IF THE MAN exiting the liquor store knew how many people Morana Mahker had killed, he wouldn’t have whistled at her as she passed by. He would have quietly back-stepped through the door to watch her from inside, waiting until she was long gone before he ventured out. Instead, he followed her and whistled again, louder, raising a six-pack high. “Hey, baby… I got us beer!”
Morana ignored him—a merciful gift he couldn’t appreciate. Her long strides carried her deeper into the growing crowd, quickly obscuring the beer man’s view of her.
Despite the mid-afternoon heat, people poured from shops and eateries, filling the sidewalk. She weaved her way between them. Most gazed upward, cupping their brows to shield their eyes from the Southern California sun. A few pointed to a place high in the sky where the wind had warped a mushroom cloud into what resembled an enormous, dark fist with crooked fingers melting from it.
To blend in, Morana stopped several times to gape upward with them, listening to the excited onlookers speculate about the cause. They were oblivious to her connection to the massive explosion, and she knew she could count on that for only a few more hours. By the end of the day, her dated head-shot and an extended list of chilling crimes would stream to tens of millions of phones, computers, and televisions across the country. Then, she fully expected the announcement of an enormous reward for her capture.
She kept her brisk pace, comfortably cloaked in her favorite hiding place—the anonymity of a crowd. At six feet tall and featuring cover model looks, moving unnoticed in public was a constant challenge for her, but had also become a necessary skill. Her knack for makeup, disguises, and well-practiced adjustments to posture and gait enabled her to virtually vanish into any group.
Today loose-fit jeans and a gray cardigan concealed her shapeliness. Sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled low hid most of her face. Her outfit and the timely distraction in the sky limited the attention she drew from those around her—even if it hadn’t been enough to fool the beer guy.
The wail of distant sirens jarred her comfortable obscurity. She abandoned the sidewalk at the next block, hurrying to the back alley. She sped to a jog, dodging potholes and vehicle-flattened trash.
She came to the rear of a shoe store after having stopped far enough from it to confirm that no surveillance cameras covered its back wall. In the shadow of the awning, she raised the brim of her cap and took off her sunglasses to wipe her eyes. She felt in her pocket and pulled out a wad of cash, counting out $87.
The irony of finding herself homeless began to sink in. Her failed mission to end homelessness by terrorizing the citizens of Santa Monica into brotherly love had ended in the massive explosion at the bunker that served as headquarters for her vigilante mission.
She put on her sunglasses and continued along the alley until she saw the rear entrance of an electronics store. She kept her head down and passed under a bubble camera mounted above the door. Inside, she selected a prepaid burner phone for $35. At the counter, the clerk paid little attention to her. He split his attention between giving her change and a television mounted from the ceiling showing news coverage of the explosion. On her way to the door, she heard sirens approaching. She waited until the police cars passed before exiting.
She returned to her journey along the alley. After traveling a few more blocks, she found an unlocked back door to a small office building. She entered and saw a restroom sign halfway along a corridor that led to the front lobby. She ducked into the women’s restroom. It was empty. She closed herself into a stall, reinserted her phone’s battery and turned it on. She opened her contact app and realized that finding someone in her address book that would be receptive to a call from her would be challenging. She scrolled the list, recognizing people that wouldn’t remember her and others who would take delight in turning her in for the impending reward for her capture. Then a name caught her eye: Clay Thorner. She smiled.
Clay, a computer hacker and gun enthusiast, introduced himself to her at a gun show where he had a booth two years ago. After a brief conversation about legal firearm options, Clay escorted her out to his car where he sold her a pristine two-inch, 5-shot .38 Special with a pink finish. Over the next two years, he called on Morana often, each time presenting new, obscure guns that might interest her. He also tried to convince her to join him in several questionable business schemes which she always rejected. None of Clay’s calls concluded without Morana having to dodge an offer to take her to dinner. Maybe it was time for them to spend some time together. Clay had plenty to hide. He was the perfect person to trust.
She popped out her phone’s battery again and then dialed Clay on her new burner phone.
“Hi, Clay, it’s Mo,” she said, her voice hushed.
“I don’t believe it,” Clay said. “Is it really you?”
“Yes,” she lowered her voice to a whisper.
“What’s it been? Years? I thought we broke up.”
“Listen, I need your help.”
“I knew the day would come!”
“I’m not joking, I’m in a situation… I need to hang out at your place for a bit.”
“I’m not in LA. That’s always been my luck with you. You finally show an interest while I’m out of town.”
“Listen, it’s urgent. I could let myself in—”
“Why so anxious? You get evicted?”
“I can’t explain now. Can I crash, or not?”
“I’m in Miami on business for a tour company I work for.”
“When will you be back?”
“Not for a couple of weeks. Did your bleeding-heart mission to end homelessness fail?”
“There’s been a setback.”
“Tell me what’s up, and my place is yours.”
“I’ve got some… trouble. You’ll see it on the news later.”
“Whoa. What’s going on?”
“I’ll explain later. You’re the only person I can trust. Can you help, or not?”
“Uhhhh, where are you?”
“Before I tell you that, I think we both understand that the law has an equal interest in each of us.”
“Wait a minute—you need me, and you’re blackmailing me?”
“All I’m saying is that you’ve helped me before, if I’m caught, it won’t take long for them to make the connection.”
“Hey, I had nothing to do with any of your previous dirt. You were supposed to only scare that couple I brought to you, not kill them.”
“They were horrible human beings. They crushed an innocent homeless woman’s skull. They deserved to die. I’m glad you remember that incident because, in the eyes of the law, we’re equally culpable.”
“There’s no proof I was involved.”
“Listen, Clay, I just need some temporary cover. Please.”
Clay sighed and said, “One night—I’m not letting you tangle me up in aiding and abetting, or harboring a fugitive, or whatever.”
“Thank you. I respect that.”
“Do you remember where I live?”
“Yes, and by the way, I also need some cash? Do you have any at your place?”
“You want money, too?”
“I’ll pay you back with interest, I promise.”
“If you want my help, I need to know where you are—exactly.”
Morana hesitated. “I’m on Ventura Boulevard. Near the 405 Freeway.”
“Got it. I’m gonna give you directions to McGee’s Market,” Clay said.
“I don’t have ID, and I can’t be seen. Why am I going to a market?”
“Trust me.” Clay gave her the address. “Get there. The guy at the counter is Benny. He’ll be expecting you.”
“Wait—don’t!” Morana said. “Did you miss the whole part about me being in trouble? I don’t need any new friends. I need good cover and some cash.”
“If you knew Benny, you wouldn’t be worried. He’s solid, and he’s the best help I can offer.”
“Give him an alias.”
“Fine. Get a piece of paper and a pen.”
“Would you trust me, dammit? You need to write down a special number.”
“I’ll memorize it.”
“It’s too long.”
“Hold on…” Morana came out of the stall and went to the bathroom door. She leaned out and checked both directions. A few people stood in the lobby, talking near an elevator. Some others emerged from a hallway and exited to the street through the glass front doors.
She kept the phone pressed to her ear as she walked to the lobby. A security guard at a desk faced the front doors. She spotted a camera high on the wall and instinctively tilted her head, flipping her hair to conceal her face from the camera’s view. She went to the security desk and motioned to the guard for a pen. A slight smile raised the corner of his mouth as he handed it to her. Morana dismissed it. Even if the guard recognized her, she’d be long gone before he could make a call and if he tried to detain her, she was prepared.
“Are you still there?” Morana said.
“Yes,” Clay said.
Clay read her a 34-character string of numbers and letters while Morana wrote it on her palm. “Do you want to read it back to me?”
“No,” she placed the pen on the security guard’s desk and headed back along the hallway to the back door. “But what the hell is this number?”
“Just give it to Benny. He’ll know what to do. Call me when you’re done, and I’ll get you into my place.”
They hung up, and Morana began a four-mile walk to McGee’s, abandoning the sidewalk for most of the trek, opting for the safer cover of the back alleys.
When she reached the market, she lurked a safe distance from it, tucked beside a concrete fence topped with razor wire that protected an auto body shop. She watched the McGee’s market entrance for a few minutes. Several customers entered and exited, returning their empty carts to the bent cart-return with a crooked sign in the center of the lot.
She adjusted her sunglasses and finger-combed her hair on her way to the entrance. She spotted a couple of security cameras mounted near the entrance and kept her hit brim low while passing them. When she pushed the door open, a bell jingled, dangling from some dirty twine from on the inside handle.
McGee’s had the feel of an old-fashioned mom & pop market. Refrigerated beverages and snacks spanned a wall adjacent to several well-stocked aisles of foods and fresh produce. The aroma of fresh coffee combined with the visuals of antiques mounted high on the wall gave the space a homey charm.
Morana spotted another exit on the opposite side of the store. The entrance provided a clear view of the cashier at the far end of the center aisle. A short, dark-skinned man with straight, jet-black hair sat on a stool while reading a newspaper. Behind him, cigarettes and magazines were stacked to the ceiling on the back wall. The man paused to look over his glasses at her. “Afternoon.”
Morana waved and nodded as she approached him, still scouring the store for risks.
The man slid the newspaper aside, stood, and folded his hands on the counter.
“I’m looking for Benny,” Morana said.
“You found him.” He examined her more closely.
“Clay sent me.”
“Of course, he did,” Benny said, grinning as he looked her up and down. He came around the counter and motioned for her to follow him. “What you need is back here.”
Morana kept her distance from him as they entered a dim hallway.
Benny stopped at a doorway with a curtain. A sign above it read Restroom. He pushed back a curtain and held it for Morana.
She hesitated, leaning to see into the small room. In addition to another door on the back wall, it contained a Bitcoin ATM.
“Clay said you’d be suspicious,” Benny said.
They stepped inside.
Benny pointed to the ATM. “That’s what you want.” He went to it and tapped the screen a few times. “Enter your number, win a prize.” He chuckled as he left her, disappearing through the curtain.
The screen was set to Withdrawal. Morana typed Clay’s cryptic code into the on-screen box. The machine hummed before spitting out $300 cash. Morana peeled off $40 and pocketed the rest.
She went back to the main store and saw that Benny had reopened his newspaper at the cashier’s counter but was now on the phone. The bell on the front door jingled, and Morana backed into the hallway until she saw that it was an elderly woman pulling a small metal cart with some empty shopping bags in the bottom.
Morana moved to a rack of baseball caps. She picked one with the smallest logo, and as she approached Benny, he ended his call.
Morana placed the cap and shades on the counter.
“Get what you needed?” Benny asked.
“Yes.” She pointed to the hat. “Just this.”
She felt a twinge of something. Benny was no longer looking at her.
“I have one more thing for you,” he said.
“No, this is all I need…” Morana said, looking at him suspiciously.
“Clay said you don’t want to be seen. I have something that will help. Follow me.”
A tinny voice that sounded like it came from a small speaker came from the other side of the counter. Benny reached under the counter and muted it. When he turned his back, she leaned over the counter and saw a small TV tucked underneath.
“First time to my store?” he asked, pushing through swinging doors to the back of the store.
Morana stopped outside the doors, letting them swing shut.
Benny poked his head back out. “C’mon, the quicker we are, the less likely you’ll be seen.”
“Thanks, but I have all I need.”
Benny pushed the door all the way open and raised a pistol to her chest and said, “No, I think you need to stay. You will come in here, and you will do it slowly and quietly.”
Morana raised her hands.
Benny braced the door open with his foot. He motioned with the gun for her to enter.
Morana eased by him, stepping into a storeroom filled with store inventory stacked high on the walls. In the corner, an overhead sprayer hung over an industrial size sink. Rinsed produce sat off to one side. Another wall of shelves was lined with rolls of shopping bags and packaged product inventory. On the adjacent wall, a beer can, and an over-filled ashtray sat on a cluttered desk. The far wall had an exit door to the rear of the store.
Benny used his free hand to shove her shoulder, moving her deeper into the room. He pulled his phone from his pocket and said, “Yes, I’m still here… You need to hurry.”
Morana turned to face him, keeping her hands raised.
Benny leered at her.
The gun was just out of her reach. She took a small step closer.
Benny stepped back and raised the gun from her chest to her head. He pulled the phone from his ear and said, “I wouldn’t test me. You’ll lose.” His attention went back to the phone conversation. “… Yes, I’m sure… Do you want me to tie her?”
“What? Say it again…” Benny pressed the phone to his ear harder.
Morana coughed again.
“Shut up!” He snapped at her. “Say it once more… do you want her tied or not?”
When Benny turned his head slightly to hear, Morana lunged, swinging her hand downward. Her fist connected with his wrist. The gun fired into the floor. She hooked her arm around his neck and slammed him onto his back, then rolled pinning his gun arm to the floor.
Benny twisted, trying to mount her and when he swung his leg over her, she landed a solid blow to his groin. His hand released gun, and he howled.
He twisted onto his stomach and reached for the gun, gasping, but Morana mounted him and grabbed his wrists and pulled them high up his back.
“Ow!” Benny screamed. “You’re breaking my arms.”
“That breaks my heart,” Morana said. She squeezed a fistful of his hair and pressed the side of his face to the floor. “Shut up. Don’t test me. You’ll lose.”
Benny nodded, his nostrils flaring.
Morana held his wrists with one hand and stretched to grab a phone charger cord that dangled from the desk near the floor. She yanked it free and tightly bound Benny’s wrists. She picked up his phone from the floor. The screen showed an open call for 1 minute 16 seconds… The call ID displayed only a number, no name. She ended the call
She got the gun and put it to the back of Benny’s head. “Was it Clay?”
“Was Clay on the phone?”
“Uh… yes. He wanted me to get you.”
“You hesitated. You’re lying.”
She threw the phone. It shattered against the wall. She grabbed a canvas shopping bag from a nearby stack and slipped it over his head.
“Please!” Benny begged. “I wasn’t going to harm you.” He tried to buck her. She slammed his head to the floor again and rode him until he stopped struggling.
“You’re already too late,” Benny said. The bag muffled his voice. “Even if you run now, you won’t get away.”
Morana pressed the gun to his head. “We could have been friends, Benny…
– End of Preview –