I’d been watching Dave “Pied Piper” Hamelin for a couple of days, waiting for the right moment to bring him in for his most recent screwup. Dave was a registered sex offender who’d reportedly blown the terms of his parole: no kids, no hookers, no booze. Period. And as an Enforcer for the FMA, it’s my job to, well,
the laws of our kind by any means necessary.
Fortunately, Dave hadn’t slipped up on the first condition this time—otherwise some other Enforcer would be hunting me down and dragging my ass in for murder. But, too bad for Dave, when he
resurface from a prolonged period of flying under the radar, he was bare-assed and shit-faced at a brothel run by one of my best informants.
One thing you learn in this business—keep your friends close and your informants closer. I’d spent decades forming my network of snitches and knew exactly who to go to when I wanted the best inside information. For people like Dave who couldn’t control their more questionable proclivities for very long, Happy Endings was pretty much a foregone conclusion. This wasn’t the first time I’d picked up Dave here and probably wouldn’t be the last.
I checked my watch, noting the time. Seven o’clock on the dot. Dave’s compulsion for punctuality was legendary—he never missed a deadline and expected the same courtesy in return. Knowing he’d be showing up any second now, I scrunched down a little lower in the seat of my jalopy masquerading as a Range Rover until I could just barely see over the dashboard.
Dave and I’d had a few go-arounds in the past, so I knew he wasn’t going to be glad to see me and didn’t want him to bolt and go into hiding again. Considering that he owned and operated a successful, environmentally friendly, and totally green pest control business and rarely deviated from his highly ordered life, the guy was surprisingly hard to corner.
Squinting against the setting sun that backlit the building across the street from me, I shook my head in dismay as Dave pulled up to the curb in his BMW. He jauntily hopped out, tossing his keys to the waiting valet.
What a dumb-ass.
You’d think someone who’d spent the last couple hundred years nickel-and-diming it in an FMA prison would be a little more careful, but the fact that he’d been visiting his favorite haunt for a little slap and tickle every night for the past couple of days had made him complacent and sloppy. An idiocy twofer.
I got out of the Rover and hurried across the street, grabbing the keys from the valet and pitching them down the chute of a blue mailbox.
“What the hell, lady?” the shocked, freckle-faced teenager demanded. “I’m going to lose my freaking job!”
I paused midstride and gave the kid a bemused look.
I repeated. “Kid, if you’re going to start something with me, go big or go home.”
He screwed up his face at me as I bolted up the rest of the steps and through the brothel’s bright red door. The red door was a bit cliché, sure, but as far as these places went, Happy Endings honestly was about as classy as you could get.
A grumpy looking dwarf—no, really, he’s a dwarf, long beard and everything—gave me a nod as I passed through the foyer in search of my pal Dave. Seeing me coming, paranoid patrons skittered back into their alcoves and love dens. Knowing me either by sight or by reputation, they were smart enough to get out of my way as I plowed a path to the fantasy suite where I knew Dave would be getting busy.
I was just reaching for the yawning lion’s head doorknob when a buzzing at my hip and the sudden strains of Combichrist’s “Red” made me jump. Too late, I realized I’d forgotten to silence the ringer on my cell phone. I cursed under my breath at the unforgivable oversight and reflexively hit the button on the side. But the rustling within the room told me that I wasn’t the only one who’d heard it.
“Great,” I huffed, leaning away from the door and giving it a powerful kick with my battered and worn combat boot. “So much for surprises.”
As the door swung open, I caught a glimpse of Dave’s back disappearing out the room’s emergency exit. A startled, pigtailed blonde pretending to be half her age hastily gathered the sheet over her bare breasts.
“Sweetie, you do this for a living,” I muttered as I rushed toward the back door. “Little late for modesty, don’t you think?”
I heard Goldilocks call something in the general direction of my departing, but didn’t bother trying to decipher it. Probably nothing I hadn’t heard before.
“Come on, Dave!” I hollered into the darkening alley I now traveled, my knees pumping as my boots pounded the pavement. “You know how this is going to end.”
I paused to catch my breath and listen for movement. Suddenly, something zipped past my face, startling me into a defensive crouch.
“What the hell?”
Not eager to get myself shot, I drew my own weapon and pressed closer against the bricks, creeping more slowly toward where I could hear Dave’s ragged breathing.
“You shooting at me, Dave?” I called out, inching farther along. “You’re a jerk and a pedophile, but you’re not a murderer. Throw the gun on the ground where I can see it.”
“Leave me alone, Red!” came the shaky reply.
“You know the drill, Dave. It’s no big deal—”
Another wild shot rang out, ricocheting off the brick and sending up a cloud of red dust.
“Damn it, Dave! Watch what you’re doing!”
“I mean it!” he yelled back, his voice taking on an edge of hysteria that made me nervous. “You don’t understand, Red. I can’t let you take me in!”
me, Dave,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “I’ll make sure—”
This time when the gun fired, the bullet wasn’t for me.
One nice thing about being a former fairytale is that we’re damned hard to kill—more or less immortal, really, when it comes to the usual ways of buying the farm—but one thing that’s guaranteed to get the job done is a bullet to the brain. And Dave had managed it beautifully.
“Damn it, Dave,” I muttered, squatting down beside him. “What the hell scared you this badly?”
“Hey ya, Red.”
My head snapped up quickly at the sound of a familiar voice. “Hey, Nate,” I said with a grin. “You almost scared me to death.”
He threw his head back with a burst of mirth that always seemed at odds with this kind of crime scene, but I guess after so many years of collecting the dead as a Reaper, he’d become desensitized to it all.
Nate Grimm came over in the forties and had been so enamored with the post-WWII era he’d never really left it. Let’s just say if he’d suddenly faded to black and white and started doing his own voice-over narration in that world-weary raspy voice of his, I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised. I’d never seen him in anything except an impeccably tailored wool suit, simple silk tie, and an overcoat that looked like a prop from
And the fedora that covered his dark hair was such a permanent fixture, I often found myself debating if the shadows shrouding his handsome face were from the hat or some other, more mysterious source.
Nate was the FMA’s top homicide detective and, by virtue of his special talents, always knew when one of us had checked out before you could even call it in. Anybody
dialed into death was a shade or two this side of creepy, but still, I couldn’t help liking the guy—even if in the back of my mind I knew he’d eventually be coming for me, too. There was just something about him that had always intrigued me.
Chomping his gum with the kind of rabid intensity that defined everything he did, Nate ambled over to Dave’s body, hands buried deep in his pockets. For a long moment, he studied the gore at my feet, his thoughts churning almost visibly behind his stoic expression. “Offed himself, huh?”
I nodded, knowing that I was still frowning. “Doesn’t make any sense, though,” I told him, rising to my feet. “I was only bringing him in for a minor parole violation. Nothing serious. But something had him scared enough to dread going back to prison. Any ideas what he’d be so afraid of?”
Nate’s bottomless black eyes flashed briefly with a haunting light as he considered my question and mangled his gum with increased vigor. I could practically see the wheels turning. Then, finally, he shook his head. “Nah. I got nothin’.”
“Some detective you are,” I taunted, casting a wry grin his way and receiving a handsome, good-natured smile in return.
Nate jerked his head toward my hip. “You gonna get that?” I’d been so caught up in bantering with Nate I hadn’t noticed my phone was ringing again. With a groan at the unwelcome interruption, I snatched up the offending device and glanced at the number before answering.
“Tess! I’m so delighted to have finally caught you,” came the slightly husky, softly accented voice of my best—and pretty much only—girlfriend. “Is this a bad time?”
I tried not to sigh. “Uh, yeah, actually,” I admitted, edging back toward the opening of the alley and away from Dave’s body. “I’m kind of in the middle of something. I’m really sorry—”
“Not at all,” Eliza said quickly. “I had hoped that perhaps you’d like to join me for tea this evening. Or perhaps a glass of wine? Darcy is away on business. . . .”
I glanced over my shoulder to check on the progress of the investigation and was startled to see that Nate had followed me. He stood with his arms crossed, grinning smugly while he watched me struggle with abruptly downshifting to girly mode.
“Uh, sure,” I relented. “Yeah. I can come by after I finish here. See you soon.”
the lovely Mrs. Bennet-Darcy?” Nate asked as I pocketed my phone once more.
“Piss off,” I snapped. “You’re just jealous she prefers my company to yours.”
Nate’s laugh burst out again, echoing in the alley. “Perceptive as always, Red. Tell me your secret, or I’ll have no choice but to unleash my charm.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “And what charm would that be?”
Nate grabbed my arm and spun me around once, dropping me back into a dancer’s dip so swiftly it stole my breath. “The same charm you find so irresistible.”
I’d never really thought so until now as I suddenly found myself knocked off balance and held tightly in the arms of Death himself.
My instinct was to make some smart-ass quip, but as I became very aware of his arms wrapped around me, one hand pressed firmly in the small of my back, I was completely enveloped by him. Every sense soaked him in, making it hard for me to breathe—let alone put together a coherent thought. And when he offered me that mischievous wink of his, my stomach unexpectedly danced a little jig.
What the hell?
Nate wasn’t a particularly big guy, even though at an inch or so shy of six feet tall he had a good foot of height on me. But he had the kind of strong, broad shoulders you knew you could count on to back you in a fight and an imposing presence that made everyone wary the minute he walked into a room. Everyone but me, that is. I found his presence comforting, soothing—and, at that moment, incredibly and disconcertingly sexy.
My confusion and bewilderment must have leaked into my expression because Nate’s altered as well, becoming far more sober than I’d ever seen. For one crazy, mind-numbing moment, I thought he might actually kiss me.
Fortunately, just as things were getting too weird for my liking, my phone went off again, making us both start and practically jump apart. Still rattled by what had just occurred, I reflexively answered the phone, my eyes never leaving Nate’s and noting with surprise what looked like disappointment shining there.
“This is Red.”
While I listened to my boss’s sharp directive, I followed Nate with my eyes as he returned his attention to the crime scene and began to walk a slow, careful perimeter. A moment later, a nondescript black cargo van pulled up at the end of the alley. Two huge dudes in black suits and sunglasses sprang out to guard the entrance to the alley as the forensics team piled out, their unmarked black equipment cases in hand.
“What do we have, Grimm?” Trish Muffet, the coroner and lead forensics Investigator, pulled on a pair of latex gloves with a no-nonsense snap as she approached. Her buttercup yellow ringlets made her seem a lot mousier than she was, but this gal sure wasn’t afraid of spiders anymore. Or anything else, I imagined.
As Nate took Trish on a tour of the scene, I gave myself a mental shake and turned my attention back to the irritated voice on the other end of the line. “Yeah, I heard you,” I replied. “I’m on my way.”
Deciding to leave them to it and get to headquarters as I’d just been commanded, I hurried off toward my worn and battered Rover, mustering all my resolve to keep from glancing over my shoulder to where I knew Nate was watching me go. I could feel his gaze on me, willing me to turn around. In all the times I’d been around him and all the times we’d worked a crime scene together, I’d never noticed that pull between us, but I sure as hell noticed it now.