EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

Below is an excerpt from Behind the Mask, the upcoming fourth novel in the Jill Andersen series. Please note that this is an early draft that has not yet been subject to strenuous editing. All mistakes are my own. Also, be warned that there are spoilers if you haven’t yet read Behind the Badge.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (7)Every time sirens whirred to life, Jill Andersen’s heart skipped a beat.

The two weeks since Jill had marched into the WJZ studios, hacked into the live television feed, and broadcast to all of Baltimore who she really was had crawled by. It was almost reminiscent of when Jill and her younger brother Brian were children, eagerly awaiting Christmas morning. Each day that drew closer to the holiday seemed to drag along slower than the last. The only difference this time was the overwhelming dread that came with waiting. It almost literally pressed down on Jill’s shoulders, the bone-chilling and stomach-churning realization that any night would be the night Jill finally lost her freedom.

And in a way, Jill thought she should. After all, every time she donned the black leather, every time she assumed the mantle of the vigilante, she broke the law. Her day job centered around bringing those who broke the law to justice; if Jill broke the law, wasn’t she supposed to face the same fate?

In a perfect world, she would — but then again, that same perfect world would have seen the four officers who tortured and killed Devin Buckner suffer the same fate. Instead, the Baltimore Police Department aided and abetted them, threatening Jill in the process, and it got to the point where those four wound up in a watery grave thanks to a nameless, faceless vigilante.

That ultimately led to Jill turning in her badge. As for the reveal? Well, that was a much more complicated, much more sordid tale. Jill had kicked herself plenty for her rash decision over the past couple weeks, whenever a close call nearly had her hunched over in the back seat of a squad car with her wrists shackled together behind her back. It was the reason she wore a bulky black overcoat on top of her leather. It was the reason she had chopped much of her hair off and dyed it jet black. It now curled up at the sides around her ears, bangs forming over her forehead. It was the reason she abandoned her apartment and hadn’t so much as spoken to her brother or her former partner, outside of an untraceable text from a burner phone. It was the reason Jill kept her trademark katana hidden in an abandoned warehouse on the corner of Lee and Charles.

It was the reason Jill’s heart just now leapt in her throat and she peered over her shoulder around the corner of the building. The sirens were growing louder, and Jill couldn’t help but wonder if this was the night the cops finally cornered her. To her relief, the warehouse in question still had one of those old-style fire escapes. The metal was rusted from lack of care, and it chaffed against the leather on Jill’s palms when she jumped to grab it, but her enhanced strength made ascending the warehouse’s six stories a relative walk in the park.

As Jill made her way to the roof, she peered over her shoulder again. The police vehicle, which was actually a K-9 SUV, had stopped a block to the north, blue overheads spinning to announce their presence. The light bounced off the buildings in the vicinity, and despite having height to her advantage, Jill crouched down to stare over the ledge. A husky officer named Yancey emerged from the driver’s seat, sauntering to the rear of the vehicle and producing two adult German Shepherds. Jill cursed under her breath and pressed her back against the ledge.

Jill knew almost nothing about dogs, other than her childhood memories of Brian begging for a puppy for his tenth birthday. She had no idea how good their sense of smell really was, if they would be able to sense where she was and when. A side effect of being with the Homicide unit her entire career, Jill hadn’t taken the time to learn how other divisions operated. She wondered if that ignorance would be her undoing, and part of Jill bristled at that. She didn’t want Fido to be the reason she wound up behind bars. She was a superhero, a freaking cyborg… she was so much better than that.

Pushing off the ledge, careful not to let her boots crunch too loudly against the gravel, Jill tried to keep an eye on Yancey’s route. He stuck to the sidewalks, lighting a cigarette and seemingly content to let the dogs lead the way. Their black snouts were pressed to the pavement, their tails remarkably still.

Yancey turned around, giving Jill a full view of his face. He pushed the brim of his cap up, puffing out a drag of his smoke. Even from six stories up, Jill could see the bags under his eyes and the general disinterest on his scruffy features. Pulling the cigarette from his mouth and tapping out a few ashes, Yancey shook his head and glanced toward the sky. His gaze wasn’t in Jill’s direction, yet she still crouched down further in response. Yancey looked as if he was none too pleased with this particular assignment, and he didn’t notice as the two dogs wandered into a nearby alley. Instead, he kept sucking away at his cigarette before finally flicking the spent butt out onto the street without bothering to snuff it out.

The dogs barked in unison and Jill flinched. But Yancey just stuffed his hand into the pocket of his bulky overcoat, producing a flashlight and heaving a sigh before turning around and joining his pooches. It was in the opposite direction of where Jill was, and she released the breath she hadn’t even realized she had been holding. Chances were, Yancey was simply following orders — reluctantly so, if Jill had correctly read his demeanor. So if he was the one to catch her, would she really be able to blame him?

And for all the bravado Jill tried to pump herself up with, for all the times she would catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror and remind herself that there were those in this town who worshiped her… this was wearing on her. When Jill wasn’t actually on the run, she was having trouble eating. She certainly wasn’t sleeping. Her titanium skeleton and enhanced strength weren’t doing her any good when she was this run down. If only Project Fusion had rid her of the need for food or rest…

The barking in the distance stopped. Jill glanced over the ledge again, but she didn’t see Yancey or the dogs emerge from the alley. At first, she didn’t think anything of it, but with each second that passed, and as the traffic lights at the intersection of Charles and Hughes went through three cycles, dread built in her gut. Her first instinct was to go investigate; whether as a cop or as Bounty, that was what Jill’s body was practically trained to do. Yet she kept still, because there was too much at risk. If someone else saw her, if Yancey was, in fact, alright… the last thing Jill wanted to do was fall into a trap.

Minutes passed without any sign of Yancey or the dogs. Jill got to her feet, deciding she could no longer ignore the intuition plucking away at her subconscious. One of the first lessons she had learned as a cop was to trust herself when her gut told her something wasn’t right. A cop’s gut wasn’t gospel, despite what some old-timers had tried to tell her, but Jill had eventually learned that listening to her proverbial spider sense was beneficial more often than not.

But when Jill got to her feet, the sound of gravel scraping gave her pause. Jill held her breath, her hands balling into fists seemingly on their own. She held her breath, training all of her senses to hone in for that sound again. She was met with nothing more than the howl of wind off the bay, her hair fluttering in the breeze, but she could feel the presence behind her. Tightening her fists, Jill turned to regard whoever was now on the roof with her. She wasn’t sure what she expected — if it was a cop, chances were they would have already announced themselves, but once Jill caught sight of the lanky man wearing a black and orange overcoat and a matching baseball cap hung low over his forehead, she frowned. This was not what she expected.

“Erikson?”

“You’re a hard woman to find,” the Baltimore Sun‘s investigative reporter said with a sideways grin. “Though I guess that’s by design these days.”

Reluctantly, Jill unfurled her fists. “Sneaking up on a paranoid superhero’s not a very good idea.”

“Even if I have a tip?”

“Please tell me the next words out of your mouth are that the cops aren’t after me.”

“Not quite, but just as good.” Stanley Erikson glanced over his shoulder and tugged on the bill of his cap. His eyes narrowed when the wind picked up. “Tomorrow night, an associate of David Gregor’s will be awaiting a shipment at the Port of Baltimore.”

Jill’s spine stiffened at the sound of that name. “While he’s across the Atlantic. The perfect alibi.”

“My sources tell me he’s resuming the drug trade,” Erikson explained. “If you’re not too busy playing hide-and-seek with your former employers, might be worth checking out.”

“That it? You could’ve just texted me.”

“There’s also this,” Erikson said, producing a black USB drive from his pocket and handing it to Jill.

She took the device with a frown and a quirked brow, shaking her head. It wasn’t like she had ready access to a computer to read whatever was on here, yet her fingers curled around the small stick regardless. “What’s this?”

“Something I have a lot of questions about,” Erikson said, zipping up his coat and stuffing his hands into the pockets. “Questions I know you have answers to.”

Something about the way Erikson said that rubbed Jill the wrong way, yet she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the flash drive… nor could she ignore the intel he had provided just moments before. If she could corner one of Gregor’s associates while he was out of the country… oh, the possibilities were endless.

“I’m guessing you won’t take a ‘no comment’.”

A rueful smile crept onto Erikson’s face. “Oh, something tells me you’ll have plenty to say about this.”

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