The old stone apartment building stood inconspicuous against its neighbouring counterparts. Standing in a long row with six others, each of the narrow townhouses was virtually identical. Windows, doors, walls—almost brick for brick—fell in the same position on the tatty facial facades. The adjacent buildings shared the exact same street frontage to another five across the road.
These adjoining houses lined a quiet inner city Sydney street with a looming, almost historical prominence. Some were lucky enough to have had a new coat of paint splashed over them within the last few years. The others bore the brunt of time, victims to the harsh and unmerciful elements the gods carelessly threw down upon them.
Detective Billie McCoy climbed out of her car and looked up at one of the old, weather-worn buildings across the roof of her borrowed blue Celica. This car had purposely been registered to a Janine Brown, her alias, a precautionary step to hide her true identity for this particular case. Checking off the number with the one in her small notebook, she was satisfied she had the right address. With a flick of her wrist, she tossed the book onto the passenger seat and closed the door. A quick press on the button on the key ring activated the central locking system, securing the vehicle with a low electric hum and minimising temptation to anyone passing by who might want to steal it. This was a sleazy part of town, one a person could never be too careful in, and although bathed under the aura of a perfect day, the brisk autumn’s pleasant morning of cloudless skies and bright clear sunlight failed to hide the sinister undertone attached to this unpopular suburb.
Billie cast a casual glance up and down the littered street dividing the wall of unloved townhouses. Other than a few cars parked along the gutters, there was no sign of human life. Towards the end of the street, a white van sat under a tree. The coloured advertising across the front, indiscernible from that distance, said, “Pete’s Electrical.” Inside, her back up waited should she need it.
Mark Burrows, a good detective, her partner, and a good friend, waited on standby. Johnny Karle, another experienced officer, sat positioned somewhere around the back, dressed in the rags of a street dweller. They had Billie covered from both sides, ready to assist if she were to find any trouble.
On this occasion, she wasn’t wearing a wire. In her mind, with a fairly simple and easy meeting ahead of her, the dangers didn’t warrant one. She’d argued with Mark when he’d tried to insist. Under some protest, he’d agreed. A wire would probably place her in more danger—as she had pointed out. If she didn’t appear within fifteen minutes, he would move in, assuming she was in trouble. It should only be a brief meeting, one that would secure the deal quickly.
Although glad to have them there if she needed them, she pushed them from her mind and drew her concentration back to the job. She walked around behind the Celica, crossed the traffic-worn footpath, and stepped up to the old stone fence. In no better condition than the building it guarded, the fence showed the abuse of time and negligence. The young detective pushed open the rusty, wrought iron gate. It screeched in protest. She walked up the small flight of concrete stairs to the door. Scarred from knocks and scrapes, the old door’s solid timber matched its deteriorating surroundings. Its once shining brass door handle tarnished to a dirty black.
Finding the door unlocked came as no surprise. This was a communal building, offering low budget accommodation to tenants prepared to stay in such degrading conditions. Most of them probably had little choice, no doubt all they could afford.
Billie took off her sunglasses, stuffed them into the top pocket of her coat, and pushed open the door. She entered a dark, musty foyer. Stale air hung thickly, carrying the years of dust and neglect to her nose. She adjusted to the wall of heavy, uncleaned air and looked around. The foyer extended into a small dead end hallway where, on one side, three closed doors broke it into three separate rooms. Along the opposite wall, a well-trodden staircase disappeared up around a corner to the floor above.
Her business was on the top floor. She was here to look at weapons—illegal weapons—small arms and fully automatic machine guns that had somehow leaked into the country. If these weapons managed to get out onto the streets, they would cause havoc for both the police and innocent victims.
With fake past dealings and contacts set in place, the shady ‘Janine Brown’ blended in with these low, parasitic creeps. Having made it this far, her job was to set up the deal for delivery and payment.
Billie had dressed with care for the meeting. The black tailored jeans with a matching jacket and a revealing deep red tank top flattered her fair complexion. Her straight blonde hair hung loose, falling halfway down her shoulders. Soft, feathered wisps tapered away from the lengthy fringe and contrasted with her dark attire. Deep, blue eyes complemented her attractive features. Long hours of disciplined self-defence training and exercise had created a well-toned, shapely physique—a physique she used as a lure, but could turn into a deadly fighting machine capable of capturing her enemy. Today, her good looks would draw these lewd lowlifes into a false sense of vulnerability.
Appreciating how dangerous these people waiting two floors up were, she needed to be on full alert. She blew out a breath and crossed to the stairs. Cautiously, she ascended them.
At the second floor, she found no one waiting for her. Good. That meant they trusted her to some extent in coming alone. She took in her surroundings and walked around to the bottom of the next staircase. This floor was a mirror image of the one below. Three doors set in similar positions resembled the bottom floor. Another staircase hugged the opposite wall rising up around the corner to the third and final floor. The only difference was the large chest along the wall beside the end door. It looked out of place, as if it had been dumped, but who could tell in a place like this, and who would care?
No sooner had Billie stepped onto the first stair to the final story than a sound from one of the rooms pulled her to a halt. Her head snapped around. She tensed, staring at the door in the corner behind her, beside the dumped chest. It was slightly ajar. She was positive she’d heard a muffled cry. Her ears tuned in for any further sounds. Had she imagined it? She waited a moment longer for confirmation.
Against the eerie silence in the hall, more noises emerged from beyond the door. This time, they were louder—and more defined. It sounded like the scraping of furniture across the floor. Someone was rearranging the furniture! Hell, maybe she was on edge because of the deal upstairs. Sighing, she forced herself to relax. Prepared to leave it at that, she had more pressing things to do, and the sooner she got on with it, the sooner it would be over.
She turned and took a step up. That unmistakable cry rang in her ears a second time. Though muffled, despair and desperation seeped through. Again, the sound yanked the detective to a halt. Her head shot around. She stared back at the end door, positive with what she’d heard: a cry for help. Shit! She glanced up the stairs for any sign of the gunrunners. No one was in sight to meet or threaten her. She decided to check out this room first, if only to satisfy her curiosity.
The detective crept over to the room, peered through the crack of the opened door, and caught her breath. Two burly men struggled with a young woman. They had her pinned against the wall. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four, about Billie’s own age. Long experience identified the men as hired hulk. Strangely enough, their dark jeans and collared shirts declared respectability. Even the sports coat the shorter of the two wore bespoke a refinement far beyond what one would expect in this apartment building. But the image of respectability was tarnished by the scruffy, red-orange bristles on his face, his near bald haircut, and the small, silver sleeper hanging from his left ear that automatically classified him as a punk.
The other guy had his back to her. His long, dark, greasy hair was held back in a ponytail. From her concealed position, Billie caught a glimpse of his profile when he angled his head towards his mate. Unkempt, lengthy sideburns and a wiry goatee augmented his thug-like appearance. Judging from the quality of their clothing, they worked for someone who held a high reputation in the underworld, someone who regarded their appearance important enough to dress them in decent attire.
Unaware they were being watched, the two men battled to hold the frightened girl. She’d put up quite a struggle, going by the knocked over furniture scattered across the floor. That explained the noises. Obviously, these guys didn’t have good intentions in mind. The dark-haired thug held his right hand over her mouth, muffling her screams for help. His left arm pinned her to the wall. The punk rummaged one-handed for something in his coat pocket. The other kept a secure hold on the captive.
The girl looked terrified, yet she continued to kick, hit, and scratch—anything to break their tight grip.
Billie turned away. She leaned on the wall and stared up at the ceiling, torn apart. She was here undercover—about to set up a big gun dealer and bring him to justice. If she helped this girl, it could blow everything. All the work she’d put into getting this close to the gunrunners could be in jeopardy. Her nature compelled her to aid someone in trouble.
Damn it! Why did this have to happen now? She should just walk away and pretend she’d never seen it. After all, it had nothing to do with her. Yeah right. No way could she turn a blind eye to this. Turning back, she peered through the crack again.
The redhead in the suit coat had pulled a small syringe from his pocket. The sight of it upset the distressed girl even more. She stared at it over the big hand clamped across her mouth, her eyes widened in horror. In a desperate bid to deter his intentions, she kicked out. Only by chance her knee knocked the redhead’s hand. The needle rolled across the floor. He cursed.
The ponytail man snarled. His large, gangly hand dropped from the girl’s mouth, and he slugged her hard. The trapped girl grunted and sank in his grasp.
The blow sent Billie into action. She couldn’t leave the girl to these thugs. With a little luck, she could pull off both operations.
Sneaking in, the detective picked up an old, wooden chair just inside the room. Although tempted to use her gun, silence was of the utmost importance. She couldn’t afford to alert the men upstairs. They would be edgy enough, and the sound of a gunshot would certainly send them on a runner.
Both thugs had their backs to Billie, their attention on their captive. Mumbling curses, the redhead’s rising temper dampened his cautiousness. The chase brought him into the closest position to her. With the chair gripped in her hands, Billie jumped at the punk and cracked it over his head. The chair shattered into pieces. He moaned and collapsed to the floor with a heavy thud.
His partner spun at the noise. He stared at her with a startled expression before turning a stunned look at his downed partner. Overcoming his surprise, he looked back up at her. The thug’s lips twisted in a snarl. He dumped the girl to the floor. She fell in a heap. He lunged forward.
Billie turned and faced him full on. She kicked up. Her heel smashed into his nose well before he could touch her.
The guy’s head rocked backwards. He recoiled with a couple of staggered steps. Billie followed, giving him no time to recover. Using the same foot, she buried it into his stomach. The impact doubled him over, driving the breath from his burning lungs. She stepped forward and brought up her knee, slamming it into the side of his jaw. He reeled sideways with a groan and collapsed, motionless.
Billie looked at him, and then glanced at the other guy. Neither looked like they’d be moving for a while. She blew out a sigh and tossed the busted chair to the side.
The detective crossed to the dazed girl and knelt beside her. She studied her face. A bruise already showed through on her cheek, marring her good looks. She lay relaxed in her enforced sleep, her features free from the strain they’d carried only a few moments before. Brown, shoulder-length hair bordered the girl’s dainty face. A clean, fresh complexion enhanced her attractiveness. Long eyelashes guarded her closed eyes. She carried a ‘girl next door’ image, a guileless look that bathed her in a simplistic innocence yet held a disguised beauty to catch any man’s eye. Her slender figure did her proud. Billie couldn’t help wonder why she would be in a dive like this, or why these men were after her. She was a pretty girl and had a lot going for her, but something had definitely gone wrong for her to end up here and in this kind of trouble.
The girl stirred, bringing the detective out of her thoughts. Her head rolled towards Billie. Her eyes flickered open. They looked glazed and confused.
“Take it easy. You’re safe now,” Billie said, brushing a strand of the long, brown hair back off her face.
The girl’s confused gaze focused on her rescuer, and she tensed. She sat upright. Her gaze darted around the room in search of her would-be attackers.
“Hey, it’s okay!” Billie took hold of her by the shoulders in a comforting gesture.
Shooting her no more than a brief glance, the frightened girl stared at the unconscious men. They were no longer a threat. She turned back to the blonde kneeling beside her and relaxed in Billie’s grip.
“Are you okay?” Billie dropped her hands from her shoulders yet maintained a wary eye on her.
The dishevelled girl nodded. “Yeah, I think so.” She turned away from her and studied the men. After a lingering moment, she looked back at Billie. “Thank you very much,” she said in a whisper. “Who—who are you?”
Before the detective could answer, a voice from the doorway interrupted them.
“So this is why they’re taking so long.”
Billie’s head snapped around in surprise. Three men stood in the doorway. Billie gave them a quick, assessing look. The guy in the middle, a short, plump, half-bald man in his late fifties stood with a thin smile on his lips. His gaze was fixed on her. His bright Hawaiian shirt boldly expressed his personality, loud and dominant. Short tufts of curly grey hair overflowed from the vee of the collared shirt. His round, beach-ball face was clean-shaven, like the top of his head. Only a strip of grey-flecked hair ran from one ear around the back of his head to the other.
The other two flanked him, their bulky frames towering above him. Dressed like the two on the floor, they fell comfortably into their category: hired ‘heavies.’ These paid henchmen eyed her with guarded looks.
The guy on the left of the fat man carried a scar down his right cheek. His hair was slicked back out of his face, leaving the dark, distrusting eyes in clear view. The third guy, a curly-haired blond, was shorter yet bulkier than his comrade. He stared with a blank expression set on his bristled face, clearly expressing his dislike. They stood protectively by their boss’s side, like dogs on a leash waiting for a command to please their master.
The little, fat man’s gaze remained locked on the blonde girl in front of him. “My God.”
His astonished tone snapped Billie’s attention back to him. She looked more closely, sensing something familiar about him. Her nerves stiffened. Suddenly, she knew.
“Bates?” The name slipped through her lips before she could stop it. She’d failed to identify him in that first brief glimpse. The bright clothes and menacing conditions engulfing the tense situation had thrown her. He looked so different, and so out of place. She’d met this guy a couple of times, and both times he’d been dressed in a full suit, tie and all—back in police headquarters. So why would Captain Bates, head of Missing Persons, be here? Why would he be interested in this girl, especially in a place like this? And what was this well-respected police officer doing with these henchmen? Slowly, she stood, not taking her eyes off him.
“What’s going on here?” The young cop took a step towards him.
“Ahh, what a pity, a sure pity.” He sighed. His hand reached in through the open neck of his shirt and pulled a pistol out from under it. He dropped it to waist level, aiming at her chest. His tone may have held some remorse, but his actions didn’t.
Billie stopped, struggling to comprehend this strange turn of events. None of it made any sense.
“What the hell are you doing? Are you in on this?” she asked, anger creeping into her voice.
“Now, Billie, calm down.” He smiled, watching her with an air of caution.
Dumbfounded, the detective stared hard at him. Hell, he even remembered her name! Her gaze burned into his for an explanation. There didn’t seem to be any connection here. She couldn’t bring to mind any concrete reason why Bates would be in a place like this, a place so contradictory to the position she knew him to hold. Why would he jeopardise his career for a life of…crime? And it was a life of crime. He was playing on the wrong side of the law here. Again that overpowering word drove through her mind. Why? He held a top ranking position with a very good salary. Why would he risk all that?
Bates barked a short laugh. “Huh! What luck! What unfortunate luck. I can’t believe it! Billie McCoy walking in on an operation, of all people! This is the last place I’d expect to find you.”
“I could say the same about you.” Billie strove to control her confused thoughts. She took another small step forward. Appreciating how much trouble she was in, moving in close to be in range of an unexpected attack could possibly be the only thing in her favour. Surprise was always a good weapon, and she would need every advantage to help get her out of this mess. Without giving away any of her intentions, she pressed for more information, using it as a distraction. “What operation are you talking about? What’s going on here?”
Bates didn’t fall for it. He cocked his gun. “Uh, uh! Don’t move another step. I’d hate to have to shoot you dead on the spot.”
She stopped. Her gaze drifted to the two men beside Bates. They stood calm, ready, and awaiting any order.
Billie’s gaze rested back on the fat man. She lifted her hands in a sign of defence. “Okay, I’m not moving.”
“Good, that’s a step in the right direction.” He shot her a fleeting smile and looked down at the brown-haired girl on the floor.
Billie glanced at her. She sat tense under Bates’ scrutinising gaze. The detective drew his attention back to her. The questions in her head were driving her crazy. “Tell me what is going on here?”
Her question lured a wider smile to Bates’ face. He ejected a vaunted reply. “Oh, I’m just doing what I do best.”
The cryptic response hung without any further explanation. What he did best? These abstract pieces of the jigsaw didn’t fit together. Bates was a highly respected police officer so what common ground did he share between his career and the situation here? Billie looked from him to the girl on the floor. Where did she fit in? The men had been very insistent in forcing her to go with them, against her will. To Billie, that only spelt one thing.
“Kidnapping,” she bluntly stated, turning back to Bates. Even after she’d said it, she found it quite ironic that she was talking to a man in charge of finding people, not taking them. And why would he kidnap this girl? Did she have a substantially rich family who may pay to get her back? Somehow, she doubted it. She looked like a loner, struggling to survive.
“That’s a very strong word. I prefer to call it—profit,” Bates said, as if plucking the word out of the air.
“Profit?” Billie asked, confused. “Profit in what?” And then she froze. His message unfolded in front of her. Now she grasped what he was talking about. Her stare locked on his, and she fought to contain her shock. “Don’t tell me you’re tied up with the women who have been disappearing? The ‘Lonely Hearts Club’ case that has gone on for the last few years?” No sooner had the words left her lips than horror moved in as the full meaning set in.
Over the past three years, women had mysteriously disappeared. No trace of their fate or whereabouts had been located. All came from poor backgrounds—prostitutes or wanderers. They’d all spent time in prison; they all had a record—the only common denominator between them. It had been named the ‘Lonely Hearts Club’ due to the fact they fell into a similar category with the same strong pattern of disappearances and lifestyles. Unfortunately, no leads had been found, even after so long. Billie was stunned.
“Good girl. I’m glad to see you didn’t let me down. For a minute there, I thought I’d have to give you a few clues.” He laughed. “Clever, don’t you think?” The smug smile widened his eyes and lifted his eyebrows, washing his face with a gloating and assured sense of glee. “Who would suspect the Chief of Missing Persons to be the one taking them? It’s too easy! I have all the information I need right at my fingertips: their backgrounds, their convictions, hell, even their associates and friends if they have any! I can pick and choose whomever I like, right under the cops’ noses.” His voice rose to a thin tone, filled with bravado. He smirked, favouring her with a belittling expression. “It’s all part of my job.”
Billie stared hard, sickened. Yet, as much as she hated to admit it, everything he said was true. With access to police computers, he could choose his victim with great care and accuracy, picking out a girl whose disappearance wouldn’t draw any attention. That explained how he had remained undetected and unchallenged for so long.
She couldn’t deny it was a near fail proof operation, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t come crashing down around his ears and land him a lifelong stint in prison.
“What do you do with them?” She failed to see how kidnapping these particular destitute women could bring in money—then she let her mind go, beyond any normal imagination. There were probably numerous ways to get money from these women, if someone had a corrupt and evil enough mind without any degree of compassion or regard for human life. In an instant, frightful conceptions from sex slaves to murder and black market body parts flashed through her mind.
“I sell them, my girl, what else?” He guffawed before regaining control over himself.
The answer caught the cop out. It sounded too—over the top, unreal. She would never have expected this of him. No one would. That was why he got away with it.
The Chief of Missing Persons seemed to revel in his glory. “Besides, I only ever take the ex-crims,” he added, as if doing the world a big favour. “They are only a menace to society anyway. I like to look at it as—cleaning up the gutters.”
“You bastard!” the girl behind Billie hissed. Her voice shook with rage and loathing. “You gutless, cold-hearted, money-hungry, greedy bastard! How dare you!”
Billie looked at her, the anguish in the girl’s words reaching out to her. The girl climbed to her feet, glaring at Bates with fists clenched. The detective felt for her. She couldn’t have said it better herself.
Bates ignored the biting words. “Now, you, Billie, are what we call a thorn in the side,” he said. “A big thorn.”
He studied her. Billie returned Bates’ watchful look behind a casual stare, she wondered how she could extricate herself from this mess. The odds were against her, and she knew she’d need a lucky break to pull her through it.
Bates’ frowning gaze softened. He blew out a heavy sigh. “Give me your piece.”
“What makes you think I’m carrying a piece?”
He smiled a half smile, taking no offence. “A lucky guess. Now hand it over peacefully, or I may have to get mean, and, believe me, you wouldn’t want that.”
Billie held his stare. Still, she refused to submit to his demands. “You know, if you kill me, you’ll have big problems. Edwards will send a search party to the moon if he has to...”
“I’m quite aware of your association with Lieutenant Edwards and the power he possesses, but I’m used to carrying heavy loads, so I’ll worry about that side of it, okay? Now, drop your gun, or I’ll drop the girl.” He aimed the small pistol at the brown-haired girl beside her, who gasped.
Billie’s options to resist had run out. Battling with ideas and weighing out the consequences, she glanced at the girl, catching her eye. She looked scared, scared but determined to grasp her runaway emotions and not crumble.
Billie turned back to the fat man, taking a few valuable moments to consider her options, what little there were of them. Bates returned her gaze with a challenge in his eye and a disdainful expression. She hated the idea of surrendering to this ruthless and power-obsessed maniac who had no respect for human life, not to mention the failure of her mission with the gunrunners upstairs. If she went with Bates, everything was lost, including her freedom. If she didn’t, no doubt she and the girl would lose their lives. Unfortunately, with this girl’s life held in his hands, she had no choice.
Billie reached behind her back and pulled out a small handgun from under her coat. She dropped it to the floor.
“Good girl,” Bates praised. “Kick it over here.”
Using her foot, the young cop kicked it towards him. The scarred man picked it up and jammed it into his belt behind him, eyeing Billie with a leering dare.
With the gun safely out of her reach, the chubby captain directed an order at the two men on either side of him. All niceties were gone. It was down to business. “Tie them.”