The Perfect Smile – Blake Pierce

For about the fourth time in the last hour, the same thought passed through Jessie Hunt’s head. I hate this place. “This place” was an official WITSEC safe house. Though she despised being in the sterile tract home with US Marshals always around, she couldn’t really argue that it wasn’t necessary. After all, it had been less than two weeks since she escaped an attack by her murderous serial killer father, Xander Thurman, who had been hunting for her for months. And just days after that, his most ardent admirer, another killer named Bolton Crutchfield, had escaped from a psychiatric prison facility, along with four other dangerous prisoners. Two had been captured. But in addition to Crutchfield, two others were still on the loose. So Jessie wasn’t in a position to quarrel when Captain Roy Decker, her boss at LAPD, ordered her to do whatever the marshals with the Witness Security Program instructed until the situation was resolved. And that meant essentially living under house arrest while she was on a mandated leave of absence from her work as a forensic profiler. She wasn’t even technically a witness in a pending trial. But because of the imminent threat to her life, her work in law enforcement, and her connection to both the LAPD and the FBI, an exception had been made. Until her father and Crutchfield were captured or killed, she was stuck. She spent her days following case updates online, broken up by frequent, near-frenzied workout sessions and selfdefense training that did little to mitigate her stir-craziness. The ten-week training program she’d recently taken at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, had provided her with effective fighting skills and new profiling techniques.

But it hadn’t taught her how to deal with the crushing boredom of being housebound for twenty-four hours a day. The house itself was perfectly nice, located on a quiet residential block in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Palms. In the late-spring mornings, she sipped her coffee and watched parents walk their children to the elementary school a few blocks away. The house was at the end of a cul-de-sac, where it could be more easily secured and protected. But that meant there wasn’t much to see most days. Usually around mid-morning, she’d go outside for a swim in the pool, which was covered by a large tarp, theoretically for shade but actually to undermine the prying eyes of neighbors. Things were even worse now that Kat had left. For a few days her friend had been allowed to stay at the house as well, in part because authorities feared Bolton Crutchfield might come after her too. After all, Kat Gentry had been head of security at NRD—short for Non-Rehabilitative Division—the facility at the Department State Hospital-Metropolitan in Norwalk that Crutchfield and the other prisoners had escaped from. There was concern that some of them might want payback.

But when Kat mentioned she might take a long trip to Europe to clear her head, the marshals leapt at the idea as both a way to keep her off the radar and to reduce their security costs. Jessie still recalled their conversation from several days ago. “Don’t you think this is kind of running away from your problems?” Jessie had asked, realizing the question would likely put her friend on the defensive. Kat looked at her quizzically. Even before she replied, Jessie knew she’d made a mistake. After all, Katherine Gentry was a former Marine who still bore the shrapnel scars from an IED explosion on her face. She had maintained a lockdown facility housing some of society’s worst until her most trusted lieutenant, Ernie Cortez, had betrayed her, enabling the escape. She was tough as nails and Jessie knew it. “I think I’m entitled to a little personal time,” Kat said, refusing to defend herself beyond that. “If I thought the marshals would let you, I’d suggest you come with me.

” “Believe me, I’d love that,” Jessie replied, relieved her friend hadn’t been more defensive. “But the truth is, until my father and Crutchfield are caught, I’m not going to sleep easy, no matter what continent I’m on. Once we come up with a plan to catch these guys, I’m all over it. I need to finish this so I can have some kind of life.” “It doesn’t seem like there’s much of a plan in place,” Kat noted wryly. “Nope,” Jessie agreed. “And don’t think that hasn’t been on my mind. The only saving grace is that I know my father is too injured to come after me just yet. When I last saw him, he was jumping out a fourth-floor window, and that was before he was injured already in the stomach, shoulder, and head. He’s going to be out of commission for a little while.

” “But Bolton Crutchfield won’t be,” Kat reminded her. “He’s perfectly healthy and raring to go. And he has…assets at his disposal.” Kat didn’t elaborate beyond that but she didn’t need to. They both knew what she meant. In addition to the two escapees he might have at his disposal, there was also Ernie, Kat’s former second-in-command at NRD. While Kat was attending the funeral ceremony for Jessie’s adoptive parents, Ernie, an imposing physical specimen at six foot six and 250 pounds, murdered multiple NRD security officers, then released Crutchfield and the others. It was days afterward that the FBI was able to uncover what never showed up in the background check Kat had conducted when hiring him. When Ernie was eleven years old, he’d spent a year in a juvenile psychiatric facility after stabbing another kid multiple times in the abdomen with a screwdriver. Luckily for him, the other boy survived.

Ernie served his time without incident. After his release and a family move, he had no further problems. His juvenile records were sealed when he turned eighteen. With no other red flags on his record, all that remained was a sterling resume in the US Army, followed by stints as a private security contractor and a prison guard at a supermax prison in Colorado. If Kat had access to his psychiatric records from the juvenile detention center, she would have learned that the medical personnel viewed him as a sociopath with an amazing facility to control and hide his violent predilections. The final line of his release papers read, “It is the opinion of this physician that subject Cortez poses a continuing risk to the community. He has learned to conceal his desires but it is likely that at some point, soon or perhaps well in the future, the same psychiatric issues that led to his placement at this facility will reassert themselves. Unfortunately, our current system makes no accommodation for that possibility and requires that he be released forthwith. Follow-up treatment, while not mandated, is highly recommended.” No further treatment occurred.

When Ernie became a guard at NRD and began interacting with Bolton Crutchfield, a master manipulator, he fell under his sway. But he never let on, continuing to do his job and interact positively with the co-workers he would eventually kill. Kat blamed herself for all their deaths, though there was no way she could have anticipated them. Jessie had tried multiple times to assuage her guilt, to no avail. “I’m a forensic profiler who is trained to pick up things like sociopathic tendencies,” she’d said. “I interacted with him on over a dozen occasions and I never once suspected him. I don’t see how you could have.” “It doesn’t matter,” Kat insisted. “I was responsible for those officers’ safety and for keeping those inmates secure. I failed on both fronts.

I deserve the blame.” That conversation was three days ago. Now Kat was somewhere in France, unaware that the Marshal Service had requested that Interpol assign an undercover officer to tail her for her own protection. For her part, Jessie was stuck lying on plastic pool furniture within shouting distance of freeway traffic. She had no one to talk to, hardly any privacy, and little to keep her mind from going to dark places. In the more self-pitying moments, she felt like she was being victimized all over again. As she headed inside to grab herself a snack, she pulled on the cover-up one of the marshals had bought her the other day. He wasn’t given detailed instructions so how it fit wasn’t his fault. But Jessie couldn’t help but be frustrated that the thing barely went down to her hips and was somehow still bulky. A lean five foot ten, she needed something twice as long and half as wide.

She put her shoulder-length brown hair in a ponytail and tried to keep her green eyes from looking too annoyed as she stepped inside. Entering the house, she saw the marshal who was standing near the sliding door turn his head slightly. He was clearly listening to some message in his earpiece. His body tensed up involuntarily at whatever he’d been told. Jessie knew something was up even before she entered the kitchen. He didn’t say anything to her so she continued toward the kitchen, pretending to be oblivious to whatever was going on. Uncertain if the message was about a breach of the house, she looked around for something to protect herself with in case Crutchfield had found her. Resting on a console table in the dining room near the kitchen entrance was a glass snow globe of San Francisco, about the size of a cantaloupe. As she fleetingly wondered why San Francisco would have snow, she grabbed the globe and placed it behind her back. Then she stepped into the kitchen with her weight on the balls of her feet, her body torqued for action and her eyes darting back and forth in search of any threat.

At the far end of the kitchen, a door opened. CHAPTER TWO As Jessie waited to see who it was, she realized she’d stopped breathing and forced herself to exhale slowly and quietly. Stepping briskly into the room, without a hint of apprehension, was Frank Corcoran. The supervising marshal on her detail, Corcoran was all business. Square-jawed and square-framed, he wore a navy suit with a white shirt and perfectly knotted black tie. His neatly trimmed mustache had the first hints of gray at the edges, as did his short-cropped black hair. “Have a seat, Ms. Hunt,” he said without a trace of casualness. “We need to talk. And you can put down the snow globe.

I promise you won’t need it.” Placing the globe on the kitchen table while pointedly refusing to ask how he’d known about it, Jessie sat down, wondering what fresh hell he was about to reveal. Xander Thurman had already murdered her adoptive parents. He’d nearly killed two cops trying to get to her in her own apartment. Bolton Crutchfield’s violent escape from NRD had led to the deaths of six guards. Had one of the remaining escapees found Kat in Europe? Had they gone after her friend and sometime partner, LAPD Detective Ryan Hernandez, whom she hadn’t heard from in days? She prepared herself for the worst. “I have some updates for you,” Corcoran said, when he realized Jessie wasn’t going to ask any questions. “Okay.” I spoke with your captain,” he said, pulling out a scrap of paper and reading from it. “He wanted to convey the well wishes of the entire precinct.

He said they are following every available lead and he hopes you won’t have to sit tight for too much longer.” Jessie could tell from Corcoran’s skeptical tone of voice and his slightly raised eyebrows that he didn’t share Captain Decker’s view of the situation. “You’re less optimistic than he, I gather?” “That’s the next update,” he replied, not technically answering her question. “We’ve had no luck finding Mr. Crutchfield. While two escapees have been captured, as you know, two others are still at large, not to mention Mr. Cortez.” “Did the captured men provide any useful information since you last updated me?” “Unfortunately no,” he conceded. “Both men still say the same thing—that they all went their separate ways within minutes of their escape. Neither of these men even knew it was happening until they were released from their cells.

” “So it was likely only Crutchfield and Cortez who planned this?” “That’s what we think,” Corcoran said. “Nonetheless, we have a massive, ongoing manhunt for all the escapees. In addition to LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department, CHP, the CBI, and FBI are all involved, as is, of course, the Marshals Service.” “I noticed you mentioned that you’re searching for the escapees,” she said. “What about Xander Thurman?” “What about him?” “Well, he’s a serial killer too. He tried to kill me and two LAPD officers and he’s on the loose. How many people do you have looking for him?” Corcoran looked at her as if he was surprised that he even needed to make his next comment. “Based on your description of his injuries, we view him as a less immediate threat. And your status in WITSEC makes us less concerned about him generally. Besides, right now our priority is on the multiple escapees from a criminal psychiatric facility, not on a man no one even knows is out there.

” “You mean your search is being media and politics driven,” Jessie noted pointedly. “That is one, not inaccurate, way to characterize it.” Jessie appreciated his honesty. And for someone in his position, she couldn’t really argue that it was an unreasonable use of resources. She decided to let it go for now. “Any potential leads?” Jessie asked doubtfully. “We believe our best efforts center around Mr. Cortez. The thinking is that he would have made plans for after the escape. We’re checking his bank records, credit card purchases, and phone GPS data in the weeks prior to the breakout.

So far, we haven’t found anything as helpful as plane tickets.” “You won’t,” Jessie muttered. “Why do you say that?” “Cortez will stick close to Crutchfield. And I guarantee you—Bolton Crutchfield isn’t going anywhere.” “How can you be so sure?” Corcoran demanded. “Because he’s not done with me yet.” * That night Jessie couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for what felt like hours, she got out of bed and headed to the kitchen to refill her empty water glass. As she walked down the carpeted hallway from the bedroom she immediately sensed something was wrong. The marshal usually stationed in a chair where the hallway met the living room was nowhere to be found.

Jessie considered returning to her room to get a gun before remembering that she didn’t actually have one. The Marshals Service had “secured” it until further notice. Instead she pressed her back against the wall of the hallway, ignoring her quickly beating heart as she tiptoed toward the empty chair. As she got closer, with the aid of the moonlight streaming in through the windows, she saw a dark, damp stain on the cream-colored carpeting. The wide range of the spray suggested it wasn’t accidentally dropped wine. She also noticed a consistent trail of it extending out of sight. Jessie poked her head around the corner to see the marshal lying on his back against the far wall, where he’d apparently been dragged. His throat was slit all the way across. Next to him on the ground was his service weapon. Jessie felt a surge of anxiety-laden adrenaline, which made her fingers tingle.

Reminding herself to stay focused, she knelt down and surveyed the room as she waited for her body to settle down. It took less time than she expected. With no one in sight, she darted out and grabbed the gun. Glancing down, she saw a path of bloody footprints headed away from the marshal’s body in the direction of the adjoining dining room. Staying crouched behind the sofa, she scurried along until she could see into the room clearly. Another marshal lay on the ground there. This one was face down with a quickly expanding pool of blood pouring from his neck and forming a puddle around his face and torso. Jessie forced herself not to linger on the image as she followed the bloody footprints from that room into the sunroom, which led to the backyard pool. The sliding door was open and a slight breeze blew the hanging curtains inward, making them billow like low-hanging clouds. She checked the room.

It was empty so she moved over to the sliding door to peek outside. A suited body was visible, bobbing face down in the water, which was quickly turning a pinkish-red. That’s when she heard someone clear his throat behind her. She whirled around, cocking the gun at the same time. Facing her at the far end of the room were both Bolton Crutchfield and her father, Xander Thurman, who looked shockingly good considering that only weeks ago, he’d been shot in the gut and the shoulder, likely fractured his skull, and jumped out a fourth-floor window. Both men were holding long hunting knives. Her father smiled as he silently mouthed the word “Junebug,” his pet name for her as a child. Jessie lifted the gun and prepared to fire. As her finger began to squeeze the trigger, Crutchfield spoke. “I promised that I’d be seeing you, Miss Jessie,” he said, his demeanor as placid as it had been when he spoke to her through the thick glass barrier of his cell.

His weeks of freedom hadn’t made him any less soft. At five foot eight and about 150 pounds, he was less physically formidable than Jessie. His pudgy face made him look a decade younger than his thirty-five years and his brown hair, parted neatly to the side, reminded her of the boys in the math club back at middle school. Only his steely brown eyes hinted at what he was truly capable of. “It looks like you’ve fallen in with a bad crowd,” she said in a frustratingly shaky voice as she nodded at her father. “That’s what I love about you, Miss Jessie,” Crutchfield said admiringly. “You never back down, even when you’re in a hopeless situation.” “You may want to rethink that,” Jessie pointed out. “You’ve both brought knives to a gunfight.” “So impish,” Crutchfield marveled, looking over at Thurman with appreciation.

Her father nodded, still silent. Then both men returned their attention to her. Simultaneously, their smiles disappeared. “It’s time, Miss Jessie,” Crutchfield said as both men moved toward her in tandem. She fired at her father first, three in the chest, before turning her attention to Crutchfield. Without hesitation, she pumped three bullets into his torso. The air was full of acrid smoke and the echo of her shots. But neither man stopped or even slowed down. How was that possible? Even with bulletproof vests, they should have been staggering. She was out of bullets but pulled the trigger anyway, unsure what else to do.

As the two men advanced on her with their knives lifted high above their heads, she tossed away the gun and assumed a defensive stance, fully aware that it was a futile gesture. The knives came slicing down, hard and fast. * With a gasp Jessie sat bolt upright in bed. She was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. Looking around the room, she saw she was alone. The shutters on the windows were still nailed shut to prevent access. Her bedroom door still had the chair propped under the knob as an extra security precaution. The clock read 1:39 a.m. There was a soft knock on the door.

“You okay in there, Ms. Hunt?” one of the marshals asked. “I heard a noise.” “Just a bad dream,” she called out, seeing no reason to lie about what he likely already suspected. “Okay. Let me know if you need anything.” “Thanks,” she said, listening for the familiar creak of the floorboard beneath the carpet as he walked away. She slid her legs out of bed and sat quietly for a moment, allowing her heart rate and breathing to return to something close to normal. She stood up and headed to the bathroom. A shower was in order, as was a change of the damp sheets.

As she crossed the room, she couldn’t help but wander over to the one window where the shutter was tilted open slightly to allow in a bit of light. She swore she saw the silhouette of someone in the shadows of the trees beyond the pool. Even after assuring herself that it was either a tree trunk or a marshal, she felt unsettled. Somewhere out there two serial killers were on the loose. And both of them were looking for her. There was no getting around the fact that even in a completely secured safe house with all this protection around, she was a sitting duck. * Gabrielle and her date for the night, Carter, arrived back at the house just after 2 a.m. They were both a little drunk and she had to remind him again to keep his voice down so as not to wake up Claire. They stumbled clumsily through the hall until they got to her bedroom, where they shared a long kiss.

Gabby pulled back and gave him her best “come hither” smile. He returned the smile, although not too eagerly. She liked that. He was older—in his late forties—and able to control his enthusiasm better than some of the newly minted tech boys she went out with. He was good-looking in a distinguished kind of way and reminded her of some of her dad’s friends, the ones who snuck glances at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. He waited for her to resume the kissing. When she held off teasingly to find out how he’d react, he finally spoke. “Nice place you’ve got here,” he said in a mock whisper. If all goes well, you’ll be helping pay for it for a while. She managed to keep that thought to herself and responded with a less opportunistic, “Thanks.

There’s one part I’m especially anxious to show you.” She nodded to the bed. “Are you suggesting I check it out? I really feel like a guided tour might be in order.” “Why don’t you get comfortable over there? I’ll make a brief sojourn to the restroom to freshen up and join you momentarily.” Carter smiled in agreement and walked over to the side of the bed. As he slid off his shoes and began untucking his shirt, Gabby headed to the bathroom the housemates shared. She turned on the light and cast one last seductive look at him before closing the door behind her. Once inside, she went straight to the mirror. Before retouching any makeup, she wanted to check her teeth. A cursory glance showed nothing visible between them.

She took a quick swig of mouthwash and was swishing it around, preparing to add a hint of extra smokiness to her eyelids, when she noticed an arm draped over the freestanding tub behind her. She turned around, surprised. It wasn’t like Claire to take a bath at this hour. Usually she crashed as soon as she got home, sometimes not even changing out of her clothes. If she was lying in the tub with the lights out, it likely meant she was totally smashed. Gabby tiptoed over, praying that she’d only have to deal with a passed-out housemate and not a vomit-covered tub. As she peeked over the edge of the tub, what she saw was far worse. Claire was still dressed in the miniskirt she’d worn to go out that night. She was lying face up in the tub, with her glassy eyes wide open, covered in blood. Her face was streaked with it and it had formed a thick, goopy sauce in her hair.

The blood was everywhere but it seemed to be mostly coming from her throat, which was mangled by what looked to be multiple deep stab wounds. Gabby stared at her and only realized that she had been screaming when Carter appeared next to her, shaking her shoulders and asking what was wrong. One look at the tub gave him an answer. He stumbled backward in shock before pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. “Come out of there,” he told her, grabbing her wrist and tearing her away from the horror in front of her. “Go sit on the bed. I’m calling nine-one-one.” She stopped screaming, grateful to have an instruction to follow. She shuffled numbly over to the bed, where she sat down, staring at the floor but not really seeing anything. In the background, she heard his voice, distant and tinny.

“I need to report a murder. There’s a woman dead in the bathtub here. It looks like she was stabbed.” Gabby closed her eyes tight but it didn’t help. The image of Claire, helpless and limp in the bathroom only feet away, was burned into her mind.

.

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