Assumed Identity - By Julie Miller Page 0,1

his eyes now. Red was everywhere he could see. The noise was so loud he couldn’t hear his own thoughts. The very air tasted of sulfur.

He was running out of time. Kill or die.

He squeezed the trigger.

Fire ripped through his skull. Pain consumed him. He was falling, plummeting toward death.

For one blink, there was clarity, understanding.

But the blackness rushed up from Jake’s feet and swallowed him whole, taking a clear image of the man’s face, of his surroundings—of freedom from this nightmare—with it.

Jake came awake on a groan and jackknifed upright in the bed. The sheet and blanket were twisted around his legs. His naked skin glistened with cold beads of sweat in the dampish night air. His chest heaved in and out on deep, ragged breaths as he oriented himself to his surroundings.

He eased open his fists, releasing the pillow he’d crushed, flexing his long fingers against the gray light that filtered into the studio apartment from the street lamp outside his window, verifying that he held neither gun nor knife. The deafening fusillade that had filled his ears a moment earlier faded into the lazy drumbeat of thunder and the soft patter of raindrops on the sidewalk and street below.

Jake turned his face to the screen at the half-open window and breathed in slowly, deeply—noting each fresh, tangible detail of the world around him. His waking world was still dark, but the rain brought a calming sound and the scent of ozone into his room. The springtime temperature cooled his heated skin.

Kicking his covers to the foot of the fold-out bed, he swung his legs over the side and planted his feet on the solid familiarity of worn wood and a discount store throw rug.

Wearing nothing but the boxer shorts he slept in, Jake rose and crossed to the apartment’s lone closet and opened the door. He pushed aside the hangers that held a handful of jeans and shirts and reached behind them to pull out a worn, black leather bag. Its heavy weight was the lone anchor to a past he couldn’t remember, the one tangible reality from the nightmare he couldn’t forget.

With an easy clench of muscle he lifted the bag and dropped it onto the bed. Pulling apart the singed handles, he dug into an inside pocket and pulled out a badge. The nickel and brass were shiny beneath his touch as he rubbed his thumb over the letters and numbers he’d traced so many nights before.

Drug Enforcement Agency. J. Lonergan.

But it meant nothing to him. Not the badge, not the name.

He reached into the same pocket and pulled out three different sets of passports and ID cards. Three different identities, three different home addresses, three different versions of the same grim face staring back at him. None of them stirred a glimmer of recognition, either. What kind of man needed three aliases? Why would he have taken so many trips to Central and South America? He felt no ties to the DEA—no ties to Houston, St. Louis or Chicago, either. He felt nothing but confusion. The badge might be his. But it could just as easily have been taken off one of the faceless shadows he killed every night in his dreams.

Which one of these names was real? Were any of them?

He scraped his palm over the craggy ridges and hollows of his battered nose and grizzled jaw and cursed. Why couldn’t he remember? Why the hell couldn’t he remember anything before that morning he’d woken up in a tiny Texas border-town hospital?

Was he a cop who’d nearly died in the line of duty? Or the man who’d killed a cop and assumed his identity?

After two years, with no one coming to the hospital to check on him, and no image that matched his face on any television screen in any of the towns he’d lived in between then and now that even felt familiar, he was beginning to believe it had to be the latter. He was a cold-blooded killer without any memory of the monster he’d once been.

He tossed the badge and passports back into the bag. The nightmare wouldn’t come back tonight. But neither would sleep. The blank holes and black walls in Jake’s memory—Jake, because he had no idea what the J on that badge stood for—disturbed him more than the violent images in between.

Some nights he took a cold shower. Other nights he bench-pressed the weights in the corner of the room until his strength was spent. On the