The way the briefing room went silent Hell Marshall knew she was on the outside of an inside joke. Jim West, Chief Division Agent for U.S. Internal-Operations in the City of Los Angeles, gripped the projector remote in one hand and a red penlight in the other. I-Ops was the law enforcement and surveillance arm of the government. Battlefield Operations was military, the muscle on the streets. I-Ops was pencil-pushers, spooks and cops and a few other things nobody admitted. West signaled one of the field agents to hit the lights. The room went dark. He clicked the remote and two seconds later Hell understood the silence. Shit.
"This is from a surveillance camera installed at the Golden Wing Spa and Health Center," West said. The camera had been placed behind the reception desk, so the back of a perky blonde head occasionally blocked a portion of the screen. Tuan Ng was clearly visible in the right corner of the shot.
Hell didn't move. Didn't change her expression. West was looking at her. Everyone was looking at her. She could feel it, but she kept her eyes glued to the screen. She didn't work for I-Ops anymore. They'd fired her ass nine months ago, and that meant her personal life was nobody's fucking business. She was here because Milos Sanders, Director of I-Ops in Crimson City, was the only friend she had left. Well, that and the promises he'd made to get her back for this assignment.
She wished she had the nerve to give up L.A. and move to her aunt Lucy's beach house in Bodega Bay. Her aunt wanted someone she trusted in the house. She could open a little coffee shop and serve killer espresso and sandwiches. At night she could sit on the porch, eat salt water taffy, breathe fresh air and watch the stars. It was a stupid fantasy, but it was all hers.
In the video, the perky receptionist kept looking in Tuan's direction. Tuan Ng was movie-star handsome and, now that Hell wasn't seeing him, notoriously available. If these jackass agents expected a scene, they were destined for disappointment. Her relationship with the vampire had been doomed from the start because he was a fang, and she wasn't.
On screen, the lobby door opened and one of the most beautiful men Hell had ever seen in her life walked in. He wore loose trousers and no shirt, and he had the pecs, abs and everything else to pull off the look plus more. His black hair was held back by two narrow braids that started at his temples and secured his long hair in a pony tail. Silver threads gleamed in the braids. His skin bordered on bronze, and he was ripped. Seriously, beautifully, ripped without looking like he spent hours in the gym. What was a guy like that doing in a place like the Golden Wing?
If you had the money, the Golden Wing accommodated any and all consenting adult interactions, regardless of species. Tuan's open-minded attitude cleared him a million and a half a week. A guy who looked like this one could have any woman he wanted with one flex of a pectoral. Flex the other and his beauty of choice would do any kinky thing he wanted. Mr. Gorgeous walked toward the reception desk camera. His eyes were a freakish pale amber. She'd never seen eyes quite that color.
"Can I help you?" the receptionist asked.
The man gestured and a flash of yellow light filled the screen. When it died down, the blonde was face down on the counter. Scarlet blood oozed around her head and dripped onto the floor. On screen, Tuan shouted. Six of his enforcers rushed into the lobby.
West paused the video and pointed his laser pen at the screen. "No need to identify him,"West said, centering the light on Tuan's forehead. "But this--" the light shifted to the bare-chested major god who was, it seemed, a deranged killer "--is our DX. Demon of unknown origin." Hell sat up. "For the uninformed in the room, Hell, he's been identified as a Bak-Faru demon."
She was an outsider now that she made her living as a private investigator. She didn't want to be a security guard, walking around some stupid shopping mall waiting for criminals to steal all the panties in Victoria's Secret. Tuan sent referrals as his way of making up for ruining her life, but working for vampires was a dicey business these days. A woman stuck in L.A. had to have a steady income, and for that, she needed her security clearance back. This job, courtesy of Milos Sanders, was her ticket to regular rent payments. If she did this for him, she might even get her old job back. She leaned back and clasped her hands behind her head. West stared at her exposed navel.
A self-employed former I-Ops Field Agent without the security clearance required for lucrative government jobs and who was also pissed off at losing her job for a lie, could, if called in to consult, arrive at the briefing dressed in, say, tight black low-rider pants, boots and a hot pink shirt that exposed the ring in her navel. But that would only be if she was bitter. There were perks to her current situation that made up for paying self-employment tax and her own insurance.
"You got your regular demons." West gave her his full attention, speaking as if he thought she was deaf or didn't understand English. True enough, she'd never worked demon detail, and she'd left I-Ops well before anyone knew much about them. But she wasn't ignorant. West was such a dickhead.
Hell rocked her chair back and checked out the only person here besides her who wasn't wearing a suit. Agent Jaden Lightfeather. The man oozed sex appeal, and she was having a hard time not staring. Ever since the fiasco of Tuan Ng, her libido had been on vacation. Whoa. Vacation over. He was exactly her type. She could feel the guy even when she wasn't looking at him. Agent Incredible Hunk had Native-American features, brown eyes and skin two shades darker than café au lait. On him, black clothes looked good instead of pretentious. He wore a silver earring. The small yet prohibited body decoration meant he was either undercover or covert. With his short hair, her money was on covert. Agent Incredible Hunk was scowling at West. So maybe he thought West was an asshole, too. All ready they had something in common.
West was still talking about demons. ". . . Mahsei, Elismal, Niteh, and so on. Then you have the mean ones. Dark demons. Setonian. Kivernian and the like. And way out here--" West gestured, spreading one arm wide and wiggling his fingers "--you have pure evil like our DX here. The Bak-Faru. They don't get any darker, meaner or more vicious than his kind. It didn't take many of those freaks to tear this city apart."
"Oh," Hell said as if a lightbulb had gone off. "I get it. Some demons are nice and friendly. Some of them are mean." She pointed at the screen. "And those ones are mean and nasty." Somebody snickered. Score one for Hell.
"Take a good look, Hell," West said, shining the penlight on the DX. "You ever see anything like that, it's the last thing you'll ever see."
"Fortunately," she said. "I don't believe in demons."
West snorted. "Didn't you get any smarter after they booted you out?"
"Just a better smartass, I guess." Of course she believed in demons. Anybody who'd lived in Crimson City these past months was either a fervent believer or dead or plain stupid.
"Cut the crap, Helen." Milos Sanders swivelled his chair. He never used her real name unless he was pissed, and the last thing Hell wanted was to piss off Milos. He'd been her mentor, practically a father to her, he'd kept her out of jail and tried to keep her from getting fired. She owed him.
West, the smug dickhead, clicked the remote. "Let's make a believer out of you, Hell."
The video started again. The DX faced his attackers. A yellow flash whitened the screen. When it faded, two of Tuan's enforcers were gone and the demon had another fang by the throat. The DX smiled with anticipation and then his hand blurred. The next thing she saw was him laughing, the fang's heart clenched in his fist with tendrils of smoke rising toward the ceiling. Tuan flew straight up, dragged by Fabienne, his primary enforcer. The remaining fangs met gruesome, bloody deaths she'd rather not have seen. The DX never broke a sweat.
West stood in front of the blue screen. One of the Field Agents, from the looks of him barely old enough to shave, raised a hand. "Sir. When was this film taken?"
"Three weeks ago."
"Impossible," Hell said. "There's no more demons in Crimson City."
"Go on, Jim." Milos, about forty, maybe forty-five, ran fingers through his prematurely grey hair.
West clicked the remote again and the screen showed two men and a woman drinking coffee. It was night, and they sat outside at a battered metal table bolted to a cracked sidewalk. Whenever the camera shifted left, part of a boarded-over window, heavily tagged with gang graffiti, came into view. Two armed men stood behind their table. Probably there were more out of sight. The camera angle wasn't straight on and every now and then the scene wobbled.
Hell crossed her legs and leaned forward, studying the faces. She was having a hard time forgetting the DX. She'd never seen anything kill like that and smile the whole time. Like he was having fun. During the major demon troubles, she'd been cooling her heels, and her heart, suspended from I-Ops, still thinking Milos could pull off a miracle and save her job.
On screen, street lights dimmed as a junkie walked in front of the table. One of the guards trained his MP5K on the junkie. The dominant man of the three was Caucasian, about thirty, maybe younger, and handsome if you liked them tall, broad-shouldered and with sandy-brown hair. The second man was Latino and whipcord thin. He had Mestizo features, and he would have been pretty if he didn't look so mean. The woman was Sybil Hu. Lacquered wooden sticks held up her black hair and Hell would bet good money the ends were razor sharp.
West froze the shot with the junkie in mid-step just past the table. The guard still had his gun trained on him. With the penlight, West trained a red dot on each of the subjects in turn. "Elijah Douglas, formerly of the LaRoux werewolf clan--" the red dot appeared on the dominant man "--now a rogue dog inhabiting the Lower." The dot moved. "Per Nielsen of the Skullhand Cazadores and Sybil Hu, Wang Li Tong."
The Incredible Hunk covert agent moved. Up to now, he'd been about as frisky as a block of granite. He touched his earring. Hell didn't much like what she was hearing. The idea of the Cazadores and the Wang Li Tong getting friendly made her stomach hurt. The Cazadores were a gang. A big gang with big money. They controlled the Lower, the worst section of Crimson City. If it was illegal, the Cazadores had a lock on it in their neighborhood, but their main source of income was illegal hunting. Any dog or fang who wanted a taste of the wild could go to the Cazadores, pay up and spend a night hunting with full denial from the City that anything of the sort went on. Nowadays, the Cazadores were expanding their territory and their business. A deal with the Wang Li Tong would get them into gambling, drugs and prostitution in a big way.
"Elijah," West continued, "is considered mentally unstable. However, he's a confirmed Alpha establishing the first known werewolf pack in this quadrant of the city. We estimate he's at ninety-five percent of what's required for stable pack structure."
That was scary. A crazy werewolf in charge of a pack in the Lower? Hand in paw with the Cazadores, who pretty much ran the Lower, and the Wang Li Tong? West ticked off the contents of the file Hell had been given after she cleared security about an hour ago. Per had been accused of multiple felonies: murder, attempted murder, accessory to conversion without informed consent, possession of controlled substances. No convictions. None of the charges was more recent than fifteen months. Going by his file, Per Nielsen was an all around nice guy who paid his taxes.
"Hu," West continued, "is Elijah's alpha female. Thought to have been illegally converted about six months ago." What West didn't have to say was that Hu headed the human division of the Tong. Tuan Ng headed the fang division. West was done playing with the penlight. He clicked the remote again. The junkie walked past the boarded up window and out of the shot, the guard lowered his MP5K, Elijah eyed Sybil's boobs and the video ended.
"Note," Hell said, bending over like she was writing. "Elijah the dog is a tit man." That got a few laughs and another sigh from Milos. Agent Hunk was deaf to her wit. Damn. Her attraction to him was out of hand if she was actually trying to get him to notice her. Have a little pride, woman! Did he have to be so freaking hot?
"I hope you were paying attention, Helen," Milos said. "Because I'm sending you after Elijah."
"Oh, goody," Hell said into the darkened room. More like, oh, fuck.
West turned on the lights and sat. He put down the remote but continued playing with the penlight. Everyone slumping on his chair sat straight. Except Hell and Agent Hunk. With cheekbones like that, his profile was to die for. She stayed slouched and crossed one leg over the other; Lightfeather didn't move. "What's the connection between Elijah Douglas and the DX?" she asked.
"We believe," Milos said with the smoothing of his hair that meant he was not as calm as he appeared, "that Elijah Douglas is constructing a new portal to the demon world."
"Shit," said one of other agents.
"No shit," Hell said softly.
"And that he has allied himself with certain demons trapped here since the portal was destroyed. We believe the attack on Tuan Ng was a test of what demons can do for him once Elijah has a working portal." Milos scanned the room. "This city can't survive another demon war. Therefore, it is the job of everyone in this room to take all necessary steps to neutralize stet that threat. Your job, Hell," Milos said, "is to convince Elijah Douglas it is in his interest to ally with us. Not demons. And not, God help us, to mend his fences with Tuan Ng."
West closed his folder with a palm slap. "She's a fang banger," he said. "She can't be trusted."
Hell leaned forward with both hands on the conference table. "Have I mentioned, Jim, how much I hate you?"
"Your relationship with Tuan Ng compromised an ongoing investigation." West directed the penlight to her forehead and left it there long enough to make his point about how much he hated her.
"I wasn't the leak, West."
"Bullshit. You were sleeping with the guy."
She slid her hands off the table and addressed Milos. "If Elijah's such a danger, take him down. Eliminate the risk entirely."
Milos was the only one who didn't look at Lightfeather.
"Well, then." She pointed at Agent Lightfeather. Damn, but he was good looking. The guy must be six-four and not a sign of gawkiness."He's trained to take out humans, dogs and fangs with a single weapons-appropriate shot. Let him take care of your problem with Elijah Douglas."
Lightfeather mouthed the words, "fuck you."
"Same to you," she said sweetly. She wished. Just her luck, he didn't like chicks with short hair and navel rings.
Milos sighed. "Helen, you may be the only person who can get to Elijah right now."
"And why is that?" she asked, forcing herself not to look at Lightfeather.
"Ng and Douglas are in the middle of a war."
Her affair with Ng had been the stuff of tabloid headlines for far longer than the subject was interesting or even accurate. There wasn't anybody who didn't know about her and Tuan Ng, even mentally unstable dogs and hunky covert agents. She stared at Milos. "If all you wanted was for me to get your assassin close enough to blow some fucking dog's head off, you should have said so from the start."
Jaden Lightfeather rolled his eyes. "Is she always like this?"
Crap. The assassin had a sexy voice.
Milos spread his fingers on the table. He wore a wedding band, but his wife had died before Hell started at I-Ops. "My ass is on the line for you, Helen, so sit up and listen. We won't get a second chance. If we eliminate Elijah then his Beta or some other dog we don't know takes his place and God knows what happens. If, however, you do your job, as I know you can, then Elijah plays on our side. If do your job well, Elijah and his demons play with us instead of against us."
"Then why do you need him?" She glared at Jaden.
"Jim, tell Hell who killed your predecessor on this team."
"Tuan Ng." West smiled at her. "Say, are you still dating him?"
"I heard Tuan is great in the sack," West said. "That true? Did he do it for you?"
She heard several snickers. "I heard you're an asshole," she replied. "And I know that's true."
West clicked on the penlight and pointed it at her head again. "You filing a pair of nice sharp fangs, Hell?"
She pushed out of her chair, shaking with anger. "Guys, it's been an honor, honest, but get yourself another patsy for this job."
"Afraid to smile for us?" West asked.
Milos stood up hard enough that his chair crashed to the floor. "That's enough." The room went quiet. "Step out of line again, West, and you're off this task force." He looked around the room, ending with her. "We believe Ng won't be so quick to dispatch you if you succeed in getting close to Elijah. In addition to turning Elijah, we want you to find out who's controlling the DX and where that damn portal is so we can destroy it. Is that clear?"
"And, while Lightfeather is quite capable of wet work, that's a last resort."
"You want him to babysit me? I do not need a babysitter." Hell was far too aware of Jaden's attention on her, and it sent another shiver of arousal through her. Hunk or not, she didn't want I-Ops guarding her back.
Milos righted his chair and sat with his clasped his hands atop a black folder. "Agent Lightfeather's job is to keep you alive until you've done what you're supposed to."
"Yeah," said one of the agents. "But if he offs Elijah, Tuan or the DX, that's a bonus."
"Maybe he'll off Hell," someone said to more than a few chuckles.
Hell gave the room the finger.
Milos glared at her. Like she hadn't been provoked. "You are not to interfere with Lightfeather."
She slumped on her chair. "What if he interferes with me?"
"He won't." Milos's interlaced fingers tightened.
"Hell," West said. "Just do the job you're being fucking paid to do, all right?"
She ignored West. "And for doing this I get?"
"Your discharge from U.S. Internal-Operations will indicate a voluntary separation retroactive to the date of your administrative leave."
"What about my clearance?" Voluntary dismissal opened the door to reinstatement.
"That, too." Milos licked his lips. "Do we have a deal?"
She waited a beat. "Sure."
Milos smiled. "I hope you like Moroccan."
"Love it," she said.
"Excellent. Because the dog will be at Mimouza tonight." He pushed the black folder at her. It slid about half way and stopped. She leaned across the table and grabbed the edge with her fingertips. "Bring me Ng, Elijah and the DX, Hell. I know you can."
Her response was automatic. "Yes, sir."
Milos smiled again and for a minute, she was back before her life went down the toilet, when she'd been Milos Sanders's most promising field agent. "I wouldn't be putting my career on the line for you if I didn't believe that."
"Thanks, Chief." She pulled the folder toward her and caught West staring down her shirt. Perv. She glanced at Jaden. He wasn't looking. "Hey, Lightfeather. When do you want to meet up?"
Jaden shook his head. "I stick with you twenty-four seven."
"That's really great." She put the black folder on top of the others, looking at Lightfeather while she did. "Come on then, gorgeous. Let's go bag ourselves a dog, a fang and a DX."