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Blood soaked my hands and coated the walls. It stained the concrete flooring of the abandoned warehouse and dripped from fixtures that hung from the ceiling, trickling like a slow rain.
My vision blurred and a wave of anguish rolled through me.
Dammit, it wasn’t fair.
My knees buckled, and I slammed my fist down on the concrete floor, unable to register the pain. I stared down at the lifeless body of a child. A boy.
Kneeling in a pool of congealing blood, I reached out and ran my fingers through his chestnut hair. I ignored the now-cool moisture seeping into the denim of my pants and hugged his limp body to my chest. I rocked back and forth with him in my arms, whispering apologies and murmurs of comfort. Not that he could hear me.
I was too late.
I hated myself for that.
His face was unrecognizable. Gone was the boy with the dimpled cheek and brilliant blue eyes. Left behind was a brutalized mass of flesh and bone—a ruined body drained of life at such a young age.
God, what had they done to him?
His skin was mottled. Shades of blue and purple showed through a veil of blood over every inch of exposed skin. His clothes were torn. His right arm bent at an unnatural angle.
No child should have to go through this. I prayed he’d been dead before whoever had done this decided to wreak havoc on his body. Prayed that the twin punctures on his neck were the cause of death and that the rest had been…
Reality snapped like an elastic band, bringing me back to the present. I sat at my desk in Sanborn Place, ripped from the haunted memories of finding Daniel’s broken body. My fingers curled around his photograph, and I had to blink back the tears that threatened to fall.
It wasn’t fair, and I didn’t need anyone telling me that life wasn’t fair. I knew that already. It didn’t mean I had to be okay with it.
I stared down at the wallet-sized photo now crumpled in my hands. He’d had a crown of chestnut hair, bright blue eyes, and a single dimple on his left cheek. It was the face of an innocent seven-year-old boy, cut down like he was little more than a calf brought to slaughter.
I struggled to link the image of this smiling boy to that of the ruined body I’d found less than forty-eight hours ago.
My blood heated, and a turbulent rage rolled through me. One I had to fight to contain.
Breathe, Aria. Just Breathe.
A small flame licked my fingertips and singed the edge of the photograph. I sucked in a harsh breath and called back my fire.
“Ari, you’ve got to stop staring at the kid. He’s gone. Let it go.”
My head jerked up at my boss Mike’s statement.
He leaned back in his chair, his eyes scanning the never-ending stack of papers that littered the surface of his desk. He hadn’t even bothered to look up.
I shoved the photo into my desk drawer and slammed it hard enough that the sound echoed through the still room.
Mike lifted his gaze and cringed when he saw my expression, but he held my stare. I wouldn’t be surprised if my eyes had taken on an amber glow. That happened when I was upset and my fire simmered just beneath the surface. And right now, I was more than a little upset.
“He was seven years old, Mike,” I bit out through clenched teeth. “Seven!”
I shook my head and ran my hands through the tangled strands of my waist-length hair.
The poor kid had barely lived. Ever since the Awakening six years ago, when all things that went bump in the night decided to come out of the woodwork and play, safety had been tenuous at best. Kids like this, like seven-year-old Daniel Blackmore, were suffering the price.
Vampires, shifters, mages, witches, and many more creatures from our nightmares had seemingly popped out of nowhere, deciding they were ready to integrate themselves into everyday—or night—society.
It’d been a shock to the human population to realize they weren’t at the top of the food chain anymore. Six years later, we were all still adjusting.
Hell, I was a pyrokinetic and even I’d struggled with the realization that we weren’t alone.
Daniel was just one of a number of recent casualties, and I was sick of it. The bastard who’d done this had gone too far this time. Children were off limits in my book. No exceptions. Ever.
Since I’d found his mangled body—broken and discarded as if he were nothing more than a piece of trash—I was determined to find the bastard who had killed him and make him pay. Oh, and it would be long and painful. I had no mercy for child murderers.
“Ari, I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no.” Mike folded his arms across his chest and tried to appear stern.
I bit back the laugh that almost spilled out.
Mike Sanborn was an older man in his early fifties with a streak of silver in his otherwise midnight colored hair. The wrinkles around his eyes would lead you to believe he smiled a lot, but I knew better. Those lines were from his ever-present frown.
Dressed in black slacks and a grey button-up shirt, his mid-section strained against the buttons that looked like they might pop off at any moment and take someone’s eye out.
Mike might be my boss, but if he thought I was letting this go, he was going to be in for one hell of a rude awakening. I didn’t take orders from anyone. Not even him, and he was well aware of that fact.
“I wasn’t asking for your permission.” My fingers drummed along my desk, and I was careful to take deep measured breaths in order to keep a lid on my pyrokinetic abilities. It’s never in your best interest to burn down your place of employment.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass if you were asking. I’m telling you, Ari, let it go. You can’t help him anymore. All you’ll end up doing is getting yourself hurt, or worse, killed for your trouble.”
That was the problem with people who had lived through the Awakening. Their only concern was self-preservation. Nothing else mattered.
Well, screw that because this little boy … he mattered.
I’d scrubbed my hands after finding his broken body. But, when I looked down at myself I still saw the blood. I still saw his empty eyes and the pained expression captured by his death. I couldn’t let this one go.
I stood up from my desk and grabbed my keys and daggers. I sheathed the twin blades on either side of my waist, grabbed my leather jacket, and made a beeline for the door.
I needed to do something. Sitting here and arguing wasn’t going to get me any closer to finding Daniel’s murderer.
My boots made stomping noises across the carpet, and Mike crossed the room to intercept me.
Blocking the door, he glowered down at me. He tried to use his size to intimidate me. Too bad shit like that didn’t work. I was far from cowed.
“Move.” My fingers twitched at my sides, and I fought the instinct to shove him out of my way. Mike was the closest thing to a father figure I had, and some lines, you just didn’t cross. No matter how unreasonable the other party was being. Putting my hands on him was one of those lines.
“No.” He shook his head and stubbornly pushed back his shoulders.
I ground my teeth together and waves of heat rolled off my back. Fire licked just beneath my skin.
I scrubbed my hand over my face and cursed. He was being ridiculous. This entire situation was ridiculous.
“Mike, this isn’t some game. A little boy died. He died! Does that even matter to you? I couldn’t live with myself if I let this one go.” I didn’t bother to hide the accusation in my voice, and it only seemed to piss him off.
“What’s your plan, Ari? You going to storm into the Coven and force them to tell you who murdered him? They won’t tell you. They protect their own, and you’re one person against an entire Coven of bloodthirsty vampires. Even the kid’s parents know it’s a lost cause. They’ve dropped the case and are focusing on burying their son. They’re coming to terms with his death. And so should you. It’s over.”
It wasn’t over until I said it was over. I didn’t care if I had to face the Coven alone. I had my own bag of tricks, and I was pretty good at taking care of myself. Mike’s known that I’m a pyrokinetic since the day he met me. This wasn’t reason talking. This was him being overprotective, and I wasn’t going to have it.
We’d suspected that the culprit was a vampire. It was hard not to when Daniel’s body had been riddled with bite marks.
The Coven would know if they had a rogue in their territory. But if this was the work of one of their own, well then, I’d handle it. As well as the ramifications that would surely follow once I’d issued the bastard’s sentence.
We didn’t have a court of law anymore. Vigilante justice was as good as it was going to get.
Jessica Blackmore had trusted me to find her little boy and bring him back safely. I’d failed. The least I could do was give her the head of the person responsible for killing him.
I smiled. I’d bring that back to her on a silver fucking platter.
Feeling the temperature in the room climb higher, I forced myself to inhale and exhale slowly. Trying to calm down and keep my pyrokinesis locked up tight. It wouldn’t help the situation to start a fire. All it would do is prove to Mike that I wasn’t in control, and I was in no mood for a lecture.
“Look, Ari, you’re a merc. You take on a job when you have a client. There is no client so there is no job. We’re not the police. We don’t try to clean up the streets or bag the bad guys. We’re mercenaries.”
I snorted. Police. What a joke. We hadn’t had a real police force in years. Not one that did a lick of good anyway. We had the HPED, but they only handled human concerns and as soon as there was even a whiff of paranormal, they bailed. The boogeyman—as they’d put it—was above their pay grade
I couldn’t blame Mike for his way of thinking. Hell, two weeks ago I would have said the same thing. But this was different. Daniel was just a kid. I couldn’t believe everyone was so willing to overlook a child’s murder. People died, I got that, but I couldn’t leave a murderer on the streets that didn’t see the difference between right and wrong when it came to a kid.
Lines. We all have them.
Mid-sentence I heard the distinct buzz of a cell phone. Mike dug his phone out of his left breast pocket and answered it without bothering to look at the screen.
“Sanborn,” he said. Mike’s face scrunched in confusion, a furrow forming between his brows. He listened for several moments, and I strained to hear the speaker’s voice.
“I don’t—” He was cut off.
“Well, it’s just that—” Mike’s scowl deepened, and his face grew flushed.
With an angry curse, he hung up the phone and stared me down. At six feet tall, he towered over me by a good five inches, but I didn’t back down. Lifting my chin I gave him my best try me stare. The one I knew drove him crazy.
“Looks like you’re getting exactly what you asked for,” he snapped.
“And what exactly is that?”
“That was Declan Valkenaar on the phone.”
My eyes widened. Holy shit. The Pack Alpha? What the hell was he doing calling Mike?
“Turns out the dead kid is a shifter. His dad’s not so willing to let his death go unanswered. You’ve got yourself a client. The Pacific Northwest Pack.”
I raised an eyebrow and waited for the punch line. The Pack didn’t outsource work. It didn’t make any sense for them to hire me when they could handle the situation on their own and likely preferred to. None of the factions played well together, and shifters tended to look down on anyone who wasn’t one.
He sighed in irritation but went on anyway.
“Look, you searched for the boy for two weeks straight. You may not have found the kid in time, but you have more intel then they do. They don’t want to waste time starting from scratch. Unless you’d be willing to hand over your intel and records?” Mike’s voice had just a hint of hope to it.
I snorted. Fat chance of that.
He sighed. “That’s what I thought. Your fee has already been paid through an electronic transfer. In full.”
This was out of left field. It made sense to hire me since I was already familiar with the case, but I felt like I was missing something. My thoughts must have shown because Mike added one more bit of detail.
“Also, since we’re all under the assumption that the culprit is a vampire, the Pack is hoping to avoid any issues with the Coven. So you’re supposed to prevent a war.” He grinned like it was funny. “Have fun.”
I clenched my eyes shut and counted to ten. Awesome. Now it made perfect sense. The Pack and the Coven were always at one another’s throats. There was no way the Coven would let anyone from the Pack come in and question them. I was being hired to play the middleman. This was going to suck.
Mike was right though. I was getting what I wanted. On top of that, the gig paid well. Hiring a mercenary wasn’t cheap, and Sanborn Place had a solid reputation, so we were priced higher than most. Not that I, personally, had contributed much to that reputation.
I was pretty average. Nico and Taylor were the veteran mercs who’d been the major contributors in recent years, but both were taking a hiatus after completing a gig that pushed them to their limits.
Perfect fucking timing.
I sighed. I got by with bravado and luck and very little skill. My father taught me to fight when I was a teenager. He wanted me to be able to defend myself. But punching a bag with my papa wasn’t the same as getting into a brawl with a vampire ten times stronger and faster than me or going head to head with a shifter who could rip my throat out in the blink of an eye.
I was strong in my own right, but my grasp on my pyrokinetic abilities wasn’t great. Most paranormals were genetically stronger than me, yet somehow I still managed to make my clients happy and keep myself alive.
I would have done the job for free, but a paying gig meant Mike had no legitimate reason to stop me from taking it on. He had to earn a living too, and now that he worked behind a desk, he relied on the ten percent cut he got from me and the other mercs that passed through our doors.
The fee being paid in full and up front also meant I couldn’t gripe about being wedged between two factions of paranormals. The relationship between shifters and vampires was notoriously volatile. I had a feeling that no matter how hard I tried to conduct a peaceful investigation, blood would spill. I just hoped it wouldn’t be mine.
I was glad someone was willing to take a stand, but this wasn’t adding up.
“Mike, we met the parents already and neither one of them is a shifter. I can see a shifter a mile away.” Shifters had a way of moving, a predatory grace. Neither Patrick nor Jessica Blackmore had that.
Mike ran his fingers through his hair, giving his head a slight shake. “According to Declan, the kid’s mom remarried when Daniel was four years old. Patrick Blackmore is his stepfather. Daniel had no contact with his biological father after the split.”
If that was the case, why did this guy care now? He hadn’t seen his kid in three years, and all of a sudden he cared about him? Just as I was about to voice the question, Mike raised his hand to stop me.
“Before those gears in your head start turning, you should know that you won’t be working this one alone.”
I stared at him for half a beat. Did he seriously think he was up for this? I mean, he was great and all, but he’d been playing desk duty since the day he hired me. And in those two years, Mike had grown soft in the most literal way. A good twenty pounds of softness, if you asked me. He was nowhere near the shape he needed to be in to hunt down murderous vampires. At best, he’d slow me down. At worst, he’d get us both killed.
Mike was a liability, and he knew it.
“Mike, there is no way you can partner with me. Don’t be stupid. What would Marian say?” I hoped bringing his wife into it would knock some sense into him.
Mike glowered at me. “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, brat. I wasn’t talking about me, so don’t bring my wife into this. Besides, if I wanted to be on this case, I would damn well be on it. But since this is an official Pack problem, you’re going to have a Pack partner. Play nice.” His feathers officially ruffled, Mike puffed out his chest and lumbered back to his desk, grumbling under his breath about smart-ass women and no damn sense.
I fought back an eye roll and smiled. I was pretty sure I’d gotten under his skin when I brought up Marian, but she and I were on the same page when it came to Mike working in the field.
Marian kept nagging him to retire, said the job was too dangerous and was better suited for people my age. Frankly, I agreed. The fact that Mike was no longer active in the field did little to assuage her concerns when he routinely insisted on tagging along, claiming that it was strictly for observational purposes.
Observational my ass. I knew he missed the thrill of the chase. But he needed to come to terms with the fact that retirement was just around the corner.
Mike had only been in my life for two years, but he was my rock. Filling the hole left by losing my parents at the age of seventeen.
I leaned on him more than I cared to admit. I’d never tell him that, though. No sense inflating his ego. But I was going to miss seeing him every day when he finally hung up his hat for good.
My need to rush out and bring vicious justice abated, I returned to my desk to skim through all of my files on Daniel’s case.
I wasn’t thrilled about working with a partner. I hadn’t survived living alone on the streets for four years by trusting, or working well, with other people. And I wasn’t about to start now. A partner required a certain level of trust that I just wasn’t willing to put in just anyone.
Mike Sanborn and James Shields were the exceptions. Mike found me two years ago, slumming on the streets, taking on mercenary gigs that were basically suicide missions.
When I’d landed on the streets four years earlier, there weren’t many options for a girl my age with no experience. But my pyrokinetic powers gave me an advantage. Not that I made them public knowledge. Most would assume I was a witch, and I happily let people continue believing it. It was safer that way.
I’d come across James Shields in a shifter bar when I’d tried to let off some steam and gone a bit overboard. One too many drinks and grabby hands from a grizzly had set me on a warpath. Thanks to the one too many tequila shots, it didn’t register that I was grossly outmatched, and I dove in swinging.
James had stepped in and helped me mop the floor with the grizzly’s head. For reasons I still don’t know. But since then, he’d saved my ass more times than I could count. We’d only known one another for six months, but I trusted him to watch my back Even if he was a wolf.
I knew when push came to shove that Pack always came first, but we hadn’t crossed that bridge yet, and as far as I knew, he’d kept my secret.
I hadn’t intended to tell him, and there’d been alcohol involved when I did. He’d taken the revelation in stride, and we’d been friends ever since.
Maybe I’d get lucky and the Pack would send him. It was doubtful since he wasn’t an Alpha, but a girl could hope.
From time to time Mike would require backup for certain gigs, and James never minded tagging along and earning a little extra money. Unlike most male mercs, he never bristled if I took the lead.
I’d worried in the beginning that he would spill my secret. Being a pyrokinetic made me a prime target for anyone wanting to exploit me to their advantage or eliminate a potential threat. My papa had drilled into me as soon as my abilities manifested that I needed to keep them a secret. Back then paranormals weren’t public knowledge, and the fear was that I’d end up as some government lab rat.
Papa knew about psykers like myself, human beings born with psychokinetic powers. His grandfather had been one, though according to my Papa, he’d been an aerokinetic. His abilities centered on the manipulation of air and its currents. I’d been lucky that he’d had some knowledge of the matter. He knew enough to teach me some basic meditation techniques, help me work on control, and teach me who I needed to avoid. Specifically other psykers.
When I hit eighteen, my abilities started to grow stronger. Mike had later speculated that it had something to do with maturing and getting older.
Regardless, I had a slip in control and burnt down my first apartment building. By accident, of course.
I’d been stressed out, overworked, and barely getting by. My fuse was a bit short back then, and I had one hell of a nosey neighbor that knew just how to get under my skin.
But that slip-up had left me exposed.
Less than two hours later, a man had arrived at my burnt doorstep as I dug through the rubble of my meager belongings—trying to salvage what I could—with an offer he thought I couldn’t refuse.
I’d asked for a day to consider it, knowing there was no way in hell I’d accept. He’d promised to come back in the morning. As soon as he’d left, I’d packed what hadn’t been ruined in the fire and hit the road.
He tried tracking me. It took me three weeks to lose him completely and a year to stop looking over my shoulder. No one searches for someone they have no connections to that hard with good intentions.
To stay hidden, I kept to the streets. Being homeless had some surprising perks. I had knowledge and contacts that otherwise I’d never have, and I developed reliable instincts and better fighting skills from having to constantly defend myself.
See, the glass was always half full.
“So when does my partner arrive?” I rifled through my desk in search of my notebook. It wasn’t much to look at. Just a worn leather cover with several hundred pages of what I deemed to be important information. One such piece of information was a growing list of Pack members and their roles. The shifters were a secretive bunch. I knew who some of the Pack Alphas and Betas were, but not all of them.
Packs were made up of Clans, smaller groups of shifters with their own Alphas and Betas who reported to the Pack leadership. It was highly probable they’d send me one of the Clan Betas. Someone with enough authority to make decisions for the Pack and take out any potential threats. If that were the case, I was going to have to make sure I didn’t expose myself. Easier said than done, but I didn’t want to find myself on the Pacific Northwest Pack’s most wanted list.
“No idea. But, Ari, I’ve got a bad feeling about this one. You wanted the kid to get justice, and he’ll get it. You know how shifters are. They won’t stop until they find the culprit. Why don’t you just stay out of it and let them handle this their way?”
No way I was going to stand on the sidelines while the Pack took over. Not happening. This was my case. I’d already poured blood and sweat into it.
I allowed my displeasure to wash over my face.
“Ari, don’t give me that look. You know I’m only looking out for you. What would happen if the Pack found out you were a pyrokinetic?”
I didn’t need to worry about that because it wasn’t going to happen, and we’d already had this conversation.
If the Pack or Coven, or hell, even the witches for that matter, discovered what I was, one of three things would happen. They’d either kill me because I was too big of a threat to leave living or they’d somehow find a way to control me and make me their little fire slave. If I had a heads-up early enough, I’d go for option three and run. Again.
I didn’t want to have to leave. I’d put down roots here. But I’d die before I ever let someone else control me.
“Mike, you and I both know that isn’t going to happen. I’ll be careful like I always am. Why don’t you just tell me what fur ball they’re going to saddle me with?” I smiled when I found my notebook in my desk’s bottom drawer.
“Finally,” I pulled the notebook out and leaned over it as I scanned the coffee stained pages within for likely candidates. It was doubtful the Pack would send a Clan Alpha. They were too important to spare for sleuthing.
There were six Clans within the Pacific Northwest Pack I knew of. Each was led by a single—or joint if mated—Clan Alpha, and all served under Declan Valkenaar, the Pack Alpha.
The Pacific Northwest Pack encompassed Clans Wolf, Cat, Feloidea, Muridea, Canidae, and Big, which encompassed, well, anything really big. Bears, a handful of water buffalos, and if memory served, a rhinoceros shifter or two.
Mike noisily cleared his throat, “Uh, hey, Ari…”
“God, I hope whoever they send isn’t a complete moron. If I’m going to be stuck with a Pack partner, the least they can do is give me someone competent.”
Mike noisily cleared his throat again.
“What?” I looked up from my desk and scowled at the tall man standing just inside the office, casually leaning against the doorframe. He had tousled brown hair and steely grey eyes. High cheekbones and a strong jaw formed his face and a hint of stubble dusted his jawline. It was not enough to appear unkempt, but just enough to give a roguish impression. Dressed in black jeans, a black tee, and a black leather jacket, he oozed tall, dark, and handsome with deadly intent.
I shoved my notebook into the top drawer of my desk. Shit.
“That would be this furball right here,” James said, an arrogant grin lifting the corner of his mouth.
I let my head fall to the surface of my desk, then for good measure, I none too gently knocked my forehead on its smooth surface, one, two, three times. Dammit, I couldn’t believe I’d just called him a freaking furball! My cheeks grew warm, and I could feel the heat creeping up my face.
On the upside, at least my partner was someone I actually knew and trusted to watch my back.
“You all done with the show?” he asked. I lifted my head and glared at him, then dropped my head to the desktop once more before sitting up and rubbing the sting away.
“Yeah, I’m done.” This wasn’t going to be as bad as I’d expected. James Shields was a wolf, and having him as my partner was going to make this gig a lot more tolerable than I’d expected.
“So you’re my partner?”
James nodded. “Yeah, I’m your partner.” He sauntered into the room, his eyes scanning the articles pinned to the exposed brick walls. “Think you can play nice for once?”
“Hey!” I admonished. “I’m always nice to you.”
He snorted and wandered further into the room, his gaze now locked on mine.
He moved with a confident and carefree grace.
If he weren’t the closest thing I had to a best friend, I’d be drooling like the rest of society when he walked into a room.
“Sure, you are. You ready to get reckless?” His lips curved to one side, and his eyes pulled me out of my seat.
I smiled. He knew me all too well.
I grabbed my messenger bag and followed James out of the office, aware of Mike’s disapproving gaze following my every step.