Authors: Tara Janzen
Thirty yards and closing, twenty yards, ten yards and he caught her scent, picking it out of the thousands in the air, exotic, sensual, female, and, yes, feral—a kindred spirit. He couldn’t take his eyes off her, and the smallest smile curved a corner of his mouth.
Five yards and something shifted in her stride, a hesitation. Her next step came slower, and then she stopped, her mouth opening on a soft gasp. She was looking straight at him. He could feel her gaze, felt her awareness of him spike and redline. He was scarred—on his face, on his arms, his hands, his chest—hell, everywhere—but
it wasn’t horror reaching out to him from her. It was something … something … something else.
Something he hadn’t felt in a long time.
She reached up, lowered her sunglasses, and took a step closer as he started to pass, nearly brushing against him, her other hand lifting ever so slightly, as if she might touch him, but all he felt was the intensity of her pale green-eyed gaze, the heat of it holding him captive for the brief moment of their encounter.
He kept moving, kept heading toward the Quick Mart. But for the space of a breath, the street disappeared, the people, the buildings, the cars, and all he could see was her face, the angles and curves, the slight dusting of freckles and the small white scar across the bridge of her nose, another scar across her left cheekbone, the sheer wild beauty of golden skin with the wind blowing her dark hair across it like a veil. She was mystery and enthrallment. She was unexpected.
She was trouble, but easily avoidable. All he had to do was keep walking, and he did.
His pulse was racing, though—not a good sign. He never lacked for women, but there had never been anyone like this urban jungle girl, not on any street in the world, a chance encounter that set off a dangerous mix of lust and warning bells. She’d broken his concentration, and he hadn’t thought that was possible. His concentration had not faltered in six years, not since the day he’d woken up, and always it was focused on the mission.
He glanced back, and she was still standing in the middle of the sidewalk, watching him.
Trouble—that’s what she was, and he didn’t need it. He was in Denver to get Scout, not to get laid.
Forcing his attention away from her, he continued south on Wazee Street and ignored the siren call he felt
running through his veins—that maybe, just maybe, with the right timing, the right circumstances, the city girl could be his.
But probably not. If all went as he and Jack had planned, they’d be out of Denver by midnight, but he wouldn’t forget her scent. It had melted into him, a gift to be treasured.
After pulling a ball cap out of his coat pocket, he snugged it down on his head, slipped a pair of sunglasses on his face, and lengthened his strides, focusing back on the mission. He’d timed the route to the convenience store and knew exactly how many minutes he had—plenty to do what needed to be done.
Half a block from the Quick Mart, he could see the Challenger in the small parking lot crammed between the store and an old, rundown hotel, which meant weak-link Cherie was still inside buying candy and cigarettes. She used the street lot every day, but Con’s favorite downtown parking was the high-rise garage catty-corner from the store. He liked it so much, he’d spent an hour in it last night, rigging a smoke bomb at the entrance and putting it on a radio signal controller.
The setup wasn’t overly dramatic, just enough to get people’s attention, especially the attention of whatever guy was sitting at a certain outside table at the restaurant opposite the garage. A man had been there every day when Cherie pulled up, a different guy each day, and twenty minutes after she headed back to Steele Street, each one of those guys had gotten up and left.
They were surveillance, and when Con spotted today’s observer, he conceded that the man was just as good, just as subtle as every other guy who’d been keeping the same schedule at that table, but they were all watchers, and what they were watching was Cherie and the Challenger. From the outside table where they’d all sat, they had a perfect line of sight to the store and the car, but
today’s guy was going to have to turn his head to see what was happening at the parking garage.
And he would turn his head. The smoke, with the added distraction of the scent Con had packaged with the “bomb,” guaranteed it. A couple of seconds, that’s all he needed.
Coming up on the parking lot, he saw Cherie walk out of the store, and he timed his approach to be just ahead of hers. He had his hands in his pockets and the radio signal controller in one of his hands. At a precisely calculated moment, he flipped the switch and turned toward the Challenger parked three cars in from the sidewalk. He heard the small ripple of commotion when people saw the billow of smoke come out of the garage entrance, felt a spike of fear run through the crowd, and knew a fair percentage of them had flashed on 9/11 and the World Trade Center. He saw Cherie look back over her shoulder to see what was happening, and he didn’t hesitate. Stepping up to the rear of the Challenger, a lockpick in his hand, he popped the trunk. Up ahead on the sidewalk, a couple people quickly complained with an “ohmigod, can you smell that” while they were all trying to figure out just how frightened they needed to be. By the time they’d finished grousing, he’d climbed inside the trunk and pulled the lid closed on top of himself. The whole operation took less than five seconds. By then, the smoke and the smell were gone, and the crowd was curious but starting to feel relieved. It was a nonevent—except that people had noticed, and the man at the restaurant would have noticed. Guys like him were trained to see the forest
the trees. He would have looked.
Inside the Challenger, the trunk space was a little on the shy side, but not unpleasantly so. Con had been in worse places, smaller spaces, all of them in the Bangkok prison laboratory of the long-dead, never-missed,
demented Dr. Souk. He didn’t remember much of anything before awakening in one of Souk’s cells, but he did know he hadn’t been in many places that smelled like baby powder.
—what the hell? he wondered. He knew from the car’s badges and the sound that the Challenger had header extensions and a 426 cid Hemi under the hood, a power plant with the well-earned nickname of King Kong, the biggest production engine ever to come off a line in Detroit. Nothing about the 1971 Mopar street machine said “baby powder,” but that was exactly what it smelled like in the trunk.
He sniffed the air again, then reached toward the front right corner and found a diaper bag. He’d never actually seen a diaper bag, but he’d heard about them, and he knew this soft, padded cotton satchel he’d found was one, because it had diapers in it, and baby powder, and lotion, and wipes.
That set him back a bit.
The Challenger, one of the toughest, meanest, most unbeatable pieces of Mopar muscle to ever hit the streets, was a family car.
He didn’t see much of that in his line of work, families. He and Scout had cobbled together a family of sorts, but he never fooled himself into thinking he could ever take the place of her real father. He’d kept her safe, and kept her out of trouble as best he could, and so far, in a battle he knew he was bound to lose, he’d kept her out of Jack Traeger’s bed. The pirate had come far more than six thousand miles to get her back, though, and this time Con figured Jack had come to take her for good.
He’d barely set the bag back in the corner when, just like clockwork, the car door was opened and Cherie the computer tech got back inside. He felt the slight shift of her weight and knew she was lighting a cigarette before she started the engine. When she turned the key, the
Challenger came to life, and it was a beast, just like him, all rumble and roar with that badass 426 Hemi under the hood. The chassis rocked with the power she was feeding it through the gas pedal, and then, with a lurch, she pulled out of the lot and into traffic and they were heading back to Steele Street.
Jane Linden walked quickly toward 738 Steele Street, breaking into a run every few steps, her zebra bag clutched close to her chest, her prize inside.
Good God Almighty
. Her heart was pounding.
J.T., J.T., J.T.
, the name ran through her mind.
Here. In Denver … alive. My God
Or maybe she was wrong—but that man on the street,
She knew J. T. Chronopolous. She knew the clean, lean lines of his face, the deep-set eyes, the thick, straight eyebrows, the hint of dimples when he grinned. She knew he’d been one of the original chop shop boys, a juvenile car thief of superlative skills and intensely delinquent tendencies back in the day. She knew he’d gone on to become a Recon Marine and that he’d come back to Denver to work with his friends out of the old garage on Steele Street.
And she knew he’d caught her red-handed one night, trying to steal his buddy’s wallet.
She could count on one finger the number of times she’d missed a score, and he’d been it, snatching her up by the scruff of her neck and hoodie in the middle of her lift and handing her off to the guy whose pocket she’d just picked.
A wild thing, that’s what he’d called her that night in
front of the Blue Iguana Lounge, while he’d pried Christian Hawkins’s wallet out of her fist, as in: “
Here’s your wallet back, Superman. I think this wild thing is all yours. Better run her by Doc Blake before you throw her back on the street. She looks a little worse for wear.
She had been worse for wear that night, hungry and roughed up, her body aching from a run-in with a junkie over on Blake Street. Still, she’d squirmed and twisted and tried to break his hold—and all the while she’d been wondering what in the hell had made her think these guys would make good marks. They’d both looked like some kind of superhero. J.T. had been especially incredibly beautiful, a real traffic-stopper, clean cut, tall, and superbly fit, his shoulders broad, his arms strong, with a bone-deep confidence radiating out of every pore that had set her heart aflutter—and that’s what she’d been thinking, how hot he was, instead of paying attention to the lift.
Then he’d really short-circuited her brain, looking down at her after he’d handed her off, still grinning. She’d been struck straight through the heart. Their eyes had met, his smile had faded, and she’d never been the same, not ever, not even now. He’d changed her, even though a guy like him wouldn’t have looked twice at a street rat like her, not back when she’d been picking pockets. Unless, she’d found out weeks later, if a night got so wild that even the good guys started crossing the lines.
He’d crossed the line with her.
Much to her everlasting mortification, she did know that much about him. But the most important thing she knew about J. T. Chronopolous, the hard thing, the worst thing, was that he’d died. They’d buried him six years ago on a summer afternoon in a cemetery in Denver. She’d been one of the hangers-on that day, just a street kid in the background, not really part of the
mourning that had gone on. But she’d felt the grief, hard and heavy and aching, right along with his friends.
, she’d cried for him, for things that had never had a chance in hell of really beginning, let alone lasting.
She stopped at the corner and looked back, but he was gone—
J.T., John Thomas Chronopolous, Kid Chaos’s older brother, the best of them all
He’d told her once how much he’d loved being a Marine, but he’d loved his friends more, and when they’d asked him to come home, he’d left Recon behind. He’d told her a lot of things during the long, hot summer of their unexpected friendship. The city had been scorching that year, the temperatures soaring close to a hundred for days on end, the nights little better. So she’d taken to the rooftops, and one night, so had he …
What a score!
Jane ran down the street for another half block, legs pumping, before turning into an alley off Wazee, a plastic bag full of Chinese takeout swinging from her fist. The food was still hot and had barely been paid for when some hapless old dude with a limp had set it down to unlock his car
Fool. She’d slid by him and scored an amazing dinner. She could still hear him back there yelling for the cops, but she was long gone—and so was his meal
She slowed to an easy alley-eating lope, and her mouth curved into a wide grin
Gourmet Chinese, from the coolest new restaurant in LoDo, a place called the Lucky Moon. If she’d had a cellphone, she would have called her friend Sandman to come and share
Partway down the alley, she took a right turn into the parking lot of Sprechts Apartments, one of lower downtown’s pricier addresses. Every apartment had a balcony, and the people who lived at Sprechts were the kind
who grew gardens on them and had lots of plants, even trees. Sometimes the Sprechts people would sit around on their balconies and drink wine. More than once, she’d scored a half-empty bottle in the wee hours when the city was asleep. But the nicest thing about Sprechts was the roof—specifically, its location
She came to the fire escape and started up, moving quickly and silently, her steps as light as her fingers were fast. It was five floors to the roof, but she would have climbed twice as high to get the view she wanted—the alley at 738 Steele Street and the undying long-shot hope that the hot guy who’d busted her boost two weeks ago would show up tonight
It was a little silly, and fun, and kind of comforting to have such a crazy crush on a guy. In this one way, at least, she was like all the other teenage girls in the city, the normal ones. None of them could have cruised the dark alleys of Denver or stolen their dinner off the street, and she doubted if very many of them had ever been on the rooftops. But they had crushes on hot guys, and so did she—the hottest guy ever