Two Years Later
It came again last night.
The dream, that is.
With its usual dismal terror it filled her night with an eerie darkness that was still holding on in the early-morning hours. It had taken her longer than usual to shake free of the hazy memory this time, a fact made clear by the late hour she’d stumbled into the shower.
Head tilted back, eyes closed, Kalina let the warm water run over her face. For just a second she was back in that alley, lying on the cold ground as rain began to fall. Those minutes seemed like hours, the fear of him hurting her, possibly killing her becoming a permanent part of her existence. Her heart hammered in her chest but she refused to open her eyes, refused the rescue she knew was there.
It was years ago; she should be over it by now. She’d tried to convince herself and everyone else around her that she was. But the dream just kept coming. The man who saved her life always appeared in the shadow of the night. And so did the beast. She could differentiate between the two, but didn’t know for sure if she was supposed to. All she knew was that it was crazy to still have such a vivid memory of that night. She barely remembered the name of the jerk who had attacked her and later died for his efforts, yet she remembered the eyes of the beast.
The dream was always the same, the one she’d had countless times before with the huge black cat that scared the crap out of her.
Okay, to be fair, all cats, even the pudgy calico belonging to her next-door neighbor Mrs. Gilbert, made her nervous. She’d never liked cats, ever. As a little girl she’d crossed the street whenever one was in her direct path. The exact reason why, she’d never been able to pinpoint, just that she didn’t like to look at them or hear them.
But in this dream she did both.
She heard its menacing growl as if they were in a cavern, its echo causing her body to tremble. She’d seen it, looked into the yellow-green eyes, felt as if it were speaking to her, and was always left with the same feeling—need. Aside from her terror of the deadly animal, the draw to it was undeniable. Its roar was like a broken cry, a ravaged request for something she didn’t know she could give. That was silly, of course, and she usually brushed it off in favor of the scared-as-hell aspect of the dream. Or nightmare, she corrected. Still, there was something that kept the memory of that beast killing the asshole lower-level drug carrier—who’d gotten it into his mind that their deal should be sealed with sex instead of good clean American dollars—alive in her mind.
Six weeks of therapy during her medical leave from the Metropolitan Police Department, and what seemed like endless sessions at which she kept her real feelings inside, revealed she’d despised the drug dealer too much to really harbor any deep emotion about the attack. The fact that she’d managed to somehow break his neck and get away looked good on her employment record. So good that, two years later, she’d received this sweet undercover assignment that could expose an up-and-coming cartel in South America. She supposed she should thank the spineless drug-dealing bastard for something.
Then again, maybe she should have been thanking the beast she was positive had really been the killer. The one she purposely didn’t mention to anyone after the attack, or ever. Nobody would believe her. Worse, she would have been demoted to a desk job for sure. Or even dismissed from duty for insanity. And everything she’d worked for, the life and the safety net she’d built for herself, would be destroyed. That wasn’t an option for Kalina. So the big black cat with eerie eyes was her secret, one she would never reveal.
The warm water sluicing over her body as she stretched languorously in the shower almost seduced her to stay. The knowledge that she had an important job to do cut the shower short.
She’d just belted her robe and opened the bathroom door when she heard the doorbell. It was way too early for visitors so as she padded through the living room to answer it, she assumed it was Mrs. Gilbert coming to borrow something. The minute her hand touched the knob Kalina felt something. A trickling down her spine, like a warning, had her pausing. Turning the knob, she opened the door and was startled to see a man standing there instead of Mrs. Gilbert.
“Good morning, I have a delivery for a Kalina Harper. Is that you?”
His lips were moving and she heard him speaking but Kalina was more concerned with the growing heat of her body. The robe suddenly felt itchy against her skin; her nipples puckered and she shivered. It was the strangest thing, like a rush of arousal or sudden awareness that she was all female.
“Oh.” She cleared her throat, pulled the lapels of her robe closer together. “Yes. I am. Thank you.”
His extended arm held an envelope. Kalina reached for it. Their fingers touched and his gaze captured hers. He was tall and lean, his skin an olive tone, his eyes dark. Darker than any she’d ever seen.
“You’re welcome,” he said, a slow smile beginning to form.
Kalina pulled her hand away, took a step back, and closed the door. His eyes were different, and his smile was … she didn’t quite know. The whole exchange had been strange.
“No, you’re the strange one,” she berated herself.
All this reminiscing about beasts in the night and cats across the hall had her jumping at shadows. She didn’t have time for this; she was already running late. And that wasn’t going to look good to her superiors.
* * *
Dressing quickly, Kalina was out of her apartment and on her way into the office half an hour later. This was her world, the one where she was an important officer of the law making a contribution to lives of others. It was her purpose, one she’d never felt she had before. She was no longer the orphan with no one to love and accept her, bouncing from one foster home to the next. No, this time she was exactly where she wanted to be. If lately there’d been a burning need for something more, that didn’t matter. There was nothing more, at least not for her. Reaching for the impossible was a waste of time, a distraction she couldn’t afford. Nothing besides her commitment to her job was important.
The envelope she’d received this morning, however, might be. So she pulled into the parking garage, parked her car, and opened it.
Something fell out into her lap. It was a photo. Flipping it over, Kalina felt her heart skip a beat then rapidly thump in her chest. It was a picture of her, the night she was attacked. Actually, she remembered as she continued to stare at the picture, it was just before the attack occurred.
Five minutes, that was all she was giving herself. Five minutes to feel concerned, even a little bit afraid. Resting her forehead on the steering wheel, she breathed in and out deeply. She wasn’t doing this, fear was not going to dictate her actions. Not again.
Another fifteen minutes passed before Kalina walked through the double glass doors of Reynolds & Delgado, its name written in block letters just above the receptionist’s desk. The decor was classy, rich but not overstated, professional but not stuffy. She walked across the glossed wood floor of the empty reception area through an archway; it gave way to a deep blue carpet that muffled the sound of her heels.
Accounting was down the hall and to the right on the fifth floor of the Reynolds Building in downtown DC. The sixth and seventh floors also housed members of the firm, while the first four floors were reserved for parking, and the remaining upper seven floors were occupied by tenants. Her desk was directly across from the office of the chief financial officer, as her position was accounts payable technician. This meant she processed all the outgoing moneys for the firm. It was exactly where she needed to be to trace the money going to South America. All those night courses she’d taken in economics, finance, and accounting had finally paid off.
Settling at her desk, she’d already started convincing herself that the photo was some kind of joke. Maybe from her co-workers at the precinct—they all had sick senses of humor in the narcotics division. Satisfied with that impromptu explanation, she put her purse in the drawer and booted up her computer.
As she waited for the computer to come to life, her throat felt dry. Actually it was more like her tongue felt too thick for her mouth, her back teeth aching a bit. This was something else that had been going on for a couple of weeks, another weird issue she refused to accept as important. Standing, she decided a cup of coffee would be good to get her started. Dan Mathison, the CFO and her immediate supervisor, wouldn’t be in for another hour and the two remaining members of the department weren’t in yet, so she still had time.
“He’s got to be the sexiest man alive,” Pam Winston, the fifth-floor receptionist, said with a sigh.
She hadn’t been at her desk when Kalina first entered the office, and with a tinge of dread Kalina picked up her pace as she approached the reception desk now.
“At the very least the sexiest in DC,” Pam continued.
“Yes, ma’am, I certainly agree.” This was Ava Jackson, the paralegal from the estates and trusts department, which was on the other side of the floor.
But just about every time Kalina went to the kitchen these ladies were conversing at the receptionist’s desk. She hated that she had to pass this area to get to the kitchen and her desired cup of coffee. Office gossip was another thing that made this particular assignment a headache. And just about every time she walked past these two they were talking about men. Today was no different.
“But he’s so angry all the time,” Ava was saying.
“I wouldn’t say angry, maybe just grouchy.” Pam contemplated for a second. “Still, he’s the boss, so he can afford to act any way he pleases. And he still looks good. You see him yet this morning?”
“Uh-huh. What’s he wearing today?” Ava asked with her contact-gray eyes growing larger.
“That navy-blue suit, the one with the stripes,” Pam said, picking up a piece of the mail she was supposed to be opening and then distributing, using it instead to fan herself.
“And the ice-blue tie over the crisp white shirt. Girl, I see him in that every night in my dreams. Love when he wears that suit. Absolutely love it!”
They both laughed loudly as Kalina proceeded to walk by, wishing she’d had simple dreams about a man instead of a cat. This job wasn’t permanent for her so making friends with the staff—these particular staff members—wasn’t a requirement. Still, she tried to be as cordial as possible, even though their incessant gossiping made her want to poke their eyes out. “Good morning, ladies,” she said with a smile that was as fake as the one each of the women was tossing her way.
Pam was a heavyset woman who paid a great deal of attention to her clothes, hair, nails, and makeup. Each day she was flawless, Kalina noted, everything matching right down to the fake tips on her fingernails. Today the color was orange, and it wouldn’t have been bad if it weren’t overdone, which was always the case with Pam. She twirled one jet-black curl between her fingers, orange rhinestone-encrusted nails clicking together as she did. “Good morning, Kalina.”
That shouldn’t have sounded snotty, but to Kalina’s well-trained ears it did. She ignored it and attempted to keep walking.
“So what do you think about him?” Ava, dressed in a white linen pantsuit with turquoise stilettos that were meant more for the stripper pole than the office, asked her.
Pam expounded, “Since you’re new here, we were just wondering what you think about the boss.”
“Which one?” she asked absently, as if she hadn’t heard their previous conversation.
Ava nodded as if in agreement. “Mr. Delgado is fine, too. But we were talking about Mr. Reynolds.”
“I think they’re both fantastic lawyers.”
Pam’s peach-glossed lips turned up while Ava muttered, “Right. Okay.”
Kalina didn’t stand still long enough to hear the rest of the conversation, and she couldn’t care less what they thought of her because of it. Or what they thought of Roman Reynolds. He might be their boss, but he was her suspect. End of story.
Back at her desk with a steaming-hot cup of coffee in hand, she chided herself for thinking about the tall, dark-skinned man with midnight-colored eyes and football-player build. As her fingers moved over the keyboard, she ignored the clench between her thighs while she envisioned his semi-thick lips, strong arms, and big hands.
She’d done a lot of background investigating on Roman Reynolds, age thirty-five, single and sinfully sexy. He was a reputed recluse, one with a hefty bank account and hundreds of women vying for his attention. He was a successful litigation attorney who lived in the Forest Hills District and drove a sleek black Mercedes GL550 SUV.
Finally, though, he was her suspect, not her lover. No matter how much she fantasized otherwise.
* * *
There were some people who were born to suffer. Right or wrong didn’t matter much. Only the end result was important.
Roman Reynolds sighed, sitting in his high-backed leather office chair looking out the window to the streets of Washington, DC. He was wondering if this was where he was supposed to be.
It seemed he’d come so far in his thirty-five years of life. He’d been through so much and felt, deep within himself, that there was much more to come. More that he couldn’t predict but needed to stop. Responsibility weighed on his shoulders heavily, starting with the death of his parents and leading up to the prospect of even more death. It was up to him to do something, to protect the people he cared about, to make the madness stop. Rome didn’t take his responsibility lightly.
That was unfortunate for whoever made an enemy of him.
Work was his life, and his life was dedicated to the safety of his people. If he’d had a choice, the circumstances would be different. But he didn’t and so it just was.
“You wanted to see me?”
The voice snapping him out of his reverie was that of Dominick Delgado, his partner and best friend. Turning away from the window and looking up to see Nick peeking into his office, Rome nodded. “Come on in and lock the door.”
What they were about to discuss wasn’t law-firm business, and Rome didn’t want any of the staff accidentally walking in and overhearing them.
“What’s up?” Nick asked after walking confidently across the carpeted floor to take a seat in one of the guest chairs.
“Any more news about the attacks?”
Senator Mark Baines and his daughter had been murdered after leaving a fund-raiser three weeks ago. The bodies, found two days after they were reported missing, were mutilated. The report had made Rome uneasy and some of the other shifters suspicious.
“Rogues,” Nick said simply. “I checked with the other Faction Leaders and they’re reporting similar movement in their zones. They’re definitely making a move.”
Rome sighed. This news wasn’t shocking. But it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. They knew about the Rogues—every Faction Leader in every time zone knew about them. They were a group of shifters, defectors from every tribe, who instead of trying to live peacefully among the humans believed they were the superior species. They wanted money and power and had long since carried their rebellious movement against the Assembly and the tribes out of the forest.
“Do we have identification?”
Nick shrugged. “Supposition. Nothing definite. But it could be a problem.”
“It could be a big problem. Any thoughts on how to cut it off as soon as possible?”
“Find them and kill them,” Nick stated coldly.
“You make it sound so simple, killing people.”
His friend shrugged. “Self-preservation. That’s all it is. We need to either exist as one united front or not exist at all. I don’t know about you but I’m partial to waking up each morning and breathing freely.”
“It’s that serious.” It was a statement, not a question, because Rome knew that what his longtime friend was saying was absolutely true. “Our parents were putting things in place to deal with this. Maybe we should follow their lead.”
Nick’s parents were deceased, just like Rome’s. They’d died in a car crash about five years ago. Nick didn’t speak about it much and Rome understood why, so normally he didn’t bring it up. They both had dark pasts, secrets that were probably better left alone. But if dredging up some of that old business could help in the here and now, they had no choice.
“I don’t know that they were on the right track. I mean, trying to create some sort of democracy among the tribes, a penal system for a species that’s not even supposed to exist? I don’t see how that can work.”
He couldn’t see past the anger, was what Nick was basically saying. Rome knew the drill all too well. Nick’s parents had disappointed him, angered him. That wasn’t something Nick would forget, even in their death. Inhaling deeply, Rome considered how to proceed. He and Nick shared a lot; the depth of their pain was only one of the commonalities.
Although Rome wasn’t angry with his parents, there were secrets they’d kept from him, things he would have liked to have known before they died. He couldn’t bring them back, couldn’t tap into some hereafter phone line and call them up. All he could do was move forward. Some days that was harder than others. Today he was trying to make it as easy as possible.
“It’s time we had some sort of guidelines to live by,” he said finally.
“We’ve got the Ètica” was Nick’s response.
The shifter ethics code, traditionally called the Ètica, was their Bill of Rights, so to speak. It outlined everything they could and could not do as shifters. The code was mandated by the Assembly, three elders from each tribe equaling a fifteen-member council. The biggest problem was that they lived deep within the Brazilian rain forest in the secluded Gungi. The rules and limitations applied to forest living and were not really conducive to the mainstream life Rome and the other faction leaders were trying to achieve.
“I think we need more.”
“So you want to pick up where our parents left off? Start trying to build some sort of government for us? We’re not like them, Rome! We’re not human!”
Nick’s anger was apparent, and on another day Rome might have shared it with him. But today he was trying to stay focused, to not let his tumultuous emotions rule over good judgment. If the Rogues were planning something, only a cool head was going to keep them alive. A well-thought-out and perfectly executed plan would bring them the solidarity they desired. That was Rome’s way, calm, cool, and overly collected. He could be dangerous, and crossing him usually was, but it was the smooth and precise way he handled his problems that earned him the title of the Lethal Litigator.
He didn’t like the idea of rebel shifters any more than Nick did, but he didn’t want a lot of bloodshed on their hands; that would only lead to what they desperately didn’t want—for the shifters to be exposed and accused of being dangerous killers, animals that didn’t deserve to walk among humans.
“Keep your voice down, the office isn’t as well guarded as our homes. I feel your pain, Nick. You know I do. But we’re not in the forest, we need to use our heads and not just our ability to fight and kill. Capturing these shifters is the better option. Find out what they’re thinking, if there’s some room for negotiation.”
“How do you negotiate with someone who wants to take charge? They want to rule, Rome. They think they’re the dominant species on earth. Can we really afford to invite them to lunch and try to talk this out?” Nick paused, then added, “Let’s not forget they’re responsible for your parents’ deaths.”
That was a deadly card to play. And Nick knew it. There was nothing—absolutely nothing—Rome wanted more than to find the Rogue who’d killed his parents.
Vance and Loren Reynolds had been brutally murdered, Rome suspected as a result of what they were trying to do among the shifters. Some of their old paperwork he’d found—notes from meetings with Elders and other Faction Leaders—led him to believe that his parents and their ideas for a democracy among the shifters were rubbing a few people the wrong way. He still had no real leads on their killers, just ideas. And he was still as pissed off today as he’d been twenty-five years ago when the murders had occurred in the bedroom his parents shared.
He’d remained hidden in a closet, prohibited from trying to save his parents’ lives. A steady flow of rage simmered just beneath the surface of his cool lawyer exterior each and every day of his life. He would avenge his parents’ killers—there was no doubt in his mind. That would be one time, one instance when he’d put aside the moral code he’d learned as a human, the justice he’d studied in law school, and become a hunter, the killer jaguars were perceived to be.
Revenge was a living and breathing source within Rome, but he couldn’t let that dictate his every action.
“You know that’s not what I’m suggesting. And make no mistake about it, when I find the Rogue responsible for the murder of my parents, his death will be slow and very painful. But that’s my personal battle. That blood will be on my hands alone.”
Nick shook his head. “It’s ours,” he replied. “You know we’re in this together.”
Rome nodded but didn’t speak.
More death was coming, just as his gut instinct had warned. This battle of theirs was only beginning.
And … Wait. He inhaled deeply. Exhaled with a little more shakiness than he wanted to admit. Something else was coming, something or someone …
There was a knock at the door and before he’d uttered a word, before Nick had made it across the room to open it, Rome knew exactly who it was.
Copyright © 2012 by A. C. Arthur