Jane Blake: True Sinner

“Trust kills faster than bullets, Gray!”

“But without it we would be awfully lonely, wouldn’t we? Kind of like you.”

Chapter 1

Break-In News

Jane ran down the deserted street. The music coming from the mansion behind stopped, but she had no time to turn—she kept running. She had what she needed. There was no point in slowing down, no going back. What was done was done.

Sirens wailed, red and blue lighting up the usually quiet neighborhood. Jane had to hurry up.

She hadn’t expected the police to show up that fast. Maybe someone was watching her, maybe this time she’d screwed up, maybe she’d missed an angle. What if they were after her? She'd have to start a new life … again. Jane figured these thoughts wouldn’t get her far, so she cleared her head and concentrated on getting to her car.

She slowed down and began to walk instead of running.

Three blocks later, Jane could finally stop. She looked up at the hill and listened. The sirens had paused, but she could see the flashing lights in the semi-darkness. The police had arrived too fast. Something was definitely wrong.

Jane glanced at her phone. The feed from the mansion’s security cameras was glitching again. She found that weird, but it didn’t matter—she would lose it any minute. She'd been promised the live streaming only for an hour, half of which was put on a loop so she wouldn’t appear on it and no one would know she was there. Maybe the whole hacking thing hadn’t worked as well as usual. Jane wouldn’t have known anyway—her knowledge about technology was poor.

The sky was clearing, the sun about to rise above beautiful Los Angeles. Jane took a moment to enjoy the morning air and to feel the warm touch of the first rays of sunshine. She smiled with satisfaction, thinking about her achievement, and unlocked her car, which waited parked on the street.

Jane opened the trunk and quickly changed out of the long cocktail dress she was wearing and into comfy short jeans and a black t-shirt. She took off the high-heel shoes and put on her favorite sneakers. Tightening her long, indigo-black hair into a ponytail, side bangs falling on her left, she put on her sunglasses, tucked a small gun into her belt, hopped in, and drove off.

Driving at the speed limit with the streets almost empty, as they always were in the early hours of the day, Jane admired the peace and quiet of the neighborhood. She saw several people walking their dogs sleepily, and others strolling to their cars, probably going to work. No one had a clue what had happened during the night. No one was in a hurry, and neither was Jane, not anymore.

Turning the radio on, she kept driving. The city was waking up. As small shops opened their doors for customers, more and more people appeared on the streets, walking on the beautiful sidewalks with palm trees on each side. Jane loved L.A. She loved the ocean, the beach alleys, the city life, everything. She didn’t want to leave it. Not after so many new beginnings. L.A. was the city she’d stayed in longer than any other, and she didn’t plan on abandoning it. She had finally found the place she wanted to stay.

Rethinking the last night made her sick, though. Why had the police come so quickly? They should’ve arrived at least fifteen minutes later. What had gone wrong? Had she made a mistake? Jane was sure she’d done everything as planned. But still, she had the feeling something wasn’t right.

Her first stop was an odd-looking pawnshop. Jane parked in front of it, stepped out of the car calmly, pushed the door open, and went inside.

A short, round man jumped at the sight of her and welcomed her with a stretched arm, as if expecting a handshake.

“Well, well, well, Jane Blake!” he said slowly from behind the counter. “What do you have for me this time, beautiful?”

Jane pretended she didn’t see his hand, and reached into her purse. She took out a red velvet bag and slammed it on the counter.

“Three-carat diamonds,” she said coldly, and removed her sunglasses. Her brilliantly green eyes narrowed, piercing him intensely.

“Maybe we should take this to the back …” he said, hurrying to lock the front door. She followed him to the back room.

Walking slowly behind him, Jane looked at the piles of broken old stuff. There was barely free space to move. They passed a few dozen things from the ’80s, all covered with a thick layer of dust. The pawnshop was an obvious front for something very much illegal. Jane never knew what exactly Garry Skinner was dealing with, and she didn’t care. What mattered to her was that he always bought whatever she gave him.

“Now, where did you say you got these babies from?” He was examining the diamonds.

“I didn’t. Will you buy those, or should I go to—”

“Do not even mention that name in my shop!” Garry said loudly, looking offended.

Jane smirked.

Garry didn’t ask anything else, but he took a bit more time than usual checking the stones.

“Fine cut, really fine,” he murmured under his nose.

Jane was getting bored, glancing at her phone every ten seconds. She'd been up all night partying with the Jeffersons in that mansion, doing all she could to get a hold of these diamonds and a small golden statue, which she preferred to keep to herself. She had planned this for a month, and now that it was over, she needed to go home and get some sleep. At least she hoped it was over.

“So?” Jane insisted. She was feeling her eyelids getting heavier with each minute in the misty, weird-smelling room.

“Okay, Blake, these are rare. I actually don’t know if I have enough dough for all of them. Can we think of something?” Garry said, a greasy tone in his voice.

“Skinner, we’ve played this game for years. Just give me what you’ve got,” Jane said irritably.

“Ouch, I’m hurt, Blake.” He acted offended. “Don’t be like that, Hun. Here, this is all I have. Honestly. And I’ll owe you big time.”

“Yeah, right. You already owe me several big times.” Jane puffed and took the large duffle bag he handed her.

Skinner looked happy with the deal, and only nodded with a big smile on his face.

Jane didn’t even check if there was money in the bag before she hurried out of the shop.

She drove home at last.

Jane’s house was a broad, modern, two-story masterpiece with a huge garden, a pool, and a bit higher fence than usual. Even though she lived alone and had just the one vehicle, she had a two-car garage. She parked her matte black muscle car, which she’d bought a couple of years ago and absolutely loved.

Jane grabbed the duffle bag and strolled to the back door. She lazily typed the security code and went in.

Passing by the kitchen, she headed straight to the living room. Inside, the house was nicely furnished, sparkling clean, almost as if no one lived there. There was an open laptop and remote control on the coffee table in front of a large gray couch.

Jane threw the duffle bag next to the couch and glanced at her laptop, as the screen glitched for a second. She thought about the security feed on her phone doing the same, but she quickly decided it was nothing and turned on the seventy-two-inch wall-mounted TV. The morning news was about to start.

After heading to the kitchen to pour herself a well-deserved whiskey, Jane returned to the couch. She rarely watched TV, but this morning’s news was very important, and she couldn’t miss it even though she was exhausted.

After several boring reports and a lot of unneeded and uninteresting political babble, which almost made Jane doze off, the long-awaited “Breaking news” started.

“And now with the breaking news. There was a situation last night in the mansion of well-known businessman and entrepreneur Eduard Jefferson,” the anchor said excitedly “Let’s go live to our reporter on location, Maggie Reed. Hello, Maggie! Do we hear each other?”

“Hi, Jenna! I’m here at the front gate of Mr. Jefferson’s mansion, where police were called in the early morning hours. So far, the police have shared with us that the call was made by Mr. Jefferson’s oldest son, reporting a robbery. Brad Jefferson shared with the police that his younger brother had been having a party, giving the thief an opportunity. But after arriving at the crime scene and examining the mansion, the police arrested several of the guests on drug charges.”

She continued, "But that’s not the reason I’m here. During the early investigation, the police found evidence connecting Brad to the murder of Gianni Moer. We remind you that Gianni was the twenty-two-year-old student from New York who came on vacation to Los Angeles, and was brutally murdered two months ago. Unfortunately, the police had no suspects, which led to the recent closure of the investigation. But an arrest has been made today. We will keep you posted on any new developments.” The reporter looked around for a second, and when a man stepped into view, she continued, “Here with me is Detective Hunt, who will give us a statement …”

Jane turned off the TV. Her job was done. All had turned out the way she’d planned. She drank what was left from the whiskey and climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

Jumping in her king-size bed, she fell asleep almost immediately.

Jane woke up fully rested and refreshed. Stretching, she dressed, took her gun from underneath the pillow, tucked it in her belt, and headed to the kitchen to make herself a coffee, then walked through the glass door of the living room to her favorite spot of the house: the garden. She realized she had slept through the whole day.

The sunset was beautiful, and Jane always loved to watch it from one of the sunbeds near the pool. Grabbing a cigarette box from the small table next to her, she stared at it for a moment. Smoking wasn’t a habit for her, but sometimes she puffed one. And after such a success, she decided she deserved the guilty pleasure and lit up. She’d nearly made herself forget about the possible mistakes.

By the time Jane finished with her coffee and one or two more “guilty pleasures,” the sun was gone and she had to stand up to turn on the lights.

She went to refill her cup with some more hot coffee and to grab her score—the money and the statue. When she got back to the sunbed, she simply left her mug on the table and, carrying the duffle bag, walked around the pool, passed by the barbecue, and walked across the lawn to the fence. Looking around suspiciously, she opened up a carefully hidden lid: the entrance to her bunker.

Jane quickly carried the money into the spacious bunker and dropped it near the bed, then put the statue on the table, admiring it for a second before walking to a safe hidden at the end of the room. Typing a long code, she opened it. Ignoring the stacks of money, Jane reached in and grabbed an old folder full of documents. Then she hurried back outside.

She returned to her previous spot on the sunbed and started looking through the stack of papers, putting most of the medical and bank statements back in and setting the folder aside. Her interest was in a series of newspaper clippings. She leaned forward, took a sip from her coffee, and stared at a cropped article with a photo of a man—a murder victim.

Jane had reread that article, and the many others in the stack, maybe a million times. She knew the text perfectly well by now, but she still took the physical copies out when she had the chance. This middle-aged, dark-haired man with sunken brown, almost black eyes, and a fake identity was driving Jane crazy.

The man in the photo always triggered feelings that she didn’t know how to cope with. Hopelessness. Fear. Anxiety due to the misinformation, the fact that there were far more questions than answers.

Staring at his expression, which was full of anger and madness, Jane remembered every word he’d told her before collapsing dead in front of her eyes, her innocent, seven-year-old eyes.

“Your real mom and dad want to see you. Come with me,” he’d said anxiously, grabbing her hand.

“But I’m going to my parents now,” she’d answered with confusion.

“Oh no, those are not your real parents. Come!”

And then, Jane remembered vividly, a terrible bang pierced her sensitive ears. She held her hands tight over them to stop the pain from this unknown sound. A second later, the seven-year-old understood what had hurt her ears—a gunshot, and it had come from right behind her. Turning, she could see every bit of the blood dripping slowly from the bullet wound in the man’s chest.

Jane still experienced the terror she’d felt when she realized he was dead and there was someone else behind her. Even after twenty years, she could still feel the soft touch of his two cold hands on her shoulders, how scared she was to turn around and see who it was. She relived the horror of thinking that she was next.

But just then, when Jane thought she would soon be lying dead next to the man on the ground, a low voice spoke in her ear with unmistakable worry and kindness. “Go, sweetie. Go home and forget about what you saw.” This new man stroked her arms and continued, “Are you strong enough to keep this to yourself? Can you keep a secret?”

The seven-year-old nodded and said with a feeble but certain voice, “Yes.”

“You are extraordinary. Never forget that,” the man whispered in her ear. As he caressed her hair, her hairband fell off, but she didn’t turn around to look at him—she was too afraid.

Now go. Go home. Run!” he urged her.

And she ran. She was afraid to look back. She kept going, holding her eyes on the road, but her child’s curiosity was getting stronger. Jane wanted to turn and see him, but she didn’t. Not until she was about to round the corner did she let herself glance back. But it was too late. The man with the cold hands had disappeared.

His freezing touch haunted her at night sometimes, years later. The memory triggered the sensation of his hands on Jane’s shoulders as if he were there. To this day, Jane didn’t know if he had saved her life or taken away the life she should’ve had—with her biological parents. Year after year, she had searched for that man and her real mother and father, hoping she would get to the truth, hoping she would understand what had happened to her. But right at the moment she’d thought she had something, she was forced to stop digging.

Jane’s eyes were shut tightly, concentrating, trying to remember some piece of evidence that she might’ve missed. But it was all the same as before. If only she had known then the tricks she did now. She had taught herself how to observe and remember even the slightest details. But back then she was just a kid. A kid walking home after school, scared of what her parents would say about the note from the teacher—bad behavior. Scared if her father would beat her up again, scared if her grandmother would accuse of being stupid and irresponsible. And suddenly this kid had to grow up fast. This kid started answering her own question of why her family was treating her so badly—they weren’t her family at all. Then she promised herself to find out the truth.

Why was she doing this to herself? She'd relived this memory too often over the last few months. It was getting harder and harder to gain control over her own psyche.

Jane had investigated that man’s murder since it had happened. She had been searching for her real parents since that moment too. But though she’d found definite evidence she was adopted, she hadn’t found any concrete information about who her biological parents were. Yes, when she was fourteen, she had the pleasure of telling her adoptive father that she knew she was adopted, and for the first and last time she saw defeat in his eyes. He admitted he wasn’t her biological father, but he refused to give her information about her real parents. He told her he didn’t know. And in the next few years, no matter how hard Jane tried to get the information out of the whole family, nobody said a thing. Instead, her adoptive mother and grandmother changed their versions so often that Jane couldn’t distinguish the truth between the lies. If there was any truth at all.

Jane had never identified the murdered man in the alley, nor the one with the cold hands. She didn’t even know why they were there in the first place. How was she, especially at just seven years old, connected to that gruesome incident?

The event in the alley had shaped everything. It was the reason Jane was who she was, lived the way she did, knew all she knew. She had her way with people. Manipulating and deceiving were second nature to her. Her search had made her cold and determined to find the truth no matter what. Many people owed her favors, some of them a bit questionable. But still, she had no luck with this case, the case that had messed her up so badly. The reason she was forced to grow up too fast.

The words of her mentor were echoing in Jane’s head. “It is up to you—will this make you, or will this break you? The choice is yours.”

“What if it did both?” she used to answer.

It sure had.

How sorry she was that she’d never hear Ben’s voice again. The man who’d taught her everything she knew, the one who’d brought her to L.A., the teacher, the critic, the mentor—he was all. And he was gone.

Gone because of her. Gone because of this very case, gone while trying to help her solve it. And the memories started involuntary flowing again. Jane closed her eyes and saw him enter through the door of this house, covered in blood. She had waited for him all night, but she had fallen asleep at some point, and the door woke her up. She’d known he was meeting someone in private—he had refused to take her with him, even though she was sure it was about the man in the alley. Jane remembered so vividly when he collapsed on the ground, helpless. Her heart raced a mile a minute. She ran to him, ready to give him first aid, but she saw the gunshot wound. Trembling, she grabbed him with all her strength and seated him in the back of the car.

Even while remembering it, Jane could feel all the emotions she’d felt back then. She was terrified; she couldn't lose him. Tears had started rolling on her cheeks uncontrollably, but she had to drive as fast as possible, she needed to reach the hospital before it was too late. And his voice echoed in Jane's head as if he were next to her.

“Promise me you'll let this go.”

“I can’t", she said.

“If Vanessa and I ever meant something to you, promise me you'll drop that investigation. You have a long life ahead. Live it. Promise me, kid, promise me. Give me your word, Jane,” he said, gasping for breath.

I-I promise. You have my word,” she said.

He stopped talking, and she knew he was gone but without looking at the back seat she continued to drive.

Now, Jane opened her eyes, feeling the tears on her face. She needed to stop doing all of this to herself. But the visions kept running in front of her eyes. First, it had been Vanessa, then him. Both of them killed because of her.

She remembered when the doctors had told her he was dead. Her whole world had crumbled yet again. She couldn't even cry, she felt as if she couldn't breathe—she’d just stared at the doctor soundlessly and walked back to her car. The pain was too much.

And then Jane experienced the month after the funeral in a matter of minutes. All the nights spent in the bunker with bottles of vodka and whiskey, all the panic attacks, the anxiety, all the pills that the psychiatrist had prescribed, all the hopelessness. She was weak, useless.

Jane made an effort to stop visualizing this dark past of hers. She opened her eyes once again and looked down at the papers in her hands. And she remembered the note from Vanessa, Ben's wife, written on a napkin with her own blood. It contained just a few letters: Mor …

More what? Jane wondered. Or was it a place, or a name? Maybe a company? Part of an address?

She felt the anxiety taking root again.

Jane literally shook off the emotions, threw the newspaper clippings away in anger, and stood up. She needed a drink, and went to the kitchen to switch out her coffee mug for a glass of whiskey. A full glass of whiskey.

She tried to persuade herself to stop with this craziness. Two years ago, she’d promised to quit, and yet she still took out these clippings once in a while, and it felt like she was on the edge of starting again. Not thinking what had happened when she got close the last time, she was like an addict who knows the addiction is killing them slowly but still takes the next dose.

Jane had to stop digging. She’d made a promise, given her word.

And so what if she never knew who her parents were? And so what if she never knew who that man was? What if she never could close that first case? What, really, was the big deal? Jane had investigated so many cases, had helped a lot of people to find their closure. What if she never found hers? What would it change if she did? She was doing pretty good—crazy rich, in fact. From a common thief, she’d built herself into a con artist, a grifter, and occasionally a PI for people whose cases were too difficult for the police. What difference would it make if she knew the truth? It wouldn’t bring back what she’d lost. It wouldn’t change her. Not now, not ever.

And yet Jane couldn’t let go, no matter what she’d promised.

She downed her whiskey while collecting the newspaper clippings from the ground and putting them back in the folder. Then she sat again on the sunbed, sinking deep into her thoughts, staring blankly at the dark sky.

The night was peaceful; the leaves of the palm trees in Jane’s garden stood still, and the fresh air was becoming a bit chilly. Only the traffic far behind the house interrupted the silence with its river-like sound.

Jane was done with all her current “projects,” and she found herself wondering what would come next. She rarely knew what would happen the next day, and she loved that. The constant changes and new “jobs” brought the dynamic and mystery she needed. Her life was always surprising her.

Thinking about surprises, Jane felt she was being watched. A tingling feeling on her back had been bothering her from the moment she’d set foot in Jefferson’s mansion. But it wasn’t possible—Jane’s home security system was an advanced piece of technology, heavily protective. If someone had gotten in, the alarms would’ve been insanely loud.

She stood up, pulled out the small handgun from her belt, and looked around. There was no movement in the house, nor the garden.

Deciding she was being paranoid, she sat back. Jane was always security conscious, maybe a bit more than necessary. Perhaps the vivid memory had provoked her—that was what she convinced herself, at least.

Returning to the pointless staring at the sky, Jane ignored her gut feeling.

Chapter 2

Blake & Gray

The bad feeling wasn’t going away. Jane couldn’t ignore it much longer. She concentrated, listening closely, still lying on the sunbed. And soon she heard it—a muffled clicking sound coming from inside the house. With the gun in her hand, she slowly turned and glanced back. Then she slid aside and made a few quiet steps toward the house. Peeking in the living room, she saw him. A man with a hoodie on was sitting in front of her laptop in the darkness. She could see part of his face illuminated by the dim glow from the screen.

Jane watched him for a minute, deciding what to do. He was concentrated on whatever he was doing, not lifting his gaze from the device—he appeared to be typing something.

She had no other way in, except the sliding doors. If she used them, he would see her immediately. It wasn’t possible to sneak up on him. She was going to have to confront him directly.

Jane stormed in with her gun pointed at the man, her finger on the trigger, ready to shoot. He jumped up with his hands in the air. She didn’t say a word, just raced toward him, which seemed to confuse the man. Before he knew what to do, Jane was next to him, and the following moment, she had put him on the ground, one foot on his spine, pulling his stretched arm up with one hand, aiming at the back of his head with the other.

“Who are you?” Jane asked, but before she got an answer, she added with a twisted grin, “Usually, I don’t ask before I shoot. You should feel lucky.”

“Ryan Gray,” the man answered with a low voice.

“How did you get past my security, Ryan Gray?” Jane kept pushing her foot into his back, compressing his chest.

“Look, this is not the way—” He gasped for breath, twisting his body.

Jane didn’t understand how he did it, it was so fast, but he somehow managed to push her away and begin to rise.

Pointing the gun at him, she demanded, “Speak!”

But Ryan threw himself at her and shoved the weapon out of her hand. Jane grew furious—she was ready to tear him apart.

Both of them were hitting, kicking, and punching the other. Jane was using mixed techniques ranging from boxing to mixed martial arts, Krav Maga, jiu-jitsu, and the old dirty street fight, while Ryan appeared to simply be trying to protect himself.

He had the weight advantage, though, and was blocking Jane every time she reached for the gun on the ground simply by pushing her or grabbing and lifting her in the air. He didn’t seem close to giving up, and neither was she.

Jane was waiting for him to open an opportunity for her to strike, but he was well prepared. The fight continued at full strength.

After a few more rounds of kicks and punches, they were both pretty beaten up. They stopped and stared at each other, breathing heavily. Her lip was bleeding, and her cheek had a nasty cut. Ryan showed quite a lot of damage on his face and body.

Jane watched as he stepped back, slowly lifting his hands.

“I’m done. Can we talk?” he said breathlessly.

But Jane wasn’t done at all—she wouldn’t quit. She used the opportunity to strike again, making a move for the pistol on the floor.

And again, they were in a furious fight. Jane wasn’t thinking anymore, she just wanted to kill the guy. Kicking him as hard as she could in the chest gave her an opening to roll toward the weapon. She grabbed it and stood up quickly, but again Ryan jumped on her and disarmed her before collapsing once more.

“Please, I want to talk,” Ryan gasped, holding his ribs.

But Jane didn’t listen. Who was this guy, asking her to talk after breaking into her home? She didn’t want to hear it, not a word. As she threw herself at him again, this time he pulled out a gun of his own, which had been strapped to his ankle. Jane froze in place, mid-lunge.

“Come on, girl, calm the fuck down!” he yelled.

“What do you want from me?” she said with gritted teeth, wondering why he hadn’t used the weapon in the first place and why he wasn’t fully aiming at her now. Ryan was holding the weapon to the side, his finger trembling on the trigger.

“For a start, stop trying to kill me.” Ryan answered.

“Why? So you can kill me?” Jane said sarcastically. “If you're gonna do it, do it now—you ain’t gonna have another chance.”

“Fine,” Ryan whispered, then lowered the gun even more and moved his finger to the side of the weapon. “Happy?”

Jane didn’t say a word. She was gazing at him with eyes full of hate and determination. No way was she gonna let this guy walk out of her home alive. But despite all the anger, her senses were telling her to calm down. Maybe he had something to say that was worth hearing.

Jane looked Ryan over from head to toe. He was an attractive man, tall, with a sporty physique and ruffled beach-blond hair, wearing wide-legged jeans and a black hoodie. His face was bruised, his short three-day beard soaked in blood. Jane stared into his hazel eyes, and he stared back.

Ryan Gray waited patiently, and she wondered how far he would go in order to be heard. After a moment, he leaned down, put the weapon on the floor, and kicked it toward her. This was exactly what Jane wanted. She would shoot him with his own gun. She squatted, grabbed the pistol, stood up quickly, and aimed at him. Ryan didn’t even flinch. Jane glanced at the gun she was holding and saw that the safety was on. She realized the man hadn’t had any intent to shoot after all.

This finally calmed her. She went to get her own gun, then tucked both of the weapons into her jeans.

“Well, talk,” Jane said, brushing the blood from her chin.

“Can we sit?” Ryan asked, softly touching his eyebrow, which was swollen and lilac-blue.

Jane hesitated. She looked around at her living room—her laptop was on the ground, her coffee table broken. Finally, she nodded for him to go to the garden. Unsure what to expect, she settled onto her sunbed and waved for Ryan to sit on the other one, across the small table.

She drank a bit of whiskey, her pounding lip stinging like crazy at the alcohol’s touch, but she didn’t show it. Jane didn’t like to show weakness, and even though she was in pain at the moment, with her ribs feeling as if they were broken (Ryan had gotten a few solid kicks in), she kept her expression neutral, like nothing was bothering her. Jane saw Ryan twisting uncomfortably, his face shifting a bit with every move, but he was also hiding it well. He couldn’t fool Jane, though—she knew how to read people too well for him to mislead her. She was sure he was in pain, and this fact made her smile a bit.

“Funny, huh?” Ryan said with narrowed eyes, but Jane could see he was also hiding a smile. “For a girl, you fight pretty good.”

“For a computer nerd, you fight pretty good,” Jane returned the compliment.

“How do you know I’m a computer nerd?” Ryan’s apparent surprise made him lean back sharply. “Ouch!”

“Your body language suggested it,” Jane said calmly, and took another big sip from the whiskey. It helped ease the pain. “Let’s get to the point, shall we?” she added.

“Can I have a bit of that?” Ryan pointed at the glass.

Jane raised her eyebrow. She couldn’t believe this guy. After all of this, he had the nerve to ask her for a drink?

But she pushed her glass toward Ryan and gestured for him to go ahead.

After taking a great gulp, he returned it.

“I heard you help people with unsolved cases,” Ryan said.

“Where did you hear that?” Jane asked as she finished the whiskey.

“Doesn’t matter. But I need your help with a case,” Ryan answered with a serious expression.

Jane didn’t respond. Her eyes narrowed, gazing at him with a piercing look. She enjoyed watching him grow more and more uncomfortable.

The man’s ears were red, and he appeared not to know what to do with his hands—it seemed she was making him nervous. She didn’t speak for another minute. Throughout the silence, Ryan seemed to get more anxious. He took off his hoodie, and underneath was a white t-shirt, which soon was marred by bloody spots from his hands. Jane noticed a small locket hanging from his neck and a tattoo on his left shoulder, of several precious stones and a date.

“Your mother was killed?” she suggested.

“Yeah, how—”

“Your tattoo. The stones are connected to a woman’s name. That date is probably her birthday—too old to be your wife. You don’t have a wedding ring either. So, most probably a mother, or motherly figure,” Jane explained fast.

“Yes, it’s about my mother, that’s correct. Will you help me find who killed her?” Ryan asked quietly.

“No. If that’s all, you may go now.” She waved him away.

“No doesn’t work for me,” Ryan said, and didn’t move from his place.

Jane laughed, stood up, took her empty glass, and walked into the house, leaving the man alone in the garden. Strolling to the kitchen, she hesitated for a moment and decided she needed coffee more than alcohol, so she turned on the machine.

As she waited for it, she wondered why Ryan was so confident. There was something he knew—or something he could do to make her help him. When she’d first seen him, he had been typing something on her laptop. What had he been doing? It was well-protected. Maybe he was trying to break her password?

Jane left the two cups on the kitchen island and hurried to the living room.

Reaching for her laptop, which was lying open on the ground, she discovered with relief that it was not broken. Clicking, she saw the screen light up. The relief she felt was soon changed to horror—he had cracked her password, and on the main screen was a paused video.

How had he done it? Her password was very complicated, and the only place it existed was her mind. There was no way he’d guessed it. Jane was sure Ryan was a computer nerd, but maybe he was a bit more than that. And what did he want from her laptop, anyway? Jane didn’t keep any important information on it.

She straightened the table and put the laptop back on it. Then she glanced outside and saw him still sitting on the sunbed. She was getting very worried. This man was more than he looked like—a lot more.

Focusing back on her computer, she clicked ‘Play.’

It was a security video feed from the Jeffersons’ mansion, the same one she’d thought was on loop while she was in there. Jane saw herself in the slick dress from the previous night, walking slowly down the hallway. She stared in disbelief as the woman in the video picked the lock of the home office door and disappeared inside. Then there was just the deserted hallway.

Jane wondered if that was all, but a second later the cameras switched, the video now displaying what was happening inside the office. Watching, she was amazed, and a bit scared. How was it possible? Her hacker geeks had never failed her before. What had gone wrong? Or maybe they’d sold her out? She made a mental note to go and check on them after she dealt with Ryan.

In the next two minutes, the recording showed Jane opening the safe and taking the velvet bag with diamonds. She turned toward the golden statue standing on the shelf behind the massive desk, then took out the earring of the murder victim, hiding it in a small crack between the shelf and the wall. Then she took the statue, put it in her purse, and swiftly escaped through the window, glancing back. The video paused, and zoomed.

Jane’s face was captured perfectly. Ryan had caught her in the act.

She stared at the screen in disbelief. After more than seven years in the “business,” she’d been caught. Jane felt herself shaking with fury.

Lifting her eyes from the computer, she saw Ryan standing at the glass doors, calmly watching her.

Jane couldn’t think straight. It all happened in less than a second. She jumped up, drew the gun, and fired. Gray yelled and grabbed his left shoulder. She paced toward him, ready to kill.

She didn’t want to leave L.A., but she certainly didn’t want to go to jail. Breathing fast, Jane felt her hands shaking in rage.

Ryan didn’t try to run. He stood in front of her, clutching his wound, waiting for the inevitable.

Two steps away from him, she aimed at his head.

And she froze.

Why couldn’t she pull the trigger? Why was this guy making her hesitate in a way she never did? How was he affecting her so much? Jane was excellent at controlling her emotions, but this man was provoking her somehow. The fact that he wasn’t trying to run, the fact that he could’ve killed her but didn’t even try, the awkward smile he’d given her when they were in the garden, or the determination when he said he couldn’t take no for an answer—whatever the reason, Jane couldn’t shoot.

“I hoped we wouldn’t get to that recording. I hoped I could talk you into it without threats. But—” Ryan paused. “If you kill me, my colleagues will see the same recording you watched. It’s on my home computer, too,” he finished quietly, still clutching his shoulder. Jane noticed blood dripping down his fingers.

He’d stored it on his home computer, huh? Jane wondered how many other places he had that recording. She definitely needed to check on her hacker friends.

Again, she put down the weapon.

“Now you’re going to tell me the truth. What do you really want from me?” she asked calmly.

Ryan nodded, and Jane went to grab the coffees and her first aid kit. They both went back out to the garden.

Silently, she bandaged the man's shoulder. The bullet had just scraped him under the tattoo. It was a flesh wound, but nevertheless, it looked like he wasn’t very good at handling pain. While Jane was taking care of him, none too gently, his face twitched and he let out an “ouch” several times before she was done.

“You are weird,” Ryan said instead of thanking her.

Jane took her place on the opposite sunbed, and raised her brows in a question.

“You shoot me, then you take care of the wound you caused. It’s definitely weird.” He gave her an awkward smile.

Jane didn’t answer. She didn’t really know why she’d done it. Usually, she wasn’t a very caring person around strangers.

“Tell me, what do you want from me, and how did you make that recording?” she asked.

The man sighed and fixed his hazel eyes on her. She returned the gesture, staring back with her well-trained piercing look. For a few moments, they didn’t speak.

In her mind, Jane was already thinking of a plan to get ahold of these recordings, and she knew she needed to get on this man’s good side to do that. There was no other way but to act as if she wanted to help him. She regretted how she’d handled the situation at the beginning—she needed to be cold and cunning, just like when doing her job. Now she had to cover up that first impression and try to be as helpful as she could. But too much of a shift would raise more suspicion.

“As I said, I need help.” Ryan broke the silence.

“First, tell me, how did you find me? Because if you can find me, I’m sure you can find your killer,” Jane said.

Ryan hesitated, opening and closing his mouth soundlessly several times.

“You have some fight training. But it’s not military. Not FBI—they have different techniques. If you were CIA, you wouldn’t need me, at least not for that. And you’re a computer nerd.” Jane spoke slowly, more to herself than to him. “This means you’re either very ambitious, or you work underground, or you work with the police or in the private security sector,” she continued. “You stole the feed that I’d already stolen, or that I thought I had, so you must be very good with all that tech shit. Care to share? And just to be clear, lying is not an option.”

Ryan looked surprised, but tried to hide it.

“Well, I’m a hacker,” he started, then took a deep breath and spat quickly, “and yes, I do work with LAPD.”

Jane had expected it, but still, she felt very uncomfortable with the news.

“A cop? Fine. And?” she urged him to continue.

“I’m in the homicide department. Not robbery,” Ryan hurried to explain.

“Okay. How did you find me?” Jane asked again.

“It’s a long story.” He looked down at his feet.

Jane pushed the cup of coffee toward him with a vicious smile. “I have time.”

The man took a sip, cleared his throat, and spoke.

“Well, there were several homicide cold cases that were miraculously solved after being dismissed by the police due to lack of evidence. But one particular case caught my attention. Do you remember Dr. Gordon Cox?”

Ryan stopped, Jane nodded, and he went on.

“Well, he turned out to be a serial killer who was wanted by the whole state. Cox was captured because of a theft in his holiday home. He had reported it to the police, and while they were investigating the robbery, they found a pile of evidence for almost all of his murders. So, I asked myself why would the smart, really smart, highly respected in his field psychopath Gordon Cox, who managed to hide in the open while killing more than twenty women—why would he leave evidence like that? It wasn’t right. I dug into it and I found inconsistencies in the security system logs in his house. For a bit, I thought he might have been framed, but soon the laboratory results came out and proved that he was the killer. I didn’t mention my discoveries to anyone.”

Ryan took another sip from the coffee. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything else. But I kept a close eye from then on. Several months later, a similar thing happened. Then again. My suspicions were proven right. Nobody noticed, because different departments across California were in charge of these cases. There was someone out there investigating forgotten cases and bringing justice. And I knew I needed this person on my side.” Ryan looked up at Jane, smiling.

She could hear the hope in his voice rising. Maybe it was hope for finding closure, or just hope that Jane would be more helpful after this story.

“I still need to know how you found me,” Jane said.

“Until last night, I didn’t know it was you who I’ve been searching for. I had clues, but not a face. I was tracing your steps, but you were too careful, and I couldn’t get to you. So, I decided to search for a probable case on which you would work. It wasn’t the best option, but I didn’t have a choice. Months later, I heard about Gianni Moer’s case, and from the investigators in charge I found out they suspected Jefferson, but they had no evidence. Soon they were forced to close the case. I knew I would get you this time, and I kept the Jeffersons under surveillance. When I heard there would be a party, I knew this was it, you would be there.” Ryan took a deep breath and continued. “I located the IP address, and with a simple DDOS attack and a key generator I found the admin’s pass and stole the signal. I saw there was another IP logged in, so I covered my tracks. And then I saw you. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I knew your face—you were partying with one of the Jeffersons for a month.” Ryan smiled. “And then it was easy. I followed you here,” he finished, looking satisfied with himself.

Jane was stunned. And what the hell was a DDOS attack anyways? Ryan’s investigation had indeed been impressive.

“Okay,” Jane said with a poker face; she couldn’t let him know she was amazed. “If you did such a great job finding me, why do you need my help?”

“I got lucky finding you,” he admitted. “But I didn’t have luck with my mother’s case.”

“You know I do this for the money, don’t you?” she lied coldly. “Why do you think all of them were rich? I got my part, and I left the needed evidence for the police to do theirs.”

Ryan looked at her with disbelief.

“I’m smart enough to know it’s not all about the money,” he said.

“You may be tech smart, but you’re not good at reading people. It is about the money.”

He stared at her. “Okay, if you say so. But you will help me for free. I kinda have you on tape stealing.”

“You do know I can disappear. I’ve done that before,” Jane said irritably.

“I know,” Ryan said. “But I also know your face, which is all I need to find you again.”

Jane felt cornered. After all, he had managed to find her once.

“Blackmail? Isn’t that against the law, cop?” She smirked.

Ryan didn’t answer—apparently, he preferred to take the insult instead of getting in a fight again.

He continued as if Jane hasn’t spoken at all.

“My mother’s name was Amber Gray. She was killed six years ago. The case was investigated for some time, but it was a dead-end. We lost the funding, the department couldn’t waste more resources on it, so they made us close it.”

“Amber Gray …” Jane said thoughtfully. “I know that name from somewhere.”

“She was quite popular. She was an investigative reporter,” Ryan said.

Jane thought for a moment, then it clicked. “Yeah, I’ve heard about her. Her case was in the papers for quite some time, if I remember correctly.”

“Yeah, there were a lot of theories around her murder. She had a lot of friends in the press who didn’t want to let it go, but eventually they did,” Ryan said sadly.

“And you want me to investigate?” Jane asked.

“Not exactly,” Ryan said, sitting up on the edge of the sunbed.

Jane could feel the tension in the air. What did this man want from her? There was something else.

She waited for him to spill the beans. Silence had a certain impact on people, and she loved to use it. Ryan seemed to be waiting for her to speak as well, but soon understood that she was prepared to stare at him for hours without saying a word.

After the long pause, he finally spoke.

“I need you at the Precinct,” said Ryan quietly.

“You what now?” Jane asked with a high-pitched voice.

“I want you to work with me in the Precinct while we’re investigating my mother’s case,” Ryan said clearly this time, and added, “or I’ll have to bring you in and charge you with theft, obstruction of justice, and evidence tampering.”

Jane stood silent again. Ryan certainly could charge her. She could run, but then he would alert all the departments about her, and she would be on the wanted list, which would make her con artist job very difficult. Yeah, she could afford some plastic surgery, but she didn’t really want to take such a drastic measure. On the other hand, she could move to some non-extradition country. But she loved L.A. If she moved, she would never find her parents—not that she was trying to, she told herself, but she wouldn’t even have the chance if at some point she changed her mind. And the man in the alley … she would never find out what had happened that day if she left the States.

The decision was quite obvious. She had to act as if she were doing what Ryan wanted and meanwhile think of a plan to get a hold of and erase the recording.

“Why do you want me to work with the police?” she asked.

“Because this way, you will have access to all the data you need, and you’ll have a team behind your back. Also, you’ll be a very valuable asset in other cases. We need to lift our success rate,” Ryan explained. “No matter how you want it to look, I’m sure you’re not doing it just for the money. I bet there are a lot easier ways to steal.”

“You know, you’re right,” Jane said with a twisted smile “I’m not doing it just because of the money. I do it for the fun—I love the chase, the planning. It’s my kind of entertainment.”

“There’s a decent person deep down in you. Something made you hide it, but it will come up eventually,” Ryan said, voice taking on a wise tone.

Jane laughed sarcastically.

“Fine, Gray, you got me. You did get me cornered. So what's the deal? What do you need me to do in order to delete this recording?”

“Work with the LAPD until we catch my mother’s killer. Then I’ll set you free.” Ryan had the answer ready.

“How can I be sure there aren’t more people who have the evidence against me?” Jane asked.

“No one has it except for me. If my boss knew who you were, he would never let you walk free. He’s an old-school cop, but he trusts me. And this is the reason why I’m able to get you on our team.” Ryan said. “Please, don’t mess it up.”

Jane could tell he was being honest.

“And how can I know that you won't throw me in jail after I solve your case?”

“You don’t.” Ryan sighed. “You’ll have to trust me.”

“I don’t trust anyone, Gray,” she said.

Ryan opened his mouth to answer, but seemed to think better of it. Jane watched him finish his coffee and wondered how much her life had changed in a matter of seconds. To go from being a thief, a con artist, to working with the police. This guy just ran into her life, and he was about to stay for a long time—she was sure of that. Ryan’s case was probably too complicated, and she would have to deal with him and his team while solving it. Was that her good luck? She thought for a moment. Maybe it was an opportunity to become … someone, for a change? To be more. But then she remembered that she loved her life as it was. It wasn’t good luck, it was just an unfortunate turn of events.

Jane had to fix her mistake. She needed to gain Ryan’s trust and delete the recording. She would steal her freedom—after all, stealing was what she was best at.