Free Fiction Feature October 2020 | Under Wraps: A Kira Brightwell Short Novel

Under Wraps Kira Brightwell cover

Halloween. A time for costumes and crime.

Neither hold interest for Kira Brightwell. She only wants to find a way to move on with her life after the trauma she endured three months ago. (That, and track down the man responsible.)

But the local police receive an anonymous tip with a growing list of decrypted names—a list that threatens to shake the suburban, California town to its core.

…And just like that, Kira’s world gets turned upside down.

A stand-alone short novel of Kira’s recent past in the Kira Brightwell crime fiction series by award-winning author, Jacquelyn Smith. (Originally published under the pen name Kat Irwin.) If you love murder, mystery, and mayhem, grab this book.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short novel also comes in ebook and paperback format.

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Paperback available at:

“Under Wraps” is also available as part of the First Blood Kira Brightwell Collection.

 

Under Wraps: A Kira Brightwell Short Novel

Jacquelyn Smith

Matt Wilson walked through the front doors of the La Valentia PD precinct with his partner, Gibbs. They had just finished their rounds. He hooked his sunglasses in the chest pocket of his uniform. Even though it was October, there was only a slight chill in the California air. He was glad they had gotten an earlier shift.

Saturday before Halloween… Whoever’s working tonight will be in for some fun.

It was unlikely anything serious would go down. La Valentia was a fairly respectable suburb town, but there were always a few drunken rowdies to deal with at this time of year.

Gibbs jerked his chin in Matt’s direction to catch his attention. “You want to get a beer?”

Matt pulled off his service cap and ran his hand over his closely cropped brown hair. “Sorry, man. I’m going to grab a coffee and visit Gina.”

Gibbs gave a nod of understanding, his lips twisting in the sad, half-smile Matt knew so well—the one everyone gave him whenever he mentioned his wife.

“Right. Well, I’ll catch you Monday then. Take it easy.” Gibbs gave Matt’s shoulder a parting slap before heading toward the locker room.

Matt headed toward the precinct’s small kitchen. Someone would have left some coffee in the pot. Yes, it would be terrible, but the price was right. And he needed something to perk him up before he went to see Gina.

“Whoa, Wilson, watch where you’re going.”

A familiar, female voice jarred him from his thoughts. A perky, uniformed chest met him at eye level. He blinked and forced his gaze upward, doing his best not to crane his neck. It was bad enough he was shorter than most of the men at the precinct, but did Melendez have to be so damned tall?

“Sorry,” Matt said as he flashed an apologetic smile. “Wasn’t paying attention.”

Melendez wore her long, dark hair in its usual tight braid that hung down her back. Her uniform was crisp and scrupulously clean. She took a step back and twirled a stir stick in the contents of a steaming paper cup. Her dark eyes darted past him before speaking again.

“Did you hear?” she asked in a low voice as she gave him a significant look.

Matt frowned. “Hear what?”

Her gaze darted over his shoulder again before continuing. “Someone sent the precinct an email—a civilian.”

“OK…” Matt shot her a confused look. “What’s the big deal? We get emails all the time. Most of them are either complaints or crappy tips that don’t pan out.”

“This one’s different.” Melendez tapped her stir stick against the inside of the cup before removing it. “It contains a link that’s some kind of back door to a private website.” Her voice dropped to just above a whisper. “A kiddie porn website.”

Matt felt a cold ball of fear form in the pit of his stomach. “So this link, it gets you in the site?”

“That’s the thing.” Melendez made a face. “The members of the site trade their… products anonymously. Their identities are hidden from one another by user names. But the owner of the site requires real identities to gain access—probably to use as leverage if he ever needs it. Whoever sent the link has also included a program that’s stripping away the encryption of the user names and revealing their real identities. It’s not running very quickly, but we’ve already got a few names. They’re all locals.”

Matt swallowed. “And we think this is legit?”

Melendez shrugged. “Boss says we need to treat it as if it is. He’s already on the phone with some other precincts out in the city to see if we can get some help coordinating this thing, since we’ll need to round up all the suspects at the same time to avoid tipping anyone off.”

“But who even sent the email in the first place?” Matt shook his head.

Melendez shrugged again. “Whoever it is, they’re better than our tech team. They’ve validated where the data’s coming from, but they haven’t been able to trace the sender.” Her brow furrowed. “You OK? You look a little pale.”

Matt shook himself. “Yeah. I, uh, just need to grab some coffee before I get out of here to see Gina.”

There it was again. That sad, half-smile. He hated using his wife as an excuse, but he desperately wanted to make his escape.

“Say ‘hi’ for me,” Melendez said. She held his gaze for a moment before walking past him. “And don’t tell anyone what I just told you. It’ll be all over the precinct eventually, but the boss wants it kept quiet for now.” Matt gave her a solemn nod before continuing down the hallway to the kitchen.

Fortunately, it was empty. He poured a cup of coffee with trembling hands and forced himself to walk back out of the precinct at a leisurely pace toward his car. He got in and placed the coffee in a cup holder. He closed his eyes for a moment.

Somewhere, deep down, he had always known this day would come. Nothing was ever free in this world. He had been waiting more than a year for the other shoe to drop, and now it had finally happened.

He took a steadying breath. He knew what he had to do. Everything was at stake—all thanks to some anonymous hacker with a conscience.

He won’t be anonymous for long…

Matt pulled his phone from his pocket and scrolled through his contact list. He had some important calls to make.

* * *

Kira stood with her hands on her hips and surveyed her handiwork. The walls of her bedroom had been stripped bare, her Nine Inch Nails posters carefully rolled up and stored in a cardboard tube that rested in the corner. The drawers of her desk and dresser were empty. She had just finished packing away the last of her books. Bare hangers dangled from inside her closet. Only a few changes of clothes remained outside of the pile of boxes that lined the wall under her window. She had transferred them into a suitcase that lay open at the end of her disassembled bed.

She had been sleeping on the floor for a few nights now—one step closer to moving out of her childhood home. She had put off packing up the last of her things until today. Even though it was Saturday, her father was at the office, and her mother was out running errands, leaving Kira blissfully alone for what seemed like the first time in months.

If living with her parents had been uncomfortable before, it was nothing compared to how it was now. Her abduction by the Procurer had changed everything.

Her mother seemed determined not to bring up the subject, unless it was to use it to convince Kira that it would be safer to stay at home and live out what Kira was starting to think of as the Brightwell Family Prophecy: work for her father, meet someone at the office, and settle down to start having children—just like her sister, Kori.

Kira rolled her eyes. She knew her mother only wanted what she thought was best for her, but Kira had already been determined to move out and forge her own path, even before she had crossed paths with the Procurer. Her family had been so worried about her after her escape, she had decided to put off her move for at least a few days until things calmed down. And then there had been the subsequent media circus…

La Valentia was a fairly quiet suburb town. Her escape and rescue of the seven other women who had been held captive quickly became a sensation. The phone had rung almost nonstop with requests for interviews, and her father had even called the police a few times to have reporters removed from the front lawn. Staying at home had seemed like a good idea to Kira. She ignored the calls and waited for the vultures to get bored.

In the meantime, she had found ways to keep herself busy. Three months had passed, and the police still had no leads on the identity or whereabouts of the Procurer. There had been plenty of tips called in at first, but none of them had paid off. All Kira knew was roughly what his voice might sound like, based on what she had overheard from the room where she had been kept, and that he liked to whistle—not exactly much to go on.

She had spent days talking to the other women and their families after their escape, going over each abduction from every angle. She knew the police were handling it, but she couldn’t just sit and wait. In the end, her persistence paid off. She had discovered that each of the abducted women had been taken from a location that used a security system made by the same company. Someone had managed to set himself up as an employee and use that access to break in to each abduction location. Of course, the trail had quickly become a dead end. The name and ID used belonged to a man who had died over a decade beforehand—something the security company had failed to flag during a background check.

Kira had banded together with the families of the other women to hire a lawyer to seek a settlement, which was currently under negotiation. The payout wouldn’t erase what had happened, but it would at least help those who had suffered at the hands of the Procurer. Even though Kira and the surviving women hadn’t been touched during their captivity, the experience would likely haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Now it was finally time to move on. The phone calls had stopped, and Kira no longer had to dodge reporters whenever she decided to leave the house. And she was starting to suspect that no matter how long she stayed to appease her family, it would never be long enough, at least not unless she ‘settled down’ with someone.

Rob was already living in their new apartment. He had moved out from his parents’ place a few weeks ago. He and Kira had picked it out together.

I’d better remember to pick up some groceries on my way back from the gym…

Rob had been her best friend since high school, and was practically a brother to her, but he was hopeless when it came to taking care of himself—at least when it involved going outside. If he had his way, he would likely spend the rest of his life curled up with his precious laptop within the confines of their new apartment. Of course, this meant Kira had to handle anything that involved the outside world. She had been careful to check in on him regularly since he had moved out.

God, I hope I don’t end up throttling him after I move in.

The sound of the front door opening downstairs made Kira’s head snap up and sent her long, brown ponytail swinging.

Shit. Is Mom home already?

She had been hoping to put off the inevitable confrontation about moving out for another half-hour, at least…

A series of muffled footsteps on the carpeted stairs made her shoulders tense. Her eyes widened in surprise as Kori walked into the room. Her sister wore a form-fitting maroon sweater and dark jeans, which accentuated her tall, lean frame. Kira did her best not to wrinkle her nose in disgust. It was impossible to believe Kori had just had a baby a little over three months ago. As always, her long, styled hair and carefully selected outfit put Kira’s to shame. She was already dressed for the gym in leggings and an old hoodie. Even though Kira was only about an inch shorter and came from the same lean stock, she had started to put on some muscle since taking up MMA after her abduction.

I feel like a freaking She-Hulk.

Kori made a show of looking around the room. “I see you’ve packed up.” She gave Kira a measuring look from behind the sleek frames of her glasses.

Kira let the statement hang there, even though she knew it was futile. Kori was a child psychologist, and an expert at the waiting game. Kira gave her a level look.

Come on. Don’t act like you ‘just happened’ to come by…

“Where’s Kevin?” she asked a moment later. Maybe she could get her sister to admit the ulterior motive behind her visit.

“He’s with Adam. I decided I needed a bit of a break, and thought I would stop by.”

“While Mom’s out running her Saturday errands.” Kira folded her arms across her chest.

Kori shrugged. “Can’t I visit my baby sister?” Her brown eyes, so very like their mother’s were artfully innocent.

This time, Kira did wrinkle her nose. “Ugh. Don’t be gross.”

Kori sighed. “I was worried about you, OK? Mom told me you’d started packing up your room.”

Kira rolled her eyes and threw her arms in the air. “I’m fine. How many times do I have to tell everyone?”

“Kira, you’ve been through a traumatic experience. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I really think you should talk to someone.”

Kira snorted. “Like you?

“That’s not what I meant. Look, I would be happy to recommend—”

“I don’t need to talk to anyone,” Kira said with some heat.

Kori’s eyes flashed. “And I’m sure Clarissa Hunt didn’t think she needed to talk to anyone either.”

Kira recoiled as if she had been struck. “Leave Clarissa out of this.”

“Kira, she slit her own wrists, just a few days after you got her away from the Procurer. I know you were in the next room to where she was being kept. She was the only girl he touched. I know you heard things—”

“Shut up!” The words burst from Kira’s lips. She took a few ragged breaths in an effort to calm down. “Yes, I heard things. Thank you for bringing that up. It’s really something I’ve been meaning to think about lately.”

Clarissa’s muffled screams had haunted her dreams ever since the first night she had tried to sleep after her escape. She had a feeling they always would.

Her sister took a step toward her. “I’m only trying to help. If I didn’t say anything, and you did something to harm yourself…” She shook her head and swallowed.

Now it was Kira’s turn to sigh. “Look, I get it. You’re worried, and you want to help. But I’m dealing with this in my own way. Besides, Clarissa didn’t commit suicide.”

Kori’s lips twitched in a sad smile. “Kira, we’ve been over this. The police didn’t find any signs of foul play.”

Kira shook her head. “Yeah, she just conveniently offed herself before she could give any details about the Procurer—the one person out of the eight of us who might be able to identify him.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.

Kori opened her mouth to retort, but the sound of the front door closing again from downstairs brought her up short. Kira closed her eyes and stifled a groan.

Great. Now I have to deal with both of them.

Her mother’s blond head popped through the doorway a few moments later. Her outfit was almost a match for Kori’s, except her sweater was pale blue.

“Kori?” she stepped into the room to join them with a bright expression. “I didn’t know you were coming by…”

Kira gave their mother a pointed look. “Mom, I know you called her.”

Their mother’s face fell. “Kira, we’re—”

“…worried about me. I know.” This conversation couldn’t end soon enough for Kira’s liking.

“You’ve finished packing.” Her mother’s voice was flat. “Are you sure you won’t change your mind? I still don’t think it’s a good idea for you to move in with Rob.”

“Mom, you don’t think it’s a good idea for me to move out at all,” Kira said.

Her mother raised her chin. “That’s not true. I’m sure if you found the right person—”

“I have. His name is Rob.”

Her mother shook her head. “Kira, I know you and Rob are… close, but I’m sure he’s made it clear by now that you’re not, ah, his type.”

“And I’m not into gay guys either,” Kira snapped. “Mom, we’ve been over this.”

Kira’s mother squared her shoulders and prepared for another rally. “Well, then what about when you want to bring someone special over to your apartment? What’s your date going to think when they meet your roommate? You’ll never get a boyfriend living with him. If you would just stay here, and work for your father, I’m sure you would find someone nice to settle down with.” Kori tried to catch their mother’s eye while shaking her head, but it made no difference. “Just look at Kori and Adam!”

Kira’s hands balled into fists. “Has it ever occurred to you that I’m not like Kori?”

Her words hung there for a moment as her mother’s expression went completely blank. Kira held her breath.

Her mother seemed to shake herself and her eyes widened. “Oh. Oh. Kira, honey, I never thought…” She shook her head. “It explains so much! Rob, your wardrobe, the MMA thing…” Her voice dropped. “Do you not like boys? You know your father and I will love you no matter—”

“Oh, for the love of God, Mother. Yes, I like boys!” Kira shook her head. “I mean men!” Her face was beet red. She lowered it into her hands with a groan. “How are we even having this conversation…”

“Well, considering what you’ve been though recently, it wouldn’t be surprising if you’d re-evaluated some of your feelings toward men,” Kori said as she and their mother shared a knowing look.

“OK, we’re done talking now.” Kira picked up her gym bag. “I’m moving out with Rob, and that’s that. I’m into dudes, and no, I’m not trying to get into Rob’s pants—not that it’s any of your business. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an ‘MMA thing’ to go to.”

She stormed past them and thundered down the stairs before either of them could respond.

* * *

Matt looked down at the body sprawled at his feet. Jerry Driver was a lean, gangly man. His limbs were spread akimbo across the kitchen floor. Blood stained his purple velour tracksuit and pooled out from his rat-like features, blooming like a crimson flower across the white linoleum. Matt realized he was panting. He took several steadying breaths.

The weight of the toaster in his right hand caught his attention. More blood dripped from the smooth, metal sides to patter against the floor in an unsteady rhythm. His gloved fingers unclenched and the toaster clattered to the floor.

It would have been far easier to use his gun, but he had to be careful. Nothing about this could ever lead back to him. Even after learning where the man who ran the child pornography site lived, Matt had parked one street over and hopped some fences to approach the house unseen. He knew it was only a matter of time before Jerry’s body was discovered and his own coworkers were called in to investigate. One of the first questions they would ask the neighbors was whether they had noticed any strange people or vehicles on the street. Matt shuddered.

I don’t know if I could do that again.

Killing someone in the line of duty was one thing, but this… It wasn’t him.

What will Gina say?

He shook his head. Gina could never find out.

He took one more deep breath and pulled himself together. Killing Driver had been necessary, but not his main objective. As the owner of the site, he was the only person outside of the friendly neighborhood hacker who could identify the site members. Matt was also convinced there must be a connection between Driver and whoever was hacking the site.

He had started off his visit by trying to reason with Driver—albeit with the threat of his gun. Had he known the site had been compromised? The shocked expression that had met Matt’s words had been enough to convince him that Driver wasn’t the culprit. But his ensuing anger told Matt that the creepy little bastard knew who was. When Matt had demanded answers, Driver had clammed up.

“If I tell you, you’re just gonna kill me.”

He hadn’t been wrong. But what Driver had failed to realize was that Matt had to kill him anyway. No loose ends could be left dangling. And if Driver wouldn’t talk, well, Matt was still a cop. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have certain resources at his disposal.

He tried to forget the sensation of Driver’s skull crunching beneath the weight of the toaster. A surge of nausea rose from the pit of his stomach, tightening his throat.

I can’t do that again.

He knew he had to keep going, but maybe it was time to outsource. He wasn’t the only one on the hook, after all.

But first, he needed to find out who had hacked the site. If he could get to the hacker first, maybe he could get the whole thing shut down before it was too late and all the names were leaked. If he failed…

His chest tightened. He wasn’t the only one who would pay.

He went to the laptop that lay open on the kitchen table and started investigating its contents. Fortunately, Driver had been using it when Matt had barged in, which meant it was already unlocked.

He started with files from the site. He banged his fist against the table, making the laptop jump.

Encrypted.

Matt was OK with computers, but decryption was beyond him. And the amount of time it would take to find someone outside the force who could be trusted enough to unravel the contents was likely more time than he had available. He tried to come up with a different angle.

Email.

Driver had known who had hacked the site, but this was a man who was careful to keep himself and his clients at arm’s length. It had taken some time for Matt to track him down in the first place. What if Driver and the hacker hadn’t communicated face to face?

The laptop’s browser was already open. In fact, it looked as if Driver had been in the middle of composing an email. Matt started scrolling through the dead man’s inbox.

Most of the messages were from clients—using aliases and spoofed email addresses, of course. A conversation from someone calling himself ‘Maverick’ under the subject of ‘Security’ caught his eye.

‘Security check is complete. To receive upgrade installation, please send payment to the following account…’

Matt yanked his phone from his pocket and fumbled off one of his gloves to dial.

“Jackson,” a female voice answered on the second ring.

“It’s Wilson.” Matt did his best to sound like his usual self. “Can you trace an account number for me?”

“Give me a sec.” The woman who worked a desk at the La Valentia precinct paused. “OK, go ahead.”

Matt read her the number.

“Belongs to some guy named Dean Winchester.”

Matt frowned. “As in the gun?”

Jackson snorted. “As in one of the characters from Supernatural. I’m guessing it’s an alias.”

“Any chance you can track him down?” Matt tried not to sound desperate.

“Yeah, but it might take me a bit. Can I call you back?”

“Thanks, Jackson. You’re the best.” He hung up before his guilt could get the better of him. If he got caught, and anyone found out that Jackson had helped him… He squared his shoulders and rose to his feet, scooping the laptop under his arm.

He had work to do.

* * *

Nick Foster checked his arms for any broken skin as he walked down the windowless, fluorescent lit hallway that led from Booking. The girl he had just dragged into a cell had tried to bite him. Repeatedly. Of course, Johnson was nowhere to be found. His partner had taken off as soon as they had returned to the precinct with the girl at the end of their shift. He hadn’t even wanted to get involved with her in the first place.

A call had gone out for assistance at a convenience store just beyond the outskirts of Nick and Johnson’s beat. In fact, it was only a few doors down from where Nick had been parked at the time, waiting for his partner to finish trying to impress the girls behind the counter of his favorite donut shop. Nick knew they were closest. Not only that, but the team that was responsible for the area was already tied up with a hit-and-run situation several blocks away. Nick had heard the back and forth less than ten minutes earlier on the police radio.

Nick hadn’t bothered to check with Johnson before responding to the call and running out of the car to assist. He knew what his partner’s response would be. He had heard it enough times before.

“It’s a big city, Foster. Someone else will get it.”

That seemed to sum up Johnson’s attitude to life in general. It made him a real hit with his coworkers, Nick in particular. Nick’s written reports required a certain degree of finesse to omit any evidence of his partner’s lack of effort without lying outright. Yes, Johnson drove Nick nuts, and Nick went to bed every night wishing he had been paired up with literally anyone else on the force, but they were still partners. Besides, the chief was hardly an idiot. Nick had a feeling he had no problem reading between the lines of his reports.

Nick had no idea how Richard—no one called him ‘Dick’, at least, not to his face—could be so oblivious to how his complete lack of team effort affected his reputation at the precinct. It was clearly just a job to him—clock in, clock out. The only reason anyone ever came to help him out when he requested backup was because of the credibility Nick had built up with the rest of the force. If Johnson were ever on his own for some reason… Well, Nick couldn’t help but wonder whether anyone would bother responding at all.

He sometimes found himself thinking maybe his partner would be better off leaving the precinct and branching off into the adult film industry. A name like Dick Johnson seemed like a waste on a beat cop. He could even use his background on the force as part of his overall gimmick… Nick shook his head to himself. Working as a beat cop with the LAPD wasn’t easy, but becoming a successful porn star was no walk in the park either. If Johnson could barely make it all the way through one shift, Nick doubted he had the work ethic to shoot close to a hundred videos a month with multiple partners, no matter how great his stage name and gimmick were.

Nick nearly bumped into someone walking in the opposite direction down the hallway, jarring him from his bizarre train of thought. Anderson looked up at him with a grin.

“Didn’t see me from up there, did you?” He wasn’t that much shorter than Nick’s six foot two, but he often joked about it.

Nick flattened his back against the wall to give Anderson the space to pass him. The hallway was narrow, and Nick’s broad frame seemed to take up most of it.

“Ready for another exciting shift in Booking?” Nick asked with an answering smile.

“You know it. At least it’s air conditioned in here. Still pretty warm for October.”

“Look out for the crackhead girl in cell three,” Nick advised. “Busted her pulling a nutty at a convenience store, stealing everything she could get her hands on. She’s a biter.”

Anderson nodded. “Good to know. Oh, hey, the chief was looking for you.”

“Thanks.”

Nick watched Anderson’s retreating back as his mind raced. What did the chief want with him? He hadn’t done anything wrong, but Johnson might have. As the more responsible one of the pair, he was often held accountable for his partner’s behavior. He couldn’t think of anything Johnson had done lately…

Only one way to find out.

He ran a hand through his closely cropped, dark hair. He had left his uniform cap in the car.

Maybe the summons was something good. Nick was a hard worker, and one of the best cops at his precinct—which was probably how he had gotten saddled with Johnson in the first place. But he had no desire to remain a beat cop for the rest of his career, especially not in downtown LA. It was a grueling job. What he wanted was to eventually transfer to a quieter district, but he knew working a beat at a place like that would probably bore him to tears. What he really wanted was to make detective first. A detective job somewhere outside of the city… That was what kept him going every time Johnson made him want to scream with frustration. He straightened his uniform as he headed down the hallway and across the bullpen, toward the chief’s office. He gently rapped his knuckles against the frosted glass window on the door.

“Come in,” a muffled voice said from the other side.

Nick turned the doorknob and slipped inside, closing the door behind him.

“You wanted to see me, sir?” He did his best not to sound nervous.

“Sit down.”

Chief Lester indicated the pair of chairs facing his desk, which was covered with neat piles of paperwork. He leaned back in his own leather seat to give Nick a long look. Nick waited.

Lester didn’t look upset, not that he had much of a temper. The overhead lights cast a dim reflection against the dark, shaved skin of his scalp. His jacket was off, but his dress shirt was crisp and neat, marked only by the polished leather of his shoulder holster. He leaned forward, resting his hands on the desk.

“The precinct out in La Valentia has a situation,” he said, breaking the silence.

Nick’s brow furrowed. “La Valentia?” He knew where the suburb was, of course. But where had he heard of it recently? His dark eyes widened. “The one that handled that case with all the abducted girls? The Procurer.”

He had read a while back about a local girl who had managed to escape and free her fellow captives. ‘Kira’ something… It had been all over the news. The case was still unsolved. He leaned forward in his seat with new interest.

“That’s correct,” Lester said with a faint smile. “But this has nothing to do with the Procurer, at least, as far as we know.” He took a deep breath. “The precinct has received inside information about a local child pornography ring. They want to take the whole thing down in one fell swoop with a set of coordinated mass-arrests. They’ve reached out to several precincts here in the city for assistance. They don’t have the manpower to handle it all themselves.”

Nick’s thoughts swirled as he absorbed this information. He met the chief’s gaze. “You’re looking for volunteers, sir?” He tried not to sound too eager. An opportunity to work in a smaller district, on a major case… If he could make a good impression, he might find the ‘in’ he had been looking for. It was always better to win over a new boss and set of coworkers first, before being transferred, especially in a smaller, tightly knit district.

“We’re going to be busy this weekend with all the regular Halloween craziness, so we don’t have many officers to spare. I know you have the rest of the weekend off, but I thought you might be interested.”

Nick nearly blurted out an enthusiastic ‘yes’, but a sudden thought hit him. “What about Johnson, sir?” They were a team. Sort of. But the thought of having to drag his dead-weight partner along doused Nick’s hopes like a bucket of ice water.

Lester leaned back in his chair. “Johnson has already left for the day, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

The chief shrugged. “Then I see no reason to interrupt his well-earned time off.” His voice was dry and Nick thought he saw a flicker of humor in his eyes. “This was intended as an individual request. Whoever goes will be a representative of this precinct.”

Nick met his gaze and gave a slow nod. “I see.” The chief was nothing if not precise with his words.

“Well? Are you interested? If so, you’ll need to leave the city right away.”

Nick leaped to his feet with a grin. “I will, sir. Thank you, sir!”

Lester indicated the door with an answering smile. “You’d best get going then.”

* * *

Kira pulled up to the apartment she and Rob had chosen, parking against the curb across the street. Nine Inch Nails thumped from the car speakers. Trent Reznor’s savage melodies, along with a grueling MMA training session had finally managed to calm her frazzled nerves after the confrontation with her mother and sister. She turned off the car and got out to get the groceries she had picked up for Rob from the trunk.

The street was fairly quiet. It was late afternoon. Jack-o’-lanterns dotted several of the front porches, along with other Halloween decorations. A guy with a shaved head and pierced septum stood on the sidewalk across from the apartment, talking on his phone. He gave her a cursory look as she walked by. Kira didn’t know whether to nod at him in greeting. Was he one of the neighbors? She hadn’t been around long enough to know. She continued across the street and walked up the steps to the apartment before coming to a sudden stop.

The front door was wide open, hanging from a single hinge.

The plastic grocery bags slipped from Kira’s fingers to land against the front step with a rustling thump. She reached for her phone in the pocket of her jeans—she had showered and changed into street clothes after her training session—only to realize she had forgotten it in the car.

Shit. I should go back…

But what if Rob needed help? Ugh, she hated it when women in movies and TV shows walked right in to the obviously invaded home without calling for help first. It was such a stupid move…

She took a tentative step inside.

The apartment was silent. She took another step, taking care not to make any noise. She leaned forward and peered around the corner into the living and dining-room area that dominated the front of the apartment. Her green eyes widened.

Rob had always been a slob, but the apartment was a complete disaster. All the cushions had been ripped from the couch and strewn on the floor, atop piles of Rob’s discarded clothes. The dining-room table had been turned on its side. Kira’s gaze darted toward the shadows of the room as she strained her ears for any sign she wasn’t alone. The overturned table would be a perfect hiding place…

She crept inside the room for a closer look. Every muscle in her body was tense as she held her fists ready. After what seemed like an eternity, she got close enough to peer over the edge of the table.

Nothing.

She found no one behind the couch or in the kitchen either. She retreated to the hallway to continue her investigation. Where the hell was Rob? He was always parked at the table with his laptop whenever she visited.

As she walked past the open bathroom door, she glanced inside. The shower curtain was dripping and had been ripped until it dangled from only a few hooks. The small room was empty. A light breeze billowed the curtains covering the window. A hiss from somewhere outside caught her attention.

“Psst!”

With a frown of confusion, Kira approached the window. As she got closer, she realized the screen was missing. The hiss sounded again.

“Kira!” Someone from outside and below called her name in a harsh whisper. She had a pretty good idea who it was.

She poked her head out the window. Sure enough, Rob’s face peered up at her from the bushes lining the side of the building below. His brown, matted curls were still damp. What she could make out of his nut-brown skin was all bare. He clutched his laptop over his groin.

“What the hell are you doing out there?” Kira demanded.

“Keep your voice down!” Rob whispered back, his brown eyes flashing. “The situation wasn’t exactly voluntary on my part.”

“What happened?” Kira asked, doing her best to speak quietly.

“Some guys busted in just as I was getting out of the shower. I grabbed Leia and booked it out the window.” He gave the laptop an absent pat.

Kira shook her head. “What was Leia doing in the bathroom?”

“Well, not that it’s anything to you, but I had to take care of some business before I got in the shower.” Rob clutched the laptop even tighter.

Kira’s thoughts swirled. “OK, that could mean at least two things that I don’t want to know about.”

Rob snorted. “You’re the one who asked.”

Kira peered down at him. “So your first instinct when you heard someone breaking down the front door wasn’t to grab a towel?” Her eyes narrowed. “What’s that on your feet?” They were covered with some kind of shiny, dark fabric that hugged each toe individually.

Rob flushed. “They’re shower socks,” he muttered.

Kira shot him an exasperated look. She had always known he had a thing about feet, but this…

“Even your own feet?” She shook her head. “How do you wash them?” She held up a hand to forestall him. “You know what, I don’t want to know. I’m already learning far more than I ever wanted to about your bathroom routine. Who did this? Oh, man, if my parents find out about this, they are going to freak.” She could just imagine what kind of reaction she would get. If she thought things were bad now…

“I jumped out the window and hid here,” Rob said. “When I heard one of them come in to search the bathroom, I held up the screen from out here to make it look like it was still in place while he looked outside. I saw four of them leave after they finished trashing the place. Three of them got in a car and drove off.”

His words penetrated Kira’s circling thoughts. “Three? What about the fourth man?”

Rob shrugged. “He might have been left behind to keep an eye on the place. I haven’t been able to see him from here.”

Kira bit her lip. “The street was empty when I parked, except for a guy with a shaved head and nose ring talking on his phone.”

Rob’s gaze darted from the window toward the front of the apartment. “Grab my clothes,” he said without looking away. “They’re hanging on the back of the door.”

Kira smirked. “You could always just circle around to the front door and come get them yourself.”

Rob met her gaze, his expression deadly serious. “Grab my clothes and climb out the window.” Despite his intensity, his voice was barely audible.

“What?” Kira shook her head. “Why?”

“Because that guy you just described was one of the four thugs I saw.”

Kira’s stomach tightened. She had a feeling she knew what Rob would say next…

“He just walked in the front door.”

* * *

Kira snatched Rob’s clothes from where they hanging on the back of the bathroom door. The faint click of the front door opening sounded from the hallway. She rushed across the room to toss the boxers, jeans and hoodie out the window before hoisting herself onto the sill. She folded one leg through the narrow opening, followed by the other and jumped before she could think the better of it. She landed next to Rob in a crouch with a dull thump. He was already wrestling with his boxers while juggling his laptop. The leaves in the bushes rustled around them. Kira looked away before she managed to actually see anything other than a pale pair of butt cheeks.

“Can’t you find your own bush to hide in while I get dressed?” Rob grumbled in a low voice.

“You’re the one who was so insistent I join you out here.” Kira continued to avert her gaze, her mind racing. What the hell was going on?

She suddenly realized that if the man inside the house investigated the bathroom, he would probably notice the open window. She reached up to slide the glass shut. Rob had discarded the popped screen against the side of the building.

He continued his grunting struggle beside her as he yanked on his hoodie.

“Do you always make this much noise when you get dressed?” Kira muttered.

“I do when I’m huddled in the bushes with another person. Are you offering to help?” Kira shot him a disparaging look as his head emerged from the neck of his hoodie. “Then quit complaining.”

Kira’s gaze was drawn by a flash of sunlight against the side of a dark car driving down the street. It parked just a few car lengths away from her own vehicle. As soon as it came to a halt, three men emerged. Kira had never seen any of them before.

The driver was tall and lanky with slicked blond hair and a leather jacket. The man who emerged from the passenger seat was nearly as tall with long, dark hair. His bare arms were covered with tattoos. The third man was much shorter by comparison, but clearly made up for it by spending all his time at the gym. He wore a tight-fitting white tank top. None of them looked particularly friendly. All three walked toward the apartment.

“Uh, Rob?” She swallowed. “Are you dressed yet?” Her voice emerged as a low whisper.

“Still trying to get my pants on.” He uttered a muffled curse.

“Yeah, I don’t think we have time for that. Your other three friends just showed up. The one who saw me go inside must have called them.”

“What?” Rob stuck his head over Kira’s shoulder to look and uttered another stream of curses in Spanish. They both went still as the front door opened once more and all three men went inside.

“We need to make a run for it,” Kira said in a low voice.

“They haven’t found us yet. Maybe if we just stay here they’ll get bored and leave…”

Kira turned around to grip his shoulder. “Rob, we need to get out of here. If we run for the car now while they’re still inside, we can make it.”

Rob gave her a pained look. “Kira, I’m not wearing any pants.”

She shook her head as her gaze was inexorably drawn downward to his R2D2-print boxers. “There’s not enough time. That guy saw me go inside. They’re going to keep looking until they find us.”

The sound of movement in the nearby bathroom made them both fall silent. She met Rob’s startled brown gaze and reached down to grab his wrist. He gave a reluctant nod and shifted Leia under his arm with his discarded jeans. Kira took a deep breath and ran out from the bushes, pulling him behind her. His shower socks made barely any sound against the pavement as they reached the street. Part of her wanted to look back, but she kept her gaze focused on her car. She yanked her keys from her pocket and used the fob to unlock the doors. Just a few more feet…

A shout sounded in the distance behind them. She looked back to see a shaved head poking out the bathroom window.

The man was looking right at them.

She released Rob’s wrist as they reached the car and he circled around to the passenger seat. She yanked her own door open and threw herself inside beside him.

“Go, go, go!” Rob shouted.

All four men were swarming out the front door of the apartment now.

Kira jammed her key in the ignition. The engine roared to life. The sexually explicit chorus of ‘Closer’ pumped from the speakers at full volume. Trent Reznor’s notorious aggressive refrain reverberated within the confines of the car, nearly giving Kira a heart attack. She had forgotten she had left her phone connected. She flushed as she darted a hand toward the dash and turned off the speakers. Rob spared her a dubious look before pointing at the four men, who were now running toward their own car.

“Shit!” Kira pulled away from the curb and started barreling down the street.

A few seconds later, she saw the dark sedan in her rear-view mirror. Rob had put Leia down somewhere and was trying to wrestle his pants on again.

“What do we do now?” Kira demanded. “Who the hell are these people?”

First, a daylight break-in, and now they were being chased. Clearly this wasn’t a regular home robbery situation.

“Just try to lose them.” Kira couldn’t help but notice Rob hadn’t answered her second question.

“We can’t just drive around town and hope they’ll lose interest.” Kira checked her mirror again and increased her speed. The other car was gaining on them. Her stomach clenched. She didn’t particularly enjoy driving at the best of times…

“Well we can’t go to anyone for help either,” Rob snapped. “Do you want to lead these guys to our families?”

“We should at least call the cops.” Kira made a reach for her phone while keeping her eyes on the road.

Rob batted her hand away. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Kira bit her lip and clenched the steering wheel. Whatever was going on, Rob was going to have to tell her sooner or later.

She continued heading toward the center of town with the dark car following behind her. As they encountered more traffic, she started swerving between vehicles to put some distance between them, earning several dirty looks from other drivers. The dark sedan wove through the traffic behind them, creeping closer with each passing moment.

I need to lose them…

The idea seemed impossible with all the cars around them in the middle of the afternoon. She was hardly a stunt driver. Her gaze flickered between her mirror and the traffic around her and back again as they approached a major intersection. A town bus, followed by a tractor-trailer waited for the light to change on the street running perpendicular to the road they were driving.

“Red light, Kira…” Rob said in a tight voice beside her. “Red light!”

Kira ignored his warning and slammed down the gas pedal. Her car sped through the intersection through the red light just as traffic started moving in the other direction. The bus hurtled toward them.

Kira gritted her teeth and held her foot steady as they flew forward. Horns blared around them and the bus drove past, missing her rear bumper by mere inches. No other cars had followed behind her. The tractor-trailer was crossing the intersection now, blocking the view of the vehicles on the other side. She yanked the steering wheel to the right and swerved onto a side street. Rob cursed as he slid around in his seat. She took another hard right and thundered down the entrance of an underground parking lot. She drove down to the bottom level before finally parking in a spot in the far corner, obscured by an SUV. She turned off the car, her heart pounding in her ears.

She and Rob sat in complete silence for several moments, listening. The only sound was their own breathing.

“Are you insane?” Rob finally burst out, when it was clear they hadn’t been followed. “That bus could have killed us.”

“You told me to lose them.” Kira sounded a lot calmer than she felt. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Where the hell are we?”

“The LVC.” The La Valentia Center was the main mall in town. It housed both retail and business locations.

“Good. Then you can buy me a charger for Leia.” Rob finally managed to get both his legs inside his jeans and shimmied them up toward his waist.

I can buy you a charger?” Kira raised an eyebrow.

“My wallet’s back at the apartment.”

Kira rolled her eyes. “How convenient.”

“Look, I’ll stay here while you rustle up a charger. Unless you have one on you already?”

“Do I look like a walking electronics store?” Kira shook her head. “No. This is what’s going to happen. You’re going to come with me to buy a charger. Then we’re going to sit down in a very public place, and you’re going to tell me exactly what is going on.” She gave him a dark look.

“Kira, you know I don’t like going out in the world…” Rob used a wheedling tone.

Kira folded her arms. “Too bad. I don’t know what the hell you’re mixed up in, but I’m not leaving you alone. You don’t want me to call the cops? Then tell me why I shouldn’t.”

Rob looked away for a moment. “Fine.” He sighed. “But I’ll only come with you on one condition.” He wiggled his shower-socked toes. “You buy me a pair of shoes first.”

* * *

Kira eyed Rob from across the table inside the La Valentia Center Coffee House. He was finally clothed, and wore a brand-new pair of sneakers. He hunched, muttering over his laptop, which was now charging, thanks to the cable Kira had purchased. His features were mostly hidden within the shadows of his hoodie, but the dim glow of the screen illuminated his dark eyes as they glanced up every few moments to look in askance at the people around them. Kira sipped at her iced frappuccino and took a more casual glance at their surroundings.

They had seen no sign of any of their four pursuers since their arrival at the mall. The atmosphere in the coffee shop was fairly relaxed. Soft music played as people chatted, and the air was filled with the somewhat cloying scent of pumpkin spice. Kira had never been a fan. Even though no one seemed to be watching them with any particular interest, Rob’s behavior was starting to earn them a few odd looks.

“Can you at least try not to look suspicious?” Kira asked him in a low voice.

She had been trying to look inconspicuous as Rob worked, skimming the contents of the local newspaper while keeping an eye out for their four pursuers. She abandoned the pretense, setting it down on the table. They mayor’s familiar face smiled from the front page as he posed in front of a hospital helicopter, which he flew as a volunteer. She had tried reading the article at least four times already without success.

Rob scowled at her from the shadows of his hoodie. “This isn’t exactly my natural habitat. There are too many people around here.”

Kira sighed. “Yeah, like maybe ten of them. You really need to get out more.”

“Remind me to thank those four tools who broke into our place for helping me to challenge my comfort zone the next time I see them,” Rob grumbled. His fingers flew across the keyboard without pause as he spoke.

Kira rolled her eyes. “Speaking of which…You’ve got your shoes, and Leia is charging. Are you finally going to tell me what those tools were doing in our apartment? I’m assuming it wasn’t a play date.”

Rob’s fingers stilled and he gave her a serious look before glancing around to make certain no one was within earshot.

“A project I was working on might have backfired.”

Kira gave him a level look. “Does this have anything to do with the work you expect me to help you with once I move in?”

Rob called himself a ‘security expert’—what was more widely known as a white-hat hacker. He worked as a freelance contractor on websites to help assess their weak points and implement improvements. He had told her the pay was good, and he had built up enough of a reputation to have more requests than he could handle on his own. The plan was to train Kira after she moved in to help take on some of the grunt work.

Rob met her gaze. “It does.” He rubbed a hand against his hooded curls with a sigh of his own. “It seemed like a straightforward job. A guy running a local forum asked me to perform a security assessment. Whoever had been running the site before had left or something, and he wanted to make sure there were no privacy leaks. The pay was really good. I looked into the guy as much as I could before I accepted, and he seemed OK. No records, not even so much as a parking ticket. So I took the job.”

“And?” Kira raised in eyebrow.

“Well, everything seemed secure. Whoever had managed the site before had done good work. I wasn’t supposed to dive into any of the files or member identities—just case the place, so to speak.” Rob bit his lip. “But then I started to wonder… Why did some local forum need such airtight security in the first place? Plus, I took it as a personal challenge to see if I could break in undetected.”

“Of course you did.”

Rob ignored the barb. “What I found…” He shook his head. “The people on the forum were exchanging photos and videos.” His gaze darted around the room and his voice dropped to barely above a whisper. “They were all of kids.” He shot her a meaningful look.

Kira recoiled. “You don’t mean…”

Rob gave her a somber nod. “Kiddie porn.” He mouthed the words without speaking them aloud.

“What did you do?”

“Well, at first I freaked out. I mean, this wasn’t what I had signed up for. How could I help to keep a group of sickos like that safe?”

“You might want to start screening you clients a bit better,” Kira said in a dry voice.

“I told the guy who hired me that I was done and took his money,” Rob said. “…After I designed a slow leak that would reveal files and the members. I emailed the link to the police.”

Kira leaned back in her seat. Her thoughts swirled inside her head. “Why didn’t you just retrieve all the info and send it?”

Rob shot her a flat look. “Not all of us are heroes, Kira. I don’t want to know who those people are or what kind of stuff they’re looking at. Let the police take care of it. Besides, if I had downloaded everything at once, the owner of the site would probably have noticed the jump in his bandwidth and traced it back to me. I already stalled him as long as I could to set up my own slow leak.”

Kira closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. It wasn’t the way she would have handled the situation, but she could see Rob’s point.

“Wait.” She looked up at him. “If you were so careful, then why did those thugs show up at our place?”

“That’s the problem. I was careful.” Rob’s eyes flashed. “No one should have been able to trace the leak. Not only that, but I even remained anonymous with the guy who owned the site. He only knew me by reputation. I never gave my real name, and the money all went into a spoofed bank account under an alias.”

“So you’ve managed to piss off someone else then?” Kira tilted her head and shot him a skeptical look. “Seems like one hell of a coincidence.”

“It has to be connected to that job,” Rob said. “Nothing else makes sense.”

Kira fell silent and took a long sip of her drink as she considered. She put down her cup.

“Someone on the LVPD must have talked.”

Rob’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you serious?”

She shrugged. “You sent them the link.”

“Yeah, as an anonymous tip.”

“You think the police don’t have the resources to look into a phony bank account?”

“But why target me?” Rob spread his hands wide with a look of frustration. “I’m the Good Samaritan here.”

“Well, obviously whoever is behind this must be dirty. Otherwise, we would have been busted in on by cops instead of those thugs.” Kira’s gaze narrowed as her thoughts ran ahead of her words. “Someone in that forum is either a cop, or connected to one—someone with too much to lose if they’re exposed. If they weren’t, they’d just use the info to skip town instead of going after you. They must not know how much you know.”

Rob winced. “Either that, or they want to force me to stop the leak.” He groaned. “That makes too much sense.”

“So what do we do now?” Kira asked. “Going to the police seems out of the question. Plus, we can both identify our home invaders. I don’t think they’re going to let us walk away. How long will your leak take to relay all the files?”

Rob shook his head. “Until end of day tomorrow at the earliest. Like I said, I was trying to be careful.”

“We can’t dodge these people forever. And if they’ve got a cop on their side…”

“We’re in big trouble.” Rob squared his shoulders. “OK, well there’s no point in being subtle anymore, is there?”

“What do you mean?” Kira asked.

“If I can get the leak up to full speed, maybe we can get all the names and files, and expose whoever’s behind this before it’s too late.”

Kira felt a surge of hope. “How long would it take to pull that off?”

Rob shrugged. “An hour? Maybe less if I actually had a stronger wi-fi connection. The one here is pretty useless.” He gave their surroundings a sour look. “After that, it would probably still take some time to relay everything to the police.”

“So it could buy us some time,” Kira mused. She drummed her fingers against the side of her cup. “And if we could find out who our inside man is, maybe we can turn the tables.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a safe plan.”

“Better if we find him before he finds us.”

A muscular frat-type loomed over their table, making them both fall silent. “You almost done with that outlet, bro? I need to charge my phone.” He held up his phone and gestured to where Rob’s laptop was plugged in.

Rob shot him a scathing look. “Do I look like I’m almost done with it?”

“Hey, man, no need to be hostile.”

“You’ll know I’m done with it when I leave,” Rob said without any hint of being intimidated. He sniffed. “Besides, I’m pretty sure what I’m working on is more important than whatever booty call you’ve got lined up.”

Kira looked around and realized the few remaining patrons in the shop were starting to stare.

“Uh, Rob? Maybe we should pack up now. The mall’s going to close soon anyway.”

“You should listen to your girlfriend,” the looming guy said. Everyone was openly staring now.

Rob glared. “She’s not my girlfriend, you troglodyte. Why don’t you—”

“Rob, we really need to go now.” Kira gave him a pointed look and kicked him under the table. “The wi-fi here sucks anyway.”

“We’re not going—” Rob’s expression suddenly softened. He shook himself. “You know what? You’re right. Let’s go.” He unplugged Leia and stood with a magnanimous gesture. “It’s all yours, bro.”

The guy gave Rob a confused look. Kira popped out of her seat and ushered Rob out of the shop before he could draw any more attention to them.

“What were you thinking?” she demanded in a low voice.

“Hey, I got enough of being pushed around by that douchebag jock type when we were in high school. You’re the one who thought I should get out more, remember?”

Kira shook her head and cursed under her breath. “What made you change your mind about leaving?”

She looked back at the coffee shop to see the frat guy sitting at their table. His features were contorted and he was waving a hand at the air in front of his face.

Rob chuckled. “Yeah, I realized I needed to cut one.”

* * *

Kira drove the streets of La Valentia in silence. Her hands gripped the steering wheel as her thoughts churned. Rob was quiet in the passenger seat next to her. They had said little after leaving the mall. Rob had wanted to hide out in the underground parking lot, but Kira had pointed out that there wasn’t any wi-fi signal down there for him to use. Besides, if the guys who were after him had someone on the police force in their corner, there was always a chance they could use traffic cameras to track them to the underground parking lot. That’s what she would have done if she were trying to cover her ass.

Remaining a moving target had seemed safer. They would have been far too isolated in the bowels of the underground parking lot for her liking, especially with all the stores closing for the day. Even though she didn’t enjoy driving, it gave her something to do while she tried to force her thoughts into some kind of coherent order.

Where can we go? Who can we trust?

The sun had already slipped below the western horizon. The streets weren’t that busy. Kira’s nervous glance darted often to her rear-view mirror to peer into the darkness behind them. It was also possible that a cop could be keeping an eye out for them…

She shook her head. How had Rob managed to get into such a mess? She couldn’t blame him for trying to do the right thing. And now she was in it with him. Even if those thugs hadn’t gotten a good look at her as they had run from the apartment, they had the description of her car, and probably her license plate too.

“Hey, I thought we agreed we weren’t going to get our families involved in this,” Rob said, breaking the silence as Kira turned into the subdivision where both of their parents lived.

“I’m going somewhere else,” Kira said. She realized she had come to a decision.

She caught a glimpse of what she thought was a familiar, dark car in her rear view and made another turn.

“Was that them?” Rob asked in a tight voice.

Kira shrugged. “It’s too dark to tell.”

“I’m probably just being paranoid.”

Kira didn’t bother to answer. They had both seen the car and thought the same thing. She pulled into the busy parking lot of their old high school. Tents and booths decorated the grounds with orange and black decorations and signs for a Halloween Fair.

“What the hell are we going here for?” Rob demanded. It wasn’t exactly a place that held fond memories for either of them.

“We’re going to ditch the car—for now, at least. It’ll make us harder to find.” She parked the car and turned it off. Her swirling thoughts had stilled now that she had come up with some semblance of a plan. “Come on. We need to hurry.”

Rob snatched up the satchel that had served as Kira’s gym bag and now held his laptop. Kira got out of the car and wasted no time ducking into the crowd. She spared a backward glance to make sure Rob was following behind her. He was looking over his shoulder at the parking lot. His head snapped back toward her and he pressed close to her side.

“It’s them,” he said in a low voice.

Kira gave a grim nod. She grabbed his wrist, pulling him deeper into the milling crowd of adults, costumed children, and teenage couples holding hands. They passed a dunk tank with a green-faced witch, and a tent advertising a gypsy fortune teller. No one seemed to pay them much attention, except to give them sour looks as they worked their way through the press of bodies. Speakers blared creepy organ music, punctuated by cackling laughter, and ghostly moans. The buttery scent of popcorn filled Kira’s nostrils as they passed a food vendor, who also had a table of candy apples. Her stomach rumbled. Her last meal seemed like forever ago. She suddenly wished she had gotten something to eat at the coffee shop.

She risked another glance over her shoulder and saw the man with the shaved head and nose piercing she had seen earlier. His head was swiveling back and forth as he surveyed the crowd. It took her a moment, but she eventually spotted his three friends. They had all fanned out to search. None of the men had spotted her or Rob yet, but it was only a matter of time. She turned around and kept going.

“Kira, he’s getting closer,” Rob said in a strangled voice. Kira looked back again and saw Shaved Head less than ten feet away. His sweeping gaze was working its way toward them…

Rob grabbed her shoulder and steered her behind the closest stall. His face turned toward hers with a fearful grimace before she could react. The next thing she knew, his lips were pressing against hers in the most awkward, unwanted kiss of all time.

Every fiber of her body wanted to push him away, but Shaved Head’s familiar figure was walking right past them. She lowered her eyelids and forced herself to put her arms around Rob’s neck. Several agonizing moments passed before Shaved Head moved on. She gave Rob a shove and wiped her lips with the back of her hand.

“Ugh, what the hell was that?” she demanded.

“Hey, I didn’t like it either, but one of us had to do something…”

“Why didn’t we just hide behind those bushes?” Kira pointed at the well-manicured shrubs that stood only a few feet away.

“I—” Rob frowned as he followed the line of her arm and shrugged. “I didn’t think of that, OK?” He looked over his shoulder. “Oh, no. Here comes another one…”

Kira stifled a moan as his mouth sought hers once more. If he had been anyone else, or if they hadn’t been on the run, she probably would have clocked him one. This time, she wasn’t caught off guard and had more time to think about the situation, which only made things worse. Her stomach clenched in response. She was pretty sure that Rob was a better kisser than what he was demonstrating at the moment, but neither of them were really into it or bringing their A-game. This time, she saw Leather Jacket walk past them without taking notice. She pulled away and gave Rob a solid punch in the shoulder.

“Ow!” He rubbed the place where she’d hit him with an offended look. “What? There wasn’t any time to go rooting around in your bushes.”

“Not without buying me several drinks first, anyway.” Kira scraped at her lips again in a desperate effort to get rid of the taste of him. “Strong ones. Ugh. You taste like stale Cheetos.”

“Hey, I’m the one saving our asses here. Besides, that was probably more action than either of us ever got on school grounds.”

“We need to get going before another one comes along,” Kira said. “I’m not kissing you a third time.”

She grabbed his wrist again and dragged him behind the bushes. Once they were through, the fair fell away behind them. She steered him in the direction of the most affluent area of the surrounding subdivision with several backward glances to make sure they weren’t being followed.

“Where are you taking me now?” Rob demanded in a low voice.

“We’re going to a friend’s house.”

Rob scoffed. “I’m your only friend, remember?”

Kira shot him a dark look. “We’re going to Stephanie Wright’s place.”

“Stephanie Wright? Trevor’s sister?” Rob shook his head in disbelief.

“Her brother might be a douchebag, but she’s a good kid,” Kira said. “I started tutoring her a little while ago, remember?”

“Yeah, but how is that going to help us now?”

“Well, I’m sure she’ll have a strong wi-fi connection,” Kira said in a dry voice. “Her father is only one of the richest men in town. Plus, her house has cameras and security staff. And it’s within walking distance.”

Rob grunted. “Sounds like a good place to lie low, I guess. As long as Trevor isn’t around, anyway. I wouldn’t even trust that prick as far as I could throw him.”

Kira nodded in agreement. She had no desire to see the their former bully either. “It’s Saturday night. I doubt the infamous Trevor Wright is going to be sitting around at home.”

“Good point.”

Kira led the way toward Stephanie’s house. She was fairly confident that unlike Trevor, Stephanie would be home on a Saturday night. She was very much an introvert—almost as much as Kira was.

Kira trotted along the silent sidewalks as they made their way through the dark streets toward the large home that housed the Wright family. She proceeded with even more caution as they got closer, looking back frequently. The last thing she wanted was to get caught before they reached their goal. She spared yet another glance over her shoulder.

“Uh, Kira?” Rob said. “I think we have a problem.”

Kira turned to face him. “What?”

“Is that Stephanie’s house?” Rob pointed.

Kira followed his gaze and uttered a groan.

Across the street, music pumped with a heavy bass from the Wright mansion. Several large jack-o’-lanterns grinned from the well-manicured front lawn with an eerie, flickering light. The wide, curving driveway was packed with parked cars. Bunches of orange and black balloons floated from the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the property.

The front gate was wide open.

* * *

Kira practically had to drag Rob through the gate and up the long driveway to the front of the mansion. A tall, muscular man in slacks and a polo shirt appeared from the shadows to stand between them and the front door. Kira forced herself to act as if they belonged there, even as he gave them a frowning look.

“We’re not here for the party,” she said to explain their lack of costumes. “We came to see Stephanie.”

The man’s expression cleared. “You’re the one who comes to tutor her, aren’t you?”

Kira gave him a smile. “That’s right. This is my friend, Rob. He’s a computer expert. The last time I was here, Steph was telling me her laptop was running a bit slow.”

The man gave a shrug and stepped aside. “I guess you’d better go in then.”

Kira gave him a parting smile of thanks and ushered Rob through the open door.

Inside, the music was thumping at full volume. The house seemed packed with costumed bodies. The guys were all jock types from their old high school. Even though they all seemed to be wearing a wide variety of costumes, the girls were a different story. Everywhere Kira looked, there were scantily clad nurses, cheerleaders, or what she guessed were supposed to be witches—minus the green skin and warts, of course. Everyone seemed to have a drink in hand. Rob stood stock-still beside her and shook his head back and forth as his gaze darted around the large entryway.

“This is a bad idea. This is such a bad idea…” His breath was coming short and fast. Kira tried to speculate when was the last time he had been around so many people and failed.

“It’s not that bad,” Kira said. “At least all these people should make us tougher to find if any of our new friends make it past the front door.”

Rob couldn’t seem to tear his gaze from the mass of bodies. “We’re the only ones here not in costume.”

“Which is why we need to get a move on.” Kira nudged his shoulder. “Come on. We’ve got to find Stephanie.”

“How are we supposed to find her in all this?” His voice emerged in a high squeak as he gestured at the crowd.

“She won’t be here. She’ll be upstairs in her room.”

Rob swallowed. “How do you know that for sure?”

Kira gave him a lopsided smile. “If one of your sisters decided to throw a big party while you were still living with your parents, where would you be?”

“Good point. I hope you’re right.”

Kira gave him a measuring look. “Are you going to be OK? We need to get to the stairs. If we’re going to get through all these people, you’re going to have to stay close.”

Rob gave a slow nod. “I can do that.”

“Good.”

Kira started weaving through the milling crowd. She almost tripped when Rob stepped on the back of her heel.

“Ow!” She shot him an annoyed look. “I didn’t mean that close.”

“Sorry,” Rob muttered.

Kira sighed and started moving again. Most of the guests were too busy trying to impress one another to take much notice of the two party crashers in their midst, but a few shot them odd looks as they passed, followed by expressions of recognition. Kira made a point of slipping away before anyone could actually speak to them.

She looked back to make sure Rob was still with her and bumped into someone.

“Hey!” a woman’s pouty voice protested. “Watch where you’re going.”

Kira turned back around with an apology on her lips, but fell silent as she realized she had walked into an ambulatory pumpkin—one with a face carved in strategic areas, revealing tantalizing glimpses of the petite body housed within.

“The Slutty Pumpkin!” She found herself blurting the words in surprise.

“Trevor must have started watching How I Met Your Mother,” Rob said from over her shoulder in a dry voice.

Kira’s gaze traveled upward to find a familiar, scowling face above the neckline of the costume, topped with auburn curls. She stifled a curse.

Miranda Tanner.

She had always been a bit obsessed with Trevor Wright. He was pleasant enough to her, but had never asked her out, despite her repeated attempts to throw herself at him.

“Well if it isn’t Kira Beaver and her friend, Churro,” Miranda said with a hint of a sneer.

Miranda had never been one of Kira’s biggest fans.

Kira ignored the mocking nickname that had plagued her since high school—one that had been given by Trevor himself in response to the rumors that Kira was gay. She had never been interested in any of the jerks she had gone to school with, and Rob was her best friend. That combination had sealed her fate in the eyes of most of the other students.

“It’s nice to see that someone actually used their imagination with their costume,” Kira said with a tight smile. No need to draw any more attention to themselves…

Miranda shot her a wary look, confused by Kira’s polite response.

“Nice holes,” Rob said with a grin, nodding toward the two carved eyes on the front of the rounded costume. Kira stepped on his foot.

Miranda’s eyes narrowed. “What would you know about what’s inside them, Churro?”

“Nothing at all,” Kira said before Rob could make the situation any worse. “But I bet Trevor will like them.”

Miranda’s gaze was inexorably drawn across the room. Kira spared a moment to follow it.

A bare-chested man was holding court with a bevy of nurses and cheerleaders. His skin gleamed with oil above his loincloth. A crimson cape hung from his broad shoulders. Despite the fact that the costume was clearly supposed to be Leonidas, the Spartan soldier-king from the movie 300, Trevor had left his short curls their usual blond. Kira rolled her eyes.

“Any excuse to have his shirt off…” Rob muttered from behind her.

“Hey, Miranda, want to go for a swim?” some guy dressed as Thor said as he sauntered over. He brushed the ends of his blond wig over his shoulders.

“Yeah, maybe later.” Miranda’s voice was vague and her eyes were still glued on Trevor.

Kira used her distraction as a chance to slip back into the crowd before Thor could take notice of them. By the time Miranda turned around again, they were gone.

Kira breathed a sigh of relief as she and Rob finally reached the stairs. She led the way to the second floor and knocked on the door to Stephanie’s room. A muffled voice spoke from within.

“Come in!”

Kira slipped inside with Rob on her heels. A teenage girl with long, dark hair looked up at them from where she sat reading on the bed. Soft, classical music played in the background to help muffle the racket from downstairs. The walls were decorated with paintings and sketches.

“Kira?” Stephanie Wright’s blue eyes widened. “What are you doing here?” There was no accusation in her tone, only curiosity. Her nose wrinkled. “Did Trevor invite you?” She knew Kira and her brother weren’t close.

“What? No!” Kira took a deep breath and blew it out. “It’s kind of a long story.”

She shot Rob an inquiring look, but he only gave her a waving gesture to get on with it. Kira scowled at him for a moment before continuing.

“This is my friend, Rob.” She didn’t want to tell Stephanie everything… Kira trusted her, but the less Stephanie knew, the better. “He’s a professional hacker.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Stephanie gave Rob a solemn nod that made her seem far older than she actually was.

“Why aren’t you at the party downstairs?” Rob asked.

Stephanie wrinkled her nose again. “Trevor invited me, of course. He even picked me up some costume makeup, in case I changed my mind and decided to go.” She glanced across the room at a package lying on her dresser and shrugged. “It’s not really my thing.”

“Trevor actually bought you that?” Rob’s voice was incredulous. He walked across the room to look.

Stephanie sighed. “I know he’s not always the nicest person, but he’s always good to me.”

Rob shot Kira a dubious look. Kira shrugged. As far as she knew, Stephanie’s statement was true.

Rob frowned. “Some of this makeup has been used.”

The corners of Stephanie’s mouth twitched. “Trevor used some of it.”

Both Rob and Kira shot her matching, confused looks.

Stephanie leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “On his abs. To make them ‘pop’.” She used air quotes as she stifled a grin.

Rob snorted. “That sounds more like Trevor.”

Kira gave a dismissive wave. “Anyway… Rob found evidence of… something really bad.” She made a face and shook her head. “He designed a slow leak and sent an anonymous tip to the police. Then four sketchy-looking guys showed up at our apartment and trashed the place looking for him. We got away, but they’ve seen my car and both our faces. We needed a safe place where they wouldn’t look for us—one with a strong wi-fi connection, so Rob can widen the leak and try to figure out who’s behind all this.” She took a deep breath and gave Stephanie a rueful smile. “I thought of you. I wasn’t expecting the party though.”

Stephanie blinked. “You don’t trust the police.” She leaned forward. “You think whoever sent those guys after Rob must have connections to them.”

Rob’s eyes widened. “She’s good.” He gave Kira a nudge. “Why are you tutoring her again?”

Stephanie gave a half smile. “I’m at the top of my class in music and the arts, but I don’t really have the focus for some of my other subjects.”

“She’s not stupid, Rob.” Kira looked at him in askance.

“I can see that,” Rob said with a snort. “She’s just not what I expected as Trevor Wright’s sister.”

Stephanie blushed. “Well the party does change things. There are so many people drinking down there, it’s only a matter of time before something happens and our security staff has to break it up. It happens every year.” She looked up at them. “What are you going to do once you deal with the leak and figure out who’s after you? If you were followed here, it will be tough to get away.”

“We’ll need costumes,” Rob said before Kira could reply.

“Costumes?” She frowned at him.

Rob shrugged. “How else are we going to blend in and slip out to get back to your car? Those guys are looking for us, right?” Kira’s eyes narrowed. “Well they won’t be looking for… not-us.”

Kira rolled her eyes at the Zoolander reference. “And where exactly are we supposed to get these costumes? You think there’s a shop in here somewhere?”

Rob smirked. “There’s a whole house full of costumes downstairs.”

Kira shot him a dark look. “If you think I’m going to dress up as a sexy nurse, you’re sadly mistaken.”

“And me dress up as a muscle-bound Spartan?” Rob snorted. “Please, give me some credit.”

“Then what are you suggesting?” Kira’s gaze hardened.

Rob gave an expansive wave. “I have a plan.” He followed up with the two words that were guaranteed to set Kira’s teeth on edge.

“Trust me.”

* * *

“This is a terrible idea.” Kira uttered the words in a harsh whisper as she glared at Rob from where she was crouched beside him behind yet another grouping of bushes.

She had gone along with his secretive ‘plan’ until this point, mainly because she was surprised that it had involved him leaving the sanctuary of Stephanie’s room and returning to the party. They had narrowly missed passing Trevor and one of the many girls dressed as a sexy nurse on the stairs after Rob had gotten his leak program up and running. No one had paid them any attention so far. But now that Rob had revealed a few more details about what he had in mind, Kira was having second thoughts.

This is what I get for being curious…

“No, it’s perfect.”

Rob wasn’t even looking at her. His gaze was drawn to the people frolicking in the pool. Miranda was one of them. She was lounging on an inflatable raft, positioned to show off her bikini to its best advantage while she continued to look toward the house—presumably for any sign of Trevor. Kira almost felt sorry for her.

Almost.

The guy who had been dressed as Thor was treading water beside her, trying to draw her into conversation. His costume and blond wig had been discarded beside the pool. He must have come wearing his swim trunks underneath. Other guests had started a round of volleyball in the shallow end, with frequent pauses for drinks. A girl came out of the nearby pool house in her bathing suit to join them. Kira and Rob had seen her go in while wearing her costume a few moments earlier.

Kira looked from the pool back to Rob. “What the hell are you thinking?” Her eyes narrowed. “And why do I have a feeling I’m not going to like it?”

Rob scoffed. “It’s no big deal. All you have to do is get a hold of that blond wig over there.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the pool deck.

Kira shot him a dark look. “Oh, is that all?” Her hushed voice was heavy with sarcasm. “It’s right beside the pool! Isn’t there some other costume we can snatch?”

Rob shook his head. “We need the wig. It’s a necessary part of my vision.”

Kira rolled her eyes with a sigh. “And what will you be doing?”

“You have a pocketknife, right?”

“Um, yeah.” Kira frowned. “It’s attached to my keys. Why?”

Rob held out his hand. “I’m going to need it.”

“OK…” Kira gave him a dubious look as she fished her keys out of her pocket to hand them to him.

“Oh, by the way, what size are your feet?”

Kira blinked. “Well, these are a nine-and-a-half men’s…” She looked down at her sneakers.

Rob gaped for a moment and shook his head. “Why are you wearing men’s shoes?”

“Now you sound like my mom.” Kira flushed. “It’s easier than finding anything decent in a woman’s size eleven, OK? Why are you suddenly so interested? I thought feet freaked you out.”

Rob tore his gaze from Kira’s sneakers with a shudder. “Never mind. Just go get the wig. I’ll meet you back here in a few minutes.” He started creeping in the direction of the pool house.

“Get the wig,” Kira muttered to herself. “Sure, no problem.”

She cursed to herself as she unzipped her hoodie and draped it over her arm. She took a steadying breath before leaving the shelter of the bushes.

If this doesn’t work, I swear, I’m going to kill him.

She forced herself to walk casually past the pool. Other than a few passing glances, no one seemed to pay her any notice. Everyone was too busy either trying to get someone else’s attention, or doing their best to get wasted. She was used to being dismissed by these people. At any rate, it was better than being teased.

As she passed the spot where the Thor costume lay on the pool deck, she made a show of stumbling, as if the pavement were uneven. Her hoodie slipped from her arm, settling on top of the blond wig. She snatched it up with an annoyed curse and headed back toward the bushes without looking back.

Her eyes darted toward the pool house. Rob was walking toward her. He wasn’t carrying anything, but his hoodie seemed bulkier than usual…

“I think I’m going to get out now.” Miranda’s voice carried from across the pool.

“Yeah, me too.”

Kira recognized the voice of the guy who had been dressed as Thor. She shot Rob a panicked look, but maintained her casual pace. Rob’s eyes widened.

“Get inside,” he muttered as he reached her side. “Quick!”

“Hey, has anyone seen my wig?”

Kira and Rob ducked back into the house before they heard a response. Rob steered Kira back toward the stairs and up to the second level of the house.

“Did you get it?” he asked as they rounded a corner in the upstairs hallway.

“Yes.” Kira said grudgingly as she handed him the wig from inside her hoodie. “Are you going to tell me what you were up to in the pool house?”

“Not yet.” He flashed her an irritating grin. “You’ll see soon enough. But first, I need you to do one more thing.”

“What now?

Rob paused. “I need you to get Trevor’s red cape.” He spoke the words in a rush as if that would somehow prevent Kira from fully realizing their meaning.

“What?” Kira shook her head. “How the hell am I supposed to do that? And if you think I’m going to be able to walk up to him and woo it off him—”

Rob gave her a dismissive wave. “He’s already got some skanky nurse up here, remember? I doubt he’s even still wearing the thing. Just sneak into his room and take it while he’s… distracted.”

Kira grimaced. “Ugh. Why don’t you do it?”

“I need to make some alterations.” Rob hoisted the wig with one hand while patting his hoodie with the other. “I’ll meet you in Stephanie’s room.” He slipped away before she could stop him.

Kira stared daggers at his retreating back as he walked down the hall. “I’m not going to forget this!” she called after him in a low voice as he slipped inside Stephanie’s room.

She squared her shoulders and took another steadying breath. This was going to be even worse than taking the wig. How long had Trevor and his nurse been up here? What if she walked in on…

She shuddered before she could complete the thought. The longer she waited, the less she liked her chances.

Right. Might as well get it over with.

She knew from her previous visits which room was Trevor’s. She had always avoided it like the plague. She crept past the top of the stairs and placed her ear against the first door on her left. Muffled voices sounded from within. Mercifully, they sounded like words instead of moans. She placed her hand on the doorknob and slowly eased the door open. For a moment, she stood completely still, waiting for someone inside to notice.

Nothing happened.

She peered through the narrow crack of the door. The room inside was dimly lit. A full-length mirror hanging on the wall inside gave her a glimpse of a large bed at the opposite end of the room. Trevor was still wearing his loincloth. A girl in tight-fitting nurse’s costume lounged on the bed beside him. Her fingers traced invisible patterns on the bare skin of his chest. Kira pulled her gaze away to look around the rest of her narrow view of the room.

Trevor’s scarlet cape was strewn on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Kira stifled a moan.

Why couldn’t he have just hung the damn thing on the back of the door?

For a moment, she considered abandoning her quest. But Rob seemed to have a specific plan in mind. Part of her was a bit relieved to have him coming up with some ideas. It took the pressure off. Besides, Trevor and the girl weren’t really doing anything yet…

I just better not get caught, or I don’t know what I’m going to say… That I wanted a piece of the action?

She found herself shuddering again and pushed the thought away.

With a silent curse for Rob, she put on her sweatshirt and raised the hood to obscure her features. She eased the door open a bit more and got down on her hands and knees. When the occupants of the room still didn’t show any signs of noticing the open door, she slithered into the room.

“I work out a lot.” Trevor’s voice reached her ears. “But you have to be disciplined if you want to see results.”

“Your muscles are so big!” The sexy nurse giggled. Kira crept closer to the bed.

“What’s this?” The girl’s voice sounded perplexed. “There’s something on your stomach. Is… is that makeup?” Kira almost snorted.

“Just a little something to help accentuate the real thing, baby,” Trevor said without a trace of self-consciousness. “You know, like that tanning stuff bodybuilders use in their shows. Helps to show your muscles when the light hits them. Here, let me wipe it off and you can see for yourself.”

Kira heard the rustle of a tissue being pulled from a box beside the bed.

Only a few more feet…

“See?” Trevor said a moment later. “Nothing but hard muscle—just like everything else.”

Kira imagined him waggling his eyebrows suggestively as he spoke and rolled her eyes. She had seen him do it often enough before. The cape was almost within reach. She stretched out her arm and brushed it with her fingertips.

“Are there any other muscles you want to show me?” the sexy nurse asked in a sultry voice.

“Well, there is one I was hoping you might take a look at, you being a nurse and all,” Trevor said. “Maybe you can give me your expert opinion.”

Kira’s throat tightened as she tried not to gag. She leaned forward and snatched at the cape. As soon as it was safely in her hand, she began shuffling backward as quickly as she dared.

“Will you be needing an oral examination as well?” The nurse giggled. “I like to be thorough.”

“Mm… Yes. I think that’s just what the doctor ordered.”

Ugh! I seriously need to get out of here…

Kira tucked herself into a ball and rolled into the hallway before she could hear any more.

* * *

Kira desperately wanted to sprint the rest of the way back to Stephanie’s room. Instead, she forced herself to creep toward the edge of the stairs and peer around the corner toward the main floor first. There were no sounds of pursuit from Trevor’s room, but now she was starting to hear… other things. Her intrusion had gone unnoticed.

Her gaze swept the milling crowd below and stopped. Leather Jacket was making his way through the press of bodies, his head swiveling as he searched.

Shit.

If one of those thugs was here, the others couldn’t be far behind. She waited for him to travel beyond viewing distance of the stairs before running across the open area on silent feet. She slipped into Stephanie’s room without knocking. Stephanie looked up from where she was sitting at her desk, doing something involving a black Sharpie. She swept some items from the desk as she heard the door open and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Kira.

“Are you all right?” Stephanie asked with a concerned look.

“Our friends are downstairs,” Kira blurted. “And your brother…” She shook herself and did her best to banish what she had seen and heard in Trevor’s room. “You don’t want to know.”

Stephanie’s lips twitched. “You’re probably right.”

Kira frowned. “Where’s Rob?”

“In the bathroom.” Stephanie tilted her head in the direction of the en suite.

Kira marched over and knocked on the closed door. “Is this plan of yours almost ready? We’ve got company downstairs.”

The door opened a crack. “Did you get the cape?”

“At great personal cost, yes.” Kira held it out. Rob’s arm snaked out to snatch it from her fingers before slamming the door shut.

“You’re welcome,” Kira muttered.

“I’ll be out in a minute.”

Kira was skeptical, but sure enough, the door opened only a few moments later. Her jaw dropped.

Rob’s face and body were encased in toilet paper wrappings. Only his eyes and mouth were visible. Trevor’s cape hung from his shoulders, hoisted up so the top part acted as a hood. Rob gave the red fabric a dramatic swirl.

“Well? What do you think?”

Kira shook her head as she tried to get her voice working. “Mum-Ra? You made me almost witness Trevor Wright getting his freak on so you could dress up as Mum-Ra from ThunderCats?”

“Pretty good, right?” Rob grinned from within his wrappings. “No one will be able to tell who I am.”

“And who am I supposed to be?” Kira was afraid to find out.

Stephanie retrieved the items she had swept from the desk and held them up for her to see. The blond Thor wig had been marked with a black cheetah pattern. Kira’s gaze drifted to Stephanie’s other hand.

A raggedly cut, orange leotard hung from her fingers. The ThunderCats logo had been drawn in black in the center of the chest.

Kira shook her head back and forth in denial. “No. Oh, no…”

“Come on, you’ll make a great Cheetara,” Rob said in a cajoling voice. “You can even use the makeup Trevor bought to do the face markings. No one will be able to recognize you.” He held up a pair of tall, shiny red boots that looked as if they belonged with a sexy nurse costume. “I even got you these. I would have preferred orange, but it was the best I could do. Size ten-and-a-half.”

“You really expect me to parade around in… that?” She made a helpless gesture toward the leotard. “Where did you even get it, anyway?”

“Look, if those guys are here, we don’t have much time,” Rob said, ignoring her questions altogether.

Kira scowled at him. “Has your program finished running?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t had time to check the results yet.”

“Yes, you’ve been very busy, haven’t you?” Kira raised an eyebrow at him.

“We need to get out of here,” Rob said. “If we can lose those goons again, it will buy us some more time.” He held her gaze without flinching.

Kira sighed. “Fine.” She snatched the wig and leotard from Stephanie’s hands. Rob handed her the makeup kit and boots as she stalked toward the bathroom. “It’s a good thing I shaved recently…”

The leotard was a bit snug, but not a bad fit. She tucked her dark hair up under the wig and made quick work of painting Cheetara’s trademark orange mask around her eyes. She could hardly recognize herself in the mirror when she was done.

Maybe Rob isn’t so crazy after all…

The boots were a challenge. Even though they had a wedge heel instead of stiletto, Kira was used to wearing flats. They were also a tight fit. She winced as she managed to squeeze her feet inside.

She gathered up her clothes and left the bathroom on wobbly ankles. Rob took the bundle from her as she came out and crammed it into Kira’s satchel, which now held his laptop and clothes as well. It took a moment for him to arrange it so the bag hung behind his back, where it would be covered by the red cape, giving him a slightly hunchback appearance. He gave her a measuring look that traveled from head to toe.

“See, I told you it would look good,” he said.

Stephanie nodded in agreement. “I can barely recognize you.”

Kira flushed. “We’d better get on with this before I change my mind, or one of those guys thinks to check upstairs.” She reached down to squeeze Stephanie’s shoulder. “Thanks for all your help.”

“No problem.” Stephanie smiled up at her. “It’s been fun.”

“If anyone comes asking about us, we were never here,” Rob said.

Stephanie nodded. “Of course. I know you haven’t told me much about what’s going on, but try to be careful?”

“We’ll do our best,” Kira promised.

After a cursory check of the upstairs hallway, she and Rob left the sanctuary of Stephanie’s room behind. They crept toward the top of the stairs. Kira peered around the corner once more, down at the party below.

“Anything?” Rob whispered.

“I don’t see any of them, but that doesn’t mean anything.” Kira bit her lip. “I think we should split up. They’re looking for two people.”

Rob hesitated. “I don’t like it, but it makes sense. I’d better go first. It will probably take me longer to get through that crowd.” He shuddered.

“You seemed fine by the pool,” Kira said.

“Not as many people. And outside…” Rob shrugged. “It’s different.”

Kira gave him an encouraging pat on the back. “I’ll meet you by the front door.”

Rob squared his shoulders and walked down the stairs at a measured pace. Kira held her breath as she watched him go. He slipped into the crowd without anyone seeming to take note. She took a deep breath and forced herself to follow.

It felt as if her knees were knocking together as she walked down the stairs. She kept one hand on the banister to keep herself upright in her wobbling boots. She felt practically naked in the leotard. She received a few curious looks—her costume wasn’t exactly like what any of the other girls were wearing, after all. She forced herself to ignore them and kept going.

As she reached the foot of the stairs, she caught sight of the short, muscular man in the tank top she had seen earlier. His lack of height had hidden him from view until now. Her heart hammered in her chest.

She ducked into the crowd and walked in the opposite direction—away from the front door and toward the rear of the house, where people were still relaxing in and around the pool.

“I can’t believe someone cut out the inside of your costume!” a girl’s voice said from the backyard.

“I’m telling you, it must have been Kira Beaver and her creepy little sidekick, Churro,” Miranda said. “We all saw them lurking around the pool earlier.” Her voice was filled with venom. “My parents are going to kill me! That costume was a rental.”

Kira looked down at her crudely cut orange leotard and winced. Miranda hated her enough as it was without giving her an actual reason…

Hiding in the backyard was out of the question. She had to make her way toward the front door. Rob would be waiting.

Kira slipped back into the milling throng inside the house. Her eyes darted back and forth for any sign of the men who had broken into the apartment as she wove between bodies. The front door was getting closer…

“Hey, nice costume.” She nearly bumped into a tall, broad-shouldered guy dressed as a gladiator, who was giving her an appraising look.

“Thanks.” Kira flushed, her eyes still scanning the crowd.

“Cheetara, right?” the gladiator asked over the thumping of the music, standing a bit closer.

“Uh, yeah.”

Kira’s gaze locked on Leather Jacket, who appeared only a few feet away. She swallowed, her mind racing. Even though she was in costume, her mind screamed at her that she would be recognized. She shifted her position, putting her new friend’s large frame between her and her pursuer.

“I like your costume too.” Her lips stretched in an awkward smile and she batted her eyelashes. “Have you gone swimming yet?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Leather Jacket walk past without noticing.

“Not yet. But if you’re going…” The gladiator raised an eyebrow in invitation.

“I think I’d like a few drinks first,” Kira said as Leather Jacket disappeared back into the crowd. She gave her new friend a hopeful look. “Do you think you could get me one?”

He smiled down at her. “No problem. Wait here.”

As soon as his back was turned, she wormed her way through the press of bodies toward the front door. She did her best to ignore a stab of guilt. He had seemed nice enough… She wondered if he would look for her when he came back and found her gone without a trace—his very own version of the fabled Slutty Pumpkin in ThunderCat form.

Don’t kid yourself. He’d probably be just as much of a dick as any other guy at this party if he actually knew who you were…

Rob was already waiting by the door. Even though Kira couldn’t see his face, she could imagine his pained expression.

“Can we go now?” His voice was tight.

“Definitely.” Kira practically shoved him outside and felt him freeze.

She followed his gaze across the front lawn. Someone was standing out on the sidewalk, beyond the gate, watching the house. A nearby streetlight illuminated a dully gleaming, shaved head. Kira cursed.

Of course. They left one behind to keep watch.

It was too late to turn back now. The other three were presumably still inside the house. They had no choice but to trust in their disguises. Still, maybe they could do something to help things along…

Kira tripped and stumbled into Rob, almost knocking him over.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked in a low whisper.

“Just walk toward the street and follow my lead.”

Kira made a show of stumbling as she walked, counting on Rob to steady her—a simple enough task in the awkwardly high-heeled boots.

“That was a great party,” she announced in a loud, slurring voice. “Wooooo!” She cackled in an imitation of drunken laughter.

She and Rob reached the front gate. Kira could feel Shaved Head’s gaze following them as they walked. She stopped as they reached the sidewalk and clutched at her stomach.

“Are you sure you’re OK?” Rob asked in a somewhat stilted voice.

Kira spent another moment hunching over before straightening. “S’all good.” She swayed on her feet. “My place is over that way.” She pointed past where Shaved Head was standing, in the direction of the high school and frowned. “No, wait.” She turned around and faced the opposite direction. “It’s that way.”

“If you say so.” Rob slid an arm under her shoulder and steered her in the direction she had indicated. There was more than one way for them to get back to the high school parking lot.

“Are you insane?” he muttered a moment later, just loud enough for her to hear. He seemed to be asking that a lot lately.

“Did it work? Is he still watching us?” Kira stumbled again, giving Rob an unobtrusive chance to look back.

“No, he’s gone back to watching the house.”

“Good.”

They kept up the charade until they were out of sight.

“Now what?” Rob asked as Kira straightened.

“Now we run back to the car without being seen.”

“You know, I’ve never been a big fan of physical activity, but that sounds like a really good idea.”

They ran together in silence through the darkened streets. Usually, Kira could have easily sprinted ahead, but the tight boots and awkward footing forced her to maintain Rob’s slower pace. The last thing she needed was to twist an ankle…

It felt good to finally be moving again instead of creeping around. They didn’t slow until the high school fair came within view. Rob was breathing a bit heavily as they ducked into the crowd and walked toward the parking lot. Kira was barely even warm, thanks to her leotard. Rob’s toilet paper wrappings were still in place, but starting to look a bit worse for wear.

Rob handed Kira her keys from the satchel and she came to a sudden stop.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I only saw three of them.”

“What?”

“At the party,” Kira said. “I saw two of them inside, and then that other one out on the sidewalk.”

“It was a pretty big party.”

“What if one of them stayed behind to watch my car?” Kira asked. The idea made her go cold all over.

“Well, where else are we supposed to go?” Rob shook his head. “You might be right, but the longer we wait, the more the crowd here is going to thin out. If you are right, it will only be the one guy. Maybe we can get to the car and drive off before he can follow.”

Kira suddenly wondered if they should go back to her car at all… Would it be safer to call a cab? Even though she hated driving, she liked the idea of allowing someone else to drive while they were being pursued by people with a connection to the police even less.

She gave a grim nod. “Let’s do it.”

Several people were already making their way toward the parking lot. Kira and Rob did their best to tag along for as long as possible. Kira couldn’t see any sign of the fourth man, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t out there, watching. They maintained a casual pace until Kira’s car came into view. Kira gripped her keys, the metal forming an impression in her palm.

“Now!” Kira whispered.

They both started jogging toward the car as if they were only in a hurry instead of an actual panic. Kira used the fob to unlock the doors at the last minute. She and Rob tumbled inside and she jammed the key into the ignition. The engine rumbled to life. Rob was still buckling his seat belt as she pulled out of her parking space. She cut off several other cars as she pulled out into the street. She squinted into her rear-view mirror as she sped away from the fair and nearly wilted in relief.

No one followed.

* * *

Kira drove through the streets of La Valentia while Rob worked on his laptop. She had already worked her way out of the area where Trevor Wright and the other elite families in town made their homes. She stuck to residential side streets, where they would be less likely to be spotted by either the four guys who were following them, or the police insider who had presumably tipped them off.

“Anything interesting yet?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“It’s a longer list than I would have thought,” Rob said. “Hey!”

“What?”

“Mr. Bowman is on here!”

Kira frowned. “Mr. Bowman?”

“He’s one of my parents’ neighbors, an older guy. My mom always used to make me go over and do his yard work when I was a kid.” Rob grimaced. “He always called me over on the hottest days, and suggested I work with my shirt off.”

Kira shot him a bewildered look. “And you didn’t think that was weird?”

Rob shrugged. “He was casual about it, and I was just a kid. But then, he also usually offered to help me with my sunscreen…” He shuddered. “Wait until my mom finds out. He’ll be happy to have the police cart him off when she gets a hold of him.”

Kira sighed. “Anyone else?”

Rob fell silent for a moment before uttering a string of curses in Spanish.

“What?” Kira demanded.

“Cam Lawrence is on here!”

“The mayor?” Kira groaned. “Aw, man, I voted for him!”

“You helped vote a child predator to become mayor of La Valentia?”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly listed as part of his campaign strategy…” Kira shot him a scathing look before returning her attention to the road. “He seemed like such a clean-cut guy. There was never a hint of scandal around him—unlike the other candidates. You didn’t vote for him?”

“You could say that, yes.” Rob’s tone was evasive.

Kira’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t vote at all, did you?”

“Hey, when I can vote from the comfort of my own home, I’ll do my part for democracy,” Rob huffed. “Until then, I’m not interested.”

Kira shot him another dark look.

“What?” Rob said in an innocent voice. “I may not have voted, but I also didn’t vote for a pedophile, unlike some people. My strategy is already paying off.”

Kira gripped the steering wheel as she drove. “You’re the worst.” A sudden thought occurred to her. “Ugh, and he was always such a big supporter of kids’ sports teams. Plus, he was always volunteering to fly sick kids to the hospital in the city…” Her thoughts flashed back to the front-page story she had tried to read at the coffee shop.

“Who, Cam?”

Kira nodded.

Rob snorted. “I bet he was big on giving the kids his support in the locker room too.”

Kira shook her head. “Maybe it’s just a mistake.” She knew it was unlikely, but her mind shied from the idea of the town’s mayor being at the center of this whole mess.

“I don’t recognize anyone else from this list,” Rob said, sounding dubious from beneath his wrappings.

“Other than Mr. Bowman, you mean.”

Rob rolled his eyes. “I’m pretty sure those guys who are after us aren’t being employed by some random guy in his sixties. Mr. Bowman doesn’t have ties to the police either.”

“We still don’t know who the dirty cop is,” Kira said, raising her chin. “We can’t just go up against the mayor without getting more of the picture, or at least some corroboration.”

Rob sighed. “What do you have in mind?”

“The guy who runs the site. Do you know where he lives?”

Rob snorted. “Of course. I told you I did a full background check on him, didn’t I?”

He can confirm the mayor’s involvement,” Kira said. “He might even know who’s protecting him as well.”

“And what makes you think he’ll talk to us?

“Chances are, he doesn’t know his site’s been hacked yet. Maybe we can catch him off-guard. If he comes forward and offers to help the police, he might be able to walk away.” Kira shook her head. “Either that, or we can offer him a chance to make a run for it in exchange for some information.” She didn’t like either of those options, but there was more at stake than the fate of just one man.

“Huh.” Rob was quiet for a moment. “He would have to know who on the force could be trusted if he decided to cooperate. I doubt he’d go for it. No one likes to rat on a cop.” He paused. “Maybe you should just beat it out of him.”

“What?”

“You’ve been taking all those MMA classes…”

“I’ve only just started!” Kira blurted. “We’ve only covered defensive maneuvers so far.”

“You could still take him,” Rob said. “I’ve seen his picture.”

Kira sighed. “Even if I did have some offensive skills, I’m not going to use them to pummel some kiddie porn site guy without provocation.”

“Too bad.”

“Look, can we please try this my way?” Kira said. “If this guy confirms the mayor’s involvement, we’ll take it from there. But for all we know, one of those names you don’t recognize could be our dirty cop. ‘Cam Lawrence’ could even be an alias.” She doubted it, considering the level of security Rob’s employer had insisted on, but she felt compelled to point it out.

“I can cross-reference the names, but it would take some time,” Rob said.

“All the more reason to visit the site operator.”

“Fine.” Rob blew out a sigh. “His name’s Jerry Driver. Let me find his address.”

A few moments later, Kira was following Rob’s directions. She approached Driver’s street with caution, peering through the darkness for any sign of a cop car or dark sedan. She parked along the curb a few houses away from their target.

“Let me know how it goes in there,” Rob said as he continued tapping Leia’s keyboard.

Kira reached over and closed the laptop. “You’re coming with me.”

“But—”

Kira raised a hand to forestall him. “If there are two of us, we’ll at least outnumber him. Besides, you’re the one who can convince him his site has been hacked.”

“Yeah… I don’t think he’s going to be very happy about that.”

Kira gave a dismissive wave. “Tell him it was someone else and that you found the leak.”

“Huh. Good idea.”

“Let’s go.”

Kira climbed out of the car. Rob reluctantly followed. They walked together in silence toward the address Rob had found. Rob’s red cape billowed in the night breeze behind him and Kira had to push strands of cheetah-print blond hair from her face. For an absurd moment, she had a flashback to trick-or-treating with her sister as a child. When they reached the front door, Kira raised her hand to knock and froze.

The door was already ajar.

Kira slowly pushed it open. The interior of the house was dark.

“Mr. Driver?” she called in a hushed voice as she stepped across the threshold.

No one answered.

“Maybe he already skipped town,” she said over her shoulder to Rob in a hushed voice.

“There’s no way he could have detected the leak until I ramped things up,” Rob said. “Even then, he might not have noticed it right away.”

Kira’s stomach tightened. She knew Rob was right. She took a deep breath and forced herself to creep farther into the house.

She nearly tripped as she bumped into a set of carpeted stairs leading upward. Rob bumped into her from behind.

“Let’s check the rest of the main floor first,” she said, waiting for him to give her enough room to turn around.

She hoped no one was already lurking in the darkness, waiting for them. Her insistence on this visit suddenly seemed like a bad idea.

They passed the stairs and the yawning entrance to a set of rooms on their right. She assumed one of them was the living room, which overlooked the front yard. The wooden floor beneath her feet gave way to linoleum. She cursed as she bumped into what felt like a wooden chair.

“This is ridiculous,” Rob muttered. She heard a click and the lights above them flared to life, making Kira jump. She winced against the sudden brightness and shot Rob an accusing look.

“What?” he asked. His hand was still on the light switch. “We can’t just keep stumbling around.”

“We might not be alone in here,” Kira whispered, her eyes widening.

Rob’s gaze traveled past her shoulder. “Looks like you’re right.” He swallowed.

Kira whirled around. A skinny man in a purple velour jogging suit lay sprawled on the floor. A pool of blood surrounded his face, which had been beaten to a pulp. His only recognizable feature was a long, dark ponytail. A bloody toaster had been abandoned near the unmoving body. Kira’s mouth went dry.

“Is that…?” Her expression was haunted as she looked back at Rob.

Rob nodded. “That’s Jerry Driver.”

* * *

It took Matt Wilson a few moments to realize his phone was ringing. He pulled it from his pocket and started blankly at the screen from the driver’s seat of his car. The past few hours were a blur. He had dealt with Driver and made a few calls, and then…

He had received the one call he had been dreading.

The phone in his hand kept ringing. He answered it with a sigh.

“What is it, Troy?” he demanded in a weary voice.

“I’ve been trying to call you…” The other man’s voice hesitated a moment before continuing. “We lost the target.”

Matt frowned as the words pierced his fogged mind. “What? How did you manage to lose one recluse hacker?”

“He made a run from his apartment with some girl. We followed them to a party in the ritzy end of town and they gave us the slip.”

Matt listened with only half his attention on the conversation. What did it matter anyway? Nothing really mattered anymore.

“…So what do you want us to do?” Troy asked after an awkward pause.

“Whatever you think is best.”

“OK…” Another awkward pause. “I was thinking—”

Matt cursed himself for a fool as Troy continued talking. He should have known he would have to take care of everything himself.

“…and the other two can keep trying to track down our hacker and his girlfriend.” Troy finished speaking, and Matt realized he expected some kind of response.

“Sounds good,” he said in a dull voice.

“Are you all right, man?” Troy asked. “You sound… different.”

“I’m fine.”

Nothing is going to be all right. Not ever again.

“Go ahead with your plans,” he continued. “I have my own problems to deal with.”

“I’ll be in touch.” Troy hung up.

Matt lowered the phone from his ear. He knew what he had to do. He started the car.

Someone was going to pay.

* * *

Kira couldn’t get away from Jerry Driver’s place fast enough. Despite the constant urging from the pit of her stomach, she forced herself to stay within the speed limit. She and Rob had fled the house after making sure to wipe down the kitchen light switch and front door with Rob’s cape. They traveled through the town in silence. By unspoken agreement, Kira was steadily making her way toward Cam Lawrence’s house. Everyone in town knew where he lived. She had to proceed carefully though. He didn’t live far from the neighborhood where their old high school had been. She made sure to take a circuitous route, avoiding the school, the Wright mansion, and the streets where Rob’s family and her own parents lived.

Despite her caution, they arrived at their destination far too soon. She parked across the street from the mayor’s well-maintained, but relatively modest home and turned off the car.

“What do we do now?” Rob asked as the motor fell silent.

Kira shrugged. “Go and talk to him? Try to stall him until the police show up? They must have the whole list by now, right?” She no longer bothered trying to protest that Cam Lawrence might be innocent. The sight of Jerry Driver’s dead body had rattled her. The entire night was starting to feel like an endless nightmare.

Rob nodded. “It will probably take them a bit to get themselves coordinated though. It’s a long list. Plus, there might be some push-back on an arrest warrant for someone as important as the mayor. Who knows who else is in his pocket?”

“OK.” Kira drew herself up and opened the car door. “Let’s do this.”

She knew the idea was crazy, but it had been a crazy night, and she was tired of being chased. It was time for her and Rob to start making some moves of their own.

The driveway was empty and the house was dark. Rob peered into the side door of the garage.

“Empty,” he muttered. “What if he’s already made a run for it?”

“We need to know for sure,” Kira said. She led the way to the front door.

She thought about knocking, but decided to try the handle first instead.

The door opened beneath her fingers.

Kira remained frozen in place as the door swung inward. She hadn’t really expected it to be unlocked. She took a cautious step inside. Rob slipped in behind her, easing the door closed as he entered.

For a moment, they remained still in the darkness. Kira could hear Rob breathing from between his toilet paper bandages. She was about to take a step forward when the lights clicked on above them. She blinked.

“Who the hell are you two?” a man asked as he stepped into the hallway.

He was the short, muscular man Kira had seen enter their apartment. He looked from Kira to Rob in confusion. It took Kira a moment to remember they were still wearing their costumes.

“We’re friends of the mayor,” she said before Rob could react. “He’s expecting us. Where is he, anyway?”

“Damned if I know.” The man shrugged. “He should be here.”

“Pete, who are you talking to?” A second man arrived in the hallway—Leather Jacket. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Kira and Rob. “You idiot.” He gave Pete a smack. “It’s them!

He drew a knife from the pocket of his jacket and advanced toward them. Rob remained frozen behind Kira, blocking her from the door. She stifled a sigh.

Kira sidestepped a swipe from the knife. “Are you sure that thing is necessary?” she asked, eyeing the blade as it passed. “Or maybe you’re not confident you can take on an unarmed woman without your little toy?”

Her voice sounded far more confident than she felt. But without a weapon, or any serious fighting skills at her disposal, talking seemed like the best option.

If I can just keep him off-balance…

“Cocky words for an unarmed woman,” Leather Jacket said as he slashed his knife toward her again. She hopped backward out of range—and farther from the door.

The shorter man was making his way toward Rob, who still remained motionless.

The knife whistled toward her face and Kira ducked.

“Who are you, anyway?” Leather Jacket demanded.

Kira popped back up to her feet and scrambled backward. “You mean you’re not a fan of ThunderCats?”

“I know who he is.” He jerked his head in Rob’s direction. “What do you have to do with any of this?”

“Put the knife down and maybe I’ll tell you.”

The man smirked. “Not likely. I have orders about your friend, but no one knows anything about you. I think you, me, and my knife here should get to know each other better. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even let you walk away when we’re done.”

Kira hesitated.

Should I pretend to play along? I might be able to catch him off-guard…

The man lunged forward. Kira’s eyes widened, and she whirled around, hoping to run away. Leather Jacket’s arm snaked around her neck. The cool metal blade kissed her throat. Her breathing turned shallow and rapid.

From the corner of her eye, she could see Rob had finally snapped out of his daze. The short, muscular man was circling him warily.

“You must really work out to maintain a physique like that,” Rob said, looking the other man up and down with an admiring glance. “What’s your routine like?”

The shorter man straightened. “I work out about three hours a day.” He puffed out his chest.

“It definitely shows,” Rob said. “You know, I could really use some pointers. What kind of exercises are we talking?” He took a subtle step sideways away from Kira, in the direction of a table a few feet away.

A fiery line of pain crossed her throat, reminding her of the matter at hand. A trickle of blood traveled down her neck.

“My offer still stands,” Leather Jacket said in a smug voice, his lips close to her ear.

Kira winced and nearly pulled away, but the knife kept her in place. Her gaze swept the hall around her for anything she might be able to use. The only object within reach was a large, potted plant that stood beside the front door.

I could try an inside trip… No, there’s not enough room.

The last thing she wanted was to send her attacker sprawling and slit her own throat in the process. None of her limited training seemed useful right now. If she was going to get out of this, she was going to have to play dirty.

“Well?” Leather Jacket prompted. “I’m not going to wait all day. How do you want this to go?”

“Wait,” Kira said in a low voice. Her shoulders slumped. “I’ll do whatever you want. Just… take the knife away.”

“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

He reached around to stroke her cheek with his empty hand. She forced herself to remain still as it traveled lower, wandering across the thin fabric of her leotard. The blade at her throat relaxed just enough…

Kira sidestepped and rammed her elbow into his stomach. As he instinctively curled forward, she slammed her head backward against his face with a wet crunch. His hands slithered from her body to grope at his nose.

“You little—”

Kira was already moving. She snatched up a handful of dirt from the potted plant and threw it toward Leather Jacket’s face as he lunged toward her. His eyes flew shut too late. He uttered a string of curses as he tried to blink them clear, blood and dirt clinging to his face. He made a blind slash with his knife that she dodged easily. She turned toward him and slammed her knee hard into his groin. His legs gave way and he crumpled to his knees with a groan.

Before she could complete her attack, something slammed into Leather Jacket’s face. Kira looked up in surprise.

Rob stood over the man, wielding some kind of small, marble statue. The eyes of Kira’s attacker rolled back in his head as he collapsed to the floor. She watched in shock as Rob kicked his unconscious body a few times in the stomach for good measure.

“Um, I think he’s good, Rob,” she said in a wary voice. Rob looked up at her, his eyes wild. “You know I had that under control, right?”

Rob shook himself. “Yeah. I just… Sorry for how I froze up earlier.” He wiped down the statue and lowered it to the floor.

Kira looked around. The other man had already been knocked out. Rob must have done it while Kira was distracted.

“So your flirting strategy actually worked?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Rob snorted. “Guys like that always want to talk about their training. It’s why they’re usually not my type. Nice to look at, but so boring.”

“We should tie them up so the cops will find them when they get here.” Kira crouched over Leather Jacket and unbuckled his belt. “Help me drag him to those stairs.”

They worked together to truss both men to the sturdy, wooden banister poles with their hands behind their backs. They used Rob’s cloak to wipe down the belts afterward, taking extra time to make certain they didn’t miss any spots. They used the same process on the front door.

“We’d better get out of here,” Rob said. “The mayor might not be home, but he’s definitely involved.”

Kira frowned. “They don’t know where he is.” She rubbed at her blond wig. It was starting to make her scalp itch. “His car isn’t here. Where did he go? How the hell are we going to find him?”

Rob shrugged. “He could be anywhere. He might have even skipped town already.”

“And he could have had help. Who knows how many dirty cops we’re dealing with…”

Rob looked down at the unconscious men and shook his head. “The whole force could be corrupt for all we know. Everyone thought Cam Lawrence was squeaky clean, with all his volunteer work with the kids and the hospital.”

“Yeah, yeah. I voted for the guy. Quit rubbing it—” Kira’s eyes widened. “That’s it!”

Rob gave her a dubious look. “What are you talking about?”

“Come on!” She ran toward the front door. Rob hesitated a moment before following. She flashed him a grin over her shoulder.

“I know where the mayor is.”

* * *

Nick Foster rode in the passenger seat of a La Valentia squad car toward Jerry Driver’s residence. A short while ago, the leak from the website had accelerated, revealing all the forum members, as well as the site runner. Traffic outside the city had been bad. Nick had arrived just in time for the briefing. Every cop available had been deployed as soon as the arrest warrants had been granted. He had been a bit disappointed not to be assigned to the mayor’s pickup, but he was an outsider. Instead, he had been paired up with Lester, a young rookie, fresh out of the academy.

They arrived at the Driver residence without their flashing lights or siren on. No need to tip off their target. The street was dark and quiet. He and Lester got out of the car and approached the house. Nick eased his gun from its holster as they reached the front porch.

The front door was already open.

Lester shot him an anxious look. Nick took the lead, stepping past him to walk inside with his gun held ready.

“Mr. Driver?” he called into the dark house. “LA—” He shook his head and corrected himself. “La Valentia PD.”

No one answered.

A single light was on toward the back of the house. Nick moved cautiously toward it with Lester a few steps behind.

“Mr. Driver?” Nick called again.

The lit room proved to be the kitchen. Nick came to a sudden halt and lowered his gun with a curse. Lester peered over his shoulder and made a retching sound.

“Is that…?” he asked in a quavering voice.

Poor kid. It’s probably his first body.

“Looks like Driver,” Nick said out loud as he holstered his gun. “The face is pretty badly damaged, but he’s got the same ponytail.” A bloody toaster lay close to the body—an unlikely method of suicide.

He cursed again as the full implication of Driver’s murder set in. He pulled out his phone and called the local police chief.

“Wilkins,” the chief answered on the second ring.

“It’s Foster. Sir, we have a problem.” Nick gave Lester a pat on the shoulder as he left the room. “Stay here,” he mouthed. The rookie gave him a weak smile and nodded.

The chief grumbled. “What is it?”

Nick made his way to the darkened living room. It was out of earshot of the kitchen. Still, he hesitated as he realized how the words he wanted to say would sound coming from an outsider.

“Well?” the chief prompted. “Spit it out, Foster. I’m a busy man.”

“I think you might have a mole, sir.” He pressed onward before the other man could reply. “Driver is dead. His head’s been smashed in.”

“Maybe he pissed someone off.”

“On the same night of the arrests?” Nick pressed. “Seems like one hell of a coincidence, sir.”

The chief sighed. “I don’t want to believe you. All the other arrests have gone off without a hitch, or at least all except one. No one outside our precinct and the cops we called in should know anything about what we had planned—and I trust my people to keep their mouths shut. But there’s one other problem.”

Something clicked in Nick’s mind. “That problem arrest… It’s the mayor, isn’t it, sir?”

The chief sighed again. “Lawrence is in the wind. He’s not home, and his car is missing. We found two men secured inside his residence. They had both been beaten pretty badly and tied up with their own belts.”

Nick frowned. “Who are they?”

“A couple of toughs with some priors,” the chief said. “They say they don’t have any idea where Lawrence is. In fact, they say they were there to visit him when they were attacked.”

“Who attacked them?”

The chief snorted. “Some man and a woman in costume. Said they were ThunderCats, whatever that means. Both men have been brought to the station for further questioning, but I doubt they’ll crack. In the meantime, we’ve put out an APB on Lawrence and I set up a meeting with the local media to see if we can flush him out. We also have people looking into bank records, known associates, and any other properties he might own that he could have run to.”

“What about vehicles?” Nick asked.

“What vehicles? Lawrence only has the one car.”

“OK, what about other than a car?”

“What are you on about, Foster?”

“Well, if I were back in the city, I’d want to know if Lawrence owned a yacht, or some kind of boat,” Nick said. “Obviously that doesn’t apply inland, but does he have anything else, like a private plane or something he could use to flee the city?”

“Son of a bitch…”

“Sir?” For a moment, Nick was worried he had somehow managed to offend the man.

“Cam Lawrence has a helicopter license.”

* * *

“Where are we going?” Rob asked Kira as she drove toward the outskirts of town as quickly as she dared.

“La Valentia Air Club.” She eased her foot down a bit harder on the accelerator. The mayor already had a head start… “You’re the one who gave me the idea back there, when you mentioned Lawrence’s volunteer work. He flies a helicopter for the hospital, remember?”

Rob let out a low whistle. “That would be a handy way to get out of town unnoticed. You think we can catch him?”

“I hope so. I don’t what this whole night to be for nothing.”

They reached an empty stretch of road and Kira gunned it the rest of the way. She screeched to a halt outside the closed gate of the Air Club, which was surrounded by a tall, chain-link fence. A security camera looked down on them from atop the gate.

“Shit. I should have parked us farther back.”

Rob looked up. “I don’t think so. There’s no flashing light. I’m guessing someone’s disabled it. And look…” He pointed at the gate. A length of chain, secured with a steel padlock lay on the ground nearby. The chain had been cut.

“Open the gate, and I’ll drive through,” Kira said.

“You sure you want to just bust in like that?”

“I want to keep the car close, in case we need to make a run for it. We’re in the middle of nowhere out here.”

Rob grumbled, but got out of the car to pull the gate open. Kira pulled inside and parked. She left the keys in the ignition before getting out to join Rob. She waved at him to leave the gate open. No need to block their escape route.

The area beyond the fence was all paved, dotted by several large hangars. An office building with an air tower stood at the far end of the airfield. Its windows were dark, and the parking lot was empty. All the hangar doors were closed—except one.

Kira jerked her head in the direction of the open hangar and started jogging toward it on silent feet. She seemed to be getting the hang of those damned boots, but she could feel them rubbing her heels raw. Rob followed behind her. She came to a stop as she reached the edge of the large, metal building and peered around the corner to look inside.

A car was parked in the interior of the hangar near a helicopter. The trunk was open. She could hear someone moving around inside, presumably transferring items from the car to the helicopter.

She turned her head to speak to Rob. “Distract him,” she said in a low voice. “I’ll circle around and take him down.”

Then what?” Rob muttered.

“Then we call the police with an anonymous tip and leave him here for them to find.”

She didn’t say anything about the suspected mole.

“He might not be alone, you know,” Rob whispered. “We don’t know where those other two thugs went.”

Kira shook her head. “That guy back at the house really didn’t seem to know where the mayor was. Why else would they hang out at his place? They probably split up after the party. Two to keep looking for us, and two to warn the mayor.”

“Except he must have left already.” Rob straightened. “Right. I’ll see what I can do. But try to make it quick, OK?”

Rob sauntered out into the open and entered the hangar. “Hello?” His voice echoed off the metal walls. “Who’s in there? Mayor Lawrence, is that you?”

“Who the hell are you?” Kira recognized the mayor’s voice as she slipped inside the hangar, keeping her body low and close to the wall.

“I work in IT,” Rob said. His acting seemed to be getting better as the night wore on. “I was at a party when I got notification that something had gone wrong with the security camera outside, and came to check it out. It’s a bit late for flying, isn’t it?”

Kira kept Lawrence’s car between them to shield her from view as she circled around behind him.

“You should leave,” the mayor said. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“Neither are you,” Rob said. “Look, I know you’re the mayor and everything, but you still need to follow the Air Club rules, just like everyone else. My boss is not going to like this…”

“You want money?” Kira heard a note of desperation in Lawrence’s voice. “I can pay you. No one needs to know you were here.”

“How much money are we talking?” Rob sounded interested. Kira was near the rear door of the car now.

Just a few more steps…

“I can show you.” Kira heard Lawrence rummage around in the open trunk. A moment later, she heard a metallic click.

“Whoa, no need for that,” Rob said in a startled voice. Kira peered around the body of the car.

Lawrence was holding a gun.

“I told you, you shouldn’t be here.”

“OK, I can take a hint.” Rob raised his bandaged hands in the air. “I’m sure I can find somewhere else to be.”

“How do I know you won’t call the police?” Lawrence demanded. He aimed the gun at Rob’s chest.

“What do you want me to do?” Rob asked. “You’re the one with the gun. I can stay here if you want, until you leave. I’ll even give you my phone.”

“So you can run off as soon as my back is turned?” Lawrence shook his head. “No. I don’t think so.” He steadied the gun with both hands and squared his shoulders.

Kira launched herself at him as Rob dove for the floor. There was a whistling clang as the gun went off and a bullet struck the far metal wall of the hangar.

Lawrence grunted as Kira bowled him over. She slammed him into the concrete, landing on top of him. The gun fell from his hand. Kira kicked it across the floor. The friendly blue eyes she had seen so many times on the front page of the local newspaper looked up at her in disbelief. His graying, sandy hair was askew.

“It’s over, Mayor Lawrence,” she said. “We know all about the website.”

She was about to roll him onto his stomach so she could try to tie him up with something when an unfamiliar voice thundered through the hangar.

“Freeze! La Valentia PD!”

Kira’s gaze snapped up to meet Rob’s where he was still sprawled on the floor. They both turned toward the hangar entrance.

A man in a police uniform was approaching. He appeared to be alone. His gun was held ready, trained on the three of them. As he walked closer, Kira realized he wasn’t very tall. His brown eyes took in the scene, his expression unreadable. The name embroidered on his shirt was ‘Wilson’.

“Officer, I know this looks bad, but the mayor is involved in a child pornography ring,” Kira blurted.

“Yeah. We were trying to stop him before he could get out of the city,” Rob said before they both started speaking at once.

“Enough!” the cop roared. “I know.”

Kira nearly went limp in relief. Of course, he already knew. Rob had sent the leak to the police. She slid off the mayor and onto the ground.

Lawrence scrambled into a sitting position with a scowl and glared up at the officer. “What are you waiting for? Shoot them!”

Kira’s eyes widened as she and Rob looked at each other. She stifled a groan.

The dirty cop… It must be him.

“Well?” the mayor prompted when the officer didn’t move. “What am I paying you for?”

Kira tensed as she prepared to roll away, but the gun swiveled toward her.

“Nobody move,” Wilson snapped. Kira forced her muscles to relax and raised her hands in the air to appease him. Her heart was hammering in her chest. Lawrence moved as if to stand, and the gun shifted once more. “You too.”

“What are you talking about?” Lawrence demanded. “I’m your boss! Who’s going to keep paying for Gina’s treatments?”

“It’s over,” Wilson said in a soft voice. “Gina’s gone.” His features twisted. “She died this afternoon, while I was busy cleaning up your mess. I didn’t even get to say good-bye!” His voice broke and his knuckles whitened as he gripped the gun. “This has all been for nothing.”

“We can walk away from this,” Lawrence said. “I have money—enough for both of us to start a new life. But we need to take care of these two first. What would Gina want? Wouldn’t she want you to have a second chance to be happy?”

A single tear rolled down Wilson’s cheek. “At least she never knew what I did for her. She would have never wanted any of this.” He steadied the gun. “But it doesn’t matter what she would have wanted anymore. All that matters is what I want.” He leveled the gun at Lawrence’s chest.

The mayor’s eyes widened and he raised his hands in a futile gesture. “Wait! Matt, I—”

Kira winced and Rob yelped as a jarring crack sounded. It echoed loudly in the hangar. Mayor Lawrence slumped backward against the concrete floor. Blood blossomed from a hole in his chest, an easy shot at close range.

Kira’s head swiveled back toward the officer who had fired the deadly bullet. His eyes were closed and there were tears streaming down his face. Kira met Rob’s gaze, but neither of them moved. She heard a whisper of movement and looked back up.

“Forgive me, Gina.” Wilson uttered the words in a broken whisper as he raised the barrel of his gun to his lips and placed the muzzle inside his mouth.

“No!” Kira blurted.

Part of her mind screamed at her to look away, but her gaze was transfixed in horrified fascination.

A second crack sounded as he pulled the trigger.

* * *

Kira sat unmoving, her mind a perfect blank. Part of her noticed the coolness of the concrete beneath her was starting to seep through the thin fabric of her makeshift leotard. She shivered. Her ears were ringing for some reason.

A hand gripped her shoulder and an oddly bandaged face loomed over her. She saw a mouth move, shaping the sound of her name. She shook her head to clear it.

“Kira!”

The ringing finally faded and she recognized a familiar voice.

Rob. I’m here with Rob.

“Kira, we have to get out of here. The cops will be here soon. We can’t be the only ones to figure out that the mayor had a helicopter license.”

The events of the past few hours suddenly came rushing back. She looked down in horror at the body beside her. She realized there was a faint blood spatter on the left side of her leotard—Cam Lawrence’s blood. Her gaze was inevitably drawn to the fallen officer who had shot him. She grimaced and looked away, but not before tasting bile in the back of her throat. She made a faint retching sound.

“Here. If you’re going to hurl, do it in Trevor’s cape so we can ditch it somewhere far away from here.” Rob held out the red fabric, revealing a chunky mess inside that smelled suspiciously like regurgitated Cheetos. “I already had a turn while you were spaced out.”

The cheesy vomit stench did Kira in. She held a cleaner portion of the fabric up to her face and shuddered as her stomach emptied in a spectacularly violent fashion that left her cold and shivering afterward.

“Finished?” Rob asked. Kira nodded. “Then we’d better get going.”

He took back the cape and held out a hand to help her to her feet. Kira took it without arguing. She felt like an absolute wreck. It took her a moment to find her balance on those damned boots once she reached her feet.

“Come on.” Rob coaxed her toward her car.

She followed on trembling legs and cursed herself for being such a mess. Still, she was glad to have Rob there with her. He seemed to be keeping it together. She took a deep breath and steadied her gait. There was a pack of gum in the car… Maybe it would help to make her mouth feel clean again.

They both climbed into the vehicle. Rob rolled the soiled cape into a compact bundle and put it on the floor by his feet with a grimace. He accepted Kira’s wordless offer as she held out a pack of gum. She popped three pieces in her mouth for good measure. She fumbled with the keys, but eventually got the car running. She pulled out of the Air Club without looking back.

They drove in silence for several long moments. Kira’s thoughts wandered as she drove. She had to keep forcing herself to pay attention to the road.

I’m in shock. We’re probably both in shock…

“Shit!” Rob’s voice startled her from her reverie. He reached over and yanked the blond cheetah-print wig from her head and fumbled with something in one of the front cup holders. “Here, put these on.”

He pushed her sunglasses into her hand and started yanking at the bandages covering his face.

“What…?” Kira shook her head and suddenly noticed flashing red and blue lights approaching from the opposite direction. She jammed on the sunglasses as her stomach fluttered. “Yeah, this isn’t going to look suspect at all.” She gestured toward the sunglasses on her face and the almost complete darkness outside the car window. “Maybe I should start blaring some Corey Hart.”

“It’s still better than them seeing your makeup. If they stopped by the mayor’s place first, they might have our description from those goons we tied up. What if that Wilson guy wasn’t the only cop on the mayor’s payroll?”

Kira stopped arguing and forced herself to stay strictly within the speed limit as the police cars raced past in flashing silence. Even if Wilson was the only dirty cop, she didn’t want the hassle of being tied up with this whole mess either. She and Rob could at least be picked up for assault, never mind Rob’s hacking activities.

She let out the breath she had been holding as the last of the cars whizzed by and fell out of sight in her rear-view mirror. She eased down on the accelerator. The more distance she could put between them and the Air Club, the better.

She shook her head. “Did this night really happen? It all seems like a really long, bad dream.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure what was worse—listening to Trevor Wright’s bedroom action, or getting kissed by you, never mind this ridiculous costume. Miranda Tanner is probably going to kill me the next time we cross paths, by the way.”

“Hey, I’ve endured some hardship too, you know.” Strips of toilet paper dangled around Rob’s exposed face and neck. “You think I liked jumping out the bathroom window to hang out in a bunch of bushes in the nude? I had just finished taking care of some business in the shower when it happened, too. I was so relaxed…”

“Gross!” Kira smacked his arm with the back of her hand. “TMI, dude.”

Rob rolled his eyes. “And then you dragged me all over La Valentia. You know, I can’t even remember how long it’s been since I’ve gone anywhere outside the apartment or my parents’ basement. I’ve probably had enough social interaction and fresh air to last the rest of my life.”

Kira snorted. “You’re welcome.”

“So can you drop me off now?” Rob ignored the gibe. “I think I’m ready to go home and sleep for several days. I’m pretty sure I deserve it, now that I’m a hero and everything.”

“Does that make me the sidekick?” Kira asked in a dry voice.

“Hey, I’m more than happy to switch places. You can wander around town smiting evil, while I stay at the apartment as your trusty Oracle.”

“You did save my ass a few times tonight,” Kira admitted. “I mean, I didn’t really need your help with Leather Jacket, but you got the job done. I hate to admit it, but the costumes worked too.” She flashed him a serious look. “And if you hadn’t gotten me moving back there, I would probably be with the cops right now.”

Rob flashed her a grin. “See? Hero.” His expression turned plaintive. “Now can you please take me back home?”

“Yeah, about that…” Rob shot her a suspicious look. “I’ll still drop you off,” Kira said. “There’s just one stop I need to make first.”

* * *

Nick raised his hand and knocked on the door of Chief Wilkins’ office.

“Come in!”

Nick opened the door and went inside, closing it softly behind him. The La Valentia chief was seated behind his desk. A stack of papers were strewn across the surface—probably the first wave of reports on the arrests. He rubbed at his thick, gray mustache and looked up.

“Foster.” He greeted Nick with a nod.

“Sir, I just wanted to check in before I head to my hotel for the night. I’ll probably be heading out early tomorrow.”

Nick had rushed to the Air Club with several other cop cars on his tail, only to find a pair of dead bodies—Cam Lawrence, and a local cop named Matt Wilson. CSU was still working the scene, but it looked like a straightforward murder-suicide. Wilson’s gun had been found in his hand with two bullets missing, which matched the caliber of the round pulled from Lawrence’s chest.

“Back to the excitement of the city, eh?” The chief’s lips twitched. He sighed. “Well, we’ve had enough excitement around here to last for quite some time. First that business with the Procurer a few months back, and now this.”

“What’s going to happen now?” Nick asked.

“All those folks we arrested will be tried, of course.” He rubbed at his mustache again. “And then there’s those two thugs we caught at the mayor’s house. Turns out one of them has an outstanding warrant in Arizona, so we’ll have to hand him over. Anyway, they’ve both stuck to their story of being attacked by a pair of ThunderCats.” He grumbled. “Still have no idea what that means.”

Nick did his best not to smile. “It’s a cartoon from the eighties, sir.”

The chief gave a dismissive wave. “Both men have given a description to a sketch artist—some kind of cheetah woman, and a man dressed as a mummy.”

“Are you going to try to track them down?”

“Don’t really see much point.” Wilkins leaned back in his chair. “They were both wearing costumes. They could have been anyone. The pair we picked up probably knows more than what they’re saying, but for all I know, one of these… ThunderCat people could be our Good Samaritan hacker. Anyway, I’ve got enough to deal with between Internal Affairs and cleaning up Matt Wilson’s mess. We’re going to have to go through every one of his past cases and arrests.”

He shook his head before continuing. “Everyone liked him. Even when word came back from the Air Club that it looked like he had shot himself with his own gun, I didn’t want to believe he might be dirty. But we’re already finding evidence of a money trail leading to him from Cam Lawrence. Wilson used it to help pay his wife’s medical bills. The poor woman died earlier today.” The chief’s lips twisted. “I suppose every man has his price.”

Hopefully Wilson was the only cop in town on a hidden payroll…

Nick kept the comment to himself. That was for IA to determine. He suspected everyone in the precinct would be put under the microscope after such a public debacle.

Wilkins gave him a measuring gaze. “You do good work, Foster. If you hadn’t put together the idea that Lawrence might have a private plane, I’m not sure when we would have found him.”

Nick shrugged. “It didn’t make much difference in the end, though.”

“Still, it was something no one else on my team thought of. They were all too caught up in the chaos.” The chief leaned forward. “You know, we have an opening here now, if you’re willing to consider a transfer.”

Nick gnawed at his lip. He did want to get out of the city… But not like this. It would be hard enough being an outsider, never mind taking the place of someone whose career had ended so tragically.

“I appreciate the offer, sir,” Nick said. “I do want to transfer out of the city someday, just not as a beat cop.”

The chief’s eyes narrowed. “What do you have in mind?”

Nick swallowed and raised his chin. “Detective, sir.”

He gave Nick a measuring look. “I’d say you have the makings of a good one, but I don’t have any detective openings right now.”

“Will you keep me in mind if something comes up?” Nick asked.

“Only if you agree to talk to your chief when you get back about taking the proper steps to move up. I’ll be calling him to let him know what an asset you’ve been to us here. Deal?”

Nick stuck out his hand and reached across the desk. “Deal.”

* * *

Kira turned her key in the front door of her parents’ house and slipped inside. The house was quiet and mostly dark, except for the warm glow of the kitchen light at the end of the hallway. She crept toward it, hoping to find the room empty.

Her mother was seated on a stool at the marble-topped island. A steaming mug sat on the counter in front of her. Her blond hair was loose around her shoulders. It gave off a dull sheen against her blue terrycloth robe. She looked up from the book she was reading as Kira walked in the room.

“Kira!” She put the book down. “Where have you been?” Her eyes widened as she took in her younger daughter’s appearance. “What are you wearing?

Kira angled her body so that her mother wouldn’t notice the blood spatter on her left side. Thankfully, it wasn’t that obvious against the orange material of the leotard.

“What are you still doing up?” she asked, avoiding her mother’s questions altogether.

Her mother gave her a long look. “I was worried about you. You stormed off earlier, and you haven’t been home since.” Her expression softened. “You do know your sister and I only want to help you.”

Kira stifled a sigh. The argument seemed like it had happened a lifetime ago, but it didn’t make the cause of it any less annoying.

“Of course. I just needed some space. The night sort of got away from me, I guess.”

That was an understatement.

“Oh!” Her mother’s eyes widened. “I also wanted to give you a message. The law firm called earlier tonight. They’ve reached a settlement agreement with the security company.”

Kira blinked. “They have?” She shook her head in disbelief as the words sunk in. The lawyers she had hired knew what Kira and the other victims of the Procurer were willing to accept as a settlement. She couldn’t believe the security company had finally agreed.

Her mother got up and gave her a pat on the shoulder. “You did it, honey. Oh, and these came for you too.” She retrieved a wrapped bouquet of flowers from the counter at the far end of the room and lay them on the island.

Flowers? Who’s sending me flowers?”

Could this night possibly get any weirder?

She read the laser-printed card that bore the insignia of a local florist: ‘Congratulations on your settlement.’ It was unsigned. She investigated the blooms.

“Purple irises,” she muttered to herself. “Seems like an odd choice.”

“Well, that depends,” her mother said. “Each type of flower has a meaning, you know. And the color matters too.”

Kira looked up. “What do purple irises mean?”

Her mother shrugged. “It could be a few things. Let’s see… Faith, wisdom, valor… There’s also royalty, of course, but I don’t think that applies in this case…”

Kira lost track of her mother’s words as she continued to ramble on. She had forgotten her mother’s obsession with flowers. She felt a prickle along her bare arms as a wave of goosebumps rose on her skin.

“I wonder who sent them?” her mother was saying. “My first thought was the law firm. I mean, who else would know? And I doubt anyone from the security company would have sent them. But if it was the law firm, why didn’t they leave a name?” She shook her head with a smile. “You must have a secret admirer.”

Kira shivered. She had no way of proving it, but she had a feeling she knew exactly who had sent the flowers. She scooped them up and turned to walk out of the kitchen.

“Are you going to bed now?” her mother asked.

“No, I just came back to pick up a few things,” Kira said in a distant voice, her mind still on the flowers.

“You’re going out again? Where are you going at this time of night?”

Kira gave her mother a small smile. “Home.”

Her mother’s brow furrowed. “But you already are home.”

“I’m moving out with Rob. Tonight.” She forced herself to meet her mother’s gaze. “It’s time, Mom. I’ll grab the rest of my stuff tomorrow.”

Her mother placed a hand against Kira’s cheek and gave her a searching look. “Are you sure?”

Kira nodded without speaking.

Her mother’s brown eyes misted over for a moment. She wrapped Kira in a tight hug. “I’ll tell your father in the morning. He’s upstairs, sleeping.” Her voice was thick.

Kira hugged her back with one arm, holding the flowers with the other. After a moment, she pulled away.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Her mother nodded and Kira left the kitchen to pad up the stairs to her room, where she spent several moments gathering some bedding, pajamas, clothing, and toiletries. She heard the door to her parents’ bedroom open and close at the end of the upstairs hallway. Her mother had gone to bed.

As soon as she was packed, Kira headed back downstairs and out of the house carrying both a bag and the bouquet. Rob was seated in the passenger seat of her car, the light of his laptop screen illuminating his features with an eerie glow. She smirked at the sight of the ragged toilet paper bandages dangling from his upper body. He paid her no attention as she stowed her flowers and gear in the back seat. She would tell him all about the flowers later. Maybe he could figure out some way to track them down to who sent them, but she had a feeling it would prove a dead end. He looked up as she slid into the driver’s seat beside him.

“What’s with the bag?” he asked. It seemed he was less oblivious than she had thought.

“I thought you wanted a roommate,” she said with a lopsided smile. She reached back to tie her hair into its usual ponytail. It had been hanging loose ever since he had pulled off the cheetah wig. She rolled her eyes. “Someone needs to keep you out of trouble.”

Rob’s eyes widened. “You’re moving in tonight?”

Kira snorted. “You didn’t think I was going to let you stay in that place alone after everything that’s happened, do you?”

“Did you tell your parents?”

Kira shot him a dubious look. “Are you going to tell yours?”

Hell, no.”

“That’s what I thought,” Kira said as she turned her key in the ignition. “Shall we?”

Rob swept his arm in a magnanimous gesture. “Take us home, roomie. I’ve got some tunes we can listen to on the way. Not what you had playing in here earlier.” He tapped a finger on his laptop keyboard and Corey Hart’s ‘Sunglasses at Night’ started playing. Kira chuckled and popped on her own pair before pulling out of the driveway of her childhood home.

It was late, and the streets were quiet. By the time the song was ending, they had arrived at their apartment. Kira groaned when she recognized a familiar dark sedan parked nearby. A pair of shadowy figures sat in the front seats.

“Seriously?”

She turned off the car and got out with a huff. Rob gaped from the passenger seat as she went over to tap on the other car’s window. It rolled down to reveal her dear old friend, Shaved Head and his tattooed partner. They both looked up at her with a mixture of surprise and confusion.

“OK, here’s the deal,” she said before either of them could say or do anything. She swallowed as she noticed a gun resting on the tattooed man’s lap. “Cam Lawrence is dead. Your buddy, Matt Wilson shot him, right before he shot himself in the mouth. We already took care of your two friends and left them for the cops to find. They’re probably in police custody as we speak. So whatever it is you have planned for us, no one is around to pay you for it. My friend and I are both tired and just want to go home. Now, are we going to go our separate ways and try to forget this whole night ever happened, or what?”

Both men were gaping at her by the time she was finished.

“Dead?” The tattooed man shook his head in disbelief. “The mayor and Wilson are dead?”

Shaved Head’s eyes narrowed. “Why should we believe you?”

Kira shrugged. “Drive up to the Air Club and see for yourself. CSU is probably still up there. I’m guessing the cops aren’t happy about being betrayed by one of their own. Either way, you know where we live. If I’m lying, you can always come back and do whatever it was you were planning. I just don’t think we need to waste any more of one another’s time.”

“She’s got a point,” the tattooed man said.

Shaved Head gave Kira a long, hard stare. She held his gaze without blinking. Maybe it was her exhaustion talking, but she seemed to have crossed a point beyond fear.

“All right,” he said. “We’ll check it out. But if you’re lying—”

“Yeah, yeah, “ Kira said with a dismissive wave. “You’ll send us to sleep with the fishes, or whatever turn of phrase floats your boat. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try to get some actual sleep.”

She turned away from the car and headed toward the apartment. She was proud of the fact that she managed it without wobbling in her boots. Rob trotted after her with his laptop tucked under one arm and her belongings in the other. He must have gotten out of the car sometime during the conversation. She clicked a button on her key fob to lock the doors with her free hand. She heard a screech of tires as the dark sedan took off into the night.

“That was awesome.” Rob flashed her a grin.

Kira smiled back. “It was, wasn’t it?”

They entered the dark apartment. The front door was still hanging open. Kira scooped up her abandoned groceries and wrestled it into a closed position behind them as Rob flipped on some lights. He dumped her things in a pile at her feet.

She looked around. The apartment was still completely trashed, but it hardly seemed to matter after the night they’d had.

Rob was already in the dining room, righting the overturned table. He placed Leia on it at settled himself in front of her in a nearby chair with a contented sigh. He showed no interest in cleaning up anything else.

“I am never leaving this place again.” He hunched over the keyboard and started typing.

Kira shook her head with a smile as she carried the groceries to the kitchen to find out what was salvageable.

“Home, sweet home.”

* * *

Under Wraps: A Kira Brightwell Short Novel

Copyright © 2020 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art © Arenacreative | Nerthuz | Oksanabratanova | Dreamstime.com

 

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