Deadly Lover (Charlee Allden)
Release Date: 17 April 2015
Publisher: Charlee Allden
Available formats: Epub/Kindle
Price: $5.99 ($0.99 through 21 April; Print book to follow fall 2015)
Lily Rowan stood on the roof of her apartment building. The city spread around her like a menacing maze, a childhood friend whose grown-up face didn’t quite fit her memories. Or maybe it was her that didn’t yet fit.
Her doctors said, give yourself time.
Her therapists said, give yourself time.
Her brother said, give yourself time.
Hell, in the beginning, even her unit director had told her to take some time before going back to her position on the special tactics squad.
Time was up.
One last psych evaluation to prove she could cope with the memories of a training op gone terribly wrong, with the panic attacks that followed, with a job that left no room for hesitation, no room for indecision, no room for fear.
Lily stepped to the roof’s edge—the toes of her boots jutting over the precipice. Standing there, four stories up, wasn’t the dumbest thing she’d ever done. Not even close.
Face your fears.
She owed that bit of advice to her father.
The enormous alloy barrier a dozen blocks east ringed The Zone and kept the Ormney settlement out of view. It might hide away the unfamiliar structures and keep the Ormney sequestered during the night hours, but it couldn’t wall away her memories.
Face your fears.
That’s what she’d been doing when she decided to live in The Mixer—so close to The Zone and one of a handful of places where Ormney and Earth natives worked side-by-side.
Face your fears.
Her brother’s voice in her ear jerked her out of her thoughts. She traced a finger over the slender com-link wrapped over her right lobe. The missed call signal flashed in one corner of her com-lens.
Her love for her brother gave her the will to push a little cheer into her voice. “You’re supposed to wait for me to answer the call.”
Brian chuckled. “What good is it to be a hacker if you can’t use the skills when your sister is being a pain?”
A grin tugged at her cheeks as she stepped back from the edge. “You’re not a hacker. You’re an electronic security expert. There’s supposed to be a difference.”
“Yeah, yeah. And you’re supposed to be easier to reach now that you’re on medical leave.”
The message indicator still blinked urgent—code STU. Special Tactics Unit. Deepwater. Her employer. And it could only be about her appointment. She let the message scroll across her com-lens as text.
“Oh damn. Bri, I promise I’m not trying to avoid you, but I’ve got to go.” She ran through her mental checklist for anything she might need then engaged her apartment security remotely. “They just changed my evaluation appointment and now I’m late.”
“Don’t sound so worried, Lil. You’re going to do fine.”
“Love you, baby brother.” Lily disconnected the call and jogged across the catwalk stretching across the narrow alley between the buildings. If she kept to the rooftops, she could make it to the glide-rail station faster than if she went down to the ground.
Halfway across the second catwalk she heard the scream.
She froze. Unable to move.
For three sickening seconds she stood on the narrow walkway, trembling, trapped in memories of blood and pain and death.
The last time she’d heard a voice that full of agony she’d been the one doing the screaming. But that was in the past. After months of rehab and hard work she’d learned to push through the fear, use the adrenalin.
She sucked in a breath, held it, then started the measured breathing she’d been taught.
Another scream tumbled from a broken window on the third floor of the next building—this one mixed with the shouts and crashing thuds of a herd of wildebeest trapped in a balsa wood room. Her brain screamed in protest when she tried for a better explanation of the sound that crackled across her nerves, fueling her memories and raising goose bumps along her flesh.
Lily activated her multi-com and linked to the emergency response net. A cool artificial voice responded. “State the nature of your emergency.”
“A woman screaming. Being attacked.” It didn’t say enough, but no more words bubbled up.
“Acknowledged. JAX Metro Domestic Dispute Resolution and Medical Emergency Units en route.” Emotionless, efficient, cold. “Please stay clear of the area. Estimated time to scene is ten minutes.”
Too long. Her heart gave a thud. Far too long.
Lily sprinted across the catwalk and headed for the building’s rooftop entrance. Already reaching for the mini-pulser in the pocket of her well-worn leather coat, she wished for something with range and accepted that she was going to miss her fitness evaluation. Whatever coil of fate had caused the psych team to change her appointment at the last minute had made the testing redundant. Fit or not, she was it. “Inform Metro units, off-duty civilian contractor on scene. Deepwater International ID Tango-Lima-One-One-Three.”
She yanked open the door and pounded down the stairwell. As she got to the third floor landing, Lily shouted out a warning to clear a path as she hugged the wall and eased into the hallway, filled with residents headed for the stairs. She stopped at the first corner and listened. A guttural growl rumbled from somewhere around the corner. A resounding thunk and a hoarse groan followed close behind. Different victim. This one sounded male and hurt, but not yet dying.
Wrapping her hand firmly around the slim cylinder of her pulser, she crept around the edge, hugging the corner. A woman leaned against the bare polyplast wall, blood dripping from her busted lip. Crimson streaks splashed across her lemon yellow jumpsuit.
Lily met the woman’s eyes briefly before edging past her.
“He’s a stringer,” the woman warned, her words liquid with her own blood.
Shock hit Lily like a blow, low to her belly. A stringer. An Ormney.
A holo-perfect image of Kiq, the first Ormney she’d ever met, flashed through her thoughts. His tall, broad frame towering over her, his features almost human. Almost. His Ormney eyes nearly hidden in the striped bands of his face. Elliptical pupils wide, eyes wild. Claws razor sharp and slashing.
She couldn’t get air past the crushing band of panic that tightened around her chest. Lily fought past the fright, past the memories, past the fear. Fear of the damage an Ormney could inflict. Fear of freezing up and being less than she’d once been. Fear of facing Kiq’s dead eyes again.
“Stop, couyon! You killin’ her.” The voice, angry and desperate, jolted Lily back to the present danger.
She needed to think. She knew as much about Ormney abilities as any Earth native. She licked her suddenly dry lips, keyed in the safety override on her pulser, and boosted the power.
A man, early twenties, chest and feet bare, sprawled across the hallway floor in the shadows at the end of the hall. The flesh of his arms was shredded. He struggled to get his feet under him, to stand, but one leg lay limp and useless. His efforts smeared the bare plastile floor with blood.
Lily forced her own legs to carry her forward, pushing into a jog and picking her way around the injured man. She lunged into the room—an efficiency with no cover, no other way out, nowhere to hide. The Ormney stood steps away, his back to the door. A thick mane of hair bushed wildly around his head. He stooped over a still figure stretched across a multi-platform bed. One arm hung low as if the chore of his grim work had fatigued him. His clawed hands dripped with blood. Angry red streaks painted the room as he struck the woman again.
Lily’s muscles burned with the need to run.
She couldn’t. She was stronger than that.
Ignore the blood. Ignore the woman. Focus on the threat.
With his Ormney physiology, a stun pulse from across the room would never take him down. She strode forward and reached for the center of his broad back, but he was already turning. She adjusted her angle, going lower to avoid his shoulder as he spun around.
She discharged the pulser, but the Ormney managed to slip toward out-of-sync. He blurred into a hazy ghost-like image, but he didn’t disappear completely. Something made him think better of attempting the slipin the too small space.
He snapped back to in-sync before the charge had fully dissipated, catching only a fraction of the effect and leaving him strong enough to take a swing at her. Instinct overrode training and she put an arm up to block him. The scratch of his claws against the leather of her coat wound her tighter as the force of the blow knocked her off her feet.
She braced for his attack, for debilitating pain, but the massive male went for the open window. He crashed through the too-small gap, smashing the frame, heedless of the scrape of mangled metal against his thick Ormney hide.
Lily grabbed for the edge of the platform bed and pulled herself up, trying to ignore the wet, sticky gore beneath her palm.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Her breath shuttered as she batted her bloody hand against her pants leg. She spared only a glance for the woman lying in the dead center of the room, silent and broken. She wasn’t moving and her still form was drenched in blood. It coated her ruined flesh, soaked the carpet, arced across the walls. Not good. Not good at all.
Lily headed for the window and leaned carefully through the battered frame. The Ormney had made it a block down the alley. She had little hope of catching him, but she could keep him in sight. Make sure Metro would have a chance of catching the bastard.
She shoved the pulser into her pocket, climbed through, and reached for the emergency glide-pole. She stepped off the ledge then activated the glide. The aging mechanism clattered against the building as it dropped her in a controlled fall.
Seconds later her feet hit the ground. The jarring impact radiated upward, forcing the air out of her lungs. Momentarily unable to breathe, she forced herself into a protective crouch. An angry roar jerked her attention to the end of the alley. The Ormney swung around and headed back toward her. His bellow died abruptly as he blurred, then disappeared.
She hadn’t anticipated that.
Why would he run, then come back at her?
Damn his Ormney hearing. A human would never have heard her on the glide from that distance.
Lily shoved to her feet and sprinted. Kiq had taught her that any slip followed a pattern with a semi-predictable set of outcomes. While the bastard could reappear anywhere, there were three most likely positions. She chose instinctively, stopping an arm’s reach from where—if she’d chosen right—he’d reappear.
A subtle disturbance rippled in the air in front of her. Lily tightened her fingers on the pulser’s trigger pad. As the Ormney slipped back to in-sync he got the full force of the charge. His body jerked, and his bowels released, sending a foul odor wafting from him. Somehow he managed to maintain some muscle control. He struck her hard, throwing her against the alley wall. The impact robbed Lily of her senses. Her knees crumpled. She landed hard on the pavement. The certainty that she would die if she didn’t get a second charge off formed in her thoughts as everything around her dimmed.
She wasn’t dying. Not today. Lily tapped every scrap of strength left in her body and thrust the pulser out in front of her. He slammed into her. Her arm buckled.
He was too close.
His smothering weight forced the pulser too close to her own body.
No way to avoid getting transfer from the pulse.
She gripped the weapon tight and braced for the jolt as she squeezed the trigger pad.
Lightning flashed through her, setting fire to her nerve endings. The world outside her body ceased to exist. A moment later it snapped back in place with a flash of agony.
She blinked hard, trying to focus. Where was he? She could no longer feel the weight of him crushing her down. She struggled to sit up, dull pain lashing her senses. The hum in her ears made her want to shake her head. She knew from experience that would be a bad move. When her vision cleared, the Ormney lay in front of her in an unmoving heap.
The welcome shrill of sirens ringing down the alley drove Lily to her feet to wait for Metro. She kept her breath shallow determined to push away the ache in her ribs.
She couldn’t push away the consequences of her actions so easily. Lily looked down at the body.
No longer a threat.
She studied the faint pattern of light and dark bands decorating the Ormney’s face and decided he was fully mature, middle aged even.
Six months ago she hadn’t known those patterns were unique to each individual Ormney or that the bands faded with maturity. Six months ago she hadn’t known how to counter their ability to slip. Six months ago she hadn’t known the agony of those claws dig into the soft flesh beneath her ribs, carving out a path to her vital organs.
Kiq had taught her well. This time she knew. And this time she hadn’t hesitated to go for the kill.
* * *
The rush. He gloried in it. The sweet, addictive pleasure. So…unexpected.
He studied the alley below, admiring his handy work. This kill had been necessarily hands-off. A means to an end.
He’d been prepared to accept the lesser gratification of a well-executed plan. She had been meant to serve a purpose. With her family connections to the police and her personal history with one of the animals, she’d been meant only to be a witness. Someone to help the idiot Metro cops see his brilliance—the service he was doing for the community. They needed to wake up and see what was happening behind closed doors.
He rolled his shoulders to shake off the anger. How could they be so oblivious?
In the alley below she moved, tried to straighten, then stilled. He could see pain etched on her face. A weighty pleasure settled in his chest as he remembered the thud of her slim body hitting the wall. The sound reminded him of the day he’d been strong enough to throw a rat against the wall with enough force to smash its filthy head. But the Ormney animal’s blow hadn’t broken her. No, she’d surprised him. Not the uninteresting girl he remembered. Not merely the damaged woman he’d expected.
No. She was exquisite.
Strong. Fierce. Pale and blonde with haunted green eyes, subtly pretty. He pressed a hand to the cool glass, wanting to touch her creamy skin.
No, he didn’t mind sharing the kill with her. She’d brought down the big ugly animal with nothing but a pulser. She’d done it where he’d been able to see every glorious detail. With the others, he’d had to let his kill go off to meet its inescapable fate alone. But she’d brought the animal down, right there, in plain sight.
He envied her the freedom to kill out in the open. But his way was more of a challenge. She’d never be able to match his cleverness. Last time, the cops hadn’t been able to understand his kills, let alone trace them back to him.
She might not be as clever as him, but she was smarter than the cops. She’d figure out exactly what he wanted her to know and no more.
She was perfect in every respect. Perfect because he’d made her what she was. And he deserved perfection.
He deserved her.
Facing off with her cousin across a dead body was not exactly the best way for Lily to reconnect with the O’Leary side of her family. Even before Metro had set up the bright mobile lights in the narrow alley, she’d had no trouble seeing the distance in Sean’s familiar green eyes. When he’d assigned Officer Newman to question her, she hadn’t expected he’d let her return to the alley. She’d been wrong.
Now, she stood out of the way and watched Sean work the scene. She’d heard he was a good cop, a good detective, but she’d never seen him on the job before. She soaked up the sight of her kin. He looked so much like her memories of her dad that it hurt to look at him. It hurt, but she craved the sweet pain.
Lily smiled grimly. Sean would make Captain soon. He took in everything and his body language broadcast calm discipline as he instructed the patrol officers and evidence technicians. Experience and responsibility sat easily on his shoulders.
One of the med units had already transported the female victim. Lily had heard them come and go, grateful to be in the alley. She didn’t want to see the victim. To remember herself torn and bleeding.
“Lily?” Sean’s voice jerked her back to the present. Eyebrows raised, he waited for the answer to a question she hadn’t heard. That he expected her to answer was a welcome bridge across the expanse between them.
The Deepwater duty officer had already been on her com-link, ordering her to avoid the local authorities and get clear of the scene as quickly as possible. But this time she couldn’t avoid them. Metro employed way too many members of her family. Might as well get the questions over with and on the record.
Sean stepped closer and leaned in, subtly blocking her from the view of the officers and techs. “You sure you don’t need the medics?”
She probably did. The pain in her lower back throbbed and she’d had enough concussions to know what her dizziness and nausea meant, but she could get medical aid on her own when this business was done and there weren’t a dozen cop eyes watching. “You have no idea how sick I am of being poked and prodded,” she said.
“I heard you were in some kind of training accident.” His back to the others, he let his concern show on his face, but he kept his tone light and casual. “That’s what the military says when the incident is black ops.”
Lily clenched one fist behind her back and straightened her posture. “I’m not military,” she reassured. “It really was a training accident.” Fatigue and pain ate at her, but she kept her breathing shallow and even, avoiding the sharper stab of what might well be broken ribs. Despite her injuroes, she hadn’t reached her body’s limits. She could and would push through.
Sean hesitated then slipped back into his cop face. “I hadn’t heard you were in town. Are you on the job here?”
Her family knew she worked for Deepwater, but they had no idea she’d been in the Special Tactics Unit. If she’d been on assignment with CTU she’d have been a ghost. No way would she have used her ID on a public com-link.
Lily shook her head. “I haven’t been cleared for duty. I was on the way to an evaluation appointment when I heard the scream.”
Eyebrows a shade darker than his cropped blond hair drew together. “Your appointment was in The Mixer?”
The disapproval dripping from his question was of the protective relative type and it hit Lily with a double-edged punch. She didn’t like the idea that she might have done something to put more distance between them, but it was nice to know she wasn’t already off the map.
“No.” Lily kept her answer brief by rote. “The appointment was downtown at the regional office.”
Sean let her statement hang in the space between them, letting silence ask for more than she wanted to give. He was good, but she knew all the interrogation techniques and how to resist them. Still, she wasn’t on the job here. This was Sean.
And she was tired.
“I was on my way to the Clinton Street rail station.” Lily took a moment to breathe and brace for his reaction. “I have an apartment a few blocks down.”
“Shit, Lily. An apartment? How long…?” He fired the questions at her like bullets then stopped, putting up a hand. “No, wait. Don’t answer that. I want plausible deniability when Mom finds out you’ve been living in town without coming to see her.” Sean shook his head and met her gaze directly. “Damn, Lily, you sure know how to pick a neighborhood.”
Lily shrugged. She had no intention of trying to explain her reasons for being back in the city or what had drawn her to The Mixer—a neighborhood plagued by street gangs, home to the good folks too poor to move up or out, and the one neighborhood where Earthers and Ormney mixed on a daily basis.
Sean hesitated. “We thought you were staying up in DC with your mom.”
Lily shook her head, then fought down the resulting wave of nausea. She tried to keep her tone light. “She hasn’t forgiven me for my career choices, Brian has roommates, and no way would I stay with Rose and Bradley.”
“Yeah, Bradley’s been in town a lot lately, I thought maybe he was here…”
Sean nodded. By any rights, when her longtime boyfriend dumped her, he should have been given the cold shoulder by the whole O’Leary clan. But Bradley Rubiero had married her twin sister and that made him part of the family. What choice did any of them have?
Lily didn’t need to go there. She didn’t want a distraction from what she’d done badly enough to pull out that old pain. Besides, the dead man lying in the alley couldn’t be ignored for long. She brushed past Sean and the techs to stand closer to the corpse.
Sean followed. Signaling the others to clear the area, he stood by her side. “Do you want to add anything to the statement you gave Officer Newman?”
Lily squatted next to the body, thinking. “Yeah. There was something off about his behavior.”
“You mean other than him ripping up an unarmed woman?” There was no humor in the question.
“Yeah.” She remembered the Ormney’s eyes. They’d been wild. Like Kiq’s had been that day. Wild, then empty and dead. But she couldn’t tell Sean about that. “He ran when he should’ve fought. Fought when he should’ve run.” She met Sean’s intent stare. “Have them check him for chemical influence.”
“Street drugs don’t work on stringers the way they do on us.” He used the street slur for the Ormney without any apparent malice. Maybe he didn’t realize the disrespect of using it while crouched over the corpse.
“No,” Lily agreed. “Not street drugs.”
Lily weighed the backlash she’d weather for what she needed to tell him. It didn’t measure up to the dead man at her feet. “There are things that mess them up. I’ll get you a list.”
* * *
Jolaj stopped in the shadows just inside the alley and watched the two Earthers crouched over Lanyak’s body. He’d met Detective Sean O’Leary several times and judged the man to be honorable and fair, but trapped by the strictures of a system that was seldom fair to the Ormney people. The woman did not wear Metro ID, but she seemed at ease with the detective. Their knees brushed against each other as they talked and leaned into one another like allies.
Her slim legs were encased in denim but her hips were hidden by an ill-fitting black leather coat that hung low to the curve of her bottom. It did nothing, however, to hide the swell of her breasts. Her wrists and neck were almost delicate in their thinness—cream skin wrapped over bone and sinew. Her hair lay in silken sheets against her head, ending in a knot at her neck. Her frowning lips were wide and full. Her eyes, a piercing green, shone with sharp intelligence.
As they pushed to stand and stepped around his dead friend, he noticed the stiffness of her movements. Barely discernable, but clear in the careful way she breathed, the rigidity of her posture, the subtle hesitation before each move. His hunter’s instincts screamed she was either weak prey or injured pack to be protected—instincts better suited to survival on a primitive planet. It was what his people had expected when they’d left behind their dying world in search of a new home. They’d planned and worked, sacrificed and engineered themselves to give their descendants the best chance of coming into being.
Now any chance for Lanyak’s descendants was lost. They would never be born. Never exist. The ache of the loss touched a familiar cord and roused a grief that had become thick and layered like an earthy strata of rock and silt.
Lanyak lay dead in an alley, and Jolaj had to find a way to keep the others who’d made the same choice from coming to the same fate.