ALL ROOK could smell was blood.
Hot. Metallic. Dirty. Blood.
It stung his senses, an angry hornets’ nest of odors he couldn’t outrun—even as he pounded down one of Hollywood’s tight back alleys. Rook could hear shouting, piercing rushes of sound caught in the maze of brick, glass, and cement behind him.
A sun-faded aluminum can crinkled when he stepped on it. Folding up over the edge of his high-top, it clung to his foot for a stride before gravity dislodged it. Nearly tripping over his own feet, Rook stumbled, then caught himself with a grab at a rolling trash can, tipping the enormous black receptacle to the ground. Garbage poured out of the heavy bin, foul, sticky liquids gushing out from its depths, and as Rook jigged around the stream, he was very aware of the sounds of footsteps closing in on him.
He’d be damned if he let them catch him.
The river of garbage he could outrun. The blood was something else. It coated his hands and then his pants when he tried to wipe them clean. The bottom of his shoes were probably clotted thick with it from walking through the dark pool he’d found on his store’s main floor, driving the drying, viscous fluid deep into the grooves of his faded black Chucks.
A groaning drew him deeper into the store then. He wasn’t sure where it’d come from, but Rook would swear on a pack of Bibles signed by God himself, he heard it. It was a rattling sigh that made him pause and look again. His curiosity would be the death of him, Hawkins once told him.
Which was absolutely, ridiculously true, because when he came around the corner of the display case filled with horror flick memorabilia, he stepped directly on a dead woman’s hand.
And his curiosity laughed its fool head off as it dumped him into another mess of trouble.
He didn’t need any more light than the faint glow of emergency LEDs built into the bottom of the cases to see she was dead. It was as obvious as the life-sized Chewbacca statue standing a few feet away from where she lay splayed out. No one could survive what he’d seen. There’d been nothing left of her stomach and chest. Washed over silver from the curacao blue LEDs, her flesh lay in chunks across the floor, a profane slaughter of skin and meat leaving her insides spilling out in ribbons of dank meat and ichor.
There was a flicker of recognition in the small part of Rook’s brain that still worked, a sensory overload hot enough to crackle his nerves. He knew the woman—had argued with her, bitched about how she’d cheated him and, worse, cursed her to hell when she’d run off with one of the largest takes he’d ever brought in.
Her doll-like face was cracked open and bruised, the enormous cornflower-blue eyes she used to gull easy marks flat and blank, staring up at the store’s high ceiling. She lay on her side, her arms awkwardly thrust out in front of her. Her legs were spread apart and bent at the knee, forcing her tight skirt up nearly to her hips. He’d reached out to tug at her skirt hem, not thinking about anything other than giving her some dignity in death, and drew his hand back when he felt a wetness spread over his palm. Something in her torn-apart corpse must have collapsed, because Dani’s body tumbled forward, and Rook made a grab for her, as if catching Dani would save her from further pain.
That was how he was found, arms full of dead woman and skin painted with her still warm blood.
A hot, burning glow flooded the store, and Rook pulled back, startled enough to drop Dani to the floor with a wet splat. He didn’t have time to take a breath before the front windows exploded and silhouettes poured in, too many to count in the blur of panic and fright.
He did see the guns, though. And felt the whisper of a bullet shear past his exposed cheek.
The collectibles shop was a warren of display cases and back rooms, as familiar to Rook as the back of his hand or the tumbling sound of an old safe’s lock giving way to his skilled fingers. Potter’s Field’s back-room labyrinth was too dark. There should have been more lights—blinking LEDs from a high-end R2-D2 and an array of old bulb signage he’d scored from a movie set auction. If anything, he should have been able to see enough of the room from the soft glowing cold boxes bought to keep delicate collectibles in. Instead of the slightly pink suit worn in an old Charlie Chan movie or the sequined dress flashing bright colors and spangles from their sealed tight cases, Rook was met with a bank of black with only a thin orangey thread of light to see by.
He didn’t need a lot of light to lead him to the sliding metal door at the side of the building, but he certainly was going to have a good talk with Charlene, his assistant, about leaving the padlock off the inside latch when she snuck out to have a quick smoke.
If he survived getting shot at.
Hell, if he survived running through Los Angeles covered in blood while a pack of gunmen hunted him, Char was probably going to get a raise for being so bubbleheaded, because he hit the automatic release bar on the door and was outside before another bullet tried to make its way into his head.
His legs were burning. Years of sliding through tight spaces kept him limber, and he’d worked to keep flexible. Which, Rook discovered as a cramp bloomed across his ribs, did shit for stamina. He’d been stupid—complacent, really. Stupid to think he’d gone straight so could give up old ingrained habits like intimately knowing his surroundings and moving about.
It was costing him dearly now.
Hollywood was built building upon building, tight, cramped spaces behind broad fronts facing the street, a set design for the masses, constructed on a grand scale. Pockets of asphalt parking lots were scattered about, giving Rook a clear path to sprint through if he wanted.
He knew better. Wide-open spaces were the easiest way to get caught. Subterfuge and shadows were his only hope in the never-quite-darkness of a late Hollywood evening. The sky shimmered with yellow splashes of light caught in the low cloud cover of an early fall. The alleys were dodgy, twists and turns speckled with debris, both garbage and throwaway people clinging to back doorways hoping their fragile shelter would hold up against the occasional sparse drizzle.
A dash of Chinese spice in the air gave Rook some idea of where he’d gotten to. Only a block and a half from where he’d started. The city’s grime was thick in its bowels, stains of dirt and fallen smog leaving behind long mottled streaks nearly impervious to Los Angeles’s drifting rains. In some cases, the buildings themselves were nestled in too tight to allow even a hint of fresh breeze between them, and Rook choked on a pocket of stagnant air trapped behind a run-down side street head shop, a cloud of patchouli and stale pot smoke drifting in the heat of a never-ending coil.
Behind Hollywood’s streets, a different city thrived, a far cry from the glamour and glitz. Not the one sold on television and movies as a glistening, golden-bodied beauty with suntan-oiled skin and orange-kissed breath. The tightly packed town nestled into Beverly Hills’s armpit had absolutely nothing in common with that Hollywood. If anything, that golden image was simply his town’s too thickly spackled on makeup, weathered and cracked from the heat, and if anyone looked too closely, they could see the aging has-been beneath the pancake foundation and sparkling fake eyelashes.
After years spent on the carnival circuit, he’d always loved returning to Hollywood’s streets under the hills, packed with expensive apartments with their wide-open windows and the frivolous wealth of every flash-in-the-pan wannabe whose face sparked up a screen for a brief instant, then faded back into the chorus along with the rest of the trash.
He’d fought hard to rise above being trash. If he hadn’t been running for his life, Rook would have laughed at how easy it was to fall from grace in a split second—especially when covered in the blood of a woman he’d wished dead for years.
Twisting to the left, he nearly toppled over a grizzled old black man pulling mannequin parts out of a battered shopping cart. Reeling from the hit, Rook sidestepped the gnarled fingers reaching for him, the man’s face mottled dark with anger.
“Watch where yer goin’, boy,” he spat at Rook, a wave of foul breath washing over him, strong enough to briefly drown the stench of blood and offal out of Rook’s nostrils.
“Sorry,” Rook muttered, squeezing past him. He didn’t get more than a step when he felt the old man grab at his head, twisting his fingers into Rook’s shaggy hair. The pain was sudden, sharp, and hard. He lurched back, surprised at the skinny man’s strength. “Let go… I’ve got to—”
“That blood I smell?” The man’s voice boomed, a grenade of sound echoing through the zigzag of crossing alleys. “You kill someone? Shit! Police!”
Rook spun about, tilting sideways when the man tightened his grip. The shouts were getting louder, indistinct cries directing the men to their prey. Panic seized Rook’s belly, and he struck out, slamming his knee up into the hollow between the old man’s legs. An instant later, Rook was free and he was off, determined to shake the shadows off his trail. He broke from the maze, grabbing at fresh air and a straight run to safety.
Then one of the shadows lunged out from the darkness pooled at the edges of a cluttered sidewalk and took Rook out.
The shape grew large and came too fast for Rook to avoid. He got a glimpse of jeans, a white shirt, and a suit jacket, flashes of color across his vision before the massive block of muscle and sinew hit him hard enough to pull both of them down to the gritty broken sidewalk. Rook tucked in on himself, rolling into the blow to protect his chest and belly. Years of hardscrabble fighting and honed instincts took over, and he lashed out, shoving stiff fingers into his attacker’s throat. Rook heard a gagging sound—loud enough to give him hope the man would let him go, but the sidewalk had other plans.
A break in the concrete caught Rook’s shoulder, and it broke his momentum, jerking him to a stop. His sneakers squeaked against a wall plastered with placards and graffiti, but he couldn’t get enough traction to get to his feet. Caught with his back to his attacker, Rook scrambled to get a hold on the sidewalk as he untangled his legs, but the man was on him, pressing Rook down with a fierce shove. His head snapped forward, and Rook saw stars when his skull made contact with the ground under him. As he blinked away the sharp crack of pain, Rook’s stomach sank down deep into his trembling guts.
It wasn’t the man’s gun that gave him pause. Nor the gold badge he wore at his belt. A gun and badge clearly exposed as the dark-haired giant’s jacket pulled up when he reached for a pair of zip ties from a leather pouch near his back pocket.
“Fuck, a cop,” Rook swore through the wavy sparkles flickering across his eyes. “Oh… shit.”
He knew the Hispanic cop straddling him. He’d felt those large strong arms on him before, and even as he heard the click of a plastic zip tie being looped shut around his wrist, he recalled the last time he’d seen the handsome, stone-faced man, and his cock grew hard with the memory. Dark, changeable light brown eyes with almost ridiculously long lashes scanned Rook’s face, and Rook caught the exact moment when the cop recognized him, just seconds after Rook realized who’d pinned him spread eagle to the ground.
This wasn’t just any cop.
But the one cop in Los Angeles who wanted him dead.
And the one and only cop he’d ever let touch him.
“FUCKING ROOK Stevens,” Detective Dante Montoya growled at the one-way glass looking into a small gray interrogation room off of the station’s bullpen.
His hands smarted, rubbed raw from the scrapes he’d taken when taking Stevens down, and his throat ached where the supposedly former thief’d jabbed his fingers into Dante’s Adam’s apple, but the minor discomforts were just that—minor. He’d finally gotten a hold of fucking Rook Stevens, and from the looks of things, Stevens wasn’t going to be able to wiggle his way free like he’d done in the past.
The man was a boneless sprawl of insouciance in one of the interview room’s hard metal and vinyl chairs, his long legs stretched out in front of him and one arm looped over the chair’s back. From Stevens’s casual demeanor, no one would believe he was facing a murder charge, but small things betrayed him. His mismatched stare glanced at the door every few seconds before settling back to stare at the mirrored wall, and there was a slight tightening around Stevens’s full mouth every time a shadow passed under the door.
Problem was, Rook Stevens was still as handsome as fucking hell, and Dante longed to smack the man’s smugness off his face with a well-aimed fist.
If anything, the police-issued set of gray scrubs should have taken away a bit of his attractiveness, but the drab fabric only drew out the paleness of his skin and the startling blue and green-hazel oddity of his eyes. The room’s bright overhead lights highlighted Stevens’s high cheekbones and strong jaw, his nearly elfish features hiding the cunning intelligence Dante knew lurked behind his seemingly wide-eyed expression. Stevens’s caramel-brown hair was longer than the last time Dante’d seen him, certainly longer than the recon photos from the disastrous case that ended his prior partner’s career and set Dante’s more than a few steps back.
Almost five years. Five long years since Dante was forced to close the case file he’d built up on Stevens and the other members of the carnie crew suspected of running a burglary ring up and down the West Coast. His old partner, Vince, had taken the case harder, more personally than Dante, and that’d been his downfall. By the time their two-year investigation went down in flames, Vince was tired of being a cop, tired of chasing criminals, and certainly sick to death of banging his head against the solid wall of lies and subterfuge spun by Rook Stevens and his partners.
“I’m too old for this shit,” Vince had muttered when they’d gotten word Stevens walked free of all charges they’d brought against him. “I’m spending my life trying to nail some damned uneducated smartass who hawks sideshow games for a fucking living. Asshole knew we had him dead to rights, and all we had to do was find out where he fenced that damned last haul of his.”
They hadn’t found Stevens’s fence or anyone who’d even admit to doing business with Stevens to launder the high-end goods from the mansions he’d hit when the carnival wintered in Los Angeles. None of the carnies would spill a single word from their close-lipped mouths whenever Vince and Dante came around, and if anything, the victims themselves wanted the cases swept under the rug when the detectives began to poke a little too deeply for their comfort.
Then Vince did the unthinkable. He’d crossed the line between good and bad, planting evidence so flimsy it unraveled before the accusations against Stevens could even take hold, and Vince’d almost brought Dante down with him.
He’d liked Vince. The older detective’d taken a slightly angry, gay, Cuban-Mexican baby detective under his wing and poured everything he knew about catching criminals into Dante’s eager brain. In the end, Vince’s career ended in a sour mess, and Dante skirted the edge of demotion when they’d been accused of taking bribes to let the crew slip out from between their fingers. Vince tried to talk Dante out of telling their captain about Dante’s encounter with Stevens in a dark Hollywood club, and even then, Dante kept the details sketchy, admitting he only realized he’d almost fucked Stevens when someone accidentally turned on the bathhouse’s floodlights and bleached the back rooms in a harsh white glow.
It was the last time Dante went to a club to get his needs met. It was also the first time he’d seen Stevens’s sexy, nearly apologetic smile.
The asshole still got the tickle going in Dante’s belly, and damned if he didn’t want to dig his hands into Stevens’s hair, strip him down, and fuck him until he couldn’t breathe.
“So you finally got your white whale, huh, Moby?” Hank Camden, his partner of three years, wandered into the side room, a bone-white tangle of clumsy limbs topped off with a shock of red hair bright enough to set off a fire sprinkler.
“Moby Dick was the whale, puto,” Dante replied, picking up the paper cup of sour cop house coffee he’d poured himself before coming into the viewing cubby. “And we haven’t harpooned him yet. What’s the lab say? Anything come back yet?”
“No, nothing. But shit, he was practically coated from head to toe. If there’s no gunpowder residue it’s because he washed it off in her damned blood.” Hank saluted Dante with his own cup, a tea bag tag dangling from a string over its rim. “Huh, he doesn’t look old enough to be a nemesis.”
“He’s old enough.” Dante grunted. “Pisses me off I can’t be in there. I’ve waited a hell of a long time to take Stevens down. Who’s taking the case? O’Byrne? She’s the only one I can think of who could go toe-to-toe with him.”
“Just because you made the collar doesn’t mean it’s our case. ’Sides, Captain knows you’ve got a history with the guy. You and me are on door-knocking and story-taking duty until he says—”
“Montoya. Camden.” The man in question, a thick-chested walrus of a cop, thrust his head into the cubby. Captain Book, a veteran of LA’s long, tenuous relationship with the law, pointed at the interrogation room and LAPD’s latest acquisition. “Everyone’s caseload is backed up to hell and gone. You’re all I’ve got open, so get in there and crack him. Do it clean. Do it fast. Shut him down quick.”
“Yes, sir.” Dante suppressed a grin as he tossed his cup into the trash. “Thanks, Captain.”
“Don’t fuck this up, Montoya. Get in. Get what we need, and keep it professional.” Book stabbed at the air near Dante’s chest with a thick finger, his severe frown thick with warning. “Camden, you watch your step. Don’t give the DA any damned wiggle room to let this bastard out. Son of a bitch lawyer is rubber-stamping shit left and right. Make something stick here.”
Dante waited until the captain was gone before he let his smile slip free. Jerking his head toward the mirror, he patted Hank on the shoulder and grinned widely. “Come on, man, let’s go see what Stevens has to say about all that blood.”