The world existed in two states: right and wrong.
At least that’s how Stephanie Little had always seen it.
A clear, divisive line separating saints and sinners kept life manageable.
Good and evil.
Truth and lies.
Rule followers and rule breakers.
Criminals and law-abiding citizens.
All the murky gray areas and half-truths were just excuses and loopholes for people who weren’t willing to make the right choices.
After careful consideration, Stephanie always made the right choice or at least she tried to. And if she didn’t, she owned it and faced the consequences of her actions.
The split between right and wrong was what drew her to law enforcement straight out of high-school. Well, that and the fact that she grew up with the police chief for a father.
Born and raised in Pittsburg, she’d hardcore hero worshiped her father through her childhood. He’d received countless commendations for his life-saving work reducing the murder and crime rates in their city.
Stephanie had wanted that. Craved the opportunity to leave that kind of mark on the world. Rid the planet of some darkness and inject good back for those who deserved it. Those who followed the rules and lived in the light.
So, at twenty-one, with a shiny new criminal justice degree, she’d joined the police academy. Dreams of confiscating drugs, saving kidnapped children, and locking up murders powered her to the top of her class.
On the eve of graduation, her father showed up at the apartment she shared with another female cadet. In a matter of twenty minutes, he’d shattered Stephanie’s perfectly compartmentalized world.
“Steppy,” he’d said in the way her younger brother used to say her name. Jake had trouble with the F sound until he was four, but by then the name stuck and she’d been Steppy to her family from then on. “I know you’re excited to graduate and eager to dive into your first position with the PPD, but I need to tell you something important.”
She’d frowned and leaned her head on her father’s broad shoulder. “What’s that, Dad?”
“The world doesn’t always work the way you think it does, Step. You see black and you see white. Well, honey, in the real world, those colors don’t even exist. It’s all a grayscale. You need to know that, really know it, in order to survive the life you chose for yourself. There may be things you’re called on to do that don’t fit neatly into the boxes you’ve created.”
That conversation was the beginning of the end of her relationship with her father. She’d smiled, nodded, and told him what he wanted to hear, but rolled her eyes the moment he left. He was older, nearing retirement, out of touch with the way the world worked.
Such youthful arrogance and ignorance.
But Stephanie managed to hold on to her ideals through her first year on the force. Even when her father lost his position in a shameful bribery scandal that earned him fifteen years in prison, she hadn’t budged.
He’d done the crime, he deserved the time.
Then, somehow, she made it through two years working for the FBI before her perfectly divided world was smashed to bits. And it wasn’t smashed with a sledgehammer either. No, a damn wrecking ball in the form on an undercover assignment crashed through the glass house she lived in, launching millions of sharp shards at her delicate skin.
And it hurt.
God, did it hurt.
“One more chance, bitch. What the fuck are you doin’ here?” some dead-eyed brute asked her about five seconds after his fist connected with her face.
For the second time.
The second punch disoriented her for a second. Long enough to lose her sense of upright and meet the ground.
On all fours, with palms and knees throbbing from the bits of gravel and dirt embedded in the skin, Stephanie spit out blood that had pooled in her mouth from the split lip. “Hiking,” she said, the sound a bit muffled from her swollen lip. “Got lost.”
And…damn…who knew talking with a split lip would hurt so damn much. Tears pooled in her eyes, but she’d rather die than let one of those suckers slip free. She wasn’t the toughest of chicks out there…physically at least. A few arrests during her time as a beat cop had resulted in physical altercations with bumps and bruising. She’d always put on a tough mask in front of her fellow cops but bawled like a baby in the privacy of her own home.
Dead-eyes threw back his head and laughed before looking at his buddy, a guy so overweight, Stephanie was pretty sure she could outrun him even if they broke both her legs. “You believe this bitch, Top?” he asked the larger man.
Top grunted and shook his head, his many chins wobbling like Jello. “Fuck no. No reason for a bitch to be hiking out here, Shark. Ain’t even any fuckin’ trails.”
Like he would know?
Stephanie bit back the smart-assed remark on the tip of her tongue. Silence was her best bet. Plus, this little gangbanger pow-wow gave her a second to reorient and breath through the pain.
“What about you, King? You believe her?” The man called Shark asked the man on his right and Stephanie held her breath.
This was it. Her way out. Sure, there’d be hell to pay later for the rookie-level mistake of getting busted snooping in the woods outside their compound, but she’d take an ass chewing form her boos over being beat to shit or worse by pissed off gang members.
All her partner, Eric, or King to these pieces of shit had to say was that he believed her. Saw her tromping around like an idiot. Spotted her looking lost and stupid in the woods. He could volunteer to drop her somewhere and scare the piss out of her so she wouldn’t talk.
Shark and the Top dude were scary as fuck and she wanted gone in the worst way.
“No I don’t fuckin’ believe this, bitch,” King said, lifting his military grade rifle and stomping forward until the weapon was pressed dead center against her forehead. “I say we just waste her now. Bury her and get back to those bitches we left naked and needy.”
What. The. Fuck.
Stephanie had never worked so hard in her life as she did to keep the shock off her face and the vile words in her mouth.
King wasn’t serious. He couldn’t be. Her partner was a veteran FBI agent for crying out loud. There had to be a plan to get her out bouncing around in his head.
That knowledge helped her relax despite the fact one twitch of King’s finger would splatter her brains all over the Tennessee woods.
“Nah,” Shark said. “Where’s the fun in that? Let’s take her with us. A few hours hanging with the boys and she’ll be ready to talk.”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
She stared hard into King’s eyes trying to send him a mental message. This was as bad for him as it was for her. They’d torture her for information and she’d crack.
Especially if they had zilch training in enduring torture.
“Who gives a fuck why she’s here? Let me kill her and be fuckin done with it.”
Stephanie was in serious danger of puking all over the forest floor. As she stared at her partner of two years, the partner who taught her everything she knew about working for the FBI, the partner who teased her endlessly for her opinions on the black and white nature of the world, his lips quirked.
And she knew.
There were no fucking shades of gray.
She’d been right all along.
Only black. Only white.
And King had officially been swallowed by the darkness.
He’d always told her working undercover would change her view of the world. That undercover agents often had to live the life of a criminal and learn to deal with living in the shadows for the sake of doing good. But this wasn’t a case of doing what he had to maintain cover. This was a monster who wore human skin for a time and managed to fool even the most skeptical.
“What the fuck did I say, King?” Shark asked. “I want her at the compound. You can kill her eventually, but it’s been a shit week. The boys need some fun first.”
Stephanie swallowed. Boys? Fun?
There weren’t too many ways to interpret that.
The gun fell away from her head and she sat back on her heels.
Why? What was so appealing about this lifestyle that a decorated FBI agent would do a one-eighty and betray everything he once stood for.
Frustration with the system?
Sticking it to the man?
It seemed too dramatic to be making a point.
The ultimate hissy fit.
“Let’s roll,” Shark said, turning on his heel and strolling toward the building she could see through the trees in the distance.
The fat one leered at her for a second more before waddling after his master like an overfed but well-trained dog.
Somewhat alone with her partner, Stephanie rose to her feet. Whatever was about to happen, it would happen while she was on her knees in front of him. He’d have to look her full in the eye. For one second, she had the insane urge to call out to Shark. To yell as loud as she could and let the scumbag know his precious King was an undercover FBI agent.
It wouldn’t matter if he pledged his loyalty to Shark forever. He’d be killed. That’s how it worked with gangs.
Nothing less than he deserved at that moment.
But she didn’t give into that urge. Because it would be wrong.
And she always chose right.
“Why?” she whispered when Shark was out of earshot.
King grunted and shook his head. “So fucking naïve, Stephanie. You always have been. It’s all gray out here.”
No. She refused to believe it. This situation was clearly not on any gray spectrum. King was evil. Plain and simple.
“No, Eric, I’m not naïve. But you sure are a fucking traitor.”
“You’ll never get it. And you’ll never survive this world. Wake the fuck up,” King said as he thrust his right arm forward and rammed the butt of his rifle into her head.
His murderous expression was the last thing she saw before her vision blacked.