Tender echoes, p.1
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       Tender Echoes, p.1

           Reily Garrett
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Tender Echoes


  Tender Echoes

  Prequel to

  Digital Velocity

  The McAllister Justice Series

  ­_______________________________

  Reily Garrett

  Thank you for reading

  Tender Echoes

  _______________________

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  Tender Echoes

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, and where permitted by law. Reviewers may quote brief passages in a review.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Tender Echoes

  Copyright © 2016 Reily Garrett

  Cover Art by Rylan Killian

  Acknowledgments

  This book is dedicated to Darius, Leyna, and Raptor, the incredible trio, loyal, kind, and energetic. Three incredible beings who don’t understand the words “give up.” To Faith, whose love and compassion changed my life.

  To Laurie Sickles and Siobhan Caughey, phenomenal beta readers who helped to make this story the best it can be, thank you.

 

  Books by Reily Garrett

  Carnal Series

  Carnal Beginnings

  Carnal Innocence

  Bending Fate: Prequel to Carnal Whispers

  Carnal Whispers: Mind Stalker

  Carnal Obsession: His Heart’s Prisoner

  Immortal Lovers Series

  Unholy Alliance

  Kurupira Romance Series

  Tiago

  McAllister Justice Series

  Tender Echoes: Prequel to Digital Velocity

  Digital Velocity -

  Table of Contents

  Title

  Copyright

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Epilogue

  About the Author

  Digital Velocity

  Carnal Beginnings

  Carnal Innocence

  Bending Fate

  Carnal Whispers: Mind Stalker

  Carnal Obsession: His Heart’s Prisoner

  Unholy Alliance

  Tiago

  Chapter One

  “Jesus, Charlie. Hold on. I’ll get you to a hospital.” Lexi swallowed hard against the rising tide of acid degrading her throat’s lining as the unfolding scene corrupted her sanity. Pressure against the makeshift bandage on Charlie’s belly wound yielded a deeper crimson soaking her jacket, the provisional dressing secured by fingers encased in a thickening, sticky glove. So much blood.

  This could’ve been Lexi’s fate—stabbed, slashed, disfigured for all time, blood forming rivulets pooling in the alley’s filth. Maroon puddles mingled with body fluids common to alleys sheltering the homeless as if destined to couple in a macabre, virulent concoction.

  “R-run, Lexi. D-don’t let him make you a w-whore. I wasn’t—strong enough. Y-you were never p-part of the street life.” Trash and other filth from the narrow passageway cushioned Charlie’s bruised and battered head. One front tooth was missing, probably swallowed, while blood seeped from jagged slashes on her cheeks and brow, both career enders in the event she survived. “You shouldn’t be here. It was a mistake to text you, but the cops wouldn’t believe us girls.”

  “Did your pimp do this, Charlie? What’s his real name? Tell me so I can help you.”

  Remnants of a cardboard box, a vagabond’s homemade privy, retained odors of the dispossessed and rivaled the excrement saturating every molecule of thickened air drawn into her lungs. This was no place and no way to die.

  “Yeah—said I stole from a customer. But I didn’t. The b-bastard just wanted a freebie.” Otherworldly pain glazed eyes forecasting a nonexistent future while icy wind leached color from a once-beautiful face now smeared with crimson streaks and pain. “Won’t tell you his name. I didn’t want to die alone. You’re f-free. You made it.”

  “No, Charlie. I’ll get help. Lie still while I secure a pressure dressing.” This late at night, there’d be few cars to flag down and no foot traffic from which to enlist help. She was forced to rely on emergency personnel who’d classify the incident as NHI, no human involved.

  Terror-induced flashbacks spewed forth of a stranger offering refuge to a teenager standing on a precipice, a choice. She’d first thought him relatively handsome, not understanding the slimy base of his character. She’d had no experience with his ilk. Still, something inside steered her away from his pleasant façade. Perhaps she’d sensed his underlying character. Instinct had directed her to the unknown where a small group of prostitutes offered shelter and nurtured her mind.

  With one hand, Lexi freed her belt and maneuvered it under the fallen girl’s tiny waist amid groans and mewling cries. Youth and a livelihood from flatbacking necessitated Charlie’s svelte figure, which facilitated the effort to cinch the leather strap tight. Lexi reached for the cell clutched in Charlie’s hand, knowing the late hour meant a longer wait for help. Her fingers, covered in sticky crimson ropes of blood, tangled briefly with Charlie’s, a squishy squeeze to lend encouragement. Another bolus of acid rose in her throat.

  “No.” One word spoken from the disembodied voice behind her could flash freeze hell and instigate the formation of ice crystals in any world, under any circumstance.

  The cold, hard scrape of death filled her mind. Slowly, her gaze turned, lifted. At the head of the alley and backlit by dingy sodium-vapor light, the corpulent flesh-peddler stalked forward.

  “I knew we’d meet again, Lexi. Remember me? I’ve dreamed of this day for years.” Moonglow shimmered off his blade, which weaved a figure-eight motion, the steely threat weaker than his words. “I always wondered how you’ve managed to elude me…Now I know.”

  “And I always wondered if the perverted lunatic my friends feared was you since they kept your identity a secret. Now I have a face to put to their terror.”

  In twenty yards, she’d either breathe her last as a human shish kabob or replace Charlie in the hustler’s stable. He stopped and tilted his head to the side as if inventing a new and horrific way to terrorize before he began his sociopathic playtime.

  “I need to call an ambulance or she’ll die.” The chill shimmying down her spine spread outward to encase every nerve and muscle with the knowledge of his intentions. No one should die in a filthy alley.

  He shrugged.

  His feral grin logged an accounting of past and intended atrocities, declaring her future better off in the hands of Hades. “There’s only one way you get to make that call.”

  “I’m not part of your harem and never will be.” Lexi considered the street girls who’d sheltered her just as much her family as the parents who’d given birth and nurtured her for thirteen years. Instead, they were bonded by fate, stronger than any blood tie.

  “Run, Lexi. You know these streets.” Charlie’s gasping breath faded into a choking sob. “Go. Get help.”

  In the distance, the fleeting drone of tires equaled the harsh vocal in nature’s death metal song, every sound magnified by her fear. Behind him, a vehicle’s lights flickered a
cross the alley’s entrance yet didn’t penetrate deep enough to illuminate predator or prey.

  “Try it, and you’ll die with your friend after I screw you senseless.” His tone embodied anticipation of both as he grabbed his crotch.

  “Sorry, I don’t carry tweezers.” Mouthing off was neither smart nor intentional, just natural. This was her second face-to-face with the hustler, familiarity breeding a hatred that seethed and twined in her gut while squeezing her chest.

  “So, you want to die painfully. That’s fine. I know many ways to make you suffer while maintaining consciousness. I’ve been practicing for years on other stables’ girls.”

  Three years had passed since she’d renounced street life, keeping a low profile and using her tech skills to electronically wipe her existence. When she’d arrived at another crucial juncture in life, Frannie, a hospital administrator, had rescued her from her own pride and helped set her on another path.

  The following hard work and education had reaped a decent job and the moniker, Blue Angel, one of the best in the digital world. Since walking the path of the straight and narrow, her old friends refused to let her shadow their world and shunned her help, insisting she have no contact with the city’s underbelly. She was their poster child for success, a beacon of hope they didn’t want further tainted by association.

  Fate’s inevitability proved her point with the intermittent gleam of metal daring her to move. Once a gutter rat, always a gutter rat. If she stayed, death would find her in one form or another. If she escaped, she might save Charlie and turn those admired tech skills into a new form of vanilla hacking.

  Whether the stalker saw the intent in her gaze, grew tired of dithering, or sensed the car stopping near the mouth of the alley, she’d never know. His moment of distraction provided the impetus for action. Lexi bolted in the opposite direction that led down a narrow corridor and into the maze of alleys and passageways. Growled threats trailed each step. Thunderous footfalls splashing behind her grew dim with her greater speed through the homeless byways.

  Guilt intensified the restriction in her throat and impeded her ability to gulp necessary oxygen into her starved lungs. Avoiding the barren streets, dead-end passages, and open lots, she chased an invisible trail until assured death couldn’t catch her. Buttons on Charlie’s phone created imprints on her palm from the punishing grip.

  Distant echoes of city life passed in a meaningless tide of horns, sirens, and the low thump of distant music. Each step taken breathed new rounds of recriminations for leaving her friend to face her assailant alone. Logic dictated the only way for them both to survive was for Lexi to enlist help, the kind that would make the dirtball retreat.

  From the girls’ prior descriptions, the bastard was smart enough not to finish Charlie with the slip of his blade until he’d tied off loose ends, but that wouldn’t prevent Charlie from bleeding out. Would this be the impetus for the other girls to accept her help?

  What felt like miles passed in a matter of minutes before she stopped long enough to call 911 and wipe her hands on the back of her jeans. If only she’d brought her dog tonight, maybe the odds for survival would’ve swung in Charlie’s favor.

  Desperation to save her friend from the age-old profession drove Lexi to circle wide until standing among the few gawking rubberneckers at the alley’s mouth. Each craned their neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the action, confounded by the yellow police tape barring their way. Flickering red and blue revolving lights sweeping across their faces offered an otherworldly design. When the stretcher passed, she sobbed her relief to see emergency personnel working to save her friend.

  Murmured interpretations of the circumstances cycled through the crowd in an all too familiar demonstration of low morals and expected but deserved outcomes. Because she didn’t intend to tangle with the police, and because she couldn’t turn away from her friend in need, Lexi backed from the spectators while a plan formed in her mind.

  I can damn well get involved now that I’ve connected Charlie to her dirtball employer. In the guise of tying her tennis shoe, she used dirt to scrub dried blood from her hands before soaking Charlie’s cell phone in a puddle of rainwater. It hasn’t rained for several days—ugh.

  Disabling the cell was a double-edged sword. Forensics wouldn’t gain access to Charlie’s friends, but they also couldn’t use it to find her assailant. Now that Lexi had confirmed his identity, she could lead the cops to his door.

  At the police tape once again, she caught a uniformed officer’s attention. “Hey, sergeant, lieutenant, or…whatever. I found this phone over there.” Lexi’s vague gesture referenced a vehicle parked nearby. “Do you think it belonged to the victim?”

  “It’s just corporal. Thanks. Hand it over, and I’ll take it to the detective in charge.” Boredom shadowed the officer’s eyes as if he’d been in the exact scenario many times and had better things to do.

  Behind him, two plainclothes cops murmured, their measured steps walking an unseen grid over the area.

  “Um, I can do it. I know one of them.” Both detectives were tall and easily distinguished as opposite ends of a spectrum, one suited, the other appearing a country hick in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans. A name, a starting point for the plan taking form would expedite her work; otherwise, she’d find the most competent officer and slip him enough clues to implicate Charlie’s employer.

  “Which one, McAllister or Robertson?” The officer’s hand hesitated in reaching for the phone in waiting for her response.

  “Oh, sorry, my mistake. I thought he was someone else. Here.” Depositing the useless piece of technology in the corporal’s hand, Lexi took a step back to avoid his scrutiny.

  “Hey, I need your name. Hold on a sec.” Naïve enough to think she’d follow his order, the officer turned and headed toward the closest detective.

  As soon as the broad expanse of blue uniform faced away, Lexi eased back from the onlookers before bolting down the next side street. From there, she raced shadows and imagined demons in the labyrinth of back streets until reaching the safety of her warehouse-converted loft. Considering its original use as an industrial warehouse, most would have considered it coarse and unsophisticated. After modification, it was a huge, open living space with a good-sized back yard and no close neighbors.

  Adjacent, long-term storage buildings meant she rarely saw other people and never at night. The fact it sat near the outskirts of a small development gave her the perfect location. Again, she had the hospital administrator named Frannie to thank in knowing her needs and facilitating the purchase.

  Two locks and a steel bar sliding into place secured the front door behind her while high-set windows foiled the common burglar’s ability to easily break in. The sense of security served to encourage a normal sleep pattern.

  “Hoover, wish I’d had you with me tonight, girl.” Her canine companion received reports on all her dreams, aspirations, and fears, thumping her tail against the kitchen cabinets in excited greeting. Instead of their usual hug and snuggle reception, Hoover sniffed and whined at the remnants of a stranger’s blood. “Jesus. Poor Charlie. We’ll snoop through digital records and make sure she’s gonna be okay but wait ’till tomorrow to visit her in the hospital.”

  Satisfied her master was uninjured, the dog chuffed and licked, lending reassurance that their world remained intact. A status subject to change if the pimp found them before she could enact countermeasures.

  The veggie brush failed to clean the vestiges of clotted blood from her knuckles and nails, for in her mind’s eye, it still coated her hands with guilt for abandoning a friend in need. Lightly tanned skin rouged with hot water and scrubbing but shielded her life’s essence from spilling, spreading, and draining her soul. Would Charlie forgive her for running, if in fact she survived? Charlie had told her to run, but no one would want to face that nutcase alone.

  “Even if you wouldn’t have gone berserk on that prick’s ass, your size would’ve scared the piss out of him.” Par
t German shepherd and some version of longhaired giant breed produced a dog standing waist high with blue eyes. “And to think you’re just a baby.” Another brief cuddle session on the floor allowed for some deep, calming breaths to clear the fog clouding her thoughts.

  Lexi’s minimalist standard of living translated to one used sofa, one easy chair, and a TV rarely watched, the pieces anchored in her living room by a thick, soft rug. Adjacently, the long, concrete-topped island provided ample prep space in the kitchen as well as doubling as her workspace. Once seated at the counter with her laptop rallying through the low purr of its fan, Lexi settled in while mentally dissecting tonight’s actions and responses.

  “Hoover, let’s find out more about those cops before we give them a helping hand, just to make sure they’re up for the task.” Charlie’s damaged phone, used as a ploy to learn the detectives’ names, wouldn’t reveal any personal information but had served its purpose, the fastest route to selecting the recipient for anonymous tips.

  “What do you think, Hoover, do we pick the hottie or the redneck?”

  Hoover whined.

  “He most certainly was a swamp Yankee. You should’ve seen his checkered flannel shirt and belt buckle big enough to herniate a disc. Damn thing was bigger than my ass.” The striking difference between the two came by virtue of a well-fitting suit and tie, completed not with boots but instead, shined shoes as they walked an invisible grid.

  “Look, see these photos in their personnel files?” Two windows on her screen proved her point. “Definitely the hottie. Looks like his name is Ethan McAllister, works homicide.” Why were homicide cops at the scene? “Let’s learn a little more before we hack his phone records.” Straight-laced or not, the detective would have to act on the tips she’d send.

  An hour later, Lexi compiled her information and sent Ethan an anonymous text. “For shits and giggles, let’s let him think it came from the loony bin. From what I see of his service record, he won’t be able to ignore the tip, but it’ll drive him wild when he can’t trace it.”

  Though Lexi’s body had long since stopped shaking, the mere thought of Charlie’s blood prickled her skin with flecks remaining on the ridges of her knuckles and valleys adjoining her digits.

  Time for a shower.

 
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