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Eve Clark looked around at all the goings-on in the large backyard of the home where she'd grown up. She smiled as she took in the legion of Detroit relatives that had gathered at her aunt and uncle's place that Saturday to celebrate her Aunt Rina's fifty-seventh birthday. Spread out across the yard were teenage cousins and their friends, little cousins playing with hula hoops and video games, while the uncles swapped lies and slapped dominoes. Some of the women, mostly Eve's aunts, were seated in lawn chairs underneath the big maple tree laughing and no doubt gossiping, while alternately yelling at grandkids and making sure the food on the picnic tables didn't run low. It was a typical Clark gathering, one of the few Eve had been able to attend because of the demands of her job as an ATF agent based in Chicago. In a few days she'd be back at work, but right now she was on vacation and enjoying just being a member of the family.
The birthday party, which was the day before Halloween, was originally supposed to be held indoors. But because the weather was so beautiful for late October in Michigan, everything was moved outside to take advantage of the glorious day.
When seven-year-old Eve had lost her parents in a fire, Uncle Walt and Aunt Rina had stepped in to raise her. Even though they already had a daughter, Shelly, they still loved and nurtured Eve as if she was their own. Eve would be the first to admit that while growing up, her cousin Shelly had been the adventurous one and had gotten them into more scrapes than Aunt Rina could shake a finger at. But Eve's line of work had given her the edge in the adventure department now, even if a good portion of her days involved sitting at her desk doing paperwork.
Eve sighed as she saw her cousin Shelly making her way over to where she was sitting. She and Shelly were more like sisters than cousins. And for the past month Shelly had been calling and sending endless e-mails, trying to convince her to attend a big Halloween masquerade ball in Detroit. Eve had no desire to attend, but Shelly being Shelly, she'd refused to take no for an answer.
"Hey cuz," Shelly said, taking a seat in one of the empty lawn chairs. She put her plate of food on the table between them. "I've finished your costume and you are going to love it." Shelly was an award-winning Hollywood costume designer.
"But I'm not going, remember?"
Shelly shook her head, using her plastic fork to cut the edge of her ham. "How can a kick-ass woman like you be afraid of a Halloween party?"
"I'm not scared. I'm just not interested."
"It's going to be fun."
"Being hooked up with a stranger doesn't sound like fun to me, just strange."
"Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Back in my office in Chicago."
Eve rolled her eyes.
Shelly took a sip of her Kool-Aid. "You need to put that ATF badge down for a night and get your freak on. Nobody will know it's you. That's the beauty of it."
"Suppose you get hooked up with a man who could make you forget all about saving the world."
"The people who are invited are all quality, grown-folks, Eve. They've been vetted."
"I got that part, but I'm still passing."
"Because ATF agents don't get their freak on. I'm on the national task force, which means I'm on call 24/7. Suppose I catch a case in the middle of this? What am I supposed to do, grab my stuff and run out of the ball like Cinderella?"
"Suppose you don't get a call? I think you're just looking for excuses, Wonder Woman."
Eve smiled and looked away.
Shelly asked, "When was the last time you were with a man who wasn't in handcuffs in the backseat of a squad car?"
"None of your business," Eve tossed back, laughing softly.
"Uh-huh. You ought to try it. If you go to the masquerade ball you won't have to go looking for a man. The hosts will hook you up."
Eve still wasn't buying. Shelly pressed harder. "It's not every day that you get the chance to spend the night in a luxury suite complete with food and champagne free of charge. If the two of you just want to talk, that's okay."
"Come on," she pleaded. "Think of all the hours I spent slaving over this costume."
The persistent whine made Eve chuckle and remember all the other times her cousin had talked her into situations, some good, some bad, but none this outrageous. "So what's this costume look like?"
"It's a surprise."
Eve threw up her hands. "I know I'm not going now."
Shelly laughed. "No, it's one of the best costumes I've ever done. Everyone in my shop's excited . It's hot . It's classy. It's you, Eve. It'll have tongues falling on the ground all over the place. And besides, you know I'm going to hound you about going until you say yes, so save yourself the trouble, and just give in."
"You know I can kick your ass, right?"
Shelly grinned and stuck a celery stick in her mouth. "But you love me, so you won't."
She was right of course. Eve also knew that Shelly wasn't kidding about hounding her to the grave. It was one of the things she did best, besides costume design. Eve exhaled audibly. "Okay, I give up. But if I wind up shooting somebody, it'll be your fault."
"I love you, too. And by the way, I can't go."
"I can't. Some producer didn't like the costumes created by another designer and so he wants me to see what I can do to fix them. Guess the director's having a meltdown. I'm flying back to L.A. in a few hours."
"So, I'm going to this madness alone?"
"Looks that way."
Eve never ceased to be amazed by her cousin's audacity, and today was no exception. "I'm going to kill you, you know that, right?"
Shelly simply smiled.
After the party had ended and the family had cleared off the table and moved everything back inside, people began to say their goodbyes. Since she'd arrived in Detroit a few days before, Eve had been staying at a hotel downtown because her aunt and uncle's house had been turned into a boardinghouse with so many out-of-town family guests. The room that had once belonged to her and Shelly now held five air mattresses, with four of the younger girls sharing two twin-size beds. Most of them would be heading home tomorrow.
"When are you going back to Chicago?" her aunt asked Eve as she and Uncle Walt walked her out to her rental car.
"Bright and early Monday morning. Shelly talked me into going to a masquerade party tomorrow night so I'll do that and then fly home." Shelly had already left for the airport, having put the box with the costume in the trunk of Eve's car. Her aunt gave her a long, loving hug.
"Been wonderful having you home. Next time you come, stay longer."
Eve tightly embraced the woman she cared for like no other. Her aunt had shared her terrible grief when Ginger—Eve's mom and Rina's older sister—had been killed. "I will."
They broke their hug. "And go to the party. No excuses. You're way too serious to be under forty. Have some fun."
Uncle Walt said, "Leave her alone."
Eve grinned and shared a strong hug with him, too. He kissed her on the forehead. "She's a crime fighter," he said proudly. "She's supposed to be serious."
"Thank you, Uncle Walt. You understand."
"That's because I used to fight crime, too." Uncle Walt was a retired police officer. There were a slew of cops and firefighters in the Clark family. Law enforcement seemed to be in their blood.
Her smiling aunt asked Eve, "Are you coming for Sunday dinner tomorrow?"
"If you're cooking, I'm eating." "One o'clock."
That said, she walked over to the car and got in. With a grin and a wave, she pulled off.
After Sunday dinner at her aunt's, Eve drove back to her hotel room. Although she'd told Shelly she'd attend the party tonight, she still wasn't sure. On the one hand, it had been a long time since she'd had any real fun, but who went to a party where you drew a number for the person you were going to spend the evening with? The ball was being given by a hotshot Hollywood producer who obviously had too much money and not enough to do with it if this was any indication.
She looked over at the large box lying on the bed. Her costume was inside, but she hadn't opened it yet. She placed her hands on the vanity table and stared back at her reflection in the big mirror hanging above. "Well, Clark, what's it going to be? At least open the box."
What she found inside made her cover her mouth with both embarrassment and awe. She picked up the costume in sheer disbelief. The black leather garment practically slithered out of the box and announced itself as the sexiest, most jaw-dropping catsuit she'd ever seen. But it wasn't just a catsuit. A band of soft gold lamé adorned the low-cut, V-neckline like the wings of a seagull in flight. Two odd-looking sleeves—she guessed they were sleeves—made of the same gold fabric were draped in rings from either side. A gold sash around the waist completed the outfit. Shelly hadn't lied about its effects. Any man crossing her path was going to keel over dead. "Shelly, Shelly, Shelly? What are we going to do with you? I can't wear this."
Holding the catsuit up against her body, she walked back over to the mirror. At age thirty-five, Eve had a body like seventies film icon Pam Grier, with the height and stature to represent. The catsuit would hug her frame like steam on glass.
Despite her reservations, she loved it. Every Halloween, Eve would dress up as a female superhero. One year she'd been Wonder Woman, then Super Girl. She'd even been Shera from the old eighties cartoon and had been ecstatic after finding out that the costume had come with plastic arm guards and a sword. Even back then she'd wanted to save the world. Shelly knew her entirely too well.
She found a pair of black leather short-heeled boots in the box that were as soft and well-made as the catsuit. There was also a black domino and a tiara-like headdress made of rigid fret-worked leather that looked like a series of stylized thunderbolts. Under the headdress was another smaller box and a folded note. Eve opened the note and read:
All Hail Great Warrior Goddess Oya! Oya is the Warrior Goddess of the Yoruba people of Africa. She rules over tornadoes, wind, lightning, fire and magic. In the comics, she goes by the name of Storm and in the movies she's played by Halle Berry. Have fun. Love, Shelly
Eve's amusement showed in a shake of her head. "I can't wear this."
But the more she looked at the suit the more she kept saying, why not? Shelly's assessment of her bleak life had been close to the truth. Eve's last serious relationship had ended two years ago. He worked as an EMT for the city of Chicago and he'd resented the travel her job required, her male colleagues and her salary. Plenty of men admired her body and her looks, but she'd yet to find one secure enough to handle her strength and intelligence. Tonight would definitely be a walk on the wildside for her, but she couldn't pass up wearing something so gorgeous. She could always go back to saving the real world in the morning.
When she'd finished dressing, she took a look at herself in the mirror and grinned. The catsuit was sizzling. The black leather slid over her Junoesque proportions like butter. The seagull-like wingspan spread across her bustline in tandem with the golden swath around her waist set off her body like—bam! The oval-shaped sleeves that hung below her bare shoulders and the banded, low-cut neckline framed her toned biceps like two golden bracelets.
The small box under the note held a long silver wig with bangs. She put it on, styled it so that it looked good and put on her lightning bolt tiara. With the headdress positioned just so, the long, silver hair flowed behind her like an African waterfall. No disrespect intended, but Ms. Berry, eat your heart out.
To give herself just a touch more of the exotic, she added green contacts. In the early days of her career in law enforcement, Eve had done more undercover assignments than she cared to talk about. Because of her theater background in college, she had gone undercover disguised as everything from a crackhead to the haughty daughter of an African despot in an illegal weapons case. Her reflection told her that this might be some of her best work yet. She looked good. Damn good. She turned to check out the rear view. Not bad. She was a little wider than a decade ago, but thanks to her time in the gym, everything was still tight and where it should be.
She was still somewhat concerned about being paired up with a stranger for the evening. But she knew that if anything stupid jumped off, she had her training and the Glock in her small evening bag to back her up. She was required to carry her weapon with her at all times, even when posing as an African goddess.
The only thing left to do was to tie on the black velvet domino mask. It covered her eyes and was accented here and there with tiny sequins. Shelly had outdone herself. No wonder production companies were beating down her door. The girl had skills.
According to the engraved invitation, a car would be coming to transport her to the hotel where the party was being held. Taking one last look at herself, a smiling Eve wrapped the soft black cape Shelly had also provided around her shoulders and headed for the door.
The hotel's large ballroom was decorated with black and orange streamers, elaborately carved pumpkins that were lit inside with candles and black cats. Hanging from the ceiling were animatronic witches, cackling and riding brooms as ghosts floated nearby. There were five food stations, two bars and a DJ playing 80s music. Mist from a fog machine rolled over the floor while the sounds of laughter and the din of conversation from the costumed guests competed with the volume of the music.
Through the eyes of his centurion-style helmet, Leyton Palmer assessed the gorgeous women milling about. Of course, with their faces masked, it was impossible to tell what they really looked like, but he was enjoying fantasizing about the French maids, she-devils, Playboy Bunnies and the five Tina Turners he spotted in the crowd. A dark-skinned Cleopatra sauntered by and gave him a saucy wink.