CHAPTER 1: MARCUS
You are not safe.
You only feel safe because no one has decided to target you.
People are oblivious to the threats lurking in the darkness around them. Their need for attention makes it too easy for predators to have their fill.
Those who wish to harm will never starve in today’s world. Social media, the internet, and a connected society that breeds an addiction to pseudo validation is what keeps me in business—and business is booming.
From my place in the shadows, I easily spot five people I could pursue tonight. My initial assessment tells me I wouldn’t break a sweat finding information on three of them, but there’s one girl a mere ten meters away from me who makes my warning bells go off. I’m sure the only reason she is still alive is because no one has taken a depraved interest in her—yet.
She’s lucky I’m here for someone else.
Tonight I’m hunting someone who is a little more elusive than your run-of-the-mill pick-me girl.
This one is more of a challenge.
The group on the street across from the alley I’m lurking in disperses to their various venues, and I return my attention to the building I’m casing. There isn’t anything flashy about it. There isn’t even a business name posted on the outside, just a picture of a raven with an intricate symbol on its body above the door. Inside those doors is Ravenous, a membership-only lifestyle club of sorts, owned and operated by Alexandra Loren.
So far, I’ve gone unnoticed every time I’ve been here. I’ve walked down the street on numerous evenings. I glance over to the bench where I sometimes sit eating pizza. A couple of weeks ago, and while using fake ID, I brazenly walked through the front doors on a new-member night to have a look around. I got close enough to the woman I’m after to smell her perfume when she stepped around me to greet an acquaintance of hers.
Tonight is different though.
This is the night I will make myself known.
I’ve watched Alexandra Loren for just over three weeks now, and tonight is the night she will see me.
I could wait until her club closes and her clients and employees trickle out, leaving her helpless and alone, but I want to make a point.
And that point is that she is vulnerable—always.
If I want something, there is nothing that will stop me. There is no time, no place where she will be safe from me.
Laughter draws my attention as a couple walks arm-in-arm down the sidewalk toward me. The man whispers something in the woman’s ear at the same time he runs the tip of his finger between the lapels of her jacket, and she shudders, dipping her head toward him with a mischievous smile on her face.
I know before they stop in front of Ravenous that this is where they’re headed. The coat cinched around her waist goes to her mid-thigh, and it is longer than whatever she is wearing underneath. It’s no longer acceptable to make assumptions about people by how they are dressed, but profiling is literally my bread and butter, and the collar buckled around her neck tells me that they aren’t interested in the bakery one block over.
Sure enough, they stop at the door and knock. The man already has his phone out of his pocket when the bouncer opens the door. He taps the screen a few times, then holds the face out and allows the employee to scan whatever is on the screen. The bouncer looks up from his device, seemingly happy with what he sees, and asks for identification.
In the darkness, I smile to myself at the stringent security measures. While they are impressive, they won’t stop me.
I could easily follow them in and ask to sign up for a membership, but I’ve already decided the back door is going to be easier.
This way, I’ll avoid showing identification. When I arrived on new-member night, it was an open house. My fake ID got me through the doors, but signing up for a membership is another thing entirely. They would take a picture, put me in their database, and find out rather quickly that I am not who I say I am.
No. My way leaves no footprints behind.
I walk farther into the shadows and down the back alley to the employee door. I was down here a little over a year ago when my employer, Noah, and his girlfriend, Hazel, got into some trouble at the club, and I was asked to bring the car around to the back. So I know my way.
While I waited for them to come out, I noticed something at the back door that I filed away at the time.
Now, I’m hoping what I witnessed has become a habit that the employees have taken for granted.
I only have to wait another ten minutes in the warm evening air before the metal door grates open with a high-pitched groan that carries down the alley.
A woman steps outside and bends over to retrieve a brick lying along the wall. She props it against the frame to keep the door from closing completely—just like I noticed someone do last time.
She pats the pocket of her jacket, then hunches over in the telltale stance of someone who is trying to light their cigarette in the open air. Then she tilts her head back and exhales a puff of smoke.
She steals one final glance at the door to make sure the brick is secure, then starts to walk away, no doubt to keep the cigarette smoke from entering the club and giving her smoke break away.
I didn’t realize my breathing had turned shallow while I hid and watched her. There’s another one who could simply vanish without a trace.
I inhale a deep breath to steady myself before I step toward the back door, but I freeze at the very edge of a dark corner when a man opens the door to join her. He jogs down the alley asking for a cigarette.
That was close.
The guy doesn’t bother to look back when the door clangs against the brick; his attention is fully on the woman he’s trying to catch up to.
When they are far enough away, I stride to the door and peek through the gap to see if anyone is close by. Another benefit of entering now is that most of the employees are out on the floor since it is the busiest time of the evening.
The back area is deserted.
I clench my teeth to brace myself for the patience I’m about to need as I pry the door open at a painstakingly slow pace to avoid the scraping sound it makes.
At the same time the heavy door becomes sluggish, the very start of a creak acts as a warning. Unchecked, it will soon turn into the loud grating sound I heard earlier. I have a couple more inches to go before I’m able to fit my body through the opening, so I push the door up and toward its hinges to alleviate some of the stress. Then I try again. It opens the last little bit without a sound, and I slip through and into the club.
When the door finally rests quietly against the brick once again, I take a step back and look around the area.
Now I’m relying on chance and luck to get me what I want. I’ve never been back here, this close to Alexandra’s office, the space where she should feel safe.
If someone saw me now, that would be it. I have no reason to be here. The chance I might be discovered sends a surge of adrenaline through me, which settles into my nerve endings, making me feel close to giddy with anticipation.
This is probably something I should discuss with my therapist at my next appointment.
I prowl down the hall, away from the muffled music coming from behind one of the doors, until I get to an open area. There are some numbered rooms to my left, followed by a row of sofas in a sitting area. A quick peek behind door number three tells me this is some type of private or holding room.
I’m startled by a sound in the distance, and three large strides bring me to a new area. As I pass a partially open door, an office desk catches my attention, and I slip in, closing the door behind me to buy myself some time.
A woman’s fragrance dominates the area, and I circle the desk to confirm this is the office I’m looking for. A framed photo of Alexandra and a man I know to be Emilia’s father sit near the monitor. I saw a similar photo of the man a few months ago, when I dropped in with Noah to visit with Joshua at the home he shares with Emilia. Since I know Adam has passed, it leaves only Alexandra who would have this on her desk since they were partners in all ways.
Catching sight of a purse tucked between a bookcase and the wall, I make my way over, tugging at filing cabinets that open easily on my way across the room. Whether or not this is her office, this is Alexandra’s purse. I don’t take anything out, but I do make a point of leaving it open on top of the shelf so she knows I’ve been through it.
Then I return to her desk, remove a yellow rose from the inside pocket of my jacket, place its long stem in a pencil holder, and move it to the center of the desk.
I grab a smartphone from beside a keyboard on my way down into the seat behind the desk.
From the outside, Alexandra looks like she’s a challenge, which serves her well. It would deter anyone who isn’t fully committed to getting close to her.
Unluckily for her, I am not that man.
I kick up my feet, crossing them at my ankles on top of her desk as I lean back in her seat and go to work unlocking her phone.
I don’t get the chance to power it on.
For a brief moment, the music surges from the front, telling me the door to this back area has been opened.
I freeze, waiting to see if I’ve been found out so quickly.
Heels clack against the floor, the rhythmic steps growing louder as they get closer.
My breathing slows, my pulse quickens, and a smirk stretches the corner of my mouth.
Then the door opens, and her eyes meet mine. Alexandra pauses. Her knuckles go white around the file folder she’s holding, and she stills with one foot frozen in the air, not willing to take another step into the room.
It’s subtle, but the rosy color drains from her cheeks.
I give her a moment to take everything in while I sit in silence, savoring this moment.
Her eyes trail down to my shoes, still propped up on her desk, then move just a little bit farther until she sees the rose.
Her confusion morphs into disbelief, and she finishes her step, propping her free hand on her hip.
“Are you kidding me?” Her lips pinch together as though she’s about to say my name, but she thinks better of it, instead asking, “And you are?”
My smile widens in satisfaction.
“Marcus Wolfe.” I stand, buttoning my jacket before I lean across the desk to shake her hand.
Alexandra takes a fraction of a second to give me the once-over, her eyes trailing the length of me then back up. Then she closes the distance, reaching her hand out, only partially reluctant to admit defeat.
I step around her desk, allowing her to take the seat that is hers, and she circles on the opposite side, setting her files down as she speaks. “I have to admit, when Joshua first challenged me to a security evaluation, I was positive he was wasting his time.”
Alexandra reaches for the flower I left in her pen holder and lifts it to her nose, smiling when she inhales its scent.
It was decided ahead of time that I would be carrying a yellow rose, so she would know it was me and there was no imminent danger.
“Yet here we are,” I counter, following her lead as she sits. I take the chair in front of her desk.
“Here we are.” Her words sound like a realization as she glances at her purse, which is open on the shelf.
“I only opened it. Nothing is missing.” I lean forward, answering the unasked question written on her face as I return her phone to her desk. “These things should either be on your person or locked up—always. Do you have time to talk now, or would you like to schedule a meeting?”
She has the good sense to look sheepish when she picks up her phone. Noah told me Alexandra was made aware of what happened to Hazel a year ago, when Paul tracked her location using her phone.
“Unfortunately, I’ve got to be up front in”—she taps the screen on her phone to check the time—“ten minutes. Are you free to drop by in the morning? This is important, and you’ll have my undivided attention then.”
I uncross my legs and shift my weight to stand when she reaches out a hand, wordlessly asking me to wait.
“Just out of curiosity, are you looking for a job?”
I raise my eyebrows, hoping she’ll continue but not giving anything away.
There aren’t many people close to me who really know what I do. I prefer the anonymity and privacy of minding my own business.
I’m that guy, the one people refer to when they say things like, “I know a guy.” When in reality, they don’t actually know me—they know of me.
“Are you trying to steal me away from Noah?” My tone carries a hint of humor.
Alexandra thinks I work as Noah’s driver, and technically I do, but there is more to my story, and Noah has kept that to himself.
Seven years ago, my siblings and I started our own custom security company. We do everything from providing personal security to testing computer systems. We offer self-defense classes, arrange protection programs, remote monitoring, and—yes—testing current security measures against possible attack or infiltration.
I met Noah a couple of years ago, when we were looking to expand our company. We had a list of office requirements a mile long, and we worked directly with Noah and Connor Realty to discreetly secure a space.
A year and a half ago, Noah hired me to look into someone who was targeting a friend of his. We got to talking, and it turned out he owned a building that had some vacant apartments. I was taking some time off for personal reasons, so I worked part time as his driver in exchange for him covering my rent and allowing me to live there without providing any identification that would leave a trail.
But no one else knows this.
“Of course not, but if you are ever looking for an additional challenge, I would be open to adding a head of security position here.” She pauses for a moment to consider her next thought before she says it. “I’m not sure how…familiar you are with our community, but there are those who hide among us and prey on our newer, more uneducated members.”
I understand her statement better than she knows.
A part of me I’d considered lost surges back to the surface. I’m more than familiar with the lifestyle, but I don’t tell her that. However, Alexandra’s expression shows a hint of understanding as she looks at me.
The expression on my face must be giving me away.
I clear my throat and recover with the ghost of a smile. But I’m not sure she’s buying it, so I change the subject. “I am familiar. I’ll save you time—and some money. You don’t need a head of security position. You have great staff, but you do need to fix a few things. We can address those tomorrow. My company would be open to offering your members a class or information session about safety.”
Alexandra’s face lights right up at that. “Really? Yes, please bring this up with me tomorrow.”
I see why Joshua and Noah speak highly of Alexandra. She has an authentic heart, and it’s obvious how genuinely she cares about the people around her.
When she taps her phone to check the clock a second time, I take it as my cue and stand, extending my hand. “I will make a note of it. I look forward to talking to you tomorrow.”
We make small talk while we walk to the front. Alexandra asks me to give her best to Noah and Hazel, then points out a few things as we pass through the main area. I sense she is trying to gauge just how familiar I am with her club, but I only smile and nod.
As we approach the front door, her gaze narrows, and her forehead creases with concern. I follow her line of sight to a young woman standing at the front. She’s speaking with the bouncer, who looks a little uncomfortable as he scans her ID.
She’s the same girl I noticed standing outside earlier, and she fits a certain profile.
In the wild, predators won’t often take risks. It’s survival of the fittest. Even an apex predator won’t waste their strength and stamina on hunting the strongest in the herd. They won’t risk wasting their power and dwindling their reserves to eat. If an equal or greater threat should happen to come along after they’ve expended their energy, they would have nothing left to protect themselves with. So they stalk the herd, looking for an easy kill. They test and push at the herd’s boundaries until the weakest of the group either falls out of line or is pushed out in sacrifice. Then they pounce.
This girl has fallen out of line.
“Do you mind if I handle this?” I tilt my head to Alexandra, and she takes a deep breath.
Her gaze returns to the girl, and a flash of worry settles across her face before she nods. “You may.”
I straighten my jacket and approach the man at the front, holding out my hand for the girl’s ID. His eyes widen because he doesn’t know me, which is another testament to Alexandra’s staff.
The guy looks beyond me, and she must have nodded, because he hands over the driver’s license. I waste no time holding out my hand toward the entrance to lead her out of the building.
This girl looks lost—curious, but lost and ill-prepared for what would await her inside.
It isn’t lost on me that the door hasn’t fully closed behind me, and I’m not surprised when I find Alexandra standing at the entrance. She feels responsible even for those who are not her paying members.
“How old are you”—I glance at the name on the driver’s license—“Jennifer?” At the same time, I pull my phone out and open an app to get the information I’m sure she won’t give me.
“I’m twenty-two. It says so right there.” She points to the card in my hand, attempting to look put out, but the uncertainty in her tone is obvious.
I don’t answer right away. I’m waiting for the truth to pop up.
When I get what I want, I return my attention to her. “You’re a senior”—she pauses for a moment before she nods hesitantly, and I finish my sentence—“in high school.”
She takes a deep breath. I know that look. I have a younger sister, and it’s the look of someone who is trying to think fast.
I turn the screen toward her, and a selfie stares back at us. It’s her standing in front of her school in a crop top and a big smile that doesn’t shine in her eyes.
“How did you—”
I swipe the social media feed up to the selfie she took less than twenty minutes ago outside of the bar across the street.
It wasn’t hard to find her. She tagged the bar’s social media account, telling the world exactly where she was.
She drops her head and holds out her hand, silently asking for her fake ID back.
I slip it into my pocket. “Possession of false identification is illegal.”
Jennifer’s expression disappears at my insinuation. She further tenses when I dial a number and hold the phone to my ear.
“Are you calling the cops?” Now she glances from me to Alexandra in worry.
“No. I’m calling you a cab, and I’m sending you home. Is the address on your identification correct?”
“I—yes.” Her tone is subdued.
When the car company answers the phone, I give them the information they need, and I charge it to the account my company holds with them.
When I disconnect, I soften my features.
I already stand taller than her. There is no need to make her feel any worse than she looks.
“Look.” I gesture to the club. “This place is not off-limits to you for good, but it isn’t the place for you now.” I glance at Alexandra, and she nods in agreement, relaxing her posture slightly. I remove my wallet and start flipping through a few business cards until I find the one I’m looking for. “If you want to talk to anyone, about anything, even if you know full well what this place is and you are curious, call that number and tell them Marcus Wolfe sent you.”
She looks at the name on the card, which is followed by the letters that indicate a doctoral degree in psychology, then sizes me up for a few seconds before reaching for it.
As Jennifer’s fingers brush against mine, I wonder, for a brief moment, if I had done this years ago, would Adelaine still be alive today?