Before He Stalks – Blake Pierce

Kill her after work. Don’t let her make it back home. This instruction seemed to be looped in his head. He’d been hearing it for two days now, a voice in his head that seemed to have been born when he saw the picture in the Arts and Entertainment section of the local paper. He’d seen the woman in the ad for the adult entertainment shop before. To say she was hot was an understatement. She was the sort of hot that made him think dating was useless because there was no way he’d ever get a woman like her. Yeah, he’d seen her before. She was a waitress at the Sixteenth Street Diner. She worked the late shift, between nine and two in the morning. He’d seen her a few times in college when he’d wanted to escape the idiocy of the dorms, parties, and assignments. He’d never really had friends, so it had been easy for him to get away without being questioned. He’d escape to the Sixteenth Street Diner for late night grub—greasy eggs, home fries, and pitch-black coffee. He had enjoyed the nights she had worked. She was nice, but not too nice—not to the point where you knew she was just feeling sorry for the loner guy who had just shoved in a ton of food.

He had managed to learn quite a bit about her in listening to some of the other morons in the diner flirting with her. She was a student, too. Or, rather, she had been back then, three years ago. He also knew her from before college. But she did not remember him. He knew it without asking. He could see it in the way she looked at him, the pleasant smile that was hoping for a nice tip. He didn’t blame her. Why would a woman that looked like that remember a guy that looked like him out of a sizable graduating class? She looked older now, in the ad in the paper. But good God, she was still hot.

Hotter than ever. The fishnets, stilettos, and bare chest covered only by the store’s logo made it almost painful for him to look at her. Maybe that’s what had spurred the sudden instructions that currently blew through his head. The first time he’d heard it, he made a trip out to Sixteenth Street Diner late at night just to see if she still worked there. He assumed she would because she had been treated like a goddess there. She was just goth-looking enough to attract that crowd but was also able to pull of the classic beauty look that appealed to jocks and older men going through their midlife crisis. He had seen her walk away with fifty-dollar tips from men who had only purchased coffee and pie—the pie apparently an open invitation for countless sexual innuendos. Sure enough, she was still there. She had even waited on him, bringing his bagel, bacon, and tea with a smile and enough cleavage to remind him of the many fantasies he’d had about her back in college. He’d even remarked that he remembered her from his college years, waiting table for him and his friends.

She seemed to appreciate that he had remembered her, but with waitresses who dressed like that and relied on tips, it was hard to tell if she was being genuine or not. He pictured the smile she had given him as he watched her come out of the back entrance to the diner. It was 1:18 in the morning. A slight drizzle of rain was falling, though that always seemed to be the case in this miserable town. He was dressed in a rain slicker, sitting on the alleyway stoop of an old record store that was mostly hidden by the back edge of the diner. Kill her after work. Don’t let her make it back home. He watched her, remembering her talking to him and his friends three years ago, angling for a good tip. Smiling, patting them on the shoulder or back on occasion, expertly leaning over when delivering the food to offer a shot down her shirt. Kill her after work.

Don’t let her make it back home. There was no parking behind the diner. He’d checked this out on the same night he had come in to see if she still worked there. He’d watched a few employees come and go after he had left, noting that they all walked a block down the street and then crossed over to the little parking garage that sat on the corner. The way he figured it, he had exactly four minutes to get it done by the time she came out of the back entrance—four minutes for her to get from the back of the diner to her car. He watched as she frowned at the rain, used her little purse to cover her hair, and then went off in a slow run toward the sidewalk. With her running, even at such a slow pace, he figured his four minutes would become more like three. With anticipation growing in his heart, he got to his feet and followed after her. When she was completely out of sight, now on the sidewalk and headed for the end of the block, he sped up as well. He resumed a basic walking pace as he also stepped onto the sidewalk.

He looked in both directions and saw only three people other than the waitress. Two were walking hand in hand in the other direction. The third was a scraggly looking man, likely homeless if his attire was any clue, watching the waitress with great interest as she crossed the street toward the parking garage. He passed the homeless man, making sure to keep a safe distance behind the waitress. When she entered the parking garage—not through the large opening for vehicles, but the side door that led to the elevator—he sped up, dashing across the street. Rain pelted him in the face, and it seemed to urge him on. He opted for the main entrance. No one was at the check-in station, though he knew if he were to drive a car into the garage, he’d get a ticket from the automated machine by the gate. He slipped between the yellow divider and the wall, slipping into the garage. The garage was only two levels high, so he knew she was going to the second floor.

He bolted for the stairs, his wet shoes making little squeaking sounds on the concrete. By the time she reached the top of the stairs, his heart was hammering. He quietly pushed the door to the stairwell open, stepping out just in time to see her. She was about halfway down the back aisle, approaching her car and reaching into her pocketbook. By the time he started closing the distance between them, she had pulled out her keys. And she had also noticed him. She only looked at him for a moment, turning her attention instead to her door. It was an older car, so she had to manually unlock it with the key rather than using a key fob. When she inserted the key, he started sprinting again. Kill her after work.

Don’t let her make it back home. But it would be his first time. He wasn’t sure if he could do it. Maybe if her face wasn’t so familiar, maybe if he had not fantasized about her so much in college… The message was louder in his head now. It was almost as if someone was following behind him, screaming it into his ear. She saw him coming at her. She started moving quicker and, in doing so, dropped her keys. He heard them clatter to the floor and he knew that he had her. As he neared the car, she gave up any pretense of escaping him. As he closed in on her, there was a brief look of recognition.

He was almost happy when he assumed she was perhaps remembering him from two nights ago. “What—?” But that was all she could get out. As it turned out, he could do it. As a matter of fact, he was more than happy to do it. He took the hammer out of the inner pocket of the rain slicker, drawing like a gunfighter from the Old West. But the time her mouth had started to form the second word, the hammer was smashing against her lips. For a moment, the sound of the hammer repeatedly striking her nearly drowned out the sound of the rain as it grew stronger through the open walls of the parking garage. CHAPTER ONE Mackenzie looked at the digital number on the scale and felt a sense of triumph that she was almost ashamed of. The number told her that she had finally reached her pre-pregnancy weight. In fact, she was two pounds below.

She had never been a woman obsessed with weight but that number showed her that resuming some sense of normalcy was possible. Yes, she had gotten used to being a mother and she had come to terms with the fact that her life would forever be changed. But for some reason, she had struggled to drop the pregnancy weight. The last ten pounds or so had been very stubborn and it had taken much longer than either she or her doctor had expected. And now, finally, it was gone. It had taken nearly eight months and even a treacherous case that had seen her climbing the side of a mountain, but she was finally back to her goal weight. And, on top of that, she couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so healthy. She stepped off of the scale and tried to tell herself that it was okay to bask in these small victories. Her postpartum depression had hung around just as long as the extra weight and, just like that last bit of weight, did not seem to want to go anywhere just yet. “What are you doing?” Mackenzie turned to the bathroom door and saw Ellington standing there.

He looked down to the scale as if he had truly never expected to see his wife standing on one. “Taking a moment to appreciate small victories.” “Am I allowed to ask?” he asked, looking to the scale skeptically. “I’m where I want to be,” she said, stepping off of the scale. “Weight-wise, anyway.” He came into the bathroom and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m about to head out. Just wanted to say bye.” “I’ll be heading out with you soon enough,” she said. “Oh, I know.

And I’m looking forward to it.” He hugged her, the unspoken silence saying enough. After the last case where she had pushed herself far beyond the limits of her barely healed condition just five months after her C-section, Director McGrath had elected to make her sit out for three more months. She was still an agent, but had been demoted to an at-home position where she fielded calls and helped with research and report-digging. She was champing at the bit to get back out into the real world to tackle real cases. Watching Ellington have a fairly active three months had been torture—especially on the day he and one of his partners had taken down an armed man who had nearly pulled off a mall shooting. “Tell McGrath to get my office ready,” she said. “I will. But Mac…you know next week…that’s just a meeting. There’s still no guarantee.

” “Yes, I know. Because women are easy to step on and overlook…until they’ve had a baby. And then they become nothing more than window dressing. Sort of an afterthought that no one wants to offend or accidentally abuse.” “He’s just being cautious.” “I know that,” Mackenzie said. “But I’m choosing to be pissy.” “Yes, I can see that.” He kissed her again and headed for the door. “I’ll bring Thai home for dinner tonight.

You and Little Man have a good day.” She watched him go, then followed him out. Kevin was sleeping in his pack ’n’ play in his bedroom, down for his morning nap. It was all part of the routine. At eight months old, he was waking up at 5:45 in the morning, eating, playing a bit, and then taking a nap around 7:30 or so. The kid’s sleeping and eating schedule was like clockwork, making Mackenzie’s days at home a little easier. And while she loved her son more than she had ever expected to be able to love anything, she was excited at the prospect of taking him to daycare again. They already had the spot at his old daycare opened and waiting. The staff had been very gracious, given Mackenzie’s odd work circumstances over the past half a year. Mackenzie poured her second cup of coffee for the morning and started on her daily routine.

She checked her email to see if there were any research requests; there were none. She did a loud of laundry. She started a shopping list for the weekend. As she was adding grocery items to the notes on her phone, she heard Kevin starting to stir. She checked her watch, saw that it was 8:45, and was not at all surprised. Everything about the boy was like clockwork. She went in to him and picked him up. The smile he always gave her upon waking from his morning nap was so eerily like the one Ellington gave her when he woke up in the morning that she couldn’t help but chuckle. She did not chuckle, though, when she smelled what had woken him. She changed his diaper, got him dressed for the day, and then headed back out.

There, she placed him in his bouncy-seat (or, what Ellington sometimes referred to as Vibration Station) and checked her emails again. There was a research request waiting, but it was one she already knew the resources for. She answered the email and sent the information in less than ten minutes. Clockwork. Routine. Dirty diapers. Yes, she realized she had a pretty sweet life, but she could not wait to be back in an actual work setting. It was right around lunchtime when the phone rang. The name on the display made no sense at first: Greg McAllister. But she then realized it was the name of one of the men Ellington had been paired with ever since Mackenzie had been placed on her extra three months of at-home time.

She was in mid-scoop, making Kevin’s bottle of formula, when she realized this could be a bad thing. There was probably only one reason one of Ellington’s partners would call, and she did not like to even think about it. The phone rang three times before she could bring herself to answer it. “This is Agent White,” she said. Silly, she thought, that I’m still using my own last name when everyone at the bureau thinks of me, even in jest sometimes, as Mrs. Ellington. “White, it’s Agent McAllister. Look, everything is okay for the most part, but Ellington wanted me to call you to let you know he’s on the way to the hospital.” She sat the bottle down slowly and looked at Kevin, perched in the highchair that he had just learned to sit comfortably in. “What happened? Is he okay?” “Yeah, we think so.

We were dropping in for a surprise visit on a suspect in this drug-runner case we’ve been working on. There was a slight chase, and Ellington took a fall down the stairs. Worst case, he’s got a broken arm. He hit his head, too but it doesn’t seem to be too serious.” “Thanks,” she said. “Do you know which hospital?” McAllister gave her all of the details. As she catalogued them into her memory, she was also trying to figure out what to do with Kevin. Ellington had teased her about being a little too cautious when it came to their son’s health. She was reminded of that as she ended the call with McAllister, because she had no interest in taking her infant son into a hospital unless she absolutely had to. It’s just a broken arm, she thought.

He’s just going to laugh at me if I make a fuss over it and rush to the hospital. But she wanted to make sure he was okay; it was the bit about taking a knock to the head that had her worried. She’d certainly expect him to come see her if the situation was reversed. She looked at Kevin and frowned. “Want to go see your dad, kiddo? Seems he’s about as clumsy as you are. Took a spill down some stairs. I’d have to take you into the hospital, though. What do you say?” He grinned and lightly slapped at the highchair tray in response. “I feel the same way,” she said. Though, honestly, she could not deny that a sudden visit to the hospital for her husband’s suddenly broken arm was the most exciting thing she had experienced over the past three months.

CHAPTER TWO Because he had taken the minor blow to the head during the fall, Ellington had been admitted into an examination room rather than simply seeing ortho about his arm. After getting filled in by the front desk, Mackenzie found him in a hospital bed, looking absolutely miserable—not because of any pain that she could see, but because he was having to sit on a hospital bed. His eyes lit up a bit when he saw Mackenzie, then even more when he saw that she was carrying the car seat. “My God, you brought him into a hospital,” Ellington said. “Shut up. How are you? How did this happen?” “Well, X-rays confirmed that I have a broken wrist and a buckle fracture. They just finished going through concussion protocol. Someone is supposed to be coming in shortly to put me in a cast.” Mackenzie sat the car sat on the edge of the hospital bed so that Kevin could gaze at his father. “Did you at least get the guy?” Mackenzie asked.

She was trying to keep it light, though it was upsetting her more than she expected to see him so clearly in pain and trying to shrug it off. “I did. I actually fell on the guy when I hit the bottom. McAllister cuffed him and called an ambulance for me.” Mackenzie couldn’t help herself. She looked his head over, finding the spot where he had clearly hit. It was just above his left eye; there was no swelling, but there was a cut and discoloration. It looked like he’d taken a weak hit rather than stairs or a wall to the face. “You didn’t have to come,” Ellington said. “Really.

” “I know. But I wanted to. I thought it would be a good example to use to show Kevin how he always needs to be careful when chasing bad guys.” “Funny. Hey, you know…McGrath called me earlier in the morning. Just between the two of us, he was checking in on you. He asked if I thought you were ready to tackle a case. I think he’s got one lining up for you in the next few weeks.” “That’s good news,” she said. “But right now, I’d like to just focus on you.

” “Not much to focus on. I fell down some stairs and broke my arm.” Behind Mackenzie, a doctor entered the room carrying a set of X-ray prints. “That you did,” he said. “A nasty break, too. It’s not going to require pins, as I had originally feared, but it might take it a bit longer to heal that I had originally thought. That buckle fracture being so close to the break…it’s a double whammy.” Mackenzie moved Kevin’s car seat as the doctor fell in beside Ellington. “Ready to get this thing casted up?” “Do I have a choice?” “No,” Mackenzie said. “No, you do not.

” In the car seat, Kevin made a little pf sound, as if in agreement. As she watched the doctor start to prep the cast mold in the large sink on the other side of the room, Mackenzie stepped closer to Ellington. “Don’t try to play cool. How are you?” “It hurts like a bitch, but they gave me an Oxy about five minutes before you got in, so I should be good any minute now.” “And your head?” “Slight headache. Might be worse but it’s hard to tell by the pain radiating out of my arm. Like I said, though, I checked out for signs of a concussion and—” Mackenzie’s phone rang, interrupting him. She checked it, assuming it would be a follow-up to the research request she had filled that morning. When she saw McGrath’s name on the caller display, though, he knew better. “Did you let McGrath know what had happened?” she asked.

“No, but McAllister did. Why, is that him?” Mackenzie nodded as she answered the call, slightly confused. “This is Agent White.” “Hi, White. I assume you already heard about Ellington’s little accident?” “Yes, sir. I’m here with him right now. He’s about to get a cast put on.” “Well, it might make this conversation a little awkward. And I hate to talk about work while you’re at the hospital with him, but this is rather time pressing.” “It’s okay.

What’s wrong?” “Nothing is wrong,” McGrath said. “But I was putting together the forms and paperwork to assign Ellington to a case that I need him on right away. But as I was putting it all together, McAllister called to let me know about the accident. And, as insensitive as it might sound, I find myself in need of an agent to put on a case.” Mackenzie said nothing, not wanting to jump to conclusions. But as the silence from McGrath stretched out, she couldn’t help herself. “I can do it, sir.” “That’s why I’m calling. I was going to send McAllister, but I don’t want to take him off of the case he’s currently on, as he and Ellington nearly have it wrapped.” “Then give it to me.

” “Are you sure you’re ready?” The question irritated her, but she swallowed it down. Was she ready? Well, she had gone after a killer by climbing the side of a mountain just five months following her C-section. The three extra months he’d made her sit at home was his decision—one she had disagreed with but had done her best to take obediently. “Yes, sir. You were going to have me come back in next week, right?” “Barring the results of meeting with you, yes. Now, White…this case is in Seattle. Are you up for that?” She nearly answered yes right away. But as soon as the word was on her tongue, she considered what it might be like being so far away from Kevin. She had grown even more attached to him over these past three months, experiencing the bond some of those books had mentioned. She would do anything for her son, and the thought of being on the other side of the country for an undetermined amount of time did not sit well with her.

Not to mention he’d be left with a parent that would be down an arm. But McGrath was essentially handing her back her career…on a silver platter, no less. She had to take it. “That should be fine, sir.” “I can’t settle for fine, White. Look…I’ll give you and Ellington ten minutes to talk it over. But I need an agent on a flight to Seattle by seven o’clock this afternoon. There’s a flight that leaves in two and a half hours.” “Okay. I’ll get right back to you.

” She ended the call and saw Ellington looking at her. The doctor had come over and started applying the wet plaster to his arm, wrapping it around the swollen and discolored area. The look on Ellington’s face told her all she needed to know. He’d heard at least some of the conversation and hadn’t yet decided how he felt about it. “So where is it?” Ellington asked. “That was the only thing I couldn’t quite hear.” He grinned at her, letting her know he’d managed to hear the entire conversation. They had often joked about how Director McGrath had an incredibly loud phone voice. “Seattle. I’d be leaving this afternoon or evening.

” She then looked at Kevin and shook her head. “But I can’t leave you with him…not with a broken arm.” “Mac, I can look at your face and see how bad you want it. Kevin and I will be fine.” “Honey, you can barely change a diaper with two hands.” He nodded. Though she was joking, it was apparent that he could see her point. Something slowly started to dawn on him, though. They remained quiet for a while, the only noise coming from the sloppy sounds of the cast being applied. The doctor remained quiet, too, doing his best to respect their awkward situation.

“You know what?” Ellington said. “My mother has been asking when she can come back to spend some time with Kevin. I can pretty much guarantee that she’d jump at the opportunity. Unless you’ve forgotten, she loves the opportunity to feel as if she is saving the day.” Mackenzie thought about it. She and Ellington both had issues with their mothers but by giving both women a grandson, it seemed to have done wonders in regards to their individual relationships. And selfishly, if his mother came to visit while she was out of town, that would be great. Mackenzie pretended to liked her just fine when she was around but she and Ellington both knew that the woman rubbed Mackenzie the wrong way. “Is she even available?” “It’s my mother,” Ellington said. “What else could she possibly be doing? Besides…love her or hate her, this little boy has her wrapped around his finger.

Even if she is busy, she’d gladly drop it. Let me call her. You go ahead and call McGrath back.” Before she could argue, Ellington was digging his phone out of his pocket with his good arm. The doctor gave him a stern look, pausing in the creation of the cast. Mackenzie called McGrath back right away. As she phone started to ring, she looked at Kevin. He was busy looking at his father, smiling up at him. Even though her heart was already thrumming with excitement about jumping back into work at such a sudden turn of events, it was also starting to ache with the thought of being away from her baby. She figured that as he grew, it was a feeling she’d experience often—a heart town between two loves: work and family.

And now, with a fresh case on the other side of the country waiting on her, she knew it would not be a feeling she would ever truly get used to. CHAPTER THREE It was harder to leave than Mackenzie had been expecting. It didn’t help that her husband was in a fresh cast and his mother was not yet at the apartment when she had to walk out the door. Kevin was mercifully sleeping, down for his afternoon nap. She knew he’d sleep for at least another hour and that Ellington’s mother was due to arrive before then. Still, she felt like she was abandoning her family. She had felt something similar when she had left for the last case but this time, it stung. This time, she was more confident in her role as a mother and knew the power and unity she and Ellington were capable of. “It’ll be fine,” Ellington assured as he walked her to the door. “My mother is nothing if not overbearing.

She’ll take too much care of Kevin. Me, too. God, she’s going to eat it up. She may never leave.” “That’s not helping.” Ellington kissed her on the mouth, the sort of kiss that kept going once it was broken. She’d gotten a little too used to them over the past several months. Some might even say she had gotten spoiled. “Go,” he said, looking into her eyes with depth and passion. “Lose yourself in work for a bit.

I think you deserve it. We’ll be here waiting for you when you get back.” He patted her on the bottom, his way of breaking the tone of seriousness that had crept into his voice. They both loved one another fiercely, and they both knew it. But neither of them—Ellington, in particular—had never been particularly great in expressing it. They shared one last quick kiss and Mackenzie found herself outside of their apartment, the door closed behind her. She had a single rolling suitcase, small enough to count as a carry-on, and nothing else. She walked slowly toward the elevators, knowing she was more than ready to return to work, but already missing her family

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