The Black Pill (A Jackson & Dallas Thriller)
Saturday, September 14, 6:27 a.m.
Bettina Rios pulled on running shoes, grabbed her cell phone from the dresser, and clicked the Strava icon. But she wouldn’t start the mileage app yet. First she had to check on her mother. Across the hall, she tapped lightly on the other bedroom door. “Mama? You awake?”
Bettina stepped in, braced for the clutter and smell. Her mother loved glass figurines and tacky paintings and had managed to accumulate a substantial collection in the short time they’d been here. The old woman sat in her wheelchair, wearing stained sweatpants and a red sweater with holes in it, her gray hair a mess. She only changed clothes when Bettina helped her shower. Her mother hated the whole undignified process, so they didn’t do it often.
“How are you?” Bettina always spoke English to Mama and encouraged her to do the same. The skill might save their lives someday.
“I no sleep.” Her weak voice made Bettina’s heart hurt. Mama had been so strong, so fearless. But the long journey had taken its toll, and now she couldn’t do much of anything.
“Maybe less coffee.” Bettina smiled gently, knowing she had wasted her breath. Her mother ate and drank whatever she wanted. That’s how she’d ended up in this mess. The stubborn woman was probably diabetic but wouldn’t see a doctor or take any help from “strangers.” So Bettina did it all. The situation was challenging to work around, so she kept their finances afloat with gig jobs. Her main one was really strange, but paid well.
She kissed Mama’s forehead and wheeled her into the kitchen. “Fruit and toast?”
“Just toast. With mermalada.” A crooked smile eased onto her sun-weathered face. “That counts as fruit.”
“Sure.” Bettina fixed whatever made her mother happy. Today, that was toast spread thick with strawberry jam. She noticed the fridge was low on cheese and wine, the two things her mother loved most, so she would make a trip to the store later. After handing over the plate, Bettina asked, “What else can I do for you?”
“Nada. Later, you can help me write to Ernesto.” Bettina’s older brother who was still in their home country. Mama waved a crippled blue-veined hand. “Go run. I’ll be fine.”
Feeling guilty as usual, Bettina headed out, locking the door behind her. On the sidewalk, she pressed the Strava record button and the screen changed to a map. She clicked Start and slid the phone into her fanny pack.
Jogging down the quiet, low-rent street, she squinted in the near darkness. Her eyes would adjust soon, and the sun would rise before she finished her run. She didn’t care for the darkness, but in the summer months, she liked to get her workout done before the temperature rose and before she showered and dressed for the day. Using the Strava app was rather silly, because she didn’t vary her route much. But she liked keeping track of her miles and being connected to others who were as obsessed with exercise as she was. All of it helped keep her accountable. If she skipped a day, one of her followers would ping her and want to know why. She did the same for them.
A wave of apprehension rolled over her. Would her ex-boyfriend use the app as a way to get to her? What a mistake he’d been. So emotional and possessive. But she’d been lonely for so long, she’d let her guard down and trusted a chico sexy who’d smiled at her in that special way. Bettina shook it off, reassuring herself again that using Strava was fine. Aaron didn’t exercise and wasn’t tech savvy, so he’d never find her that way. The loneliness of her life was nearly unbearable, and the low-key social network gave her some interaction.
At the corner, she turned left on Lombard and headed toward the river park. From there, she would run north on the bike path to the Owosso bridge, cross over, and run back on the other side of the river. The whole loop, including the five blocks to and from her house, covered four and a half miles. She’d hoped to improve her conditioning over time, but the extra weight on her petite body slowed her down.
She’d been running her whole life, one way or another. As a kid, she’d dashed around the beach with her brother, a never-ending game of chase. Years later, when her breasts developed, she’d run from gang members who wanted to rape her and claim her as their property. After they’d caught her, she and Mama had left the first time. Now she jogged to keep her brain from going loco—and to burn off all the cheese and chocolate she loved to eat.
Bettina approached the narrow entrance to the park and tensed, wishing for a little more daylight. Overgrown with trees on both sides, the tucked-away access lane was the only part of the route that made her feel vulnerable. She touched the canister of mace she wore around her neck and picked up her pace. As she rounded the turn, she heard something snap. Bettina jerked her head toward the noise. Nothing but eerie shadows under the overhanging trees. Relieved to see the parking lot ahead, she smiled at her own jitters.
Soft footsteps rustled in the other direction. She spun toward the sound, and a dark figure rushed at her. No! In a flash, he grabbed her ponytail and jerked her toward him with a stunning force. Bettina opened her mouth to scream, but his hand clamped over it. An acrid scent burned her nose.
Oh god! He was drugging her! She reached for her mace, but dizziness overcame her. A powerful arm squeezed around her shoulders, dragging her into the trees. As her world started to go black, her last thought was, “I’m so sorry, Mama!”
Tuesday, September 17, 5:45 p.m.
Detective Wade Jackson reached for his service weapon, and a terrifying scream erupted behind him. He spun around, heart pounding. The scream became a wail of agony. He started forward, then remembered the Sig Sauer holstered against his ribs. He pulled the gun, shoved it into a case on the dresser, and slammed the locking lid.
A quick sprint into the hall brought him face-to-face with the problem. Two four-year-old boys had a death grip on a plastic dinosaur toy and neither would let go. The wailing came from Micah, Kera’s grandson, who was rather temperamental. But the boy had been in transition for most of his short life and had lost his mother the previous year.
“I had it first.” Benjie, his adopted son, was emphatic, yet calm. He’d not only lost his mother too, he’d witnessed her murder. Yet the tragic event had given him a strange mature serenity. Jackson worried that Benjie was suppressing his anxiety, but counseling hadn’t brought it out.
Jackson held out a hand. “Give it to me, please.”
Benjie quickly let go, forcing Micah to be the one to hand it over. An act that made his stepbrother sob.
Kera popped out of the bathroom. “What’s going on?” Tall and gorgeous, his girlfriend was always a pleasure to his weary eyes.
“Same old stuff.” Jackson handed her the toy. “We need two of these.”
“We have two!” Kera looked back and forth between the boys. “Where’s the other one?”
Micah shrugged, and Benjie looked thoughtful. “Maybe in the toy box.”
“Well, go find it. You’re not getting this one back until you do.” She shooed them off and leaned in to kiss Jackson. “I love it when you’re home early and we can be a normal family.”
Jackson laughed. “I’m not sure there’s anything normal about our scenario, but I’m happy to be here too.” Sort of. Living full-time with Kera and Micah was more challenging than he’d imagined. Having a second young child in the house generated an energy and volume he wasn’t prepared for—and the more time the boys spent together, the more they fought. His daughter Katie, almost a legal adult now, had been quiet and easy as a little kid.
Jackson suppressed a sigh, followed Kera to the kitchen, and started chopping the onion she handed him. “How was your day?” he asked.
“Good.” She put down the big knife she’d just picked up. “But I think I made a mistake in taking the job at the fertility clinic. It’s so boring.”
“You mean compared to Planned Parenthood.” Jackson grinned. “I knew you would miss the chaos.”
She smiled now too. “It’s more about missing the variety of patients. I never knew who would be waiting in the exam room. All walks of life.”
“Yeah, I get that in my job too.” Jackson squeezed her arm. “So go back to the birth control clinic. You know they’ll be glad to have you.”
“It pays less.”
“I know. We’ll be fine. You need to enjoy your work.”
“Thanks for that.”
After dinner, Jackson sat on the living-room floor with the boys, surrounded by a rainbow of blocks. They constructed a variety of towers, tearing each one down with gusto before starting another. Next they built a mutant vehicle. He yearned for one of the kids to show an interest in real cars someday. His daughter had helped him restore a ’69 GTO, but she’d done it out of obligation rather than real passion, and he’d had to sell it after his divorce. They’d also built a three-wheeled vehicle he still drove sometimes. Now that he and Kera were settled into this big rental home, he was eager to get started on a new project.
When Micah got tired and cranky, Kera read a story to the boys, then Jackson helped them get ready for bed.
“Remember, tomorrow is park day.” Benjie hugged him with a tight squeeze. “I love you, Daddy.” The words melted his heart every time.
He and Kera changed into pajamas, got into bed to watch a movie, and fell asleep before it ended.
Jackson woke to his phone ringing. Startled and confused, he sat up, glancing at the digital clock: 12:45 a.m. He snatched his phone from the nightstand. Sergeant Lammers. A strange mix of dread and adrenaline surged through him. Plus another emotion he couldn’t identify.
“Is it work?” Kera mumbled, sitting up too.
He nodded, climbed out of bed, and headed into the hall for privacy. “Hey, Sarge. What have we got?”
“A dead body in the road at the corner of Greenhill and Highway 126.” A pause. “I need you to take it.”
“A traffic accident?” He knew better.
“No. The victim is wrapped in plastic, and a woman motorist ran over it.”
What? “That’s a new one.”
“Indeed. That’s why I called you. Besides, everyone else is already overworked.”
A flash of guilt. “Do we know anything yet?”
“No. The responding patrol officer dragged the body out of the road for safety but didn’t try to unwrap it.”
“Good. I need to see it as is.” The scene flashed in his mind. A dark roadside clusterfuck—right on the edge of city limits. “But the location is inside the boundary?”
“We’re assuming so.”
“Do I get a team?” The Violent Crimes Unit was overwhelmed, as always, but this time it was mostly his fault for taking medical leave for the first half of the month.
“I’ll send Evans out, and we’ll see what develops.”
“I’m on my way.” Jackson stepped back into the bedroom.
Kera was on her feet now. “A new homicide?”
“An odd one. I’ll tell you what I can when I know more.”
“I’ll make you coffee while you get dressed.”
“Thank you!” She was so good to him. He pulled on the same clothes he’d been wearing earlier and retrieved his weapon from the fingerprint safe. He hated leaving the house in the middle of the night, but at least now he didn’t have to wake up his kids and take them to a sitter when it happened. He’d only had a small window of time between when his daughter was old enough to be left alone and when Benjie came into his life.
Jackson stopped, suddenly worried. Where was Katie? Had she come home while he was asleep? No, he would have woken at the sound. Another curfew violation. Her new boyfriend obviously didn’t respect his rules.
In the kitchen, while Jackson located his travel mug, Kera said, “I used the Keurig because it’s faster, but don’t worry, the brew is strong.”
He transferred the coffee and hugged her. “Will you try to track down Katie? I don’t have the time or focus right now.”
“I’ll text her.”
“Thanks.” Jackson tried not to look, or feel, upset. “I’ll probably be back around four in the morning for a couple hours of sleep.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for this? Your surgery was less than a month ago.”
“I’m fine. Yes, the incision still hurts, but it’s different. A healing pain and fading fast.” The abdominal fibrosis would likely grow back again, but he refused to worry about it until it happened. “We’re too short-handed for me to sit out any longer.”
“And you love your work.” Kera smiled.
“It’s who I am.” Jackson kissed her and headed out.
In the driveway, he noticed Katie’s car parked on the street in front of the house. That meant her boyfriend was with her and that Aaron would likely borrow the Honda and drive it home. Jackson hated both thoughts. He jogged over, wincing at the sight of them making out in the backseat. Would he ever get used to the idea that his daughter was a sexual person?
He slapped the roof hard. “Wrap it up. Katie has a curfew!” If not for his new case, he would have hung around, making them uncomfortable.
But he was already running late. Jackson hurried to his city-issued sedan. Behind the wheel, he gunned the engine for effect as he backed out of the driveway, then stopped parallel with the other vehicle. Katie glared and rolled her eyes. Jackson pointed at the house, unsmiling. He’d accepted long ago that he had no real control over his daughter, but he maintained the right to have rules if she wanted to live in his house. Or his rental anyway. He and Kera had signed a six-month lease on this place, giving them time to look for a house to purchase. But he wasn’t in any rush, and he and his brother still owned the house they’d grown up in.
As Jackson drove off, he pushed the family stuff out of his head. He had a murder victim waiting and justice to pursue.
Wednesday, 5:45 a.m.
The hot-air balloon lifted off the ground, giving Agent Jamie Dallas a rush of excitement. Not exactly the adrenaline burst she experienced when skydiving or zip-lining, but still glorious—and this excursion would last longer. As the balloon drifted higher and higher, her grin widened. She loved seeing the massive city below, laid out like a grid, shrinking slowly down to a model-scale size. The wide-open blue sky drifted with clouds at eye level, and a hawk soared by.
The pilot changed directions and headed north, and soon she spotted hills, canyons, and square plots of land below. As the city faded into the distance, an eerie silence engulfed them. Even the wind quieted, and all she could hear was her own pulse.
Her heart filled with joy, and for a moment, she forgot everything else, including the other people on the flight. She loved this sensation so much. Feeling like a bird who could fly anywhere, free from restrictions or planned routes. Above and away from everything, especially the desk she’d been stuck at for a while. Away from the crime and fear and trauma she encountered on her job every day.
The excursion was an early morning birthday gift to herself, and she thought she might make it a yearly tradition. The only thing that would have made it better was sharing it with Cameron, who was in Flagstaff working. But she would see him for a late dinner tonight after he drove down. She looked forward to wrapping up this perfect day with amazing sex, a great way to say goodbye to her twenties.
Two hours later, Dallas strode into the Phoenix FBI office, feeling both at home and restless at the same time. Sliding into her desk chair, she opened her computer and scanned the bureau’s news feed. Upstairs, a special team of agents and analysts stared at a roomful of monitors, watching around-the-clock for breaking events across the nation. Still, taking America’s crime pulse was also her first responsibility. Nothing eye-popping stood out. Politics had so consumed the citizenry, that except for hate crimes, the rate of federal offenses had actually dropped.
But criminals never took breaks, so Dallas grudgingly opened a report she’d started about a local fraud ring run by a sixty-two-year-old woman with a gift for real estate scams. The grifter preyed on out-of-town seniors looking to buy winter homes in the area. Dallas had posed as a sketchy realtor to help bust the scammers. The assignment had taken her out of the office, but not out of town. And not deep enough undercover to suit her. She loved taking on a whole new persona to penetrate deep into a criminal ring. Just thinking about the risk sent a surge of juice through her body.
Her desk phone rang at the same time, startling her. Line one, her new boss. She picked up. “Good morning, sir.”
“Come to my office, please. I have a high-priority assignment for you.”
Yes! Dallas jumped up, adrenaline pulsing again. She hustled upstairs to the corner office where Special Agent Radner ran their division. Notepad in hand, she hurried through the open door. Behind his desk, Radner hunched forward, masking the full size of his impressive frame. His gray kinky hair, cut close to the scalp, contrasted with his dark skin tone, and his face was sweet to look at. She repressed a surge of sexual attraction and sat down. “What have you got for me?”
“An undercover job in Vancouver. A string of roofie rapes near the University of Washington campus.”
“You want me to work as bait.” The risk didn’t bother her, but the lack of challenge did.
“You’re exactly his type.” Radner paused and gave her a small smile. “Blonde, blue-eyed, and attractive. You don’t even have to change your looks.”
Dallas nodded, trying to hide her disappointment. Like any good actress, she liked changing her appearance. That was part of the fun. So was changing her name, location, and personality. When she’d first taken acting classes in high school, she would have laughed at the idea that she would end up in law enforcement. Not with her sketchy parents. But here she was. “What do we know about the suspect?”
“Two of the earlier victims recall talking to a guy in his earlier thirties. They think he was dark blond and a little heavyset. But others, assaulted later, said he might have brownish hair but bald in front. So there could be two assailants.”
“Or maybe he’s changing his looks.” Making her job harder. “Also, dark blonde and brownish could be the same color. And if the women were roofied, they might not remember the perp at all, maybe just the guy they talked to right before.
Agent Radner pushed a folder across the desk. “Six sexual assault reports are in the file, plus a list of sexual predators in the Vancouver area. I’ve also submitted a subpoena to the university for a list of all their male students. Once we have it, our analysts will round up photos and sort the names along any demographic you ask for.”
“Excellent. Who’s my local contact?”
“I don’t know yet, but someone will text your burner phone after you arrive in Vancouver.”
“My new alias?”
“Amber Davison. Since you’re not going in deep, the UC team is generating a fake ID this time. You can pick it up on your way out today.”
Her excitement mounted. When she went deep undercover, she had to wait for the DMV to create a real driver’s license and for the undercover team to generate background files such as school records, social media pages, and an appropriate resume. Not this time. “When do I leave?”
“As soon as you wrap up your personal obligations. You might be gone two weeks or two months. The Vancouver police haven’t had any luck tracking this perp, so we know he’s careful.” Her boss paused for moment. “He’s also escalating. The last victim woke up in his car with the engine running. She bolted but was too panicked to get a description or plate number.”
“You think he was trying to kidnap her?
“I’ll be careful.”
“And you’ll wear a tracker.”
“Of course.” Dallas started to get up. “I’ll book a flight for the morning.”
“Wait. There’s more.”
An unexpected wave of apprehension hit her as she sat back down.
“We recently found a new group of online incels with disturbingly violent rhetoric. I need you to set up a profile and get inside. Maybe we’ll spot our perp.”
The assignment both excited and repulsed her. She’d read enough involuntary celibate rants to know how angry and irrational their attitudes were. “What’s the URL?”
“It’s in your folder, and the website is named Not Normal.”
Dallas coughed up a harsh laugh. “No kidding. At least they have some self-awareness.”
Radner shook his head. “Not really. They call everyone else—meaning those of us having sex—normies. But they take no responsibility for their own lack thereof. They blame women. For apparently failing to fulfill their social obligation to provide sex.” Her boss looked perplexed and amused at the same time. “But you probably are aware of all this.”
“I’ve done some reading on the topic. What else do we know about the members?”
“Their digital fingerprints come from all over the country. But some are probably tech savvy enough to use VPNs or proxy servers.” Radner locked eyes with her, his long years on the job making his brow wrinkled. “There’s also a lot of overlap with white supremacist organizations, so you have to assume anyone from the group is carrying.”
“Got it.” Dallas squirmed, eager to get started. “Anything else?”
“Don’t meet anyone without backup.” Agent Radner stood, signaling she should too. “Don’t worry much about blowing your cover. This isn’t an organized crime ring. Just a lone sexual predator.”
Dallas nodded. But as she walked out, doubts set in. What if the perp didn’t work alone? What if he had help and support from the group? This sting might be more dangerous than they realized.