The sky was dark, leaden with roiling clouds that threatened rain. The rumble of thunder was ominous, a downpour was imminent. Already, minute droplets fell, stinging the ground. This type of weather wasn't unexpected. Chicago at the end of autumn produced dreary days and the threat of a long winter. The cab she sat in smelt of cigarette smoke and the stale sweat of previous occupants. Despite reaching her destination, she sat in the back of the cab, aware of the meter ticking over but unwilling to move. The cab driver gave her an impatient look, and she sighed, handing over the cash.
Stepping outside, the wind ripped around her viciously, the intensity of the cold overwhelming. The wind was whipping her coat, making her move in an amusing parody of a marionette as she struggled to get the coat under control while hair stuck to her face. The squeal of tires signaled the departure of the taxi. Coat firmly in place with buttons, hair now out of her face, she looked up at the chrome, sterile building in front of her. She read the sign on the building opposite with mixed feelings: Palin Correctional Facility. It's wasn't a place she had thought to visit anytime soon but circumstances had conspired against her.
A drop of rain fell on her face, sliding down her cheek like an escaped tear. The clouds above rumbled their animosity. She shivered, not used the colder climate. The people of Chicago bustled around her still form, bumping her every now and again. The mass of humanity was disconcerting; she was so used to wide open spaces, gritty sand that you couldn't wash out of your clothes, and the blistering sun which caused mirages in the distance. The threat of rain became a reality; the sky opened and let loose a torrent of rain that caused others to scurry to shelter. Having no other choice, she ran across the road, avoiding the potholes already filling up with water.
Once under cover of the building, she hesitated again, reluctance unwinding in her like a loose thread. Most people in the street had scattered, seeking shelter from the downpour. She scanned the street, mapping out the environment, assessing possible threats. She caught herself doing this before she could even process the thought; instinct and training kicking in before she was aware of it. Another sigh escaped her lips. It wasn't paranoia, she told herself firmly. A few buildings down, she caught movement. Eyes narrowed; she saw the briefest flash of a man wearing a baseball cap before he disappeared into an alleyway. Shrugging off the slight alarm it sparked, she dismissed the feeling. No one knew she was in Chicago besides her CO. She had taken her own precautions to make sure she hadn't been followed, despite knowing that particular action had been close to being seen as paranoia. Not that she would have operated any differently; taking precautions was so ingrained in her that she accepted it as much as I did the freckles on her back.
Turning around, she gripped the handle of her bag and finally found the courage to enter Palin Correctional Facility. She walked through the metal detector, the guards eyeing her as she glided through without triggering the alarm. The bullet-proof window she approached was grimy, the polished exterior of the building at odds with the slightly scuffed appearance of the entrance. The man behind the window frowned at her approach. He wore a blue jacket, lighter blue tie and shirt. His hair was thinning, and he hadn't shaved in a few days.
"Name," he asked dismissively, obviously bored with desk duty.
"Visiting….?" The guard asked, barely masking is disinterest.
She took a deep breath, "Daniel Parker."
The name was said almost in a whisper but the guard obviously heard her and typed in the information. The tapping of the keys irritated her, along with his dismissive attitude.
His eyes flicked up as she handed him her ID under the slight incline provided by the screen. He took an inordinate amount of time scanning it. Somewhat reluctantly he handed it back, grunting for what she assumed passed as acceptance. He pointed to a section which she supposed was where she was supposed to go.
"Thank you, you've been so helpful," Hayley stated, deadpan. The sarcasm was obvious but he either didn't get it or chose to ignore it.
Walking towards where the guard pointed, her stomach tightening in nervousness. Another guard, this one younger, smiled at her. She returned the smile with a tight one of her own. He led her along a long corridor, white and completely devoid of any personality, just like the prison itself. Hayley was aware of the whir of cameras above, and was struck by how electronics controlled every part of this prison. The guard stopped, bringing out a key card to slide over the electronic lock. He tapped in a few numbers and led her into another room.
Grey chairs and tables were placed strategically throughout the large room. No one else occupied the space, making the sound of the guard's shoes on the polished floor unreasonably loud. Directed to the table on the far end Hayley sat down. The chairs, cold and uncomfortable, were bolted to the floor, for obvious reasons. Hayley placed her hands in front of her on the table, waiting for the inmate to arrive.
Minutes passed, and Hayley's nervousness grew. The door to the right shuddered open suddenly, causing Hayley to stand up, hand straying to her belt where her weapon used to sit. The young guard who had directed her into the room eyed her suspiciously after this action. Hayley ignored him, intent of the figure walking in.
The prison uniform was a deplorable orange colour, never meant to flatter any body type. Hayley sat down abruptly, watching the progress of the prisoner. Hayley's heart fluttered and she blinked back tears, her nervousness vanishing as soon as she saw him. The prisoner sat across from her, smiling brightly.
Hayley examined him closely. His sandy coloured hair was worn slightly longer than she was used to. It curled at the ends and near his ears, giving him a roguish look. He hadn't shaved for a week, but that was at least something she was familiar with. Before prison his attention to detail with shaving was always lacking. He had lost weight, although muscle was still evident, he had rolled up his sleeved to reveal the taught line of muscle across his arms. Bruising covered his cheek; a few smaller cuts were evident on his forehead. His warm brown eyes searched her face.
Hayley took a quick breath in, her emotions running rampant; she had no idea which one to pinpoint first. The man sitting across from her was familiar, but he had changed. His brown eyes were harder; life seemed to have gotten in the way since they had last made contact. His weight loss concerned her; he had always been a big eater. But what concerned her the most was the vibe she seemed to be getting from him. It was almost like a humming presence he gave off, like suppressed rage mingled with sadness.
"Hey Sis," Daniel Parker spoke first, most likely sensing his sister's disquiet. Hayley smiled at her brother, but it was tinged with sorrow.
"Hey Danny," Hayley spoke quietly, finding speaking to her older brother in a prison slightly disconcerting.
They both stared at each other after that, at a loss for what to say. Hayley cleared her throat and shifted in the uncomfortable chair. After getting over the shock of seeing her older brother in prison attire, she began to form coherent thoughts.
"Danny, what did you do?" Hayley burst out, voice trembling slightly from emotion. She reached out and curled her fingers with his. The handcuffs clanked obnoxiously loud as he moved them on the table to squeeze her hand.
Hayley had been aware that Daniel had been arrested, charged and imprisoned before she had a chance to return to Chicago. She knew the circumstances, although information was missing and that is what she was here to find out. She knew that he had been charged with breaking and entering, resisting arrested and theft. Another accomplice had also been identified but had yet to be apprehended, and Danny had refused to give up his partner.
A stubborn look crossed Danny's face, his jaw set into what she knew to be reticence. He shook his head, his slightly shaggy hair bouncing at the tips with the motion.
"Sis, what are you doing here?" Danny asked, ignoring her question.
Hayley gave him a steady look, which he returned, surprisingly. Although he had always been a good person, he had never had particularly strong convictions. So when his stare never wavered from her face, Hayley had room to pause. Danny had been such a sweet kid; adventurous, kind, but had made terrible choices with friends who had led him astray. Childish practical jokes had turned into petty crimes. Danny had always wanted to fit in, and in the rough neighborhood where they grew up, that meant turning to a life of crime.
"Never mind that," Hayley said more brusquely than she intended. "Why are you here Danny? You were doing so well."
Danny withdrew his hands from hers, but maintained eye contact. Danny had certainly had his brushes with the law. The guys that he had hung out with when he was younger weren't into anything serious, criminally speaking. As a juvenile Danny had been arrested a few times, from being caught using graffiti to deface a shop front, to stealing candy bars from the local store. Danny unfortunately never saw the harm in it; it was all just a bit of fun.
Danny was made to finish High School by their single mother, Mary. Both children respected and loved their Mother dearly. She had worked three jobs to keep a roof over their head and food in their bellies. Danny did get his High School Diploma, mainly due to the sheer persistence of their Mother. Danny would have left school years before if it hadn't been for Mary. Working low paid jobs, often one after the other, meant both children knew the sacrifice she was making to keep them together as a family. Their Mother knew what Danny was like; easily led and desperate for approval. This combination was a dangerous one, especially in their neighborhood where gangs, drugs and turf wars were fought almost daily, making him as an easy mark for recruitment. Mary had made Danny swear he would finish High School, and it was only his love for his Mother and younger sister which made him do it.
All these thoughts clambered for attention in Hayley's head. Danny must have read something from her expression as he sat back slightly in his chair, possibly trying to distance himself if not physically, then mentally from her questions.
"Danny," Hayley spoke sharply this time. "What the fuck happened?" Danny raised his eyebrows at Hayley's tone and choice of words. When Hayley had left Chicago, Danny had been doing well, his life of crime seemingly left behind. He had a steady job, a girlfriend and an apartment.
"It's not what you think. An old friend needed some help." Danny shrugged, the action more poignant by the sound of chains clanking around his hands. "We were set up. Something is happening in Chicago, missing girls, girls turning up dead. The charges are bullshit. Well sort of. I was there, but I was not stealing, not in the way you think." Danny finished, his eyes pleading for understanding.
Hayley watched her brother while he spoke. So far as she could tell, there was no deception in his words. She would like to believe him. His past had been firmly behind him when she left. He had settled down, age and experience finally catching up with him.
"Who was the friend?" Hayley asked, deceptively calm. She saw Danny look at her sharply, his lips pursed, unable to decide whether to tell her.
"You know him," Danny stated slowly, already wary of her reaction. "I won't rat on him. You know why, he saved my life more times than I can count. I came to him for help."
Hayley let out a string of expletives which had Danny blinking in surprise. Hayley knew who Danny was referring to, even without him giving a name. Danny knew as well as Hayley that their conversation was being recorded and would not risk saying a name.
Hayley also knew why Danny would not rat his partner out. Almost as soon as Danny walked out of the school gate for the last time he got into trouble. Danny started a job in a local factory, but met some unsavoury characters. They had cajoled him into being the driver for a robbery they were planning. Danny had never been forthcoming about the specifics but his 'friends' had used Danny and he had been left to take the fall for the crime. Hayley was never sure how, but Danny had informed her that some guy had witnessed the entire scene play out and had rescued Danny from being set up as bait for the Police. As far as Danny was concerned, that meant that he had his undying loyalty and the two had been friends ever since.
Hayley's jaw tightened, anger evident in her posture, but when she spoke next she was surprised by how calm she sounded. "I didn't realise you were still in contact. Why would you be involved with him after what happened?"
Danny responded calmly, despite her anger. "We hadn't been. In contact I mean. Look there's more to what happened with you guys than you understand. Anyway, like I said, I needed help and he gave it. Things went south. He tried to get to me out but it was more important for him to be out there than me. He had the ability to do something, I don't".
Danny had never had any strong convictions, so to hear him talk this passionately was unnerving. If she didn't know any better, Hayley would have thought her brother had been brainwashed. Danny leaned forward again, surprising Hayley when he grabbed her hand in a fierce grip.
"Why are you here? I thought you weren't able to get back for months? I'm worried about you. You seem different. What happened over there?" Danny's expression was filled with such concern; the emotional wall she had built to keep out stray emotions began to crumble.
Hayley pinched the inside of her cheek to keep from bursting into tears. She tasted blood, which just brought forth a whole different set of emotions. Hayley waved off his concern, putting a falsely bright smile on her face.
"I had leave. We finished up early and when I heard what happened I came back." Hayley schooled her expression into a careful mask of brightness, she had learned long ago to hide her emotions.
Her brother eyed her carefully but she continued to look him in the eye, not showing whatever it was he had caught when her emotional armor cracked. The guard began to walk over, and consternation flickered over Danny's face.
"Sis," Danny grabbed her hands desperately, the handcuffs making it awkward. "I had no idea you'd come back so soon. You need to watch out for yourself." Danny hesitated, obviously debating how much to tell her. "There's more going on than you think. You might be in danger. Please be careful, they might know you've come back".
Hayley sat back in the chair, stunned by her brother's announcement. The guard had walked up to Danny, nodding at her, signalling their time was up. Danny was slowly being led away before Hayley found her voice.
"What danger Danny? Who are you talking about?" Hayley asked her brother's departing back. She didn't expect an answer, but she had to say it anyway. He sent an imploring look over his shoulder, before he was guided towards the doors. She saw him mouth 'love you" through the glass doors before they slid shut with a resounding swish.
Hayley stood, immobile by what her brother had just said. She had no idea what he was talking about; he seemed to be speaking in riddles. What was going on in Chicago that had him so worried? Who the hell were the missing or dead girls he was talking about? What had Danny got himself mixed up in?
Hayley was so deep in thought that she didn't notice the guard who had escorted Danny back though the door, return to her. He seemed to appear at her side, startling Hayley. She jumped when he spoke to her, whirling around to face the threat. She was in the process of raising her arms to defend herself before reason kicked in and she stopped. The guard looked frightened at her sudden action, his hand moving to the weapon on his belt. Hayley backed off, but her limbs were bunched so tightly, that she had to dig her fingers into her palm so hard that she drew blood, to keep from reacting physically to his close proximity.
Hayley walked towards the prison exit in a daze, repeating what her brother had told her over and over in her head. None of it made sense. Well, some of it did, but she'd sort out those particular thoughts later. The rain had eased, leaving the ground wet, and the air colder than before. Hayley barely noticed. She began walking in some direction, electing not to call a cab, wanting time to figure out her conversation with her brother.
The cold air whipping around her face helped to clear her head a bit. Hayley had headed away from the prison, walking aimlessly until she heard the horn of a nearby car. She shook herself, mentally getting a grip on the tumble of emotions and thoughts running through her mind. Looking around, Hayley realised she had walked further than she intended. She cursed to herself, turning around slowly to ascertain where she was. This was so unlike her, she hadn't paid the slightest attention to where she had been going. She had been so rattled by Danny's cryptic conversation that she was now in an unfamiliar part of town.
Hayley looked around, noticing that since she had exited the prison, the clouds had darkened and dusk had settled around the tall buildings of Chicago. Hayley shivered, a combination of the cold and a feeling of apprehension. Hayley watched as an old man, hunched from the biting wind, limped behind a shopping cart filled with all his worldly possessions. Further down the street two teenagers lounged against a building, smoking, eyeing her insolently.
Grabbing her phone, Hayley tapped the GPS app, orientating herself with her current location. She had a vague idea of where she had walked to; Chicago had changed quite a bit in her absence. Buildings had been erected where none had existed; some of the projects had been torn down to make way for an industrial district. Even the Palin Correctional Facility had undergone drastic changes.
The night was approaching quickly, and Hayley thought it prudent not to be stuck in this area after dark. Not that she wasn't confident in handling herself, but she couldn't be sure how she would react if she was exposed to a dangerous situations. The guard approaching her unawares in the prison had nearly caused her to attack him. Hayley knew her emotions weren't exactly stable, but she reasoned that after what she had been though, frayed nerves were the least of her worries.
Hayley checked her GPS, and began walking back towards a main street, tucking her phone back in her pocket. A premonition of danger slithered up her spine. Hayley stopped on the edge of a street, slowly got her phone out, pretended to fiddle with it, but this gave her the opportunity to scan the street. She couldn't see anyone, but she was alert, the feeling of being watched unmistakable. Fuck, she wasn't even carrying. In feigned indifference, she looked both ways before she crossed the street. Again, she didn't see anyone but the feeling of danger persisted. After crossing the street Hayley walked down the path without meeting any resistance. She cursed her suspicious mind, seeing shadows and threats where none existed.
Hayley breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that she was almost at the end of the street. In fact, she had almost made it when four men converged from the dark alleyway next to the dilapidated building she was passing. What worried her the most was the fact that these men weren't the usual street thugs or Bangers which frequented this neighborhood. They were well dressed, all in suit and tie, bulky with muscle and hard, cruel faces.
Hired muscle, she thought immediately. They were also not out on a nightly stroll, as they expertly maneuvered themselves in a loose circle around her. Hayley felt her heartbeat increase, the sound of it thundering in her ears uncomfortable. Hayley dropped her bag, put a leg forward and softened her knees, ready for an attack. One man spoke, obviously the leader.
"Hayley Parker, this is your only warning. Leave Chicago tonight. We know about your brother. He's stuck his nose in where it doesn't belong."
Hayley blinked; surprised that he knew her name. How the hell did they know she was even here? She hadn't been in the prison for long; even Danny didn't know she was coming, so they couldn't have called ahead. Even more frightening was Danny's warning. His voice echoed in her head ... "You might be in danger. Please be careful, they might know you've come back."
The man who spoke to her was directly in front of her. Strangely his accent marked him as being from New Jersey rather than Chicago. Hayley didn't say anything but stared at him. He wasn't young, probably in his mid-40's. He packed a lot of muscle, but the area around his stomach was paunchy, he was starting to let himself go. His eyes were a pale blue and held the threat of violence. Hayley showed the man no fear and this seemed to anger him. He shrugged his shoulders, smirking at her.
"Fine. You won't take me seriously; we'll show you how serious we are."
Hayley didn't give him a chance to signal his buddies, she darted in quicker than the man gave her credit for, and punched him squarely in the nose. Hayley heard the crack of cartilage as her fist slammed into his nose; his head snapping back, blood already seeping out of his nose. She turned abruptly, using her foot to kick the knee of the guy behind her. He let out a shout of pain as he crumpled to the ground; his knee was useless now, she'd knocked his kneecap out.
Hayley felt movement behind her and swung around anticipating an attack. The fist slammed into her mouth before she could react. Blood filled her mouth as she rolled with the punch. Huge arms wrapped themselves around her; some brute was holding her in a bear hug. She struggled ruefully for a second before going limp. The stupid bastard fell for the trick and loosened his hold slightly, giving her enough room to smash her head back into his face. The guy who had been holding her howled and let go.
The first guy she attacked, the leader, had recovered from her original punch and was stalking her. The other guy, who she had yet to tangle with, was shadowing his movements behind her. Hayley had a difficult time keeping an eye on both, as one would dart in while the other attempted to get a hold of her. She was quicker and younger than the two of them and managed to escape most attempts. They were also breathing heavily, so make that fitter too. Both seemed to wise up to her tactics and moved in simultaneously. One of them managed to get in a grueling punch to her mid-section which dropped her to the floor. She felt like her stomach had gone up through her rib-cage to her esophagus. She tasted bile in the back of her throat as she looked up from the position on her hands and knees, the wet seeping into her jeans where she bent over on the cold concrete.
She stared up into the man's cold, pale blue eyes as he grinned at her, the blood from his broken nose flowing freely down his face. His eyes flickered behind her before they widened in shock. Hayley heard the sound of a groan behind her before a whirl of activity in front of her startled her. Hayley looked behind her; the man who had been behind her was now on sprawled on his back, unconscious. Hayley's head swiveled forward in time to see a stranger dispatch the man with the cold blue eyes with determined efficiency. The stranger turned around, and their eyes locked. Hayley's heart, already beating fast from adrenaline, seemed to ratchet up a notch as she discovered the stranger's identity. She sat back on the sidewalk, not bothered by the damp concrete anymore.
He stared at her for what seemed like an age. Slowly, she brought her hand up, using her thumb to wipe away the blood from her split lip. He watched the action but didn't say a word. Hayley sighed loudly.
"Aiden Pearce, always a pleasure." She couldn't help the sarcasm, and he probably expected no less.
He said nothing however, just watched her. He slowly came over, extending his hand to help her up. She eyed it wary, but resignedly she took his hand, surprised at how warm it felt when he pulled her up. She clamped down on that thought quickly. It was going to be a long fucking night.