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 back-stepped into the store without a sound. Instead, he whistled again, louder. “Hey, baby… I got us beer.” He raised a six-pack high.
Morana ignored him—a gift he couldn’t appreciate. Her long strides took her deeper into the sidewalk-crowd as people poured from shops and eateries on the hot, Southern California afternoon. She weaved her way between them, quickly obscuring the beer man’s view of her.
Most of the people she passed gazed upward. Some cupped their brows, shielding their eyes from the sun while pointing to a place high in the sky. The wind had warped a mushroom cloud into what resembled a giant fist with clenched, crooked fingers melting from it. To avoid any chance of being conspicuous, Morana stopped several times, joining the crowd to gawk. She then resumed her trek, passing excited spectators, many voicing wild speculation about the cause. They were oblivious to her connection to the massive explosion, but 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, Morana fully expected the announcement of an enormous reward for her capture.
She kept up her brisk pace, comfortably cloaked in her favorite hiding place—the anonymity of a crowd. At six feet tall and featuring cover model looks, blending in wasn’t easy for her, but her knack for makeup, disguises and well-practiced adjustments to posture and gait enabled her to virtually vanish into any crowd.
Today loose-fit jeans under a long gray cardigan concealed her shapeliness—but not quite enough to fool the beer guy after their fleeting encounter. Sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled low hid most of her face. Her outfit and the timely distraction in the sky nicely diffused attention that was usually more difficult to avoid.
The wail of distant sirens jarred her comfortable cloak of anonymity. She abandoned the sidewalk at the next block and hurried to the back alley. She sped to a jog, dodging potholes and vehicle-flattened trash.
Behind a shoe store, she stopped and checked for surveillance cameras. She raised the brim of her cap, took off her sunglasses to wipe her eyes. She slipped her hand into her pocket, 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 moved further down the alley where she entered the rear entrance of an electronics store. She purchased a prepaid burner phone for $35. At the counter, the clerk paid little attention to her, his attention split between a television mounted in the corner of the ceiling and the task of counting out her correct change. Three police cars sped by outside the front window, and Morana took a deep breath as their sirens sack in the distance.
She returned to the alley and found an unsecured rear entrance to a small office building. Halfway along a corridor that led to the front lobby, she saw a restroom sign. She ducked into the women’s restroom, found it empty, and entered a stall.
She inserted her phone’s battery and opened her contacts. Finding a person receptive to a call from her would be a challenge. As she scrolled the list, she recognized the names of people that would be furious to hear from her and others who would take delight in turning her in for an enormous reward. A name caught her eye, and she smiled. Clay Thorner.
Clay was a computer hacker and gun enthusiast she met at a gun show 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 insurance and Medicare schemes which she consistently rejected, and no call concluded without having to dodge an offer to take her to dinner. Clay had plenty to hide. He was the perfect person to trust.
She pulled her phone’s battery again and then dialed Clay on her burner phone.
“Hi, Clay, it’s Mo.” her hushed voice echoed.
“I don’t believe it,” Clay said. “Is it really you? When I didn’t hear from you for over a year, I thought we broke up.”
“Listen, I need your help.”
“I knew the day would come!”
“I’m in a situation … I need to hang out at your place for a bit.”
“I’m not in LA. That’s my luck. The one time you call to hang out, 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 an extended visit to my headquarters 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. Wouldn’t that be harboring a fugitive?”
“You’re the only person I can trust.”
“Really?” Clay laughed. “I had no idea our relationship was that intimate—and we haven’t even had our first date yet.”
“All I need is an answer. Can you help, or not?”
“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—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 your previous dirt. You were supposed to 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 what they got, but in the eyes of the law, we would equally culpable.”
“There’s no proof I was involved.”
“Listen, Clay, I have the footage, but none of that is relevant if we can come to a deal. Pretend I’m just a friend looking for some help.”
“Ah, an offer I can’t refuse.” Clay sighed.
“Thank you. Can you also get me a little cash? Keep in mind, I don’t have an ID, and I can’t be seen.”
“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. Go to McGee’s Market,” Clay said.
“I told you I can’t be seen. Why am I going there?”
“Mo, just 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. “I don’t need any new friends. I need to be invisible.”
“If you knew Benny, you wouldn’t say that. He’s solid and always does right by me. You asked me for help, and I’m giving it.”
“Give him an alias.”
“Fine. Just get to Benny’s, but first get a piece of paper to write down a number.”
“Just trust me, dammit. Get something to write on.”
“I’ll memorize it.”
“It’s too long.”
“Hold on…” Morana leaned exited 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 and some others emerged from a hallway to exit to the street through the glass front doors.
She kept the phone pressed between her shoulder and ear as she walked to the lobby. A security guard sat a desk facing the front doors. She spotted a security camera mounted high on the wall, and instinctively kept her face aimed toward a wall directory and let her hair flop to cover half her face, obscuring the camera’s view of her. As she moved toward the security desk, she motioned to the security guard for a pen. The security guard handed her one, with a slight smile. Morana dismissed it, having learned to distinguish interested smiles from those of recognition. Even if she was wrong and the guard recognized her, she’d be long gone before he could make a call, or to review any video footage of her.
“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 trek to McGee’s, often abandoning the sidewalk to the relative seclusion of the back alleys.
When she reached the market, the sky’s color had deepened as the sun slid toward the horizon. She lurked behind a concrete fence topped with razor wire that protected an auto body shop. She waited, watching the McGee’s parking lot and entrance. A few customers entered and exited normally, returning their empty carts to the bent cart-return with a crooked sign near the front door.
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 to one side of several aisles stocked with 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 immediately spotted another exit on the opposite side of the store. At the far end of the center aisle, a short, dark-skinned man with straight, jet-black hair sat on a stool at the cashier’s counter. Behind him, cigarettes and magazines were stacked to the ceiling on the back wall. The man broke from reading a newspaper to look over his glasses at her. “Afternoon.”
Morana walked toward him.
He slid the newspaper aside, stood, and folded his hands on the counter.
“I’m looking for Benny,” Morana said.
“You found him.”
“Clay sent me.”
“Of course, he did,” Benny said, grinning. He barely concealed a visual sweep of her from feet to head.
Morana looked over her shoulder to check the side and front doors again. Benny came around from behind the counter and fingered for her to follow him. “What you need is back here.”
Morana kept an arm’s length from him as they went through a double door and into a dim hallway.
Benny stopped midway down the hallway at a doorway with a curtain. A sign above it read Restroom. He threw 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 and said, “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 sidestepped behind a tall rack 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 not good. Her instincts had never been wrong. It might have been the new hint of tension in Benny’s voice. His flagrant examination of her before leading her to the Bitcoin ATM was gone, and he avoided looking at her.
“I have one more thing for you,” he said.
“Which would be…” Morana looked 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 the sound clicked off. When he walked away, she leaned to look 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, remaining outside the doors.
When they swung closed, Benny poked his head back out. “C’mon, the sooner, the better on this.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine. I need to go.”
Benny 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.”
Morana raised her hands.
Benny held the door open with his foot. He motioned with the gun for her to enter.
Morana passed by him into a storeroom filled with food inventory supplies stacked on the walls. In the corner, an overhead sprayer hung over an industrial size sink filled with rinsed produce was off to one side, and another wall was lined with rolls of price tag tape stacks of shopping bags and packaged product inventory mounted on shelves. A desk held a pile of paperwork, an open beer can and an ashtray overflowing with crumpled cigarette butts.
Benny moved behind her and 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. I’ve got the lottery ticket.”
Morana turned to face him, keeping her hands raised.
Benny resumed eye contact and winked at her. His gun was just out of her reach.
She took a small step closer.
Benny backed away and raised the gun from her chest to her head. “You shouldn’t test me,” he said. “You’ll lose.” He returned his attention to his phone conversation. “… Yes, I’m sure… Do you want me to tie her?”
Morana lunged, swinging her hand down. She connected with Benny’s wrist. The gun fired into the floor. Before he could fire again, she grabbed his arm and twisted while swinging her knee up into his groin.
Benny dropped the gun and his phone and hollered in pain.
Morana slammed him to his back on the floor, knocking the wind knocked out of him. He twisted onto his stomach and reached for the gun, gasping, but Morana mounted him and pulled his hands behind him.
“No! Help!” Benny screamed.
Morana squeezed a fistful of his hair into her fist and shoved his face to the ground. “Don’t test me. You’ll lose.”
Benny closed his mouth and nodded.
Morana twisted his arms behind him and held them with one hand while she stretched to pick up the gun with the other.
“Please don’t!” Benny hollered. “I wasn’t going to hurt you.” He tried to buck her.
Morana pressed the gun to the back of Benny’s head. “Was it Clay?”
“Did he promise to split the reward money?”
“Uh… yes, it was Clay. He wanted me to get you.”
“You hesitated. You’re lying.” Morana picked up his phone from the floor. The screen showed an open call to 911. 1 minute 16 seconds…
She ended the call and threw the phone at the wall, smashing it. She pulled up the back of Benny’s shirt, stretching it over his head and then grabbed a canvass shopping bag from a nearby stack. She slipped it over his head.
“You’re already too late,” Benny’s muffled voice said.
She pressed the gun to his head…
– End of Preview –