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“You have a present yet?”
“Bought it last month, Mister Know-It-All, so there.”
“Want to drive out there with me? I’m staying over at my parents’ ’til Sunday.”
Sid thought about the significance of that last part. It didn’t occur to either of them to stay in a hotel together, because there was no passion. Will would stay at his parents’ house, and, if she stayed over at all, it would be in her old room at her parents’ house. She found the reminder depressing.
“Sure,” she said to his invitation. At a minimum, he’d be good company for the drive, and if it turned out she didn’t want to stay over, she could always take the train back.
“Good deal. I’ll pick you up around ten. Gives you time to get gorgeous before the party.”
“Mmm,” Sid agreed, but her mind was hung up on the unfairness of it all. That a smug, chauvinist bastard of a vampire could rock her world, while a great guy like Will was relegated to the friends department. What did that say about her? Nothing good, that was for sure.
Will’s cell phone vibrated discreetly. He stole a glance at it and signaled the waiter for the check.
“Hope you don’t mind, Sid. But I can’t be late for this meeting.”
“Of course not.”
“Your brother said to say hi, by the way.”
“Tell him hi back.” Her oldest brother, Jameson Reid III, was Will’s best friend and a partner at the same law firm. Which was why Will saw her brother far more often than Sid did. She’d come by her obsessive work ethic naturally. It ran in the family.
Ten minutes later, Will gave her a brotherly kiss good-bye and slipped into a cab.
“You sure you don’t want to share?” he asked, before closing the door.
Sid shook her head. “It’s the opposite direction, and I don’t want you to be late. I’ll take the next one.”
“See you Saturday morning, then.”
She watched the cab carry him away, staring at the traffic until the doorman drew her attention with a polite, “Do you required a cab, miss?”
Sid regarded him blankly, considering. She felt like walking, but it was already late, and she’d have to take the train to her destination later. “Yes, please. Thank you.”
The cab ride was longer than she’d hoped. She’d forgotten how bad lunchtime traffic could be and could probably have walked faster. But it was too late for that. She rushed into the elevator and down the hall, kicking off her heels as she walked into her condo, pulling off her black cashmere sweater and charcoal pencil skirt and tossing them on the bed. She took the time to wash her face of makeup and confine her hair in a long braid, but before she got dressed, she added something she only wore during these nighttime recons of hers, and that was a bellyband holster along with a 9mm Glock 26 Gen4 with a ten capacity mag.
Sid wasn’t all that fond of guns and had never fired one before moving to Chicago. But she was fond of her life, and some of the places she’d had to venture in pursuit of this story were unsavory at best and flat-out dangerous at worst. She hadn’t really taken the danger seriously before Janey had been killed, but afterwards, one of the first things she’d done was buy a gun and learn how to shoot it. She now went to the range every week and fired a couple hundred rounds. Her first few times there had been laughable. She’d flinched so hard, she’d barely hit the target. But she’d stuck with it, and now, while she’d never be a sharpshooter, she was confident she could at least hold her own long enough to get away. Unless her enemy was a vampire. But in that case, she figured nothing would save her anyway.
She racked the slide, putting a round in the chamber, then dropped the magazine and filled it, giving her a total of eleven rounds. She replaced the mag with a hard slap, just as she’d been taught, then slipped it into the bellyband. Once she’d yanked on her clothes—a pair of torn jeans, a heavy, long-sleeved T-shirt, and a dark gray fleece hoodie, along with the black Chucks she’d had on earlier—the small 9mm was undetectable to anything but a pat-down.
Other than the gun, she didn’t take much with her on these recon forays. A notebook and pen, her ID and transit pass, and enough money for a cab, just in case, plus a small bottle of water and an energy bar. Experience had taught her that she could sometimes be stuck somewhere a long time, unable to move without giving her position away. She shoved it all into a small backpack, then checked the time again. Nearly 2:00 P.M. It was later than she liked, but there was still plenty of time.
She’d discovered early on that her best chances for sneaking up on the holding pens was during the day when the vamps were sound asleep. They hired human guards, but the humans had clearly been told that their job was to keep the women in rather than everyone else out, so they paid very little attention to what was happening on their own perimeter.
Besides, Sid had become quite proficient at blending into her environment. She could put on a sexy dress and high heels to seduce Aden, or she could pull on a pair of raggedy jeans and some scuffed Chucks to become just another teenager making her way in a rough neighborhood. She took the train, tucking her braid of red hair down the back of her sweatshirt, pulling up the hood, and adding a baseball cap to better conceal herself before disembarking. She’d been enough of a thorn in the slavers’ sides that at least some of them would know her on sight.
The house she was headed to was in Woodlawn not far from Jackson Park, and only a short distance from Lake Michigan. She actually knew of at least one shipment of slaves that had been moved by boat. She didn’t know where they’d gone after that, because she’d had little luck tracking any of the captive women beyond Chicago. She only knew for sure that her suppositions about the extended network were correct because of Janey’s personal experience.
Keeping her head down as she got off the train, Sid made her way to the street she needed. Her target was a fifties era, single-story house, with a broad, covered porch. She walked by the first time without slowing, continued down two full blocks, then crossed the street and did a second pass on the opposite side of the street. Most of the houses in this neighborhood had been replaced by large apartment buildings, which was a bit of good luck. She couldn’t hang around too long without the wrong people noticing her, but there was enough tenant turnover in the surrounding apartments that it gave her a little bit of cover.
Her initial walk-by told her the house she wanted was being guarded by two thuggish-looking guys. They didn’t do much, just sat on the porch, chairs kicked back, and watched the street. It said something about the neighborhood that no one gave them a second look, even though they were obviously armed and didn’t try to hide it. Holding her cell phone and pretending to carry on a conversation, she snapped several pictures of the guards, including a few that zoomed in on their guns, just for the record. Illinois had some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but that didn’t mean no one ever broke them. The police would be no more interested in the guns than the neighbors were, which meant not at all.
She kept walking. This was the hardest part, when her back was to the guards. It would look too suspicious for her to keep glancing over her shoulder, but she was always waiting for the attack to come. For a hard hand to grab her shoulder or a shot to ring out.
She reached the end of the block with a sigh of relief. There wasn’t much traffic, but she looked both ways, and as she did, she saw a third guard appear from the back of the house. He walked down the cracked concrete driveway, exchanged a few words with the porch sitters, and then exchanged places with one of them, who then disappeared into the back.
A total of three guards. That was doable, especially since Sid wasn’t planning on being a hero. There’d be no breaking and entering, no sneaking in to free the prisoners, and sure as hell no big shootout in the middle of the day. But she wasn’t going to limit herself to standing across the street, either. Today’s trip was all about recon, which meant she had to get close enough to verify that there really were captives inside the house.
She’d made that mistake early on, rushing off to report her findings to the police, only to have them discover an empty house and no sign that anyone had ever been there. Sid had been sure she had the right house, but it had been nothing but a decoy. She’d later learned that this was the slavers’ modus operandi. But that incident was part of the reason why the police didn’t give much credence to her reports anymore.
For the next phase of her recon, she circled around the block and cut through a second apartment complex that stood behind the small house. This late in the day, the sunlight barely penetrated the narrow space between the several buildings. With her dark gray hoodie, she had plenty of cover to stand and observe the slavers’ back yard. The third guard was there, sitting on a battered aluminum lawn chair and looking bored out of his mind. At one point, she was pretty sure his eyes drifted closed, but she didn’t make her move until he got up and cruised back around the left side of the house to rotate guard duty with his buddies on the porch.
Moving quickly, Sid slipped over the ancient and drooping chain-link fence bordering the property, and hurried across the mostly dirt yard and up to the right side of the house, which was covered in prickly and neglected holly bushes. She remained still until the new guard was settled on the lawn chair, forcing herself to wait even longer, until there was a good chance he’d grown complacent and bored. And then, hugging the right side of the house, trying to avoid getting her clothes snagged on half-dead holly branches, she moved from window to window. She always hoped for a torn window shade, or a gap in the curtain, something to give her a glimpse inside, but that rarely happened. And today, as usual, the house was buttoned up tight.
She’d never been inside this house, but real estate websites were full of information, if one knew what to look for. She knew the house had three bedrooms, two on the side where she was now, and a third at the end of a short hallway. The windows on the other bedroom faced the back yard which made them too dangerous to sneak a look at. The lawn-chair guard was absent during the changeover, but walking up to the house in plain sight was too much risk for too little payoff. Sid had no doubt what they’d do to her if she was caught. These were the people who’d killed Janey, and although her father’s name protected her from the vampires at the top, their street thug guards might not check her credentials before killing her.