* * *
Jaden saw the mottled gray police unit barreling down the street and sighed. If she let the street rat take the fall for her burglary, she'd have joined the ranks of the despicable thing she hunted. As she organized her explanation to enable his escape a bright flash came from the Museum side of the street.
Instinct had her tucked and rolling out of danger as the driver of the evidence van fought for control with a laser-melted front tire.
How in the hell did a smart aleck street rat land a police-issue pursuit-stopping device?
When the raucous scrape of metal on asphalt ceased, she came to her feet and stared at the van. It lay on its side with black clouds of electrical smoke rising from the rear. Watching the driver stumble from the wreck, she turned for home. But when his agonized bellow carried above the screeching of the alarms, Jaden felt the pull of the driver's desperation.
Mindful of the diary, she approached. Keeping her hands visible, she moved with caution born of several hard lessons. The cop looked as hopeless as a drowning victim. She didn't intend to let him drag her under.
He ranted and wrestled with the crumpled door, too busy to worry about her.
Jaden didn't need cohesive conversation to understand there was another man trapped inside. Evidence processing equipment was expensive, but not priceless. It gave her weary spirit a lift to see how frantic one man could be to save another.
Leaving him to his battle, she put her dagger to work on the hinges of the door. Between adrenaline and training, the door gave way and the cop outside pulled the inside man clear of the burning van.
Familiar enough with death, Jaden knew they were too late, and she wished for tears enough to weep over the loss. One bold street rat bent on escape just cost a man's life.
Everything has a price.
The echoing words taunted her. Then she recognized the dead man. "Larry," she gasped.
The surviving partner heard and turned on her. "What do you know about him? About this?"
He grabbed her shoulders and shook her while she tried to recall his name. Chad, Charlie, no–
"Chuck. Chuck, ease up buddy," she said through rattling teeth.
"Who the hell are you?" Chuck demanded.
"The security specialist? This was some miserable test run?"
She wouldn't take the easy way out–couldn't. Not with Larry's blood staining the street. "No, no test. It must've been a real call."
"And you just magically appear during a real call? This was some damned department party. Well I hope they're slaphappy about it. I'm a man short and he was a good one. He had a future."
His fingers bit into her shoulders, taking her body back to another man, a different sort of attack. In a blur, she broke his hold and caught herself before she landed the follow-through punch.
"Take a step back, Chuck. You're upset. When you see the download, you'll feel better." It pained her to lay blame on Larry, but she offered the most likely scenario. "If Larry wasn't buttoned down, it's no one's fault."
Chuck's face reddened and she saw his pulse accelerate in the jump of a blood vessel in his temple. "I know what a lasered tire feels like. And I know how and where to look for evidence, Michaels. Get the hell outta my face before I do something real stupid."
The adrenaline made her itch for the fight he offered. But pushing her luck here and now put the diary at risk and muddied her true path. She left the messy scene in Chuck's capable hands and replayed the events in her mind.
She hoped the street rat made the best of his good fortune. She'd count her blessings to never cross paths with him again.
The ache began as a slow burn in her stomach and climbed painfully toward her heart with every step away from the collateral damage. She knew her normal cool detachment would eventually return, but prayed it would hurry.
She could've spared the street rat a month of prickly injections by providing a cover story, especially with Larry on the case. Hell, she never should've let the street rat into the museum at all. She'd been around often enough to have developed better judgment.
"Ah, don't beat yourself up."
She gasped. "Quit sneaking up on me, Cleveland."
"Pay more attention," he countered.
"I've paid enough as it is." Jaden made a valiant effort to control her sorry mood. "How'd you find me?"
"Anyone with a scanner could find you, girl."
She knew she paled because Cleveland reached out to steady her. She brushed aside the assistance.
"I meant anyone who knows you and has a scanner."
"Funny." No one really knew her. "What do you want?"
"I'm your escort to your next appointment."
"My next appointment's with my pillow."
"Tempting as that image is," he said, wiggling his brows. "You've got a class first."
"How'd you know anything about that?"
He swung an arm over her shoulder and guided her around a corner away from her own place. "I'm the only trusted soul on the street, my fair Jaden."
"You've been watching the history channel again."
"Nope. But I've been through a museum or two lately. You should go. Get you some culture," he teased.
She glared at him.
"Ouch girl, don't give me the hairy eyeball just 'cuz you screwed up."
She glared more, but at the ground this time. "He wasn't strapped in. Couldn't've been." Completely unlike the Larry she'd worked with for years. "Follow protocol or die, I always say."
"Protocol!" Cleveland laughed. "Keep it up and some day you might convince me you're just that harsh."
He opened his arms and she stepped into his embrace, taking this one moment to grieve the unnecessary loss. She backed away, automatically checking for the diary and daggers. True to his word, Cleveland hadn't ripped her off.
"Told you I wouldn't," he said.
She smiled, feeling better. "Guess there's good reason you're the only trusted soul on the street."
"Yup." He grinned. "You live above it."
She shrugged off the odd compliment. "Whatever. Let's get this gig over. I've got things to do. Like sleep. If you're the escort, show me proof of the transfer."
He pulled the slim black remote from his inside pocket. The monitor showed the agreed amount ready to transfer to the account of her choosing. She made Cleveland turn away and shielded the keypad with her free hand as she punched in her codes.
"Done," she said, handing the remote back to him. "Lead on, oh trusted one."
He replaced the remote and wrapped her hand around his arm, a chivalrous move she hadn't seen in ages. "Such lovely company in the past. Wouldn't you agree?"
She made herself chuckle. She hoped the past would be her friend and provide the answer to get her soul 'unstuck'. She was tired of battle and desperate to break the cycle. She couldn't fail to banish the evil this time. She wasn't sure she had the strength to live again.
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Genre – Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy
Rating – PG-13