Authors: J.D. Cunegan
A Jill Andersen Mystery
Copyright © 2016 Jeff Cunningham
All rights reserved.
Cover Design: woofie_2015 (SelfPubBookCovers.com/woofie_2015)
Though the happenings in this book are inspired by real-life events, this is still a work of fiction. Any similarities to any actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For those lost at the hands of the ones with a duty to protect.
Devin Buckner's left shoulder slammed against the side of the van as it skidded along the pavement. The tires squealed in protest and the vehicle threatened to topple onto its side, but once the rubber collided with the pavement again, the van righted itself and lurched forward. By the time Devin gathered his bearings, the van swerved to the right, causing him to stumble forward until his face smashed into the rusted partition between himself and the driver's compartment. A horn bellowed a motorist's discontent before the van swerved again, and as Devin reached for something to grab onto, warm blood pouring from his nostrils, it accelerated and the motor gave as mighty a roar as it could muster.
A large sign on the partition taunted Devin:
Please buckle up - it's the law!
Only there was no buckle, and no seat on which Devin could plant himself. Even as he got back to his knees, nursing a broken nose and a shoulder that throbbed, his eyes took in his dark surroundings. What metal wasn't rusted was a faded gray, with small dark splotches littered throughout. As the first taste of blood crept over Devin's lips, he wondered if those spots were dried blood from victims past. He had heard the rumors; he knew he was likely not the first to find himself in this situation.
Another violent swerve sent Devin's 17-year-old frame flying into the side of the van again, and he bellowed in pain when his left knee slammed full-on against the metal. He had torn the ACL in that knee a year and a half earlier in a high school basketball game. The blinding physical pain aside, he had likely lost his shot at getting a full ride to a big-time school -- the University of Maryland had been on his short list, even dating back to his middle school years.
His dreams of playing for the Terrapins were likely over, but the work Devin had put in over the last several months had opened up other doors for him. Now the only door he wanted to open was the one leading out of the back of the van. But it was latched shut.
The van accelerated at such a rate that the motor began to vibrate, and Devin prayed under his breath that the engine would give out.
Force these bastards to pull off to the side of the road... if they're gonna kill me, let them do it to my face.
The months since his injury had not been without their issues, but Devin was about to graduate from high school, and he had already been accepted to college. In fact, the whole reason he had been in downtown Baltimore in the first place was to meet up with a friend about possibly living on campus together. The friend never showed, and before Devin could turn around to catch a bus back home on the north side of the city, a plain white van had slammed to a stop in front of him and four figures wearing all black had grabbed him and tossed him into the back.
He had heard the stories. About what had happened to others in this city. He knew all about what some of the locals called
, and even though the van was without any identifying markers, Devin’s gut told him he was at the mercy of police officers. Whether they were rogue or exacting a bastardized brand of justice that higher-ups would tacitly endorse, he couldn’t tell. But the stories he had heard on the streets were apparently true, and as the van continued teetering back and forth, Devin settled on the knowledge that his name would soon be added to the list.
Now the van was pushing ninety, maybe even a hundred miles an hour. It switched lanes so suddenly that Devin's stomach churned. He cupped a hand over his mouth, trying desperately not to be sick, but the pain in his surgically-repaired knee and his shoulder was becoming unbearable. Tears clouded the boy's vision, and he was launched into the opposite side of the van when the vehicle skidded along four lanes of traffic and took an exit.
At the start of the ride, Devin had tried to keep a mind on which way the van was moving, but being thrown around like a proverbial ragdoll had caused him to lose his bearings. Whoever was driving didn't bother slowing before cutting a hard left, practically at a full ninety-degree angle, before again swerving in and out of traffic. Blaring horns created a symphony of chaos as Devin lost his footing and slammed back-first into the double doors leading out the back of the van. He felt the doors give under the force of the impact, but the rusted chains holding them together never gave.
Devin crumpled onto the floor, almost curling into the fetal position. Blood dripped from his nose into a small puddle on the rusted metal, and the pain in his shoulder flared again when the teenager tried to push himself at least onto his good knee. By the time Devin got his bearings again, he noticed the van had cut a hard right. Almost immediately, it made yet another right, swerving hard to the left to avoid another motorist who laid onto the horn with such volume and duration that it was clear how angry they were.
The sound was drowned out, though, by Devin's scream when the top of his head slammed into the partition. One more hard turn and he rolled to the right, his other shoulder slamming into the metal. His shoulder popped out of joint, and Devin's scream echoed in his dim, cramped surroundings. When he finally settled, Devin did become sick, retching that morning's breakfast all over himself. He could hear a chorus of laughter through the partition, and he howled in pain when he tried to lift his left arm so he could wipe his mouth over his sleeve.
When the van made one more violent, ninety-degree turn to the right, Devin rolled with the momentum again, and this time when his back slammed against the side, an audible crack mixed in with his grunt of pain. By this point, exhaustion and agony kept Devin from moving. He lay in a heap several feet from the fresh pile of vomit, gritting his teeth and sucking in labored breaths. All the work he had done over the past year and a half to get his life back together was playing on a loop in his mind, and Devin knew that he was never going to get to see all those plans unfold.
Even as he felt consciousness slipping from his grasp, Devin gave one more silent prayer, asking for peace for his mother and justice for what was to come.
The van skidded to a stop, the force of rapid deceleration banging the back of Devin's head against the side. The blow knocked him unconscious, so he didn't hear when the front doors to the van were thrown shut and heavy footsteps approached the back. The chain came undone before the double doors were pried open, and a burly figure clad in all black, including a full mask and gloves, climbed aboard and grabbed Devin by the back of his maroon hoodie. With a grunt, the man dragged the teenager's body from the back of the van and tossed him onto the pavement.
The corner of Madison and Tyson was dead at this time of day, with no onlookers in the vicinity. The parking lot at the First & Franklin Presbyterian Church was empty. The burly man stood over Devin's unconscious body and folded his arms across his chest while three others -- all wearing identical gear -- joined him. The lone female in the group cocked her head and cracked her knuckles, flexing her shoulders in the process.
“Is he dead yet?” she asked, her voice muffled by the mask.
“Naw, shithead's still alive,” the burly man replied. “Barely.”
“We fucked him up good, though,” the taller, thinner man added. “Busted-up nose, probably broke quite a few bones in the process... I say that's some of the best driving you've ever done, Freddie.”
“Don't matter how many times we do this,” Freddie bragged, “still fun as hell.”
The only man yet to speak pulled a handgun from the holster on his back, cocking it and pointing the weapon at the side of Devin's head. “I say it's time we put this dog down once and for all.”
The burly man placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hold on a sec,” he ordered, turning to glance over his shoulder. Once he saw there was no one around, that the only other car on the street was a block away and driving in the opposite direction, he let go of the man's shoulder and nodded once. “Go ahead.”
The gunshot rang out into the morning air, scattering a group of pigeons huddled nearby, and Devin Buckner's brains splattered all over the pavement.
“Is it just me,” Officer Greg Sorenson asked as he lifted the yellow crime scene tape so the two plain-clothed detectives could duck underneath, “or are the murders in this town getting more and more gruesome?”
“What's the matter?” Ramon Gutierrez quipped as he slapped baby blue latex gloves over his hands. “You gonna be sick?”
Jill Andersen couldn't help but laugh at her partner's joke, seeing as how until a few months ago, retching at crime scenes was
thing. Ramon was the greenest detective Jill had worked with in her almost four years in Homicide, and for the first year or so, he vomited almost every time they found a body. Sometimes, he threw up as soon as he got out of the car. Other times, he would be fine until he saw the body or caught a whiff of the remains. But he appeared to have broken that particular habit, and Jill was proud of him for it. Not that she’d ever say so.
But as they approached the body, Jill felt that familiar rumble in her gut. Not just because of the gaping hole in the victim's head, bits of skull and brain matter spattered on the concrete, but because their victim appeared to be a child. Lead medical examiner Juanita Gutierrez was hunched over the body, making her preliminary assessment, and the look on her face told Jill this wasn't going to be a good one.
“Please tell me this isn't what I think it is,” Jill said as she crouched next to her friend.
“'Fraid so,” Juanita said with a sigh, handing Jill the driver's license she had found on his body. “Devin Buckner, 17 years old.”
Jill studied the card with a frown. “North Baltimore. What was he doing downtown?”
“Other than getting his brains blown out,” Earl Stevens said as he approached the small cadre of police officers, hitching up his pants and making sure his cowboy boots didn't step in any of the viscera, “we're not sure. So far we got no eyewits.”
Jill frowned in disbelief. “How are there no witnesses?”
Juanita pointed at the entry wound with the tip of her pen. “Preliminary time of death is about nine or 10 this morning.”
Watson folded his arms over his chest. “Traffic's light here at that hour.”
Jill pushed herself back to her feet, readjusting her ponytail and turning to stare down Madison. The traffic was fuller at this hour, bottlenecking as motorists tried to sneak a peek at the crime scene, but it was nothing compared to what Pratt Street near the Inner Harbor saw most of the day. The traffic lights worked a pattern Jill knew by heart. Baltimore was her hometown; aside from the four years she spent fighting for Uncle Sam, stationed in both Virginia and Iraq, Jill had never known any place other than Baltimore. She was proud to protect this city to the best of her ability, and she hoped she was doing a better job than her father had.
At one time, Paul Andersen had been the best and brightest the Baltimore Police Department had ever seen. But along the way, he had been corrupted -- like so many others in this city -- and he found himself on Death Row after committing a trio of murders. Two months ago, the state of Maryland had him executed for it -- a personal tragedy that was nothing but the latest in a long line of tragedies for the Andersen family.
“So... simple GSW to the head,” Stevens theorized, crouching beside Juanita, close enough that their shoulders brushed together.
Juanita glanced up at him and did her best to suppress a smile, even though her eyes still lit up. “I'm not so sure. I dunno what happened to this kid before he took one to the temple, but his nose is broken, he's got a dislocated shoulder, and there’s dried vomit on his shirt. And that's just me eyeballin' him.”
“Jesus,” Stevens muttered under his breath.
With her back now turned to the others at the crime scene, Jill wandered down closer to the junction between Madison and Tyson. A gentle breeze fluttered around her, and she could hear seagulls soaring through the sky, undoubtedly on their way to the Inner Harbor in hopes of scrounging up breakfast from the myriad of restaurants locals and tourists alike frequented every day. But this section of Baltimore, while still downtown, was not the attraction that the Inner Harbor and the Power Plant were, and the lack of foot traffic mirrored that.
Stealing a glance over her shoulder, and confident no one was paying attention to her, Jill reached up to her left temple and peeled off her skin graft to reveal a silver eyeplate that ran from the bottom of her cheek up to her hairline. The plate surrounded an infrared eye, which connected to a microscopic supercomputer embedded in her brain. Tapping her temple again, Jill activated her infrared sight so she could scan the road.
During her time in the Army, Jill had volunteered for a secret experiment called Project Fusion. Dr. Trent Roberts had seemingly perfected the advancement of human cybernetics to the point where he boasted that he could create the perfect super soldier -- how with one procedure, he could make those fighting on the front lines stronger, smarter, more resilient, and faster to heal. Most countries balked at first, but with the United States in the midst of two wars, the Pentagon secretly agreed to let the enlisted volunteer if they so chose.
Now her entire skeleton was coated in titanium. She boasted super strength and accelerated healing, and her athleticism surpassed that of even the most in-shape tactical cop. Her physical scores from the Academy were still records to this day, and the general consensus was that no one would ever top them. But Jill's enhancements gave her a new purpose; on top of her life as a homicide detective, Jill also doubled as the costumed vigilante Bounty. Black leather and mesh armor fueling rumors and innuendo throughout the city, to say nothing of the few who actually knew her secret.
But for right now, her enhancements were being used in a more mundane capacity. Ramon would call what Jill was doing right now cheating, but she didn't care. She would use every tool at her disposal to get to the truth, and if that meant her two worlds had to occasionally collide, then so be it. This also gave her a chance to undergo her ritual, to grieve for the departed in solitude. She didn't know Devin Buckner, but by the end of this case, she would know him as well as his family -- if not better. Other cops would see the victim as just another case, a series of facts and figures to piece together to lead to an eventual arrest.
For Jill, though, every case was a matter of who the victim was. The teenager lying on the pavement wasn't just another case. He was someone's son, someone's friend. Maybe he had been someone's brother or someone's boyfriend. He was someone who had plans and a future, and someone made sure he wouldn't get to have either of those things. Whereas other cops, competent though they were, would see Devin Buckner as a case, Jill would make sure to never lose sight of him as a person.
She studied the tire tracks on the road, cognizant of the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles used this intersection every day. To the naked eye, tire tracks were simply tire tracks. But this was also a low-speed intersection -- at almost ninety degrees, most cars wouldn't lay down that much rubber when making the turn. Which was why the series of deep black tire tracks, so dark the rubber was deeply embedded into the asphalt, seemed so out of place. Jill frowned to herself, replacing the skin graft and taking a few extra seconds to make sure it was in place. Tapping her temple to turn off the infrared sight -- mostly because she knew the looks the other cops would give her if they saw it -- she turned back to Ramon and Stevens.
“We got traffic cams in this area?” she asked.
“Yeah, just installed last month,” Ramon answered. “Why?”
“We've got some major tire tracks on that intersection,” she explained, pointing over her shoulder. “Far blacker and far deeper than a normal vehicle. Someone took that turn at a high rate of speed...” Jill was now looking down as she talked, studying the road until she got to Devin's body. “...and stopped right here.”
“Sonofabitch,” Stevens muttered, scratching the back of his head.
Ramon picked up on his partner's train of thought. “Devin's killer dropped him off here.”
“Before killing him,” Juanita added.
“We need that footage,” Jill said, turning around to see Stevens already digging out his phone and pressing the device to his ear. “I want a visual on the vehicle. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll even get a visual on the sick fuck who did this.”
Jill stared at the teenager's body while listening to Detective Stevens place the call asking for traffic cam footage for the intersection in question and a three-block radius surrounding it. She cocked her head to the side, forcing herself to stare at the hole in Devin's head even though she could feel the burn of acid creeping up her esophagus. She would let herself be disgusted later; right now, she had to piece together this boy's final moments.
“Hey, J... is the bullet still in his head or did it embed itself into the sidewalk?”
“Won't know until we get him moved,” Juanita said with a shake of her head.
Jill frowned at that -- not because she was mad at her friend, but because that was one more puzzle piece they didn't have. The more pieces they had to find, the more time they had to spend waiting and digging. The minutia of the case was something that frustrated Jill more often than not, and she appreciated cases that were largely open-and-shut. Either because the evidence was that abundant or because someone confessed, she had learned to truly appreciate the “easy” ones.
This was apparently not going to be an “easy” one.
“So someone screams through the light like a bat out of hell,” Ramon theorized, “skids to a stop, tosses Devin to the sidewalk like he’s nothing and pops him in the head.” He shook his head and folded his arms over his chest, squinting at his partner. “Is it just me, or does that not make a whole lotta sense?”
“Not just you,” Jill agreed. “Let's hope traffic cams paint a clearer picture for us.”