NETZONE

BEWARE THE WEB!

White neon light bathed Zoe Porter's face creating ghostly peaks on her high cheekbones. Her violet eyes blinked at the words that refused her commands and her long fingers poked at the keyboard. She swept back her ebony hair and leaned to glare at the screen. Her hand thumped the mouse pad twice and her Chihuahua, Cherie, sitting beside her, cocked her head rotating her  like radar, listening for sounds unnoticed by her mistress.

This morning Zoe joined an Internet forum, despite her best judgment. Friends said she should connect with real people discussing real issues, however, the connection took her to a website called Kinetics, a company discussing Kinetic technology.

She pushed back her reading glasses and squinted to study the information. Kinetics bragged of their groundbreaking research into motion in relation to force, a subject that would ordinarily appeal to her intellect at another time. But not this morning. All she wanted was to delve into other thirty-five-year-old unmarried women's views on life.

Had Zoe known why she could not quit Kinetics, perhaps she would have explored further. She flexed her fingers and worried about the new sensation of pain in their joints and attacked the mouse again, and cursed its unresponsiveness.

Several long loud beeps from the router tucked under her desk drew her attention and she craned her long neck to see its five lights dancing to a rhythm; flashing a frenzy of red, green and yellow. Her eyes flew to the screen to see the words:

Please Enter Password: Level One.

She frowned. Password? She looked for a sign-up link - there was none.

"I don't want you!" she spluttered, jabbing the escape key, the enter key, the back button; all with no result. "Rotten thin! Why am I talking to a website? What do you think Cherie?"

Cherie cocked her head to one side and blinked.

Taking her own advice she jiggled the combination keys. "What now?" 

The computer beeped and the screen turned blue, flashing the words: 

Please Enter Password: Level Two. 

She sat for a moment watching the flashing words. Her finger reached for the power switch but a voice blaring from the living room stopped her, sending her adrenaline into overdrive. Cherie yelped twice and Zoe leaped from her chair to look over the dividing wall. Her hand flew to her mouth when she saw a large television set standing in the center of her rug — the screen filled with the smiling face of Richard Gere.

"What on earth?" Her long legs propelled her toward the set and Cherie lay back her ears and scampered after her yapping at her heels. Zoe hoped she was seeing a mirage; an out of body experience, a dream - anything but reality. She snatched a remote control laying on the rug and fumbled for the mute button. The volume roared as she punched the button several times, finally plunging the room into silence. 

"Oh my God, it's real!" 

She picked up Cherie who was quaking beside her and held her tight.

“Rosie? Where are you? C'mon, I know you're here somewhere. What's with the TV?" 

Then she noticed there was no power lead. She stepped back and walked around it and as she stooped to inspect the rear panel, Cherie squirmed from her arms.

She returned to her office and took a screwdriver from her desk drawer and crouched to remove the first of four screws, wondering if she was doing the right thing. She pushed her hair aside and drew a breath before pulling at the panel with trembling hands. A baffling array of circuit boards confronted her. No stickers, no identification numbers, not even the maker's name.

For a few moments, she remained frozen to the spot listening for sounds.

None came.

Self-preservation kicked in and she tiptoed to the kitchen clutching the screwdriver and swapped it for the biggest knife from the scabbard on the bench. Holding her breath and the knife at her side, she walked through the living room and undid the double lock and safety chain on the entry door. Cherie hugged her ankles, as Zoe swept the wooden veranda and the path beyond to the gate, but nobody was in the vicinity. 

She went inside, put the chain back in place and leaned against the door waiting for her pulse to slow. Her head swiveled around the room and she breathed quickly, looking for a shadow behind the sofa, feet under the curtain — a movement, anywhere.

"Is anyone there?" Her voice sounded loud in the silence of the room. "This is ridiculous," she muttered as she pushed herself away from the comfort of the door. "Come on Cherie, let's look around to make sure."

Her quivering hand still held the knife as she searched the ground floor. Seeing nothing, she looked toward the staircase and swallowed the lump in her throat as she climbed the stairs; counting the fourteen steps as she progressed. She paused before her bedroom door, listening for movement from within with her trembling hand hovering over the cold knob. As she turned it she raised the knife in her other hand and nudged the door open. Everything looked to be in order.

"Who's there?" 

The sound of her croaky voice echoed in the hollowness of the quiet house as she crept to the bathroom, imagining a shadow lurking behind the opaque shower door. A quick glance around the room confirmed her fears to be groundless. She dropped the knife and snatched a hair-tie from a drawer and tied back her black shoulder-length hair.

Back in her room she opened another drawer and pulled out a loaded Smith and Wesson revolver. Then, knife in one hand, gun in the other, she stopped on the landing to calm her thumping heart. Her eyes scanned below as she moved down; full of confidence now and becoming a little angry.

Cherie's habit was to take the stairs carefully, but she dashed after her mistress as fast as her little legs would take her, heedless of the danger. She followed Zoe, clinging to her heels, to the squeaky door to the courtyard outside the kitchen; watching warily while Zoe checked the double locks.

Zoe made a note to have someone fix that squeak and once outside, she also checked the shiny padlock on the timber gate separating her from the neighbor. If someone tried to flee from here they would have needed a ladder to climb the high brick walls. Cherie skipped ahead as Zoe returned inside. With her search over and the lump in her throat back down where it belonged, she picked up the phone and punched in a number.

A familiar voice answered. "Rosie's Bazaar."

"Rose? You're there?"

"Of course I'm here, who did you expect? This is my number, Zo."

"The strangest thing just happened. Can you come over?"

"What's happened? You sound rattled."

"You won't believe me if I tell you over the phone, you need to come and see for yourself."

"Are you shouting lunch?"

"Yes, anything. Just get over here will you?"

"I'm on my way, Zo. D'you want me to bring anything?"

"No. Hurry!" Zoe hung up, wishing there was a man to come running to her rescue. There had been three men in her life in the past eighteen months but none could overcome her desire for one special man, who loved another.

She nibbled her fingernails and stared at the unexplainable object in her living room. She walked again to the front door and checked the locks and the safety chain. Then she remembered the computer and went to her office to see the cursor on the screen blinking:

Transmission Completed. 

"That's peculiar, I didn't transmit anything. Stupid thing!"

The Internet problem was of secondary concern now, so she closed it down.

 

Zoe had always been a little aloof and cultivated few friends, whereas Rosie was the opposite, hiding her superior intelligence behind a gregarious flirtatious appearance. Zoe was tall and as elegant as a gazelle with gleaming black hair falling below her shoulders, usually tied back in a sloppy way. Thick eyelashes rimmed wide-set violet eyes that darkened with her mood, and her lips often carved a wicked smile. Her slim body suggested a career as a fashion model, or a ballerina — one denied her, instead she chose journalism, which gave her the opportunity to flex her creative abilities. Their appearance was the diametrical opposite of their personalities. Rosie possessed an enthusiasm for everything and everyone who crossed her path however, Zoe preferred a quieter placid life and always aimed for higher things, yet at this point in her life, nothing had presented itself.

Rosie's taste ran to zany clothes. She scoured second-hand designer shops for things outdated or outrageous. Nothing simple or elegant for her, preferring instead flamboyant raucous, show-stopping numbers. Her frizzy shoulder length red hair framed a pale freckled hear- shaped face. With piercing green eyes, she was perhaps too beautiful, and bright orange lipstick drew one's eye to her sultry pouting mouth. Christened Sharon, she preferred Rosie, the affectionate nickname her Irish father called her. Rosie and Zoe were startling individuals; together they were dynamite.

Rosie delighted Zoe with good humor and intelligent conversation. If someone asked her what drew her to Zoe, she would have said she liked Zoe's no-nonsense approach to everything.

Chapter Two 

Zoe clicked the double lock, rattled the safety chain out and opened the door to Rosie, resplendent in a kaleidoscope of frenetic color. A purple mini-skirt peeped beneath a lime green coat with enormous shoulder pads, and a purple hat turned up on one side threatened to pop off her bush of red frizz.

Her green eyes widened when she saw Zoe with a gun. "Good grief Zo, what are you doing with that? What's going on?" she said, pushing her way past Zoe. "My God, you look positively ill. You said you were going to the gym today. What happened?"

Zoe blanched and pointed the gun to the television. "That! If you had anything to do with this, I'm going to kill you. It almost scared me out of my wits."

"I can see that. I wish you didn't keep that thing here."

"Well, I'm glad I do, especially right at this moment."

Rosie walked to the object of discussion. “O, kay. What's so unusual about a television? They've been around for years." Rosie grinned.

"Not this one. It simply appeared. Suddenly."

"What d'you mean it appeared?"

"Like I said. I was in my office when Richard Gere's voice nearly broke the sound barrier. Poor little Cherie almost had a heart attack. The chain was on the front door and the back door was double locked."

"Maybe you fell asleep at the computer and heard nothing."

"No! I was wide awake. I would've heard something, at least Cherie would have. Somehow, somebody snuck in and deposited it there."

Rosie glanced at Zoe's own television in the corner of the room. "I get that, but who?"

"That's what I'm wondering. It's a perfect picture without power or an aerial."

Rosie poked the power button on the remote. "Oooh. Richard Gere. This is a good movie, he's such a dreamboat." She circled the television.

"Turn it down! Please be serious for a minute, Rose. Could Derek be responsible for this?" She said the name reverently and her lips quivered.

"Derek?" Rosie said, arching her eyebrows. "Why would he?"

"I'm not sure. He's always looking for ways to make more money. Perhaps he's found something? A cordless television; that would make him rich. His business is slowing down, and I can't see Derek living without all the luxuries. Besides, how would he fund your expensive tastes?"

"No way! Anyway, if he did this I'd know, we don't keep secrets from each other. How long has it been here?"

"Sorry Rosie, I'm a little shaken. I didn't mean to blame Derek. It happened not long before I called you."

"There has to be a logical explanation. What if whoever put it here comes back? They got in and out without a sound. You should call the police."

Zoe examined her friends face. "And tell them what? A ghost made a delivery? They'll think I've been drinking." 

Rosie narrowed her green eyes. "You haven't, have you?"

"Of course not! You know I can't handle alcohol, I don't want to lose control of my faculties.”

"Wouldn't hurt for you to be out of control sometimes," Rosie muttered. Zoe shot her a dirty look and Rosie changed tack. "Well, how did it appear out of nowhere? You're pulling my leg, aren't you?"

"No. I'm telling you I have no idea how it got here."

"Okay I believe you, but it's weird. Intruders steal things, they don't deliver them. There's no explanation for a TV with no power. Remote control? Let's get out of here in case they come back, we'll go to Pegg's Cafe and call Derek to meet us there. He'll know what to do."

"There' s coffee brewed, and lunch,”

"Forget it. We'll eat at Pegg's. Come on, I'm not waiting here for whoever they are to come back. Put on a coat, it's cold outside."

"I'll need to change."

Rosie took in the clinging well-worn jeans and the plain T-shirt and wrinkled her nose. "Yeah, I wouldn't be seen dead in that outfit. Why don't put on some makeup, you could be very beautiful if you made an effort."

"You'd do well to tone yours down a little."

"What's wrong with mine? I take my time to make it perfect."

"Yeah, a bit too perfect."

Rosie followed Zoe to her room. "Have you searched the place?" she whispered.

"Of course. D'you think I'm stupid. There's no sign of anything unusual, just that blasted TV." 

Zoe changed into comfortable brown suede slacks and collected her favorite caramel woolen jacket. Rosie poked around the room.

"C'mon Zo hurry, this is getting spooky, but don't bring that gun." She picked up perfume from Zoe's chest of drawers and sprayed herself from neck to arms.

Zoe pulled a bag lined with soft fur from her closet and Cherie climbed in and snuggled into a small ball. She looped a gold silk scarf around her neck and led Rosie downstairs. She vowed not to come back without Derek in tow. He was no superman, but he had a self-assured manner.

When Rosie introduced her to Derek, she found him to be far too normal to be attached to a someone like Rosie - delightful as she was. He was an American and everyone's idea of a gentleman. He was wealthy; well educated; of medium build and well proportioned, and always dressed with style. At first, Zoe fought the instant attraction she felt toward him, nevertheless, each time they met those feelings grew stronger. He fell in love with Rosie and she was her best friend.

Their engagement surprised everybody, especially Zoe. She smiled and wished them well despite the pain eating her inside.

 

"We'll take my car," Zoe said donning her overcoat.

"No, you can never find a parking spot near Pegg's on Sunday. We'll walk, it's not far. We need the exercise."

Zoe was in no mood to argue, she was glad to get out of the house. Cherie peeped from the carry bag, her expressive brown eyes followed her mistresses every move. Zoe closed and double-locked the front door behind them with a sigh.

Winter fell like a cat pouncing on prey and despite their warm clothes, the cold prickled their skin. Zoe gathered the fur around Cherie so only her nose protruded from her cocoon.

Paddington was quiet and the traffic was light on this Sunday afternoon. They crossed the wide street in front of Zoe's terrace house and paused on the grassed median strip. Leopard trees lining this street carpeted the ground with green and gold fern leaves and moisture from an early rain shower glistened in damp patches on the pavement. They walked arm in arm past a small park where pigeons pecked for bread crusts.

Zoe noticed a shadowy figure emerge from behind a tree and hovered, waiting. "There's a man in the park, he's watching us," she hissed leaning closer to Rosie. "Don't turn around. We'll see what he does."

"What's he look like?"

"Fat."

"Then he's no friend of ours." Rosie pulled her purple coat closer.

Regular casual Sunday diners filled the cozy cafe and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee greeted them as they selected a table near a front window.

Zoe watched the man who followed them enter and seat himself across the room. They both eyed him taking in every detail of his brooding looks, his stocky, muscular body.

Rosie pulled a phone from her oversized, cluttered Valentino bag and dialed Derek's number. "Why do you think that man followed us?" she whispered waiting for a connection.

"Could be something to do with the TV. Or it's a coincidence."

"Damn! He's not answering. I don't understand why he’s got that phone, he always turns it off." 

They were about to order coffee until they saw a black car pull up across the street and watched two men alight. One man leaned against the car and lit a cigarette, while the other pulled the collar of his brown leather coat against his bare head as he crossed toward the cafe. He stopped at the counter and jiggled up and down and Zoe flinched when he nodded toward the stout man across the room.

"Was it my imagination, or did he signal to that man over there? Now I'm sure they're after us, we'd better get out of here."

"What are we going to do?" Rosie said.

"That's the big question. The Police station's not far away, let's see if they're game enough to follow us there."

"You're scaring me Zo. What could they want with us?".

The man at the counter walked outside and lurked by the door, both hands thrust into his coat pockets. He pretended not to notice the two women as they hurried out into the cold.

"They're both after us now, Zo."

Then the black car they had seen parked across the street from the cafe idled by them, its driver staring ahead. They broke into a jog for the remaining one hundred meters to the Police station. Cherie emerged from her cocoon to see why Zoe was running and retreated to the safety of the warm fur lining.

Chapter Three 

They approached the policeman at the front desk, startling him with the sight of two beautiful women, one bizarre in a blaze of green and purple and the other attired conservatively in caramel wool. Zoe remained calm as Rosie babbled about their pursuers.

He stared at three brown spots peaking from Zoe's carry bag. “Whoa!" he put up his hand. "Has anyone tried to hurt you?"

"No, but they're outside. Check them out," she said. "Zo, tell him."

"It's true officer. They might be a threat."

"Why is that?" he asked.

While Zoe gave her abridged version of the men following them, another man entered the room and introduced himself as Detective Elliott Brooks. He was about forty years old with warm brown eyes that twinkled at the same level as Zoe’s. She liked his generous smile and straight white teeth as he returned her handshake. Rosie arched her eyebrows and rolled her eyes at Zoe.

"It's okay sergeant I'll talk to the ladies. Please; let's go into my office where it's more comfortable." He gestured toward the door marked Detectives and paused to check the CCTV camera scanning the street.

Once seated in the warm spacious office Zoe and Rosie relaxed. This room was like most government establishments; sparse with Mug shots lining the walls.

He addressed Zoe's bag. "Well, hello little one," he said on seeing two black, frightened eyes peeping from the fur. He sat opposite and picked up a notepad. He smiled. "Now, let's hear that story again. Slowly this time."

"This will sound crazy," Zoe began. "I'm a journalist and I've seen plenty of strange things, but this has thrown me." Her face was pale and her eyes dilated as she related the story. Rosie interrupted now and then to add dramatic statements.

He nodded and smiled. Accustomed to strange stories, this one stood out as being among the strangest he had heard.

Zoe paused near the end of the tale. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"Of course, I do, it's just that, well, you must admit, the magical appearance of a TV sounds more than strange. But I've learned to listen and not discount anything I hear until I investigate."

"I guess you hear lots of weird stories," Rosie said.

"I do, I do. I'm sure we'll find this is a prank by one of your friends, but I'm willing to investigate." He turned his head to each woman, bathing them with his warm smile. His eyes locked on Zoe's and remained there for a few seconds; long enough to make her blush. "I'll finish this report and I'll take you home, okay?"

Zoe watched him turn to his computer to write the report, asking questions here and there as he typed. When finished, he drummed his fingers against his cheek while he read his words. Rosie slouched in her chair, silent for once, twirling a lock of her crinkly hair. She watched them both, aware of Zoe's attraction to this handsome detective. 

*** 

Elliott Brooks drove them to Zoe's townhouse. He tapped his foot on the wooden veranda floor as Zoe fumbled for the keys. Although everything around him appeared normal, a gut feeling told him something was amiss. He cracked his knuckles as he waited.

Zoe had a sinking feeling as she opened the front door and led them into the living room. Her eyes flew to the television set still planted firmly in the center of the room. She stopped so quickly Elliott ran into her back.

"Looks like a normal TV."

"Yes, but watch this," Zoe said turned on the set and stood back with arms akimbo. "Where's the power coming from?"

Elliott shot a bewildered glance at the girls as he examined followed her eyes. "Beats me. Has someone invented wireless TV?"

"That's what we thought you could tell us." Zoe folded her arms and tapped one foot. "You think I'm making it up, don't you?"

Elliott narrowed his eyes for a brief beat. "You must admit it looks queer. There could be an explanation underneath,” he said tilting it aside.

"I've already looked there.” 

Regardless, he examined the floor, finding nothing. A quick search of the living room with his experienced eye produced no evidence of an intruder. 

"Miss Porter, what were you doing when the TV appeared?”

"Call me Zoe, please. I was using the computer; on the Internet."

"You can call me Rosie," Rosie added with a wink.

Elliott blinked. "Did you notice anything strange or different, Zoe?"

"The entire thing is bizarre. I didn't see or hear a thing. I was concentrating on my computer because I had trouble with the mouse."

Elliott examined the television again. This time, he noticed a tiny sticker on the bottom edge. He crouched down and pulled it off by one corner.

"Does Lexion #2 mean anything to either of you?"

Rosie shrugged her shoulders and looked at Zoe.

"Where did that come from? I didn't find it there when I looked." Zoe turned to her office. "That was a name on the website I got locked onto.”

"Your computer may give us a clue? Do you remember what it was? Never mind, your history will list the site."

Zoe led him to her computer, opened the web browser and clicked on history. "Mmm. That's odd, there's nothing in history,” he said. 

"It kept asking for a password and I couldn't stop it. I turned off the computer."

"You must have accidentally cleared the history."

"Oh give me a break," Rosie said. "Zo does nothing accidentally."

"That may be true. But until we know otherwise, we should consider every clue important. Um, I wasn't going to mention it, but someone followed us here. They're outside watching the place."

"Oh my God," Rosie said running to the window. "That's the car we saw outside Pegg’s, those men are still following us. Maybe they’re after us for something we've done, Zo?"

"Or, could it be one of your crazy admirers?"

"What d'you mean my crazy admirers? You're not short of a few of those either. Besides, I'm true to Derek these days."

Zoe grimaced. "Hmph. I wonder how long that will last."

Rosie opened her mouth to counter attack.

"Hey! Aren't you two friends," Elliott interrupted.

"Of course we are; the best of friends," Zoe smiled.

Elliott sighed. "Oh great. Come away from the window Rosie, we don't want them to know we've seen them." Cherie patted Elliott's leg and he bent down and picked her up.

"What does all this mean Detective Brooks?" Zoe said, eyeing Cherie, who lay content as Elliott stroked her head.

"You can call me Elliott," he said returning Zoe's friendliness. "I've got no idea, but we can start by tracing the steps leading up to its appearance. Let's see if we can find that Lexion reference again."

"Don't you have more important things to do, like solving crimes. This is not a crime, just a stupid prank by someone for reasons unknown," Zoe said. Her eyes traveled to his crooked tie where she saw a grease spot.

"Yeah I do, but you came to me, remember. I'm only doing my job. Besides, there's been many unexplained events lately." He stood behind Zoe watching her fingers picking over the keyboard.

She took over five minutes to locate the web page she had found before. She pointed to the screen. "That's the one. Kinetics Inc. 14 Lexion Street, Castle Downs. It's the name of a street."

"Who are they?" Elliott inquired.

"Mmmm. Doesn't say much. They're a scientific research company dealing with motivating forces and alternate energy resources."

"That's a mouthful, it could be a coincidence; Lexion that is. However, it's the only lead. I'll try that phone number," He put Cherie down and pulled out his mobile phone. The number rang for a long time and he was about to hang up when an answering machine spluttered to life.

"You have reached Kinetics Incorporated. Please leave your name and number and we will return your call." 

He hung up without leaving a message. "Won't get anywhere there, they want to screen their calls. Write the address down; might turn up something."

"Well, I'm not waiting until something turns up, I'm going to sort this out," Zoe said.

"What d'you mean Zoe, are you an investigative reporter?" Elliott asked.

Rosie butted in. "No, she's not, but I've always told her she should be, she's got a good nose."

"Thanks, Rose. I won't be able to get any work done until I sort this out. I'll start by going to this Kinetic's office; see what I can find."

"What, all the way to Castle Downs? That's out in the boondocks!"

"I think it's only forty-five minutes drive, and I don't recall asking you to go with me," Zoe replied.

Elliott raised both hands. "Whoa! Wait a minute, I can't let you both run off on a wild goose chase, it might be dangerous."

Zoe's face changed color. Elliott had raised a red flag. "Oh? Who are you to tell me what to do?"

"There's no proof a crime. I'll file the report. Let the police handle it."

"You might feel different if this was happening to you. You can't stop me."

Elliott sighed. "The last thing I want to see is you two getting into trouble. If you insist on going, then I'm going with you."

Zoe grinned.

"We'll shake that tail out there first," Elliott said peering again through the window. "If those boys are anything to do with Kinetics, we don't want them to know we're on to them." He cracked his knuckles.

"On to what? They're the ones on to us. God knows what they're looking for. Have you got something secret stashed here Zo?"

“Secret stash? Get off my back Rose, this is not my fault." She paused for two heartbeats and changed the tone of her voice. "Unless it's something I've written about recently."

"Yeah, chances are you upset someone — as usual." 

"Don't start that again you two," Elliott warned, fearing another slanging match. "It may have nothing to do with the TV set. Could she be right Zoe? Have you upset someone?"

"Not lately. I've got no idea what it's about."

"You're sure nothing's missing?"

"Positive. It must be a prank, something to get under my skin, which is exactly what it's doing. There's no other explanation, perhaps I've stumbled on a secret experimental thing."

"Wait a minute! Didn't that web page say something about alternative energy resources?" Rosie said. “Maybe they’re using an alternative energy source for its power."

Elliott scratched his chin. He looked at her with new respect. “Yet, that still doesn't explain why, or how it came to be here."

"I don't know, but I have a feeling of impending trouble. I have a creepy, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach."

"Well, let's see if they’re after us or the TV. If they don't follow us, then they're after the TV. I'll call the station and get someone to nab them in the act of retrieving it.

If they follow us, I'll head for my place and shake them off. Could be they delivered it to the wrong address and want it back. Simple as that."

"If that was the case wouldn't they knock on the door and ask for it back?" Zoe said.

"Yes, perhaps, but then they'd need to explain how it got there."

As Elliott walked out he looked back. "Nice place you've got here. I like these old townhouses."

*** 

Rafe Walker shifted his position in the back seat of the black SAAB. His long legs pressing against the back of the leather seat ached, a pain down low in his back jabbed him, and a headache developed. He hated the tedious surveillance work involved with his job, he almost hated his boss, Jake, hated him for the condescending way he treated everyone, himself included. Rafe's outcomes were always successful; he had not failed a snatch yet.

The fat man lounged in the front passenger seat and every now and then a loud puff of air escaped his wobbling lips. The young driver pulled down the sun visor and examined his teeth. He smoothed back his greasy black hair, smirking with pleasure at his reflection.

Rafe watched the driver's eyes in the small mirror and remembered when he was twenty-one. Much water had flowed under the bridge (along with some bodies) since then. He was forty now and the years and the gang wars had taken their toll.

His square face bore scars from fights in his youth however, no evidence explained why his full lips twisted in a permanent malevolent sneer. He shaved his head to stop the intruding gray streaks softening his appearance and his very close-cut beard was mostly dark with a gray hair here and there. He wanted nothing to interfere with the sinister impression gIving him the leverage required to curb defiance from his unfortunate victims. Cold hard pupils immobilized his prey with fear reflecting a splintering hatred, their fear well justified, turned to terror when his sadistic brutality surfaced. He scarcely smiled.

Jake paid him well and it was the money, not any misguided loyalty that bound them together. No man had ever secured Rafe's trust or respect, least of all Jake Roberts.

Rafe married when he was young and his bride of one year betrayed him with his best friend. Their bodies were never found and police logged it as a case of missing persons. It was his debut into the world of crime and violence that was commonplace now. Nobody got close to him, he remained isolated and untouchable, preferring his own company. The word trust was not in his vocabulary.

He pulled the Beretta semi-automatic pistol from his jacket and checked the chamber. Six bullets. He sensed he may need them all. But instructions were clear  — watch and report. Zoe's townhouse door opened and three people walked to the car they had followed. Rafe's bulging muscles tensed. He clutched the revolver and jabbed the young driver's shoulder.

"They're on the move. Don't lose them or you're dead!"

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