Cursing under his breath, Mitch Bradford yanked his collar up against the bitter Colorado wind. Where was Emily Went-worth going? He stalked across Colfax, on a stretch of the street known as a candy store for illicit drugs and prostitution. He could've been home alone in front of the fireplace, his bum leg propped up, nursing a stiff drink and a double dose of ibuprofen. The irony didn't amuse him. He'd been tapped for the Wentworth case because of his injury. One more reason to kill the guy who'd shot up his leg during his last SWAT operation.
Mitch ducked his head and plunged forward into the night, ignoring the exchange of money on the corner. He would've busted the dealer any other time, but he refused to let his suspect out of sight. When she approached a group of gang-bangers, he tensed and reached for his weapon.
They circled her.
Two murders last night in the neighborhood. No time to be subtle.
He broke into a run, disregarding the twinge in his leg. He'd pay for it later, but they could shoot or stab her in seconds. Before he reached her, she tilted her head at the assailants like she was flirting and skirted through the wall of thugs. They let her go.
Mitch pulled back. Crazy woman. He tucked his Glock into the shoulder holster. He'd had enough of these cat-and-mouse games. He sped up and followed her across an alley. The scent of vomit and urine, and God knew what else, soured the night.
She stopped in front of a darkened building. After a furtive glance right, then left, she knocked. The door cracked open, then squeaked wider. Before he reached the entrance, she vanished behind the worn oak.
"Figures." Why would anything about this case be easy? Cold seeped through his jeans as he searched the front of the building for a sign. Nothing. No indication of what took place inside. That didn't bode well. His guess: drugs, sex, who knew what else.
A movement in the alley caught his attention. Carefully, he rounded the corner. A blond-haired kid tried to streak past. Mitch nabbed the boy's hoodie and lifted him off his feet. A familiar face glared at him. "Ricky?" Mitch released the young teen.
His on-again, off-again running back dusted his pants and groaned. "Coach. Man, why'd it have to be you? Gran'll have a fit if she has to come get me at juvie for breaking curfew."
"Then you better start talking. Is this why you haven't shown up for football practice the past two weeks? You hanging around the streets now?"
Ricky widened his stance and stared at Mitch, defiant. "I'm looking for Kayla."
"In an abandoned building?"
"Nah. Sister Kate runs a shelter out of here." Ricky bowed his head. "Kayla got herself pregnant by a real loser. But she was turning it around," he said in that earnest way that was half kid, half teenager. "At least that's what she told Gran last week. Kayla was gonna live with us again, but she didn't come back."
"You're hoping she landed here?"
Ricky nodded, and Mitch studied the street-smart kid. "You know how I can get in unnoticed?"
The boy's eyes grew large. "Something going down in there?" His gaze flickered to the front door. "Kayla might be in there."
Mitch rested his hand on Ricky's shoulder. "I don't—"
A loud, high-pitched scream pierced the night from inside. "Leave me alone. I won't go."
Ricky leaped toward the door, but Mitch held him back. He tossed the kid his cell phone. "A beat cop named Vance just rounded that corner not five minutes ago. Call 911, then get him."
"I'll find your sister. Now go!"
Ricky took off down the street. Mitch pulled his Glock, braced, then barreled through the locked door, the rotted frame giving way much too easily. "Police," he shouted. "Nobody move."
A burly man spun around. "Do-gooders. You set me up. Well, I ain't letting 'em take me." He grabbed a pregnant girl, her face battered with yellow and green bruises, and held a knife against her throat.
"Please, Ghost. Don't do this." Emily Wentworth's husky voice shook as she stepped forward, her face pale. She clutched a bat in her hand.
She was a brave little thing, determined and fierce.
"I'm warning you," Ghost threatened.
With careful movements, she set the weapon aside. Her hand went to her throat. "Let Heather go. We'll work it out. I promise." She stepped closer.
"I said, don't move," Mitch snapped and glared at Emily. "That means everybody."
She met his gaze, the flash of fury in her eyes unmistakable, but with a curt nod backed away. Mitch took a quick survey of the room. Not a good setup. He could make the kill shot from where he stood, but he'd risk hitting the group of girls in various stages of pregnancy huddled around a nun. If Ghost had an automatic weapon under his coat, the situation could turn into a bloodbath.
Ghost pressed the knife closer, drawing blood at the girl's neck. "Back off. I'm leaving. With the girl. And you ain't stopping me."
After years on SWAT, Mitch recognized the wildness in the man's dilated eyes. "Come on, buddy. Put the knife down." Mitch lowered his weapon a bit. He could only hope the guy was high enough or stupid enough to relax his guard.
"She's coming with me. They won't pay me if I don't bring one of 'em back."
Mitch eased to his left for a better angle and met the frightened gaze of the girl. "You can't just duck out of here… Ghost." Mitch hunched his shoulders a bit and sagged, praying the terrified victim would understand his silent instruction.
"I don't want to go," Heather said, nodding. "I told him. Mrs. Wentworth said she'd help me." The girl went limp in the perp's arms.
Mitch spun on his good leg. One quick jab against Ghost's vulnerable back and the scumbag released his hold on the girl. Mitch shoved her toward Emily Wentworth and shifted his weight, but his injured leg spasmed and nearly buckled underneath him. He bit his cheek to block the pain as he covered the suspect with his Glock. No sirens and no telling if Ricky had found help. Mitch needed backup before anyone realized his leg had locked up.
"On the ground. Face down. Arms spread. And you," he snapped at Emily, "call 911."