Some jobs just need to be done - even if nobody's paying...
When a friend is accused of murdering her deadbeat ex-husband - a man Meg had on her hit-list for reasons of her own - Meg Harrison sets aside her usual paid assassin's role and takes it on herself to discover what really happened.
But what begins as a routine inquiry dredges up long-buried memories, forcing Meg to deal with the demons of her past, while simultaneously hunt for a man her instincts tell her might not really be dead.
Can Meg reverse-engineer the murderer's scheme and bring down the real killer before her friend becomes their next victim?
"...Christopher turns the hit-man formula on its head, and in doing so gives us a surprising and entertaining read."– Big Al's Books & Pals
Present day: Thursday, 3:00 a.m.
It was three a.m. and Here Comes the Sun was playing on my cell phone. There's only one person I associate with that song: Deborah Markham. A former member of one of Philadelphia's power-families, now a pediatric nurse and single mom, Deb's sunny nature made the ringtone a logical choice.
Three a.m. calls are rarely sunny.
I was instantly alert, shifting around into a fully upright, sitting position on the edge of the bed as I reached for the phone on the nightstand. It's a conditioned response, developed through years of practice and numerous middle-of-the night calls requiring immediate attention. I answered the call less than thirty seconds after the phone started ringing, raising it to my ear before George Harrison got to his first "it's all right" of the tune.
"Deb? What's wrong?"
"He's dead, Meg," Deb's voice was half whisper, half gasp.
"Who?" I asked. Deb's father had passed away the previous summer, and she wasn't seeing anyone that I was aware of. Her son was in his late teens, though – had the boy been out with friends and gotten killed in a car accident? My mind raced, searching for answers.
"Stephen," she said, her voice still barely above a whisper.
Stephen Markham. Deb's ex-husband and deadbeat-dad to their two teenaged children. Holy hell. I ran my fingers through my short hair, scraping the nails along my scalp, biting back the "good riddance" that sprang to my tongue.
"How?" I asked.
"I don't know. Mother Markham just called… all she said was that they found him in his office."
In the middle of the night? That seemed strange to me. Honestly, though, I was surprised Deb's former mother-in-law had bothered to call her at all, instead of letting her get the news from the obituary column sometime next week.
"What can I do?"
"I don't want to wake the kids," Deb said. "Not yet. I need to sort myself out first… before I tell them. Oh, Meg, I don't want to be alone right now. Can you come over?"
"Of course," I said. "I'm on my way."
"Thanks. I know it's a lot to ask—"
"Not a bit," I said, cutting her off. "Put the teapot on. I'll see you soon."
I stared at the phone in my hand for a long moment after the call ended. My initial surprise at learning that Stephen Markham was dead was already fading, a new reaction replacing it: curiosity.
I'd been watching him for a long, long time. Biding my time. Waiting.
Clearly, I'd waited too long.
I wondered who had gotten to him first.
Present day: Thursday, 3:00 a.m.
No one openly turned to stare when the newcomer walked into the small street gym that chilly October evening, but everyone noticed. The slim brunette had arrived about ten minutes ahead of the Tuesday evening women's self-defense class.
Meg spotted her right away. Watched to see if she'd lose her nerve and leave, or if she had the guts to stick around.
The brunette hesitated near the bulletin board, pretending to read the notices pinned there – the usual collection of used car ads, pleas from those looking for jobs of any sort to keep them off the street, an advertisement for the tacky little apartment upstairs.
Meg had looked at the apartment once herself and wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wasn't desperate – the landlord insisted that the faint odor of moldy bread, sour milk, and rotten produce were courtesy of the previous tenant, and would air out soon enough, and he might have been correct.
But Meg's nose told her otherwise, and she suspected they were actually the time-worn residue of the gym's former days as a mom-and-pop grocery before the big-box store appeared a few blocks over, pushing a dozen or more small businesses on this side of Philadelphia out of operation. It had been ten or eleven years since the store had died, but the faded signs indicating the bakery, produce, and dairy sections still clung to the walls, though the shelves below had long-since been replaced with punching bags, weight benches, and thick, protective floor mats.
Meg nodded in approval as the newcomer left the bulletin board without tearing off the phone number for the apartment, and drifted over to the coat rack. She spent an inordinate amount of time choosing a hanger, but when she finally hung up her thin jacket, it seemed that the entire gym let out a collective sigh and went back to getting ready for the upcoming class.
Hanging up the jacket was a good sign. It signified a level of commitment some newcomers didn't reach too early on. A lot of them kept their coats or sweaters on all the way through their initial workout, ready to bolt the moment the session got to be more than they could handle.
Since it was a come-as-you are gym, no one said anything.
But everyone noticed. And everyone understood.
So the newcomer had decided to stick around, give the gym a chance.
Meg finished her pre-class stretch, bowed, and backed off the mat, pushing back the damp wisps of hair that had slipped out of her long blonde ponytail. Grabbing a towel from her gym bag, she walked over to the newcomer, dabbing at the perspiration beading her forehead and trickling down her neck, the front of her tank-top already marked with a dark "V" of perspiration even though she'd only been there twenty minutes herself.
"Heater's busted," she said, by way of greeting. "Doesn't seem to know when to shut down. Ian keeps promising to send someone over to fix it. In the meantime, he just tells everyone he installed a group sauna. Thinks that makes the sweat smell sweeter or something." She stuck out her hand, "Meg Harrison. Corporate slave by day, volunteer self-defense class instructor most Tuesday nights."
The newcomer took the offered greeting.
"Deborah Markham," she said softly. Her hand was tiny, bird-light in Meg's, but with a hint of strength that she would need if she was going to work out here.
Deborah was of medium height – a couple of inches shorter than Meg at about five four or five – and too-slim, like a dancer, or someone who had been ill. She was wearing a cheerfully-patterned pair of hospital scrubs, but the optimism the little butterflies and flowers attempted to convey didn't reach her eyes, which were wary, guarded. Eyes that watched Meg for any reaction to her name, which connected her to one of Philly's top-tier families.
Watched for any reaction to the dark shadows under her eyes and along one cheekbone. Her face had very little color to it, and what was there had not only come out of a bottle, but had been expertly applied to cover the bruising.
But even make-up can only hide so much.
Meg didn't react to the name, didn't stare at the bruises. She'd seen that face before. Worn it herself on more than one occasion. Knew that the pain and fear that brought people to the gym, inspired them to learn to protect themselves, was irrespective of their relative social status.
That was why most of them were here. Why Meg made it a point to be at the gym every Tuesday night, no matter how long her regular workday had been.
"Class is about to begin," she said. Other women were arriving around them, some hanging their coats and claiming spots along the benches to change shoes or drop off gym bags, others moving directly to the mat to begin warming up. "Have you had any martial arts training? Or is this your first visit to a class? We teach all levels, but it helps to have an idea what your experience is."
"I did some gymnastics in college," Deborah replied. "But that's about it. These days, I mostly run around after little children."
"That, too. But I was mostly thinking about my kids." She smiled weakly, but her eyes clouded when she said that. There was clearly more to that story – there always was – but Meg didn't press. Deborah would tell it when she was ready.
Or not. Her choice.
Some people never chose to share. Meg knew all about that, too.
"Well, like I said, we teach all levels," she said, gesturing for Deborah to follow her to the mat. "Trouble doesn't wait until you're trained."
Deborah fit in well with the self-defense class. In her first few months, she rarely missed a week, except when one of her jobs interfered.
She had two jobs – a waitressing gig that sometimes had her running in only seconds before class began, her curly brown hair still pulled back in a tight knot. A couple of times she was even still wearing her apron, which prompted a bit of good-natured ribbing from other members of the class.
Her other job was as a nurse's aide at the local Children's Hospital, where she worked a night shift caring for kids with leukemia. On those nights, she'd show up in colorful scrubs, with her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail.
Meg found herself watching Deborah. Studying her. She found something about her intriguing, more so than most of the other women at the gym.
Each of the women in the self-defense class had her own story. Some were painfully open about the situations they'd been in, their reasons for coming to the class. Others were more reticent.
The talkative ones found in each other their own support group. Meg didn't worry about them. Teaching the self-defense class was just something she did on the side, after-hours. She had a day job, a consulting business with high-powered, sometimes temperamental corporate clients that were her responsibility to look after. She wasn't at the gym to be a counselor, mentor, or even friend to the women who trained here.
But she watched the quiet ones.
Deborah was quieter than most.
Instead of that haunted sort of quiet Meg had seen so many times, the kind that turned a woman in on herself, making her fearful and jumpy, Deborah had a quiet kind of grace, a way of carrying herself that said sure, she'd been through some tough times, but she wasn't giving up. After a while, Meg decided it was that grace that caught her attention from early on.
Deborah never talked about herself or her own troubles, but always had a kind word or a gentle touch for women who came into the gym in pain, bleeding from emotional wounds that others couldn't see.
Deborah had a gift. She genuinely cared about people in ways Meg had long since forgotten how to do.
Ways Meg had found to be too painful.
So on one mid-January night, about four months after Deborah had joined the class, Meg noticed right off that Deborah wasn't herself. It was the way she stopped at the bulletin board – like she'd done that first time she walked in – pretending to read the notices pinned there, but really taking a deep breath as though steeling herself for something difficult to come.
When she turned from the board, a quiet smile on her face, and made her way to the coat rack, Meg froze in mid-stretch, one foot on the sit-up bench, resting her chin on her knee, the other leg planted firmly on the floor behind her.
The smile pasted on Deborah's face was as false as any Meg had ever seen in the gym. As false as any she'd ever worn herself.
Something was very wrong.
And Meg was certain that Deborah would never say a word about it to anyone.
At least, not anyone in the gym. She'd never arrived with anyone or left with anyone. So far as Meg knew, she'd never struck up a friendship with any of the other women in the self-defense class. Not that that was a problem, but when you were wearing a face like that – an emotionless mask with a smile painted on it – you needed someone to talk to.
Meg was hyper-aware of Deborah all evening, but she only faltered once, and landed on her butt because of it. The rest of the time, she was focused and alert, practicing the moves, and even helping another newcomer who was struggling.
That was Deborah. Always looking out for someone else.
Meg wondered who looked out for her.
As the self-defense class members were trickling out at the end of the session, Meg tugged on her coat and walked up to Deborah, slipping her arm in hers, girlfriend-like, as she turned toward the door.
"You look like you could use a cup of coffee," Meg said conversationally, matching her stride to Deborah's shorter one.
Deborah pulled her arm away and looked up at Meg as though the usually stable self-defense instructor had gone mad. She was wearing that carefully-constructed expression again. The one that all but screamed 'trouble' to Meg.
"I can't," she said. "I have to get home."
"Is there someone with the children?"
"Yes... Yes. They're at my parents'… we live with my parents…."
"Good. Then you have time for coffee."