Now she’d have to take care of herself. Something she could do, something she had done many times before, and something she would continue to do again and again, because—
“Shut the fuck up, or I’ll rip out your throats and do it for you,” Hector growled.
Silence. Absolute silence followed the threat. Or promise.
“Good boys.” His tone gentled, though it was no less brutal. “Now tell me who called this in.”
She wasn’t going to point out that the men couldn’t shut up and talk to him. She was too pleased by his defense of her.
Smile suddenly genuine, she walked to his side, clipping a few of the guys with an elbow to the gut as she did. They hunched over, wheezing for breath. “I’m so sorry,” she said, so sincere she brought tears to her own eyes. “The dress … so long … I tripped …”
Hector … amused … the unveiling of his dimples … a shiver rocked her.
A young man with sandy hair and glasses stepped forward. He was average height, on the slim side, and just a little scared to find himself in Hector’s sights. “Agent Dean, sir, uh, a witness called. Claimed he’d seen four men. Two were here, waiting. One in a suit. One dressed casually. Then two others just appeared. One was an Arcadian, so we think teleportation was used. The other was the victim. Alive at the time. Witness claims the guy in the suit said, ‘Thinking you could blow the lid off my operation just got you killed ’ and pulled the trigger on a pyre-gun.”
Hector had stiffened at the word Arcadian, then growled at the word teleportation. He must be thinking of the women he’d found, so long ago. The ones in the warehouse who had disappeared while in the hospital. An Arcadian had been suspected then, too, but had never been found.
Noelle knew because she’d maybe kinda sorta peeked at some of his old case files.
“How’d the witness know it was a pyre?” he asked.
Pyres were made for AIR agents, and illegal for civilians to carry. Plus, they weren’t the only weapons that lit up like firecrackers.
“Said there was a flash of bright light, but no booming sound. Said it was the same type of gun he saw agents carrying on that TV show, As the Other World Turns.”
Good show. Gotta catch up on that.
“I want to go over them myself.”
“Of course. As for the rest, the vic was hit in the chest, his organs fried. That’s when the witness screamed, and the three men realized they’d been spotted. They gave chase, but the witness hid and called us.”
“Did he give you descriptions of the three?” Noelle asked, inserting herself into the conversation. My investigation, too, big boy.
Those spec-covered eyes flipped to her, softened. “No. He said it was too dark, and that he only knew one of the men was Arcadian because of the white hair and the instappear act. Which is why we called AIR.”
A thumb hitched over his thin shoulder. “Back of my car, sir.”
Noelle scanned each of the vehicles and spotted their guy in the back of the farthest, the inside light burning bright. A junkie, she thought. Human. Pasty, papery skin. Red, sunken eyes. Chapped lips. Dirt-streaked his face. He rocked back and forth and was muttering to himself.
“Put him in the back of mine,” Hector instructed. “And post two guards at the doors. Eyes are to be on him at all times.”
Before the guy could rush off, Hector reached out and withdrew a pair of latex gloves from his uniform pocket. He pulled the latex over the gloves he still wore as he walked to the trunk of Mia’s sedan. There, he grabbed a tool kit.
Expression blank, he ducked under the tape and strode away. All without a word to Noelle. Well, that wasn’t going to stop her. She looked at the elegant length of her dress, then at the ground. With a shrug, she palmed the blade strapped to her thigh—earned a few more whistles—and stripped off the bottom half of the material, leaving herself bare from the top of her knees down. Risqué for a crime scene, sure, but she’d bared more skin at the last cocktail party she’d attended. This way, she wouldn’t brush away any prints.
As the men gaped, she bummed a pair of gloves from one of the officers and followed the same path Hector had taken. All business, she thought. Her personal life would not get in the way.
He crouched beside a dark lump. Once there, she could smell the coppery scent of blood, the release of bowels. Could see … far more than she wanted. The man was on his stomach, his face turned to the side, away from her. She purposely didn’t study that part of him too intently. Already she could see that his mouth was still open in a silent scream.
Hector rolled him to his back, careful, so careful. The vic wore dress slacks, and his button-down shirt had burned away. There was a gaping hole in his chest, the skin at the edges charred, the organs inside deep fried.
“Don’t move,” Hector said, digging through his now open toolbox. He stood before she could remind him that she wasn’t stupid and returned to the tape. He walked the edges, stopping every so often to stake a halogen in the ground.
By the time he reclaimed his place at her side, those lights were bathing the scene with unforgiving purpose, chasing away every soothing shadow.
“What can you tell by glance alone?” Hector asked her. Lines of tension branched from his eyes, his skin losing a little color.
Still trying to teach her, even though she was now considered his equal? Fine. Whatever. “There are no tire tracks. No footprints, either. There’s nothing to suggest the body was dragged. So, even though the witness is a drug addict, he was telling—”
“Yeah, I noticed that, too. Anyway, he was telling the truth. Our vic was popped here and killed here.”
“What makes you think he wasn’t killed somewhere else and teleported in already dead?”
Was he serious? “Look at the burn marks where he’s lying. He was still frying when he fell on his face, and charred the grass beneath him.”
“Judging by what the witness heard—‘thinking you could blow the lid off my operation’—this was a premeditated crime. Our shooter wants to keep something hidden. And our vic was a good Samaritan trying to take him down. Which suggests he knew his attacker, or at least was connected to him in some way.”
She was used to being patted on the head, told what she needed to do to be better—at everything. His praise, so easily offered, floored her. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now what else can you tell about him?”
Suddenly she was desperate to impress him. “Well, he had money.” A soft breeze danced between them, lifting strands of her hair and caressing them over her cheeks.
Hector’s gaze sharpened, as if she’d astounded him. “Explain how you deduced that.”
“His pants. They’re fitted for his frame specifically and not off the rack. Plus, the material is genuine silk rather than a synthetic blend. And look at his shoes. They’re Burbans and go for three thousand dollars a pop.”
A pause, as if he were processing what she’d said. “Good eye.”
The praise lit her up inside. Careful. He could addict her to his compliments as surely as he’d addicted her to his kisses.
“Let’s find out who we’re dealing with.” Hector pressed his lips together, pulled a small ID scan from the box, and gently pressed the man’s thumb into the screen. A blue light appeared, roving from the top of his print to the bottom.
With more care than a man as muscled as Hector should possess, he placed the victim’s hand in the same position he’d found it. Then he read the screen. “Bobby Marks. Five feet eleven, one hundred and eight-five pounds. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Caucasian.”
The name rattled through her mind until she felt as if she’d been punched in the temple over and over again. Now, more than before, she wanted to avoid looking at the guy’s face, but her gaze strayed there anyway.
Familiar brown hair, rumpled and in disarray. Familiar brown eyes stared at nothing, still glassed with pain and terror. Those lips had once pressed kisses onto the top of her hand.
She must have gasped. “Yes,” she croaked. “I do. Did.”
Shock caused the words to leave her with the same inflection an automaton would have used. Zero. “He was a gambler. Built himself up from nothing. Won stock in several different companies. Sold some, bought more in others. Those with old money hated him.”
As Hector dug around in his toolbox, he said, “Your family is old money.” He took several samples from the body—blood, tissue, clothing, under the nails.
“Yes. My dad never met him. Died before Bobby’s time. But my mother hates—hated him. She made no secret about that. No one did. So if you want a list of families who could have wanted him dead, it’ll be a long one.”
The witness had claimed the shooter had worn a suit. Could he have been a businessman Bobby had taken down?
“Yeah, I’ll want a list. Did you?” Hector sorted the vials before placing them in their proper locations in the box. “Hate him, I mean?”
Surely he hadn’t intended for that to sound like an accusation. As if she were a suspect, just because she’d had an association. “I thought he was charming. Ruthless in getting what he wanted, but charming.” So charming, now dead. Gone. “But then, I’m a trust fund baby and my wealth never depended on my business. I could afford to like him.”
And now he was dead, she thought again. Such a startling realization. She remembered his laughter. He’d laughed at her jokes, genuinely amused. He’d fetched her single malt when she’d asked, and had even danced with her a time or two. But he’d never laugh again. Never share a drink with her. Never dance with anyone else.
Though she hurt for what Bobby had surely endured, she forced herself to compartmentalize. Focus, drive. She couldn’t save him, but she could avenge him.
Hector paused, and for a moment, she doubted he was even breathing. “Were you one of the things he wanted?”
In his mind, he’d just dumped her on her ass. Again. He had no right to the answer.
“Maybe at one time.” She told herself she replied for the case, but deep down she knew better. “He loved having arm candy, and I played that role for him every once in a while. Then, a few months ago, he stopped dating. He still went to all the parties, but he never showed up with a woman. Always went solo. Always left the same way.”
A whoosh of air, the click of a lid, the cinch of a lock. “Okay,” Hector said, standing. His expression never changed. He gave nothing away. “Do me a favor and call Dallas. Ask him to get out here, and to keep it on the DL. I’ll process the rest of the scene and see what we’ve got.”
So. Hector didn’t think Noelle was a good enough partner for this job. He wanted Dallas. Insulting, embarrassing … devastating. Never good enough. But okay. She’d call the guy. Then they could both be shocked and impressed with her skills.
’Cause yeah, she would solve this thing. No matter what she had to do, she would solve it. Bobby deserved vengeance. Bobby deserved peace.
And maybe then Hector would consider being with her worth any risk.
When the thought registered, she had to cover her mouth to cut off her cry of alarm. She was doing it again, reverting to her childhood ways, becoming a girl willing to do anything to prove herself, and when that failed, acting out for attention.
And though she’d successfully smothered the cry, Hector caught her distress and pinned her in place with the intensity of his gaze. “What’s wrong?”
How did he do that? How did he always know? “Nothing,” she said, lowering her hands. Shame coated her, a film on her skin. “Nothing.” She would solve this case, but she wouldn’t do it to impress a man or to prove she was worthy. She would do it for Bobby. Only Bobby.
Hector frowned. “You’re lying.” His gaze roved over her, perhaps searching for injuries. He must not have seen the condition of her gown until that very moment, because his jaw dropped. Heat melted his eyes into liquid gold, a frothing cauldron of … desire? “You’re also almost naked.”
Fighting the urge to snuggle up to him, to encourage his arms to wrap around her and buffer her from the rest of the world, from herself, even from him, she lifted her chin. “Right now you’re my coworker, nothing more. You don’t have the right to pry into my feelings or even to comment on my lack of clothing. So back off.”
He was the one to radiate shame this time. “You’re right.”
“Aren’t I always?” A flippant reply when all she really wanted to do was sag in defeat.
THE LITTLE COFFEE SHOP reeked of caffeine (a given), sugar (a bonus), and cigarette smoke (a crime). As the only patrons were AIR agents, however, no arrests would be made tonight or any other.
Noelle had spent some time in juvenile detention for lighting up in junior high. Of course, she’d intended to piss her parents off, and—she hated to admit this next one—she had hoped to develop lung cancer. She’d prayed the disease would strike her down, she’d be hospitalized, and all of her family would rush to her side, squeezing her hand, crying, telling her how much they loved her, just as she was, and how sorry they were to have treated her so badly.