Prologue

Portland, Oregon

January

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He watched.

Carefully.

Paying attention to every detail as the rain sheeted from the night-dark sky and streetlights reflected on the wet pavement.

Two women were running, faster and faster, and he smiled as the first passed into the lamp’s pool of illumination. Her face was twisted in terror, her beautiful features distorted by fear.

Just as they should be.

Good. Very good.

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The slower woman was a few steps behind and constantly looking over her shoulder, as if she were expecting something or someone with murderous intent to be hunting her down.

Just as he’d planned.

Come on, come on, keep running.

As if they heard him, the women raced forward.

Perfect.

His throat tightened and his fists balled in nervous anticipation.

Just a few more steps!

Gasping, the slower woman paused, one hand splayed over her chest as she leaned over to catch her breath beneath the streetlamp. Rain poured down from the heavens. Her hair was wet, falling in dripping ringlets around her face, her white jacket soaked through. Again she glanced furtively behind her, past the empty sidewalks and storefronts of this forgotten part of the city. God, she was beautiful, as was the first one, each a fine female specimen that he’d picked precisely for this moment.

His heart was pumping wildly, anticipation and adrenaline firing his blood as an anticipatory grin twisted his lips.

Good. This is so good.

Silently he watched as from the corner of his eye, the first woman raced past him just as he’d hoped. Eyes focused ahead, she was seemingly oblivious to his presence, but in his heart he knew she realized he was there, observing her every movement, catching each little nuance of fear. He saw determination and horror in the tense lines of her face, heard it in her quick, shallow breaths and the frenzied pounding of her footsteps as she flew past.

And then she was gone.

Safely down the street.

He forced his full attention to the second woman, the target. She twisted her neck, turned to look his way, as if she felt him near, as if she divined him lurking in the deep umbra surrounding the street.

His heart missed a beat.

Don’t see me. Do not! Do not look at me!

Her expression, at this distance, was a little blurry, but he sensed that she was scared to death. Terrified. Exactly what he wanted.

Feel it. Experience the sheer terror of knowing you’re being stalked, that you are about to die.

Her lower lip trembled.

Yes! Finally.

Satisfaction warmed his blood.

As if she heard a sound, she stiffened, her head snapping to stare down the darkened alley.

That’s it. Come on. Come on!

Her eyes widened and suddenly she started running again, this time in a sheer panic. She slipped, lost a high heel, and she kicked off the other, never missing a step, her bare feet still slapping the wet pavement frantically.

Now!

He shifted slightly, giving himself a better view, making sure that he didn’t miss a thing.

Perfect.

She was running right on target.

At that moment a dark figure stepped from a shadowed doorway to stand right in front of the woman.

Screaming, she veered a bit, slipped, and nearly lost her balance, only to keep on running, angling away from the man.

Too late!

The assassin raised his gun.

Blam! Blam! Blam!

Three shots rang out, echoing along the empty street, fire spitting from the gun’s muzzle.

She stumbled and reeled, her face a mask of fear as she twisted and fell onto the pavement. Her eyes rolled upward, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. Another spreading red stain bloomed darkly through her white jacket.

Perfect, he thought, satisfied at last as he viewed her unmoving body.

Finally, after years of planning, he’d pulled it off.

Shondie Kent looked dead.

As she lay in the street he waited, focusing on the body, noticing how it neither twitched nor moved in any way.

Exquisite.

From years of experience he counted silently. Five, four, three, two, one. Still no movement, the “corpse” in place, the street empty, rain and a bit of fog visible. The camera had zoomed in on the open mouth, glazed eyes, and dark blood on the white blouse.

Satisfied that the shot was flawless, he yelled, “Cut!” and punched the air from his director’s chair. He felt ridiculously triumphant that the death scene had finally worked. Man, what a relief! They’d shot the scene over and over the day before, never getting the action and ambience to meld to his satisfaction. Something had always been missing. But today after several failed attempts, finally everything had worked like clockwork, the actors and crew were spot-on, the energy on the set was right for this, the climax to the end of the scene. “That’s it!” he yelled, then added under his breath, “Thank God,” because truth to tell, the scene had been a bitch.

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