Watch Your Back (the Baltimore Series Book 4)

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9780755389902: Watch Your Back (the Baltimore Series Book 4)

[Read by Marguerite Gavin]

A cold case reopened -- and a murderer reemerging more deadly than ever before. -- Baltimore homicide detective Stevie Mazzetti has suffered losses no woman should have to endure. And, despite it all, she's still a fighter. When she learns that her ex-partner might have miscarried justice, she's determined to put the past to rights, even when she becomes a target. -- It's former marine Clay Maynard's job to see the risk in every situation, and he doesn't have to look hard to find the danger surrounding Stevie. Since the minute he first saw her, Clay has wanted to protect the wounded officer, and he started loving her not long after that. So when Stevie attracts the attention of a vicious psychopath, Clay will do whatever it takes to keep her alive. That is, if he can stay ahead of a killer with everything to lose -- and something terrifying to hide.

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About the Author:

Karen Rose is a RITA Award-winning author of romantic suspense. A former chemical engineer and high school chemistry and physics teacher, she lives in Florida with her family and their cat, Bella, and dog, Loki.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Eight years later

Baltimore, Maryland

Friday, March 14, 10:30 p.m.

The knock on his office door had Todd Robinette glaring at the dark wood panels. He didn’t ask who it was. He knew exactly who was there and why. When Robinette summoned, his staff came running. Fast. On any other day, for any other job, their dedication satisfied him. But not today. And certainly not on this job.

Go away, he wanted to snarl. I need to do this myself. Because if you wanted something done right . . . But he knew that wasn’t the reason. His employees were the best. They’d go in, do the job, and get out. No mess. No fuss. No nasty clues for bitch cops to find. No worries.

So don’t lie, asshole. At least not to yourself. He let out a slow breath. Fine. I want to be doing this myself. I want some mess. I want some fuss. I want the bitch cop to beg me for mercy.

That was the unvarnished truth. He wanted to see her dead, but that wasn’t enough. For eight long years he’d wanted to see her suffer. Because what she’d cost him war- ranted a hell of a lot more than the simple ending of her life.

I could do it. I deserve to do it. Nobody will know. No- body will suspect.

Except that one never knew when someone was watching—and all it took was just one overeager witness to send your world crashing around your ears, forcing a quick repair job. Quick repairs tended to be sloppy. Or, at least, very, very costly.

He’d learned that lesson eight years ago when he’d been on his own, just a guy with a job that hardly anyone paid attention to. It would be much truer now. He’d gained power, but with it had come visibility. Now he had board meetings and gave speeches to philanthropists. He couldn’t just wander off and kill anyone he wanted to anymore. Which sucked, actually.

On the other hand, all that visibility made for an un- shakable alibi, and luckily for him, all that power necessitated a staff. He had a public relations director, a security manager, and a director of product development—all experts in their respective fields. More relevantly, he now had a cleanup crew who specialized in eliminating threats. A smart man would let them do what they were paid to do and Todd Robinette was a very smart man.

He glanced at the single photograph on his desk. I’m a smart man who’s sacrificed far too much to lose it all now.

How many nights had he lain awake, worrying that his sacrifice hadn’t been sufficient? More than he wanted to remember, especially during that first year.

How many times had he fantasized about silencing her permanently? More than he could count, especially during this past year. The past twelve months had been hell on his nerves. But he’d kept his cool, stayed his hand. Because none of those times had been the right time.

But this is. This was not just the right time, but the perfect time. He might not get a chance like this again. It doesn’t matter who does the honors, as long as she’s dead.

When the knock came again, Robinette ground out, “Come in.”

Henderson, the most trusted member of his cleanup crew, closed the door and stood before his desk, eyes gleaming at the prospect of a new adventure. “Robbie, whatcha got for me?”

Robinette took a breath. “A new job.” He unlocked the cabinet behind his chair, pulled out a folder, and slid it across his desk, which, with the exception of a sleekly modern laptop, the single photograph in the silver frame, and a well-worn Rubik’s Cube, was an empty, polished slab of black granite. “Detective Stefania Nicolescu Mazzetti, Homicide. She goes by Stevie.”

Henderson studied Mazzetti’s photo, clipped to the folder. “May I ask why?”

She humiliated me. Nearly destroyed me. She taunts me by breathing. And she can bury me.

But he’d divulge none of those reasons. Nobody knew how close she’d come to taking him away in handcuffs. No- body that was still alive, anyway.

Robinette turned the silver frame so that Henderson could see the face in the photograph and gave the one reason that was no secret. “She killed my son.”

“Ah. So she’s the one who killed Levi.” Eyes narrowing with undisguised malice, Henderson committed Mazzetti’s personal profile to memory. “Anything else I should know?”

“Yeah. She’s on her guard. She’s been physically threatened three times in the last week. The first was an attack with a knife, the second, a big guy with an excellent right cross. This afternoon someone shot at her. They missed.”

All of them missed? Were the attackers ours?” Robinette snorted. As if he’d allow such incompetence.

“Hell, no. This cop has more people mad at her than a gator has teeth. They fall down fightin’ and more pop up to take their place.”

“So our hit will be blamed on the other ‘gator teeth,’ ” Henderson said dryly.

“Exactly.” Which was why now was the perfect time.

“Did any of the three attackers escape?”

“The third one did, the shooter.” Which was to Robinette’s advantage. “She disarmed the man with the knife, then pinned him till the cops came. She did the same with the second guy, the fighter. The shooter ducked into a white Camry and drove away.”

Henderson looked reluctantly impressed. “She’s only five-three. She must be very skilled.”

“Unfortunately, yes. Which is why I picked you to go after her. You have better skills.” Specifically an Army sharp- shooter badge, amazing recall, a robotic ability to focus, and a cold-blooded tenacity that would put a dog with a bone to shame.

Back in the day, Henderson had been one of the few soldiers Robinette had trusted to watch his back. That hadn’t changed. What had changed was the flag they fought under. Long ago and far away it had been red, white, and blue. Now it was a hundred percent green. Benjamins, Lincolns, even Washingtons. Cold. Hard. Cash. It was the only thing that really mattered.

“I need Mazzetti taken care of,” he continued. “And you’re the best marksman I have.”

Henderson nodded once. “True. Why is everyone else after her?”

“Her old partner was on the take, paid by rich parents who wanted the crimes committed by their misunderstood darlings to disappear. He’d plant evidence against innocent people and arrest them for the crimes. He was damn good at it—until he got caught. Now he’s dead.”

“And she was in on it, too?”

I think so,” he lied, “but nobody else seems to.” His life would have been so much easier had she been. “They’re after her because she’s trying to ‘right’ all of Silas Dandridge’s wrongs.”

Cold blue eyes flickered in recognition. “Silas Dandridge? I remember that name. An article about him came through my news feed when I was in the Sudan, so that would have been March, last year. He worked for that lawyer who controlled a whole team of dirty cops.”

“And ex-cons. Stuart Lippman was an equal opportunity employer, now equally dead.”

Henderson frowned, pondering. “The article said Lippman had it set up that if he died under ‘suspicious or violent circumstances,’ a record of all his operatives and the crimes they’d committed would be sent to the state’s attorney.”

No, not all, Robinette thought, but he nodded. “That record was Lippman’s life insurance. Kept his operatives fromkilling him and kept them watching each other, too. If one turned the boss in, all of them suffered.”

“Clever. So why does this one cop have so many enemies if she wasn’t in on it?”

“Because she’s been investigating the Lippman cases. She’s closed four in the last month—three rapists and an armed robber who had innocent men sitting in six-by-eights, paying for their sins. Some folks aren’t happy to see this particular beehive disturbed.”

“Guess not. Three rapists and an armed robber. Busy lady.”

Robinette shrugged. “She’s had some time on her hands.” “She got fired, then. Guilty by association.”

I wish. “No. There was an IA probe after Dandridge was exposed, but she passed.” With flying colors, none of which were cold-hard-cash green. She was a cop who couldn’t be bought. “She’s on disability leave, shot by one of those crazy Millhouse KKK groupies outside the courthouse.”

“I saw that story on TV. It made international news when I was in Madrid, between assignments. That would have been in December, right before Christmas. Sixteen- year- old girl got pissed because her baby-daddy was found guilty of murder, so she started shooting everyone on the court- house steps. She shot a couple cops. Which one was Maz- zetti?”

“The one that killed her.”

That was Mazzetti? She nailed the kid right between the eyes, even though she was bleeding like a stuck—” Henderson abruptly halted. “I’m sorry, Robbie. That was insensitive.”

Robinette shrugged. “Just because it was insensitive doesn’t make it less true. We’d already established that Mazzetti’s got skills,” he added bitterly. After all, Mazzetti had nailed his son right between the eyes as well. “Two of the three recent attacks were commissioned by rich folks annoyed that she’s making their offspring pay for their sins. The shooter wasn’t caught, but I assume the same motive. The attacks will likely continue. Until she’s put down for good.”

“Which is where I come in.”

“Yeah. You need to strike before the cops hide her away in some safe house. If that happens, we’ll have lost our opportunity. I won’t be happy.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll be happy.”

“Good. Now, to make your job a little easier, she’ll be at the Harbor House Restaurant tomorrow afternoon at three.”

Henderson frowned. “How do you know that?”

“Because tomorrow is March fifteenth. For the past seven years she’s gone to that same restaurant at three o’clock on March fifteenth.” Which he knew because he’d had her under surveillance all this time. “She’ll be meeting a psychologist visiting from Florida, Dr. Emma Townsend.” Henderson thumbed through the pages in the folder.

“There’s no photo of Townsend here.”

“Google her. You’ll find her photo on her Amazon page. She writes self-help books on dealing with grief. Try not to shoot her, too, but do what you have to do to get Mazzetti.”

Henderson looked up from the file, eyes gone flat and calculating. “Mazzetti has a kid.”

Cordelia,” Robinette said. “She’s seven years old. If Mazzetti is a no-show at the restaurant, you can get to her through the kid. She goes to ballet class on Saturday afternoons.”

“I see that here. Stanislaski’s Studio. Okay, then. I’ll call you when the job’s done.”

“No, you won’t. I’ll take that folder back.” Henderson handed it over, and Robinette fed the contents through the shredder under his desk. “I want no trail, paper or electronic. Nothing for the cops to find. When you’re successful, I’ll hear all about it on CNN. That’ll be all.”

Dismissed, Henderson left, but Robinette’s office door didn’t close completely. Another head appeared in the gap. “Got a minute, Robbie?”

“Sure.” Robinette waved for his head chemist to enter. “Not like I’m getting any work done.”

“When do you ever?” Fletcher’s teasing grin abruptly faded at the sight of Levi’s photograph out of place. “So. You’re finally gonna do it.”

“It” didn’t need specification. Fletcher had been there for him at Levi’s funeral, along with Henderson, Miller, and

Westmoreland. His friends. His trusted team.

It had been an open-casket funeral, because Stevie Mazzetti really was a damn fine shot. The hole her bullet had left in Levi’s head was neat and clean, easily camouflaged by the funeral parlor’s makeup artist and hairstylist.

Lying there . . . It had been the most at peace his son had looked in years.

Robinette returned the silver frame to its original position. “Yeah. I’m finally going to do it. Henderson is, anyway.”

“It’s about time,” Fletcher said roughly. “We would have done it for you eight years ago, but I understand why you waited. You’re more patient than we are.”

“No, not really.” Just less willing to go to jail. “But, speak ing of patience, how are the tests coming? You get any benefit from that obscenely expensive equipment you insisted we needed?”

Fletcher slid a single sheet of paper across the black granite. “You be the judge.”

The plain white paper bore no company logo on its let- terhead. There would be no connection of Fletcher’s pet project to Filbert Pharmaceutical Labs. Or to its president. Which would be me. Or to the chairman of the board. Which would be me, again.

Because all the other officers of the company were dead. Robinette shot a quick, satisfied glance at the Rubik’s Cube. May they all rest in peace.

Robinette read the summary, handwritten in Fletcher’s precise script. The news was good. Very good. He lowered the paper, gave Fletcher a hard nod. “You’re a fucking genius.”

“I know,” Fletcher said serenely, then grinned. “It’s not as good as we can eventually make it, but it’s stable twice as long as anything else out there. Which is good enough for now.”

“Do they know?”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve received confirmation from three groups that took demo packages. When deployed, the payload was as potent as the day it was made, as promised. They were impressed.”

Robinette frowned. “Who did they test it on?”

“Do we care? Nothing’s made the news. I’ve been watching and listening.”

“Good. The last thing we need is an incident drawing attention.”

“I wouldn’t worry. Our clients have always been discreet.

Plus, they know if they get caught with it, we won’t sell them any more.” Fletcher’s brows lifted. “And they want more. As much as I can make. As fast as I can make it.”

Robinette did a quick mental calculation as to what their profit would be and nodded, satisfied. “How quickly can you have the first shipment ready to go?”

“Already boxed up. We’re waiting on the next batch of vaccines to be ready to ship next Friday. Westmoreland and Henderson are on rotation next week, so they’ll escort the shipment.”

Henderson should have completed Robinette’s special project by then. “That’s good. We don’t want our shipment to fall into the wrong hands.”

Fletcher’s eyes lit up with greedy glee. “The wrong hands being those not holding money.”

“You got that right.” Robinette fed the single sheet of paper into his shredder. “Take the weekend off. You’ve earned it.”

“A few of us are going into town tomorrow night. A few beers, a little . . . companionship. You should come with us. It’ll be like old times.”

“I can’t. Brenda Lee says I can’t drink in public anymore. It’s bad for PR, considering the work I do for teen drug and alcohol rehab.” Fletcher was a genius with the chemicals, but Brenda Lee Miller was a spin master. “Plus she’s still mad about that little beer- fueled ‘disagreement.’ ”

Having spun Robinette from a murder suspect into a pillar of the damn community, she’d been none too pleased about having to make a bar brawl disappear last year. She’d been right—Robinette could have ruined eight years of hard work beating up that meathead. Luckily, Brenda Lee was also his attorne...

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