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"I heard you were awesome with the kids at Handleburg Hall tonight."
Kaitlyn snorted into the cell phone and peered out her car window into the dark parking lot. "For cripe's sake, Abby Brooks, I haven't even left the orphanage yet. Who's your spy and is he old enough to work for the NYPD?"
"I have my ways," Abby's smug purr came across the line. "I hear you're coming back next week. Are you getting hooked on these kids like I told you you would?"
She'd had a great time tonight. "Yeah, you could say that." Kaitlyn might've grown up in a loving home, but she had one thing in common with Handleburg's troubled teens. The sobering realization had hit her tonight when one of the kids had challenged her during her speech on working for the police. He'd told her she knew nothing of what his life was like.
That was true enough. She hadn't grown up in a drug-riddled home or had to worry about gang shoot-outs happening in the middle of the night or day. But in the not-too-distant future, just like these young men and women, she'd be parentless, too. Then her police coworkers, Abby and the "Hall" teens would be the only family she had. If nothing else, she hoped she could give the teens the support they needed to know that they didn't have to follow the same path their parents had.
"Thanks for hooking me up for the lecture. Oh, by the way, they want me to help demonstrate in your tae kwon do class next Thursday," Kaitlyn said as she turned the key and started the car. "And drum roll I've decided to commit at least one night a week to Handleburg."
"That's wonderful, Kaitlyn. But what about your mom?"
Kaitlyn turned up the heat to ward off the chilly fall air. "Mom has a lot more bad than good days now. When she's having bad days, she doesn't want company. The pain medicine makes her sleep a lot. I thought spending time with the kids would keep my mind off her. Otherwise, I just " She paused. Worry for her mom clogged her throat.
"That makes sense to me, hon. Did you get the gift I sent to your new digs?"
Kaitlyn laughed. "Yes, thank you for the congratulations gift. I've already attached the small voice recorder to my key chain."
"I figured you could dictate during boring stakeouts, but hey, I'm not done. Let's go to Fuel and celebrate your promotion to detective."
Kaitlyn pulled out of the parking lot and drove down the road. "Not tonight, Ab"
"You really should celebrate and cut loose. Not to mention, it's been a while since you've been out on the 'scene.' Mr. Right could be there at the bar, waiting to sweep you off your bonnie Irish feet."
More like the guy'd be ready to jump into the sack with the first woman who said yes. She knew Abby's suggestion that she help out at Handleburg and now this invitation to the bar was her best friend's way of helping her find someone to care for in her life, yet Abby's casual "Mr. Right" comment caused thoughts of her last boyfriend to flit through Kaitlyn's mind. She hadn't dated anyone since she'd broken up with Remy two years ago.
She'd initially been attracted to his clean-cut charm and understated bad-boy edge. After dating the guy for a little over a year, they'd grown apart, seeming to have less in common than she first thought. The man's obsession with being a Garotter like his father finally became more than she could deal with. Remy chose to live in the past. She didn't.
She wasn't surprised when she heard Remy had joined up with the old vampire hunter group. The Garotters had reinstated themselves three months ago in response to a woman's kidnapping. Ariel Swanson had been abducted right after her fictional book about vampires was released to the public. Sheesh, it was just a book! While it was true vampires had cut a murderous path through the human population in their past, the monsters had been extinct for a good twenty-five years.
"Sorry. I've got an early day tomorrow. Along with my new promotion, I was assigned my first case. I have a good bit of research ahead of me."
"So dedicated." Abby gave a resigned sigh. "You know your father would be proud of you."
Would her father be proud? Kaitlyn wondered as she rolled to a stop at a stoplight. She hoped so. She missed his gravelly voice and lilting accent.
Blinking back the moisture in her eyes, she pushed on the gas pedal when the light turned green. "Thanks for the congrats and for your friendship. I don't know what I'd have done without you these last few years. Call me tomorrow and tell me how Fuel went."
"How'd you know I was going anyway?"
Kaitlyn laughed. "This is you we're talking about. I'll talk to you later. Bye." Once she closed her cell phone, out of habit, Kaitlyn turned on her police scanner instead of the radio.
While listening to the calls coming in and the police officers responding, she considered the biggest crime situation facing the force today. Other than drugs, gunrunning had always been an issue for the city.
A couple months ago, a Tacomi vehicle loaded with pulsar guns had been hijacked on its way to a government warehouse. The laser weapons had been created to give the police an advantage over criminals now sporting Kevlar. Apparently, the thugs had wanted the pulsar weapons the police were carrying, but when rumors had come through that the Garotters were active again and carrying pulsar weapons, most police officers had turned a blind eye. Except for her boss.
Kaitlyn's headlights sliced through the darkness as she took a side road that led to the interstate.
Her boss had set his sights for a bigger role and he wanted a juicy "win" to bring to the table when promotion time came around. His informants had told him this new self-funded Garotter regime had ties to the Mafia, which fell in line with the greater number of pulsar weapons being carried by well known Mafia men, too. Kaitlyn's first assignment was to ferret out the Mafia connection, if there truly was one. Hence, the major research she needed to do tomorrow.
A crackling call came across the scanner, capturing her attention. "Lady reports yelling and a flash of bright lights in Morningside Park."
Without hesitation, more out of habit than anything else, Kaitlyn punched in her badge number and hit the call button. "This is Detective McKinney. I'm in the vicinity. I'll check it out."
"Copy, McKinney. Backup is on their way. ETA seven minutes."
Heart thumping a little harder, Kaitlyn reached into her glove compartment. Once she'd pulled out her gun in its leather holster, she clipped the holster to her belt. Securing a palm-sized comm unit beside her gun, she then turned her vehicle down another road and headed toward Morningside.
Just like her father there was no such thing as "off duty" in her mind.
Kaitlyn pulled into the darkened, pothole-riddled parking lot. She scanned the abandoned park's broken picnic-shelter roof and the graffiti on the restroom building next to it.
A lone streetlight provided little illumination for the park area that backed up to the woods. Under her coat, the tiny hairs on her arms began to stand up, warning her.
Turning off her headlights, Kaitlyn reached beneath her seat and withdrew the NYPD-issue flashlight. She wrapped her fingers around the cool, heavy-duty metal and got out of the car.
Kaitlyn closed the door with a quiet click and took slow, even breaths. Pulling her coat out of the way, she rested her hand over her gun, tucked in its holster, as she scanned the shadowed playground.
Adrenaline pumped through her veins and she turned her flashlight toward the merry-go-round slowing to its final spin at the same time she unsnapped the holster, removing her weapon. Backup would be there soon, she told herself as an invisible force seemed to pull her toward the play equipment.
An owl hooted; its deep night call sliding icy fingers down her spine. She gripped the gun's handle, while cool air, laced with the faint scents of home fires and pine, kissed her cheeks.
"Police officer. Come out now!" She moved across the parking lot, and puffs of frosted air plumed in front of her with each breath she took.
As soon as she stepped out of the streetlight's glowing circle into the darkened playground, a grating, nails-on-achalkboard sound echoed in the darkness, skidding all the way to her bones.
She froze in place. Her breath caught while she listened for the source of the sound. Another piercing squeak echoed before the equipment came to a complete halt.
Her flashlight swept the monkey bars, the play hut and slide. Whoever it was must be gone now. The tension in Kaitlyn's stomach eased and she began to breathe again. Confidence restored, she started toward the shadowed equipment with assured strides.
A gust of wind rushed past her, so strong, so specifically directedas if someone or something had dashed right past her at a rapid paceit flapped open her coat, sending frigid air straight through her cotton button-down shirt underneath.
Her skin prickled and Kaitlyn halted. Cinching her grip around the gun, she quickly traced the wind's path with the light.
Not a soul. Only leaves floating in the air and her car sitting in the dimly lit parking lot behind her. I'm losing it.
Shrugging, she faced forward once more. This time she tuned into every little sound. Broken glass and leaves crunched beneath her shoes'hard soles, and tiny pebbles scattered out of her way as she approached the merry-go-round.
She could go back to her car and wait, but an underlying "need to know" drove her forward.
Once she reached the merry-go-round, she shone the beam of light on the base. Faded, chipped blue and red paint created pie pieces on the round wooden floor. An empty beer bottle sat in the middle.
Kaitlyn sighed and gripped the merry-go-round's cool metal handrail with her gun hand, while she scanned her flashlight across the open field behind the playground and then into the dark forest beyond.
Other than a blanket of low fog hanging a few inches above the cool grass, nothing was there.
Shaking her head at the boondoggle call someone had made to the police, she turned to leave, but something caught her eye in the open field behind the playground. The wind must've blown the fog away, exposing what had been hidden underneath.
Glowing embers. Fiery orange.
Beckoned by an unseen force, she ran toward the bits of burning ash.
As she moved closer, the smell of burned hair and flesh permeated the air, making her stomach roil.
When she reached the area and the full ashy sight came into focus, the need to retch grew so strong, she gagged. Surrounding the ashes left behind, a glowing, aura-like outline remained where a body had once lain. The aura revealed arms and legs in a straight-out position, as if the victim had been staked to the ground.
Her pulse raced out of control and she began to shake all over. She knew most people didn't see auras, especially of dead people, like she did. A detailed outline always surrounded the bodies. It was as if, at the moment of their death, each victim left a strong energy signature behinda signature to give her clues. And this time it was a neon-purple color. Purple meant the death had been brutal.
Death always upset her, especially violent murders, but what frightened her most was the shape of this outline surrounding the ashes.
While she scanned the forest with her flashlight to make sure no one was lurking in the woods, she contemplated what she'd tell her fellow officers once they showed up. The aura wasn't like any human she'd ever seen. She knew the other police officers wouldn't be able to see the energy signature she did, but she hoped the lab might be able to lift the DNA of the victim from the ashes.
Lights flashed behind her and her insides jerked to attention. Kaitlyn turned to see a vehicle pulling into the parking lot. It wasn't a squad car.
"Damn," she whispered and crouched to quickly turn off the light. This wasn't the best area of town and she was alone. Even though Abby had trained her to red belt level in tae kwon do and she had a gun, she wasn't taking any chances.
She had no idea who was in that black truck, yet the distinctive grille across the front looked familiar. As she racked her brain, trying to remember where she'd seen the vehicle, a tall man stepped out.
His wide shoulders looked even broader covered by a leather jacket that stopped at his thighs. The streetlight shone on his light brown hair and highlighted his strong jaw as he started across the lot toward the playground.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Kaitlyn stood up slowly. She tucked away her gun and stared at the man approaching.
Landon had offered his P.I. expertise to the police from time to time in the past, most often in the field. Hence the reason she'd seen him only a couple of times at the station while she interned during her last year in college. His dominant presence wasn't easy to forget. From his confident bearing to his aggressive stride, the man was definitely an impression maker.
She'd heard that he'd stopped working with the police a few years ago. Rumors abounded; the most popular was that he'd had a falling out with the now-retired chief.
What was he doing here?