Chapter One

 

 

I HATE little girls.

Hands down, they are secret vessels of Satan and probably rule their own special circle of hell reserved for people who abandon dogs by the side of the road and assholes who molest innocent children.

Or it could be that I was bitter about running my fucking ass off down a back alley with a rabid poodle slung in a baby carrier across my belly while a pack of frothing fighting dogs ripped the shit out of my jeans.

While I didn’t really hate little girls—particularly the little girl who’d hired me to rescue her dog—I was getting kind of sick of learning to navigate through Los Angeles’s back alleys.

I knew she was trouble as soon as she walked through my door. Wearing a deep red velvet dress with more white ruffles on its hem and sleeves than a wedding cake, Ava Hernandez was an angelic portrait of sweet innocence with fine mahogany hair, luminous, liquid brown eyes, and a chipped front tooth. In about ten years, her father probably would be sitting out on the porch guarding his daughter’s virtue with a double-barreled shotgun.

Actually, he should have been there with that damned shotgun to take out the asshole who made her cry, because her face was wet with tears when she placed a chipped pink porcelain pig on my desk and declared she was there to hire me.

And if the pig wasn’t enough, it was joined by a slightly melted chocolate bar and a bright purple toy unicorn with a curled rainbow mane.

I was doomed from the start.

She had a sad tale to tell, and I was the only guy man enough to help her. A couple of gangbangers stole Ava’s poodle mix, Pookie, and she was determined to get her dog back. She knew where they lived, a bad section of street a little bit away from her house, but the cops weren’t too interested and Animal Control’d been less than helpful. Loaded for bear with her bus pass and her entire savings, she’d dug through the Internet for a private investigator, dressed in her Sunday best, and rode the Metro to hire me.

Not bad for a nine year old with a net worth of three dollars and fifty-one cents. I admired her bravado. Then I dialed her mother to come pick her up.

I took the case. For the cost of the chocolate bar. I gave Ava back the pig and unicorn. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Now, in the middle of a warm Los Angeles night and being herded by the savage growls behind me, I was beginning to think I should have held onto the unicorn.

“Bobby! Where the fuck are you?” I was shouting to the air. Fucker was nowhere to be seen.

He was supposed to have stayed behind the house so I’d have an easy escape. Climbing over the rickety wooden-slat fence, I’d spotted Pookie, holed up in a small plastic kennel, the type someone would use to cart a small cat back and forth to the vet. There were other broken plastic transport boxes keeping her company on the patio, but what worried me was across the yard—a more substantial bank of kennels made of chain-link fences and concrete floors.

And each bay was occupied by a thick-necked, over-muscled fighting dog.

People who raise dogs to fight should be shot. Men who steal a little girl’s dog to bait a fighting dog should die the slowest, most torturous death possible. Their skin should be separated from their flesh with an air hose through minute slits and then have water from the Salton Sea injected slowly into the cavities while someone rips off strips of duct tape from their balls.

But that’s just off the top of my head. I was sure I could come up with something more concrete if given a little time. Okay, I might have borrowed that death from Jae’s overactive imagination, but it popped into my head once I saw the dogs. Whoever turned them into vicious animals needed killing.

If Pookie didn’t get us killed first.

Before my partner, Ben, killed my lover, Rick, and shattered my life and body in a hail of bullets, I shared a townhouse with Rick’s small dog. He’d been a quiet, fluffy thing with bulging eyes and a discerning palate. We’d come to an agreement of sorts. I wouldn’t let Rick put bows on the top of his head and he didn’t chew up anything I owned. I called him Ragmop too often to remember his real name.

He’d been one of the many things Rick’s parents took with them while I was lying on a hospital bed fighting for my life. Well, what I had left of my life after they removed any sign of his existence from our place. It was bad enough that Ben killed him. I could have done without them erasing him completely.

Now, I’d be lucky if the dognappers’ mutts didn’t finish the job Ben started.

But at least, I’d fulfill the promise I made to my current lover, Jae. I wasn’t getting shot at.

Or I’d planned on fulfilling that promise until the shooting started.

There was a hell of a lot of shooting going on, and the popping noises I was beginning to hear were loud, rapping sounds bouncing through the streets.

Somewhere, I’d taken a wrong turn. Pookie wasn’t helping. Her ears flew up and hit my face with every stride I took, sometimes blinding me with white fuzz. Circling through the neighborhood led me back to the wide street where I’d expected to find Bobby’s truck. The dogs skittered around the corner, their claws scrabbling to gain purchase on the broken sidewalk. A rough cinder block wall held promise. If anything, it was solid enough to keep the mutts from chewing my ass off.

My knees struck the wall as I swung up, my muscles going numb when I hit. The uneven blocks dug through my jeans and scraped my skin, turning my knees into hamburger. I’d take inventory later. Between the dog struggling against my chest and the bloodthirsty howls at my back, I had better things to worry about than whether or not I’d look like a piece of road rash once I got out of there.

The wall was covered in dank black lichen along its prickly flat surface and thick with Los Angeles traffic dust. The mold made it difficult to get a purchase on the wall, and more than once I felt my sneakers slip when I tried to get a better hold on the ridge. Someone’d begun to shout, and it was getting louder and more incessant. Ignoring everything but the dog strapped to my chest, I heaved myself up and bit through the pain arcing through my shoulders. Heaving my weight up, I finally got a foot on the wall’s lip and balanced precariously on the wide cinder block ledge.

Pookie twisted in her holder, throwing me off balance, and I fell, right through the thick plastic sheeting draped down over a ramshackle carport’s support beams. Pookie yelped her displeasure and tried to snatch my nose off my face, but I kept her steady, cupping her wriggling body against my chest with one hand.

I’d already eaten the chocolate bar, or I’d have been sorely tempted to toss her back into the garage and let her work out her own escape.

The dogs barking furiously on the other side of the wall were the least of my problems. I knew the smell coming up from the thick foliage. It was a sweet, sticky odor reminiscent of days I’d spent in college trying to clear my head after a long day of classes. Whatever strain the grower was producing, it was epic in its sugary scent, and the plants were practically opaque with resin-rich clusters. My sneakers stuck to the floor when I began threading through the pot plants toward the torn plastic I’d come in through. Working my body through the opening, I spotted a gate and sprinted through a barricade of cast-off household items blocking my path down the side yard. My fingers were on the latch when my luck ran out.

Lights flared on in the house and poured through the grime of closed louvers. To make matters worse, flares of red and blue lights were sparkling the sky, casting up an ominous fireworks show. The bottoms of my sneakers were now covered in enough resin to make a hashball, and I had a white poodle mix dangling from a baby carrier across my belly.

If I were still a cop, I’d haul me in just on principle.

Things got worse when a bullet went whizzing by my head and the wooden gate in front of me grew an extra peephole near my shoulder. Another few pops and bullets hit the supporting cinder block post, sending rocky shards into my face. Not being overly stupid, I didn’t need to see who was shooting at me. Not when valuable seconds could be spent getting behind a thick cement wall that could take a blast from any street-legal weapon.

The latch was locked, but I was motivated. Wrenching it open, I tore it from its hinges. I slammed the gate open and rushed through, hoping the piles of discarded toilets, engine blocks, and furniture would keep my pursuer occupied for a few minutes. Or at least enough time for me to disappear down the street. Still, I wasn’t all that convinced I was free and clear of getting shot that night.

Jae would have my damned dick for chigae if I got shot again. He’d all but threatened to skin me if I came home with more holes than I’d left with.

Pookie twisted halfway around in her harness when I broke through and her snapping tiny teeth were hell-bent on piercing my nostrils.

“Come, dog, I’m trying to rescue you here. Give me a fucking break.” I took a few strides forward when a gruff voice screamed at me in a rough Spanish I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know him but judging by his pissed-off face, I guess he owned the lush greenery I’d trampled through. While my Spanish was failing me, I did however understand the semi-automatic he pointed at my face. With only a couple of feet separating us, chances were, even if he was the shittiest shot in the world, I was going to lose my face.

He came up to my upper arm and sported an impressive thatch poking out from under each armpit. The rest of him was shorn clean of hair, with only a whimper of a scrawny mustache over his pierced upper lip. Dressed in the odd combination of bright white socks, flip-flops and long cargo shorts barely hanging onto his skinny hips, his attire was made less laughable by the badly inked off-blue tattoos scrawled over his torso, neck and face.

He was a snarling bantam. The kind of man who really deserved to own Pookie since they seemed to share the same personality. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was pretty sure he would use Ava’s white poof of doom as a silencer for the enormous gun he held in his hand, I’d have handed the mutt over and wished him the best.

But he had other plans. Apparently he didn’t need no stinking silencer, poodle or not.

“I’m a’gonna shoot you, mother….”

Guys always have to talk when they’re trying to shoot you. There are some exceptions. My police partner, Ben, did no talking when he riddled me and my lover, Rick, with bullets from his service piece as we left a restaurant. I’m sure he did plenty of talking at some point. Just not to me. Since he ate his own gun shortly after killing Rick and damning me to a life of nerve-seizing scar tissue, I never did get the chance to ask him why. In the case of the shaven-head, hairy-pit rooster with a handgun masquerading as a cannon, I wasn’t going to stick around to listen to his threats or reasons on why I should let him fill me full of holes.

Besides, there was that promise to Jae that I wouldn’t get shot again, and I had a serious ass-kicking to give Bobby once I found him. It was one thing to jack a friend by leaving him in a club. It’s quite another to ditch him while he was nipple deep in a pot farm after pulling a poodle out of death-row solitary.

Not getting shot seemed like my first priority. However, ass-kicking seemed like it would be more fun.

No one really expects another guy to kick them in the balls. It’s a time-honored agreement between men. Thou shalt not emasculate the cock and scrotum. I, however, never claimed to be a gentleman, so my foot went up and scored a long goal shot down center field.

Then I did the sensible thing.

I ran. Unfortunately for me and Pookie, running seemed to come with a new complication—one of the biggest shepherds I’d ever seen outside of a horror flick.

Sadly, even though my Lilliputian terrorist was writhing on the floor cupping his own goods and I thought I was possibly home free, the large canine had other plans. It was huge, much larger than the ones I’d avoided in the alleyway. I could have stayed and admired it. Sleek and wolfish, the dog was a masterful specimen of whatever hellhound breed it belonged to. It also seemed more than willing to take up the task of riddling me full of holes, using his teeth instead of the mutant ninja pygmy’s gun.

I ran harder.

By no means am I graceful. Not ballet graceful and certainly not the slinky, bend-in-half-backward graceful Jae seems to be able to pull off, but in situations like these, grace hardly mattered. Stamina. I had stamina. I could go rounds with Bobby in a boxing ring, mostly dodging his cement-like fists before they pounded into my body, but still, I had stamina. It was the name of the game, outlasting one’s opponent.

Also speed. That’s never something to laugh at. Speed was key. Whoever said knowledge is half the battle did not have a ’roided up wolf dog chewing on their ass. Knowledge gave me jack shit in this instance. Fucking jack shit.

My heart pounded, and for some reason, the scar tissue along my rib cage decided right then and there it needed to perform an origami maneuver to curl itself into a crane. Or maybe it was a bunny. Either way, it was starting to hurt, and Pookie chose that moment to begin twisting around to break free of the harness.

Sharp teeth on the back of my thigh tore straight through my jeans, giving me further incentive to quicken my pace. My back pocket went next, along with a piece of skin. The ripping pain under the rise of my ass ached more than my side, and I kicked out, breaking my stride long enough to fight the dog off. I heard a yelp and kept running, praying my knees would hold out despite the angry, stabbing pangs kicking up my thighs.

Mister Bald Rooster must have recovered somewhat, because a trash can next to me sparked and shot backward, a smoking black hole through its battered metal walls. Another blast took out a piece of wooden fence, and I ducked, only catching a few of the wooden shards across my neck and face. Pookie screamed her defiance at the dog chasing me, speaking in an ancient Poodle tongue that I’d have liked to imagine insulted its mother and possibly cursed its shriveled dick. Then she bit my chest, scoring a hit through my T-shirt, and I knew she was only egging the dog on to take me down.

A few feet in front of me lay a desert of tarmac, and a tremor of fear tickled my balls. The tight alley broke apart into a double lane of black asphalt, and I’d be out in the open where the dog could maneuver around and circle me. My only hope was to hug the fences along the sidewalk and pray to get hit by a bus or possibly by a falling satellite. I’d take either one since it would mean I’d be taking Pookie with me.

I was a little bitter about the blood trickling down my belly.

My daring escape came to a screeching halt when the street I’d turned down lit up in a dance of red and blue. Slamming to a stop, my hands caught air just as the dog behind me caught up with me. Its teeth found their mark again, digging into my thigh, and I howled, drowning out the cop ordering me to my knees. I recognized Bobby and his truck silhouetted against the patrol cars’ headlights, and from the way his hands were pulled behind his back, he seemed to have a halfway decent enough excuse for not being where I left him.

Rough hands grabbed my shoulders and forced me down, jostling Pookie. She snapped at a cop’s hands, raking her teeth over his fingers. Screaming obscenities at my head, the cop backhanded me like I’d been the one to bite him, and I sensibly fell over. The asphalt grabbed my naked thigh and hip, scraping me raw.

As if auditioning for a talent show, Pookie popped out of the harness like a greased pig, shooting out and landing a few feet away. Barking happily, she squatted in the middle of the road and peed, wagging her tail at the dog who’d been chasing me down the alleyway.

The same dog I’d kicked straight in the head apparently seemed to be wearing an LAPD K-9 unit jacket.

It was still huge, more fur, teeth and muscle than should be allowed on a dog, and he trotted over to sit attentively at another cop’s side, no sign of his previous aggression apparent in his relaxed wiggling as the cop petted him. Within seconds, my arms were twisted behind my back and cuffs were snapped over my wrists before I could protest. A gust of cool wind blasted up the crack of my ass, and I could have sworn the dog’s muzzle curled into a wicked grin as he dropped what looked like pieces of my underwear right at Pookie’s fluffy white feet.

The bitten cop leaned over and spoke, his words a malevolent curdle of a whisper filled with an awe-inspiring disgust I would have admired if I hadn’t been the one on my knees. “What kind of sick fuck steals a little dog?”