Ben Mercy pulled into the complex parking lot and stared at his second-floor apartment. Stacy Hunter sat on the flight of cement stairs that led up to his place. She stood when she saw him.
Ben had decided shortly after meeting Stacy that she would have been who the Beach Boys had sung about, if she’d been born fifty years earlier. Stacy’s long, straight blonde hair fell to the small of her back. She had thin, long, perfectly tanned legs that she drew attention to by always wearing four-inch heels and incredibly short skirts. Her hips were narrow and her waist so small he could wrap his hands around it. Those double Ds were firm, and he swore her nipples were always hard. She was every man’s wet dream, the epitome of a California Girl.
Stacy smoothed her light cotton mini-dress with her thin, long fingers. She watched him tentatively. He wished she weren’t there.
Ben pulled into one of the two stalls assigned to his two-bedroom apartment. Stacy’s convertible was parked in the other stall. She came down the stairs, brushing those long blonde locks over her shoulder. He watched her moisten her lips. Remaining straddled on his motorcycle wouldn’t prevent the inevitable.
Her bright blue eyes made it clear she was ready for round two. Ben just wanted to go upstairs, pop open a beer, and kick back on his couch with the remote. He hadn’t had a bad day. It had been a bad fucking week. Stacy put her hands on her hips and squared back her shoulders. Those double Ds pressed against the thin fabric of her dress. The vine tattoo that started at her shoulder and went down to her elbow also wrapped around one breast. When he’d first met her, he had thought that the hottest thing he’d ever seen. Now, as he glanced at her arm, he wondered how it would look when she got older and gravity did its number on those perfect boobs.
Knowing Stacy, he thought she would pay to keep her breasts perky and tempting for as long as possible.
“Why did you buy this bike?” she asked, putting her weight on one leg and pointing her painted toes upward as she tapped her high heel on the sidewalk. “You wasted all your money on this thing just so you could copycat that boss of yours, didn’t you? You know, Ben, in the real world no one cares about him at all. You need to focus on getting your life straightened out.”
Ben pulled off his helmet and stuck it under his arm, then got off his bike. “What I need is a shower,” he muttered. It was none of her business how much his boss sold this bike to him for. But he’d gotten it for a steal, and with gas prices the way they were, Ben was real glad to have it.
“Although I do admit you look pretty sexy in all that black leather.” She tried touching his fingerless glove with one of her long fingernails.
He moved just in time to avoid her touch. Stacy wouldn’t help any of his problems right now. He doubted fucking her for hours would take away the grief, pain, and, yes, fear. He hated fear. But if the cops came over to talk to him—Ben gave himself a mental shake. Dwelling on all of it wouldn’t make anything better.
Stacy was just over a hundred pounds, and if dieting didn’t keep her at that weight, surgery would. Ben wouldn’t shove her out of his way but stepped around her as he headed for the stairs. Stacy tried reaching them before he did but didn’t succeed. Ben knew her tricks. If she thought her climbing the stairs ahead of him would change his mind about their relationship, she really didn’t know him. He was done with her trying to change everything about him. If she wanted some suave, debonair gentleman, she could go find him. That wasn’t Ben. God, he was no fucking gentleman. He didn’t have a car door to open for a lady, which had been repeatedly pointed out to him. Nor did he feel in the mood for ladies first, in spite of Stacy’s efforts to climb the stairs in front of him. He honestly didn’t care whether she had panties on right now or not.
Her heels clapped against the cement stairs as she hurried up behind him. “I decided we should talk,” she informed him when they reached the top.
Ben slid his key into the lock and turned it. Shit. He really didn’t want to let her into his apartment.
“We talked last night.”
“You talked last night,” she pressed. “And, as always, I was the dutiful girlfriend who listened,” she added, and pursed her lips into a pout. They curved into a temptuous smile a moment later. “I know just how to talk to you, too,” she whispered.
Keep talking, he thought. It would help him remember why he broke up with her the night before. Ben turned the lock with his key and pushed open his apartment door.
“Goddamn,” he blurted out when he looked at her.
Stacy had lowered the thin straps to her dress so they draped over her arms. She revealed a white lace strapless bra that was cut low enough that her round, puckered nipples were in plain sight. His dick didn’t seem to care whether she was a meddling bitch or not. He was instantly hard.
Stacy giggled. She leaned into him and stuck one foot up in the air behind her. “Now see, Ben my love,” she cooed. “I know exactly how to appease that big, bad temper of yours.”
“I really don’t need this right now,” he snapped. They could be watching him, waiting to see if his co-worker, Micah Jones, showed up at his apartment. Ben had no idea whether Micah would or not.
She started pushing her dress farther down her waist. Ben shot a hurried look up and down the cement walkway in front of all the second-floor apartments, then scanned the parking lot. He didn’t see anyone but shoved Stacy into his apartment.
A moment later he realized that was exactly what she’d wanted. Stacy regained her balance easily and turned to face him. She adjusted her dress, but Ben looked away before she covered her breasts. He wasn’t interested. Fucking her would be a big mistake.
“You know I don’t like that rough stuff,” she scolded.
Ben guessed she meant how he had shoved her into his apartment. That was far from what he would consider “rough stuff.”
“And I don’t want to have to kick some man’s ass when he rapes you after catching a glimpse of you half-naked outside my door,” he snapped, and closed his front door, managing not to slam it. “Damn it, Stacy, when will you get some sense in your head?”
“Sweetheart, I have plenty of sense in my head,” she said coolly, not missing a beat. “I already knew no one was out there.” She cupped both of her breasts in her hands which were now once again covered by her dress. “These are for your eyes only, darling,” she purred, smiled, and started closer to him, with a slow, sexy walk. “And your mouth, if you want,” she whispered, and flicked at her nipples. They puckered and pointed through the thin cotton fabric.
Ben caught himself watching how she was fondling her breasts. He wasn’t really listening to her, though. Half of what came out of Stacy’s mouth were lies or persuasive manipulation to accomplish some goal she was after. That realization zapped his brain. He raised his attention to those bright blue eyes of hers.
“What do you want, Stacy?” he asked, then walked around her toward his kitchen and that beer. The remote and couch might have to wait, but damn it, he had earned that beer.
“I want us not to be broken up!” she cried out, and stamped her foot on the floor.
Ben didn’t know many five-year-olds, but he imagined none of them could throw a tantrum as well as Stacy. He opened his refrigerator and bent over, resting his hand on the door as he stared into the refrigerator for a moment.
“Why? Why are you trying to do this? We don’t work well together. I told you this last night. I’m not going to change. I don’t want to change,” he stressed, and reached for the longneck bottle of Budweiser. He screwed off the lid with his hand and tossed the cap into his trash can. “Want one?” he asked, feigning politeness. Stacy believed beer, especially bottled beer, was for the working class and rednecks. Ben was cool with being called either. There were worse names a person could be called.
Stacy wrinkled her nose and made a face. “Eww, you know I hate beer,” she complained. “Now a martini might hit the spot right about now. Do you have olives?”
“I have beer!” he roared. “And I was really looking forward to drinking my beer while sitting on my couch and watching my TV.”
Stacy took a step to the side and gallantly waved her hand toward the couch. “By all means. Be a bum on the couch.”
Ben seethed. He’d been up since 5:00 A.M. chasing idiots around Los Angeles who had jumped bail, not gone to court, and pissed off their bondsmen and the family member who had put up the bail for them. He’d been putting money back for months in order to get the felony that never should have been on his record in the first place expunged. Until he did, Ben would never be the one who actually captured and slapped cuffs on any of the jerks they chased around L.A.
On top of that, Micah Jones, the bounty hunter Ben worked with, had been accused of incredibly heinous crimes and had done an amazing disappearing act. Ben had done time, another issue Stacy had with him, and knew how terrible prison was. The crimes Micah, one kick-ass bounty hunter who had worked at KFA with Ben up until two days ago, had the cops hot on his trail for crimes so numerous he might not know life in prison. If they caught Micah and managed to convict him of even a few of the charges against him, it could be a needle in the arm. Ben knew what it was like to do time for a crime he didn’t commit.
Today Ben had finally accepted the truth that Micah had disappeared, taken off and run from the cops. Ben doubted he’d ever see Micah again. Here Ben was, doing his best to live the life of an upstanding citizen and put his life back in order. Then out of the blue Micah might be the notorious assassin who was all over the news right now. Ben hated not being sure whether the charges were legitimate or not. Micah had been that kind of guy. Ben never doubted the man had his back. But there was a darkness inside Micah, something about him that almost made it believable that he could have been a mass assassin.
The cops had shown up at KFA, where Ben worked. They were looking everywhere for Micah. Ben didn’t want them here. The last time cops showed up at Ben’s home he’d been arrested and done time for a crime he didn’t commit. He wished the best for Micah but just wanted to be left alone. None of which he could discuss with Stacy.
“Go home, Stacy. I’m too tired to fight.” He tipped his bottle of beer to his mouth and enjoyed the perfectly chilled brew. He considered burping just to egg her on further. “Go find a nice man who will wine and dine you. You deserve that, darling. I’m just not that man.”
Stacy adjusted her bra, glancing down to make sure her breasts were perfectly situated. Ben made himself look away and stared down at his kitchen table. A long white bulky envelope was placed in the middle of his table. Ben drank more beer and focused on the envelope with mild interest, his thoughts still on the chaos they’d all endured at work since Micah had disappeared. Ben’s first name was printed in block letters on the envelope with a black marker.
“What the hell?” he murmured.
That envelope definitely hadn’t been there before he’d left for work. An odd, unsettled feeling sunk into his gut. He knew before he opened the envelope what was inside. But what he didn’t know was why.
“Holy fucking crap!” he gasped, and stared at the hundred-dollar bills that fell over one another onto his table when he ripped open the envelope.
“Oh my God!” Stacy squealed, leaping at the money and reaching for it.
Ben stuck his hand out and stopped her. “No!” he said harshly.
“Look at all that money,” she gasped. “How do you have money like this after buying that noisy motorcycle?” she accused. “Oh my God, sweetheart. Is this your money to clear your record? Are you going to be an upstanding citizen now?”
Ben growled under his breath. He was already a fucking upstanding citizen.
There was half a piece of typing paper folded so it was the size of the money. Ben grabbed it and unfolded it, staring in disbelief at so much cash before reading the note.
Some call this blood money, but at least now it can be put to good use. Take care of your lawyer fees and do what you have to do to become a great bounty hunter. You’ll be one of the best. I don’t have to tell you to burn this note. Take care and listen to King. He has a lot to teach you.
“Micah,” Ben whispered. He would definitely burn the note. Micah had more or less just confessed to being what everyone already suspected him of being, the Mulligan Stew assassin. Ben went cold as the reality sunk in and his fingers grew damp.
Still holding the letter, he grabbed Stacy’s arm and pushed her toward his front door. “Leave now,” he snarled.
“But, but all that money,” she complained.
Ben pushed her out the door and closed it. He turned the lock and leaned his head against it.
Goddamn! All that money! Some call this blood money.
Micah Jones had worked with Ben at KFA for four months but now was gone. Greg and Haley King were pretty convinced Micah was the Mulligan Stew assassin, as the news had been calling him since the gun used on one of the men KFA was chasing matched the one that had shot and killed a CIA agent in Washington, D.C. Both bullets came from the same gun.
The assassin was a ghost. No one had ever seen him. But he was allegedly responsible for the deaths of over fifty men and women. Each time the Mulligan Stew assassin struck it was a shot straight to the heart. And each person killed had done terrible things. They were drug lords, Mafia members, rapists, and pedophiles. If there was a terrible person in town and someone had the cash to dish out, they could have that person eliminated, without having to wait for the cops to catch them and the judicial system to find them guilty. The news had been vague on how the assassin was contacted. But apparently once the Mulligan Stew assassin was paid all he needed was whatever information a person had on a bad person in their city. The assassin did the rest, found the person and killed them. Then the assassin disappeared without a trace.
“Which it appears you’ve done again,” Ben mused, and slid into the chair at his table. He slowly began gathering the bills that had poured onto his kitchen table. “Good Lord, man, there’s ten thousand dollars here.”
Ben shivered with fear and excitement. His heart was beating so hard he couldn’t breathe. Ben dropped the money on the table and stared at it. For a year now Ben had been trying to save up the money to pay the lawyer to have the felony on his record expunged. He was pretty sure he hadn’t bitched about how much it cost to pay to have his innocence back. Although there were times when he’d wanted to actually commit a felony or at least pound something until all of his frustrations went away. In a country where a man was innocent until proven guilty, coming up with cold, hard cash to prove his innocence had been almost too hard to pull off.
For three years they’d locked him up. Ben would never forget the nightmare of being arrested for stealing cars in his hometown of Duarte, California. They’d pulled him out of his parents’ home, dragged him to the street, where police car lights had flashed off all the neighbors’ homes and lit up the night. People his parents had known for years came out of their homes, watched while Ben had been handcuffed, searched, and stuffed into the backseat of the cops’ car.
“I can’t believe you did this,” Ben muttered. He stacked the bills neatly and counted them once again. Focusing on the task helped put memories of his past out of his head. “This is a hell of a lot more than I need to get that damned felony expunged from my records.”
And to pay his lawyer fees. Once Ben’s record was clear he could get licensed in the state of California. Then he would be a bounty hunter, instead of the errand boy and driver he’d been so far for KFA, which stood for “King Fugitive Apprehension.” He would soon be apprehending those fugitives who had blown off court dates, disregarded the bond paid on them, and thought they could get away with it. Maybe KFA would get a case where they had to hunt down a criminal wanted for something more serious than fleeing from the courts. Either way, Ben looked forward to the day he would be the one tackling them to the ground, slapping on the cuffs, and informing them they couldn’t run from crimes they’d committed.
Maybe then his mother would once again be proud of him.
That thought doused the happy thoughts he was having and left a sour taste in his mouth. His parents had never believed him innocent. His mother had begged him to admit he stole those cars. Ben would never forget the day she looked at him with tears welling in her eyes and told him she couldn’t believe she had a son who was a car thief. His father had held Ben’s mother close and told him if he would tell them how he did it possibly the judge would go easier on him. His parents had thought Ben was lying to them and to the judge.
To this day, Arnold Shots, the asshole from hell, had never been arrested for stealing those cars. The prick had framed Ben, and all over a fucking girl. Ben had slept with Arnold’s girlfriend; make that “ex-girlfriend,” since they’d been broken up at the time. Arnold had never been right in the head, but he had been a thief and a manipulator. He could make his own mother believe he was a pure saint, then turn around and sell drugs out of her house.
Ben still didn’t know how Arnold had convinced the cops he had nothing to do with three brand-new cars being stolen off a car lot in Duarte. That was, if the cops ever talked to Arnold. Ben had never found out. Arnold had stolen two cars before from the same car lot and had driven them out of town, then sold them. He would have done the same with these three, but when he found out about Ben, after getting back together with Sally something or other—he didn’t even remember her last name—Arnold had driven all three cars behind the restaurant where Ben worked. Arnold had shown them to Ben, which was how Ben’s fingerprints got on them, and had told him they would be there overnight and gone before the restaurant opened the following morning. Ben had insisted Arnold not leave them there. Ben had told him it was stupid and Arnold was looking at life in prison if he didn’t get rid of the cars. Arnold never went to prison. The cops showed up at Ben’s house that same night, having received a tip that the cars were there. Ben believed to this day that Arnold had called the police and turned in an anonymous tip that three cars were behind the restaurant and that Ben Mercy had been seen with the cars.
“Ten thousand dollars.” A slow smile spread across his face. “I’m going to hire the best lawyer out there and put you behind bars, Arnold Shots. You’re going to rot in hell before you die.”
Ben wouldn’t have accepted this much money, or any amount, if Micah had tried giving it to him. If Micah had left it for him and had still been in town, Ben would have given it back. Micah was gone, though. The money was Ben’s, and he would put it to really good use.
He looked up from the cash. It suddenly hit him. “How the fuck did you get in here?”
There wasn’t a back door to Ben’s apartment. He could tell there was no damage to his front door. It was pointless to check the windows, although he would do it out of curiosity. Micah had skills that were out of this world. Ben would probably never know how the man got into Ben’s apartment, left that cash, then took off. More than likely no one saw him do it, either.
Ben picked up the stack of bills. Interesting how one-hundred-dollar bills had a different feel to them than other bills. Crisper, with a strong smell of money. It was as if these bills knew they were more important than an average twenty or ten. They were smooth, not crinkled, the way money was when it came out of an ATM. Ben doubted any of these bills had seen a bank or been in circulation recently.
Whatever crimes Micah had committed, or allegedly, he hadn’t done anything recently. Ben had worked long hours with the guy, day and night, and could account for his whereabouts up until a couple days ago. Quite possibly Micah had been sitting on this cash for a while. Which was impressive and smart. Micah had lived in a dump of a house in one of the low-income parts of the city. He never had much cash on him. To all appearances, he had seemed to have struggled financially just as Ben did.
It was still damn hard to wrap his brain around Micah being a cold-blooded killer. Quite possibly, at least the way the papers were telling it, the best assassin in the world.
The law would hunt Micah. Ben prayed they never caught him and hoped Micah was as good at hiding as he was at sitting on so much cash. As for the other crimes, as far as Ben was concerned, Micah was the most respectable murderer he’d ever met. And he’d met a couple while in prison.
He stood, walked over to his sink, opened the drawer to his left, and pulled out a book of matches. Then striking a match, he stared at the flame as it came to life, growing and shifting in color as it began to move down the stick toward Ben’s fingers. Then he burned the note that had come with the cash. He held the paper as it burned, watching it curl and turn black. When it got too small he dropped it into his sink. It curled into itself one last time and was nothing but ashes. Ben turned on the water and rinsed the ashes down the drain.
“Be careful, Micah, and be safe. Don’t let them catch you.”
Copyright © 2013 by Lorie O’Clare