Unmasked: Volume One
From New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo comes a deliciously dark and mind-bending erotic thriller series.
I was born into this world unwanted.
I spent the first hours of my life unloved.
I spent the first eighteen years of my life with the parents who tried to shelter me from the harsh reality of my existence.
But you can’t un-write a sad story if the ending is literally written all over your face.
So I moved out and now I hide. I have a night job that pays the bills. Every night, I put on my mask and walk to work.
Then one night, I hear and see something that will change my purpose in life… forever: a murder that will bring him to me.
He says he wants to protect me. And, through a series of events I can’t fully make sense of, I find myself believing him.
But our nightly visits are always cloaked in darkness. I don’t know his face and he will never know mine.
I was born into this world unwanted. I will leave this world unmasked.
WARNING: Due to strong language, graphic violence, and sexual content, this book is not intended for readers under the age of 18.
The monsters we can’t see are the scariest ones of all.
Six blocks and the guy walking on the opposite side of the street is still going in the same direction as me. I don’t spook easily. I’m used to walking the streets at night. In fact, I only walk the streets at night. But something about this guy doesn’t feel right.
I can’t see his face.
This shouldn’t scare me, since he can’t see mine either, but being able to see another person’s face naturally puts us at ease. This is one of the reasons some people despise talking on the phone. And also why I have had zero friends and boyfriends in all my nineteen years on this planet. No one ever sees my face. Ever.
Even when I applied for my job at the gas station. I told the guy on the phone that I had a day job and I’d have to conduct the interview in the evening. Besides, I was applying for the nightshift position at the station. The guy bought it. The day job was a lie. The truth is, I don’t go out during the day. I haven’t been outside during daylight hours in years.
I don’t have one of those diseases that make you break out in blisters when your skin is exposed to sunlight. My reasons for not allowing anyone to see my face in the light of day are much more vain than that, and it started the day I was born. My biological mother took one look at my face and begged them to take me away. I’ve been hiding ever since.
So it shouldn’t make me uneasy that I can’t see this guy’s face, but something about the way his hoodie covers it and the fact that he never turns his head is giving me the creeps.
The gas station is in my sight now. Just a block and a half away. I can make it there.
The streets of downtown L.A. are crawling with all kinds of shady characters at night. It’s like when you turn the lights out on a filthy apartment and all the cockroaches come out of their hiding places. The drug addicts and whores dominate. The homeless and the lost wanderers, picking through the garbage and looking for a place to lie down for the night. Then there’s the drug dealers and gang members who try to lay low, but they have to come out and stake their claim and make their deals every once in a while.
Downtown Los Angeles is not a place where a scrawny nineteen-year-old girl like me should be walking the streets at night. But that’s exactly why I do it. People see me walking down the street and they smile, thinking I’m an easy mark. They can rob me or rape me, maybe even murder me, and they’ll get away with it. I won’t put up a fight. But they don’t know me. I’m far from easy.
The monsters we can’t see are the scariest ones of all.
You probably think it’s impossible for someone to be afraid of little ol’ me when I’m walking these streets, but you’d be surprised. Our face is what we show to the world. It’s how we’re recognized. It’s how we’re remembered. Our face is our identity. When you hide your face, you’re hiding your identity, and this makes people very nervous. In our feeble little minds, the only people who hide their faces in public are criminals and clowns.
Everyone’s afraid of clowns. Criminals, on the other hand, are either feared or revered.
Hiding my face is how I make it through the streets of L.A. without getting raped and murdered. Those who don’t fear me are fascinated by me.
Well, that and the fact that there’s always someone watching over me. He watches from a distance because he knows better than to get too close.
I haven’t spoken to my father since I moved out eight months ago. I’ve walked these streets every day since then and I’ve only seen him on a dozen or so occasions. But I know my father. He was black ops for the army until my mother made him quit when he was just twenty-eight. Now he has his own private investigation firm. I’ve only seen him following me in his silver Audi S4 a dozen times because that’s how many times he wanted me to see him.
But even without my father watching over me, I can take care of myself. And no one knows that better than my father. He trained me.
I glance across the street at the guy in the hood and a gold Mercedes SUV drives by for the second time since I left the house six minutes ago. Now I’m even more nervous. I can deal with just about any deadly situation thrown at me. But I can’t outrun a car.
I glance around the familiar neighborhood, looking for an escape route in case the car is working with the guy across the road. The gas station is just a block away on the other side of the street. The guy in the hoodie will get there before me. So I can’t bolt for it and barricade myself inside.
A strange chill passes over my skin as my instincts kick in. I should probably turn around, but I hate admitting defeat. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk, half a block from the gas station.
Then the gold Mercedes is back, but it’s not coming for me. It cuts across the double-stripe painted in the middle of the street, driving against oncoming traffic, and pulls up next to the guy in the hoodie. A white Honda driving on the other side of the road blares its horn at the Mercedes. The shrill sound of the horn fades away as the guy in the hoodie approaches the Mercedes.
Bzzzzz. The soft buzz as the window rolls down on the Mercedes. The guy in the hoodie is fast. He pulls out a gun and shoots the driver of the Mercedes within a second of that window going down. From here, it sounded like a Desert Eagle .44 fitted with a supersonic suppressor. Not a very good silencer, but there aren’t many options in silencers when you’re packing that kind of firepower.
The guy in the hoodie opens the driver’s side door and I can hear him grunt as he pushes the driver’s dead body into the passenger seat. Then he drives off and pulls into the gas station. Shit!
I spin around and take off running back to my apartment. I race down Hope Street with a speed that would make some Olympic athletes envious. I’m a well-trained weapon. But one of the most important lessons my father taught me is that sometimes your best weapon is your ability to run.
Nothing on my body moves. My hood doesn’t fly off exposing my hair. My sunglasses don’t bounce on my face. Every bit of my disguise remains in place as I fly down the streets of L.A. like a black phantom. Black hoodie. Black jeans. Black sunglasses. All hiding a ghostly face that would send children screaming.
My eyes close in on a group of three guys coming out of a liquor store a block ahead. Their eyes immediately lock on me, as if they’re waiting for me. They really don’t want to get in my way right now.
Get out of the way, assholes.
I want to shout this at them, but I’m not a vocal person. I’ll talk to someone at the gas station if they have a problem with their credit card or if they need directions, but mostly I keep quiet. I don’t talk to my neighbors. I don’t talk to store clerks when I go to the grocery store.
I don’t talk to people because I don’t like answering questions. I don’t care if my appearance makes people nervous and they need to ask questions just to feel more at ease around me. If you don’t feel at ease around me, fuck you. That’s not my problem.
Oh, now they’re standing shoulder to shoulder to block my path on the sidewalk. Stupid move.
The one on the left is wearing a white T-shirt that comes down to his knees to cover up the fact that his jeans are slung low enough to show his ass. The other two are just clones of him in different sizes. Shorty. Fatty. Stocky.
I rush Shorty at full speed, ramming my shoulder into his gut and sending him skidding across the concrete on his ass. Fatty and Stocky come at me from behind. I reach my hands back, crossing my wrists as I grab their noses. Then I twist around and ram their heads into each other.
Shorty gets off his ass and comes at me with a knife. I try to kick it out of his hand, but he steps back and I miss.
Always attacking, my father’s reminder rings in my head.
Fatty grabs the back of my hoodie and a good chunk of the ponytail underneath. I reach to gouge his eyes as he yanks me backward. I stomp on his foot, then I grab his hand and pull him between me and Shorty. I bend his hand back and bring my elbow down on his forearm, breaking his arm bone. He drops to his knees as Shorty comes at me with the knife again.
“Hey, bitch!” Shorty says, holding the knife up as he approaches me. “You look like a freak, but do you fuck like a freak?”
He pulls the knife back, ready to strike. I wait until the last moment, just as he drives it forward toward my abdomen, before I pull my leg up and deliver a blow to Shorty’s jaw that will no doubt have broken at least half his teeth and possibly rattled his brain enough to kill him. He hits the concrete with a sick thud, his knife clanging over the sidewalk and into the gutter.
Fatty tries to get up again, but I land a devastating blow to his ear. Stocky is still dazed, clutching the light pole, from a single headbutt. Fatty spits curses at me as I run away toward my apartment.
I cut across the empty parking lot on Hope and 9th, then I dash across the street to my building on 9th Street. Blasting through the swinging glass doors, I head straight for the elevators on the right. Then I pass right by them. Once I enter the door leading to the fire escape stairwell, I can breathe. But I still have four flights of stairs before I make it to my third floor apartment.
I burst through the door onto the third floor, my hand on my knife holster, fully expecting someone to already be here waiting for me. But there’s no one here. I race down the drab gray corridor and stop in front of apartment 312. I get my key in the lock and my body inside the apartment in less than five seconds.
Then my mother’s voice echoes in my mind again, warning me. The monsters we can’t see are the scariest ones of all.
I’ve always hated my mother’s voice. Even when I’m only hearing it in my mind. Even when it’s giving me sound advice. I hate it. So high-pitched, so clear and crisp it sounds computer-generated. It’s no wonder my father is completely insane.
I’ll let you decide whether the same description can be applied to me.
I don’t need to turn the light on to find my way into the kitchen. I live in the darkness. My eyes can adjust to darkness in less than two seconds.
My father put my body through every physical test he went through when training with the army. And a few he made up himself, like the night vision test, which involved shining a bright light in my eyes then turning off the lights right before he would attack me. But the night vision test was unnecessary. Because my left eye has an extraordinary ability to adjust to darkness.
And I live in the darkness.
Unfortunately, judging by the painful throbbing in my side and the tickling sensation of something damp running down my skin, I’m pretty sure Shorty stabbed me. I’ll have to turn on the lights to get a good look at it.
I press the button on the range hood to turn on the light above the stove. There are four bulbs in the hood, but I took out three. I only need one. Lifting my damp black hoodie, I see my white camisole is soaked in blood from just beneath my breast and down all the way to my waist.
The hole in my camisole is right over the fleshy part of my side, though I’m pretty lean so there’s not much flesh to spare there. I lift the camisole and find that the stab wound is about one and a half inches long. It’s not spurting blood, but it’s gushing pretty steadily.
I turn around to the kitchen counter behind me and pick up the old-fashioned telephone with the curly cord. Other than my laptop, which I rarely use, I don’t do technology. I don’t like anything that transmits a signal. Maybe that makes me a paranoid kook, but the bottom line is that I want to be able to disappear without a trace at a moment’s notice. And cell phones, tablets, credit cards, all that crap is what gets you caught.
Case in point: Shorty. I may very well have killed him tonight. It doesn’t matter that it was self-defense. I don’t want even the possibility of a manslaughter trial in my future. If he’s dead, his friends saw me kill him. There’s a good possibility they’ll find me. I could be arrested at any moment.
I dial the phone number for the gas station and Aasif picks up on the first ring. “Hello?”
He sounds stressed. I hope the guy in the hoodie didn’t drop the Mercedes guy’s dead body in the gas station parking lot. Aasif would not like that. He hates dealing with the police.
“Aasif, it’s Alex. I can’t make it into work today. I’m not feeling well.”
“What’s wrong? Are you dying or something?”
I force a small chuckle. “No, just a really bad stomach ache. I’m going to try to rest and see if it will go away. If not, I’ll definitely have to see a doctor in the morning.”
“For a stomach ache?”
“A really bad stomach ache.”
“This is a really bad night for you to call in sick, Alex. I have police crawling all over here, treating me like a fucking terrorist.”
“Just stay calm, Aasif. Don’t give them a reason to Rodney King you.”
“Fucking racist pigs,” he mutters under his breath.
“Aasif, I’ll call you tomorrow to tell you if I’m better.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow.”
He hangs up and I immediately grab a spoon out of the drawer on the left. Then I turn up the flame on the stove. I pull the sleeve of my hoodie over my right hand, using it like a pot holder to protect my skin as I hold the spoon directly on the flame. When the spoon begins to glow, I pull it off the flame and immediately press it against the knife wound.
I try to hold it in, but a wretched moan escapes my lips. Oh, God. Please let the wound be sealed.
I pull the spoon away, taking some of my skin with it, and the blood is still trickling. Not gushing. But trickling is still too much.
A few tears roll down my face as I realize I have to get another spoon and do it again.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
At the sound of the knocking on my door, my hand flies up to turn off the stove light. I pull my shirt and hoodie down over the knife wound and slip my custom Ontario 498 army knife out of its holster at the back of my waist. Then I wait.
The sensation of the blood trickling down my skin is now more distracting than the pain in the wound or the burn. I’m used to pain.
Forty seconds. Forty-one. Forty-two. Forty-three.
Bang. Bang. Bang.