The feminine whisper drifted through the hall. Dallas Gutierrez finished tying his boot and glanced up. No one had entered the small corridor. He straightened. As the sound of muted gunshots and squealing tires rang out, he solved his first case of the day. The TV was on.
Clearly I’m the greatest Alien Investigation and Removal agent ever to live.
But then, Dallas Gutierrez did his job the same way he did everything else, even bragging: with style. He was certain the one-night stand he’d left sleeping in bed would agree. Not that he would ever ask her. He shuddered. Waking her would defeat the purpose of tiptoeing into the hall to dress.
And yeah, okay, leaving without saying good-bye was a total douche move—even when done with style—but both he and . . . Cori? Cadi? They’d agreed their time together would revolve around pleasure, not permanence.
Dude. I even suck in style.
To be honest, he deserved a participant ribbon for last night’s performance, not a gold medal. Picking a companion for the evening had become a chore, kind of like deciding which STD he preferred. And sex . . . sex had become a duty rather than a desire.
As the second plea drifted into his awareness, he was forced to reopen the case file. The voice couldn’t have come from the TV. He recognized it.
Shock and fury combined as Dallas reached for the pyre-gun holstered at his side. He inched forward. Maybe he should have invited his date to his place, where he controlled security, but only three people were ever allowed inside: Dallas himself, his friend Devyn, and, when he felt like being tortured, his boss, Mia. No one else ranked high enough on the DG scale of excellence to receive such a—dare he say it—amazing privilege.
Yeah. He dared. Truth was truth.
Footsteps soft, he rounded the corner, and the living room came into view. There were eight pieces of furniture: a floral-print couch, two matching chairs, a side table/serving cart, a coffee table, a TV, and two barstools. The only thing missing? The speaker.
He stiffened as she crawled around the couch and, strength abandoning her, collapsed on the floor. Long blond hair tangled around an emaciated face, pale skin sagging over a delicate bone structure. Even her eyes sagged; they were bloodshot and framed by open sores rather than lashes.
Trinity, queen of the Schön, would probably scare the boogeyman right now. Not that it mattered.
The beautiful monster—now just a monster—had the power to emit a potent pheromone that lured unsuspecting men into her arms, no matter how ugly she happened to be, addicting the poor bastards to her taste. Those men would then find themselves infected with the Schön disease, faced with a gruesome choice: have sex with others to spread the disease, keeping it from feeding on their own bodies, or rot from the inside out, ultimately succumbing to the desire to eat human flesh.
Yep. The bitch created sex-zombies.
AIR had been on her trail for months, but she’d always managed to evade capture. Then she’d been sucked into a parallel universe by—no joke—Father Time, the actual biological father of an AIR agent, and Dallas had thought he’d seen the last of her. Three cheers!
But now, here she was, back in his life. Three boos and a hiss.
How had she found him?
To his knowledge, she wasn’t able to teleport to specific people. And why the hell was she here, anyway? To seduce him, infect him, and place him under her command? She’d tried before and failed royally.
As her gaze met his, she stretched a trembling arm in his direction. A sizzle of lust burned through him, disgusted him, and he stumbled backward, increasing the distance between them. At least the lust wasn’t genuine, and he wouldn’t have to scrub his hormones clean with bleach.
“Your pheromones don’t work on me,” he reminded her.
“Help. . . .”
“You say help, but all I hear is please put the world out of its misery and kill me.” He crouched to withdraw a second gun.
The SS—also known as the Schön Slayer. A special weapon created exclusively for her and her victims. A single shot might or might not kill her; it was designed to trap the disease inside her, providing time to figure out what to do next.
The Schön disease was a separate alien life-form, according to the researchers at AIR. If the host died and that life-form wasn’t trapped, it would search out a brand-new sparkly host. A.k.a. the person in closest proximity.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” he told Trinity. Once, she’d killed nearly an entire contingent of AIR agents. His coworkers. The only family he’d ever really had, and he wanted her to pay for it. And pay hard. “I’m enemy number one.”
“Help . . . pleeease. . . .”
Such desperation. How delightful! “Poor Trinity. Did you get yourself into a pickle and now hope to pull my heartstrings to convince me that you’ve—what? Changed? Atoned for your sins?” Too late. “I’ll tell you a secret. I don’t actually have a heart.” On the streets, he was known as the Heartless Foe.
Resolve and relief swirled in the depths of her ocean blues, even as tears spilled down her cheeks.
His brows knitted together. Why relief ? Did it really matter? Today he stopped her.
He canted his head to tap his ear against his shoulder and turn on the internal cell phone he’d recently had installed.
“Yo,” Mia said, her voice so clear she could have been standing beside him. “This better be important, Agent Gutierrez.”
Mia Snow liked to act as tough as nails, but underneath her bark-that-was-just-as-bad-as-her-bite, she was actually a marshmallow—if the marshmallow was made with poison.
“I’m in the presence of a Schön. The Schön, actually. She’s injured, even docile.”
Her shock crackled over the line. “You’re kidding. If you’re kidding, I’m going to deep-fry your testicles for my afternoon snack.”
“No need to break out the blowtorch, babe.”
“Bless you! Is it contained?”
It. How accurate. “Yes. It is. And I’d like permission to use it as target practice.”
A pause. A heavy sigh. “Denied. Sorry, my friend, but hold your position without firing. Why take risks if we don’t have to? I’m dispatching a unit for pickup. Expect arrival in four minutes, thirty-eight seconds.”
There was no need to rattle off his location. He knew the cell had been tracked the moment it had activated. “You spoil all my fun.”
“I know! Because that’s how I have my fun.”
He disconnected the call with another tap of his ear. While he sheathed the pyre-gun, he kept the other one, the SS, trained on his target. “We’ve got ourselves a good news/bad news situation here. Which do you want to hear first?”
“Help. . . .”
“The good news, then. You’re going to be locked up, probably studied like a lab rat. Bad news is you’re going to live. Wait. Did I fail to mention that the good and bad were meant for me?”
Her relief completely overshadowed her resolve, which made exactly zero sense. “If live . . . they . . . live . . . die . . . they die.”
They. Meaning the people she’d infected? Were the Schön forever tied to their queen, what happened to her happening to all? Well, well. Hello, beautiful loophole. “Why didn’t you say so sooner?” If he could neutralize all her people at once . . .
Screw permission. This woman had already triggered one epidemic, with hundreds of lives lost. Why give her a chance to cause an actual pandemic, with thousands, maybe even millions, of casualties? If Trinity were stopped here and now, the others stopped with her, AIR wouldn’t have to hunt for her victims, the disease spreading all the while.
“Enjoy your taste of karma, Trinity. I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, but I never lie.” He squeezed the trigger.
A soft whoosh sounded as a beam of liquefied fire blazed between them. Contact!
Her entire body seized before going lax, smoke wafting from the new hole in her torso, the edges already cauterized. The light in her eyes dulled as she cried out in pain.
Unlike his coworkers, he wasn’t burdened by remorse when it came to harming a target. Especially one that posed a threat to innocents.
Harsh? Maybe. He didn’t exactly care.
Harried, panicked, his date rushed around the corner. She trembled as she tied the belt of her robe. “What’s going—son of an Arcadian! You shot my couch. You shot my freaking couch!”
“Stay back,” he snapped, wondering what he’d seen in her. Sure, she was everything he’d thought he needed to start enjoying the world of dating again. The once supposed ideal standard of beauty: a short, curvy blonde with blue eyes. Basically a replica of Trinity, before the disease had ravaged her appearance. But come on. Would a little calm have been amiss? “Return to the bedroom.”
She did the opposite, stopping at his side because he’d outstretched his arm to block her from going farther. “You have two seconds to tell me why you shot my couch, or I’m calling the police. And who were you talking to?”
Who else? “The woman on the floor. And I am the police, honey.”
She scanned the small living room, a frown pulling at the corners of her mouth. “What woman?”
Was she serious? “That—” He pointed, but Trinity’s image wavered . . . disappeared altogether.
She’d been a hallucination?
Cursing, he stomped to the spot where she’d lain. Excuse me, where I thought she’d lain. He swiped his gun through the air, encountered no resistance, and pressed his free hand against the hole he’d blasted in the couch. The fibers were hot but dry. Had the beam gone through a physical body before hitting the furniture, the fibers would have been ice-cold. A safety measure meant to prevent wildfires.
Yep. Trinity had been a hallucination. And not his first this week. Not even his first this month!
Cursing again, he straightened. What in all the worlds was wrong with him?
“I’ll buy you a new couch,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Damn right you will.” Capri? Cara? Mallery? She scrubbed a hand down her face. “Look. Why don’t you just go? I’ll call you a cab.”
A few hours ago, this woman had begged him to stick around for a second marathon of bliss—her words, not his. Now she couldn’t wait to get rid of him, all because of a little gunplay.
He’d told himself personality never mattered with a one-night stand. From now on? Personality came first. “Forget the cab. I’ll walk.” Which was exactly what he did—straight out of the apartment.
When he reached the sidewalk outside, he fired up his cell phone. First he canceled the AIR unit. Mia had questions, and threats, but he faked static and hung up on her. Then he phoned his closest friend, Devyn. An alien. An outlaw alien. A royal outlaw alien. The man was king of the Targons, a race with the power to control other races, including humans.
Dallas had been born a human, but after pyre-fire blasted a hole in his chest, nearly killing him, Mia’s husband, Kyrin, had fed him Arcadian blood to save him; he was now considered a hybrid with benefits. He could move faster than any eye could track, heal from nearly any injury in a matter of minutes, and dream visions of the future.
A thought occurred to him. One he’d had before. What if the hallucinations were a new type of waking vision?
The first one had featured a strange woman reclining in his favorite chair—naked—while sipping a glass of his favorite single malt. Her face had been alien, arresting with its sharp angles, but also exquisite. Absolutely unforgettable. Emerald tattoos had surrounded her catlike eyes, making it appear as if she wore a mask of butterfly wings. Those same twirling tattoos had decorated her forehead, but not like wings. Like vines of ivy. Tiny diamonds had outlined some of the ivy and formed patterns on her temples, but larger diamonds—at least a carat each—formed her eyebrows. Her cheekbones had been blade-sharp, and her lips had been a lighter shade of green than her tattoos.
Her hair had been divided into what seemed to be a thousand braids, each long enough to reach her waist. At first, those braids were jet-black, but as he’d stared at her, unable to look away, the braids had lightened to a rich golden brown, then blue, then gold again, then finally black again. Her skin had undergone the same transformation. Black, gold, blue, gold again, black again. The same colors found in the blanket draped over the chair.
No matter her coloring, her markings remained the same.
Every inch of her had been flawless, even the parts covered in those sweeping, scrolling emerald tattoos, with diamonds embedded here and there. The sides of her arms, her wrists . . . her pretty thighs. Those symbols were elegant but odd; he’d never before seen their like, the edges dusted with glitter. Or, considering the diamonds, diamond powder.
Her breasts had been plump, her waist small, and her hips heart-shaped. A perfect hourglass—and a perfect comparison. He’d counted every second he’d spent in her presence, praying time never ran out. But it had. At least he’d seen her again, and again.
Now she haunted him, waking and sleeping. The beauty he never would have chosen in a dating lineup but couldn’t forget . . . and hadn’t stopped craving.
She was the real reason he’d found romance so tedious lately. No other woman compared to her.
“Look how pretty,” she’d said the first time. A bolt of sizzling lust had struck him as she’d cupped her mouthwatering breasts. “We can pretend. You like to pretend, yes? You are a man, and I am a woman, no problems between us.”
The first time he’d experienced the hallucination—possible vision—he’d shoved his gun in her face and demanded answers. How had she gotten past his security?
The barrel had whisked through her, hitting the back of the chair. A second later, her image had vanished.
“You think you’re hallucinating,” Devyn said in lieu of a greeting, drawing him back to the present. “Or perhaps even having visions of the future.”
The guy always knew everything about everything, and being surprised would have been a waste of Dallas’s valuable time.
“Yes. Exactly.” Sunlight glared over box-shaped buildings made of materials capable of surviving a second human-alien war, if necessary. A myriad of people had opted to walk to work, congesting every direction. Gazes were glued to smartphones or hidden behind smart lenses, lives lived online rather than in person.
Welcome to New Chicago.
“What I don’t know is why,” he added.
“Then get your ass over here,” Devyn said. “We’ll talk.”
“Way ahead of you, king douche. I’m on my way now.”
“If that’s true, why are you ignoring my driver?”
Dallas skidded to a halt and scanned the cars on the road. A black limo was parked at the curb, a human waving at Dallas with one hand and holding open the back door with the other.
Okay. He was officially surprised.
He stalked across the distance and slid inside. Devyn reclined in the seat across from him. The cocky bastard wore a pin-striped suit that fit him so well it could only have been woven by magical sex fairies. Surely the only reason the guy laid more pipe than a plumber. Or rather, he used to lay more pipe than a plumber. Then he’d gotten married.
The door shut. The driver settled up front and a few seconds later, the car motored forward. Devyn offered Dallas a glass of viski. A single malt mixed with some kind of Targon sugar. He accepted with a muttered “Thanks” and drained the contents, the overpowering sweetness appealing to his Arcadian side.
“By the way. I can tell you’ve been working on your scowl. It’s very manly. Good job.” Devyn claimed the empty glass and set it aside. “But I prefer your womanly smile.”
“You only like my smile when I’m murdering your enemies.”
Devyn beamed at him. “You know me too well.”
“So which of your enemies would you like me to murder? Never mind. I’m going to pass on this amazing opportunity. My plate is already overflowing with excrement and my visions have only added a second helping.”
“Dallas, darling, you’re whining when you have no reason to whine. I pay my people to clean your plate for you.”
A laugh broke free, which was another surprise. No one, not even Devyn, should have been able to amuse him right now.
“Anyone ever tell you that you should be a life coach?” Dallas asked him.
“Yes. Unfortunately, I killed them all, so they no longer had need of a coach.” The Targon wiggled his brows, earning another laugh from Dallas. “But you’re right, you know. You are having visions of the future.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “How do you know?”
“Because I’m a master—”
“Bator,” he interjected. “Yeah. I’m aware. What does that have to do with the Schön?”
Devyn snorted. “With me, humor is a man’s most expensive defense. Payment is always collected with my fists.”
As if. No one had ever been more loyal than Devyn. The blessed few he loved, he loved. Nothing held back. There was no line he wouldn’t cross to protect and defend. In fact, he’d taken a bullet for Dallas—and Dallas had no doubt the Targon would do it again if ever he felt it necessary.
“How do you know?” he repeated, as serious as the weapon he’d fired at Trinity.
“As I was saying, I’m a master strategist.”
He waited for Devyn to say more, but silence reigned. “Um. That’s great. Wonderful. But you’ve actually told me nothing.”
A heavy sigh filled the space between them. “I’d heard rumors of Trinity’s return, so I found someone who was once very close to her and . . . asked a few questions.”
“You mean you kidnapped and tortured someone who was once very close to her and demanded answers.”
Devyn waved a dismissive hand. “The torture sessions have been so minor it’s hardly worth mentioning.”
“I’m sure.” Dallas loved the Targon like a brother, but even he had to admit the guy had a cruel streak a mile wide.
There was a slight chance Dallas maybe possibly might have possessed a cruel streak as well. During Devyn’s first—and only—official mission for AIR, they’d bonded as their target screamed in pain.
Dallas had continued to work with the Targon off the books, and his admiration had only grown. Gets the job done, no matter the cost.
Devyn changed the subject, asking about Dallas’s newest “date.”
As the car bumped along the road, Dallas complained about being tossed out of the apartment like garbage. “I’m not just a piece of meat, you know.”
“My wife would disagree. She says I’ve convinced her that we males are only as good as the—and I quote—peen between our legs.”
Dallas deadpanned, “I love how she loves you.”
“I know.” Devyn flattened a hand over his heart. “I’m adored.”
They were still snickering about the mighty peen when the limo finally stopped. Dallas glanced out the window. A history-rich area on the edge of town, located by what had once been a beautiful hidden lake. Devyn’s home.
The king smiled with relish. “Come. I’ll introduce you to my informant.”
“Female.” The door opened, sunlight spilling into the vehicle. Devyn emerged, and Dallas followed.
They stood before a château-inspired mansion, its impressive stone walls rising to four stories. He sniffed and frowned, suddenly overcome by the odd—and far too pleasing—scent of freshly cut roses and aged wood set ablaze in a campfire, though there were no gardens nearby. No plant life of any kind, really. No campfires or fire pits.
Another sniff. The scents seemed to come from the detached garage.
“How long have you had the woman locked away?” he asked.
“Only a few weeks.”
Only. “What’s her connection to Trinity?”
“My wife has begun to remember bits of her past. Not just life in the vampire underground, but her first months topside. Those memories led me to a mostly abandoned shadow lab—the Institute of Otherworld Technology. I broke in and, while there, found information about the Schön disease. I also discovered two females who were living there, a green-skinned otherworlder who escaped, and the woman you’re soon to meet. Her name is Lilica Swan.”
Lilica Swan. A delicate name. Practically a song . . . a lullaby.
“Were the two females part of the staff or were they patients?”
“Lilica hasn’t confirmed or denied either option. No matter my . . . persuasions, she’s remained mute on the subject.”
“Has she told you anything?”
“Not nearly enough. Let’s question her together, shall we?”