CHAPTER SEVEN – THE FIRST SUSPECT

The air was dense, thick with fear and tension as I lifted my head. There stood Jude in all his bad boy glory with his wide smirk and wild look in his eyes shining. He wore a white t-shirt with a muted green military jacket that was torn and ironed with a variety of patches. His dark blue jeans were full of rips and dirt, a blisteringly obvious sign that he was getting down and dirty – probably with an enemy.

"Ruby Porter," he addressed sharply, his eyes cold and distant, "what do you think you're doing?"

I looked at the cold tile, embarrassment turning my cheeks bright scarlet. He circled the corner of the cafeteria where I sat on the floor. His steps were calculated, deafening even.

"I was...investigating," I murmured, the words fading into whispers.

Just his presence had me quaking in my shoes, begging him to go away. One confrontation was bad enough. I was so angry at the funeral, not caring if I pushed his buttons, but now I knew better. He was a gang member. It was stupid and reckless to think I could upstage him again or get the last word. Something about that searing grin on his face told me this wasn't a battle he would lose.

Jude got onto one knee, his face parallel to mine. His jaw was covered in a few days worth of stubble, and his eyes were cold. Dead almost. "Investigating?" He laughed dryly. "So getting your ass kicked is your idea of investigating, Porter?"

"Not really," I murmured, biting nervously on my lip. It was tender and bleeding. I didn't stop.

He reached into his pocket, throwing a small card at my feet. "This is for you."

Frozen, I stared at the writing, unsure what it was supposed to mean. It was just a number to some business. It was probably useless, or Jude was playing games and planting false leads under my nose.

Nothing about the card stood out, but at this point I was grasping at straws. I studied it, rereading word after word, trying to make sense of its contents. A few more minutes passed as I struggled to make any kind of connection.

And then it hit me; I remembered seeing that address on the stack of mail from that morning. It was a letter addressed in Max's name, but I hadn't even opened it. The more I sat there, the more I wondered if it was somehow a part of his side job with Dorothy Parker. It was a stretch, but something believable. Dorothy was hesitant to talk yesterday.

She had information I desperately wanted. But until I saw her, I knew it was just a guess, a shot in the dark. I didn't have evidence or anything worth saying.

Dorothy would spill for a price. I saw that money-hunger look in her eyes as she sent her husband off. What was so special about this job?

"Hey." Jude cleared his throat. "I figured you wouldn't be in your right mind to check out the crime scene before it was cleaned, so I brought you a present." His white teeth sparkled. "It was on your brother that night."

I forgot to breathe. My heart skipped a few beats as my eyes widened. "What?" I cried out, tears falling. "Why would you tamper with a crime scene?"

"Listen, I knew this would happen sooner or later. Your brother was persistent. And I made a promise. This was in a jacket he left at my place. Thought you could use it. Did you really think I'd show you anything I found in the business district, Porter? Do you think I'd let you crack this wide open when I have to find out. I am feeling vengeful."

"Why would you help me?" I felt my body draining of energy. I was reacting too much.

He grinned. "Darling, I know everything that happens around here. I heard you were trying to investigate. Not a wise move on your end."

The words chilled me, but I couldn't help but grin smugly. Jude admitted to being involved.

Jude walked over to where I sat, holding his hand out. I stared at it, wondering if I'd spontaneously combust by touching the hands of someone so evil and cold-blooded.

"Take it." He ordered. "Now."

My body trembled as my hand brushed against his, rough calloused hand. I went rigid, unable to blink or breathe. My mind was going through hundreds of reasons of why someone like Jude was here.

"W-what are you doing here?" I asked quietly, fumbling over my words as he yanked me to my feet.

His expression turned smug with the corners of his lips twisted. "This." He reached into the black bag he was holding. Jude pulled out a crinkled newspaper, the front pages headline circled in red marker. His grin widened as he let out a laugh. "Never would've pegged you as the ass kicking type. Then again, I bet you're terrible with control, baby, aren't you?

I grimaced. "Please don't call me baby."

"Aww, asking so nicely. At least you recognize a losing battle when you see it. Who knew you'd leave bruises on that gossip-whore?"

I shrugged. One West sibling was enough, but three was too much. Mixing Jude into that equation made it worse.

By such a sly move, Michael upped the ante significantly. He made me a spectacle, virtually changing everything overnight. I was hated; an outcast over one article. It was a shame the social hierarchy extended high school, merging with the real world.

Every move I made needed to be proper, planned, and flawless.

"Are you going to tell me why you think Max was murdered? Are you going to tell me why you harassed me that day?" His eyes were a deadly shade of brown. "Baby, I don't take threats lightly. I should ruin you. I should teach you a lesson in hierarchy. I am at the top of the chain. What I say goes. You are a mindless zombie at the bottom of the chain. You blindly follow me without question, without argument. Is that so hard?"

"No." I swallowed thickly. "Can you blame me? You showed up at his funeral. Gang leaders don't have that kind of sympathy for anyone. Sorry if I'm a little suspicious."

His lips twitched. "A backbone, too?" He laughed. "Didn't think you were this bold, Porter. But you know what? I like your style."

The clicking of heels in the hallway froze the pair. Jude's eyes narrowed, and in a fraction of a second, he reacted. He grabbed me, pushing me ahead of him. "Walk," he hissed at my ear. "I have somewhere I need to be. You might be able to help."

My stomach tightened as I struggled to walk in a straight line. I knew when to obey. With the pistol Jude was packing and with the irritation in his voice, it was time to keep my mouth closed and walk. I repeated the mantra that I could do it. I could stay calm. I prayed that Mrs. Donovan wasn't going to kill me, but school could wait. Jude wanted.

His rough hands gripped my shoulders as he followed behind, steadying me. I was so dizzy and confused that I kept pumping into chairs and tables. "Our escape is that window. It's unlocked."

I trembled as his hands dug harder. "H-how do you know that?"

"Baby, how do I think I got in here packing heat? I doubt I would've made it past the office."

My eyes widened. "How long have you been here?"

"Long enough to see you ignore a fight. If some bitch slapped me, I'd return the favor."

"Even if she was a girl?"

"Especially if she was a girl. No high and mighty bitch slaps me and gets away with it. Keep that in mind if you try anything. I can and will hurt you. What bruises you have from rolling around with Michael in the parking is nothing compared to what I could do to you."

The threat and danger was prevalent. Maybe it had not been wise to suspect a gang leader, but I couldn't take it back.

"You wait. I'm going first."

He lightly shoved me to the side, his fingers brushing my face. A jolt startled me. The guy was static charged, leaving my body tingle everywhere. As the clicking grew closer, he slipped out of the window, landing feet first. His land was perfect, was all I could think as I watched in wonder and amazement. He was lithe and moved like a cat.

"Your turn."

His cold grin met my terrified eyes.

"I don't think I can. Fear of heights."

He rolled his eyes, his hands traveling down his side until it rested atop his handgun. "Fearing heights more than this, baby?" Jude licked his lips, his eyes never leaving mine. He gripped the gun, slowing pulling it out. It glistened from the suns rays. It was also the most beautiful gun I had ever seen with its intricate design carved into the metal. Even the color was unique, custom.

"I-I'm coming," I stuttered, my hands bracing the windowsill. The sun blinded the horizon, so I looked down, staring into Jude's amused eyes.

"She's coming," he warned. "Fucking jump. I'd rather not shoot you, baby."

I forced my eyes closed. "Please don't let me break anything," I whispered, pushing myself off the edge.

I landed onto the grass hard, my elbows breaking my fall.

Jude laughed. "At least you know how to fall, baby. After spending time with you, I'm wondering if that brother really trained you."

"I'm a girl," I squeaked, rubbing my grass-stained armed. "Max was very protective. He taught me the basics in self-defense. But then he..." I froze. "And you know..." The words came out like choked sobs. I cursed under my breath. I couldn't be weak under a killer's watchful eyes.

"Hmm. Let's get the hell out of here. I think there's something you need to see."

He slipped his gun effortlessly into his pants, but his hand remained clutched at his side. He really was the best at what he did. As I followed behind, I noticed that he was watching in every direction. Was he being followed? Was someone watching us? Was it a signal that a gang member would jump out of the hedges and snap my neck?

"Do you have a phone?"

My heart continued to pound. "In my pocket."

"Get rid of it."

"W-why?"

He stopped and spun around, anger bubbling to the surface of his face. "I won't fucking ask again, Porter." He ran a hand through his disheveled dark hair. His motions were jagged—almost like he was on the verge of losing control.

The cold spewing from his mouth was chilling. How cold-hearted was Jude Carlson?

I had a sinking feel I was about to find out.

***

Jude was far from good company. In fact, he was the worst.

He drove hour after hour in complete silence, not uttering a single word. It was a chilling action from how talkative and full of life he was earlier. The sinking, bubbling in my gut warned me that it was my fault.

Don't get under a killer's skin, idiot, the voice taunted. Remember who he is. He can destroy you in second.

My eyes stayed glued to the window and the scenery.

I clutched that business card like it was my life line. Why did he want to help? Why would he give me a clue? Why was he having me skip school? For all I knew, he could drag me to the middle of nowhere. He could murder me and no one would ever suspect a thing.

The car slowed as we entered the old, abandoned business district of town. Fear clung at me as I remembered that fateful day, the day I learned where Max was found dead. I had been hoping to come here for days, but now that I was, I wanted to turn and run until I collapsed.

My eyes closed. I fought back tears and sobs. My lower lip trembled as Jude weaved around trash, jerking the car into jagged movements. I clung to the door handle fearing we'd flip and crash into the river.

"You believe its murder, right?" Jude asked gruffly.

"Yes."

"Well, go investigate."

The car screeched to a sudden halt, the seatbelt barely keeping me from flying towards the windshield. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the steering wheel.

"There's a lot you don't know, baby. You might want to rethink what you do or who you trust. I'm not here to protect you, but I made a fucking promise that I wouldn't let you end up like him. So, get out. Look around. Feed your curiosity about what happened, and get back in this car. After today, I never want you looking into this again, do you understand?"

I trembled. "I can't make a promise like that."

Jude's hand rested on his thigh. "Sweetheart, did you forget who I am? Did you forget that I could waste you in a minute and I wouldn't give a fuck?"

Max. I didn't care if I faced sudden breath, but no one was going to make me stop. I needed answers. I needed to get him justice. It was a shame I knew it'd come down to this – dying. I didn't want to go out without finding the truth, but I knew I could die for trying.

"It doesn't matter who you are," I said. "You'll just have to kill me because I won't stop. I love my brother. No threat, not even death, is going to make you do whatever you want."

Jude grunted, his profanities under his breath. "You have a fucking backbone too? What gives? I've never met such a crazy bitch ready to give her life for nothing."

The anger swelled. "Max Porter is everything, you jackass," I hissed, jumping out of the car.

The streets were somewhat dark, hidden by the overhang between buildings. A build up of trash littered the streets. A few rusted, stripped cars were around the bend – their age showing. This place, whatever it was, was not a place Max would ever hang. It was more of a gang hideout.

My nerves were close to shot as I power-walked down the street, not knowing what I was looking for. The river, probably a quarter mile away, spanned miles behind the industrial park. Images filled my head, graphic images of Max lying on the bank, bruised and bleeding to death as he cried out to help. I was never going to believe it was suicide.

"Porter!" Jude growled. He was running behind me, picking up speed quickly. "No one talks to me that way, bitch," he snapped, whipping out his signature handgun and unlocking the safety. "If I were you, I wouldn't take another step."

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I promised I'd get ten chapters done before NaNo, and I'm going to do everything in my power to keep it. This is mostly short because I didn't want to rush it. I should also have another chapter up within a couple of days as long as I stay motivated. Also, keep in mind, that a lot is not as it seems.