Internal Affairs be damned, Detective Amanda Werner’s ditching protocol to hunt the vigilante whose bullet landed her on the bench. But this is no vendetta. Evidence suggests he’s the zealot offing corrupt public officials–the same zealot who’s promised to set the city ablaze by week’s end–and she’ll risk her career and her life to save her hometown. Too bad she can’t find anything stronger than Kevlar to guard her heart against her primary suspect: a masked man with a telepathic German shepherd, unstable supernatural hearing, and lips that invite a whole different brand of investigation.
All businessman Ryan McLelas, a.k.a. Klepto, wants is redemption. But even if Amanda could forgive his itchy trigger finger, Ryan still has to convince her that his alter ego’s no serial killer. No small task, with syndicate-paid police officers turning up among the dead. He’d better keep his own syndicate ties close to his chest and Amanda even closer, because if Klepto is unmasked while he’s hunting the real killer, their passionate affair could mark Amanda as the next dirty cop on the hit list.
Ryan McLelas’s fragmented cochlear implants itched. That was the high point of this cursed little rendezvous. The courier was late, and cheap construction scaffolding—under which Ryan and his dog, Romeo, sought refuge from the autumn downpour—leaked. Rain made the whole damned alley reek of sushi and visibility was minimal, steam curling up from the pavement.
At least his misery meant his brothers were safe tonight, as far away from this “calling” as he could keep them. They’d be warm and dry at the office, monitoring his tech, bickering over women and comparing themselves to comic book superheroes. A pained laugh rumbled in Ryan’s chest. Okay, so his alter ego’s disguise included a mask. And sure, their heritage meant he could hear across a city block—sometimes. But waiting in the shadows at the edge of town to cut deals with crime syndicates? Definitely not “superhero” material. Slipping drug lords more money to work with? Wrong side of the law for good guys.
He worked off a glove and rubbed his aching temples with chilled fingers.
“How long will you give him? I’m hungry,” the German shepherd at his feet whined over their telepathic link. Romeo rolled a loose block of pavement between his paws.
“If it wouldn’t trash the ceasefire, I’d let you eat Captain Punctual.” Ryan burrowed his bare hand into the thick, dark ruff of his spirit guide’s neck. The courier would arrive. Soon.
There could be no other outcome. “We wait.”
The rain slowed to a trickle. Finally, his supercharged ears plucked out a crystalline hiss of shattering glass and the distinct weaving of footsteps.
He sucked in an irritated breath. Better drunk than dead. A dead courier . . . no. Ruthlessly, he smothered the concern. His father had never failed. Ryan wouldn’t either.
“Klepto! Bet your sister’s gotta pay the johns t’get some action,” the courier slurred.
Romeo shifted, and muted lamplight gleamed in ribbons over his black fur. “He wouldn’t make much of a meal.”
His tongue lolled out of his mouth in a sly grin Ryan echoed mentally, but then the dog shook his entire body free of water. Cursing, Ryan swiped his palm over a faceful of rain. There had to be a point where this night stopped going wrong.
As if the universe heard—and laughed—his ears caught static from a distant police radio.
Tension ratcheted up his spine. This deal meant another half-year of peace among the two most powerful crime syndicate families in Relek City. The prickling in his head intensified as he pulled on his gloves. This ceasefire was paramount. Without it, innocent lives would . . . He ground his teeth. Police interference wasn’t any more an option than a dead courier.
“Cops are close,” he growled. “Make this quick.” He buried his doubt under Klepto’s arrogance even as he stalked into the alley. All teeth, Romeo edged out beside him.
“Don’t be rushin’ me, Klepto.” Soaked by the earlier downpour, the syndicate courier huddled in an oversized coat that likely hid multiple knives, as well as a gun. The smell of alcohol-borne courage tangled with the lingering odor of fish carcasses. He sneered at the dog. “Which one o’ you ugly mutts has the dough?”
Ryan crossed his arms, dangling a bag from his fingers. “The information better be dry.”
A small device sealed in plastic sailed through the air and smacked the toe of one of his combat boots. He summoned Romeo to check it and kept his gaze fixed on the courier. Would booze make him belligerent enough to pull a weapon on Klepto? Stupid enough to try to walk away with both the information and the cash? Ryan flexed his hands, feeling the promise of adrenaline. Please be stupid.
“Micro USB,” Romeo confirmed. “Water-proofed.”
Ryan sent approval through their mental connection. If it’s not all there, we’ll make a quiet return visit. After the ceasefire was secure.
Romeo’s bared teeth flashed wider.
“Tell your boss the Jones Group sends its regards.” He tossed the bag of cash.
The drunkard caught it. Ryan narrowed his eyes. Sober. Acting. He bent to scoop up the USB key as if unconcerned about making himself a target. But he listened. Zipper teeth clicked. Fingers ruffled stacks of unmarked bills. The pouch closed at high speed and when Ryan slipped the USB key into his pocket his ears snagged on the slide of metal on fabric.
Belligerent and stupid. He smiled.
Romeo let out a guttural warning bark.
“Dumb mutt.” The courier’s blade flashed low in the streetlamp.
No one attacked his dog. Ryan dashed forward and slammed his hand around the courier’s arm. He squeezed, grim satisfaction in the way his gloved fingers dug into muscle. The other man squeaked like one of Romeo’s plush toys.
“Next time, your guts line the street.” Ryan let his arm drop and waved Romeo aside.
Resentment scored the courier’s face, but he took the cash and vanished into alley shadows. Waiting for the now-sober footsteps to fade, Ryan rubbed behind his spirit guide’s ears in silent praise.
Romeo glanced up. “You are projecting pain.”
“Just frustration. The weather,” Ryan assured him, though the itching in his head continued to grow. He stifled another urge to massage his temples.
White noise filters on his earpiece held his power in check. They were stable now, no extra vibration to irritate the remnants of hardware in his head. No reason for pain in the area where, before his teens, he’d had discrete—fully installed—cochlear implants. He growled inwardly. Focusing on it made it worse. He’d have Zach tune-up his tech at the office.
He tapped on the combo mic, speaker, and noise reduction device hooked over his ear. “Find me a way home, boys. Law’s on the street tonight.”
“Aye, aye, Mr. President.” Jay, his youngest brother, sounded far too chipper.
He shoved both hands into his trench coat pockets and turned away from the alley. “How much diesel-sludge have you had to drink?”
“Coffee? What am I on, Zach? Three?”
Ryan grunted. “Pots?”
Zach barked a laugh over the speaker. “Hey, few more gigs like this, you’re gonna wish you partook.” Already an insomniac, the middle McLelas brother didn’t share Jay’s hard-on for caffeine, but his response was overly bright.
“Normal people function just fine without it.” Ryan shook his head. Morning board meetings at McLelas Financial were a trial, but he’d never admit it to these two.
“Normal?” Zach let out a snort. “Making chummy with the local bads is normal, bro?”
Footsteps, cautious and from the same direction the courier used to retreat, brushed his hearing. A retort froze in Ryan’s throat. Criminals on these streets were bold, not careful. The cops. His gut clenched. The cash would be confiscated, the man behind bars. Dead, when a rival syndicate got to him in lockup. Failure. He closed his eyes. Unless the courier returned with the money, alive—tonight—he could kiss the ceasefire goodbye. Blood would fill the streets by noon.
Run interference, Romeo. Ryan backed under a fire escape. Tap. The first nudge to his earpiece kicked off the microphone and the feed from his brothers. Tap. A single layer of white noise down. The barest exertion of power. He sucked in a deep breath.
Then he opened his ears.
Ambient notes spun out around him like strokes on a canvas, draping the streets in mellow electrical humming, scurried movements of insects, innocent and guilty whispers behind walls, windows, closed doors. A block to the left the express rail wobbled along its tracks, brakes squealing before the S-curve. Skirting the edge of his range, Ryan could hear the Shaw Family’s sniper of choice—crazy bastard—on a rooftop somewhere flirting with a tranq dart. One by one, Ryan rapidly sorted the early morning sounds, shoving each audible thread aside until he found the footsteps again.
Slow, light, churning loose grit and broken glass.
“10-4, Dispatch,” a man’s voice said. His footsteps were heavier than his partner’s.
Only two. Easy to divert. Ryan exhaled hard. “Gotcha.”
His enhanced hearing settled against its buffers as he bolted toward the officers. Hitting the corner, he shot a look around the crumbling brick wall, then up, scanning for snipers.
Some of his tension eased. No extra shadows dotted the skyline. He eyed his nearest target.
Curves. Tight jeans. A woman, the Glock in her hands aimed and locked straight ahead. Plainclothes, maybe. But not undercover; openly using the radio. Ryan moved his gaze past her and swallowed a curse. He was too late. They had the courier pinned in a dead end.
Romeo, where are you? No answer. His chest squeezed. Bad time to go AWOL, furface.
“Relek City PD. Turn around nice and slow,” the female officer clipped out. Her voice was low and husky, like a jazz singer swirled with a shot of Jameson.
Cera Daniels writes paranormal, science fiction, and steampunk romance. Sometimes behind the same cover. Her heroes are broken, her worlds are crumbling, but the love her characters find amidst the chaos stands on an unshakable foundation. Cera lives in South Carolina with her husband, daughter, a cat who thinks he’s a human, a cat who thinks she’s a dog, and a lizard who thinks he’s a cat. Unlike the animals in the Relek City series, none of Cera’s pets appear to be telepathic.