Watch Your Back (Karen Rose) Online - Karen Rose


To Marc Conterato, for all things medical.

To Sonie Lasker, for answering all my mad texts in the middle of the night. Hooyah!

To Terri and Kay, for helping me through the rough spots.

As always, all mistakes are my own.


Eight years earlier, Baltimore, Maryland, Thursday, March 15, 5.45 P.M.

I can’t. I can’t do this.

The words thundered in John Hudson’s mind, drowning out the beep of the cash register at the front of the convenience store. The customer at the counter paid for her purchases, then left, oblivious to the fact that the guy standing in front of the motor oil was a cold-blooded killer.

But I’m not a killer. Not yet.

But you will be. In less than five minutes, you will be. Desperation grabbed his throat, churned his gut. Made his heart beat too hard and too fast. I can’t. God help me, I cannot do this.

You have to. The small print on the back of the bottle of motor oil he pretended to study blurred as his eyes filled with hot tears. He knew what he had to do.

John put the bottle back on the shelf, his hand trembling. He closed his eyes, felt the burn as the tears streaked down his wind-chapped cheeks. He swiped a knuckle under his eyes, the wool of his gloves scraping his skin. Blindly he chose another bottle, conscious of the seconds ticking by. Conscious of the risk, of the cost if he followed through. And if he did not.

The text had come that morning. There had been no words. None had been needed. The photo attached had been more than sufficient.

Sam. My boy.

His son was no longer a boy. John knew that. At twenty-two, his son was a man. But John also knew he’d lost the best years of his son’s life because he couldn’t recall much from that time. He’d spent them snorting and shooting up, filling his body with what he couldn’t live without. Even now, standing here, he was high. Just enough to be borderline functional, but not enough to dull the horror of what he was about to do.

His addiction had nearly killed him too many times to count. It had pushed him to beat his wife in a frenzied rage, nearly killing her. Now it was killing Sam.

His son had pulled himself out of the neighborhood, kept himself clean. Straight. Sam had a future. Or he would, if John did what he was supposed to do.

God. How can I? His hand trembling, John flipped his phone open to the photo that had been texted to him that day – his son bound, unconscious, a thin line of blood trickling from his mouth. Tied to a chair, his head lolling to the side. A gloved hand holding a gun to his head.

How can I? How can I not?

The assignment had originally come via text yesterday morning from a number John had hoped he’d never see. He’d made a desperate deal with the devil and payment had come due. His target had been identified, the time and place specified.

The target came to this store every evening on his way home from work. John just had to show up. Do the job. Make it look unplanned. Wrong place, wrong time.

But he hadn’t been able to do it yesterday. Hadn’t been able to force himself to walk inside the store. Hadn’t been able to force himself to pull the trigger.

So the ante had been upped, the second text sent, this time with the photo. And Sam was the pawn. Son. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

John heard the quiet beep of the door as it opened. Please don’t let it be him. Please don’t let him stop here today. Please.

But if it’s not him, you can’t kill him. And then Sam will die.

‘Hey, Paul.’ The greeting had come from the cashier, a fifty-something African-American woman who greeted several of her customers by name. ‘What’s shakin’ in the hallowed halls?’

John’s heart sank. It’s him. Make your move.

‘Same old, same old,’ Paul replied, a weariness to his voice that somehow made John’s task seem even worse. ‘Cops put them in jail, we do our best to throw away the key. Most of the time they’re back on the street so fast, the door doesn’t even hit them in the ass.’

‘Damn defense attorneys,’ the cashier muttered. ‘Same old, same old on the numbers, too?’

‘My mother is a creature of habit,’ Paul said, his chuckle now rueful.

‘You’re a good boy to pick up her lotto tickets every day, Paul.’

‘It makes