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"You sure it's him, Liv?" Booker swiped one hand over his sweaty, stubbly face as we stared at the lit window on the third floor. The apartment building was long and plain, like a cracker box on its side, and the moonless night only smeared the sides of the featureless building into the ambient darkness.
I nodded, shoving both coldchapped hands into my jacket pockets. It was warm for early March, but still cold for me.
I closed my eyes and clutched the bloodstiffened swatch of cloth in my right pocket, inhaling deeply through my nose, and the world exploded into a bouquet of scents. Relying on years of training, I sorted through them rapidly, mentally tossing aside those I couldn't use. The metal tang of several huge trash bins. The chemical bite of Booker's cologne. And the pervasive, ambient smells of life east of the rivermotor oil, fried food, and sweat.
What was left, with those more obvious smells out of the way, was the trail I'd followed all over town, as much a feel as a true scent, and a virtual match to the blood sample in my pocket.
I am a Tracker. More specificallyand colloquiallyI'm a bloodhound. Given a decent, recent sample of your blood, I can find you no matter where you hide. Officially, my range is about eighty mileson the high end of average. Unofficially
well, let's just say I'm good at what I do. But not too good. Too much Skill will get you noticed. And I know better than to get noticed.
Booker cleared his throat and I opened my eyes to find myself staring up at the lit window againthe only tenant still awake. "Ninetyfive percent. It's either him, or a close male relative, and that's the best you're gonna get with a dry blood sample," I said, as water dripped from a gutter somewhere to my left. "Tell Rawlinson I'll send him a bill."
Booker pulled his black ski cap over his ears. "He's not gonna like that,"
"I don't give a shit what he likes." I turned and walked back the way I'd come, listening as my steeltoed work boots echoed in the alley. I was exhausted and pissed off from being woken at two on a Friday morning, yet still pleased for the excuse to charge nearly double my usual rate. Office space in the south fork doesn't come cheap.
"Warren!" a deep voice barked from behind me, and I groaned beneath my breath. I turned slowly to see Adam Rawlinson step out from behind a rusty Dumpster, his dark hair, skin, and expensive wool coat blending into the thick shadows. No telling how long he'd been there. Watching. Listening.
Travelersshadowwalkerswere notorious for shit like that. They can step into a shadow in their own homes and step out of another shadow across town a splitsecond later. You never know they're coming until they're already there. It's a convenient Skillexcept when it's annoying as hell.
"Hey, Adam. Kinda late for a stroll, isn't it?" Especially considering that his home address was at least two tax brackets above the innercity grime now clinging to the soles of his dress shoes. "What? You don't trust me?"
Rawlinson scowled, his frown exaggerated by deep shadows. "Ninetyfive percent isn't good enough, Liv."
I shrugged, my arms crossed over my dark jacket. "You're not going to get a hundred percent certainty without a better blood sample or his full name to flesh out the scent."
He nodded; I wasn't telling him anything new. "But you'd know for sure if you had a current sample to compare it to, right? Something fresh?"
"I don't get my hands dirty anymore. You know that." I follow the blood scent, and I can Track by name if I have to. But that's where my job endsno reason for me to be there when the action starts. My life was messy enough without adding blood spatter.
"Booker's here for the takedown. I just need you to get close enough for a positive ID," Rawlinson insisted. "We don't know his name, and we're not going to get a better blood sample. I played hell getting that one out of the evidence room as it is. This is personal, Liv."
Damn it. Booker was working without a partner and Adam Rawlinson had come out to see the show. This one was off the books. "Is this about Alisha?" Rawlinson's daughter had been killed in a carjacking the week before. He'd shown up for work the next day like nothing had happened. Like her death meant nothing to him.
Here was proof to the contrary. I was almost relieved.
His gaze never wavered. "The cops had a near miss, and one of them winged the bastard last night. The sample's from the passenger's seat he bled all over."
I exhaled, watching him closely. "Why do I get the feeling you're not going to turn this asshole in?" Rawlinson's operation had a rocksolid reputation. Official bountyhunting in cooperation with bail bondsmen and the proper authorities, all on the upandup. He would turn in the target, collect a check for freelance services from the city, then pay the rest of his crew. Which used to include me.
But this time
"Because you're a very smart girl." He started walking toward the building, and I followed reluctantly. "You know, I'd love to have you back on the crew full time."
"That's because your new Tracker couldn't find his own dick in the dark." I hesitated, and the night was quiet, but for our footsteps on cracked asphalt. "You know better than to start shit east of the river without a work order, Adam. What if someone sees you?"
"That's why you're here." He met my gaze, and I had to respect his honesty, even if it pissed me off. "Everyone knows you're working for Ruben Cavazos, so no one will think to report this, if you're with us."
"I work for myself!" And myself had to pay rent on a shitty apartment and a tiny office, repairs on a car saddled with more used parts than Frankenstein's monster, and interest and principle on student loans for a degree I'd never once put to use. "I freelance for Cavazos just like I freelance for you." And everyone knew that black hats paid better than white knights. "Having me with you isn't going to keep your feet cool while you walk through flames, Adam. You need to let the police handle this."
"We both know there's nothing they can do."
But that wasn't true. They could do plentybut they wouldn't. Not as long as the courts refused to recognize Tracking as a legal form of identification and discovery. The world knew about usthe Skilled had been dragged into the spotlight almost thirty years agobut the government had yet to officially recognize our existence. We were the biggest open secret in history. We had no rights and no protection under the law, beyond those afforded us as naturalborn citizens.
What that meant in legal circles was that no government office could officially hire Binders to draft or seal contracts. Nor could they use evidence gathered via Trackers, like me. Everything involving the dozen or so Skilled abilities had to be unofficial consultations and contract work. And completely off the books.
What that meant in criminal circles was the gradual formation of the single most profitableand ruthless black market system in history. Because the government didn't officially recognize our Skills, they couldn't regulate or police them, which left a huge gap at the top of the power pyramid. A gap that had been filled by various Skilled crime syndicates across the world, but most notablyand locallyby rival black market kingpins Jake Tower and Ruben Cavazos, whotogethercontrolled more than two thirds of the city.
Think of my city like a giant peace sign, divided by the river. Everything east of the river is controlled by Cavazos, everything west of the river by Tower. And on the south side, cradled by the fork in the river, you can live, eat, and breathe without lining the pockets of either organizationbut you'll do it at a much higher price, because those in the know who can will pay to avoid picking a side.
"Okay, look. Now that you've found him, you should just watch him until he makes a mistake, then go after him legally. Stick to what you're good at, Adam. Anything else would just be dripping blood into the shark tank."
"Wait for him to make a mistake?" Rawlinson demanded softly, and I nodded, already feeling guilty for the suggestion. "How long will that take, if it even happens? Coming in here once, with you, to take care of businessthat's one thing. But if we loiter, just waiting for this bastard to commit another crime
Well, that's just not an option on the east side, is it?" His gaze pled with me, and I resisted the overwhelming urge to stare at the ground. "She was my daughter, Warren," Rawlinson said, and the rare glimpse of his raw pain, made me groan on the inside, even as I spoke the question I shouldn't have asked.
"What do you want me to do? Go in and prick his finger?" My hand clenched around the stiff cloth in my pocket.
"I don't care how you ID him. Just get close enough to tell for sure, and we'll handle the rest."
"That's going to cost you." Sympathizing with his pain didn't change my bottom linefreelancers don't get benefits, and I was currently without healthcare, a dangerous position to be in, considering my line of work.
"Fine. Bill me."
Against my better judgment, I led the way into the dark, quiet building with Rawlinson and Booker at my back. Most of the apartments were empty. Rumor had it the city planned to knock the eyesore down as soon as they managed to relocate the last six tenantsand convince Cavazos to sell the building. They probably had no idea there was a squatter on the third floor.
We crept silently up the stairs, the stiff bit of cloth clutched in my right hand, my fingers rubbing over and over the rough spot. I could feel him, so long as I was touching his blood. I could smell his sweat and taste his fear, both manifestations of the smear of psychic energy people leave behind with every drop of their blood.
For me, it's a little harder, working from only a name, but it can be done. And it's easiest with both a name and fresh blood. But that rarely happens. UnSkilled criminals are much more careful than the unSkilled general population, and in hiding from police forensics labs, they're inadvertently hiding from Trackers.
Even stupid criminals don't want to be found.
The door between the stairwell and the third floor hall was long gone, so we could see the light pouring from the crack beneath his door the moment we stepped onto the landing. The energy signature was stronger here, but no clearer. I was going to have to see the bastard to confirm his ID.
I snuck down the hall silently with Booker and Rawlinson on my heels until we stood in front of the lit apartment. I gestured for them to give me some space, and they stood to either side of the door, backs pressed against the grimy walls, out of sight from the occupant, unless he actually stepped into the hall.
Then I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
When I'd worked for Rawlinson, I'd done both the Tracking and the takedown, and back then, I would have looked the partharmless, vapid young woman who needed jumper cables, or a telephone, or a big, strong arm to open a jar of pickles. Anything to get close enough to Taser the target and collect a paycheck.
It's amazing what a few years' experience and the threat of mortal injury with no health insurance can do to change your perspective. Especially with the clock ticking in my ear and the certainty that I had no time to be incapacitated by injury.
Footsteps clomped toward me from inside the apartment and the door squealed open to reveal a tall, thick man with two days' growth on his chin and suspicion shining in his eyes. He was armedthe hand held behind his right thigh was a dead giveawayprobably with the gun that had killed Alisha Rawlinson.
"Hey, sorry to bother you so late, but" I let my right arm fly, and my fist smashed into his nose.
The target gave a wet gurgle of surprise and pain, and swung his arm up, too stunned to actually aim his pistol as blood poured from his ruined face. I ducked below the gun and smashed his wrist into the door facing as hard as I could. Bone crunched. The target screamed again and his fist opened. The gun thumped to the floor and Booker kicked it down the hall.
I stepped back and let him take over, wiping the target's blood from my face with the tissue Rawlinson offered. "It's him." I handed the tissue back as Booker pounded the target into unconsciousness in the doorway. The rest of this floor was empty, and even if one of the few tenants heard something, they wouldn't come out to investigate. Not on this side of town. Not in the middle of the night.
Not if they had any wish to see daylight.
"Thank you, Liv," Rawlinson said, as Booker dragged the unconscious man into his apartment.
"Don't thank me. Pay me." I peeled off my bloodstained jacket and handed it to him. "And if this doesn't come clean, you owe me one just like it." Then I took off toward the stairwell without looking back, trying to ignore the repetitive thud of fist hitting flesh, echoing in the hall behind me.
On the street again, I exhaled, then glanced back at the building behind me. Silence, except for my own footsteps and the highway traffic two blocks away. True to his word, Rawlinson was keeping things quiet.
I crossed the road in a hurry, digging in my pocket for my keys, but froze when I spotted my carand the man leaning against the hood. He was built of shadows, untouched by the streetlight on the corner, but I'd know that silhouette anywhere.
"Hey, Liv." Cameron Caballero stood, and the last six years without him suddenly seemed surreal, like I'd dreamed the whole thing, and now I'd finally woken up to the truth. To how my life should have gone.
But then a car engine started, stalled, then restarted in the distance, and my lifethe gritty realitysnapped back into place like emotional whiplash, leaving me gasping for breath.
Him showing up like this again wasn't fair. But "fair" had never been less relevant.
"Not tonight, Cam." Mentally steeling myself, I clomped toward him and my car, assuming he'd move when I tried to unlock my door. But instead of sliding out of the way, he stood, inches away now, intentionally invading my personal space. I could step back, but that would be acknowledging that being so close to him still affected me. Or I could stand my ground and make him back down.