“Can’t afford one or the insurance.”

“You got a college degree.”

“The scholarships only paid for so much. I worked, too, but I had to take loans, which I’m still repaying. Besides which…” Lilith hesitated, her expression intent, as if she were going to divulge more about her finances. Instead, she shook her head. “Now I’m saving to go to law school.”

“You want to be a lawyer? They’re the scum of the earth. Did you hear the one about the lawyer who–”

”I’ve heard the jokes.”

“Who’s joking?” A shudder passed through Hannah, who’d never met a lawyer who’d been nice to her.

“The woman I work for is a guardian ad litem and works pro bono. Lots of her clients are kids who need protection, and she protects them for free. I don’t think that’s anything to joke about.”

Yeah, the story she’d read had been about the lawyer. And Lilith had gotten a mention and had been in the photo. That’s how Hannah had known she was in Chicago.

Not wanting to debate, Hannah remained silent and took in the nicely furnished if small apartment loaded with plants. While Lilith checked her mail, Hannah got the feel of the place, peeked into the single bedroom where a cat flew off the bed and under it, then strolled to the front windows with their view of the tree-lined street. Nice, but nothing like her view of the river, of course. Chalk two more up in her own favor.

“Valkyrie,” Lilith called. “C’mon and eat, kitty.”

But the cat didn’t reemerge.

“She’s under the bed. I guess I scared her.”

“Well, you’re a stranger. For the present.”

Which meant Lilith didn’t want them to be?

Hannah’s insides tightened, and she had trouble breathing properly. She’d wanted so long for Lilith to find her. But she wouldn’t fool herself. She was too smart for that.

“Hungry?” Lilith asked.

“Yeah. Pick a restaurant. My treat.”

“Why not here?”

“I like restaurants. Besides, why should you have to cook for me?”

“Because I want to. Because you’re my sister. Because we have a lot of catching up and that’s easier to do without an audience.” Lilith paused, then added, “But if you would rather go to a restaurant–”

”Nah, I’ll take a chance that you won’t poison me. I assume you learned to cook somewhere along the line.”

“I think that was an insult, but I’m going to ignore it.”

Hannah followed Lilith into the kitchen. “C’mon, you don’t call making peanut butter sandwiches cooking, do you?”

“That was all you ever wanted me to make.”

“Yeah, why do you think?” They laughed together, and it was a good feeling, and Hannah relaxed a little. “So what can I do?”

“Keep me company.”

The kitchen was small. Not enough room for a table. But there were two stools at a breakfast bar along one wall. Hannah perched on one of those and studied Lilith as she pulled food from her refrigerator.

Despite the blah outfit — dark skirt and white blouse, sensible pumps and pantyhose — and the conservative way she’d tied her hair in a knot at the top of her head, Lilith was a looker. Truth be told, Lilith looked a lot like her. Or was it the other way around since she was the younger sister?

“I could do something with you, you know.”

Opening the refrigerator door, Lilith glanced at her. “What?”

“As in fix you up. The right clothes and makeup, you’d be a knockout. When I got done with you, you wouldn’t even recognize yourself.”

“That’s what I’d be afraid of.”

“And you’d knock your boyfriend’s socks off. Well, say the word…”

“Uh-huh,” Lilith said in a noncommittal manner. “I hope you like pasta.”

Hannah eyed the package of pasta and container of fancy store-bought sauce. “I thought you said you were gonna cook.”

“This pretty much is cooking for me. I can make a mean salad, too.”

Hannah rolled her eyes. What would have been wrong with going out? What was money for, if you couldn’t spend it? She’d lived on the street for too long, had eaten too many cans of cold spaghetti. Pasta was just a fancy name for it, not that she said so.

As if Lilith could read her mind, she asked, “How did you do it?”

“Do what?” Hannah knew her voice tightened when she said, “Strip? I thought we went over that the other night.”

“I meant survive.” Lilith pulled two pots down from a shelf. “When you ran, how did you survive? You were thirteen, for God’s sake. You were a child.”

“You don’t stay a kid long on the streets. You get smart fast. You learn to beg. And to steal. And to sell yourself, if you gotta.” There, now it was out in the open, and Lilith could kick her out if she wanted. “Whatever it takes to get through another hour, another day, another lifetime.”

Lilith blinked and Hannah could see her eyes had filled like she was going to cry. Her own throat tightened, but as Lilith took a step toward her, she held out a hand, keeping her sister at bay.

“I hope you’re not feeling sorry for me. I got tough fast. And I’m off the street. I’m making great money, which means I’m safe now.”

“Mm-hm.”

Lilith wasn’t saying whatever was on her mind. Hannah couldn’t stand not knowing what exactly.

“I’m the one who calls the shots, big sis.” She knew she was heading them for another row, but she couldn’t stop herself. “When I’m up on that stage, I have the power. Every eye in the place is glued to me. I could have any man there under my thumb if I wanted.”

Lilith whipped away from her and stuck a large pot under the faucet and started filling it with water. “I think they’d want more than your thumb.”

“I’m not a working girl, Lilith. I don’t live off the streets anymore.”

“But you still take money from men by using your body.”

“On my terms. That makes all the difference in the world. I should’ve known you wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re right.” Lilith faced her. “I don’t understand, Hannah. But I want to try. I love you, and I just want what’s best for you. That’s all. Let me help you figure it out.”

Hannah couldn’t believe Lilith used the “L” word and followed it with a slap in the face. She was holding back, still.

“You help me?” Hannah snapped. “That’s a laugh! You can’t even go to law school because you can’t afford it.” Wanting it all out in the open, she pushed for the truth the only way she figured might work. “I’ll tell you what. Let me help you. I’ve got some savings, and I make a hell of a lot more money than you do. How much do you need for law school?”

“What? No!”

“But you want to go, right?”

“Not like that. Not taking money from you.”

Yep, there it was. Hannah had known Lilith would fail the test. “You won’t take money from me because you’re ashamed of the way I make it.”

“No, Hannah, I am not ashamed of you. I’m concerned for you. If nothing else, that club isn’t safe. Two women who worked there were murdered, for God’s sake!”

A chill shot through Hannah, but she pushed it aside. “You can’t afford to go to school,” she argued back. “You can’t afford a car. You can’t even afford a really nice place to live. What do you think you have that I don’t?”

“Hannah, let’s stop this, please. Let’s talk about something else.”

“You mean about anything but what’s really important? C’mon, Lilith, be honest for once.”

Lilith looked like she didn’t want to say it. But in the end she did. “All right, then. Respect. I have respect for myself… and from other people.”

Lilith couldn’t have hurt her more if she’d hit her. Hannah jumped off the stool, yelling, “Fuck other people and fuck you!” Halfway to the door, she whipped around and added, “By the way, your water is running over. And I hate pasta!”

“Hannah, please, wait. Please don’t go.” Lilith followed her to the door. “I’m sorry. I love you!”

oOo

Chapter 6

THE WORDS she’d been waiting to hear for years came too damn late!

Hannah was off, the hounds of hell on her heels as she flew down the stairs. She’d instigated the fight, but she’d had to know exactly what Lilith thought of her.

And now she knew.

Hannah got in her car and whipped down to Lake Shore Drive where she sped south, top down. And when the cop pulled her over — he’d clocked her at 80 in a 40 mile an hour zone — she turned on the charm.

They parted amiably, he with a comp to get into the club, she without a damn speeding ticket.

Not that she would have cared. She could well afford it. But winning over the cop had illustrated how she could make men do what she wanted.

Not that Lilith believed it. Or approved.

Not that Lilith had told her to either change her way of life or get out, said a little voice inside her mind.

Lilith had tried to keep her from going. Had said she loved her.

The drive home was filled with regret. For the years lost between them. For the anger she felt every time they spoke. But Lilith didn’t have all the answers. Talk about not seeing what was true, Lilith probably didn’t even believe she’d abandoned anyone. She believed what she needed to.

Maybe like she herself did, Hannah admitted.

Luckily, her cell phone was handy, and she’d already entered Lilith’s phone numbers. She whipped it out as she exited the Drive.

But when she hit her speed dial, it wasn’t to call Lilith at home, but to leave a message at Hamilton, Smith and Willis. Lilith’s work phone. Easier to leave a message and have Lilith follow up than to chance being rejected. Maybe given some time to cool off, Lilith would be happy to hear from her.

“Hey, it’s me, Hannah.” She chewed on her lip, then hurried before she got cut off. “I, uh, do want us to be sisters again, even if you don’t approve of me.” Hating that Lilith didn’t approve, Hannah took a big breath. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

By the time she hung up, she was almost home. Assaulted by her old feeling of insecurity, she was also sick to her stomach. What if, in the end, Lilith was disgusted by her and wanted nothing more to do with her. Where would that leave her?

Powerless.

A too awful, too familiar feeling, intensified by the fact that, when she turned down her street, it seemed so very dark. After the sun went down, safety became questionable even here, as it did in all big cities; and tonight she had an unsettled feeling.

All the emotional upheaval was threatening to undo her, she told herself, nothing more.

As she got out of her car, she noticed an urban adventurer sitting on the curb. Layered in fraying, filthy clothes, an elderly woman sat guarding a grocery store cart filled with several black plastic bags.

Hannah remembered what it had been like on the streets. No one should have to live like an animal, picking through other people’s garbage just to get along another day. She furtively slipped her hand into her pocket, drew closer, then made a pretense of picking something up from the ground near the woman’s feet.

Rising, she said, “Excuse me.”

Bleary, vacant eyes looked back.

“You must’ve dropped this.”

The eyes connected with the two C-notes Hannah was holding, lit, then went out. “Not mine.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it is,” Hannah said, finding the woman’s boney hand and pressing the money into it. “Get yourself a room for the night and have a good meal.”

The woman took a closer look at her. “Bless you, girl.”

Moving to her front door, Hannah figured she wasted plenty of money. What did it hurt to help someone else? No skin off her back.

The sense of unease returned, more insistent this time, as she dug through her bag for her key ring. Damn, where the hell was it? She nicked the thing with her fingers and took a deep breath as she grabbed the keys and opened the door. One step inside and she deflated like a burst balloon. Her muscles suddenly felt like rubber as she turned to close the door.

Just as a dark-clothed figure separated itself from the shadows and grabbed her arm and followed her inside.

Before she could see what her assailant looked like, a foul-smelling rag was stuffed in her face. She tried to fight, but her head went light, and then all the fight drained out of her in one big whoosh…

oOo

PUCINSKI LED THE WAY into Club Paradise, his new young partner, Frankie DeSalvo, following on his heels.

“I don’t get it,” DeSalvo muttered softly. “Not that I mind checkin’ out the talent on company time. But what the hell are we doin’ here when we got a plant?”

“Putting on a show.” Pucinski gazed around the place in an effort to spot the cop working undercover. “We don’t act like we’re paying attention, the killer smells a rat.”

“You think he’s here now?”

“The killer? Why not?”

He took in every detail of the club, gave the well-dressed patrons a once-over. He could be any one of them in their fine suits and expensive shoes. The ones salivating. The ones watching quietly, their fertile, obscene minds planning overtime. He’d worked the job too many years to think anyone was exempt.

“Classy place,” Frankie muttered, practically in his ear.

“That’s why they call it a gentlemen’s club.”

“How much to join?”

“Keep your eyes in your head and your ears open,” Pucinski ordered, as a man who looked like he was in charge approached them.

“Gentlemen, can I help you?”

Pucinski gave the guy in the flowered shirt and expensive suit the once-over and figured he was in the game. “You the manager?”

“Sal Ruscio.”

“Detective John Pucinski.” He flashed his identification and nodded that DeSalvo should do the same. “And this is Detective Frank DeSalvo. We have some questions concerning The Hunter Case. About the women who were murdered.”

“I’d rather we didn’t talk here. How about the office.” Ruscio stood back and indicated they precede him.

Pucinski didn’t hurry. Let the guy sweat a little. Not that he figured the manager was guilty. At least not of murder. But why should he make anything easy for a well-heeled pimp.

The office was as polished as the interior of the club. Nothing like the cop shop with its municipal green walls, heavy wood furniture and piles of paperwork. Everything was neat. In its place.

Ruscio settled behind the streamlined desk. “Can I offer you gentleman a drink?”

“We’re on duty,” DeSalvo said.

“A soft drink, then? Cappuccino? Designer water?”

“Plain answers would do it for me,” Pucinski said.

“Of course you have my full cooperation.”

“How well did you know Rosie Harriman?”

“Know her?” Ruscio shrugged his wide shoulders. “She was a good employee. Always on time. Gave good service. No complaints.”

DeSalvo said, “When you say gave good service–”

“Drinks. She was a waitress and served drinks.”

Pucinski flashed his young partner a look. When would he get it through his skull that he was backup. He turned back to the manager. “So no one had a problem with her.”

“Obviously someone had a problem, or Rosie would be alive.”

“What about her? Did she have any complaints about a particular customer.”

Ruscio shook his head. “Not that I remember. You know, I went over this with the police before.”

“Now you’re telling me, because now it’s my case. What about any of the other girls. They have any complaints about your patrons?”

“C’mon, you know how guys are when they get a few drinks in them. So they’re a little grabby–”

”Ever bounce the same guy twice?” DeSalvo asked.

Good question. Pucinski didn’t glower at him.

“I don’t keep no records of these incidents.”

But Pucinski would bet his pension that the bouncers remembered the troublemakers and kept an eye out for them.

“Let’s talk about the second victim,” he said. “Anita Long.”

“Didn’t know her. She didn’t work for me.”

“She worked your club.”

“If you say so,” Ruscio said, tone stiff. “I am unaware of any illegal activities taking place here, Detective. If I’d’a known, I woulda escorted her out personally.”

“Sure you would have.” Before Ruscio had time to protest, Pucinski said, “But you are aware of the woman in question.”

“I know who she is…was.”

“Did she have any problems with your customers?”

“If she did, she wouldn’t’ve told me. But it’s a moot point. You don’t know that this working girl’s death had any connection to this club, not any more than did Rosie’s.”

“You keep thinking that way; and when the next girl dies, you tell me that again.”

“Next girl?”

Ruscio blanched, but Pucinski was certain it had to do with his wallet rather than his heart.

“Three would certainly be the charm, don’t you think, Mr. Ruscio? The newspapers would put it together, the customers would get nervous, the dancers might quit. Not a pretty picture any way you slice it. Maybe you should realize that not all of your customers are the pick of their litter.”

A red-faced Ruscio checked his watch. “Detectives, your work here is finished. Okay, I’ve been properly warned. Any improprieties and you’ll be the first on my speed dial.”

Pucinski left him his card, then ambled out into the club with DeSalvo behind him.

“We didn’t learn anything new,” his partner complained when they hit the street.

“We set up an atmosphere. Nothing gets by the manager of a place like this. He may very well know a lot more than he’s saying. Now he’ll be vigilant. Maybe even cooperate if he suspects someone. He can’t afford to screw up and lose business. His bosses wouldn’t like that.”

Ruscio would be watching his patrons more closely. And his employees. Couldn’t forget them. Maybe Rosie Harriman had hooked up with a bodyguard or bartender turned deadly boyfriend. And maybe the perp turned to Anita when he didn’t have Rosie to pound anymore.

“Lots of questions. Lots to think about. That’s why we’ll be back.”

Pucinski glanced back at the den of iniquity all lit up like a birthday cake, wondering which of these women would be the next murder victim.

oOo

NO ONE could save her now.

Thrown across the backseat of the car, her hands cuffed behind her back and her feet trussed together, Hannah knew her time had come.

She was exhausting herself thrashing, screaming through the foul-tasting gag in her mouth. If only she could talk. Plead. Maybe she could say something, make some promise that would give her a break. Buy her some time.

She rubbed her face against the seat and was elated when she felt the cloth give a little. Dislodging the gag bit-by-bit, she rubbed until her face was raw. Finally she was able to spit out the disgusting material and take a normal breath.

“I don’t understand why you’re doing this,” she gasped. “Where are you taking me? You’re not really going to hurt me, are you?”

She couldn’t say kill.

She stared at the back of the dark-clothed figure behind the wheel. No answer. He had to be from the club, all right, but here she was without a clue. The dark clothes were baggy, hiding the guy’s body, and a billed cap was pulled down low, hiding any hint of hair.

Tears burned the back of her eyes, but she refused to cry. “Say something, damn you!”

She might as well be talking to herself for all the response she got. Nothing. Like the times she’d pleaded with her stepfather to leave Mama alone. He’d hurt her instead. She’d put herself in this situation, too.

This time, she would be lucky if all she got was hurt.

So this bastard was the killer. The one who’d done the waitress and the prostitute. How could she have been around him and not known? How could she have gotten so close, probably night after night, and not smelled death on him? How could she not know who he was even now?

The vehicle slowed and stopped. When the car door opened, Hannah swallowed a sob and fought the pain of being pulled from the car by her hair. Of hitting the ground awkwardly, arm twisted beneath her. The pain of knowing she wasn’t going to come out of this alive. She bit her lip, tasted her own blood and the salt of her tears and turned to get a look at the face beneath the billed cap.

No dice. The face smeared with camouflage paint and eyes covered by heavy dark glasses were too disguised to figure it out. Even now her intended killer didn’t want her to know his identity.

He pulled a gun and indicated she should move toward the abandoned building. The whole neighborhood looked abandoned, though the parked cars told her otherwise. Where the hell was she? A quick look around revealed high rises in the distance. They were somewhere west of the Loop. In the real inner city.

“What is it you want?” she asked, stopping so suddenly the gun barrel smacked into her.

She whipped around and stepped back, unable to believe she’d been so stupid, that she hadn’t seen beneath the bastard’s disguise. Whoever the hell he was, he’d played her. She’d never been a sucker before. Men were the suckers. Not that she’d ever hurt anyone beyond lightening up their wallets a little.

Why her? What had she done to encourage such hatred?

“What did I do to you?” she choked out.

Hannah knew this was her own fault. Lilith had warned her, but she’d waited too long to get out. Shooting a hand to her throat, to the heart-half, she tried to find courage in this link to the sister who’d done what she hadn’t been able to.

In a low raspy whisper, her captor commanded, “Open the door and get inside, bitch!”

When she didn’t immediately move, he shoved the gun barrel into her gut and reached behind her for the door.

As if he knew Hannah thought to fight him, he growled softly into her ear, “Try it and die now.”

Die now…

She was going to die. At least that was the bastard’s plan. But not now. They’d said he’d kept the other women for a while before he’d killed them. That gave her wiggle room, opportunity for escape. She’d always managed to take care of herself, to get out of dangerous jams, right? So why should now be any different?

She had time… days… more than a whole week to figure him out before he decided to end her life. At least that’s what he’d given the other women.

But what was he going to do to her in the meantime?

Hannah choked back tears. She’d learned long ago not to show her true feelings. It was how she had survived until now.

And now she feared there might be worse things than dying.

oOo

Chapter 7

THE BLINKING RED EYE of the telephone console informed Lilith that she already had a message when she entered the office early the next morning. Retrieving it, she expected to hear Elena’s voice. Or maybe Carmen’s.

“Hey, it’s me, Hannah… I, uh, do want us to be sisters again, even if you don’t approve of me.” Lilith held her breath as she heard her sister say, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

She played it over… registered the words… and played it again.

“Hannah…”

The back of her throat thickened, and tears slid down her cheeks. Even if they had serious differences, this was a sign that they could get past them. That maybe she could get her sister out of a dangerous situation. Finally, Lilith settled the receiver into its cradle and mopped up her face.

She hadn’t been able to eat the night before. Instead, she’d taken the cat onto the porch, sat there for hours, wondering how she’d been so stupid.

Why had she let Hannah bait her like that? And why had her sister done so? It was as if Hannah had been determined to be rejected. Foolishly, she’d played right into the confrontation, when she should have kept her thoughts about Hannah’s lifestyle to herself.

Still a little sick inside, Lilith sighed. If she’d only kept what she thought to herself, she would have shared dinner with Hannah instead of having her empty stomach twist itself into a knot. She wouldn’t have had to wonder if her sister would come back for more. They would already have made inroads to some kind of relationship. Well, the next time she would be smarter. She wouldn’t let herself be forced into saying things best left unsaid.

Being Hannah’s sister again would have to be enough for her. As Elena said, Hannah might not want to change. Lilith would accept that rather than lose her again.

Even though she was tempted to sit before the phone all day in case her sister called, Lilith knew she couldn’t. She had work. Responsibilities.

And all day, an internal clock tick-tick-ticked as she subconsciously waited for another call from Hannah that never came. By late afternoon, unease slid through her. What if Hannah had regretted making the call?

Lilith decided the ball was in her court. She knew where to find her little sister. She would just have to be late to her Street Survival class.

oOo

ENTERING THE CLUB was easier this time. Lilith wasn’t exactly in her comfort zone, but at least she knew what to expect. She ignored the stares and murmured comments from patrons as she made her way to the bar area, where she stood and looked around. She was busy scanning the dancers working the crowd, when she felt another presence directly behind her.

Turning, she faced Michael.

“Looking for someone?” he asked.

“Not you.”

He tried to hide a smile. “You don’t have to remind me. A customer or one of the dancers? Maybe I can help.”

Remembering how he’d come to her rescue in the alley with the creep who’d been hitting on her, she softened her tone. “I don’t need your help tonight, but thanks.”

She gave the club another once-over but still didn’t see Hannah. Maybe her sister was getting ready to go on stage.

“What do you need?” Michael asked, moving next to her. “What did you say your name was?”

Lilith turned back to him. “I didn’t.” He was persistent but not obnoxious. “I’m not looking for a date.”

“Neither am I.”

“Then what is your interest?”

“You.”

The way he was staring at her, as if trying to see inside her, nearly took away her breath. Not that she thought the interest was personal. It was hard to remain unaffected by an attractive man who oozed such intensity.

“You don’t seem like the typical Club Paradise customer,” Lilith said, remembering what he’d asked her the other night and turning the tables on him.

“Touché.” His lips softened into a smile. “Maybe I’m attracted by the drama of it all.”

“It sounds like you’re comparing the club to a soap opera.”

“Hmm, interesting analogy.”

Just then, a waitress stopped to ask, “Can I get you drinks?”

As Michael ordered a beer, Lilith turned her attention back to the stage. Still no Hannah. The waitress cleared her throat, and Lilith realized she was waiting for an order.

“I don’t see Anna Youngheart. Can you get a message to her for me? Tell her Lilith is here.”

“Sorry, but Anna didn’t come in tonight.”

“So she’s not scheduled to work?”

“She is, actually. Sal is pretty ticked, too. She didn’t even call in.”

“Oh… well, thanks.” Did that mean she’d gotten to her sister? Lilith wondered. Did Hannah decide to quit, after all?

“So you don’t want a drink?” the waitress asked.

Lilith shook her head. “No. I’m just leaving.”

Shrugging, the waitress moved to the bar, and Lilith turned to go.

“Nice seeing you again… Lilith.”

Though Michael Wyndham’s low tone whispered down her spine, she didn’t look back.

Waiting for the bus, she checked voice mail both at home and at work to see if Hannah had called as promised. No messages from anyone. She’d picked up Hannah’s cell number from her incoming call and so tried that. It went directly to voice mail.

“Hi, Hannah. I’m just leaving the club. I came here looking for you. Please call me.”

As the bus stopped before her, she checked her watch. If they didn’t get caught in traffic, she might be able to squeak into class right on time. Not that she really felt like working out tonight. But anything to keep her mind busy until she heard from her sister.

oOo

BY THE TIME she got in the locker room to change, it was nearly empty. And class was just starting as she took her place at the edge of the mat. To her astonishment, Carmen volunteered to fight for the very first time. Lilith’s eyes smarted with pride.

The attack scenario on the mat had barely begun, however, when a young policeman in uniform wandered into the room, and every head turned. The instructor hurried over to him, and they spoke in low tones. Then the instructor waved Lilith over. Her heart skipped a beat as she rose and rounded the mat.

“Can we talk away from here, Miss Mitchell?”

“Yeah, sure.” Following him into the hallway, Lilith had a bad feeling. Was it Mama? Had Marlon finally broken her or worse? She forced her voice to remain steady. “What can I do for you, Officer?”

“Do you know a woman who calls herself Anna Youngheart?”

Lilith’s pulse sped up. “My sister’s professional name. She’s not in trouble, is she?” When the officer didn’t respond, she demanded, “Hannah is all right?”

The cop’s look of pity nearly stilled her blood.

oOo

LILITH MITCHELL SAT still as death in the glass-walled inner office. Pucinski exchanged a look with DeSalvo. His partner backed off and went to investigate the coffeepot. Pucinski figured it was understandable that the Mitchell woman should be stunned and looking as if she were unable to comprehend that her sister might now be beyond her reach forever.

“An old street lady saw it happen,” Pucinski told her. “Some guy was waiting for your sister when she came home last night. They went inside for a few minutes, then the door burst open, and he dragged her out, hands tied behind her back, something covering her mouth. She tried fighting. Unfortunately, the woman was too far away to give us a description.”

“Okay, so some guy dragged her off. That doesn’t make him a killer.”

The poor woman appeared a little green around the gills, like she was fighting heaving her cookies. Thank God she didn’t — his desk was messy enough. She sat frozen next to it as if she herself were dead. Pucinski knew he might look hard as leather on the outside, but inside his gut twisted tight.

“Neighbors told us she worked at Club Paradise, and we started putting it together. Part of The Hunter Case. Anna Youngheart fits the description, a lot like the other two women associated with the club who were taken. We found this in her locker.” He showed her a scrap of paper with her own address and that of Hamilton, Smith and Willis. “Someone at your workplace knew you would be at the gym tonight,” he explained. “We figured you might be able to tell us something about her. Didn’t guess you were related.”

Voice catching, Lilith whispered, “Hannah left me a message at work sometime last night. She was going to call me today.” She blinked and tears rolled down her cheeks. “She ran away when she was thirteen.” She turned to him, her expression stricken, her eyes dark pools of pain. “After all these years, I just found her, and now it’s too late for anything.”

Pucinski said, “Thousands of kids disappear without a trace every year, Miss Mitchell. Most of their families never know what happens to them.”

“Maybe that would have been better,” she said, though she didn’t look like she meant it. “I-I feel as if I was given a second chance, and somehow I b-blew it. I couldn’t get her out of that damn club. I failed her again.”

Pucinski stood there like some sap, wanting to comfort her while needing to get as much info as he could. He did neither, rather waited her out.

She sniffed and took a deep breath. “So what now?” She bit her lips, perhaps to stop herself from crying. Her eyes were rheumy-looking. “Tell me, Detective Pucinski, what are the chances you’ll find her alive?”

Making nice with the family members wasn’t his favorite part of the job. “We’re going to do everything we can, but truthfully, we don’t have much to go on.”

“Was Hannah friends with the other women?”

“She hadn’t worked the joint long enough to know the first victim, a waitress. But the second — the prostitute — maybe.”

He paced as if the activity could work off his frustration with the case. Even having an officer working undercover hadn’t kept Hannah Mitchell from being taken. But she wasn’t dead yet, he reminded himself. She still had a shot.

“They weren’t all dancers, then,” Lilith was saying. “Could there be some connection between them other than the club?”

“All three women were tall, good looking and had long, dark hair.”

The description could fit a thousand women in the city. As if she knew it, too — that the description could fit her — Lilith shifted uncomfortably.

“How long do we have?” she asked.

“The first one he held for two weeks. The second only ten days.”

“So his patience is getting shorter.”

“Seems like. No guarantees of how long this time.”

“Then the clock is already ticking. What are you doing about it? Why aren’t you interviewing everyone at the club?”

“Who says we aren’t?” He probably shouldn’t tell her this. “And we have an officer working undercover.”

“Undercover…”

She wasn’t looking at him, Pucinski realized, but past him. He glanced over his shoulder to see what had her attention. Gabe O’Malley was at his desk, doing paperwork.

Pucinski turned back to Lilith, whose attention was on him, again. She seemed to be trying to digest it all. He only wished he was convinced that having someone working undercover was enough to catch a murderer. He remembered seeing the bodies of the women who had been hunted and shot and then skinned like animals. He hoped Lilith Mitchell never had to see her sister like that.

Pucinski felt like crap. He should have let DeSalvo handle this one. While green behind the ears, the kid had to learn to deal with the hard stuff sometime.

“I already called the Feds. They’re working up a profile on this creep.”

The next hour passed with Lilith seeming in a daze even while trying to be helpful. When the question and answer session was over, she asked for the keys to her sister’s loft. Since the evidence technicians were done with the place, Pucinski didn’t see the harm. She needed the connection, and maybe spending some time in the place would give her some helpful ideas. He also gave her his cell number and offered to take her home or to call someone who could stay with her, but she declined.

So Pucinski watched her walk off toward the bus stop, hoping she was as strong as she wanted him to believe.

She’d need a strong stomach if she had to ID her kid sister on a morgue slab.

oOo

LILITH CALLED Elena to give her the bad news. Of course her friend insisted on accompanying her to Hannah’s loft.

“You think she’d be safe in a place like this, huh?” Elena murmured as she wandered over to the wall of windows with its river view. “I mean even though this particular street is a little off the main beat, this isn’t exactly the inner city.”

“She had… has… money,” Lilith said, unready to put her sister in the past tense. “Not that it was any kind of protection.”

She was unwilling to believe that her sister would die. Surely the police would find her in time. She didn’t want to think of the things the killer could be doing to torture Hannah in the meantime.

Meandering through the downstairs space, Lilith spotted something familiar crushed into the corner of the sofa. Gently withdrawing the stuffed animal, a tattered tiger cat, she realized it was the same one she’d bought for Hannah’s tenth birthday. After all these years, Hannah still had the remembrance of her. Tears stung the back of her eyes, and she pressed the stuffed animal to her breast.

“Oh, Hannah.”

“Hey, you okay?” Elena asked softly.

Lilith took a deep breath and ran her fingers over the reminder of their childhood, of the days a lifetime ago when their father had still been in good health and they had all been happy.

“I convinced myself Hannah found some peace,” she told Elena. “I used to imagine she was married to a great guy like our real father, maybe with a kid on the way. That she wasn’t scared anymore. But living like she did… she must have been scared all the time.”

“Look, photos,” Elena said, picking up an album from a small side table. She handed it to Lilith.

Hanging onto the tiger-cat, Lilith stared at pictures of the two of them as kids with Mama and Daddy. Their real father. There were a few other shots of Hannah as she matured with other people, but not many of these.

A publicity photo of a hard-looking woman made Lilith stare.

This was and yet was not the little sister she remembered.

And then she turned the page to find a familiar article from a national magazine, one chronicling a guardian ad litem case handled by her boss, Rita Henderson, and accompanied by a photograph. Lilith had worked hard on the case, and Rita had insisted she be in the shot.

Staring at her own image tucked into her sister’s scrapbook, Lilith said, “She knew I was here for months. Why did she never contact me?”

Elena’s dark eyes were loaded with sympathy. “Maybe she was trying to work up the courage… she probably figured you wouldn’t approve of her lifestyle.”

Lilith shook her head and closed the book. “And I let her know I didn’t.”

“Maybe you ought to come to my place for the night,” Elena suggested. “You shouldn’t be alone.”

A plan was forming in Lilith’s mind. She couldn’t do nothing. Couldn’t wait until the news of Hannah’s death hit the media. No, no! Hannah was still alive, she reminded herself. Pucinski said he kept them.

Knowing what she had to do, Lilith said, “I’m not going home.”

After walking Elena to the bus stop, Lilith returned to Hannah’s place to implement her budding plan. Pucinski’s telling her about the undercover cop working the club had given her the idea.

She went through her sister’s wardrobe, far more extensive and expensive than her own. Not exactly her style, but that was the point. She picked out a lavender dress that she hoped would fit her. The bodice was fairly modest, showing off shoulders rather than cleavage. She popped the heart-half beneath the material. The dress was so tight in the hips she wouldn’t be able to move if it weren’t equally short.

Ignoring the feeling of being a little overexposed, Lilith next found her sister’s scrapbook and removed a glossy of Hannah — one of the publicity shots taken at the club.

Placing it in the corner of the bathroom mirror, she used the photo as a guide to her own transformation. First the makeup. Base, blush, powder, eyeliner and shadow, mascara, lip liner and gloss. She loosened her French braid and brushed it out, then pulled it up into a fancy ponytail trailing over one shoulder.

Lilith was startled by her own reflection, so much more sophisticated and in-your-face than she’d ever seen it before. The resemblance between the woman in the mirror and the glossy of Anna Youngheart was eerie. Thinking about what she was committing herself to, she swallowed hard and stared at Hannah’s photo.

“I promise I won’t do what’s easiest this time.”

She and Hannah could almost be twins, she thought.

Her own mother wouldn’t recognize her.

But maybe the man who had her sister would.

oOo

HER ENTRANCE into the club caused something of a stir quite different from the one earlier that evening. She heard a few low noises which she assumed were meant to be complimentary. While she put on a good face, strutting into the main room of the club like she owned it, she wasn’t exactly comfortable with her new skin.

No hiding from curious eyes this time.

Heading straight for the bar, she forced her hips to sway to the loud beat of music. She took a quick glance around but didn’t see Michael Wyndham this time. The bartender stopped mixing a drink to stare, and she was certain he thought he was seeing a ghost.

“I’m looking for a job.” Her heart hammered like crazy. “I understand you need a waitress.”

Without taking his eyes off her, he pointed to a man standing a few yards away. “That’s the manager there. Sal Ruscio.”

Thanking him, Lilith approached the man whose flowered shirt belied the expensive cut of his suit. Seeing her, he did a double take and couldn’t stop staring.

The sound of blood rushing in her ears accompanying her, she said, “Sign outside says you need a new waitress.”

“The last waitress I hired got herself in trouble. The permanent kind. Know what I mean?”

Lilith gave him a purposefully haughty look. “I can take care of myself.”

Though she didn’t feel as confident of that fact as she had before. Her stomach was tied in a knot. Though scared, she brazened it out.

This Sal was staring at her face so hard, he might be trying to get inside her head. He was obviously buzzing with the possibilities.

“You kinda look like her. One of my dancers.” Now he eyed her body thoroughly as if mentally taking measurements. “Bet you could fit in her costumes, too.” Sal’s grin told Lilith exactly what he had in mind.

“Dancer? Uh, no. Waitress.”

“Okay, waitress, then. Maybe after you’re here a while, I can talk you into moving up in the world,” he said, looking up at the stage and then at her. Sal’s grin widened. “When can you start?”

oOo

Chapter 8

WHAT HAD SHE been thinking? Lilith wondered as she brushed her ponytail, standing before the wall-length mirror in the dressing room ten minutes later.

“Damn!”

“You got a problem, child?”

A striking and very tall black woman entered the dressing room. She was wearing a tiny top and minisarong in an island print that barely covered the essentials.

“Name’s Caresse,” the dancer said.

“Lilith.”

“Hey, Lilith. Where’d you work before coming here?”

 Lilith said the first thing that came to mind. “Los Angeles.”

“L.A., huh? I was out there two, no, three years ago. What joint?”

Finding a hair clip that obviously met her approval, the black woman “borrowed” it, Lilith noticed, wondering if that was the norm around there. Then Caresse went back to her own seat in front of the mirror.

“You wouldn’t know the joint,” Lilith said. “The club only opened last year.”

Having changed into the waitress outfit — loose pin-striped pants and a backless vest — she checked herself in the mirror and lifted her arms. The material moved with her, exposing the sides of her breasts. Wearing a bra under the top was impossible.

“You might want to use some of this tape on the sides,” Caresse suggested, holding out a roll.

Grinning, Lilith faced the dancer to take the tape. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

Looking as if she were seeing things, Caresse said, “Oh, you’re gonna be a shock to some of the regulars. Sal tell you about Anna Youngheart? You could be her twin. Some bastard took her last night. Cops think a killer has her, and it’s just a matter of days before her body turns up.”

Not if she could help it, Lilith thought, even knowing the first forty-eight hours were most important in finding someone who’d gone missing. It was almost that now. If the killer didn’t get impatient, Lilith had maybe a week to find her sister. Or the man who had taken her.

Tick… tick… tick…

“Did you know her well?” Eyeing Caresse through the mirror, Lilith taped the material in place.

“Kinda uncanny.” Caresse murmured. “The resemblance, I mean.”

“I got the definite impression that’s why Sal hired me.”

“I would advise you against getting cozy with any of the customers. Whoever he is — the killer — could be out there right now.

Lilith nearly choked on the idea. And realizing Caresse was staring at her intently, she grew flustered and dropped the tape on the floor. Swooping it up, she said, “Thanks for the tip.”

“Remember my other one — keep it professional with the men you meet here.”

Caresse was still staring as Lilith rushed out of the room, feeling anything but confident.

oOo

DETECTIVE GABRIEL O’MALLEY nearly fell out of his seat when Lilith Mitchell waltzed into the main room of the club. As the night flew by and he realized what the Mitchell woman was about, he got more and more pissed off. So what the hell did she think she was playing at?

He was sitting at the bar watching for her when she finally moved back with a new order.

“Joe, two martinis, please,” Lilith said. “One with an olive, one with an onion, both extra dry.”

“I’m backed up. It’ll be a couple of minutes.”

Gabe suppressed his anger. “I would’ve ordered for you, but I don’t know your drink.”

She seemed startled, then gave him a thousand-watt smile that almost looked natural. “Sparkling water with a twist of lime.”

She slid onto the stool he’d actually been saving for her. Gabe signaled Joe. The bartender immediately poured the overpriced water and set it down in front of her.

Joe gave her a long, hard look, though, and said, “I wouldn’t make that break too long. You’ll get your ass fired your first night.”

“Just make my drinks,” Lilith told him.

Gabe had no doubt Lilith Mitchell recognized him from her visit to the Area Office earlier, though it seemed she was playing at not letting him know that. Did she really think she could fool him after he’d seen her at the station?

Then he looked her square in the eyes. “Trying to get yourself killed, Miss Mitchell? A murderer doesn’t wear an ID across his forehead.” When she refused to react, he moved in on her and in a lowered voice said, “C’mon, I know you saw me when you were with Pucinski. Detective Gabriel O’Malley.” That’d burst her bubble if she really thought she was putting one over on him.

Jaw tightening slightly, Lilith glanced around like someone might be interested. “Keep it down, or you’ll blow your cover.”

He burned her with his gaze. “Going to a costume party?”

“Right here. What’s it to you?” She tried shrugging him off. “I can take care of myself.”

She was afraid — he could smell fear a mile away — and therefore defensive. He took a slug of his drink and slapped the glass down on the bar.

“Oh, yeah, you’re some kinda expert.” He knew about her self-defense classes. She’d been pulled out of one by a uniform. “You practice your moves, play at being mean, pat yourself on the back that you know how to defend yourself. But you ever work the streets? Ever put your life on the line for someone else? Ever look an offender in the eye and go for his cajones for real?” Seeing her swallow hard, he laughed humorlessly. “Didn’t think so. Listen, angel, leave this investigation to the pros.”

“Do something to impress me and maybe I will.”

“You think we can’t do our job?” he snapped, his irritation with her arrogance growing.

“Or don’t want to. My sister was only a low-class woman, right? One you wouldn’t find on the society pages.”

“You got a lot of nerve–”

”Hannah wasn’t the first woman the bastard took!” she interrupted in an angry whisper. “You should have caught him before he got to Hannah.”

Her fist smacked down on the bar for emphasis. The jolt up her arm made the chain she was wearing dance, and a jagged piece of gold popped free of the vest. His gaze lit on half of a broken heart.

“What if I can’t get to him before he gets to you?” he asked slowly. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

Damn if she wasn’t the spitting image of the latest victim he knew was her sister. Very deliberately, he leaned closer and in a low, threatening voice, spelled it out for her.

“Looking like you do now… how many murderers can savor plotting the same woman’s death twice?”

oOo

NOT HAVING THOUGHT as far as her own possible death, Lilith couldn’t stop the chills from creeping down her spine or keep her heart from pounding. That wouldn’t happen to her, she told herself. Or Hannah. She was going to find her sister before the killer ended her, no matter what Detective Gabriel O’Malley thought. She’d recognized him the instant she’d seen him. He’d been in the Area Office, and before that, she’d seen him here the first time she’d stepped foot in the club. He was the man who’d stopped that guy with a knife.

Damn him for trying to frighten her.

Caresse, too, she thought, looking around, trying to spot evil on the hoof.

Indeed, the killer might be right in front of her, the reason she was here. Any fraternizing would be to nail him.

She returned her attention to Gabe, who seemed more relaxed now. As he swigged down the rest of his drink, Lilith wondered how best to handle him. Probably shouldn’t have been critical, definitely shouldn’t have lost her temper if she wanted him to cooperate.

She took a sip of her sparkling water as a voluptuous blond dancer wearing a see-through negligee over a satin and lace teddy sauntered over to the bar and cozied up to O’Malley, who immediately turned his rapt attention to the dancer.

But Lilith felt as if someone was focused on the back of her neck.

She turned to see Michael, again the lone occupant of a table to the rear. He was talking to a waitress — had her rapt attention — but he was staring at her as if he was shocked at her transformation.

She quickly glanced away and delivered the drinks to a man who was cover-model handsome, with blond-streaked hair and a deep tan. He wore an expensive suit and silk tie as did his companion, a little dark man with eyes that roved from girl to girl around the room as if he couldn’t get enough of them.

“Here you go. That’ll be thirty dollars.”

The blond man handed her a fifty. “Keep the change and check back on us in a while, would you?”

“Sure thing. And thanks.”

Lilith found most customers to be generous with tips. Twice she’d had to deter guys who wanted more for their money than drinks, but both times, they took her cheerful rebuke with good humor.

All night she was aware of Michael watching her. He didn’t try to approach her this time, didn’t wave her over to his table. He simply kept his intense gaze glued to her until she was unnerved.

By the time she made up her mind to approach him, he was gone.

oOo

DEPENDING ON HER LEAVING the back way, Michael waited in the alley for Lilith. He thought he’d been seeing things when she’d returned looking like Anna. When Lilith finally left the building, she walked quickly toward the street until he stepped out of the shadows.

Immediately alert, she stopped and faced him, taking a defensive stance, almost like a fighter. “What the hell’s wrong with you, Michael, trying to give a girl a heart attack?”

“Sorry if I startled you.” Not that he was trying to be threatening. Thumbs hooked in his jeans pockets, he kept his distance, only his gaze penetrating her space. This was the Lilith he’d obviously misjudged. “Can I take you for coffee?”

“No, thanks.”

“So what do I need to do to get your attention?”

Warily keeping him in her line of vision, she relaxed her fighter’s stance and made for the street without answering.

Michael walked with her, still keeping his distance. “Money?” he probed.

She flashed him a surprised expression. “You don’t look like the type who has to pay for a woman’s company.”

“To talk. I’ll pay you to talk to me–”

“Look, I’m not that kind of working girl, okay?”

“– on camera,” he finished.

Her brows shot up. “Some people would say you’re a pervert.”

“I’m being straight with you. I make documentaries. Honest. You don’t believe me, go ask the bartender. Joe can vouch for me.”

“Right, as if I could trust a bartender’s word. He would probably vouch for any customer for a big enough tip.”

Hitting the street, she walked faster, dodging a drunk and a couple of teenaged boys, who gave her appreciative wolf whistles.

Michael kept in stride and kept at her. “You’re a real puzzle, Lilith. Solving puzzles is a hobby of mine.”

She stopped next to the bus stop sign and glanced down the street. Empty. Her hand went to her neck. “You don’t really want to know me.”

“Sure I do.” His gaze settled on her fingers playing with her chain like worry beads. “I want to understand why you decided to work at the club.”

That seemed to get her full attention. “Maybe I have no choice.”

That was a lie. “We all have choices.” She certainly was uptight, and he guessed he didn’t blame her. “I want to know about yours. You surprised me, and I’m not easily surprised.”

“Maybe I don’t like the idea of your being in my skin.”

“Maybe you’re afraid.”

Lilith gave him a contemptuous look. “I am not afraid.”

“And don’t want to admit it.”

She repeated herself, staring at him hard and stressing the words. “I am not afraid.”

“So you hide it under the tough act.”

She practically shouted, “I am not afraid!”

Michael fell silent, and Lilith stared him down. She was tougher than he’d first thought. Now she really interested him.

“So if you’re not afraid, you’ll talk to me?”

He followed her gaze to where it settled on the other side of the street. Another dancer from the club sat in a window booth of the corner all-night restaurant. The one named Caresse. She was watching them through the plate glass. Lilith suddenly darted into the street, dodging traffic to get across.

“I’ll check in with you tomorrow night, see if you have a change of heart!” he called after her, then stood there, smiling to himself.

Unlike the other women who worked the club, Lilith seemed both vulnerable and tough. And he sensed he got to her as much as she got to him.

Suddenly his time spent at the club became more interesting.

oOo

HER SUSPICIONS FLYING HIGH, Lilith entered the greasy spoon, staring out at the street through the plate-glass window. Michael stood there for a moment — she could still feel his gaze on her — then waved and walked off. But now that she was inside…

Inside was narrow with a long counter and stools and booths along the windows. She approached Caresse, who was eating a middle-of-the-night breakfast.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Sit.”

Lilith slipped onto the opposite bench and scooted over some more. She checked out the window. No Michael. He’d vanished. She felt that odd pressure lift from her chest.

Caresse dropped her fork. “I’m glad you took my advice about not getting cozy with the customers.”

When the waitress appeared with a menu, Lilith said, “Just tea.” Then asked the other dancer, “What do you know about this Michael Wyndham?”

Caresse shrugged. “That he usually keeps to himself.”

“So he’s a regular.” Which made him a possible suspect. She figured she’d have to suspect anyone who was around the club a lot and also seemed overly interested in her. “He wants to get inside my head.”

Caresse raised her eyebrows. “Child, you sure that’s all he wants to get into?”

“He offered to pay me to talk to his camera.”

A silent Caresse stared down at her congealing eggs.

“Did he ever make the offer to anyone else?” Lilith asked.

“Couldn’t say. I haven’t been at the club long. Why do you care?”

“I want to know what I’m getting myself into.”

“Be smart. Don’t get yourself into nothing.”

The waitress interrupted, placing a cup of coffee in front of Lilith, who thanked her. She began swirling the dark liquid with a spoon.

“You listen to me, child,” Caresse said. “You gotta look out for yourself.”

“You know something bad about Michael Wyndham?”

“I know none of these jokers care spit for us girls, starting with Sal.” She uttered the manager’s name like a warning. “They’re users is all. When they’re done with their fun and games, we’re disposable. Maybe permanently.”

At the reminder, Lilith turned inward and so didn’t at once realize Caresse was staring at her throat. At the heart-half now lying against the top of the dress. Their eyes met.

“Where’d you get that necklace?” Caresse asked, her voice soft. “Anna always wore it when she wasn’t dancing. Said it had sentimental value.”

Lilith’s hand shot to her throat. Her mouth opened and closed, but she was so startled, she couldn’t think. Caresse was staring, waiting.

Finally Lilith blurted, “I found it in the back of a drawer in the dressing room. She must have left it there.”

Certain the lie was written on her face, she was relieved Caresse didn’t challenge her.

She could only hope the man who was holding her sister would.

oOo

LILITH MITCHELL was going to be a challenge worthy of him. More of a challenge than the one who called herself Anna Youngheart, though surprisingly, his current catch wasn’t like the others. She didn’t beg or whine for mercy.

Neither would Lilith.

How to set the right trap for her?

It was obvious she wanted him to, or why else would she have taken a job at the club if not to haunt him? He could be very accommodating. He would give her what she wanted and so much more.

Before Lilith was put to the ultimate test, he would have to do something about her confidence. He hated women who thought they could best him. One woman who had that power was enough. He’d learned how to deal with the others. It was kind of like a game of chess — knowing the right moves to make.

A little warped game playing would go a long way toward undermining Lilith’s confidence.

He was just the man to do it.

oOo

Chapter 9

NAKED, HANNAH runs through the woods. Runs for her life.

Wearing a hunting vest and cap pulled low, the killer follows. He carries a rifle, and a hunting knife is tucked into a belt. He hesitates a second and listens to thrashing sounds somewhere ahead.

Hannah trips and goes down to her knees, sobbing.

The killer checks for tracks, for broken branches in the bushes.

Hannah flies to her feet and plunges forward through a copse of trees.

The killer follows.

Running as fast as she can, Hannah takes a panicked look behind her. Her shoulder whacks a maple tree and she cries out in pain. Fear wells up in her, threatening to choke her.

The gap is closing — she knows the killer has no mercy. She stumbles again, turns to find her pursuer behind her, rifle pointed at her.

“Please, don’t! I’ll do anything, be anything you want. Please!”

The man in the hunting jacket raises the rifle.

Hannah can’t move. “I am a person! I am not an animal!”

She cries out when the rifle barrel explodes.

Lilith whipped up in bed, her body trembling, her breath choked in her throat. A dream. It was only a dream.

Hannah was alive She had to be.

Turning on the nightstand lamp, Lilith slid her hand to the heart-half nestled in the hollow there and thought about their explosive argument before her sister had disappeared.

“Hang on, Hannah. I haven’t abandoned you this time.”

oOo

LILITH HAD BARELY started work that evening when she felt a hot breath trail along the back of her neck. Shivering, she flipped around to find a tall, lanky man with a pockmarked face grinning down at her. He was wearing tight black leather pants and a black silk shirt. A thick gold chain hung from his scrawny neck.

“Can I get you a drink?”

He laughed. “I’m not a customer, honey. Rudy Barnes, the club’s deejay.”

His pale blue eyes gleamed strangely as he stared down at her. She imagined him licking his chops.

“Waitress,” she said. “Lilith.”

“How about we get together after the club closes? I can show you the ropes around here.”

Lilith had the definite impression that ropes weren’t all he wanted to show her.

“I’m good,” she said, keeping it light, “but thanks.”

“You change your mind, you know where to find me.”

He pointed to the booth and backed off toward it, giving her a wink like he thought he was hot stuff.

“Stay away from that one,” a redheaded waitress named Allie said.

“Bad news?”

“Pervert.”

“You’ve had personal experience?” Lilith asked.

“Not me. He’s not into redheads. But I’ve heard the tales from a couple other girls.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

“No problem.” Allie picked up her drinks and headed for a table.

Gazing around the room, Lilith saw a few faces she already recognized — regulars, she supposed — but no Michael. So why did she feel disappointed? He unnerved her, so she should be glad he wasn’t there.

Gabe wasn’t around, either, which made her wonder if he was off the case. But halfway through the night, he was at his usual place at the bar.

She was about to check in with him when the dancer named Irene stopped her and handed her a folded piece of paper.

“From an admirer.”

“Thanks. I think,” she murmured.

Lilith quickly opened and scanned the note. I request the pleasure of your company at my table for a drink.

“Paul Ensdorf?” She gave the other dancer a questioning look.

 The blonde pointed to a nearby table whose occupant avidly watched for Lilith’s reaction. She remembered the first time she’d been at the club, he’d tripped a stripper and then had put his hands all over her to help her up.

“Um, I’m supposed to be selling drinks.”

“Get him to buy a bottle of champagne, and Sal won’t care what you do with him. The idea is to bring in money, honey.”

Lilith grabbed the martinis Joe pushed at her. She served the drinks, then, taking a deep breath, she headed for her new admirer.

Already standing, Paul Ensdorf was a bit shorter than she was in her heels. Not that it seemed to bother him. He was all boyish smiles to go with the sandy hair, a lock of which fell onto his forehead. And, like a true gentleman, he held out a chair for her and said, “I’m delighted you could join me.”

Lilith remained standing. “I can only stay for a moment. My job is to serve drinks.”

He sat. “What if I bought a bottle of champagne?”

“Well, if you’re planning on buying a bottle, the least I can do is share a toast.”

“Then a bottle it is.”

Nodding, she headed back to the bar, noting that Michael had finally shown up. His smile made her stomach tighten. She steeled herself against the attraction. She needed to focus on one thing only. Figuring out who had her sister.

So when Michael started talking to one of the dancers, reached in a pocket and handed her what looked like a business card, why did that bother her?

By the time she got to the bar, Joe was already setting out a bottle of champagne and two glasses.

“Uh, how did you know?” she asked.

He shrugged. “It’s for Ensdorf.”

“So he’s here a lot?”

Joe laughed. “Nearly every night his sister Melinda works.”

He indicated the dark-haired dancer on stage, nude but for a g-string, thigh high stockings, elbow-length gloves and a tattoo of big red lips in the middle of her right butt cheek. Her brother was fixated on her, his expression tight. Lilith watched Melinda walk right over to Paul and shake her naked breasts in his face. Then, seeming satisfied that he was near apoplectic, Melinda strutted away from him as her music segued to that of the next dancer.

When Lilith got back to the table, Paul was still flushed. He pulled out two hundred dollar bills to pay her and refused to take change. Then he insisted she sit with him for that toast.

“I want to get to know you better, Lilith.”

“I told you I can only stay for a few minutes.”

“Over tea,” he continued. “High tea is so civilized, don’t you think?” Staring at her cleavage, he leaned forward and slipped a hand over hers. His palm was sweaty, making her skin crawl. “And I can tell you are the kind of girl who appreciates class.”

Was he for real? Lilith laughed as she removed her hand and fussed with the vest, and inadvertently, the heart-half. “What? I have ‘class’ written across my forehead?”

Paul’s gaze was caught by the movement, and then he stared up into her face as if judging her. A cunning expression quickly flickered across his features.

“I want to take you to nice places.” He spoke as if her going out with him was a done deal. “We can start with The Plaza, say tomorrow afternoon.”

“You want to go to a hotel? For tea?”

He suddenly seemed off a beat, not quite the nice boy-next-door. “And finger sandwiches. I like the watercress and cucumber, don’t you?”

He licked his lips, and she swore he giggled. Both of which gave her the creeps.

Whatever she’d been expecting, it hadn’t been this. Anxious to get away from him, she sought an excuse.

But before she could find one, he said, “Anna was nice, too. You remind me of her.”

The reference to her sister grabbed Lilith’s full attention. Her smile faded. She was no longer amused. Too thrown to stay at the creep’s table, she needed to process this.

What if he was the one?

She rose and looked for an escape. “A customer is waving me over.”

“Meet me in the lobby of The Plaza a little before four. And wear something conservative.”

Lilith walked off, muttering to herself. “High tea at The Plaza. Either this guy’s nuts, or… this guy’s nuts.”

But she couldn’t forget about the doubt he’d put into her, couldn’t forget the comment about Anna. Had it been deliberate? Or had he just been babbling? She might never know. Why, oh why hadn’t she stayed put? This was the first lead she’d gotten, and she’d blown it. She could take care of herself, so why had the little creep gotten to her?

When she pulled herself together, Lilith vowed, she would try to find out whether Paul Ensdorf was merely weird… or capable of murder.

Somehow she got through the next couple of hours. All the while, she was aware of Michael watching her work. Eventually she got used to it and simply ignored him.

She couldn’t help but wonder if one of the dancers knew something about the predator at the club. Did they all have the same attitude as Hannah? Did they all crave power over the men who lusted for them? It didn’t seem so. As far as she could determine, Mariko was all about the money. To Caresse it was just a job. Melinda seemed to be trying to prove something to her brother. And the big surprise was Irene, who apparently saw stripping as an artistic challenge.

When the last dance of the night was over, all the women gathered backstage in various states of undress. Several had tattoos, but one dancer had more ink than virgin skin. Unable to fathom why she’d want to look like a freak, why men would be attracted to tats on a near-naked woman, Lilith slipped out of her waitress uniform and into Hannah’s dress as quickly as possible. Still uncomfortable with the reality of these women’s lives, she dressed with her back to them.

Why did they do this? They made enough money to get out and find a better life, so why didn’t they?

Part of the answer was obvious. The place reeked of marijuana, and one of the dressing tables had some leftover powder. Did they all waste their money on drugs? Did Hannah?

Removing her makeup looking in the room-length mirror, Irene asked, “So what did Paulie want, Lilith?”

“Uh-oh, he didn’t waste any time, did he?” chirped Mariko.

“Does he always hit on the new servers?” Lilith asked, hoping she sounded casual.

“Only the really tall ones.”

“Tall ones with dark hair,” Irene amended, patting her own blond curls. “Dancers, too.”

“He isn’t the only guy who likes tall brunettes.” Mariko glanced pointedly at Caresse.

She and Irene laughed as if sharing a joke. Lilith didn’t get it. Were they intimating Caresse was gay… or something else? Only guy? A transvestite? Caresse glared at them and didn’t crack so much as a smile.

“There’s something really weird about the little geek,” Caresse told Lilith.

“I know what you mean,” Lilith said.

She stood in front of the mirror, playing at fussing with her hair so she wouldn’t have to leave just yet. These women might all be acquainted with the murderer. If so, she had to know what they did.

Mariko snorted. “Caresse don’t have nothing good to say about men in this joint.”

The black dancer gave the smaller woman a threatening look that made her back off. To Lilith, she said, “You think real good before you socialize with anyone you meet here.”

“Miz Paranoia.” This from Irene.

“I got reason to be paranoid. We all got good reasons, huh? Three of ’em.”

“Two. Only two are dead!” Lilith insisted.

The room went quiet, each of the women suddenly concentrating on getting out of there.

“Do any of you have reason to suspect one of the customers?” Lilith asked. “Or how about one of the employees? What about that Rudy?” She hadn’t forgotten him. Allie said he didn’t like redheads. “Is he into blondes or women with dark hair?”

“He’s not into me, thankfully,” Irene said.

If anyone knew anything more than that, she wasn’t talking.

Frustrated by the silence, Lilith said, “We need to watch each other’s backs.”

All that did was to chase the dancers away, leaving behind the smell of fear. The only one left was Caresse.

“If one of them knew, she wouldn’t talk, Lilith. She would be afraid of being the killer’s next target.”

“He’s not done with Hannah yet. Not according to the police.”

“You mean Anna.”

Lilith nearly choked on her gaffe. “That’s what I said — Anna,” she lied.

“Uh-huh.”

Caresse jerked open a big leather shoulder bag and threw in her makeup kit. Lilith caught a glimpse of a handgun before the flap descended to hide the weapon once more. She guessed Caresse had good enough cause for arming herself — who wouldn’t want protection under the circumstances?

Lilith would rather depend on her learned street survival skills than a weapon that could be turned against her.

oOo

Chapter 10

LILITH SLEPT most of the next day and didn’t roll out of bed until midway through the afternoon. She wasn’t used to waitressing or being on her feet wearing heels for hours. Today would be even busier. She had a class before work and before that an even more important mission.

Normally, Lilith didn’t pick up Carmen, rather met the girl at the gym, but today she made an exception. Carmen’s future was at stake.

The Vargases lived in a big apartment complex in one of the streets in Uptown that hadn’t yet been gentrified. The building was surrounded by scrubby grass and had one sad-looking tree in the courtyard. Lilith entered the litter-strewn hallway and was buzzed up to the third-floor apartment.

How twelve people lived in a single city apartment, even a big one, was something she couldn’t fathom.

Carmen met Lilith at the front door. “I told Mama you wanted to talk to her. I think she’s not too happy.”

The teen escorted Lilith into the living area, whose floor was strewn with toys and three little kids.

Balancing a baby on her hip, Mrs. Vargas awaited her with a sour expression. “What can I do for you, Miss Mitchell?”

“I was hoping to talk to you about Carmen’s future. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

The woman nodded and indicated she should sit. Carmen took the baby from her mother, then rounded up her little brothers and sisters and escorted them out of the room.

“Your daughter has a lot of responsibility for one so young,” Lilith said.

“As did I. By the time I was eighteen, I already had her and was pregnant with her brother.”

Which made Mrs. Vargas thirty-five with nine children to care for. She looked far older. Fine lines already radiated from the corners of her eyes and around her mouth. Her hair was already streaked with gray.

“Carmen wants something different for herself.” Lilith tried to phrase this carefully, so as not to hurt the woman’s feelings. “What do you really want for her?”

“I am a good mother!”

“Of course you are, Mrs. Vargas. And I know things are difficult for you and your family. But if Carmen were able to finish high school and go on, things could be very different for her. And for your other children.”

“You don’t understand. People here don’t have choices like you.”

“Like me? If anyone understands being desperate for a different life than she was dealt, I do, Mrs. Vargas. At least your children are loved and protected. I had to escape my old life, and I did so by going to school.”

The woman’s expression changed at the revelation, and Lilith sensed a tentative connection.

“You think this is possible for my Carmen?”

“She’s a very smart girl. She wants to go to college. I’m sure she can get a scholarship. At least she could go to one of the city colleges. I know it’s a sacrifice for you, but think of the future. If Carmen could get an education, she could get a really good job. And she wants to help her brothers and sisters do the same.”

“They’re not like her. Not ambitious.”

“And they never will be if you don’t give Carmen the chance to set the example. Don’t take away her dreams. Just think about it, please.”

An excruciating few seconds passed before Mrs. Vargas nodded. “I want my children to have more than this,” she said, looking around at the tired furniture in the too-crowded apartment. “I’ll talk to my husband.”

Lilith hadn’t realized how tense she’d been until the woman agreed. Carmen had come to mean a lot to her. She’d been trying to do for the girl she mentored what she hadn’t been able to do for her own sister.

They were barely out the door and into the courtyard before a cautious Carmen asked, “So what did Mama say?”

“She promised to speak to your father.”

“Yes!” Carmen hugged Lilith and danced around her. “I knew you could do it!”

“Nothing is settled.”

“But it will be.” Carmen threw her arms around Lilith’s neck and nearly strangled her. “You’re the best!.”

Her euphoria lasted all the way to the gym.

It was only when they were changing clothing in the locker room that Lilith’s mood darkened. Another early morning dream of her sister’s murder had haunted her on and off all day, and now the memory returned.

By the time she got to the mat, she was worrying again about what might have happened to Hannah. As she warmed up with Elena as her partner, she was wondering if Hannah could have gotten free of her kidnapper if she’d known how to fight back. And as Lilith fought Jack, he became the nameless padded man in her mind.

Then became something more sinister.

The man who had taken her sister…

A killer…

Pumped, she let loose with a viciousness she’d only dreamt about all those years when dealing with her brutal stepfather. This was for real. She snap-kicked his kneecap and followed with a double strike to his nose and throat.

He went down.

Blind with fury, she sat and kicked him in the head with her heel… kicked again… and again… and again…

…until voices around the mat finally got to her.

“Lilith, please!” the instructor pleaded. “Stop!”

Lilith jerked to an uneasy stop.

The man who’d volunteered to be a punching bag scooted away from her. And all around the mat, the women were staring at her, their expressions shocked.

Abruptly, Lilith came out of the zone.

Horrified at her own actions, she rose and offered Jack her hand. “So sorry,  Jack, I don’t know what got into me,” she lied.

Jack refused her help and got up himself, removed his head padding and threw it to the mat. Giving her a disgusted glare, he turned his back on her and strode off toward the men’s locker room.

All eyes were glued to Lilith. She closed herself off from the stares. Seconds later, she was being escorted to the locker room, Elena holding one arm, Carmen the other.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Elena whispered.

But Carmen seemed pumped rather than disturbed. “Nobody better mess with you!”

A stricken Lilith looked at Elena, but her friend had nothing to say, so Lilith quickly showered and dressed.

Surely Elena understood her fear and frustration for Hannah. Lilith had spent more than half her lifetime under the thumb of a man who made her fear him, and just when she thought she had the fear conquered, it came rushing back to haunt her. She knew how to fight — she’d just proved that. The problem was calling up the will at the right time.

On the person who deserved it.

“Are you going to be all right?” Elena finally asked when they were ready to leave.

“I don’t know, Elena. I’m trying.”

But she didn’t feel all right. Blind rage had given her focused strength, but now that her adrenaline had plummeted, she was uncertain not only of herself but of her decision to act as a lure for whoever had Hannah.

She couldn’t shake the doubt. It followed her into Club Paradise. Storing her emotions to some far corner of her mind, she changed into her uniform and entered the lounge. She didn’t get far.

Halfway to the bar, a balding customer sitting alone at a table grabbed her by the wrist. He whirled her into his lap against his paunch and wrapped his beefy arms around her, saying, “Honey, I got something for you.”

The confidence she’d had an hour ago was gone. Her pulse rushing, she gasped, “Let go of me!” To her horror, Lilith suddenly felt weak, like in the old days with her stepfather. She couldn’t find the strength to push herself away from the repulsive man.

“Oh, now don’t be like that.” He pulled her closer, his whiskey-breath nearly choking her as he said, “I have plenty of money,” right in her face. “You’re just my type.”

“You’re not mine.” Panicked, she struggled against him, her hands ineffectively pushing at his chest. His arms around her were like steel. Forgetting everything she knew about defending herself, Lilith went light-headed.

Before she could pull herself together, she heard a firm “Let go of the lady” and glanced back to see Michael standing over them.

The customer tightened his grip. “Who the hell are you?”

Michael grabbed the man by the throat and jerked the man’s head back. His expression grim, he glared down into the man’s beady brown eyes threateningly. “I said let go.”

The arms binding her immediately loosened.

Her heart thumping wildly, Lilith jumped to her feet, and Michael released the man even as Sal rushed up to them followed by a bouncer.

“What the hell’s going on here?” Sal demanded.

“I was doing his job.” Michael indicated the bouncer.

“Whatsamatter, Sal?” the customer whined. “Your girls too good for the regulars now?”

Lilith recovered her breath. “I am not one of Sal’s girls. I serve drinks. Period.”

With a look of gratitude and a mouthed thank you for Michael, Lilith stalked off, but Sal caught up to her, grabbed her by the arm and stopped her. “Hey, Tommy’s a good customer.”

Her anger restoring her confidence, Lilith pulled her arm from his grasp. “That doesn’t mean he gets to handle my merchandise. And neither do you.”

“Tommy can afford to handle anything he wants, know what I mean? And you oughta be nicer to the man who pays your salary.”

Lilith controlled her mouth. She couldn’t lose this job. Not now. Not until she knew Hannah was safe. But afterward…

She gritted her teeth and raced away from Sal, not to the bar, but back to the dressing room, where she threw herself into a chair before the mirror. Angry with herself for caving to fear the first time she’d had to face it in the club, she said, “I can do this. I CAN DO THIS!”

Caresse sauntered in and checked her own makeup case. When she couldn’t find what she wanted, she went through Mariko’s case, seemed to be examining it thoroughly before borrowing a blush.

As she swiped some color across her dusky cheeks, she said, “Had a little trouble, huh?”

“I freaked out because the customer surprised me is all.”

“Uh-huh. I didn’t think you’d worked a joint like this before.”

“I’m that transparent?”

Putting down the makeup, Caresse appeared serious. “You got options, you know. Go back to whatever it was you were doing before you get immune.”

The dancer seemed to be the most likely person to care about her sister. “That girl who disappeared… Anna… was she immune?”

Caresse stared at her via the mirror. “She was a lot like you, honey. Tough on the outside, but on the inside, well, she just tried not to show it.”

“Sounds like you really knew her.”

The dancer shrugged. “As well as anyone around here knows anyone, I guess. Gotta go. I’m on next.”

After Caresse left, Lilith took a big breath and regrouped. She was going to have to play nice with the customers just like Hannah had, or she wouldn’t tempt the kidnapper-killer to come for her. Straightening her hair and putting on another coat of lipstick, she readied herself for another try at the big room. On the way out, she passed Mariko, who had just come off stage. The other dancer didn’t say anything, merely gave her a look that told Lilith that Mariko didn’t think she would last.

But Mariko didn’t know her.

No matter that she’d had a setback; Lilith wasn’t the teenager who’d had to escape her home to survive.

Nothing would drive her from the club, not until she found her sister.

oOo

Chapter 11

THE END OF HER SHIFT couldn’t come quickly enough for Lilith. There were no further incidents, and tonight she easily agreed to meet Paul Ensdorf for that high tea at The Plaza he was so hot on. If he’d had anything to do with Hannah’s disappearance, she would find out, Lilith vowed. She wouldn’t allow herself another weak moment.

Until a dark figure stepped out of the shadows on her way to the bus stop. Her knees went wonky and her stomach jumped, but she settled down when she realized Michael had been waiting for her.

“Is that like one of your favorite things to do?” she asked. “Scare a girl?”

“I told you I’d check in with you tonight.”

“You already did that earlier.” He’d come to her rescue, or who knew what that creep of a customer would have done. “I never got to thank you properly.”

“Not necessary. Unless you want to rethink my offer, of course.” He added, “To talk to me.”

Part of Lilith really wanted to go home and crash. But could she let this opportunity slip by? Michael had to have known something about her sister and she didn’t think he would be open about it inside the club.

“Come on, change your mind about coming to my place,” he said. “I’m only after your mind. At least tonight. Scout’s honor.”

“I never did trust Boy Scouts.” But his smile disarmed her.

“Then don’t trust me. C’mon, my ride is over there.” He pointed across the street.

To Lilith’s surprise, Michael didn’t drive some fast, flashy sports car. “An SUV? I wouldn’t have guessed.”

“Makes it easier to haul video equipment.”

As she slid into the passenger seat, Lilith eyed the cases in the back. “Aren’t you afraid someone will break into your vehicle to get at all that?”

“Maybe I have a relaxed worldview of my fellow man. Or maybe it’s because the rear windows are tinted, and you can’t see what’s in back from the outside.

“This video thing,” she said as he pulled away from the curb. “Is it a hobby?”

“It pays the bills. I shoot documentaries usually. I’ve been doing some freelance production while working on Skin.”

“Skin?”

“The name of the documentary. You thought I was kidding about wanting you to talk on camera?”

“So this is a personal project?” When he didn’t answer right away, Lilith studied him as best she could with only passing street light revealing his tight expression. “We all have things we don’t want to talk about, I guess.” She certainly didn’t want to tell him about Hannah.

Not knowing what to expect from his place, she was only a little surprised when they pulled up in front of an old warehouse at the edge of a semi-gentrified neighborhood. The building across from the raised Metro tracks was a conversion from factory to timber loft. They took an elevator up to the penthouse that served Michael both as living quarters and workplace.

As big as her whole apartment, the main room had exposed brick walls, heating ducts near the thirteen-foot ceiling and refurbished plank floors. The kitchen at one end had high end counters and appliances and a long island. Black leather couches and chairs in the middle were sandwiched between a fireplace with a large LCD television and doors to an outside deck. And on the far side of the main room, Michael had set up an open mini-studio with professional lights overhead on some kind of grid. A rack to one side held what looked like recording equipment. A camera mounted on a tripod sat near two stools — one in front of the camera, the other next to it.

Lilith took it all in as she set her shoulder bag on the kitchen island and wandered around, her movement feeding her nerves. “Wow, you live with your work.”

“You think Sal would let me do this at the club?”

“Probably not.”

“No probably about it. That’s not all the equipment. The second bedroom is a combo office and editing suite.”

Lilith was aware of everything Michael did. He sauntered over to the camera. Uncapped the lens. Looked through the viewfinder and made adjustments. She glanced around, saw a statuette on his fireplace mantel. A plaque, too. She moved close enough to read the inscriptions. Awards for his documentaries. He really was legit.

“So what is it you want me to talk about?” she asked, stopping at the stool in front of the camera.

“Whatever makes you comfortable.”

“Nothing about this makes me comfortable.” Especially since she had her own purpose. How could she get information about Hannah and who he’d seen sniffing around her out of him? She told herself that was the only reason she’d agreed to come home with him. “I think you need to be more specific.”

“All right. Do you like working at the cub?”

She noticed that a red light on the camera was lit. Michael slid onto his stool, ignoring the equipment, focusing on her. His face in shadow, he was there but anonymous.

“I hate that club.”

“Then, why?”

Unable to focus, Lilith circled her stool, trying to figure out how to get him to talk, trying to figure out Hannah.

“Sometimes a kid gets in a bad situation and can’t find any way out.”

“What about her family?” he asked.

“They’re the problem. First she’s abused. Then ignored.” She could picture Hannah, the real Hannah, the last time she’d seen her, right before going off to college. “And finally abandoned.”

As much as she’d denied doing so, guilt choked her.

“So she has no choice?” Michael asked.

Lilith tried not to feel that familiar agitation that was making her heart beat faster, but the past always did that to her. “If she doesn’t have anyone to help and no education or training, what can she do but use what God gave her to make a living?”

Lilith continued prowling. Thinking. Trying to figure things out. Trying to understand why Hannah did what she did.

“How do you feel about that?” Michael asked.

“It sucks. It makes a woman feel powerless.”

“You mean it makes you feel powerless.”

She suddenly stopped. “We weren’t talking about me.” Though Hannah had maintained that her life gave her power.

“Weren’t we? Then who, Lilith?”

“The dancers all have their sad stories.” A great intro. “Like the one who just disappeared from the club. Anna Youngheart.”

“You knew her.”

“Anna? No, not really.”

“When you came back to the club the second time, you were looking for Anna.”

But Lilith didn’t know that woman. She knew Hannah, the girl hidden deep inside the stripper’s body. At least she thought she did.

“Maybe I was simply fascinated with someone who looked like me. What about you?” she asked. “You’re at the club every night, so it seems. Why?”

“I told you I’m making a documentary.” He cleared his throat. “I thought I was supposed to be asking the questions.”

She ignored the protest. “But why a gentlemen’s club? What’s your stake?”

Lilith could feel Michael’s sudden unease. He didn’t want to open himself up any more than she did.

So it surprised her when he said, “A few years back, I got kind of a shock. I learned my birth mother was a stripper. The reason she gave me up, so I would have a better life. As for herself — she’s never tried anything else.”

“And you can’t understand how she can do it.” Lilith could relate to that. It was how she felt when thinking about her sister.

“Exactly,” he said.

He was trying to keep control, but she didn’t miss the emotion in his voice. They had more in common than she could have imagined. It made her feel closer to him. More open. Part of her wanted to tell him everything. No one but Elena knew what she had gone through in trying to find her sister. Surely if she probed Michael further about Hannah — or Anna as he knew her — he would be open to talking. Hopefully something to give her a clue about the bastard who had her sister.

“So if you spend most nights at the club, how could you not know Anna?” she asked.

“I don’t get involved with my subjects.”

“But you see what they do, how they act around men, who they want to be with… or don’t.”

“I don’t make judgments,” Michael said. “I just observe.”

“What did you observe about her?” she pressed him. “You watch everything that goes on around you,” she said. “I can’t believe you never noticed what she did.”

“I didn’t say that. I said I didn’t really know her.”

“But you know things about her. Like the men she fraternized with.”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“How would you put it?”

Michael didn’t answer for a heartbeat, then said, “She was looking for what she could get from them.”

Lilith’s stomach clenched, and she wanted to yell at him that he was wrong. Only she knew he wasn’t. “Like who?”

“That guy whose sister is a stripper, for one.”

“Paul Ensdorf?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s the guy’s name.”

“Who else?”

“Some guy who sits at the bar every night,” he said. “Dark hair. Muscular.”

That sounded like Gabe. Why would Hannah have spent time with him? He was there on the job. She couldn’t think of any other guy who fit the description.

“Do you have a name?” she asked.

“Why do you want to know all this?”

“It’s kind of scary knowing someone who kind of looks like me is in the hands of a killer who keeps going for the same type.”

“Anna didn’t just look like you,” Michael told her. “She could be you when you were a little younger.”

Lilith wasn’t going to let him go there. “Anyone else?”

“Not that I remember, but there was someone always after her. That disk jockey who runs the music.”

“Rudy?”

“Don’t know his name. Tall, skinny, geeky. Has an attitude.”

“Rudy.” She wondered if Pucinski considered Rudy Barnes a suspect.

“Who is doing this interview?” Michael asked.

“I prefer having a conversation. You tell me something interesting, then I tell you.”

“I’ve told you a lot already.”

“What about you?” she asked, certain he was holding something back. “Anna never spent any time with you?”

“You think I’m a suspect?”

“I don’t know. Should I?

“Anna liked to have the upper hand, so she hung out a lot with men she could control. She usually stayed away from the others, including me.”

And Gabe. No way would Hannah have been able to control the cop.

“Your turn.” Michael turned the interview back to her. “Why did you come to the club looking for her?”

“Who said I did?”

“Short memory. You did. Okay, then, why did you take the job you so obviously hate?”

“Jobs are scarce in this economy.”

“Bullshit. I thought we were having a conversation. That goes two ways. I told you something you wanted to know. More than something.”

“Okay. I saw the ad for Club Paradise in the paper. I saw Anna and I thought that could have been me.”

“Could have been?”

She stared hard at Michael’s shadowed face. Started wondering why she was there talking to him at all. Her pulse was racing, and her chest was tight. She could hardly breathe. When it came down to it, she wasn’t ready to open a vein. Not with a man who was little more than a stranger. Not even if he told her about his birth mother. He’d never actually known the woman. He hadn’t grown up with her by his side. He’d had no reason to be shocked and frantic at her life choices. She hadn’t been taken by some crazy killer who liked to play with his victims before he ended their lives.

Realizing she’d made a mistake by going home with Michael — she hadn’t learned anything substantive here — she rose from the stool and headed for the island and her bag, but he stepped in front of her.

“Don’t go, please. You’re upset. I didn’t mean to upset you like this.”

“I’m done talking, so I have no reason to stay.”

“Liar,” he said softly, his face blurring as it drew closer to hers.

His breath laved her face, and her breath stuck in her throat. No denying the attraction. Just thinking about what could happen if she would let go made her breasts tighten and the flesh between her thighs go damp.

He inched his head closer, brushed her mouth so lightly with his that sensation made her pulse flutter and her knees go weak. She parted her lips and a choked sound passed through them as she pushed herself away from him. She bolted for the island and her shoulder bag.

“Hey, Lilith, wait a minute. Don’t go. We can just talk about something else.”

Lilith ignored him and threw open the door.

“At least let me drive you home.”

She heard him follow, but he didn’t try to stop her. Luckily, she knew exactly where she was, only a block and a half from the rapid transit.

The ride home to Hannah’s building was short.

And the station that late at night was creepy. A guy looking for a handout approached her, but the furious look she adopted made him back off. Different coming home on foot than it was driving a Jaguar. Maybe she would start taking Hannah’s car to work.

On the walk to Hannah’s building, she passed an old homeless woman sitting on the curb next to her bulging black plastic bag that probably contained everything she owned. The woman was rocking, eyes closed, humming to herself. Lilith hesitated. She didn’t know about shelters in the area, so she reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a fifty from her tip money.

“Hey,” she said, bending down to give the bill to the homeless woman.“Get yourself something to eat.

The old woman looked up and frowned. “You’re not the same one.” She took the money from Lilith.

“Same one?”

But the woman was back in her own world, humming to herself.

Lilith shrugged and moved toward the entry to Hannah’s place… then stopped. Wait a minute, Pucinski had said the only witness to Hannah’s kidnapping had been an old homeless woman.

She whipped around, but the street was empty.

oOo

WHY DIDN’T HE just kill her?

That was the burning question in Hannah’s mind.

As far as she could tell, this was the third day he’d kept her alive. Or was it the fourth? Living in the dark was timeless. Sunlight came through cracks between boards covering the windows. The only light she’d seen. Other than that, she’d been in the dark for however long she’d been here.

Wherever here was.

She didn’t know where she was or who had taken her. She didn’t know how much longer he would keep her alive. He’d dumped her in this cold, dank, dark room which she assumed was a basement. Cuffed to a narrow bed except for the few times he’d let her up to use the gross excuse for a toilet, she couldn’t free herself, couldn’t move around.

All she could do was await her fate.

How had this happened to her?

Why?

Had she pissed off some customer? Of course she had. The one who’d killed the waitress and the working girl.

Only, who was he?

Every time he came in here, he was wearing the billed cap and camouflage and sunglasses. Every time he came in here, he thought of some new small torture.

He hadn’t raped her. Yet. But she was sure it was coming.

He was playing with her, building his own anticipation. While calling her vile names and making all kinds of accusations that made no sense to her, he’d touched her all over. Rubbed her through her clothes, pulled at her nipples and dug into her through her panties.

Through it all, she’d lain there frozen, sending her mind to some other dark place. The way she used to when she was on the street and needed food. Lucky for him he hadn’t tried to get her to reciprocate. She would tear him apart with her nails or her mouth. He’d told her how he could do anything to her, and no one was coming to her rescue. He outlined the things he would like to do to her body and her mind until little by little, he shredded her confidence that she would somehow get out of this mess. He sent her plunging back to the hellhole of her childhood, when she’d first been witness to her stepfather’s brutality and then had more than a taste of it herself.

The two men had a lot in common. They both hated women. Or at least hated women having any kind of power or even confidence in themselves.

Things had been going so good for once. Not the money. She didn’t mean that. In truth the money meant little to her other than to make sure she never had to live on the street again.

Lilith meant something to her.

She’d moved to Chicago to find her older sister and then had turned gutless, hadn’t been able to do it lest she face rejection because of who she had become. Lilith had found her. Reconnecting had been every bit as difficult as she had feared. But Lilith had said she loved her anyway.

What was Lilith thinking now that she had disappeared?

Did Lilith believe she’d driven her little sister away? That she’d run once more?

Hannah’s eyes filled with tears, but she couldn’t even cry anymore.

No one even knew she’d been taken.

They wouldn’t know until she was dead.

oOo

Chapter 12

TEA AT THE PLAZA. With Paul Ensdorf. At least it was someplace public, Lilith thought.

Michael had said her sister gravitated to men she could control. Men like Paul, who thought they were in charge. She remembered Paul mentioning “Anna” as if he wanted to shake her. And he had.

Now she was going to shake him. Or shake information out of him. Hopefully she would do a better job than she had with Michael.

Michael.

Thinking about the almost kiss, she closed her eyes and for a moment wished she had let him. A man’s arms around her would feel good right now. There hadn’t been many times in her life when anyone had comforted her, but she somehow knew he would.

She jerked herself out of the soft mood. She had to think about Hannah. About how to find out if Paul was the one who had her.

What the heck was she going to wear?

She tore through Hannah’s closet, pulling out various outfits, all indicative of Hannah’s ‘on-the-edge’ lifestyle, checking them over, discarding them on the bed. Then she pulled out a dress that puzzled her. Modest, long and flowing, it didn’t go with the others.

Lilith held it up before her and checked herself over in the mirror. Should she wear it or not?

The apartment phone shrilled, making her jump and drop the dress. Elena would call her cell. Maybe it was Pucinski. She rushed to answer the bedside unit.

“Hello?”

No answer. Her fingers gripped the receiver tighter.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

Heavy breathing was her only answer. One she didn’t like.

Her stomach tightening, she crashed the receiver into its cradle and waited for it to ring again. She tried to convince herself it had been a wrong number. Tried but didn’t really believe it.

Her gut told her it had been the kidnapper. If she could get the phone number she could give it to Pucinski to run.

She picked up the phone and looked for the caller ID — PRIVATE CALLER.

“Oh, hell.”

This time, she threw the phone across the room.

Trying to forget about the call so she could concentrate on her plan for the afternoon, she grabbed a different dress from Hannah’s closet and got ready for her “date.”

oOo

PAUL’S PALMS WERE SWEATY as he waited for Lilith to show. They wouldn’t seat him until she arrived. He checked his watch. She was late. It was ten after four. He would have to teach her better.

When he looked over to the stairs, he froze in disbelief. That couldn’t be… but it was Lilith coming up from the foyer. She was wearing a low-cut red minidress a size too small. The tightness accented her lush curves. That and her wild hair and even wilder makeup had everyone’s attention. She looked like a cheap hooker.

All eyes followed her straight to him.

Flushing in embarrassment, wanting to sink through the carpeted floor, Paul forced a smile to his lips.

“Lilith, I didn’t expect you… dressed like this…”

Her lips curved, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Do you like it? I wore it just for you.”

Before he could give her a piece of his mind, the hostess rushed over to them, saying, “Ah, your companion is here. I can seat you now,” she said, raising her eyebrows when she got a good look at Lilith. “This way to your table.”

She led them to the farthest, darkest corner of the room, which was just fine with Paul. He hated that eyes were still on them. Made his skin crawl.

Lilith sprawled across one of the flowered couches, leaving him no room. He took a chair on the opposite side of the low table.

“Please bring us our tea, the faster the better.”

“Of course, Mr. Ensdorf.”

Lilith twirled a curl of hair around a bright red nail. “So they know you here, Paulie?”

“They know me at a lot of places.”

“But you’ve brought girls here before, right?”

He stared at her. “Of course I have.”

“Like that girl Anna who up and disappeared?”

Paul stared at her, tight-lipped, saying nothing.

Lilith smiled. “Well, you did say I reminded you of her.”

“Anna was a slut.”

He watched Lilith carefully for her reaction.

She studied her nails, and in a bored tone, asked, “Are you saying I’m a slut? Because if you are, Paulie, I wouldn’t like that. I wouldn’t like it at all.”

“You tell me. Are you a slut?”

Her gaze bored into him. “Would you like me better if I was?”

“I like women who have class. I thought you had that or I wouldn’t have invited you out.”

“Did you think Anna had class, too?”

Again he didn’t answer, merely stared pointedly at her. But if she felt any discomfort, she didn’t show it. And then the waitress and an assistant brought over their pots of tea and a stand with tiers of finger sandwiches, scones and little pastries.

Even as the tray was set before them, Lilith squealed loud enough to embarrass Paul and plucked a smoked salmon finger sandwich from the tray and stuffed it in her mouth. She smiled at him as she chewed. She was sitting with her legs crossed, her dress up to her hips, exposing her thighs. Paul couldn’t stop staring, couldn’t keep himself from wondering what those thighs would feel like wrapped around his waist.

But she was getting attention from others in the room.

Other men.

He didn’t like getting attention.

Heat rose along his neck, and imagining what those men would like to do to her, he had to spread his legs to relieve his incredible hard-on. “I told you to wear something conservative.”

“Don’t you think I look good in red, Paulie?”

“You’d look better in blue or pink. A pastel is more ladylike.”

She had the nerve to roll her eyes at him. “You want that?” She pointed to his scone.

He glanced around. People were staring. His appetite was gone. She grabbed the scone and slathered strawberry jam and cream on half.

“So, Paulie, what do you do? For a living.”

“Paul. Call me Paul. I work in a family business.”

She took a big bite, left a smear of cream along her upper lip. “What kind of business?”

“A funeral parlor.”

She nearly choked on the mouthful before she managed to swallow it. “You work with dead bodies?”

He could tell she was revolted. She wiped her mouth with a linen napkin and pulled back. Good to see he had some effect on her. Maybe that would straighten her out and get her to act like the lady he knew she could be.

“About Saturday,” he said. “I have dinner with my grandmother before taking her to evening service. Nana lives with me. I’ve told her all about you, how special you are. She wants you to visit with her.”

“Why wait until Saturday. I can come over tomorrow.”

Paul stared at her. “I said Saturday.” He didn’t like it when women tried to control him. Good thing she didn’t argue about it. “If things go well, that’s just a start. I want to do things for you, show you another kind of lifestyle.”

He wanted to do things to her that no other man had ever done. He wanted her pliant and grateful and panting for more.

Lilith gave him a haughty look. “You’re not responsible for the way I live.”

Why was she being so contrary? Couldn’t she give up the act, show him her real self like he would do when he got her alone?

“The club isn’t you, Lilith. You’ve got class. You just need a chance to show it. I’ve been waiting for someone exactly like you for a long time.”

Quiet for a few seconds, she finally said, “I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.”

“Only the really good ones.”

oOo

SO SHE HADN’T gotten anything telling out of Paul, Lilith thought, other than that invitation to meet his grandmother on Saturday. If Hannah wasn’t found by then, as much as she dreaded it, Lilith would keep the date. Hopefully Hannah would be rescued before that…or at least alive, if still captive. If the police had any leads, she hadn’t heard about it. Not from Gabe. Not from Pucinski.

The reason she found herself heading straight for the Area Office once she got rid of the little creep.

A half hour later, she was pacing in front of Detective Pucinski’s desk, frustrated at the lack of progress in the case. “I thought you were bringing in the Feds.”

“They gave me a profile — the type of guy to look for — and a Special Agent is a member of the Task Force. So far, all I got are leads on a couple of the regulars from the club.” He indicated several files in front of him.

“I’d like to see exactly what it is you have.”

She reached for the folders, but Pucinski placed both hands on top of them to stop her. “Look, Miss Mitchell, I’ll keep you informed if I have anything substantial to share, if you promise to do the same. Actually, let me know about anything you learn, no matter how inconsequential it seems. You never know what’s significant. One small observation can turn the case on a dime.” He handed her his card. “In case you lost it, my cell number. You find out anything — and I mean any little thing — contact me directly.”

“How is it you think I can get information on my sister’s disappearance when you can’t.”

Pucinski snorted. “I know what you’ve been up to, Miss Mitchell. Working at that club.”

So Gabe had told him. She sighed. “Have you checked out the club employees?” she asked. “The killer might not be a customer.”

“You have someone in mind?”

“His name is Rudy Barnes. I heard he was all over Hannah.”

“Was he all over you?”

“He tried. The question is, was he all over the first two victims?”

“Something I’ll have to find out. In the meantime, Lilith, you should understand you’re taking a big chance on blowing it all. If you don’t get yourself killed, you’re gonna screw up my case.”

Lilith glared at him. He held her gaze. When she couldn’t make him back down, she spun on her heel and stalked out of his office, jostling Gabe O’Malley’s shoulder before heading for the exit.

She glanced back once to see the undercover detective staring after her, his expression speculative.

oOo

Chapter 13

LILITH RAN A FEW ERRANDS and still got to the club before her shift started and so went straight to the bar to look for Michael. Spotting Gabe instead, she joined him.

“Pucinski wouldn’t tell me anything about Hannah’s case,” she said. “What about you? Will you talk?”

“Sit.” He offered her his stool and spoke softly against the harsh hip-hop music one of the younger dancers preferred. “How about you?” he asked, turning the tables on her. “Learn anything you should share with me?”

“Nothing definitive. I even went to high tea with Paul Ensdorf. I seem to be the little creep’s type.”

“You’d be any man’s type.” His expression was as appreciative as he sounded.

“Yeah, well that doesn’t help me find someone who has a hard-on for women who look like my sister. Surely you know something.”

To Lilith’s frustration, Gabe said, “You sound frazzled. Let me buy you a drink. A real one.” He waved over the bartender.

“What can I get you?” Joe asked.

“Gin and tonic with lime.” One drink wouldn’t hurt. Hopefully, it would ease her nerves so she could do what she’d planned.

Joe set off to make her drink. She looked toward the back of the club again for Michael. Disappointed when she didn’t see him, she returned her attention to Gabe and caught him in an unguarded moment before he covered with a forced smile.

“Who died on you?” she asked.

“They don’t have to die. Sometimes they just leave you. My ex hated being married to a cop, at least one in the Violent Crimes Unit. The kids don’t have any say-so. Just another in a long list of disagreements.”

He reached into his pocket and found his wallet. He pulled out a picture: three kids and a woman whose long, dark hair was pulled into a ponytail, which accentuated her classic beauty.

“Great looking kids,” she said.

“You ever been married?” he asked.

“I’ve never even been in love.”

Even as she said it, Lilith thought about Michael. But of course she didn’t love him. There was a definite attraction. Maybe she was a little in lust with him. She kept thinking about that almost kiss.

Shaking away the thought, she said, “So you’re not going to tell me anything about the investigation?”

“Nothing to tell. Yet. Be careful, Lilith. This guy’s dangerous. Don’t provoke him.”

“I don’t know who him is.” But provoking him was exactly why she was doing what she was doing. If she could finger the killer, the cops could take care of him. And if he came after her, she could take care of herself. “If it’s Paul Ensdorf, I definitely can take him.”

“I’m sure you can, but I doubt that he’s the one. Too obvious.”

“Who would you choose to be a potential killer?” she asked.

“I don’t know yet, but–”

“But what?”

“I’ve seen you talking to that Wyndham guy. I hate to tell you this, but he’s one of our suspects.”

Lilith started, and her heart skipped a beat. “Michael is not some crazy creep. He’s here making a documentary about girls who work at places like this for a living.”

“Yeah. Maybe that’s what he’s doing.” Gabe shrugged. “He’s got some dangerous connections, Lilith. I’m telling you, Pucinski has a file on him. Be careful is all I’m saying.”

Even though Lilith didn’t for a second believe Michael was guilty of killing those women, of taking her sister, Gabe’s accusation made her wonder if Michael could be hiding something criminal in his background. Not only did she not want to believe it, Gabe had just made her too uncomfortable to continue the discussion.

“Hey, I’d better get to the dressing room and get ready for work.”

“I’ll be here, at least for part of the night.”

Lilith hurried toward the backstage door. About to rev up her efforts to attract the bastard who had a thing for women who looked like Hannah, she was fighting nerves. She wasn’t Hannah, and she hated what she was about to do, but she would do anything to save her sister, even come on to the men the way Hannah had.

So when she got dressed, she forwent using the usual modesty tape that helped keep her breasts covered. She doubled her eye makeup and chose a bright red lipstick with some ingredient that made her lips look bee-stung. Sprayed a little musk on the inside of her wrists and between her breasts. And when she walked out into the club, it was with a smile that touched every man in her path.

They had no clue that her knees were shaking or that her chest felt like an elephant sat on top of it.

Male eyes turned from the dancer to her.

And when she took an order, she forced herself to imitate the other women who worked here. She made it seem like the man placing it was the only man in the room.

“I like good service,” one guy told her in appreciation.

He held out a hundred dollar bill, but when she tried to take it, he didn’t let go.

“Where do you want me to put it?” he asked.

Her stomach spiraled with nerves. “Anywhere you want, honey.”

She kept her fake smile as he tucked the bill between her breasts, taking the opportunity to brush her flesh with the tips of his fingers. She fisted her own hands so she wouldn’t take those fingers and break them.

“There’s more where that came from,” he said.

“How much more?”

“Depends on what you’ll do for it.”

“Tsk-tsk-tsk!” She shook her finger at him as if he’d been a bad boy, winked and moved to the next customer, while all the while her stomach roiled.

Surely she was drawing enough attention to herself now to get noticed.

oOo

MICHAEL THOUGHT TO stay away from the club tonight, but in the end, he changed his mind. Lilith drew him back.

And so when he came in and saw her letting some creep put a bill between her breasts, he stopped cold.

He hated this. Hated Lilith letting men touch her like that.

It reminded him of his mother.

But Lilith wasn’t a stripper. She didn’t even belong here as a waitress.

One thing about his job, he was an expert researcher. And he’d spent half the day researching Lilith Mitchell. He knew she was a paralegal who worked for one of the top law firms in the city. He also knew why she was here, playing with fire, without her having to admit a thing. He knew, but, thinking he’d found the elusive narrative for his documentary, he wouldn’t tell her that he did.

He wanted her to open up to him.

He wanted to know how she felt about what she was doing… for someone else.

He wanted her.

She saw him sit at a table in back. He waved her over, but she ignored him. She kept up the act with the half-drunk men more than willing to pay her for a quick thrill.

How could she let them touch her like that?

She kept it up all night, going from man to man — avoiding him — until the club closed. She was the last waitress to leave the room.

Michael edged around to the rear of the club, and making sure no one saw him, slipped through the backstage door. Most of the dancers had already left. He waited off to the side for Lilith to come out of the dressing room. Only she didn’t.

Not hearing any more chatter, he wondered if the place was empty, if he’d missed her. He took his chances and opened the door. The lights were out except for where Lilith sat in front of the mirror. The only one in the room, she was removing her makeup. And she was wearing a red dress that left little to the imagination.

As if suddenly realizing she wasn’t alone, Lilith turned to face him. “Michael, what are you doing here?”

“Better question — what are you?”

“I just finished my shift; now I’m getting ready to leave.”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

She rose and gathered things from the counter and threw them in her bag. “You’re being obtuse.”

“All right, then here’s direct. Why the hell were you letting those men put their hands on you?”

“It’s my job.”

“If I remember correctly, last night you said you served drinks, which didn’t give them the right to manhandle you.”

“So I changed my mind. I made a fortune in tips tonight.”

Michael pulled out a hundred dollar bill. “Here’s another tip.”

Her breasts were practically spilling out of the front of the red dress. He slipped the bill down in the middle of her left breast and didn’t miss the fact that her nipple grew instantly hard.

A choking sound parted her lips. Luscious full lips that he’d barely tasted the night before. With one hand cupping the flesh of her breast, he snaked the other around her waist and pulled her into him. And then he kissed her. Not the light brush of lips on lips, but a deep exploration that involved open mouths and thrusting tongues. At least he thrust his into her wet warmth the way he wanted to thrust his aching flesh into her body.

Lilith moaned and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, scraped the back of his neck with her nails. The sensation pulled all the way down to his groin.

Mindless with desire, he tugged her nipple in the same rhythm his tongue flicked hers. He pressed her back against the counter and ground himself into her until she spread her thighs. She shifted, and he felt her hand on him, stroking his length through his jeans. If he didn’t stop right now, he was going to come right there.

Only he wasn’t going to be the one to call a halt to this.

“Hey, you two, take it outside!”

Lilith stiffened in his arms, and Michael stayed directly in front of her to protect her from the security guard’s view.

“Give us a minute, and we’ll be out of here,” Michael said.

“You got sixty seconds.”

And when he heard the guy step out of the room, Michael removed his hand, stepped back and cursed himself for pushing this. Too fast. Too soon.

Her expression odd, almost wounded, Lilith straightened her dress and grabbed her bag and refused to look at him.

“Come back to my place,” he said.

“You have to be kidding.”

“Or I can come to yours.”

She tried shoving by him, but Michael stepped in front of her. “We need to talk.”

“I have nothing to say.”

“I do, starting with you need to quit this place.”

Her eyes widened as she finally looked at him. “What?”

“You made yourself a target tonight.”

“I didn’t do anything the others girls don’t.”

“I don’t care what they do,” he said. “I care that what you did was dangerous.”

“I can handle it.”

“I don’t think you understand.”

“I can’t quit.”

“Why not?” He pushed to get her to admit the truth. “Why can’t you go back to your real life?”

“This is my real life. For now.”

With that, she shoved by him. Michael didn’t try to stop her, merely followed her out the back door and watched her get into a familiar Jaguar before zooming away.

oOo

LILITH WAS HALFWAY home before suspecting she was being followed.

Her thoughts had been wrapped up in Michael. In Gabe’s warning to be careful around him. In that hot kiss in the dressing room, a prelude to having sex with him if not for the interruption. She’d been so turned on that she would have done anything with him. So turned on that she couldn’t stop thinking about Michael after driving off.

Thoughts that nearly caused an accident, not with another car, but with a bike that shot out of nowhere in the middle of the night. She’d thrown on the brakes but had come inches from creaming the rider, who had given her the finger before riding off.

Lilith had been so shaken that she’d pulled over to the curb to regroup.

And had glanced in her rearview mirror to see another set of vehicle lights stop. The other driver pulled over, as well.

Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel and, carefully watching the other car’s lights in the rearview mirror, she started off again.

The other vehicle slid away from the curb and stayed just far enough behind her that she couldn’t make out any details other than it was a dark-colored passenger car. Probably black.

She wanted to believe in coincidences. Wanted to think the other driver would turn off at the next light.

The other vehicle continued right behind her.

Her stomach knotted at the idea of someone following her. She had to be sure. She turned down a side street. And then another. And then a third. The lights stayed some distance back, but they were still there when she looped around to the arterial street.

Close to Hannah’s place now, she didn’t know what to do. If this was the killer, she would lead him straight to it. Then again, if this was the killer, he already knew the address.

If only she’d added Pucinski’s number to her cell, she could call him, but she couldn’t stop now to dig out the card and punch in the number.

At the intersection ahead, the light was about to change, and there were cars waiting to move on both sides of the cross street. She gunned the accelerator and made a run through the intersection. Brakes screeched and horns blared at her, but when she glanced up into the mirror, she was relieved that the other vehicle hadn’t been able to get through. She sped the rest of the way back to Hannah’s place. The Jaguar’s tires screamed as she rounded the corner.

A minute later, she left the car at the curb and ran for the front door. Faster than dealing with the garage. She got inside and engaged the dead bolt. Through windows cut into the wooden panel, she could see lights from another vehicle slowly approaching.

Her hands were shaking when she pulled out her cell phone and Pucinski’s card. She somehow managed to punch in the detective’s number. One ring… two… and then…

“Pucinski!” He growled. “It’s nearly 4 a.m. This better be good.”

“It’s Lilith Mitchell. I’m at Hannah’s place. Someone followed me from the club.”

“You’re sure?”

“I tried to lose him. He’s out there now.” She could still see the car idling in front of the building…

“Make sure the doors and windows are locked. I’ll call it in to get a squad out there, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Lilith was already checking the locks before she turned off her cell. Checking out the windows. The lights sat out there, unmoving. Was the driver still inside the car? Or was he just outside looking for a way in to get her?

He was playing games with her, trying to break down her confidence and make her question her own capabilities. And he was doing a fine job on her. While she’d learned all the skills necessary to defend herself, she’d never had to use them. Now she wasn’t certain they would be enough.

The fear-filled seventeen-year-old girl who ran away to school and left behind her little sister was still inside her.

Lilith realized how truly afraid the killer had made her — a gut-deep, painful, churning, awful fear that made her chest tighten and put a lump in her throat.

What if her plan failed and Hannah died?

Waiting for Pucinski to show, Lilith faced some truths about herself.

She’d thought that by having a “normal” life, she could put her abuse behind her. That while she sympathized with the women in dangerous situations, she didn’t understand why they didn’t do whatever they must to get out. That she was angry with Hannah for putting herself in danger. And that she was angry with herself for doing what was easiest in the first place.

When her cell phone buzzed, she nearly dropped it. She checked the ID — Pucinski.

As she accepted the call, she saw flashing blue lights out the window. “Detective?” But the headlights that had followed her were nowhere to be seen. “The squad car is here but I think whoever followed me is gone.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes. In the meantime, I’ll tell the officers in the squad

to take a slow drive around the area, to look for anything suspicious. Did you see what the car looked like?

“Dark. Full-sized, I think. That’s all I can tell you.”

True to his word, Pucinski arrived minutes later, his young partner and two uniformed officers directly behind him. Lilith forced herself to just breathe, to relieve the tension in her chest.

“Check the place out,” Pucinski told the officers. “Make sure no one tried to get in.” He glared at Lilith and shook his head. “Time for you to get out of here. Go back to your own life. Take care of yourself.”

A tempting idea. Go back to where it was safe. To where it was easiest.

Only she’d made a vow not to do that again.

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m seeing this through. For my sister.”

“Yeah, figured you’d say that. You’re gonna put yourself out there until we find her body, or until he takes you.”

“That won’t happen. I can take care of myself.

“Bet your sister thought she could, too.”

The other officers came back in the room, led by Pucinski’s young partner.

“Nothing,” DeSalvo said. “He didn’t try to get in.”

Pucinski shook his head again. “We can’t even be sure it was him.” He frowned. “Anything else going on you didn’t tell me?”

“Just a heavy breather.”

“How many calls?”

“Just one, and it was here, on Hannah’s house phone, not my cell.”

“When?”

“About two this afternoon.”

He pulled out his notebook. “Write down the phone number here. I’ll see if I can get a number.”

“It said ‘private caller.’”

“Maybe I should assign you protection—”

“I don’t want protection.” She didn’t want to scare the killer away. She wanted him to reveal himself.

“—but I don’t have cause,” he finished. “The call could have been for your sister, and there’s no way we can know if the guy who followed you home tonight is the man who has her. Be careful, Miss Mitchell. And as much as I hate being woken up in the middle of the night, don’t hesitate to call me if you’re in trouble.”

oOo

DAWN WAS STILL an hour away when he returned to Club Paradise. The club was dark as were the nearby businesses. Not many cars on the street. No people. No witnesses.

To be sure, he stayed in the shadows and let his gaze roam the area for any movement, any sign that someone might see him.

Not that they would be able to describe him. He’d put on a jacket and pulled up the collar and had added a billed cap to shadow his face.

Black and white glossies of all the dancers and waitresses lined the entryway. He stared at the photo of Lilith Mitchell looking so much like Anna Youngheart. He’d already added Anna’s photo to his permanent collection. And undoubtedly within a matter of days, he would add Anna herself.

But fortune smiled on him. He had the opportunity to up the stakes. To do something he’d never before done.

Two-for-one.

Doing them both together would give him a new high.

How could he pass up that thrill?

Giving the area one last look to make sure he was alone, he pulled tools from his pocket. First he secured the suction cup directly in front of Lilith’s photo. And then he scored the glass. Using the suction cup, he pulled free a rectangle of glass and set it down at his feet.

The photo easily came free from the board.

“That’s it. Don’t get too confident, Lilith,” he said, stroking the V of her waitress costume, imagining he could feel the fullness and warmth of her breasts. He went instantly hard. “Soon I’ll have you right where I want you.”

In the meantime, he had an easy solution to take care of his pressing need.

oOo

Chapter 14

LILITH HOPED all would be forgiven at her Street Survival class the next day.

Day 5 since her sister was taken.

With nothing to go on, with only the club as a resource to learn anything, she had to find a way to keep her mind occupied, if only for a short while. A good work out would relieve some of the stress.

Women in loose or exercise clothing were gathering, stretching, waiting for class to begin. Some watched her with wary expressions, but others smiled and one even gave her a thumb’s-up.

The padded man’s back was turned to Lilith as he adjusted his protection.Jack hadn’t accepted her apology last time, and she couldn’t help wondering how he would feel about her being here today.

Elena gave her a welcoming hug. “I wish you’d move back into your own place, Valkyrie misses you.”

“That makes two of us. Thanks for taking care of her.”

“Come back to work, Lilith. To your own life.”

Lilith wished she could do exactly that, but her own wishes were unimportant in the scheme of things right now. “I need to be in control. I can’t let Hannah down again.”

“But you aren’t in control; that’s the point. Quit messing around with something that’s over your head.”

“I’m not quitting anything.”

“What’s over your head?” Carmen slid between them. “What are you two talking about?”

How long had the girl been there? How much of their conversation had she overheard?

“Elena’s just worried after what happened last time,” Lilith said softly. A small truth. She skipped the second part of the question and was relieved when Carmen didn’t pursue it.

“Oh,” the girl said. “Jack’s not here tonight. I think you scared him off.”

“So who is our volunteer?” Lilith asked.

The padded man turned toward them, face protection in his hand.

Lilith’s eyes widened when she saw who it was. Stepping away from Carmen and Elena, she spoke in a low tone. “Gabe, what are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see if you’re as good as you think you are.” He locked gazes with her. “I’m ready whenever you are.”

Her heart sped up a beat. She was no fool. This wasn’t any kind of coincidence. Gabe wanted to scare her off. Normally they worked out with a partner to warm up, then simulated attacks in the second half of the class. She glanced around to see the instructor watching them. Apparently Gabe had set up an exception with her. To teach her a lesson?

“All right,” she said. “Then let’s do it.”

Gabe donned his headgear, and Lilith held her palms out toward him as he stepped closer and started to circle her. Her mouth went dry, and her breath quickened. Her mind raced as she tried to figure out why he was really doing this. Concern? Or did he feel personally challenged somehow?

She sidestepped, keeping square with him.

He continued forward and tried to grab her, but Lilith let loose with a hand strike.

Gabe blocked with his arm and returned the same. One blow glanced off her shoulder hard, but she refused to cry out. She ducked the second.

Realizing Gabe was playing it for real, Lilith was in control of herself but pumped.

And so was the audience. She heard the excited whispers, as if they knew that this time, their volunteer wasn’t going to so easily let her get the upper hand.

Gabe grabbed Lilith. She tried snap-kicking his kneecap, but he avoided her foot and spun her off balance.

She flew to the ground. He was on her instantly.

The other women gasped.

“Stop!” Elena’s cry was joined by several other worried voices.

Gabe didn’t hear. Or he didn’t care to hear. He had Lilith down and got on top of her. She fought him as hard as she could, but she couldn’t budge him. He was too heavy. Lilith was getting the worst of the attack — Gabe was simulating a potential rape, and she couldn’t seem to do anything about it.

The instructor pushed her way to the mat. “The two of you can stop now. This has gone far enough.”

“No!” Lilith said. She might be frustrated, but she was determined to prove herself.

A sharp strike on the arm didn’t budge Gabe. He probably didn’t feel it through all that padding. She went for his head, but he ducked. She relaxed for a few seconds as if giving up, and then, truly desperate, used every ounce of strength in her body to send Gabe flying off her.

He sprawled back on the mat, and she used the heel of her foot to chop him in the face mask.

Audience response was loud and enthusiastic.

Flushed with victory, Lilith rose and offered Gabe a hand up.

To his credit, he took it. He removed the headgear, and she saw his smile before he quickly hid it.

“You don’t want to say it, do you?” she asked, feeling good about something for once. “That I can take care of myself.”

“Not bad.” And then he grinned. “But not good enough. I let you win so you wouldn’t be embarrassed.”

“No, you didn’t.”

Gabe raised an eyebrow in challenge. “You’re sure about that?”

Lilith’s smile faded. She didn’t know whether or not to believe him.

With a wink, he backed off and left the room, now alive with women chattering.

“That was awesome,” Carmen said. “You’re awesome.”

“Thanks. I needed to know I could do that if necessary.”

“Not just awesome here. You did it, Lilith. Poppi said I don’t have to drop out of school. You convinced Mama, and she convinced him.”

“That’s wonderful!” Lilith hugged Carmen.

A small victory, perhaps, but an important one. Carmen now had hope for her future. Something Lilith hadn’t been able to give to her own sister.

“Will you practice with me?” the girl asked.

Usually Lilith practiced with Elena, but her friend said, “Go ahead. I’ll get another partner.”

So Lilith watched Carmen carefully as the instructor led them through lunges, kicks and hand strikes. She was a fast learner. A half hour passed quickly, and while she was sweating, the teenager looked happier than she had in days. Then they were asked to change partners, and another teenager asked Carmen to practice with her.

Time sped by. All the while she went through her routine, Lilith wondered if Gabe had really given her the victory. When the class finally came to an end, the room cleared out fast. Lilith and Elena followed behind the others as they headed down the hall to the locker room.

“Carmen is a quick study,” Elena said.

“She’s not only smart, she’s determined. I just hope her parents see that and do whatever they have to so that she succeeds in getting through college.”

“She’ll find a way. She reminds me of you.”

Smiling, Lilith was about to say something when she had the oddest sensation that raised the hair on her arms. Feeling as if she was being watched, she glanced over her shoulder, and for a second thought she saw movement in the shadows under the stairwell.

She stopped dead in her tracks.

“Hey, come on, or there won’t be any hot water left.”

Though Lilith gave the stairwell an intent look, she didn’t see anything. Deciding her imagination was playing tricks on her, she nodded. “Right.” Then followed Elena into the locker room.

The showers were already running and the women not in the showers were in various states of undress. Lilith and Elena got to their lockers and started to strip.

“God, Elena, that felt good tonight. Like I finally do have some control, at least.”

“I’m glad things are better for you. Here you might be able to keep control. But at the club?” Elena shook her head. “I still think you should leave the investigation to the police.”

“This is my chance, Elena. I’ve learned the theory. I’ve trained. But I’ve never had the opportunity to prove myself before.”

“I thought this was about finding Hannah.”

Wrapping her towel around her, Lilith started. “It is. I mean…”

She swallowed and fell silent. Headed for the shower.

Elena followed. “I fear this is about you, Lilith. It’s too dangerous. You could be hurt. Or worse.”

They took adjoining shower heads. Elena soaped up, but, hands on the wall, Lilith leaned into the water, let it beat down on the back of her neck.

“Truthfully,” Lilith said, “I didn’t expect to be so… so scared.”

“Scared makes you smart,” Elena said. “Careful. Do the police have any idea of what you’re doing at the club?”

“Gabe does.” She lowered her voice. “The guy who was my human punching bag tonight? He’s the undercover cop I told you about.”

They finished their showers in silence. It wasn’t until they were drying themselves that Elena asked, “What’s it like? Working at the club?”

“I hate being thought available for whatever in a roomful of strange men. How did Hannah do it, Elena? How?”

“Maybe without thinking about anything but getting by.”

“Just like Mama.” Lilith wrapped her towel around her body and headed for her locker.

“What exactly do you think you can do, Lilith? What happens if you actually are able to finger the guy?”

Lilith tightened her jaw but didn’t say anything.

Elena frowned. “You’re going to go for him, aren’t you? You want to do more than find him.”

Lilith couldn’t deny that she’d had such thoughts. “In my dreams, maybe. I really don’t know what I would do. I keep thinking, what if the system doesn’t work? I fear he’ll walk.”

“Do you really want to know what you’re capable of, Lilith? If you don’t let the police bring the killer to justice, are you any better than he is?”

Lilith hadn’t really thought beyond finding her sister before it was too late.

And yet… if she got her hands on the bastard, could she really just do nothing but make a phone call?

“I’m scared for you, Lilith.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

As she reached into her locker for her underwear on the shelf, something fluttered down in front of her face. Lilith picked up what appeared to be a torn scrap of paper and turned it over. She swore it hadn’t been there when they’d gone into the shower. Her eyes widened as she got a better look at it, and the gorge rose in her throat. Clasping the towel to her breasts, she pressed her back to the locker and looked around wildly.

“Lilith, what is it?”

Breathing raggedly, Lilith handed Elena the scrap — the torn half of a glossy photograph of Lilith taken at the club. Lilith’s image was split from her forehead to her navel. And on the other side, the message Dance for me, if you want to see your sister alive.

“So he knows we’re related,” Lilith murmured. She hadn’t been sure that she’d gotten the point across.

Elena’s features reflected her own horror. “My God! What are you going to do?”

“Dance? I may not have a choice, if I want to keep Hannah alive..”

The killer really was playing with her, undoubtedly to whet his own appetite. He’d had more than one opportunity to take her, Lilith thought. To add her to his collection. He could have gotten to her last night. She looked at the ripped photo with the demand that she dance for him. No time frame.

If she couldn’t make herself do it, how long would Hannah be safe?

“I think we should celebrate this weekend.”

Lilith realized Carmen was there, already dressed, and looking at her expectantly. “What?”

“Tomorrow is Saturday. We should do something special.”

Shaken, Lilith knew she couldn’t do anything with Carmen until the killer was caught. Spending time with the girl could put her in jeopardy.

“I-I’m sorry. I can’t make it tomorrow.”

Carmen’s smile withered. “No.”

“I’m not sure when I can.” The words tumbled from Lilith quick and harsh sounding to her own ears. “Work. It’s an unusual situation.” She had to stay away from the girl for her safety.

“Are you quitting me?”

“No, of course not!” Of course a kid like Carmen would think that. “It just means I can’t see you for a while.”

“How long is a while?”

Running out of gas, Lilith said, “I-I’m not sure.”

“Yeah, right.” Her expression stricken, Carmen stormed out of the locker room.

“Carmen, please wait.”

The girl hesitated and looked back at her.

There was no helping it — she had to tell Carmen the truth. “I’m in a situation that could put you in danger. I want you to be safe.”

“What kind of situation?”

Lilith shook her head. She couldn’t tell Carmen the details, not about what she was doing to try to save her sister. “This is temporary; I promise.”

Without another word, Carmen simply left the locker room.

“Poor kid,” Elena said. “She doesn’t understand.”

“And I can’t tell her everything. She’s too much like me.”

Elena nodded. “She’d want to protect you.”

“That’s all I would need, to put her in danger, too. Let’s get out of here.”

Lilith finished getting dressed, all the while worrying that Carmen felt betrayed even as Hannah had.

oOo

FEARING PUCINSKI would do something to stop her from carrying through with her plan, Lilith didn’t call him about the message on the back of the photograph.

Was that from the killer?

Or from Gabe?

Having time to think about it after calming down, she’d realized it could have been a sick joke. Had Gabe decided to get back at her for winning their match by scaring her? It was possible, she told herself, unsure as to whether that would make her feel better or not.

Needing to know for certain, she went directly to the club, but it wasn’t officially open yet, and Gabe wasn’t there. No Michael, either. She wandered over to the bar where Joe was setting up for the night.

“Hey, Joe, have you seen Gabe around?”

“Not yet. He’ll probably be in later.”

“You wouldn’t know where he lives.”

“In the neighborhood. I remember him saying he bought a foreclosure on the other side of the expressway a couple months ago.”

“Do you have an address?”

“Sorry. I know it’s on the first block, right off of the main drag, because he was complaining about all the noise — construction and expressway.”

“Thanks. I guess I’ll see him when I see him.”

But she really couldn’t wait to settle this. She had to know if the killer had really sent her the demand to dance or — hope against hope — if Gabe was just messing with her. Getting up on that stage would take a kind of courage she didn’t possess. Courage she would have to find if it meant saving her sister.

Since she didn’t have to report to work for another half hour, more than enough time to check out Gabe’s street, she went looking for him. She was on his block in less than five minutes. No housing on the east side, just a huge overgrown lot with chain link, construction machinery and the bones of what would probably be another condo like the ones lining the west side of the street. Only two single family houses on the block, separated by an empty lot.

One of them had to be Gabe’s.

She parked and slid out of the car to check out the first house. The name on the door was Welby. The other house must be the one.

As she approached it, she heard loud voices — a couple having an argument. The man was definitely Gabe. Lilith stopped.

What to do?

The front door exploded open and a woman who looked like the one in the family photo Gabe had showed her tore down the steps to the sidewalk.

“This isn’t over!” Gabe yelled at her.

“Oh, yes, it is. Don’t even think about it, Gabe, or you’ll be sorry.”

The woman sped to a car in the opposite direction, but instinct made Lilith back off anyway. She wasn’t about to confront an angry cop about a photo and a warning he might have left her as a sick joke. To her relief, Gabe never looked her way, simply stared after his ex-wife before going back inside and slamming the door behind him.

Lilith couldn’t get into the Jaguar and out of the neighborhood fast enough.

oOo

Chapter 15

THE CLUB WAS JUST opening when Lilith raced through it and into the crowded dressing room filled with female chatter and smoke. Some of the dancers were passing around a joint.

“This always makes the men look better to me,” a dancer named Kat said. “It gives me courage to bare it all in a room filled with strange men.”

She would certainly need a dose of that if she really was forced to dance to save Hannah, Lilith thought, wondering how else to get some other than through drugs.

Melinda laughed. “And it gives me the guts to rub it in Paulie’s face.”

“He’d like you to rub your whatever in his face,” a little redhead called Rusty said with a laugh.

“He can’t do it, though.” Admiring herself in the mirror, Melinda adjusted her top so more cleavage showed. “Can’t keep that wankie of his up long enough.”

Irene choked on her hit. “You tried having sex with your own brother?”

“The disgusting rodent has tried having sex with me for years. I know he looks like a little pissant, but he’s strong as hell. One time my breasts were so bruised, I had to take off a week until I could cover them with makeup.”

“You need to punish him, make him sorry he tried messing with you.” Mariko took a puff of the joint and held it out to Lilith, who shook her head. “You know, tie him up, get him up and then leave him to suffer.”

“Paulie is weird,” Melinda said. “I gotta balance torturing him with maintaining my good health. I’m never sure what he will do. He’s got a perverted little mind; once threatened to tie me up and fill me with embalming fluid while he did me.”

Shivering at the thought, more convinced than ever that Paul Ensdorf was the deviant who had her sister, Lilith fled to the rear of the room where Caresse was nearly done with her makeup. Via the mirror, she gave Lilith an approving expression before gluing on an eyelash. Lilith changed in record time, then slid into her seat before the mirror as Caresse finished the second eyelash.

“So what’s so special about the guy?” Caresse asked. “The one I keep seeing you with?”

“You’ve seen me with several.”

“You know the one I mean. Michael Wyndham. You’re not getting involved, are you?”

“What, I can’t talk to a customer? Don’t let Sal hear you say that.”

“I’m not worried about Sal. I’m worried about you. Lots of women think they can get involved with someone dangerous and nothing bad will happen to them. Lots of women are wrong.”

Lilith stared at Caresse, trying to read into her meaning. The dancer was the second person who’d warned her about Michael, and the other was a cop. “I’m only getting as involved as I need to be. Is it one man in particular you’re worried about? Or is it that you don’t like men in general?” She remembered the intimation by the other dancers that Caresse only liked women.

Unexpected anger flickered across Caresse’s features, but she quickly masked whatever she was feeling. “Think what you like.” With that, she pushed away from the counter and left the dressing room as had most of the other women.

Lilith brushed her hair into an off-center ponytail and clipped it. She was already made up but needed to accentuate her eyes and lips again. Her makeup was sitting on the counter, which meant someone else had “borrowed” it. Great.

When she was finished, she pulled open her case to throw the pencils and shadows inside.

Then froze.

There, in the middle of the case was a chain. A very familiar chain.

Lilith’s mouth went dry as she picked it up and found the little safety pin she’d used to fix it more than a decade ago.

“Hannah,” she whispered, tears springing to her eyes.

The chain hadn’t been in the case all week. Caresse had thought the one she’d been wearing belonged to Hannah, so her sister must have been wearing it when she was taken.

The killer had to have left it for her.

Another little game. But what was the point? What did he expect her to do now?

Her hand shook as she stuffed the chain into a pants pocket next to the torn photograph of her and thought about calling Pucinski. Instead, she left the dressing room to look for Gabe.

Halfway there, Rudy Barnes stepped in front of her. “We need to talk, Lilith. About Anna. In my booth.”

His mentioning her sister made Lilith follow. What could he tell her that was new? According to Michael, Rudy had been after Hannah. Her pulse quickened, and her mouth went dry. She barely saw the guy — she assumed he was always buried in his booth — and now he acted like he knew her.

She entered the booth filled with technical audio equipment she knew nothing about. At home, she was still using an old cassette tape deck to listen to music.

He sat in his chair and spun it to face her. His gaze washed over her, and he shook his head.

“What about Anna?” she asked.

“I liked her. She could be a bitch. But she was smart. Too smart to get taken. Are you that smart, Lilith?”

Not the conversation she’d been expecting.

Lilith leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed before her. “What is this really about, Rudy?”

“It’s about you looking like Anna. I don’t know what you’re playing at, but it’s a dangerous game.”

So everyone from every direction had told her. She was getting tired of the dire warnings.

“Is it your game, Rudy?”

“Mine? What the hell! Go fuck yourself! I was just trying to warn you. Anna was the third victim. The police haven’t learned squat about this killer. But every time I see you–”

“What?”

“I figure his juices are already going. He’s salivating, already getting ideas.”

That’s exactly what she was counting on. Not that she would say it. She did ask, “Why do you care?”

“I may not be the world’s most caring citizen, but I’m not a ghoul. I don’t want to see any more dead girls.” He shook his head. “Never mind. Forget I said anything. Leave my booth, and go play at your game and see where looking like that gets you.”

He turned away from her and starting typing something into his computer.

Knowing she was dismissed, Lilith left the booth wondering if Barnes was really trying to warn her, or if he was playing with her.

More head games.

Again, she wondered if he was on Pucinski’s radar.

Maybe Gabe would tell her.

She found him at the bar, downing a shot, looking like he’d been kicked in the gut, and indicating he wanted another drink. Luckily it was early enough that the place was practically empty. They could have some privacy, not have to worry about who might overhear them. She slid onto the stool next to Gabe, but he acted like she was invisible.

“Problems on the job?” she asked.

“Not the job. My frickin’ ex.” Gabe stared down into his glass rather than look at her. “She’s threatening to keep my kids from seeing me.”

So that’s what the argument had been about. “Does she have good cause?”

He swigged down another shot and popped the glass back on the bar. “Joe, another round.” Finally, he faced her. “Not so’s I’m concerned. A father’s got a right to bond with his boys.”

“Bond how?”

“I’m a cop, okay? I want to teach them about guns.”

Lilith hated guns but tried not to show it. “Like your father taught you?”

“Yeah. Took me hunting a few times. Best dad ever. I want my boys to think I’m the greatest.” He signaled the bartender for another drink. “My ex divorced me because she couldn’t stand my being a cop. It’s not just what I do. It’s what I am. Jennifer never got that. I’m proud to be a cop, and I want my sons to be proud of what I am.”

Like her own dad. Only he’d passed away too soon, and Mama had replaced him with a man who was pure evil.

“I think you should bond with them. I think it’s important for them. And for you. Maybe it doesn’t have to be with guns.”

“Screw that! She don’t give me orders!”

They sat in tense silence for a moment, then Lilith said, “I know your personal problems are eating you up, but I hope that’s not going to interfere with your investigation–”

“You telling me what to do, too?” Gabe glared at her. “ Why is it women always think they can lead a man around by the short hairs?”

“Okay, look, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to interfere with your family. I’m just really worried sick about mine. You’ve got to believe that. I don’t know how much longer the killer will hang on to my sister before leaving her body in some forest preserve.” She pulled the torn photo out of her pocket and showed it to him, then flipped it over so he could see the message. “Assuming the killer actually left this for me. Or was it you who did it, Gabe?”

He started as if shocked by the accusation. “Me? Why the hell would you think I would do something like that?”

“You don’t like me.”

“I think you’re reckless.”

“And I bested you.”

“Don’t fool yourself.”

“Maybe you wanted to shake me so I would quit. Did you leave this in my locker, Gabe?”

“Yeah, great. Not only do I have to deal with an ex-wife who spits on the job, now you are, and here I am, trying to find your sister and make sure you don’t end up like her.”

Lilith backed down. “Okay.” Terrific. She really might have to get on that stage. She reached to pick up the photo.

Gabe snatched it up by the edge, picked up a napkin from the bar and folded the photo into it. “I’ll take this to the station, see if we can get prints. Other than yours.” He put it in his pocket. “Is that it?”

 “Not exactly.” She pulled the chain from her pocket and set it before him. “The killer is definitely trying to shake me. I just found this in my makeup case.”

Gabe eyed the chain but didn’t pick it up. “What would make you think the killer left that?”

“Because it belonged to Hannah.”

“It’s a chain. It could have belonged to anyone.”

“No. See this little safety pin holding it together.” She tapped the pin to point it out. “Hannah broke the chain and I used that pin to fix it for her.”

Joe set down another shot in front of Gabe and turned to Lilith. “Anything for you?”

“Sparkling water with a squeeze of lime. Thanks.”

Gabe waited until the bartender moved away to get her drink. “So your sister just wore a chain with nothing hanging from it?”

“There was a heart-half. She wore it here at the club. Caresse saw it on her.” And had thought she was wearing Hannah’s necklace. “I saw it on Hannah the day before she was taken. If we could find the heart-half–”

“You think you’ll nail the killer.”

“Something like that.”

“So where are you going to start, Detective Mitchell?”

She shrugged. “That’s why I came to you. I thought you might have some idea of where to look.”

“Start with your boyfriend. Wyndham.”

He looked over his shoulder, and Lilith followed his gaze. Michael was sitting alone at a table, but rather than looking at the dancer on stage, he was staring at her. He didn’t look too happy seeing her with Gabe.

In a low voice, she said, “Michael is not your man.”

The bartender set down the sparkling water in front of her.

“Thanks, Joe.” She drank half the glass, then asked Gabe, “Any other thoughts?”

“Don’t dismiss the fact that Wyndham has shown special interest in you. Why do you think that is?”

“I would like to think it’s not because he’s guilty.” But because he was truly attracted to her and felt the same connection she had.

“I’m warning you; he’s dangerous.”

“Dangerous how exactly?” Lilith asked, remembering her disagreement with Michael because he’d pressured her to quit this place, worrying about it being too dangerous. That didn’t sound like a man who wanted her dead. She regretted that she’d gotten her back up. “That’s all very vague, Gabe. Anything specific?”

“His father is connected. I mean his real father. Wyndham’s adopted. I told you Pucinski has a file on him. I did some of the research myself. His father’s connection to The Outfit goes way back to before Wyndham was born. His mother’s no angel, either. Worked in a strip bar all her life. By the way, she’s tall, with long dark hair. Sound familiar?”

“A lot of dancers are tall with long dark hair.” Though she knew he was referring to the victims. Michael had told her about his mother himself, if not about his father. Maybe he didn’t even know who the man was. “What’s your point?”

“In case you’ve forgotten, your sister is the third woman who fits that description that this guy has taken. Killers don’t always victimize the people they want to punish. Sometimes they pick a substitute.”

“So you think he’s punishing the mother who abandoned him over and over through other women?”

Gabe shrugged. “There’s a certain perverted logic to it.”

A logic that stayed with her. She didn’t want to believe that Michael was anything but what he seemed to be — a documentary filmmaker who was trying to make sense of his life. Gabe was so negative about Michael, so certain that he lived a far darker life than was apparent, that a tiny niggle of doubt plagued her.

She had to know for certain.

Which is why she worked her way over to Michael’s table. He met her gaze but his expression remained neutral, as if he was hiding his feelings.

Not knowing how he’d react after their disagreement, she adopted a pleasant smile and merely said, “You look thirsty.”

“I could use a beer.”

“Coming right up.”

She turned away, but he caught her hand, stopping her. “And some company later. If you’re not still angry with me.”

His touch sent gooseflesh racing up her arm. Because he turned her on or because Gabe had made her wary of him?

“I’m not angry.”

On edge after Gabe’s lecture. Definitely.

“Good. Then I’ll meet you out back when you get off. We can go to my place. Or yours if that makes you more comfortable.”

Knowing those were the only options for a late-night date other than breakfast at some all night diner, she said, “Yours.”

That way she could look for the heart-half.

oOo

HE WONDERED how she’d liked his gifts.

He’d gone through a lot of trouble to shock her. She’d seemed a little off all night, like she was constantly looking over her shoulder.

Good.

He was getting to her.

He pulled the bag from the back of his vehicle. It had been there all night, and no one had seen it.

A little moan, and the contents stirred as he hefted the bag over his shoulder.

His anticipation was building. The pressure was becoming unbearable, made him feel like he was ready to explode. But now he had extra incentive for Lilith to do exactly what he wanted.

Entering the dark room where he kept the sister — that’s how he thought of her now, because Lilith was the one who really turned him on — he heard her scramble upright on the cot to which he had her handcuffed.

“What is it you want?” she asked. “Tell me what you want.”

“I don’t negotiate.” He drew closer, made his voice more menacing. Set his burden down on the floor next to a rusted old radiator. “I want to do things to you that no one has ever done. I want to make your sister watch.”

“My… what sister?”

“Don’t play coy. She’s working at the club.”

The bitch laughed.

“Yeah, right.”

“She took the waitress job there the night after you disappeared.” He freed the contents of the bag. “She changed her hair and makeup. Could be your twin.”

The laughter faded fast.

“You’re serious.” She hesitated a second, then said, “Let me give you whatever it is you want and then let me leave. I haven’t seen your face, so I don’t know who you are. I can’t tell.”

She’d already tried anger. Now she sounded like she was at a bargaining table.

“I know.” He used the gravelly half-whisper that disguised his voice. “You’ll never tell.”

And then he turned on the battery-operated light he’d brought and grinned down at her. He’d used camouflage makeup to disguise his face.

Though the light was dim, she’d been in the dark so long she was having trouble focusing. When she did, she gasped. “Who is that?”

“An additional enticement,” he said, handcuffing the girl, who was just regaining consciousness, to a radiator. “Lilith thinks she’s going to trap me and find you. Maybe I’ll let her. Then I’ll have you both. She can watch what I do to you… and then I’ll do it all to her.”

“Leave Lilith alone!” Her gaze shot to the girl who was stirring, trying to open her eyes. “Leave them both alone! They aren’t like me–”

“Lilith is exactly like you. A whore who tries to control men. She needs to be taught a lesson, to be put in her place. Then she needs to be finished. Just like you do.”

“What do you want to let us go?” She couldn’t stop looking at the girl on the ground. “Tell me what you want. I’ll do anything. Anything! Please!”

So she finally resorted to begging. How disappointing.

“I might let this one go,” he said, poking the girl with his foot. “She’s of no interest to me. But doing you and your sister together… nothing I want more. Killing two of her at the same time… I could never top that.”

That would be the ultimate cum.

oOo

Chapter 16

LEAVING THE CLUB in the middle of the night, Lilith fought her exhaustion with the thought of taking action. Not that she wanted to nail Michael as a killer; she wanted to eliminate him as a suspect. It would be so much easier if she could simply get into Paul’s place and find Hannah’s half of the heart there. She’d tried to wheedle an invitation from Paul, but he’d been adamant about waiting until Saturday. He’d left the club more than a little annoyed with her.

She didn’t know how she could stand the waiting. Maybe when she didn’t find the piece here, she could talk Pucinski into getting a search warrant for the Ensdorf home and mortuary. Gabe had left before she’d been able to ask him about it. And when she’d had his attention, she’d forgotten to ask him if Rudy Barnes was a suspect.

Her pulse rushed a little faster as she ran down the stairs into the alley and looked for Michael, who’d disappeared with Irene halfway through the night. To interview her? Irene had returned looking none the worse for wear.

Thumbs hooked casually into his jeans pockets, Michael leaned against the Jaguar where she’d parked it. Lilith stopped several yards from him. They stood there, silently taking each other’s measure for a few seconds.

Then she asked, “No SUV?”

“If we take your car, you can leave any time. If you need to get away from me this time, that is. I wouldn’t want you taking public trans before daybreak again. I can get mine in the morning. No problem.”

Did he hope she would still be at his place in the morning?

Her pulse threaded unevenly at the thought.

Grateful that she had an easy way out in case things got uncomfortable — or dangerous — Lilith pulled the keys from her bag. Michael put his hand over hers.

“Let me.”

She let him drive without an argument. Better to take the drive time to get her bearings. She needed to play this right. Go in with a plan. No matter how much she hoped Michael was innocent, she had to know the truth. If that heart-half was stashed in his place, she meant to find it.

Realizing the silence had become deafening, she asked, “So what do you do when you’re not at the club?”

“Work.”

“Making documentaries?”

“Sometimes. I mostly freelance with production companies.”

“And that pays enough for your lifestyle?”

He laughed. “Lifestyle? Pretty much all I do is work.”

“The club–”

“Is work. Whether or not you believe it. It just happens to be my passion for the moment. Making documentaries,” he clarified. “And a couple beers a night isn’t going to break the budget.”

Despite all the negativity Gabe had tried to implant in her, she wanted to believe him. Despite being put off by Michael at first, she wanted to believe that this was the real him. And maybe it was. While she’d seen him talking to women, she’d never seen him pay for a lap dance or for a dancer’s time.

“Do you always do the documentaries alone?” she asked.

“First time,” he said. “I don’t always have a crew. I rarely have a big budget for payroll. It all depends on the project, but I’ve always had someone working with me. Skin happens to be personal, so it’s out of pocket; and I’m flying solo on this one, at least so far.” He paused for a second, then asked, “Will you talk to me on camera again?”

“As long as you don’t push me too far.”

“The second the discomfort gets unbearable, put on the brakes.”

Lilith wondered how long that would take.

oOo

TWENTY MINUTES LATER, she was sitting in front of the camera, Michael in its shadow once more.

“How do you feel about working at the club now that you’re done with your training wheels?” he asked.

“Since I’m not a dancer, where’s the interest?”

“Waitresses get nearly as much male attention as the dancers. It’s a sexist atmosphere. Usually I ask if this lifestyle was your choice or if you were you forced into it, but I highly doubt you’ve ever stepped foot in a gentlemen’s club before walking into Club Paradise.”

“You’re right.”

“So that makes me even more curious. I still haven’t figured out the attraction for a woman like you.”

So he wanted to know what made her tick. Because he was guilty? Or because he was actually interested in her? She wanted to believe the latter. Maybe if she gave up some information, so would he. Gabe had said his real father was connected, giving her a place to start.

“My stepfather was abusive.”

Michael seemed startled, as if that was the last thing he’d thought to hear, but he picked right up on the revelation. “So you ran away.”

“I got out of that house by going away to college. My younger sister ran because I failed her.”

Michael didn’t respond.

He was waiting for her to open up, something she’d only done with the therapist she’d seen in college. And with Elena. But talking to the camera rather than to a person — once more Michael was enveloped in shadow, almost removing him from the room — freed her.

“Marlon Aldrich hated me from the moment Mama brought him home. First he slapped me if I mouthed off to him when he got drunk and mean. Then he hit me harder if I got between him and Mama. Pretty soon, he used any excuse to beat me. I ended up in the ER numerous times.”

“What about the police?”

“What police? My mother covered for him, backed up his lies about accidents, about my being too clumsy. She used to tell me not to argue with him, that setting him off like that was my fault.” She took a deep breath. Licked her lips. The pain was old and yet fresh. The rest came out in an agonized rush. “I had to leave before it went further. I had some very dark thoughts. I started sleeping with a knife under my pillow. You can understand that, can’t you? I was a terrified seventeen-year-old. When I went away to school, my sister wanted to come with me, but how could I take care of a twelve-year-old? Besides, my sister was so timid, Marlon always just ignored her. I swear to God I didn’t think he would ever put a hand on her.”

“The physical abuse…” Michael’s voice was thick, as if he was angry in her stead. “…how did it affect your life?”

“By making me determined never to let it happen again. I learned to protect myself. Ever since college, I’ve been in a program called Street Survival, something I will be involved with forever. I take the class over and over every year to stay fighting sharp. My version of going to AA, I guess. Not that I was a pain addict. I just always want to be able to protect myself, to make sure a man never has the upper hand with me again.”

Not even long enough to make her dance for him. She was still worrying about that, hoping against hope that he would be caught and Hannah saved before she was forced into the limelight to strip for a roomful of strange men.

Wanting to know if what Gabe told her about Michael was true, she asked, “So what about your father?”

“He’s a sociologist. The kindest, gentlest man you’d ever want to meet.”

“You don’t have to sound so apologetic about it. I mean your birth father. Last time you said you were adopted and your birth mother was a stripper, but you didn’t tell me about him. Your mother did tell you about the man who fathered you, didn’t she?”

“Not at first and not easily. Tony isn’t what you would call an upstanding citizen. No surprise considering where he met my mother. Not a gentlemen’s club where they have fancy areas for bachelor and bachelorette parties. A strip joint. Old school. One that was run by The Outfit.”

So he was connected. Gabe hadn’t exaggerated.

Her pulse tick-ticked when she asked, “Did you meet him?”

“I was curious.”

She wished she could see his face. Not that she would get anything off him if he didn’t want her to. He was fully capable of hiding what he was thinking or feeling.

“What about focusing on your father’s lifestyle in a documentary?” she asked.

“About mobsters?” He laughed. “Sorry, but you have to be kidding. That’s been done before. Nothing new to mine. Besides, I like taking chances, but not with my life.”

“So your real father is dangerous.”

“I’m told he was. I don’t know about now. Most of those old mob guys went legit years ago. They took the money they earned illegally and put it into legal businesses. None of them want to make the state pen their retirement home. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have someone step in to protect their ‘good names.’”

Again, the laugh.

“So what does he do?”

Michael gave her an odd expression, then said, “You did it again, turned the conversation around. We weren’t supposed to be talking about me.”

Which meant he wasn’t going to answer. “To tell the truth,” she said, “I’m all talked out tonight.”

Lilith slid off the stool and walked over to the cart near the fireplace where he kept his liquor. She took a quick look to see what he didn’t have, and when he asked, “Can I make you a drink?” she returned, “I would love a glass of red wine.”

“I’m out, but I can easily get a bottle. It’ll only take me fifteen-twenty minutes. There’s a liquor store with a great stock two blocks from here. What’s your preference?”

Thankfully, he didn’t seem suspicious. All was going according to plan. She needed him out of there to search for the heart-half.

“Malbec if they have it. If not, a Shiraz. Really, anything will do.”

“No problem.” He backed off toward the door. “I’m going to walk. I’ll leave your car up front. Your keys are here,” he said, leaving them on a small table next to the front door. “But you are going to be here when I return, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, don’t worry. I won’t disappear,” she said, thinking about how Hannah had.

The minute he was out the door, Lilith went to the window. While Michael’s building was off the main drag, she could see lights from restaurants and storefronts a few blocks away. She checked her watch to keep track of time. The moment she saw Michael on the street, she started her search, opening drawers, looking in boxes he had stacked all over the place. Even the small ones — anything big enough to hold a heart-half. Or anything else suspicious.

Nothing.

She hated doing this, hated suspecting Michael even a little, hated betraying him. But if the task force had him on its radar, there had to be a reason why. Gabe had been correct when he’d claimed Michael’s father was connected. He’d also said the man was dangerous, but Michael had shrugged that off. If she kept at him about his birth father, would he tell her what he was holding back, or would he simply close up?

Finished in the main room, she headed for his office and editing room. She checked her watch. He’d been gone nine minutes. Did she really have time to search it? She worked as quickly as possible and found nothing to tell her he wasn’t exactly who he claimed to be.

Six minutes left. Hopefully, more. He’d said fifteen to twenty.

Keeping her ears open for noises that would tell her he’d returned, she crossed to his bedroom, big enough for a King-sized platform bed with an extended headboard and nightstands. She gave them a thorough once-over but found nothing of interest. To her relief, no heart-half. Next, she looked over the shelves on the wall unit. Tidy. Books. A framed photo of an older woman. His mother?

She opened a drawer. Underwear and T-shirts.

Another drawer. Sweaters.

Another. Papers.

This one she searched, careful to put things back as she found them.

The last drawer held small personal items and a flat case — a man’s jewelry box.

Hand trembling, she opened the lid. Inside: cufflinks, tie tacks, a heavy bracelet.

No heart-half. Relief washed through her.

The sound of a key in the lock made her heart thud. She shoved the box into place and closed the drawer and was barely back into the main room before Michael walked in, bag in hand. He set the bottle of wine on the counter and fetched a battery-operated opener from a cabinet.

“You didn’t leave, after all. I was afraid this might be wasted.”

“And if I had?”

“My bad luck.”

He used the wine opener on the bottle, and she fetched two stemmed glasses from the cart and brought them to the island, where he filled them and handed her one.

They clinked and sipped, and she said, “I thought you were just interested in my mind.”

“I’ve expanded my interests.”

The wine warmed Lilith inside. Relaxed her. She’d been living and breathing tension — had been trying to hold fear for Hannah at bay — and just letting go of all that for a little while was a relief. She finished her glass and let him refill it. She was so relieved at not having found anything incriminating in her search, especially not Hannah’s heart-half, that she smiled, really smiled, for the first time with him.

Topping off their glasses, he said, “I like that. The smile. You don’t do that often enough.”

“Give me reason.”

“I thought you would never ask.”

Feeling more for this man than she wanted to, Lilith couldn’t move. He locked onto her gaze, and she felt something between them clicking. Growing.

Attraction.

Empathy.

Connection.

He reached out, touched her cheek and moved closer. Slanted his mouth over hers. A brush of lips that made her entire body sigh. He pulled back a paper-width and their eyes connected again.

Michael slid his hand around her head to draw her to him more fully.

She needed this. Needed a way to forget her fears, even if for a little while. Needed his touch. His mouth on hers. His hand roaming along her hip, lifting her skirt, seeking her heat.

“Michael!” she whispered when he made her thighs quiver in response.

“Do you want me to stop?”

His fingers were already inside the edge of her panties, parting her lips, burrowing into her wet warmth. She could hardly breathe, her pulse was racing, her flesh was on fire.

It was just sex.

A much-needed release.

In answer, she kissed and opened to him.

He played her like a violin, with the precision of a man who knew a woman’s body, who knew the instrument that would make her whole body sing. Her clit had never known such a master. He played her faster and faster until she was nearly mindless with wanting and needing and, finally, having.

When she came, he had to hold her so she didn’t slip to the floor. Her knees seemed to have disappeared.

Her heart was pounding. Her head was light. Her skin was slick with a sheen of afterglow.

No words passed between them. He refilled their glasses, handed one to her. She downed her wine and set down the glass.

Then undid his belt and unzipped his jeans.

He was ready for her. Hot. Heavy. Hard. He pulsed when she touched him.

With a moan, he leaned back against the counter, braced both hands on the edge and watched her intently. He filled her hand. And when he leaned forward and kissed her again, he filled her mouth. He set the rhythm with his tongue. She followed with her hand and fingers, flashing over his length, thumbing his tip and spreading the fluid there over his head.

He let go of the counter and found her breasts, slid under the material of her dress and bra so that she felt his flesh against hers. Felt him thumb her nipples in the same escalating pace. Heat spread through her, and her head grew lighter. She had to have him inside her. With her free hand, she moved her panties to the side and with the other, guided him up her slick path.

Catching her buttocks with both hands, he hitched her up so he could go deeper. She wound her legs around his back and rode him hard.

When they came, it was together. An explosion of the senses. Colors, smells, sensations all intensified.

He held her wrapped around him, foreheads meeting.

And then she quieted inside.

And remembered why she was there in the first place.

Remembered Hannah was still at risk.

When Lilith insisted on going home, Michael expressed his disappointment but walked her to her car. He kissed her good-bye. Not the light brush of lips on lips. Not the intense tangling of tongues.

His kiss was warm and deep and possessive.

And left her feeling guilty on two fronts, both because she’d betrayed him and because, for a few minutes in his arms, she’d forgotten Hannah and so had betrayed her sister, as well.

oOo

Chapter 17

WANTING TO FEEL CLOSER to Hannah, Lilith went to sleep with the stuffed tiger cat, remembering the past when they’d been as close as two sisters could be.

Memories turned into bad dreams, and she slept restlessly, forcing herself up out of another nightmare of Hannah being hunted.

A noise outside startled her. Her eyes flew open, and she sat straight up, dropping the stuffed toy to the floor. Heart pounding, disoriented for a moment, she slipped out of bed and looked around. She checked the locks on the doors and then went to a window and looked out. Everything looked normal. No dark car with lights on in the middle of the street. Dawn was about to break, but outside, the street was still dark.

Empty.

Wait! Movement. Lilith squinted hard.

In the middle of the street that moved away from the river, the old homeless woman was pushing a grocery cart holding black bags filled with her possessions.

Dressed only in a sheer negligee, Lilith slipped on shoes and ran to the coat closet, where she grabbed a raincoat. She fetched her keys and hurriedly unlocked the front door, but by the time she got out on the sidewalk, the woman had disappeared once more.

She couldn’t have gotten far.

Lilith took off down the street after her. Running in heels was a bitch, but she determined to talk to the only person who’d been witness to what happened the night Hannah was taken. Maybe there was something, some small thing, that could help her figure out the identity of the man.

Away from the river, buildings multiplied — one of the old neighborhoods with apartment houses and two- and three-flats and single family homes a century and more old. Here alleys intersected blocks. Undoubtedly that’s where the elderly woman had been headed, to pick up items tossed out with the garbage.

The alley turned into a T. When she got to the intersection, Lilith still saw no one.

But she heard footfalls behind her. She whipped around. Saw movement in the shadows. Didn’t hesitate. Ran for her life.

The slap-slap of leather on pavement followed.

She could take care of herself. She could fight. But mentally, she simply wasn’t prepared. Not for this moment. Not for this place. This would be on his terms. She wanted them on hers.

So she kept running, darted down a gangway between two apartment houses. Down several steps of an underpass beneath the first floor apartment. Breathing hard, she grew desperate to lose whoever followed.

She could do it.

Face him.

Beat him.

Just not now.

She flew up several steps into a cement backyard.

Where to go?

Another alley.

Catching her breath, she slipped out of the yard and crouched behind a lineup of black resin garbage cans on wheels. She rolled into a tight ball and tried not to breathe.

In the pooled yellow alley light between cans, she saw dark-clad legs stop nearby. He was breathing heavily. Inching back slightly from the crack between two garbage cans, she prepared herself to start running again.

The man’s legs turned one way, then the other, as if he were trying to decide which way to go. Finally, he moved off.

Lilith stayed put. Waiting.

Agonized.

Demoralized.

She could have ended it right there, one way or another, but she’d let fear take hold of her.

Would she do any better if she finally met the killer face-to-face, even if it was on her terms?

oOo

IT WAS DAYBREAK by the time Lilith got back to Hannah’s place.

Disappointed in herself, she slammed the front door and threw the dead bolt. Dropped the raincoat on the couch, went back to the bedroom where she rescued the tiger cat from the floor and brought it back to bed with her.

She’d convinced herself she could do this, but could she or was she fooling herself?

Good thoughts of Hannah, she told herself as lay there for who knew how long. Her mind kept going over and over the chase through the alleys. Eventually, exhaustion overtook her. She drifted off thinking, No more nightmares.The phone ringing woke her sometime later.

Groaning, she rolled over and checked the clock. 9 a.m. She’d slept a few hours.

No name on the caller ID. Her stomach churned as she picked up the phone anyway. Suspecting it was him, she demanded, “Who is this?”

“You haven’t danced for me yet,” came the electronically altered voice.

She sat straight up in bed. “What do you want?”

“You may not be afraid for your own safety or your sister’s, but what about the girl’s?”

“What are you talking about? What girl?”

“She says her name is Carmen. If you want to see her alive again, you’ll dance for me. Tonight.

The click on the other end of the line told Lilith he’d hung up on her.

“Carmen!”

Panicked that the killer had even known the girl’s name, Lilith called her home.

“Mrs. Vargas, it’s Lilith. Can I speak to Carmen, please.”

“She’s not here. She don’t come after the class last night. I try calling you.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

The woman must have called while she was working. Why hadn’t she checked for messages on her cell?

“Did you call the police?” Lilith asked.

“No. She’s probably with a boy. If she gets pregnant…”

If only that were the situation. “I’ll let you know if I hear from her.” She couldn’t tell Carmen’s parents a killer might have her. She couldn’t panic them before she knew for certain.

“Gracias.”

After hanging up, Lilith sat there, feeling more than a little lost. What was she going to do now? If the killer had Carmen, that was her fault. She never should have taken the waitress job and made herself up to look so much like her sister. Never should have taunted the man who’d taken her. It was one thing to put herself in danger. Another to put Carmen in danger.

The whole situation was spinning out of her control. No matter which way she turned, she seemed to make it worse. She was beginning to understand how a woman could feel helpless, like a victim who didn’t know if she could get herself out of a mess she created.

She couldn’t stop now, not when she was responsible for saving both Hannah and Carmen.

Dear Lord, what if they died because of her?

What was she going to do?

Only one thing she could think of.

She was going to dance.

oOo

PUCINSKI WAS IN HIS OFFICE, going over everything he knew about The Hunter Case when in walked Lilith Mitchell, undoubtedly to give him another going over. At least that’s what he thought until he saw her face.

Uh-oh.

“Miss Mitchell.” He sat back in his chair like he didn’t know she was about to unload on him. “Sit. What’s on your mind?”

She didn’t sit. She paced.

“Carmen Vargas. She’s the teenager I’ve been mentoring. She disappeared last night.”

Where was she going with this? Pucinski wondered. How was it connected to the case?

“Her parents make a complaint?”

“They think she’s with a boy.”

Her eyes looked watery, like she’d been crying. Ah, hell, he hated tears. Next thing he knew he would be patting her on the back, comforting her. He gripped the arms of his chair so he wouldn’t.

Instead he asked, “And what’s your theory?”

“He has her. The killer. He called me this morning and told me.”

“He called you?” And him with no tap on that damn phone. “What else did he say?”

“That if I didn’t dance for him — tonight — both Carmen and Hannah would die.”

“Did he let you talk to them? Proof of life?”

She shook her head. “He hung up too fast.”

“Where was this Carmen last seen?”

She was looking shaky now, like she was going to puke. He hoped not.

“Last night, Carmen was at the gym with me. The Street Survival class. Afterward, I told her that I couldn’t see her today. I was worried that something would happen to her. I-I couldn’t explain. She was hurt and angry and stormed out of the locker room.”

So she thought it was her fault.

Pucinski had some thoughts on that, too — playing amateur detective just wasn’t smart — but he wasn’t going to share them with her. She was hauling a big load of guilt as it was.

“Sit. Really. Please.” He indicated a chair at the edge of his desk and found a lined tablet. “You’re not related. I can’t officially take a report from you.”

“So you’re not going to do anything?”

“I didn’t say that. As soon as you give me the information I need, I’ll send my partner on this case to take a report from the girl’s parents. I’m assuming they don’t know anything about your involvement in The Hunter Case.”

“Of course not.” Lilith started writing. “I couldn’t tell Mrs. Vargas.”

“She’ll know soon enough.”

Lilith’s expression tightened, but she kept writing. When she was done, she handed him the tablet. He checked over the information.

Just then, DeSalvo wandered in, saying, “I was gonna get some lunch. You want anything?”

“Perfect timing. I want you to do this before you do anything else.” Pucinski handed over the tablet and explained the situation.

“Crap!” DeSalvo said. “Uh, sorry, Miss Mitchell.” DeSalvo shook his head. “I can’t believe he’s got two of them now.”

“Neither can I.”

“The faster you get going, the sooner we can start looking for her,” Pucinski said.

“You got it.” DeSalvo nodded to Lilith and left.

“I need you to do something else, Detective. Get a search warrant for Paul Ensdorf’s home and business.”

“On what grounds?”

“If he’s guilty, he has a heart-half that belonged to Hannah. He left the chain for me in my case at the club.”

“How do you know it was him?”

“She was wearing it the night she went missing. I saw it on her myself. And before you ask, yes, I’m absolutely positive it was hers.”

“But you haven’t seen the chain or heart in Ensdorf’s possession.”

“No.”

“Sorry. I need probable cause to go before a judge.”

“I was afraid you would say that.” Lilith sounded discouraged, but she wasn’t finished. “One more thing. What about Rudy Barnes?”

Pucinski started. Sounded like she’d been a busy amateur sleuth. “You want a search warrant on his place, too?”

“Is Barnes a suspect?”

“He’s a person of interest.”

“If you have a folder on him, I need to know. He figured out what I was doing at the club. Challenged me over it last night. Said he didn’t want to see any more dead girls. So what do you have on him? Is he someone I should be watching or not?”

“You shouldn’t be doing any of this.”

“A little late for a lecture!” she snapped. “If we’re lucky, we have a matter of a few days left to find my sister. And who knows about Carmen since he’s not taken two together before. Now what about Barnes?”

Pucinski couldn’t see a reason not to tell her. All she had to do was get on the Internet, and she would find it. “Barnes lived with his family in a far suburb until a couple of years ago. A cousin lived with them, too. She disappeared. A couple weeks later, her body was found in the nearby woods. Her neck was broken. Barnes was a suspect, but there was no proof. The case is still unsolved.”

“Wait! A girl dead in the woods. Isn’t that awfully like the victims killed in the forest preserve? And you haven’t arrested him?”

“I have no proof. I can’t arrest him on a hunch. But he’s being watched.”

“You think he’s the one, then.”

“I didn’t say that. I’m just covering all my bases.”

oOo

DEPRESSED ANEW AFTER LEAVING Pucinski, Lilith stopped for some fast food on the way home. It was nearly two, and she hadn’t eaten yet. Not that she was hungry. But she needed energy to meet the demands of the rest of her day, and forcing herself to eat would help provide that.

As she approached the entrance to Hannah’s place, she saw a brightly wrapped package leaning against the door. Her heart began to thunder. Had someone left something for Hannah? She brought the package inside and saw LILITH scrawled on an envelope.

Her hand shook as she pulled the card free from the wrapping and opened it.

FOR A CLASS ACT. WEAR THIS DRESS TO DINNER AT GRANDMOTHER’S TONIGHT. SIX SHARP. DON’T BE LATE AGAIN, OR YOU’LL BE SORRY.

The message was followed by an address.

Lilith tore open the package, muttering, “Oh, God, dinner.” And pulled out a long, flowing flower-print dress that seemed vaguely familiar. “Paul Ensdorf is crazy.”

She went to the closet and, rummaging through the dresses on the rack, pulled out the one she’d considered wearing to the tea.

The two dresses were almost identical.

Any appetite she’d had was gone.

Could she really do it? Go to the home of a potential killer?

And then, later, dance for him?

She would do anything, she reminded herself.

Anything to save Hannah and Carmen.

oOo

Chapter 18

LILITH ARRIVED at the Ensdorf Funeral Home building exactly on time. It was the old kind of setup, a century old business with the apartment on the second floor. She rang the doorbell and within seconds was buzzed up. Climbing up the dimly lit stairwell, the weird, musty smell made her think of death. Her anxiety rose with each step.

The door opened before she could knock. “I knew that was you.” Wearing a dark suit and tie, Paul held the door open for Lilith and indicated she should come inside. “You wore the dress. It looks perfect on you.”

Perfect fifty years ago, she thought. “Thank you. It was so thoughtful of you to buy it for me.”

His hair slicked down around his face, Paul beamed at her. “Come, come. Grandmother is anxiously waiting to meet you.”

Paul put a hand at her waist and pushed her forward. She tried not to shiver in response. He took her straight through the living room, filled with an ancient stuffed sofa and chairs, all with doilies on the arms to keep them protected. The equally old-fashioned dining room was growing dark, but the overhead crystal chandelier remained unlit.

Already sitting at the head of a massive wooden table with carved legs with animal feet, Paul’s grandmother wore an even more matronly version of Lilith’s dress. In the shadows, the old woman looked spooky, with tufts of white hair sticking out from little twists surrounding her head.

“Lilith, this is Grandmother Ensdorf. Grandmother, this is Lilith. Now isn’t she everything I promised.”

“We’ll see,” the old woman said in an unnaturally strident voice. “The food is getting cold, and I’m hungry. Sit.”

On their plates already set before their chairs: peas, lumpy-looking mashed potatoes and what looked like overcooked liver. Despite the fact that she’d only eaten a single piece of chicken earlier, Lilith’s stomach turned over at the rank smell.

“Here, Lilith,” Paul said, pulling a chair back for her.

Lilith sat and gave him a little nod. He took the seat across from her.

“Thank the Lord first, then eat,” Grandmother said.

Paul bowed his head and did as she ordered, ending with, “Thanks for these and all the gifts you give us. Amen.”

Grandmother forked a piece of meat and stuck it in her mouth with enthusiasm. “I’ve always been fond of organ meat.” She smacked appreciatively.

Paul looked straight at Lilith. “Everyone involved in the family business is.”

Grandmother and Paul giggled together. Lilith’s stomach churned. The smell of the liver getting to her, she pushed away her plate while Paul and Grandmother ate with relish.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Paul asked.

“Humph.” Grandmother pouted. “Probably hates my cooking.”

Paul reached over and patted her hand. “Impossible.”

Lilith used the first excuse that came to her — she didn’t want to be asked to leave before she had the opportunity to do what she came for. “I have to watch my calories or I won’t be able to fit in my uniform — one of the downsides of my job.”

“Girls, these days.” Grandmother made a tsk-tsk-tsk of disapproval. “Always starving themselves.”

“Lilith won’t have to worry about that much longer if I have my way with her.”

Lilith hid her revulsion behind her linen napkin and wondered how long it would be before she could escape this place of death.

oOo

LILITH BROUGHT IN a stack of dirty dishes and piled them on the counter next to the sink. She checked to make sure she wasn’t followed. Listened intently to the murmur of voices from the other room.

Going to the back door, she stealthily unlocked it and winced at the sound of the dead bolt sliding open. When she heard footsteps, she hurried to the sink and set the dishes in a pan of soapy water. No dishwasher here. This place hadn’t been remodeled in the last half-century. The cabinets were all metal, the refrigerator and stove avocado green. Wanting to orient herself, she quickly checked out the window so she would be certain of where to find the back entrance just before Paul joined her.

He stood too close. “Change your mind about going to service with Grandmother and me tonight?”

“I’m not the religious type.”

He placed his hands on her hips and pressed his groin into her buttocks. Wanting to gag, she had to fight her instincts to toss him. She needed the chance to search his place. She would do nothing to ruin it.

“You could be any type you wanted,” he said, his mouth practically in her ear. “You could take the opportunity I’m offering you.”

“Sounds like you’ve offered this opportunity to someone before. Who?”

“Jealous? You’re not the first woman in my life.”

He started rubbing himself against her — not that it seemed to be doing much for him, at least not as far as she could tell. Remembering his sister saying he couldn’t get it up, she wondered if he’d resorted to torturing and killing women for sexual satisfaction.

She noticed the kitchen door opening slightly and realized the old woman was spying on them.

“So who was she, Paulie — the other woman?”

“She was not important. You’re important.” He wrapped his arms around her so he could cup her breasts as he pressed her against the sink.

Wanting in the worst way to flip him and press her foot on his windpipe, Lilith eased herself out of his grasp and said, “You know I’m scheduled to work in a half hour.”

“And I have to take Grandmother to church. Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’ll be at the club to see you and Melinda as soon as I bring Grandmother home and tuck her in bed.” He tried to get in a position to kiss her. “We have a few more minutes.”

Lilith forced herself to smile. “I need to leave now. If I’m late, Sal will dock my salary.”

“I understand. But you realize once we’re together, you won’t be working at the club anymore.”

Paul opened the swinging door for her. Standing at the far end of the living room now, Grandmother merely watched her leave with a satisfied smile.

Lilith didn’t go far. Just across the street to a vestibule of an apartment house that gave her a view of the glowing mortuary sign and the entrance below.

“C’mon, c’mon.” She really had to get going if she was going to go through with her plan for the night.

At last, Paul left the building with Grandmother. He helped the elderly woman into a car parked right out front.

As soon as they drove off, Lilith whipped out of the vestibule and rushed across the street. She went around to the alley and took the open stairway to the kitchen door that she’d unlocked.

Once inside, she began a frantic search, checking bookshelves, opening the drawers in the kitchen and then the dining room. In the living room, she searched the drawers in the old-fashioned end tables.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

The small hallway off the living room gave her access to four doors. One revealed the bathroom, another Grandmother’s bedroom, the other two were closed. She tried one of the closed doors.

Locked.

She jiggled the handle. Felt above the door for a possible key. Stooped to peek through the keyhole.

Complete darkness.

Frustrated, she tried the other door. It opened to the bedroom, and she rushed inside and attacked the chest of drawers. They were filled with nothing but the usual clothing.

Opening the nightstand drawer, she stopped short.

Irene’s stocking sat on Club Paradise souvenirs — flyers, ads and matches. She looked without touching the stocking. One of the flyers spotlighted Hannah. No heart-half. When she pulled the drawer open further, she found a few sex toys thrown in the back. Handcuffs and nipple clamps.

Proof? Of what? Murder or simple perversion?

A scuffle behind her threw her pulse into overdrive. She whipped around to find Paul standing in the hall doorway. His eyes flicked past her to the open drawer, then to his bed. “I didn’t realize you were so eager, Lilith.”

She tried to push past him, but Paul wrapped his arms around her and planted a big wet kiss on her. He grabbed both of her breasts and tried to back her into the bedroom. Still not wanting to use her Street Survival skills on him in case she needed to get to him again, she shoved him hard and whipped free.

“This was a mistake, Paul,” she called, racing through the living room. “I’m not ready for this yet.” And to herself, she muttered, “I’ll never be ready for this.”

“You can’t just go!”

But she was already out the door.

She exited the building, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Walked toward her car as if possessed, as if she could walk away her demons…

oOo

“IS HE GOING TO kill us?” Carmen asked, crying. “I think he gave me some drug that knocked me out, but he said terrible things.”

Hannah had to steel herself against the girl’s tears so she didn’t start crying, too. “You were having a nightmare.”

“No, I swear I heard him when he dumped me here. He said Lilith was your sister.”

Hannah stared at the girl Lilith mentored. She was only seventeen, without a clue as to how this was going to work. She was so naive. The killer said he might let her go, but Hannah didn’t believe it. He wouldn’t leave anyone who might be able to give the cops a clue. Hannah might have been resentful and jealous that day in the zoo, but now she pitied Carmen whose only crime had been to trust Hannah’s sister.

“He has no reason to kill you,” Hannah said, trying to allay the girl’s fear. This was her fault. “Me and Lilith… we’ll probably get out of this with nothing more than a scare, too.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Hannah lied.

The least she could do was make it easier on Carmen. Maybe he’d make the girl’s death swift so she wouldn’t even see it coming. Not so for her and Lilith. He was going to make Lilith watch.

“Lilith told me she had a sister, but that she didn’t know where you were. So she finally found you?”

Lilith had told Carmen about her? So Lilith hadn’t given up hope of finding her.

“Yeah, something like that.”

Despite her resolve, desperate tears slid from her eyes, bathing her cheeks.

Lilith had warned her she was in danger, and she’d ignored the warning.

Ignoring it had brought this hell down on them all. Her fault. All her fault.

“So how are we going to get out of here?” Carmen asked.

Hannah jerked her handcuff against the bedframe. “There’s a little matter of we can’t even move around the room.”

“Never?”

“He has let me go to that pit of a toilet when he brings food.”

“Then there’s a chance. If I can get free, maybe I can take him.”

She could take him? Crazy talk. She was a kid, for God’s sake.

Hannah shook her head. “You’re not very big. How are you gonna take him?”

“There’s two of us and only one of him. Lilith says it’s all in the body language. I wasn’t ready for him last time, but I will be now.”

Two of them… was it possible…?

Afraid to let herself hope, Hannah asked, “So what’s your plan?”

oOo

Chapter 19

MUSIC SEEMED TO blare louder in the club when Lilith sought the sanctuary of the dressing room only to find Caresse searching through a case — Lilith’s case. Frowning, she stood and stared a moment as the other woman dug around just as she had with the other girls’ possessions.

“Looking for something?”

Caresse popped up and knocked over the case. Makeup and hair clips spilled onto the floor. Caresse immediately got on her knees and stuffed the loose articles back where they belonged.

“Sorry, Lilith. One of my eyelashes came off, and I ran out of glue. I was gonna borrow yours. Hope that’s not a problem.”

Lilith saw she was telling the truth about the eyelash, but there was glue in full view on the counter.

“No. No problem.” She stepped forward, picked up the tube and handed it to Caresse, who had the grace to looked shamed.

“Lord, ain’t I the peabrain? Must’ve looked right at it and not seen it.”

“You must have.”

Not that Lilith believed it.

She took a big breath. It was time. Having brought one of Hannah’s costumes with her, she changed out of her uniform into the spangly gold number from the underwear to the boneless hourglass corset to the micromini that added a touch of modesty. She was going to do this, but she didn’t like it, and she certainly wasn’t comfortable getting on that damn stage.

“What the hell you doing?” Caresse asked.

“What does it look like? I’m getting dressed.”

“To do what? Not dance.”

She unfroze her lips to say “Yes, dance.”

She had to buy time for Hannah and Carmen. She was going to do this for them.

“Child, are you crazy? You can’t go out there looking like that. Like Anna.”

“Why not? There must be good money in dancing or you wouldn’t do it, right?”

Lilith wasn’t about to play true confessions with Caresse. She didn’t trust anyone here, certainly not a woman who dug through other people’s things and took whatever she wanted. She’d made a deal with Irene, though, to dance to her music. Told the woman it was a one-time surprise for her boyfriend and asked her not to let anyone know lest word got around.

Her stomach clenched every time she thought about it.

“You’re asking for trouble,” Caresse said. “As if you haven’t already. There’s a killer out there who already has you on his radar. You taunt him, and he’s gonna come for you.”

That’s what she was counting on.

This time, she was stoked psychologically.

This time, she was ready for him.

oOo

DESPITE THAT, Lilith’s stomach still churned when she sashayed across the stage to hot music. Not the real Lilith. This one wasn’t thinking about what she was doing as she strutted her stuff, but her body was taking over where her mind simply wanted to shut down.

She went on auto-dance.

Inviting the men in the room to taste something they couldn’t have.

Taunting them.

When bile rose into her throat, she reminded herself she was doing this for Hannah and Carmen. To save them for at least another day. To draw out the killer. Get him to make his move on her. Her body wasn’t sacred. Their young lives were.

Anyone who hadn’t paid attention to her before was doing so now, including several topless dancers with customers who stopped their lap dances to watch.

“I got something for you!” a man called out.

Another said, “Hey, baby, over here!”

“No, here!” insisted a third, who was waving a twenty.

Fake it. Fake it, she told herself.

Lilith went to them all, let them tuck bills into her corset. Steeled her mind against strange fingers touching her. Removed the modesty skirt and let them put more in her g-string. There was nothing unnatural or stiff about the way she was moving, nor about the way she was smiling as if each and every man in the room were desirable. This wasn’t personal — not that most of them understood that.

This was for Hannah and Carmen.

To give them more time.

Her attention was only marginally on the enthusiastic customers around the stage as, all the while, she scanned the room for a killer. As if she could somehow identify him from his rapt interest in her.

Having a drink with a customer at his table in front of the deejay’s booth, Caresse sat stiff, her expression disapproving. Behind her, Rudy Barnes shook his head as he watched, arms crossed over his chest. On the other side of the room, Paul Ensdorf looked both seduced and aggrieved as he did when his sister Melinda danced. As usual, Michael sat at a table near the wall. She couldn’t begin to read him. Or Gabe, who’d stepped away from the bar to watch.

Still dressed in the corset and g-string, Lilith picked up the skirt from the stage floor with numb fingers and tossed it over her shoulder just as the music ended. A discontented rumbling set through the room.

“More!”

“Take it off!”

The killer had only told her to dance for him, not to strip for him.

“Hey, where’s the flesh?”

Ignoring the demands and questions, Lilith took her time strolling off the stage as Melinda came on.

“Not bad for a first dance,” Melinda whispered, then went into her act.

Lilith prayed that it had been enough to save her sister and Carmen until she could find them.

oOo

AN HOUR LATER, Lilith wondered what she was doing back at Michael’s place. After she’d put herself out like that, nothing. To her disappointment, she wasn’t any closer to knowing the identity of the killer than she had been when the evening started.

She’d changed back into her waitress costume and had gone back on the floor. And nothing. Paul wasn’t even speaking to her. Rudy had gone back in his booth. Gabe had suggested she was going to get herself killed. And when she asked Michael how he’d liked it, he’d said, “What I would like is to hear what this Lilith has to say.”

And so, deflated, she’d left the club halfway through the night, and here she was, sitting in front of Michael’s camera once more.

The red light glowed, telling her he was recording.

“Let’s go back to your stepfather. The cruelty you suffered at his hands — how has that affected the way you see the world?”

Surprised that he hadn’t jumped right into the fact that she’d gotten on stage tonight, Lilith said, “You mean the way I see men? I don’t hate men, if that’s what you’re getting at. Not all men, anyway. Only the ones who have to prove their strength by beating up on the weak. Women. Kids.”

“What would you like to do about it?”

Lilith looked away from the camera. Elena had basically asked her the same thing. She still didn’t know how to answer that. Part of her hungered for vigilante action, but most of her just wanted to see justice done.

When she didn’t answer, Michael surprised her by stopping the recording. The red light went off, and he stepped out of the shadows.

“Wouldn’t you like to get even with the bullies of the world?” Michael asked.

Not wanting to answer, to put into words some of the things she’d been imagining, Lilith realized this was a mistake. She should have stayed at the club, played out her hand. Maybe late at night, when she exited the stage door, he would be waiting to challenge her. The killer.

“Coming here tonight was a mistake. I’m going back to the club.”

As she moved toward the door, Michael stopped her from behind, his hands firm but not cruel on her shoulders. “You always avoid the tough ones, Lilith. Tell me what you really want from this charade.”

Lilith didn’t want to think about it.

It was all she thought about.

“All right. Whoever has my sister and Carmen — I want to be the one to punish him!”

“Carmen? I don’t remember that name.”

“She’s just a kid. A high school girl I was mentoring. He took her to control me. He took her when I was here… with you.”

“My God, I’m sorry.” He wrapped his arms around her middle, pulled her to him, her back to his front, nestled his head against hers and murmured in her ear. “It’s not your fault.”

Suddenly she realized he hadn’t questioned her about her sister. Of course he must have assumed she was related to Hannah.

The killer had.

“Are you sure you don’t want to punish all men?” he asked. “Me?”

“No!”

“I might be willing to let you.”

She knew he was teasing now. Some of the intensity drained out of her, and she leaned back into him. “You don’t know what you’d be in for.”

“Maybe I don’t care. Maybe making up for the men who’ve hurt you and disappointed you would be worth the risk. Hasn’t any man ever been willing to do that for you before?”

While she dated occasionally, it was for the sex, nothing long-term.

“I don’t do relationships.” Her tension escalated again, making it difficult to breathe normally.

Michael switched ears, sensually brushing his face against her hair in the process. “Because you’ve never let yourself trust any man before. You can trust me, Lilith.”

“I thought last time you told me not to trust you.”

“That was before you knew me.”

“I don’t know you now.”

“You could if you wanted to. Do you want to? Isn’t that why you’re here?”

He straightened, urged her shoulders back against him. Massaged her neck. She closed her eyes. Allowed his hands to seduce the tension from her.

His hands explored more of her.

Her breathing grew heavier. She didn’t object when he unzipped the back of her dress. Slipped it down over her shoulders. Kissed the side of her neck. Turned her face toward him so he could take her mouth.

His hands moved lower, slid her dress up over her thighs. Disappeared under her skirt. Jerked and pulled.

Tossed what was left of her satin panties.

Unable to resist, she turned in his arms and sought his belt and zipper.

His trousers fell. He wasn’t wearing boxers or briefs. Holding his naked hips, she pressed him back and down onto a stool, following. Lifted her skirts. Straddled him.

The kiss broke with a double moan as they made the connection.

He pulled her tight.

She wrapped her legs around his back.

They rocked together.

Hot and fast sex. Exactly what she needed.

Mindless. Exquisite. Torture.

She draped herself back, over his arm, giving him access to her breasts. He suckled her nipples through the material of her dress, made her cry out with need. Then they cried out together, and, mind vaulting into the void, she dangled backward, back arched, completely open and vulnerable.

Even as she came up out of the abyss, she whispered, “How long can you keep this up?” Every nerve in her body alive with pleasure.

“All night if I have to. First I could use a shower.” He backed off, holding her hand. “C’mon. Shower with me. I can think of places to soap up that you’d like.”

But the sex haze was winding down, and reality stood between them. She might be a little in lust with him, but he was simply a distraction. A stress reliever.

“I’m shy. Go ahead. Maybe after you.”

“I’ll just be a few minutes. You’re not going to leave, are you?” Michael grinned at her as he backed away and headed for the bathroom. “Because I’m going to be really bummed if you leave now.”

No promises. “Take your shower.”

He disappeared into the bathroom. She stared at his equipment. Surely she could figure out how to use it.

Though she could hear the water turn on, she yelled, “Hey, where’s the recording from last time?”

No answer. Obviously, Michael couldn’t hear her over the running water. She took a better look at the equipment. He was using some kind of portable recorder/monitor that used memory cards. She popped out the one in the recorder and found the box holding others. They were in alphabetical order but she didn’t see one marked ‘Lilith.’

She started from the back, flipping them one at a time, reading off the names which included Rusty… Melinda… Mariko… Irene… no Lilith. She flipped the next memory card and froze.

Hannah.

Shocked, she picked up the card and held it as carefully as she might a live snake before putting it in the recorder and hitting Play.

Lilith choked up when Hannah appeared on the monitor.

“I dance because I don’t know anything else,” came her faint voice.

Lilith realized the sound was coming out of a pair of headsets.

“Have you ever tried?”

Michael’s voice. Heart pounding, Lilith grabbed the headsets and held them where she could hear better.

“Last time I got a job as a store clerk. I wanted to eat, so I couldn’t pay my rent. I ended up back on the street.”

Lilith felt as if her heart might break all over again.

“I met someone who was nice to me. Introduced me to Sal. There’s nothing wrong with what I do. It’s not like I’m a hooker!”

“Why did you run?”

“My stepfather hurt me. He said it was because of my sister — hurting me would hurt her. That’s when I understood why she left. I ran so she’d never have to come back for me. She’d be so ashamed.”

Lilith blinked and tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Maybe she would have understood.”

“How could she? Lilith wants to help girls who can’t take care of themselves.”

Lilith stared and quickly hit Pause. She blinked away the tears.

Replayed.

“How could she? Lilith wants to help girls who can’t take care of themselves.”

Replayed.

Lilith wants to help girls who can’t take care of themselves.”

Froze it.

Stared at the door to Michael’s bedroom.

Lilith’s mind whirled. She had to face the truth. Michael had known all along. She’d been certain he’d guessed the connection, but he’d known. And hadn’t said a thing.

Emotions warred in her.

Anger.

Guilt.

Horror.

She was disappointed and angry with herself.

He’d played her. To what end?

What if Gabe had been right?

What if Michael was the killer?

Unable to face him with her speculations, she raced out of his place, banging the door against the wall.

oOo

HE HAD HER. Lilith had danced for him. Elated as he entered the abandoned building, he replayed the event in his mind. She might not have stripped, but she had danced.

He knew she’d been looking for him. He’d been right there in plain sight, and she’d never guessed.

Should he make her dance again, tell her this time she had to do it for real?

Then other men would see what he wanted for himself.

He hated that idea.

He’d wanted control, and now he knew he had it — that was the point of the demand on her.

Unlocking the door to the room where he was keeping the sister and the girl, he decided he would rather wait until he could see Lilith in the woods, where the moon would glaze her flesh with a silver-blue light. He was so hot to do her, he wanted that right now.

Patience, he told himself as he looked over his hostages. The sister was sprawled on the cot, her expression haunted. The girl curled against the radiator, her head bowed. Neither looked his way.

He loved inspiring such fear.

“Food,” he said, throwing a bag of burgers and fries on the cot.

Unsure of how long he was going to play this game, he had to keep them alive.

“Toilet first,” the sister said. “Before my bladder bursts.”

He freed her and walked her to the door, watched her take her seat on the toilet.

“Me, too, please.”

The girl’s voice quivered.

“When she gets back.”

“Now, please. Hurry, or I’ll pee on myself.”

Feeling generous since he was in such a good mood, he undid the lock to her handcuffs when he heard the flush. The girl used the radiator to steady herself until she got to her feet. She stood there shaking.

“What are you waiting for?” he asked.

The girl ran into the toilet, knocking into Lilith’s sister as she was coming out.

“Hey, you little brat, watch where you’re going.”

He grabbed the sister’s arm and pulled her back to the cot. “You really are a controlling bitch, aren’t you?”

He had her wrist in one hand, the cuff in the other, when what felt like a hot poker hit him in the right kidney. He let go and whipped around to see the girl in a fighter’s stance.

Her expression reminded him of Lilith.

“And what do you think you’re going to do to me?” he demanded.

“This!”

She kicked and he moved, deflecting the strike to his knee. Then a live weight was on his back, arms wrapped around his neck. For a moment, they had him, one trying to strangle him, the other hitting him over and over in the stomach and head, kicking at his knees and his balls.

And then he got pissed, jerked forward in a crouch, so the one on his back went flying over his head into the other. They both cried out as they landed in a heap.

“Nice try,” he said.

Now it was his turn. He showed them how to do it, how to tear into a weaker opponent, taught them a lesson with his fists and feet that they would never forget.

Not for the short time they had left to live…

oOo

Chapter 20

LILITH FELT LIKE she was on Speed. Her pulse was racing. Her mind was whirling. She couldn’t drive back to the club fast enough to find Gabe and tell him about Michael’s recording of Hannah.

But once she got there, he was nowhere to be seen.

As she made her way to the bar, she was the focus of attention. Men who recognized her made little sounds of appreciation when she passed them. Undoubtedly they’d started fantasizing about her while she danced.

No fake smiles from her tonight. She was taut. Hostile. They quickly turned their eyes away.

“Joe, have you seen Gabe?”

“Yeah, he was here earlier. Left maybe a half hour ago.”

“Thanks.”

Now what? She didn’t have Gabe’s phone number, but she had Pucinski’s.

Pulling out her cell, she left the back way. She was so angry and so wrapped up playing over the relationship with Michael in her head, that she almost missed the arm dangling out of the trash bin.

Almost.

She stopped dead in her tracks, and the breath froze in her throat.

A woman’s arm.

A black woman’s arm.

Her first instinct was to run and get help, but she couldn’t make herself move. She stuffed the cell phone back in her pocket. Her hands shook as she lifted the trash bin’s lid, but even before she got it open, Lilith knew what she would find.

Caresse lay on the heap of black bags, her limbs askew as if someone had tossed her inside as carelessly as the rest of the garbage. She was still dressed in her skimpy costume, and even under the yellow alley light, Lilith could see she was covered in her own blood.

The costume left her stomach bare, exposing an open knife wound.

Thinking Caresse was dead, Lilith choked back a sob. The dancer had been kind to her, had warned her to stay safe. So what wrong move had she made to incite such violence. Who did this to her? The hunter-murderer?

Not that she fit his profile.

But what if…

The idea drifted off when Lilith realized that blood still oozed from the open wound.

Could Caresse still be alive?

Taking a closer look, she saw the woman’s lips part slightly — Caresse was still breathing, if barely.

Lilith used a hand to apply pressure to the wound. Warm blood oozed between her fingers. She swallowed hard when she tasted bile.

“Help is coming, Caresse. Don’t die,” she pleaded, and then, with her free hand, pulled her cell phone from her pocket and made that call to Pucinski.

oOo

MICHAEL TOOK a fast shower and left the bathroom wrapped in a towel. The place was quiet. Too quiet. Fearing that, despite her promise, Lilith had left again, he went straight through the bedroom to the living area.

“Lilith?”

Then he saw the monitor.

The freeze-frame of Hannah.

And the open door.

“Fuck!”

He called her cell, but the call went straight to voice mail.

“Come on, Lilith. Where are you?”

oOo

LILITH PACED the corridor of the emergency room, waiting to hear about Caresse. She couldn’t get rid of the picture in her mind of Caresse covered in her own blood. It was a snapshot that would be burned in her brain forever.

The ambulance had arrived two minutes after she’d made the call. Detective Pucinski was with Caresse now, wanting to get a statement when the medical team brought her around.

 If they brought her around.

What if they didn’t?

What if Caresse didn’t survive?

Let her be all right. She didn’t know if anyone was listening, but she hoped so. No one deserved to die like that.

She took a seat in the waiting area and sat frozen, her mind going in circles. She’d left Michael’s place after thinking he could be the killer. But she’d been with him when Caresse had been knifed, so he’d had nothing to do with that. And how likely was it that two killers stalked the same club? She didn’t believe in coincidence. At least she was relieved that she’d been correct about Michael in the first place. His only crime had been to keep what he knew about Hannah and her to himself.

So who had knifed Caresse? And why?

Had the dancer seen or overheard something that could shed light on The Hunter Case? Did the killer decide to keep Caresse from talking? If so, no doubt he believed he’d left her for dead.

Which made her wonder whether Hannah and Carmen were still alive.

Just when she thought she couldn’t stand waiting another minute without some kind of information, Pucinski came down the corridor looking for her. Lilith jumped out of her seat and met him halfway.

“Did she make it?”

He nodded. “The surgery went okay. She’s not awake yet, but they say she’s gonna live.”

“Thank God.” Relief eased the tension in Lilith’s body — she’d been strung tight since finding Caresse. “Who could have done this to her?”

“The same psycho who took your sister.”

“I thought so, too. If that’s true, not Michael, then. I was with him.”

“I assume you mean Wyndham.” When she nodded, he said, “She must have been closing in for the bust, and the killer must’ve figured it out.”

“Bust?” Confused, Lilith asked, “What are you talking about?”

“Arresting the bastard. She’s been working the club since the second murder. Got all torn up because she didn’t get to him before he got to your sister.”

“Wait. You’re saying that Caresse was the undercover cop?” When he nodded in agreement, Lilith’s breath caught in her throat. “Oh, my God.” Stunned, she asked, “What about Gabe O’Malley? He’s been at the club every night.”

“Not on the job, he hasn’t. He’s been assigned to a paperwork detail for the last three months. Got benched after working over a perp.”

Her mind already churning, Lilith backed off. “If Caresse wakes up, tell her I’m pulling for her.”

“Hey, wait a minute!”

But she couldn’t wait. She ignored him and raced out of the hospital.

Why had Gabe made her believe he was working undercover if he wasn’t? She had to find out if she’d missed the obvious right under her nose. If Gabe was the one. She had to be sure this time. She’d been ready to tell Gabe that Michael could be guilty, and she’d been wrong.

She couldn’t accuse another innocent man.

oOo

MICHAEL CHECKED Hannah’s place. No Lilith. She wasn’t at the club, either. Joe told him about Caresse, how Lilith had found her.

His stomach as heavy as if he’d ingested a ton of lead, he headed straight for the hospital emergency room. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out what Lilith had been up to. He’d known she was Hannah’s sister from the start. And he’d checked her out after she’d started working at the club. He’d known she was trying to draw out the killer. He’d admired that. And he’d known the danger she was drawing to herself.

The more he’d gotten to know Lilith, the more he’d admired her. He’d never before met a woman with such conviction. A woman who was so brave. The more he’d gotten to know her, the less he’d liked what she was doing. He’d tried to talk her out of it, had tried to convince her to quit the club.

He’d be damned if he didn’t try again.

She might not want to listen to him after seeing the interview with her sister, but he was going to tell her everything she wanted to know. And then he was going to try to talk her into leaving the investigation to the police.

Finally in the ER, he went straight to the desk. “I’m looking for Lilith Mitchell. She’s a friend of the woman from Club Paradise who was knifed. Caresse something.”

“Her name is Carrie Walker.” This from a crusty-looking man in a rumpled suit. He’d been talking to a nurse. Now he indicated she should go, and he turned his narrow-gazed attention to Michael. “What do you want with Lilith Mitchell?”

“What business is it of yours?”

The man pulled out a leather holder and flipped it open to show his star. “Detective John Pucinski.”

Michael took a deep breath. He wasn’t liking this. Where in the hell was Lilith?

“I’m a friend concerned for her safety.”

“And why would that be?”

“I know why she got a job at the club.” Figuring Pucinski knew, too, Michael added, “I know about her sister.”

“She tell you all this?”

“Look, it doesn’t matter how I know. I’m worried about her. She left my place without telling me, so I went to the club to make sure she was okay. The bartender told me what happened and that she followed the ambulance here.”

“You missed her by less than five minutes. You know she’s been putting herself at risk at that club.”

Michael’s gut churned. “I tried to get her to quit. She wouldn’t listen to me. I can only imagine how desperate she is to find her sister Hannah and some kid named Carmen before it’s too late. She left here. I fear she’s doing something to find them on her own. Something really crazy.”

oOo

WHEN LILITH arrived at Gabe’s house, she didn’t see his car anywhere. The house itself was dark inside. Good. She waited in the Jaguar for a few minutes to see if anything would change.

No lights.

No movement.

No car pulling up.

As a matter of fact, no one was on the street.

Closing her eyes for a second, she took a deep breath to steady her nerves. She had to do this. Had to find out if Gabe had Hannah and Carmen before it was too late. Had to see if there was proof of his crimes somewhere in the house. Then she could call Pucinski and tell him to arrest the bastard.

“I can do this,” she whispered fiercely. “I CAN DO THIS!”

Another breath and she got out of the car. Looking around carefully, she crossed the parkway and the sidewalk and took the gangway to the rear of the house. As she went, she checked the basement windows. No lights. No way in. When she got to the backyard, she stared into the night in every direction to see if anyone else was around. No one she could see.

Tires squealed nearby, making her jump.

A couple of teenagers out front were laughing.

In the distance, a siren howled.

Then, all grew quiet.

Her stomach was in a knot, but she had to get inside.

Heart hammering, she took one last, furtive look around before popping a glass pane in the door panel. Then she reached inside the opening and unlocked the door. She hesitated a second, listening hard for any sign of life inside.

Silence.

Hardly able to swallow the tension thickening in her throat, she slipped into the rear vestibule. Clicked on her flashlight. Prowled on silent feet. She’d made a quick run home to change into dark workout clothes, a jacket with a hoodie and rubber-soled running shoes. Though certain she was alone in the house, she tried not to make a noise. Just in case.

Half-entering a bedroom, she flashed her beam around. Empty. Down the hall, another bedroom. Equally empty. Across the hall, a bathroom.

Now what?

Seeing an open door and stairs on the other side, she descended into the basement and swung her flashlight in a big arc.

The beam caught the glow of glass eyes, making Lilith start. A stuffed animal head loomed over her, and next to it were others. Below them, a case held weapons — rifles and shotguns and knives. Gabe had said he was a hunter. She’d never seen such a collection, though her stepfather had been a hunter, as well.

As a teenager living in a small southern Illinois town, she’d learned all about guns. She used to fantasize about using one on Marlon, but the only things she’d ever shot had been pop bottles and cans. She would never use one on another human being.

Then she spotted the framed black and white photographs.

“My God! You son-of-a-bitch!”

Lilith flashed her beam to find the light switch on the wall, flipped it on so she could better see the five framed photographs. The first was Gabe’s wife… next, the two murdered women… then Hannah… and finally, the other ripped half of her photo taken from the club.

She was next on his list.

The realization made her go cold inside.

She’d known the killer was dangerous, that he might strike out if she got too close.

This was worse. She had become part of his plan.

She thought of everyone who’d warned her not to do this. Elena. Caresse. Pucinski. Michael. Even Gabe himself. And she hadn’t listened, not to any of them. Now she had a bull’s-eye on her back.

Not that she could stop.

She was thinking that, if only she could find where Gabe was holding Hannah and Carmen, she could leave the rest to the police, when she spotted a mahogany and glass case snugged against the wall. There on the middle shelf was the mate to the heart-half she wore — Hannah’s half.

Absolute proof that he had her sister.

Her gaze moved up to the souvenirs of the two women he’d killed. Disbelieving, she tasted bile for the second time that night.

The papers hadn’t said anything about this. The police must have held back information. She wondered if Gabe’s father would be proud of the way his son had taken to those hunting skills.

Detective Gabriel O’Malley had skinned his victims.

Chunks of long dark hair still attached to their scalps told her exactly what he planned to do to Hannah. And what about Carmen?

Neither was here, so where had he stashed them?

Hand shaking, she pulled out her cell to alert Pucinski. The call went straight to voice mail. Before the greeting was finished so that she could leave a message, she heard a real-life noise.

Above her, a door slammed.

“Gabe,” she whispered, suddenly terrified that he might catch her.

She dropped the call and turned down the ringer volume. Stuck the cell back into her pocket.

Floorboards overhead creaked.

Trying not to panic, she snapped off the light just as she heard the first footsteps on the stairs.

Her legs shook as she slid into the basement’s interior and plastered herself in the shadows surrounding the boiler. Hiding from him gave her time to think. To plot. She could jump him, maybe knock him out, but then she might never be able to find Hannah and Carmen. She hadn’t found anything to indicate where Gabe had stashed them.

When he got to basement level, Gabe switched the light back on.

Certain that he would be able to see her if he looked this way, Lilith hugged the shadows. Her senses went off-kilter — she couldn’t hear beyond her own breath, and her mouth went dry and vision telescoped.

From her vantage point, she could see him through a collection of pipes that split off and ran in different directions to take hot water heat to various parts of the house. Gabe’s back was to her. He was bent over, picking up a case. Careful not to make a sudden movement that might alert him, she strained to see as he set it on a small table next to a leather chair. He started removing items from the weapons cabinet, checking over each item as if he were taking inventory before setting it in the case.

And then he closed the case, picked it up and snapped off the light. His footsteps on the stairs told her when he got to the top. She was already leaving her hiding place. By the time she heard a door open, she was up the stairs and heading for the back. Thankfully, he’d used the front door and hadn’t seen the broken glass.

As much as she wanted to try Pucinski again, she couldn’t take the chance of losing Gabe, who seemed to be off on a hunt. She had no doubt Hannah would be his prey. She would call Pucinski the first chance she got.

Lilith exited the house and slid along the darkened pathway alongside the building and stopped in the shelter of a big bush for cover. She got ready to run. Gabe was just closing the trunk of his black sedan — she recognized it as the car that had followed her the other night. He’d parked several lengths behind Hannah’s Jaguar.

How was she going to get to the Jag without alerting Gabe? Apparently he hadn’t seen Hannah’s car or hadn’t recognized it.

Just then, a truck pulled up behind Gabe and a man exited, saying, “Hey, O’Malley, how’s it hanging?”

“Randy. Not bad. Did you find the source of that leak?”

Apparently a neighbor. He had Gabe’s attention at least for the moment. No time to consider. Like a flash, she raced across the open ground in front of the house and into the shelter of a parkway tree. Heart pumping like mad, she slid into the Jaguar and slipped the keys into the ignition.

Through the rearview mirror, she could see Gabe shaking the neighbor’s hand and punching him in the arm. Just one of the boys.

Then he got in the sedan. The moment she heard him start his car, she started the Jaguar. She waited for him to drive past her, to get to the corner and make a turn, before she turned on her lights, pulled away from the parking space and followed.

Certain he was headed for Hannah and Carmen, she was going to be right behind him.

Oddly enough, Gabe didn’t get onto the expressway but circled around to North Avenue and drove west a few miles, then turned south, heading into a questionable neighborhood of too many overgrown lots and boarded up buildings.

Where was Gabe keeping Hannah and Carmen? The graffiti on buildings told her he was leading her deep into gang territory.

He turned onto a side street. Not wanting to alert him, she pulled over to the curb where she could see him, but he wouldn’t notice her. She waited until he got to the end of the block and crossed the intersection before following. Luckily, when he got halfway down the block, she spotted his headlights turning into a drive that went to the back of a building.

She parked on the street one building down from where he’d turned in. Before following, she tried Pucinski again.

Voice mail.

What now?

Michael.

Hesitating only a second, she tried his number. He answered on the first ring.

“Lilith, where the hell are you?”

“The west side.” She gave him the address. “I followed Gabe O’Malley. This must be where he’s holding Hannah and Carmen. You have to get that information to Detective Pucinski, please!”

“Pucinski is–”

“I don’t have time to talk. I’m going in!”

She heard him say, “Lilith, no!” as she ended the call.

oOo

Chapter 21

CARMEN WAS handcuffed to a radiator, Hannah to a cot.

The way they’d both been worked over stopped Lilith’s breath.

Barely able to believe her eyes, she stared and fought the urge to sink to her knees. Dear Lord, she’d known they wouldn’t get away unscathed… but this…

She visualized smashing Gabe’s head into a brick wall.

Carmen’s face was a mess. Bruises were blooming beneath smears of dried blood, and the eye Lilith could see was swollen shut. With her bruised wrist handcuffed to a radiator, Carmen had collapsed on the floor, her head tilted at an odd angle. Lilith didn’t know whether or not she was conscious.

“Oh, Carmen,” she whispered.

The girl’s head snapped up and around, and her good eye went wide. She whispered, too, her words slurred because one side of her cheek and mouth was swollen. “…knew ya’d come!”

Grateful that the girl seemed to be okay other than the cuts and bruises, Lilith put her finger to her lips, and when Carmen nodded in agreement, she moved to see to her sister, who lay handcuffed to the cot. It took everything in her not to cry out at the sight.

Blood still oozed from a nasty gash in Hannah’s hairline. Both eyes were swollen closed, her mouth was so swollen it was slightly agape, and the lower lip was split. Still in the dress she’d worn the night she’d been taken, the additional injuries on her arms and legs brought tears to Lilith’s eyes.

In far worse shape than Carmen, Hannah lay as still as death.

A thought that choked Lilith.

No, not after all this…

But Hannah didn’t seem to be breathing.

Lilith’s heart thundered as she sat on the edge of the cot and felt for a pulse, and she nearly collapsed in relief when she found a light, irregular thread.

Let her live. Please let her live!

She gently touched and shook her sister’s shoulder to wake her, but Hannah’s swollen eyes didn’t so much as crack open.

Where the hell was backup? She might be able to defend herself against Gabe, but Hannah and Carmen needed medical help. How long before Pucinski arrived with the cavalry?

Had Michael even been able to contact the detective?

Pulling her cell from her pocket, she was about to try calling him again when she heard a footfall behind her. The bastard’s laugh cut through her, and she dropped the phone and bolted up off the cot and whirled around–

“Looking for me?”

–barely getting a glimpse of Gabe before he struck out with a rifle butt and whacked her in the head.

Her mind lit with bright lights before going dark.

oOo

“AS IF YOU COULD save anyone,” Gabe muttered, his laughter stilled when Lilith collapsed at his feet.

“No! Lilith!” the girl wailed.

“Your Lilith can’t help you now.”

The little bitch had jumped him. He took pleasure in taunting her.

She swallowed a sob and glared at him in silence.

Gabe ignored the girl and fetched a length of rope. He hadn’t expected Lilith to find his lair. How had she figured it out? No one else had been able to identify him as the hunter killer. Other than the bitch they’d planted at the club. But he’d taken care of Caresse for good. She wouldn’t be able to tell anyone anything.

Lilith must have figured out he was the killer on her own. She must have followed him here from home.

That ruined his plans.

He’d been anticipating torturing her until she was out of her mind with fear, then taking her when she least expected it.

“I guess the time-line just moved up for us, sweetheart.”

“What’re you goin’ t’ do t’ ’er?”

He ignored the girl’s frantic slur and checked the sister, who wasn’t looking so good. Nice handiwork. He congratulated himself.

And then he shook her. Hard.

“Hey, wake up. Hannah! You want to see your sister alive, open those eyes right now!”

If she heard him, it was in some faraway place. Her eyes flicked open to slits in the swelling, but they didn’t focus.

“Sit up.” He tried to force her, but she merely moaned, and her eyes shut again.

“Stop it! You’re ’urting ’er!”

Obviously he wasn’t going to rouse Hannah. She’d gone to a place he couldn’t reach, so he abandoned the idea of doing the sisters in tandem.

Disappointed.

At least he had the one he really wanted. A real challenge for once. He would take her to the forest preserve and get rid of the sister and girl later.

oOo

PUCINSKI WAS driving with lights and sirens flashing, DeSalvo and uniformed backup spread out a short distance behind him. He navigated straight through a red light at an intersection and narrowly missed a jerk who wasn’t paying attention. Pissed him off good. He’d like to give the careless bastard a ticket but couldn’t stop.

“Can’t you go any faster?” Wyndham urged. “We’re already more than ten minutes behind Lilith.”

“I’d fly if I could; believe me. Settle down. We’ll be there in two minutes.”

Wyndham was near basket-casenervous over the Mitchell woman. Apparently, she’d gotten to him good. Pucinski wondered how exactly that had happened under the circumstances

“Interesting how this all turned out,” he mused. “You were one of our chief persons of interest.”

“If so, why are we going after O’Malley just on Lilith’s word?”

“Something I should have picked up on earlier, if I hadn’t been so worried about Carrie… Caresse… Officer Walker. Why did Lilith Mitchell think O’Malley was involved in the investigation unless he made her believe that?”

“Your undercover officer never suspected him?”

“She did identify O’Malley as a person of interest, but only as a customer in the club night after night.”

“I don’t understand,” Wyndham said. “O’Malley is a cop. Why is he doing this? What the hell is his motive?”

Pucinski didn’t know why he hadn’t put it all together before, other than you didn’t usually suspect someone on the job, at least not in a vile case like this.

He said, “O’Malley’s ex-wife, who happens to be alive, is the motive. She blew the whistle on him about his brutality issue after he made his last arrest. He’d been abusing her for years, and she knew what he was doing on the job. He finally pushed her too far. Her deposition got him suspended, then reassigned as a paper pusher while he was working on his anger management. He needed a psych evaluation to clear him, to get him off desk duty. In the meantime, the wife left him and got full custody of his kids.”

“And he’s one of our finest.”

“Don’t equate him with everyone else on the job!” Pucinski snapped. “Most of us eat out our guts trying to bring fucks like this one in.”

He could use a swig of Pepto-Bismol now.

Approaching the side street where he would turn, Pucinski cut his siren and flashing lights. He’d already cautioned backup to do the same. He hit the intersection, From the address, he knew the building was on the next block. Plenty of parking. He pulled to the curb and got out in tandem with Wyndham. The building was numbered. This was it, but it was dark. Shuttered tight as far as he could tell.

Abandoned.

“What are we waiting for?” Wyndham asked.

“Keep your shorts on.” He nodded to the car pulling up behind his. A patrol car was coming down the street. And he could see a second patrol car turning in from the main artery. “That’s what I was waiting for. Backup.”

DeSalvo was out of his car before the squad pulled up. “What’s the plan?”

“We circle the building, don’t leave an opening in case he’s still inside. I want the others in place near any other doors before we go in.”

“I’m going with you,” Wyndham said.

“You’re staying out here at the curb until I say otherwise.”

“But Lilith–”

“Is in better hands than yours for the moment. You make a wrong move, and she’s dead.”

“Yeah, okay.” Wyndham stepped down.

Pucinski figured he’d been watching too many movies with average Joes turning into heroes. Real life didn’t work like that.

Seconds later, Pucinski was surrounded by officers and gave them their orders. Then with a last glance at a very frustrated Wyndham who stood sour-faced at the curb as ordered, he and DeSalvo headed down the drive alongside the building. They found a door with a metal hasp and lock.

“I’m gonna bet this lock in place means he’s already long gone,” Pucinski said in a low voice.

The lock was rusty, and Pucinski broke it open with the butt of his flashlight. Guns and lights aimed together with two hands, he and DeSalvo went inside. Steps just inside led downward to the basement.

His gut knotting, Pucinski stopped for a minute to collect himself. He’d seen all kinds of things working homicide. For once he was hoping for something better than he expected.

“What are we waiting for?” DeSalvo was practically on top of him, agitating to get down there.

A faint light shone from below.

Did that mean O’Malley was still down there, after all?

Snapping off his flashlight, Pucinski nodded to the younger cop to do the same and then moved. Adrenaline shooting through him, he had to hold himself back from running to the basement, gun blazing. He carefully took the last steps and looked around.

A girl handcuffed to a radiator turned his way, looking frightened through a swollen mask of bruises and blood. The way she was dressed, this had to be Carmen, but he didn’t think even her parents would recognize the poor kid the way she looked now.

He put a finger to his lips but she cried, “Not ’ere! Took Lilith, an’ I think ’e’s going to kill ’er!”

“Unlock that handcuff,” he told DeSalvo as he went to the girl who lay so freaking still on the cot.

Hannah. He couldn’t see the resemblance to her sister through the ravages of a brutal beating, but she had the same long, dark hair and was wearing what was left of a too-tight, too-short dress. Checking to make sure she still had a pulse, a small part of him was relieved. He retrieved his own handcuff key and unlocked her constraint, then pulled out his cell and called for an ambulance.

Carmen limped to the cot. One look at Hannah and she started to sob. “My fault she’s ’urt.” Her voice slurred from her injuries. “I thought we could take ’im.”

Shaking his head, Pucinski rose and almost put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her before realizing she might be hurt there, too. “None of this is your fault, Carmen. The bastard who did this to you girls — he’s gonna pay. And that’s a promise I can keep.”

His mind was spinning, already making connections, telling him where to find O’Malley. He hoped to God he could get there before the bastard did the Mitchell woman.

“I’m leaving you in charge, DeSalvo. You stay with them until the paramedics get here. I want you at the hospital. Get the girl’s statement.”

“Yeah, sure. Where are you going?”

“To bring down a murderer.”

Once outside, he told one of the uniformed officers what was going on. Told him and his partner to stay with DeSalvo. Told the other team to follow.

“Where’s Lilith?” Wyndham demanded. “She’s not dead?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out. Get in.”

Wyndham didn’t even have his door closed when Pucinski ripped his car away from the abandoned building. The patrol car was right behind him.

“Where the hell are we going?”

“Where they found the first two women,” Pucinski said. “Forest preserve. My gut tells me that’s where we’ll find the Mitchell wom… where we’ll find Lilith.”

This was personal now. This was someone he knew despite trying not to. Someone who’d put herself on the line for others, as foolish as that had been. He’d tried to warn her, to convince her how dangerous it was to challenge a killer. She simply hadn’t listened.

Guilt and who knew what else drove Lilith Mitchell.

He didn’t want to think of where that had landed her now.

oOo

Chapter 22

THROWN ACROSS the backseat. Hands cuffed behind her back. Feet trussed together. Gag in her mouth.

Lids fluttering as she tried to focus, Lilith saw Gabe’s dark form in the driver’s seat. Gradually, her mind cleared, and she realized what was happening. She struggled to free herself but could barely move. Horrified, she realized she was as helpless as the others must have been before he hunted them.

And as terrified.

The car pulled off the main road and then the road altogether. Uneven ground below made the vehicle buck and twist.

A moment later, it stopped.

An armed Gabe pulled Lilith from the backseat by her hair. She screamed through her gag and thrashed wildly. Though she was nearly upside down, he jerked her even harder so she fell.

“Fighting will only make it worse.”

She wouldn’t give in to fear. She wouldn’t. As long as she didn’t give in, she had a chance.

Gabe righted Lilith, his free hand all over her as she got to her feet. He squeezed her flesh cruelly so that she had to bite back a cry. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Removing the gag and freeing her hands, he stepped around her, motioned to the rope tying her legs.

“Do it!” He pointed the rifle at her.

Wishing she’d come to earlier so she would have had time to think, to plan, Lilith worked on the ropes, while darting her gaze from him to the surrounding dark. She was looking for opportunity, waiting for the moment she could either run or strike back.

She couldn’t give in. She wouldn’t

“Don’t fuck with me, Lilith. Jennifer fucked with me. Turned me in. My own wife.”

“Did you abuse her, too, Gabe?” Certain he didn’t expect her to challenge him when her life was hanging in the balance, Lilith was equally certain he still had something to prove before killing her. “Did Jennifer finally have enough of your abuse and tell people what you were?”

“She didn’t understand a cop needs a release. Neither of you understands what it’s like, living with violence every day.”

Thinking about those three years under Marlon Aldrich’s fists, Lilith said, “You don’t know a damn thing about what I understand.”

She whipped the rope at him, but he was faster. He ducked and hit her in the chest with the rifle barrel.

“Shut your mouth and start undressing!” He waved the weapon at her.

Lilith’s hands shook as they automatically moved from her stomach to the zipper on her hoodie. That blow tightened her chest so she couldn’t talk. She could hardly get her breath.

Gabe laughed. “Before I’m through, you’ll be begging me for mercy just like the others did.”

Like the others? Certain her being naked would give him the advantage, she stopped her hands from undoing anything. She wasn’t like his other victims. She might be terrified, but she wasn’t weak. She could do this. Beat him at his own game. She took a quick look around. A full moon cast a silver-blue glow over trees and more trees. Her mind furiously computed her odds for escape.

The car…

Finally able to take a deep breath, she held her hands palm out toward him and backed up toward his car.

She calmly said, “You’re wasting your time.”

“You deaf or just stupid?”

“You’re wasting–“

“Don’t bother with that interrupt his script crap. Now strip!”

“Or you’ll what? Kill me?” Lilith backed up further and wedged her bottom on the edge of the rear seat. “Do it and you’ll never get all my blood out of this car.”

The night sky was bright enough that it lit his face, now pulled into a mask of pure evil as he said, “No one will have reason to look in there.”

If he came for her to drag her out again, she had a chance. “They will after Caresse talks. She’s the undercover cop working the case. But you already know that. What you don’t know is that she’s alive, Gabe. I found her where you left her in that trash bin and got her to the hospital before she bled out.” And then she lied. “She already fingered you, and Pucinski has the task force tracking you down.”

“Bullshit!”

But she could tell that he didn’t know whether or not to believe her. Pucinski had said Caresse — Carrie — was going to live. So she would be able to finger him.

“That’s how I knew it was you, Gabe. Pucinski told me she’d been working undercover for weeks and that you had nothing to do with the case. Then it all clicked for me. The reason you kept trying to warn me off. That little demonstration at the Street Survival class.”

With a frustrated growl, Gabe lunged forward to grab Lilith, keeping the rifle out of her range. Exactly what she’d beenwaiting for. On the seat and at an angle under him, she snap-kicked, her foot glancing off his groin. Not a solid hit, but enough to slow him down.

“Bitch!”

Flying up out of the seat, she grabbed the rifle and tossed it into the car, then lunged at him, hands striking. He was already recuperating. He dodged and grabbed her, and pulled her down to the forest floor. Before he could get a good grip on her, she pulled away from him.

On her butt facing Gabe, resting her weight on her hands on the ground in back of her, Lilith kept him at bay with raised legs. He pulled his knife. Tried to get at her. But no matter which way he feinted, she spun on her rear, ready to kick, to shatter a knee if he got close enough.

“What’s the matter, Gabe, don’t want to chance getting hurt?”

“You shouldn’t taunt a killer, Lilith. You ought to reconsider your attitude. Now I’m going to make you suffer.”

“Like you didn’t make the others suffer.”

“They only got a taste.”

“Then come show me.”

He lunged, knife-hand first. She kicked out at the weapon. Missed. The knife ripped through her leg. Lilith cried out and Gabe laughed. Blood soaked her exercise pants. He lunged again. She kicked with her other foot, this time making contact with the knife and scrambling after it where it landed.

Gabe threw himself on top of her and flattened her. He punched her in the face. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth.

An easy flip and he got behind her, wrapped an arm around her neck. He was cutting off her air, which came in striated gasps. She was struggling to breathe and losing the battle.

Think! she told herself, while trying not to panic.

She forced her fingers to the ‘v’ inside his elbow, gouged his flesh and pulled down with all her strength. His hold slackened. She tucked her chin inside his elbow so he couldn’t strangle her.

Quick as lightning, she slid her hands up his arms, over his shoulders, along his neck, anchored her fingers around his ears and went for his eyes with her thumbs. He jerked his head away. Her nails scraped one of his eyeballs and left bloody trails down his cheek.

Gabe screamed and ripped himself away. Lilith scooted out from under him, grabbed the knife and stuck it in her pocket. Then limped to the car. The cut on her leg burned like hellfire. By the time he got to his feet — demented and one-eyed — she had hold of the rifle she’d taken from him. Pointing it at him, she said, “Now it’s your turn, Gabe. Strip.”

“What the –?”

“DO IT!”

“You’re crazy!” Maybe she was crazy.

She was so seeing-red furious that it burned away any remaining fear.

The bastard had tried to kill her. He’d tortured and beaten her sister and Carmen. She didn’t even know if Hannah would survive. And he’d scalped the two women he’d murdered.

The only thing she could think about was giving him a taste. And as she raised the rifle to her shoulder, she saw his expression shift when he realized she would shoot him if he didn’t do as she ordered.

His finger fumbled with the buttons on his hunting jacket and shirt.

“How does it feel knowing you’re going to be hunted like an animal?” she asked. Guilt had motivated her to find Hannah and ID him. Revenge was a stronger motivation, and she certainly had reason enough. “Does it give you a curl of anticipation deep down inside? Or are you terrified like they must have been?”

“You’re just like the others. You don’t have the stomach for it.”

“Don’t underestimate me, Gabe. I survived three years under the thumb of a bastard like you. And then I made sure I would never be any man’s victim again. Face it. You’ve met your match.”

His chest was now bare. He hesitated as if he was rethinking things. She aimed at his right arm and shot. The bullet ripped through the outer flesh and passed through, leaving a new splatter of blood.

“Bitch!”

“Don’t fuck with me, Gabe. Faster!”

Gabe stripped off the rest of his clothes, wincing when he moved the wounded arm. “You don’t want to do this to me. I can take you, remember. I can make it worse than you ever dreamed.”

 “You didn’t let me win that match in class,” Lilith said, then, when he was naked, she stared at him and shook her head. “You don’t even look like much of a man to me.”

oOo

PUCINSKI BRAKED his car with a screech mere feet from a Forest Preserve entrance sign. “This is the place.

“It better be,” Wyndham said. “Go!”

Pucinski aimed the car on the road to the parking lot, but as the beams swept along a curve…

“There!” Wyndham pointed. “Tire tracks across the grass.”

Pucinski followed the trail left by O’Malley’s car. He flashed his beams on bright until he spotted it, doors open. He jumped out of the car and saw the signs of a struggle. And found a pile of men’s clothing, just as the squad car pulled up behind him.

A shot echoing through the trees made him jump. “Son of a bitch!” He looked to Wyndham.

Without a word, they both ran all-out into the stand of trees, the uniformed officers following.

oOo

LILITH HELD the rifle. Waited. Listened to the thrashing sounds ahead. Ignored the pain telegraphing from the cut on her leg. Anger still fueled her, made her feel bulletproof.

She’d given him a ten-second head start.

Five to go.

She gave him three. Took off, followed the sounds of his running feet deeper into the woods. When they stopped, so did she.

Where was he?

Guarded, she made her way forward, slowly swinging the rifle in an arc. She might be the hunter, but she was cautious. Eyes wide, breathing shallow, she licked her lips as she swung her gaze around her surroundings. She might know how to use the weapon, but this was his territory, not hers. So many trees and bushes. So many places to hide.

As her rage settled down, she could hardly believe what she’d done, not in successfully defending herself, but in turning the tables on Gabe.

She wasn’t him. She wasn’t a killer. She’d never believed she could shoot someone, not even to wound him as she’d already done. All she’d ever wanted was to save her sister and stop him from killing again.

So what the hell was she doing?

And where the hell was he?

She could hear her own heartbeat. Maybe why she couldn’t place the rustling sounds until they were nearly on her. She was swinging in an arc when he ambushed her, coming at her from behind a tree. They fell to the ground together. Still holding the rifle, she rolled and got to her feet, but he was just as quick.

Gabe grabbed the rifle barrel with both hands. He was stronger. She was losing it. He laughed.

Rage renewed, Lilith lunged forward toward the rifle and him and snap-kicked, the ball of her foot making contact with his knee. With an agonized yowl, he let go and toppled backward.

“Bitch! You women are all alike. You enjoy emasculating men.”

“Sounds good to me.” So angry that she was shaking inside, she aimed the rifle lower. “Did they beg you, Gabe? Beg me.”

“Get real.” Gabe was breathing hard, staring up at her, hatred burning in his eyes.

She squeezed the trigger. The bullet chewed up the ground between his thighs. She kept the rifle aimed low.

“Were they afraid, Gabe? Sweating inside like you are? Did they beg you? But you killed them anyway, didn’t you?”

She shot again. The earth next to his ear churned. “I really could kill you.”

“So why don’t you?”

“Because I’m not you. I don’t want to be you.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I want to see the happy faces of your ex-wife and kids when the jury votes to fry your ass.”

That got to him. His expression morphed into a mask of fury. His body grew tense, and she knew he was getting ready to strike again. She used the rifle to indicate he should get to his feet.

 Suddenly, Gabe relaxed. His expression grew cunning. “Okay, okay. I’ll go easy, but I can’t get up alone.” He held out his hand for help.

She gave him a disbelieving look. “You’re the crazy one.”

Never taking the rifle off him — nor her eyes for more than a second at a time — Lilith searched around until she found what she needed. Carefully, she stooped and picked up a broken tree limb, then threw it at him.

“Help yourself up. And hurry.”

Gabe grabbed onto the tree limb and with muttered curses, used the makeshift staff to steady himself as he got up on his one good leg. Lilith backed off. He tried a few steps. His face contorted in pain, and he dragged the bad leg.

“You fucked up my leg good.”

“You’re lucky that’s all I messed up. Be glad I’m such a good shot. Not that you’re going to get the chance to make any more kids. Poor little bastards with you for a father.”

Talk of his kids seemed to fuel Gabe. His expression went from angry and cunning to cold and hard.

“So what was your sister’s excuse? You? You make her into the little tramp I took off the street?”

His words cut through Lilith as sharply as any knife. Gabe hobbled a couple of steps, glanced back as if to make sure she was still following.

“I did her good, you know. She didn’t make me just for the apartment or the intro to Sal. She liked it. Wanted it.”

More likely, Hannah had simply been desperate to be off the street.

“Shut your filthy mouth, Gabe, before I cut out your heart!”

An empty threat. Lilith knew she couldn’t kill Gabe, no matter that she would like to see him dead.

“Hannah spread her legs for me every chance she got,” Gabe said. “She trusted me. Even gave me the key to her loft. Thought I cared about her. That’s what made it so easy to take her.”

“You bastard!”

Gabe stopped, but Lilith was still moving. He swung the tree limb and knocked the rifle out of her hands. She went after it. Hopping on his good leg, he went after her. He threw himself against her. Off balance, Lilith struggled to stay on her feet.

They toppled together.

Gabe came rushing down on her, his face a mask of insane hatred as he wrapped his hands around her throat. His greater weight pinned her and kept her from breathing. Feeling as if her chest would explode, Lilith fought him to no avail. He was as desperate as she now.

He was going to kill her if she didn’t act fast.

She shoved a hand in her jacket pocket--

Her head whirled, lit by flashes of light.

--and, pulling Gabe’s knife from her pocket, plunged it into him.

His expression morphed to one of surprise and disbelief as his gut absorbed the finely honed shaft.

She felt his warm blood ooze over her as he let go and collapsed on top of her.

Limbs shaking, she lay there in shock.

Dear Lord, he’d forced her hand to kill him.

Suddenly his weight was lifted from her. Blinking, she saw Pucinski laying Gabe on the ground. And Michael was over her, helping her to her feet, pulling her tight against his chest.

“Lilith, are you all right?”

She threw her arms around his neck. “Michael, I-I killed him.”

“Nah, you didn’t,” Pucinski said. He was kneeling next to Gabe, checking his pulse. “He’s still alive.”

Lilith swallowed hard. Part of her was sorry that Gabe wasn’t dead, but mostly she was relieved. She’d lived with guilt long enough. Elena had asked her what she was willing to do. She hadn’t really known how to answer then, but she did now.

Two uniformed officers had followed Pucinski, who told them, “Get an ambulance here.” He frowned down at Gabe. “You made our case, Miss Mitchell, but we’re gonna have to come up with a creative explanation for his, uh, being in his birthday suit…”

The enormity of what she’d gone through was too much for Lilith. The dam that had been holding back her emotions finally burst, and she sobbed against Michael’s chest.

oOo

Chapter 23

LILITH SAT on an examination table, ice pack to the side of her face, as a doctor stitched up her leg where Gabe had cut her. She’d barely felt the injury until she was in Pucinski’s car and her adrenaline had drained away.

She’d insisted on checking on Hannah and Carmen, and so he’d left the uniformed officers with Gabe and had driven her and Michael to the more distant hospital.

Hannah was alive but still hadn’t come around. Lilith was sick over it, but all she could do was wait.

Thankfully, Carmen would be fine. The girl had already been released to her parents, who’d taken her home. As to Carmen’s future, Lilith only knew she would continue to fight for the girl. Assuming Carmen would still let her.

The doctor stitched, Lilith winced, and Michael found her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. She tried on a smile for him but figured it wasn’t very convincing.

“All done,” the doctor said. He pulled out a pad and wrote a prescription. Handing it to her, he said, “For the pain.”

She shoved it in her pocket, put the ice pack back to her face and waited for a nurse to come in with printed instructions on home care.

As if she was going anywhere.

By the time she was released, and she limped into the waiting room with Michael’s support, Elena was there for her. Lilith had called her on the way to the hospital.

Elena’s eyes widened when she saw Lilith’s bruised face. “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re all right.”

“I’m not all right. I won’t be until I know Hannah’s going to make it.”

Elena held her hand throughout what felt like an interminable wait for word on Hannah’s condition. Michael waited, too, but he gave her space, sitting to one side several chairs away. He was watching her, though, his gaze now familiar and comforting.

A half hour went by. An hour.

“What’s taking so long?” Stress over Hannah was making Lilith edgy. “Maybe I should find a doctor.”

“One will find you,” Michael said.

Elena added, “You have to believe Hannah’s going to be okay.”

“I hope so.”

“Because of you.”

A lot of things she didn’t want to think about had happened because of her, Lilith thought, just as Detective Pucinski strolled into the room. “Miss Mitchell, I just checked on Carrie… Caresse. She survived the surgery.”

“Thank God.”

“No, she wanted me to thank you.”

“Did she say what happened?” Michael asked.

“She sniffed out O’Malley through the club’s manager. Ruscio told her that O’Malley recommended Hannah. Apparently, O’Malley saw her potential.”

“So she was already tagged as one of his victims.” Lilith realized her sister never had a chance.

Pucinski went on. “Carrie put two and two together and had a conversation with O’Malley that he didn’t like. That’s how he figured out she was the plant.”

“They didn’t know each other?” Elena asked.

“No reason they should. O’Malley was a homicide detective. Carrie a uniform assigned to undercover. She was recently transferred in from another district.” He checked his watch. “I need to get going. I’ll be doing paperwork until dawn. I just wanted to let you know the good news and to check on your sister. O’Malley’s gonna stand trial, and he’s gonna be locked away forever. Tomorrow, I need to take your statement in detail.”

Lilith nodded.

“Count on me, too,” Michael said. “Whatever it takes to keep the bastard where he belongs.”

“You ask me, he belongs in a grave, but we don’t do that in Illinois anymore.” Pucinski made for the door. “We can only hope that he’ll suffer his own private hell.”

After the detective left the building, Michael said, “Great news about Caresse.”

But Lilith’s mind was back on her sister. “If only Hannah makes it, too.”

Elena wrapped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a hug. “She’ll make it. She’s too much like you to give up.”

Her sister was like her, not just in looks, but in survival skills. Hannah just had developed a different set than she had. Lilith closed her eyes and prayed that Hannah came out of this alive. She didn’t care how her sister made a living. She just wanted Hannah in her life.

And so, a quarter of an hour later, when Lilith learned that Hannah was awake and wanted to see her, she finally let out the mental breath she’d been holding.

“I’ll wait for you here,” Elena said.

Michael didn’t say anything.

As she limped along the corridor behind the nurse, Lilith thought Michael was the first man with whom she’d ever really connected on more than a physical level. He was a man worthy of her trust.

The nurse stopped before a doorway to a patient room. “Keep it to two minutes.”

Lilith nodded and went inside.

Her sister looked small and fragile in the hospital bed, hooked up to an IV and medical equipment, more like the kid Lilith remembered.

Though her head was bandaged, her face bruised and cut and swollen, Hannah said, “You’re a mess. Need… serious makeover.”

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Lilith sat at the edge of her bed. “I was so afraid for you.”

“You saved me and Carmen… found us… heard you.”

Hannah was making such an effort to speak that Lilith’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry.”

“You warned me. Wouldn’t listen. Think I’ll listen now.”

“No lectures. But when you get out of here–”

“—we’ll talk.”

And this time, she would watch what she said, Lilith thought, hopeful for their future. “I want to hug you, but I’m afraid to touch you.”

Hannah slid her hand to Lilith’s and clasped it tight.

Lilith took a deep, remorseful breath and hoped that Hannah would be able to start over with her help. While she’d always felt compassion for women who lived on the edge, she hadn’t been able to understand why they couldn’t change their lives. After all, she’d gotten away from an abusive household. What she’d gone through this last week had taught her a painful lesson she hadn’t expected — that extraordinary circumstances could make even her feel weak and unable to help herself. It took determination and belief in one’s self to survive. Not everyone had that. She’d done it. And so had Hannah.

Hannah’s eyes closed, and her hand relaxed. Lilith realized she was asleep. The nurse had said two minutes. Reluctantly, she rose. The moment she left Hannah’s room, Lilith spotted Michael waiting for her in the corridor.

“You’re still here.”

“Where else would I be?”

“Michael… I—I didn’t expect you to wait with me all this time.”

“I figured if I didn’t, I might never see you again.”

 Lilith’s stomach fluttered. He wanted to see her after she’d believed the worst of him. She had believed in his innocence until she’d seen the recording. Gabe had done a good job of planting doubt in her head. She so regretted that.

Realizing Michael was waiting for her response, she said, “Well, I certainly won’t be at the club.”

“So you do want to see me? Where, then?”

“Neutral ground? No cameras.”

“Deal, but I’m counting on your having a change of heart. You said you don’t do relationships. A lot has happened in the last few days. I thought that maybe now you might give it a chance.”

He was grinning at her, and Lilith’s pulse picked up a beat. She didn’t know what the future held for them, but she wanted to find out.

Smiling, she said, “I’m willing to give it a try.”

oOo

About the Author

With 90 novels and more than seven million books in print, Patricia Rosemoor is fascinated with “dangerous love” — combining romance with danger. She has written various forms of romantic and paranormal romantic thrillers, even romantic horror, bringing a different mix of thrills and chills to her readers. Patricia has won a Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America and two Reviewers Choice and two Career Achievement Awards from RT BOOKreviews, and in her other life, she teaches Popular Fiction and Suspense-Thriller Writing, credit courses at Columbia College Chicago. SKIN is her first original indie thriller.

oOo

Copyright

Copyright © 2012 Patricia Rosemoor

Cover Copyright © 2012 Patricia Rosemoor