One

 

ROOK WORKED his fingers out, reveling in the stretch of fabric across the backs of his hands. His nerves tingled beneath his gloves, palms itching in anticipation. It’d been too long since his last job. Hell, years since he’d coaxed a lock open or tumbled a safe, and his teeth ached from the excitement.

After sex—and Rook could make a good argument that sex still ranked second—stealing was the closest thing to reaching nirvana as someone could get. Or at least it had been before Detective Dante Montoya entered his life.

There could be no thoughts of the sexy, handsome Mexican-Cuban detective. Dante Montoya was a distraction on the best of days but deadly when trying to negotiate through a job. The last two months of Rook’s life were more an emotional roller coaster than steady climb. His world teetering just out of control with Dante’s uncle coming to work with him, his shop, Potter’s Field, reopening after being shot up by the cops, and the sudden, but not unwelcome presence of one sloe-eyed, smoked-honey-voiced cop in his bed was enough to make any man crazy, but toss in the devastating gutting of his diamond-stash nest egg, and Rook was about ready to pull his hair out from the stress.

Besides, he had a job to do.

He missed the jobs. Missed the rifling through other people’s things and picking out what he wanted. It was the ultimate hunt, a slithering into the dark spaces behind people’s lives and digging his hands into the things they wanted to keep secret.

There’d always been something sexual about piercing someone’s security, then seducing a house or business to lay itself open for him, ripe and plump for the taking. Walls needed coaxing, a bit of flirtation and slyness before they whispered their acquiescence.

The house he was in needed no such seducing. Not really. He’d taken four weeks to prepare for the job, training hard to regain the flexibility he’d let go after his retirement. The overstretched limberness needed to slide into tight spaces wasn’t something he’d planned on worrying about when he plotted out his new life.

A twinge along his right thigh was a quick reminder of how far he’d let himself go. His muscle mass and core strength hadn’t changed, he’d seen to that, but his flexibility had gone to shit. Four weeks of careful stretches and insane yoga classes got him close to where he’d been before he’d thrown it all away, but Rook wondered if close was going to be good enough.

The two-story house was a modern glut of glass, polished off-gray wood planks, and sleek white walls, a stark assault of bleached squares and rectangles perched solidly on a broad cliff face, its enormous greens spotted with small clusters of gardens and odd statues. Its mostly glass western-facing walls promised a stunning view, probably as breathtaking as its price. Like many of the houses on the hills, it was bristling with attitude, an aloof structure protected from the general population by high walls and spiky plants menacingly clustered and too thick to walk through. Sitting on the edge of a cliff meant no back wall was needed, or so some idiot probably thought, but it was nice to see the city below without the blur of a transparent Plexiglas barrier used on most of the surrounding hillside homes.

To Rook, the house resembled random sugar cubes some god dropped from the sky when making its morning cup of coffee and was possibly the ugliest place he’d ever seen.

A single step into the house and he’d be crossing back into his old life. Rook didn’t know if the risk was worth it. Everything could crash and burn, leaving him picking up the pieces of… what, he didn’t know… but something. His stomach clenched with both anticipation and dread, and he longed to pick the locks on the far door, then empty out whatever the owner of the house stashed inside his hidey-holes. His nerves jangled, keening for him to make up his mind to go back to his old life or turn around and go on with the one he’d found.

If only the empty Ark of the Covenant prop in his West Hollywood warehouse didn’t mock him. He needed that kind of security in case everything went to shit. There wasn’t anyone he could count on to bail him out of life’s messes. He couldn’t be certain of anyone, not just yet. Maybe even never, and Rook needed to know he had a safety net he could count on.

Since there was only one thing Rook knew more about than pop culture and movies—stealing—he was going to have to return to his roots. A few hits and his nest egg would be replaced with no one the wiser, including Montoya. This one, however—this one was for free—his own personal fuck-you and welcome back to every whisper behind his back and turned-up nose.

“God, they weren’t lying. Just a standard piece of shit.” He studied the door, tamping down a wave of goose bumps across his chest and shoulders. “Feels like I’m digging up a dinosaur.”

The lock on the door off the back patio was a laughable excuse for protection, a simplistic top-of-the-line latch some security company picked up at a high-end home improvement store. Rook debated simply kicking it in just for the sheer pleasure of watching it pop open, but damaging someone’s property tended to piss them off, and nothing fueled a victim’s drive for justice like rage. The gloves on his hands were a familiar skin, a thin, featureless, and expensive latex and microfiber hybrid he got from an elderly Chinese woman in Singapore.

He had to take a moment to subdue the tingle in his belly when he unfurled his packet of tools. It’d been a bit since he’d touched them in any way other than the occasional halfhearted pass at the various pieces he’d bought to keep his hand in. It felt different working on the real thing. As much of a piece of shit as the lock was, it kept him out.

And if there was one thing Rook hated, it was being kept out of something he was curious about.

He’d wanted to play with it more, play it out to get the full, long stroke of cracking the house open, but he didn’t have the time, and no matter how slow he went, it wouldn’t be long enough to satisfy the itch under his skin he got when trying to break into a place he really shouldn’t be. A slender curve of metal and a pick would be enough to get him through the door. He paused, sniffing the ice-cold air beyond.

“Jesus, I’m getting hard just standing here.” Sex was a definite second to breaking and entering, or at least the foreplay of it was.

The ache in Rook’s lower back, a pleasant pull of muscles he’d kept limber, ghosted a memory through his brain, echoes of a hot mouth pressed into his skin, silken Cuban whispers promising all manner of delicious, wicked things Rook had to look forward to later that day. His body tightened in response, remembering the glide of slightly callused palms over his back and thighs before supple thumbs dug into his ass, kneading his cheeks in a gentle massage with a sharp bite and a quick slap at the end meant to push Rook out of bed.

“Okay, maybe sex before Montoya. Glad I can still fucking walk,” he muttered as he paused at the measly lock, shaking off the feel of his lover’s body on his. “Let’s get this done and see what our boy Harold’s got stashed away.”

It’d been forever since he’d worked on something as simple as the mechanism and security system his mark had installed on the mansion’s back entrance, but Rook took his time, enjoying the teasing open of the device, letting the initial rush of breaking in wash over him.

It was nearly exactly like sex. A few strokes of metal on metal, a hint of metallic kiss he could taste on his tongue when a tumbler gave way, then a rush of warmth over his skin. Rook sank into the silken velvet of the melancholy happiness filling him, closing his eyes when it grew too much for him to absorb.

“Fuck, I missed this,” Rook whispered, stroking the edge of the lock. “Why the hell did I give this up?”

“Are you there, Rook?” Alex’s voice crackled in his ear. The two-way turned his cousin’s melodic baritone into a gruff, cigar-roughened bass drilling into Rook’s brain. The jawbone headset was a sleek piece of tech he’d have loved back in the day, fitting neatly into Rook’s ear canal and barely noticeable until Alex boomed through it like a squat Viking chasing after a rabbit on a fat white pony. “Were you talking to yourself?”

“Well, sure I’ve got to talk to myself, ’cause I’ve got an idiot on the other side of this mic,” Rook teased back. Sighing as the moment passed, he stood up, ready to disengage the house’s main security system. “What’s up?”

“A cop car just passed right by me. Suppose they come back?” His cousin sounded worried, but Alex always sounded worried if he drifted too close to the line of criminal activity. He was the kind of guy who’d turn in a dollar he found at the beach and pay a parking ticket left on his windshield but written for the car behind his. “Really, Rook. Are you listening to me? What do I tell them?”

“Alex, you’re a blond twenty-ish guy in glasses who looks like he’s one hieroglyph away from discovering where the Stargate is buried and sitting in a sports car worth more than the average cop’s house.” Easing the door open, Rook stepped into the house and took a deep inhale of its air-conditioned air. “Believe me, cuz, when I tell you, the only reason they’d stop to talk to you is to check to see if you’re lost.”

“Are you sure?” Rook heard the strain in Alex’s voice. “Suppose—”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Besides, if they were really curious, they’d run your plates.” He chuckled into the headset. “And then wonder how the hell a cop’s husband can afford that car. Now just sit tight. You’re the getaway driver, not a cricket in a top hat sitting on my shoulder.”

“But—”

“Alex, I love ya, man, but I’ve got to get to work,” he reminded his cousin. Cracking his knuckles, he grinned wide enough to make his cheeks ache. The walls were singing, promising him a payoff rich enough to fill the dent in his bruised ego. “Get off the line, wait for me to ping you, and make sure you’re dolled up and wearing your prettiest dress out there, because in about fifteen minutes, I’m going to need you to dance us out of here.”

 

 

LOS ANGELES’S late-afternoon sun burnished the scatter of furniture in what seemed like the fifteenth living space Rook found in the frigidly designed house. The glass-and-white-wall motif carried on to the interior, pops of color coming from oversized leather furniture and some of the ugliest contemporary art Rook’d ever seen.

“Not enough time to sneer at shit, Stevens.” Rook did a mental check on the minutes he’d given himself to get into his target rooms, hating he didn’t have enough leeway to peruse the canvases lining the room’s long wall. “Probably crap pieces he bought at those art sales on the side of the road.”

He knew his victim well enough to know Harold was more bluster than brains. Flashy and gaudy was how the pompous ass judged something’s worth. The sterile house and its overly clean lines were less of a fashion statement and more of an homage to a Swedish box store, but there were cracks in its antiseptic appearance, small dollops of flotsam and jetsam scattered about.

“That’s right. Party on Friday. Bunch of people to impress with wine and hipster food.” Rook jogged his memory. “Housekeeper’s off until Monday. You’re out playing golf, but shit, you could have picked up a bit, Harold.”

An empty champagne flute lay on its side behind a planter, a scallop of fuck-me-hard red lipstick on its rim, and a foot away, the shimmer of a gold cuff link winked from a corner of a plush white area rug. Dried, cracked blocks of cheese kept picked-over mummified salumi company on a wet bar near the stairs leading to what Rook hoped were the bedrooms, but what concerned him more was the unmistakable, odiferous evidence of a dog deposited under the steps.

“Shit, does he have a dog?” Nothing Rook gleaned from Harold’s life mentioned a dog or a pet of any kind. He cocked his head, listening for a bark or scrambling nails on the sleek floor, but he heard nothing. “Okay, so maybe dog went with. Either way, just… don’t step in its shit.”

There were urban legends, a guy who knew a guy who’d been nailed because of a cat hair and feline DNA, and if Rook was going to ruin his perfect no-arrest record, it wasn’t going to be over a damned piece of fluff.

The floating marble stairs were deep, curved in a bend meant to fuel dramatic entrances and possibly inspire spontaneous sexual encounters if the one on the bottom was willing to risk banging their head on the ebony stone planks. Rook moved quietly and quickly, crossing the upper landing in a few long strides with his target just down the hall.

The recon of the building placed a master suite taking up half of the upper floor and facing the cliff, with entire banks of floor-to-ceiling windows meant to showcase a million-dollar view of West Los Angeles and the rest of the city. He’d seen the city view from the backyard, and it looked much like… a city. The same city he lived in. The one where he could grab an order of carne asada fries at three in the morning after going a round of mini-golf in Sherman Oaks. It was where he’d done some of his best work, lifted some incredible hauls, and had some of the best sex in his life.

Still was having some of the best sex in his life, his brain whispered, because Montoya had no intention of leaving.

Even though everyone else had.

“No time for that shit.” Shaking off the melancholy tickle, he pulled up short in front of the bedroom door, a broad, glossy black barrier, locked according to the snippets of information he’d gotten from anyone he’d spoken to about the property and Harold’s habits.

It swung away from him, jarring slightly open when his fingers touched it, gliding back on silent hinges without a whisper of sound.

“Fuck.”

Unlocked doors made him nervous. They tightened the gums around his teeth and poured a dribble of cold silver down his spinal cord. This door was an anomaly, one his lizard brain leaped to rationalize in a scramble ranging from a forgetful Harold to another burglar beating him to the punch.

A bit of afternoon sun crept around the cracked-open bedroom door, the six-inch gap allowing enough light into the shadowed hall to run a bright line down the outside frame. There were sounds coming from inside the room. Slushy noises Rook couldn’t quite place. They sounded—he cocked his head to listen—like a fish tank filter or even a white noise machine left to run during the day. The scratching rumble wasn’t alarming, just unfamiliar. It could be anything, really. Just not something he knew about. Still, the house… unsettled him. Something was off, a wrongness lingering in the air, and Rook took a step back, his gloved fingers hovering a few inches away from the door.

The sunlight cut out, swallowed by a rushing shadow pouring past the doorframe. Rook caught a flash of pale skin and dark clothes swaddling flailing limbs. He dodged the first blow by chance. Startled by the movement, he’d pulled back, ready to protect himself when a heavy object struck his raised arm. The blow reverberated through his forearm, the downward force pulling at his shoulder. Years of tumbling along the carnie circuit kicked in Rook’s muscle memory, and he rolled with the blow, following through with its momentum, letting it carry him down and forward into the shadow’s gut.

The grunt he got was a satisfying one, but his attacker was heavier than he looked and Rook only gained a few inches of space into the room. His hip struck the doorframe, throwing him off-kilter, and the floor’s slickness made his footing treacherous. He couldn’t see what hit him, not with the whitewash coming through the bedroom’s wall of windows.

The figure was a silhouette in a balaclava against the light, but his arm went up again, straining to lift the heavy oddly shaped object he held in his right hand. Unwilling to get struck again, Rook lunged, trying to grapple at his attacker’s waist, hoping to catch his opponent’s arms and tangle his limbs to keep him immobile. Rook struck hard, shoving them both back to get clear of the door.

Close-in fighting was something Rook’d cut his teeth on. The carnival circuit was a hard one, a physical, violent world with short, hot skirmishes and long, simmering memories. The smack of flesh hitting bone was as familiar to Rook as his own face, and he’d used his clenched fists to brawl his way out of trouble long before he learned how to coax open a door or charm the people around him.

Propelling his body with a push of his legs, Rook slammed into his attacker, going on the offensive in the hope of getting some control of the conflict. He needed to get into a more open space than the hallway with its dangerously tight landing and open stairs. With his back toward the steps, it wouldn’t take more than a few pushes to get him to the edge, and then the dog shit under them would be the least of his worries. He landed a punch to his attacker’s ribs and followed by a knee up, hoping he could keep the man off-balance enough to either drop what he was carrying or at least not have enough momentum for a solid hit.

He struck hard and fast, pinpointing his punches to where he could get in past the man’s chaotic windmilling arms. Ribs were a good landing spot, but Rook liked under the belly button, jabbing his clenched fists into the soft roll of flesh to distract, then bringing up a punch to the face. He got one good hit on the intruder’s covered jaw, but Rook knew the knitted cap pulled down over most of his face took away a lot of the impact. In the fluctuating shadows, he couldn’t make out more than a slice of eyes and pale skin surrounded by a field of thick black yarn, but a push of hot air along Rook’s wrist told him the intruder was struggling.

The damned bedroom floor proved to be Rook’s undoing. Since it was made of the same glossy dark stone as the stairs, Rook didn’t see the glisten of moisture until it was too late. He struck the edge of a thin puddle and twisted in midair when his foot shot out from underneath him. Having to choose between continuing the fight or minimizing his fall, his instincts took control over his brain and Rook turned, hoping to take the impact with the side of his body and protect his joints while his attacker flailed about with the cylindrical weight. Unfortunately while his muscle memory was intent on saving Rook’s ass, it left the side of his head wide open, and the intruder’s desperate swing scored a direct hit.

The pain was a swift blast of white stars and ache. His head shot back from the blow, and the impact was hard enough to push Rook’s jaw to the side. He tried to absorb some of the hit by giving in to its arc, but with his body turning in the opposite direction, the most Rook could do was soften the blow. The intruder lost control of his weapon, and it flew off, hitting something in the room with an oddly wet splat.

Rook landed hard, tangled around himself and gasping from the echoing throb along his temple. Panicked, his brain ground out commands, urging Rook to get to his feet, to gain some ground before his attacker could strike again, but his head hurt too much, and his eyes couldn’t seem to find anything to focus on. Blood coated his lips, but Rook couldn’t find where he’d bitten himself or even if he cared enough to do more than jab at the inside of his mouth with his tongue.

Self-preservation forced him to turn over, and he blinked, trying to orient himself in the room. His hands were wet, and the walls spun about a bit, but Rook pushed himself up. Clenching his fists, he squared himself off, readying to continue the fight. Shuffling around on the balls of his feet, Rook scanned the room, keeping his arms up and loose, but the room was empty, silent except for his own heavy breathing.

“Son of a bitch,” he spat, disgusted enough to take a few steps to follow his attacker, but the jab of pain across his eyes brought Rook up short. Pressing the heel of his hand into the middle of his forehead, he willed the throb to subside as he took stock of his options. He’d taken too long to get up, and the bastard chose to run instead of sticking around. “Fucker’s probably already out the front door. Goddamn it.”

Rook took a moment to catch his breath, and he dabbed at the blood on his lips with his tongue, disgusted by the taste of metal in his mouth, and for some reason, he couldn’t get the smell of it out of his nose. Wiping at his face with the back of his hand, Rook was surprised to see only a light tacky smear of dark red on the beige latex.

“What the fuck?” Blinking, Rook let his eyes adjust to the bright light numbing the room’s features, hoping to clear the stars across his vision along with the headache burrowing its claws into his temples. His hand came away clean when he ran it over the spot where he’d been struck on the head, but the bloody aroma hounded him. “Where the hell am I bleed….”

A clatter of tiny nails on the marble floor drew Rook’s attention, and he turned around, catching the full brutal wash of sunlight streaming through the western-facing windows. It took a moment, but a small orange puffball of a dog was the first thing Rook pulled out of the receding shadows as his vision adjusted. It beamed up at him, panting with a toothy smile. Then Rook spotted the naked dead man in the middle of the room—a dead man with an oddly familiar avian statue lying across his hairy, bloated stomach.

In life, Harold Archibald Barnsworth Martin had been a blustery force of ego and condescension, puffed up on an importance fueled by money and an infantile temperament. In death, he was a stiff plank of white flesh mottled with dried blood, his manhood a shriveled spaetzle of flesh tucked up under his purpling stomach.

The Pomeranian danced around Rook’s legs as he bent over to retrieve the Bluetooth link he’d dropped in the fight. Giving the dog a reassuring scratch, he tucked the speaker into his ear, hoping it retained its connection. Tapping it on, he winced through some crackle, then heard Alex shout a hello over the line.

“Alex, I’m going to need you to call the cops,” Rook said as he picked up the dog and cradled it to his side. It squirmed while he carefully approached Harold’s body. He didn’t have a lot of hope the man was still alive, and when he saw the caved-in remains of Harold’s head, he knew the asshole he’d come to prank was never going to spit insults at him from across a dining room table ever again.

The object he’d come to steal balanced precariously on Harold’s stomach for another moment before gravity took over, sliding its chunky black form down the fleshy curve to come to a rest against Harold’s rigid, tucked-in arm. A squared-off ugly bird made of resin and resentment, the Maltese Falcon stared up at Rook, an unblinking, judgmental witness to Harold’s death.

“What’s going on, Rook?” Alex broke through the dog’s whining to be let down. “Why am I calling the cops?”

“Because someone’s murdered our asshole cousin,” he muttered, edging back away from Harold’s still form. “And it looks like he was killed with my damned bird.”