Pitch Black

After a botched investigation left him wounded and disgraced, Special Agent Alec Lambert was forced to transfer onto Wyatt Blackstone’s team. This former profiler has lost his edge, buried by the guilt he feels over another agent’s death. But he’ll need all his skills when he realizes he’s getting another crack at a case that has haunted him. A serial killer known as the Professor is now using the latest e-mail schemes to lure his victims and the Black CATs are on his trail.

Samantha Dalton didn’t set out to become an online vigilante, until her grandmother was swindled out of everything she owned. Devoting herself to exposing fraud and preventing tragedies from happening to other families, Sam has gained fame and success with her website and a recently released book. A hermit since her ugly divorce, Sam really doesn’t want the outside world intruding on her privacy. Especially not when that outside world is a sexy FBI agent who tells her she has a cyber connection to a murdered teenage boy.

When the killer opens a line of communication with Sam via her website, Alec and his team enlist her help to stop him. There’s one thing they don’t know, however. The Professor doesn’t just see Sam Dalton as an anonymous online foe. He is, in fact, her number one fan. He’s been watching her, waiting for the time to be right to make his move. He just isn’t sure what that move will be.

REVIEWS:
“With excellent writing and character development to go along with its deft plotting, PITCH BLACK is a sure winner.” – Romance Reviews Today
“Elegantly woven plots, filled with action and psychological drama, make this dynamic series mesmerizing. 4 1/2 stars” – Romantic Times

“Leslie Parrish is a romantic suspense genius. Pitch Black, Book #2 in her Black CAT series, is every bit as taut and superbly written as her first…. Do not miss this one!” – Reader To Reader Reviews

Prologue
“Hello. I am the former finance minister for a once great nation. I am writing to you about an issue of utmost urgency.

Recent upheavals in my country make it impossible for me to retrieve monies hidden by my government. I write to you begging for assistance. I am needing a partner to help me retrieve the monies. I can trace the funds but must work through a third party for my own safety and the safety of my family.

In exchange for your help you will be paid half of what is recovered, or ten million dollars. Please respond to me to arrange the transfer of money. Your Friend, Dr. Malik Waffi.”

“I still can’t believe you fell for this bullshit.”

Ignoring his passenger, Jason Todd clenched the steering wheel of his father’s Buick, which he fought to keep on the dark, slippery road. His heart pounded furiously as he strained to see through the snow-streaked windshield. His short, jerky breaths punctuated his excitement.

“We coulda been at a party,” Ryan added from the other side of the car, where he’d been hunched since they’d left home an hour ago. “Instead we’re in a blizzard, about to get scammed.”

“Nobody forced you to come along.”

“Shut up, loser, you know I wouldn’t have let you go alone.”

No, he wouldn’t have. They’d been best friends since first grade and Jason didn’t know if he’d have had the stones to go through with this if Ryan didn’t have his back.

“This snow sucks. I can’t see shit.” Ryan used a grimy Taco Bell napkin to try to clear away some steam from the windshield.

The light snow that had begun falling at sunset had spat down relentlessly for the past hour. The tires fought for every bit of traction they could get. The highway from Wilmington had been fine, but these back roads were untouched. Winter might have started late, with temperatures near fifty at Christmas a couple of weeks ago, but now that it had arrived, it was kicking ass and taking names.

“When’s the last time your Dad changed the wiper blades?”

“It’s not like I could ask him since he’s in Florida.” And by the time Jason’s parents got back from vacation, he planned to be driving his own car. A nice one, not this crapmobile.

“You know this is all bogus, right? Internet scam 101.”

Man, the guy just wouldn’t give up. “You saw the check.”

Ryan nodded. He’d been as shocked as Jason when a check for a cool grand had arrived in Jason’s mail, a down payment according to this Waffi guy. “Yeah, yeah, the money,” Ryan conceded. “But I still say the check could bounce.”

“It’s certified. They don’t bounce.”

“They do if they’re fake,” Ryan muttered, holding onto his skepticism harder than he’d held onto his belief in Santa Claus.

“It’s not fake. Come on, dude, admit you were wrong. Nobody would part with a thousand bucks as part of an e-mail scam. Not even your cyber fantasy woman could deny that.”

Ryan’s lopsided grin made him look even younger than his sixteen years. “Bite me. You know she’s a babe. You’re just jealous because she never sent you a personalized email.”

Jason was happy to have been emailed by someone who wanted to make him a millionaire. But he had to admit, judging by the picture on her website, Sam the Spaminator was way hot.

“We shoulda waited for her to write me back,” Ryan added. “I know she’ll say this is all bogus. She’s written about this exact scam.”

“The mo-ney,” Jason replied in a sing-song voice.

The check in his pocket was all the proof Jason needed that this was legit. Waffi had sent it, no strings attached, saying he wanted to prove he was on the up-and-up. Jason could have cashed it and walked away. That alone proved this wasn’t a scam. But by bringing it to meet the doctor in person tonight, he’d get to exchange it for another one containing a whole lot more zeroes. By tomorrow, he’d be so rich he could do whatever he wanted. Maybe he’d even buy Ryan a Hummer for being his backup.

Picturing it, he almost missed the gravel road Dr. Waffi had told him to look for. Nearly obscured by tangled brush, it would have been hard to spot even in good weather. He swerved onto it, maintaining control as the car fishtailed.

He hadn’t gone fifty feet when Ryan yelled, “Watch out!”

Suddenly spying the huge truck parked across the entire lane, Jason jerked the wheel hard. They went into a skid, the car spinning wildly as it careened toward the trees. Gravel and snow spewed into the air, the clack of sharp limbs hitting the roof sounding like knives on bone. Ryan flew out of his seat, smashing against Jason, who was punched against the driver’s side window so hard he heard his cheekbone crunch.

As the Buick finally came to a halt a few yards above a slope dropping into a frozen pond, Jason felt sticky moisture dripping down his forehead. His face throbbed; salty fluid saturated his lips. His eyelids were heavy, his vision blurring. But right before he blacked out, he saw a dark shape approaching the car. Someone was out there. “S’okay, man,” he mumbled. “Help’s here.”

They were the last words he managed before darkness washed over him.

And they were the first he thought of when he came to. Help’s here.

He’d been unconscious for a few minutes. Or a few hours. As he moved from oblivion to awareness, Jason couldn’t be sure. He knew only one thing: he was cold. Whatever warmth the car’s heater had provided was gone. Pricks of frigid air thrust needle sharp into his face and body. Trying to force the murky clouds from his brain, he struggled to remember what had happened and where he was.

It didn’t take long. They’d crashed. Violently.

But help is here. Right?

“Don’t try to move, Jason.”

The voice was strong and even, yet not comforting. It held a note of iron firmness that would stand for no disobedience.

It also wasn’t the only sound. From nearby, he heard a loud creak, like a giant rocking chair set in motion. “Who…”

“Quiet.”

He wondered if he was in a hospital, being tended to by a stern doctor. If so, maybe his parents were there. They’d be mad at him for crashing, but so relieved he was all right they’d let it go. And Jason would tell them he was sorry. So sorry.

Though the fantasy enticed him, he didn’t open his eyes. Partly because he was in so much pain. And partly because he already knew his parents were not there. That was a kid’s dream. The nearly adult Jason knew he wasn’t in a hospital. Not only was it dark, it was still snowing. The tiny drops of moisture landing on his skin and turning instantly to ice confirmed it. Plus, his lips were bloody. And every inch of him hurt.

“Jason, you were told to come alone.”

“Who’s there?” he whispered.

Bright light suddenly flashed on, cutting through the pitch black night. It thrust like a spike through the fine skin of his eyelids and into his pupils. Jason turned away, instinctively trying to escape. His head, however, was the only part of his body he could move. Forcing himself to go slowly, he shifted his eyes down, then began to lift his lids, letting the light in bit by bit.

Definitely outside. His chest was bare. The skin he could see through the crystallized snow had turned gray with cold, possibly even frostbite. His legs, too, shone gray in the snow-whitened moonlight. And oddly, he was sitting upright in a chair.

“Jason?” More stern now.

He didn’t look up, stalling as he tried to get his brain working. Icy snow, tinged pink with blood, covered his bare thighs. Seeing a solid strip of silver running across them, he realized why he couldn’t move. Duct tape. What the fuck?

“What’s happening?” he whispered. “Where’s Ryan?”

“He’s right behind you.”

He jerked his head back. It banged against something with a thunk, garnering a moan in response. Ryan was alive. For now.

His eyes shifted frantically and he squinted against the brutal light. Headlights. “What�s going on?” Another crack sounded nearby. His panic rose. Something in his brain told him he knew the sound and understood its meaning.

“You were told to come alone.” The tone remained harsh, yet patient, like he was some kid whose lesson had to be repeated.

He suddenly had a suspicion. “Dr. Waffi?”

“Ahh, it learns. Now, what have I been saying?”

“I was told to come alone,” he admitted.

“You disobeyed. I would think you were being willful, but knowing what I do about you, I’ll assume it was pure stupidity.”

Tears oozed out of Jason’s eyes, sliding an inch or so down each cheek before freezing hard. “Please let me go.”

“Go where? To do what?”

“To go home to my parents.” Oh, did he wish they hadn’t gone away and he hadn’t answered that e-mail.

“Your parents should never have given you life.”

Jason started crying like a baby. How could this be happening? He was only seventeen. He’d barely lived. He’d never even banged a girl, despite what he said in the locker room.

“Who is the other one? Is he as stupid as you?”

“Ryan.” Hearing a groan, Jason regretted all the shit he’d ever gotten his best friend into. “He knew this was a scam.”

“So, he’s no fool. But he has poor taste in friends.” The man’s coldness was underscored by one of those maddening cracking noises. It was longer. Louder. “He’ll pay for that now.”

“Are you crazy?” Jason screamed. “Let us go!”

Another crack. Jason could now feel something crackling beneath his frozen feet. The hard ground felt uneven, rock hard yet still unstable. So very cold.

Terrified, Jason suddenly realized what the sounds were. And what was about to happen. He jerked, fighting the tape, knowing he should remain still. “No, don’t do this!”

He finally stared directly at the light–high beams from his Dad’s banged up Buick. Facing him, it sat at the top of a small slope a few yards away. As he watched, a dark, shadowy figure, faintly visible in the snowy night, walked up the slope toward it.

For one brief moment, the figure passed in front of the headlights, casting a shadow so long it seemed to stretch for miles, enveloping Jason in its blackness. Then it moved on until reaching the open car door.

Jason knew what the man was going to do even before he bent into the car and flipped off the lights. The sudden darkness was almost as blinding, the terror infinitely more extreme. Because he didn’t have to see the car being shifted into neutral or hear the emergency brake being released to know exactly what was happening. “God, no, please.”

The vehicle began to roll down the slope, drawing irrevocably closer to the icy pond on which Jason and Ryan were trapped. “Why are you doing this?” he yelled, straining against the tape even as the front tires reached the frozen shoreline.

Behind him, he felt movement. Ryan was coming to.

“Goodbye, Jason,” the voice called. “The world will be better off without you. Shame about your friend. You really should have come alone.”

The shadowy figure moved, disappearing into the swirling snow. A moment later, an engine rumbled, then slowly faded away. He barely heard it as the car eased closer, sliding across the snow slicked ice. Adding weight…so much weight.

Crack.

How deep is the water? How thick could the ice be?

Will we freeze or will we drown?

“Jase?”

“Ryan, ‘I’m sorry I got you into this,” he sobbed.

Ryan’s head moved, until his frozen hair touched Jason’s face. “S’okay. Sidekick’s always got the hero’s back.”

“Sorry!” Jason cried, trying not to move yet desperate to break away. But before he could do a thing, even say goodbye to his best friend, another crack came and the ice gave way beneath them. Freezing liquid rushed over his feet and ankles, bringing them back to life to experience the agony.

They plunged down until blackness covered their heads and ice seared his lungs. And as the water turned the world above him into an icy grave, Jason could think only of his parents.

God how he wished he’d gone with them to Florida.

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