Authors: Shannon McKenna
BLOOD AND FIRE
FADE TO MIDNIGHT
BADDEST BAD BOYS
EDGE OF MIDNIGHT
ALL ABOUT MEN
OUT OF CONTROL
RETURN TO ME
STANDING IN THE SHADOWS
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
BAD BOYS NEXT EXIT
I BRAKE FOR BAD BOYS
ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT
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Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, NYC
5:41 A.M. Thursday morning
Nina looked back. Her heart jolted up into her throat.
That car was following her. It wasn’t nerves, or paranoia.
She’d slipped into the all-night supermarket for a few minutes to talk herself down, sip some weak coffee from the deli counter, get over the crawling sense of being stalked. It didn’t seem possible. It was so very obvious that she had nothing worthwhile to steal. She made a point of that. She dressed down to the point of vanishing. She’d made it into a high art.
And yet, that car had parked somewhere and waited for her while she dawdled in the supermarket. And now, it was crawling steadily along behind her once again. A Lincoln Town Car, non-descript beige color. She noted the plate number as her nervous, fast walk quickened into a trot. She wished she hadn’t drunk the nasty coffee. It roiled in her chilled guts like acid slush. She punched 911 into her cell with the useless, scolding rant blaring through her head, how she should have trusted her instincts, stayed in the store, called the police from there, yada yada. No running back to the supermarket now. The car was between her and it, and all the businesses on the street were deserted this early in the morning. Across the street were apartment complexes, lots of shadowy lawn and shrubbery to sprint through.
She’d never get anyone’s attention in time. She couldn’t have picked a worse spot to be at this hour if she tried.
thinking she could walk to work at this hour. Idiot, for agreeing to man the hotline this early in the morning, for not getting the car fixed in time, for not calling a cab.
The engine revved. The car was gaining on her. A squirt of raw panic jolted her even faster, rubber-soled sandaled feet thudding as the 911 operator squawked into her ear. “I’m being followed by a beige Lincoln Town Car,” she panted back into the phone, and gabbled out the plate number. “I’m on Lamson, just turned off Avenue Y—”
The car screeched to a stop right behind her, and a door popped open. “Nina? Nina!”
It was a woman’s voice, thin and shaking. Nina teetered as she twisted to look. Her breath rasped in her chest.
She thumbed the speakerphone button on. As if that could help.
A wraith stumbled out of the backseat and onto the sidewalk.
A woman, older, graying. Skeletal. Bloodshot eyes, sunken into sallow, shadowy pits. Blood dripped from her nose, and from a cut lip. Her clothes hung on her, and her hair was a snarled black-and-gray mess.
The woman lurched closer. “Nina?” Her voice sounded be-seeching.
Nina skittered back, her hackles rising. A feeling was growing, almost like recognition, but not quite. More like dread.
“Excuse me?” she asked cautiously. “Do I know you?”
Tears streamed down over the woman’s sallow, caved-in cheeks. Words burst out of her, in a language Nina did not recognize. And she was coming forward way too fast.
Nina backed up. “How do you know my name?”
Another impassioned outburst, and Nina did not understand a goddamn word of it. She continued backing up. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what you want, but stay away from me,” she said. “Just keep your distance.”
Her back hit the newsstand. The woman came on with unnerving swiftness. Her gibberish had a pleading tone. She grabbed Nina’s phone out of her hand, and clicked at it, still babbling.
“Hey! Give me that!” Nina lunged to get her phone back.
The phone dropped to the ground, spinning, as the woman grabbed her arm, snake-fast. Nina twisted, squirming to get free, but the woman’s icy hand was horribly strong. Her other hand flashed out.
Nina screamed as a hypodermic needle stabbed into her forearm. It burned like a wasp’s sting.
The woman let go. The syringe dropped, rolled into the gutter.
Nina’s back hit the newsstand again, with a jarring thud. She stared into the other woman’s haggard face. Gasping for air, but she had no place to put it. Her lungs were clenched in a huge, cold fist.
Recognition finally kicked in, with a shuddering prickle over her entire body. “Helga,” she croaked. “Oh, God. Helga?”
The woman raised her hands, flapping them in mute apology.
She bent down, and scooped up Nina’s phone.
“What was—wha—why did you do that?” Nina’s voice no longer felt like it came from her own body. It floated, small and tinny and disembodied. “Wha—what the fuck was in that needle?” She tried to sound tough. Hard to do while sliding down a wall, flat onto one’s ass.
Helga’s face hung over her, grotesque with its mask of smeared and dripping blood. She was still talking desperately. A man’s face joined her. Chubby, stubbled, anxious, smelling of cigarettes and beer. The driver of the car. Nina did not recognize him. He was yelling at Helga, in that same unknown language. His raspy voice shook, like he was afraid. Helga was weeping, yelling. Tears mixed with blood.
They slapped her face, yelled her name, but she no longer felt particularly attached to her face, or her name.
Her limp body twisted, flopped. She was being hoisted, dragged. Bundled into the car. Shoved over the slippery leather seat. She smelled cigarettes. Helga slid in beside her, babbling.
Still clutching her phone.
Helga hung over her, pleading. She could not hear, did not care.
She just kept falling.
Alex Aaro strode through the churning mass of humanity on the JFK concourse. Everyone in his path who glimpsed his face scuttled out of his way. The end result was like the parting of the Red Sea.
“No, I don’t have time. No, it’s not convenient,” Aaro growled into his cell phone. “I can’t do what you’re asking of me. I’m busy.”
“What would it cost you?” Bruno’s voice had lost its coaxing tone a while back, and had moved on to righteously pissed-off.
“You’re in New York already. The plane has landed. You’re right there. What’s so hard about a short delay in your personal agenda for the day? Just translate that recording from Nina’s phone.
They think it’s in Ukrainian, but nobody there has gotten around to translating it yet. So you’re up, dude. You’re the one.”
Aaro ground his teeth. “I can’t do it now.”
“I’m looking at a Google map right now. Twenty-five minutes gets you to the hospital. You translate the recording of whatever the needle-stabbing hag said, hang out with Lily’s bestest bud for an hour or so, just keep her company until we can get a guy we trust in place to watch her. When the new guard takes over, you’re out of there. Piece of cake.”
Cake, his hairy ass. Any sort of involvement in the affairs of the McClouds or their associates inevitably turned into a monster goatfuck. It never failed. He’d experienced the phenomenon on several occasions in the past. Davy McCloud had roped him into helping out some years ago, on the basis of their old Army Ranger connection. That crazy adventure had involved a ring of ruthless organ pirates.
And it had been straight downhill from there. One of the latest episodes had resulted in the total firebombed destruction of Aaro’s residence, and all of his motor vehicles. But the worst one had happened about six months before. Bruno was jerking him around because he could. All because of Aaro’s massive fuckup, the one that had practically cost Bruno’s and Lily’s lives. Bruno was flailing him with the lash of guilt.
It worked, too. Aaro hated guilt. It made his guts twitch. And even so, he couldn’t comply, not this time. “I’m busy,” Aaro muttered.
“Busy with what? With fucking
Aaro? Haven’t scored enough cash yet with your cyber-counterattack service? Miles told me you guys were raking it in. Push the lunch meeting with the fat cats up a couple hours! You can stop at the goddamn hospital to help out Lily’s friend! Your balls are big enough, man.
You have the clout.”
“I’m not having lunch. I’m—”
“I don’t care, Aaro. Seriously, Nina’s terrified. She got zapped by a drug that knocked her out, and the crazy bitch that did it is in a coma now, so nobody can say what the junk is. She’s scared.
She needs support. Preferably armed support. It would make us all feel better.”
“You think someone might attack her?”
“Who knows? We don’t know what that woman said to her!
This situation needs you, Alex Aaro, personally and specifically!
Come on, Lily’s beside herself. It’s not good for her to be upset right now.”
“Don’t start,” Aaro snarled. “I wasn’t the one who got your lady friend pregnant. Her delicate hormonal condition is not my problem.”
“Dude. You’re biting my ass. With big yellow fangs.”
“I’m not good at holding hands, Bruno. This is me. You know me. This chick needs a trauma therapist, or a social worker, or—”
a social worker, bonehead!”
Aaro winced. Worse and worse. Social worker. Christ on a crutch.
“Look at it this way.” Bruno’s voice was a nail gun, punching the words in deep. “It’s a babysitting job. You don’t have to be sensitive or touchy-feely. You don’t even have to be polite. Be your own assholic self. Grunt, fart, scratch your balls, I don’t care.
Just translate the recording, and stay in the same room with her.
Davy’s got a guy in Philly who’s on his way. Old army buddy. An hour and twenty, and you’re free. Last favor I’ll ever ask of you, I swear to God.”
I’m racing to the Mercer Street Hospice to say good-bye before my dying aunt croaks.
Nope. He couldn’t say it, even though it was true. Playing the pity card just wasn’t his style. “No,” he said. “Can’t.”
What the hell is so important . . .”
Aaro turned the squawking down to white noise and focused on keeping the guilt-twitches to a minimum. Deep breathing.
Clenched belly. Helped a little. He picked up speed as he neared the baggage claim, anxious to have his bag in his possession. He hated checking weapons into cargo. Being separated from his guns made him more than usually bad-tempered. Knowing that Aunt Tonya was lingering at death’s door made him feel sick.