Free Mystery Feature October 2021 | Puncher’s Chance: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Puncher's Chance Kira Brightwell coverLocal hero and problem solver for hire, Kira Brightwell finds herself on the run. Again.

Her running shoes pound the crowded sidewalk. A trickle of sweat slithers down her back in the California heat. And the damp remains of scrambled egg spatter the front of her favorite Nine Inch Nails T-shirt.

The egg stain earns her a few looks from passers-by. That and her breakneck pace.

Kira’s quarry remains two blocks ahead of her. She needs to haul ass if she wants to catch him.

…Because when a bad guy messes with her favorite shirt, the case gets personal.

A stand-alone misadventure story from the Kira Brightwell mystery series by award-winning author Jacquelyn Smith.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format–both on its own, and as part of the Third Round Kira Brightwell Collection.

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Paperback available at:


Puncher’s Chance: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Jacquelyn Smith

Today

Kira Brightwell ran through the downtown streets of La Valentia, her long, dark-brown ponytail streaming in the air behind her.

The soles of her running shoes pounded the sidewalk as her arms and legs pumped in a steady rhythm. A trickle of sweat dribbled down the back of her scrambled egg spattered Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, snaking its way to the waistline of her jeans. Even though it was only mid morning, the summer air was already warm, thanks to the California sun.

Her quarry was roughly a block ahead of her.

He glanced back over his shoulder. His tousled, ginger hair was starting to plaster to his forehead. His chain mail patterned T-shirt and flapping apron earned him some odd looks from passers-by.

His eyes widened as he saw how close Kira was.

He turned back around and pumped his gangly legs even faster.

Kira stifled a curse and forced herself to a sprint. A familiar, male voice called out to her from somewhere behind, but she ignored it. She focused on the sound of her own breathing and the pounding of her heart in her ears instead. Her green eyes narrowed.

She could still catch him.

Thanks to four years of MMA training, she had cardio for days. She doubted the scrawny young man she was chasing had ever set foot in a gym. Yes, his legs were longer, and he had a head start, but he would gas out eventually.

That was what she told herself, anyway.

She stifled a yelp of surprise as a woman with a stroller wheeled out of a bakery storefront in a waft of cinnamon, directly into Kira’s path. Kira sidestepped to avoid crashing into her and nearly collided with a burly, biker type with sleeve tattoos on his muscled arms and a long, grizzled beard.

She dodged him, only to just miss tripping into his parked bike as she stumbled onto the street in her haste. A car honked as the driver swerved around her, missing her by inches. She couldn’t hear the driver’s curses at her through the car’s closed windows, but she could read his lips easily enough, especially with the accompanying hand gestures.

She shook herself and stepped back onto the sidewalk, ignoring the stares she had earned.

Where is he?

She craned her neck to look.

There. He was almost two blocks ahead now. She would have to haul ass to catch up…

This time, she kept a wary eye on the passing storefronts, giving them a wide berth whenever possible. Why were so many people out and about today?

Then again, maybe this was the usual traffic for this area. Kira didn’t exactly get out much, other than to go to the gym.

…Or chase down bad guys.

She shook her head to herself and pushed her pace. The gap between her and her quarry slowly began to close. He looked back a few more times, but he couldn’t seem to push himself any faster, despite the panicked expression on his freckled face.

Soon, she was less than half a block away.

Kira put on a final burst of speed and caught up with him.

He sensed her behind him and turned around as they neared the entrance to a side street. Kira skidded to a stop in front of him.

“Please,” he said in a breathless voice before swallowing. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he raised his hands in a warding gesture. “I—”

The rest of his words were drowned out by the loud beeping of a construction vehicle, somewhere down the side street behind him. Kira shook her head with a frown of incomprehension.

The young man’s head turned in the direction of the sound. He stepped backward off the curb.

“Hey,” Kira shouted at him over the beeping. “Where do you think you’re—”

His back foot slipped on something. His blue eyes widened as his arms began to flail.

Kira leaned forward to grab him, only to end up getting clipped on the jaw by one of his fists.

Her head snapped backward and stars danced across her vision as her legs wobbled beneath her.

She clung to consciousness with every fiber of her being. The anger definitely helped. She might be rocked, thanks to one lucky punch, but she was damned if she was going to get knocked out by some gangly, untrained kid, who had probably hit her by accident…

She realized she was looking up at the cloudless, blue sky and falling backward. She struggled to steady herself. She uttered a breathless grunt as she connected with something solid behind her that was too high up to be the ground.

She stumbled forward to compensate. Her right foot slipped off the curb at an odd angle with all her weight on it. She uttered a frustrated hiss of pain.

This was not going well. At all.

“Whoops… Are you OK?” the same familiar, male voice that had called out to her earlier asked from behind. “I was trying to catch you, not knock you over.”

She turned around to find Trevor Wright standing behind her. He gave her a rare look of chagrin as he ran his hand through his blond curls before running them over his blue polo shirt and khaki shorts to straighten them. He looked down at his sandalled feet with a grimace.

“Not exactly made for high-speed chases on foot. I’ll have to book a pedicure for tomorrow.”

Kira rolled her eyes at him before remembering the young man who was the cause of this whole mess. She whirled toward the side street with a groan that was only partially from her throbbing ankle.

A large dump truck was backing out onto the main road.

The man she had been chasing had already slipped past the side street during the confusion. Kira caught a glimpse of him through the narrow gap between the bed of the reversing dump truck and the cab as he ran away.

A few moments later, when the dump truck had finally cleared the main road entrance, Kira caught sight of the young man again.

…Just as he was getting inside a taxi.

Trevor clapped a consoling hand on her shoulder as the taxi sped off. “You almost had him.”

Kira shook his hand away with a string of curses. “Maybe I would have had him if some blundering oaf hadn’t knocked me off the sidewalk and twisted my ankle…”

“Oaf? Me?” Trevor shot her a look of askance and gestured toward his own lean, muscular frame. “Are you sure you didn’t catch him because he almost knocked you out with a single punch? That’s not going to help your reputation, you know.” He raised an eyebrow at her.

Kira scowled. “He got lucky. I don’t even think he was trying to punch me.”

“Then how the hell does someone like that kid manage to rock an MMA-trained crime fighter?”

She gave him a dark look. She had never set out to be any kind of crime fighter. All she wanted was to find and take down the man who had abducted her four years ago.

“Everyone has a puncher’s chance,” she grumbled.

It was true. The constant potential of a major upset was one of the main things that made fighting so popular as a sport.

She winced as she stroked her aching jaw and shifted her weight from her right foot to her left. She glared at the place where she had seen the man responsible climb into a cab.

“Trust me, he won’t be so lucky next time.”


One Hour Earlier

Kira raised an eyebrow at Trevor as their gangly, ginger-haired waiter left them to mull over the menu.

“Really?” she said to him as soon as the waiter was out of earshot.

Trevor blinked his blue eyes in confusion. “What?”

“‘Eggscalibur’?” Kira pointed at the name of the all-day breakfast restaurant that was printed in medieval-style font on the front of the laminated menu.

Trevor frowned. “I thought you would like it. You know, since you’re such a nerd about that Xena show and everything. I mean, look!”

He raised the butter knife from his paper napkin and slashed it through the air with enthusiasm. It was stylized to look like a small sword. Kira looked around the restaurant to take in the rest of the ambiance with a bewildered look.

The staff were all dressed in gray T-shirts that were patterned to look like chain mail, and the music playing over the restaurant’s speakers wouldn’t have been out of place at a renaissance fair. But the familiar smell of greasy-spoon breakfast was the same as any other breakfast diner Kira had ever visited—complete with the smoky, mouthwatering smell of bacon.

She shrugged. “It just doesn’t seem like your kind of place.” She gave Trevor a pointed look.

Trevor was the son of one of the wealthiest men in town and had lived his life as a lazy, pampered playboy. He would have looked more at home eating at the local country club in his blue polo shirt and khaki shorts. Even though his favorite outfit might seem casual, the quality and cut of the fabric were clearly designer make. No way some polo shirt just off the rack would have managed to hug Trevor’s muscled frame like a second skin…

“I figure I can get away with slumming it when I’m with you.”

Trevor almost managed to utter the words without smirking. Kira snatched up her butter-knife sword and menaced him with it. He dropped his own weapon in mock surrender just as their waiter returned to take their order.

Kira knew she and Trevor made an odd pair. And if she was being honest with herself, she would have never imagined sitting across from him and having breakfast back when she was in high school. He had been an insufferable snob and bully back then, and Kira had been one of his chief targets. One of the things she had been most excited about on graduation day was that it was the last time she would ever have to see him again.

But the abduction of his sister several months ago by the same man Kira had managed to escape from four years ago had changed everything…

“You really should consider talking to the press,” Trevor said between sips of coffee sometime later. They were the first serious words he had uttered the entire meal. “I mean, first, you manage to escape and rescue seven other women in the process.”

Kira gave a noncommittal shrug. That was old news. Besides, she hadn’t had any kind of special training or anything. She had just been lucky (and maybe a bit clever).

Then, you rescue my sister from the same guy,” Trevor continued.

“Except he got away,” Kira said around a mouthful of buttered toast. Her lips twisted at the memory of the Procurer slipping through her fingers.

“And then, you find Raymond Stirling’s stolen brooch and reveal that his wife was an impostor!” Trevor said, as if Kira hadn’t interrupted.

Kira winced. Raymond Stirling was a billionaire investor philanthropist and local icon. While she had technically solved the case of his missing brooch (and he had paid her handsomely for it), she doubted the ultimate outcome of the case had pleased him.

Besides, the Procurer had also been involved, and she had just missed him. Again. She still didn’t even know what he looked like, and the police had no leads.

“Seriously, Kira,” Trevor said as he met her green gaze. “You should talk to at least one of the local reporters. It would help to get them off your case. What’s the big deal, anyway?”

Kira squirmed in her vinyl-lined seat on her side of the booth. “I don’t like being the center of attention, and I don’t want to answer a bunch of nosy questions.”

The local press had dubbed her a hero ever since her abduction escape, but she knew she was just a normal person. (Well, maybe not exactly normal, but still…)

Things had built up even more since her more recent successes. She was positive the moment she sat down and talked to one of the local reporters, they would realize she wasn’t really anyone special at all. Not that she wanted to be special, but she also didn’t want to be labeled a fraud, just because a few story-hungry reporters had put her on a pedestal without actually getting to know her…

“So don’t answer any nosy questions,” Trevor said before diving back into his stack of syrup-drenched pancakes. “It’s not like you don’t know how to be intimidating when someone rubs you the wrong way.”

Kira glared at him.

“Yes, like that.” He gestured toward Kira’s fist, which was clutched around the handle of her bread-knife sword again.

She forced her fingers to relax. “What do you care if I talk to the press?” Her eyes narrowed. “Are you looking to get a bit of the limelight yourself?”

Trevor had inserted himself into her investigation into his sister’s disappearance, and he had been hounding her footsteps ever since. As much as she hated to admit it, he had actually been useful on occasion. (Not that she would ever feed his overweening ego by telling him.)

“What? No!” Trevor shook his head in dismissal. “Everyone who’s anyone already knows who I am.”

Kira rolled her eyes.

He gave her dubious expression a negligent wave. “What I mean is that it might be better to make friends with the press. They could come in handy.” He leaned forward with an earnest look. “And if you don’t give them something to write about while things are going well, they might not be as kind when something doesn’t work out.”

Kira frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Trevor shrugged. “Just look at the tabloids. Everyone loves to see a celebrity get knocked off their pedestal.”

Kira snorted. “I’m not a celebrity.”

“You are in La Valentia. Look, you don’t have to give them your life story,” he continued in a reasonable tone. “Just a little something to keep you in their good graces. After all, good publicity means good cases.”

“What, are you my PR guy now?” Kira looked at him in askance. She wasn’t interested in good cases. She just wanted to find the Procurer.

Now it was Trevor’s turn to roll his eyes. “Well you could definitely use one. You’re a little…”

Kira raised an eyebrow at him as their waiter returned with the bill.

Trevor cleared his throat. “…rough around the edges.”

Kira sighed. She knew his assessment was fair, even though she suspected he’d originally had a different description in mind.

She reached for her wallet to pay her half of the bill. Even though Trevor could easily afford to pay for the whole thing, Kira had no interest in letting anyone think this might be a date.

She took out a few bills and left her wallet on the table.

“What are you doing?” Trevor demanded.

“Paying my half.”

Trevor snorted. “What, you think I can’t cover a couple of breakfasts?”

“I know you can,” Kira said in an even tone. Even though she had been spending more time with Trevor lately, he could transport her right back to their high school days when his arrogance came out full-force. “I just want to pay my half.”

Trevor gave her a measuring look. “Is this because you broke up with Jeff? You want to assert your independence now that you’re sing—”

Kira snatched up her butter-knife sword and leaned across the table to point it at him. Trevor leaned back against the padded bench, his blue eyes widening and his mouth opening in protest.

Kira caught a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye.

She turned around to see their waiter reaching for her wallet.

“Hey!” she blurted in protest.

Her butter knife dropped to the table with a dull clang as she swung around to reach for him.

The young man’s blue eyes widened. He snatched the wallet toward him.

His freckled arm collided with Kira’s plate. The remains of her scrambled eggs landed against the front of her T-shirt with a damp splatter.

Kira rushed to her feet, but the young man was already moving. He skittered backward, banging into a busboy in a hairnet carrying a large tray of dirty plates. The busboy flew backward and the contents of his tray went flying.

Kira shielded her face as several dishes hurled toward her. The sound of breaking ceramic filled the air as the dishes smashed against the table and the floor. People all around the restaurant cried out in surprise and alarm.

Kira lowered her arms.

The busboy was sitting on the tiled floor with a bewildered look on his face, surrounded by bits of unfinished food and broken plates. For a moment, the only sound was the cheerful tune of someone playing a wooden flute over the restaurant’s speakers.

Kira looked across the dining room in time to see the red-haired waiter slip out the front door.


Now

Kira limped back through the front door of the restaurant. Her right ankle was still throbbing. Trevor had offered to support her during the walk back, but she had refused. The sprain was only a mild one—more of an annoyance than anything else.

The interior of Eggscalibur was practically empty, aside from the staff, who were busy clearing tables. The busboy who had been knocked over was still sweeping up the remains of the broken plates. The steady swishing and clinking sounds of his work created an off-beat counterpoint to the medieval-themed music that was still playing.

A medium height, sturdy, black woman stood in the middle of the restaurant with her hands planted on her hips as she oversaw the cleanup. She was immaculately dressed in slacks and a ruffled, mauve blouse. Her glossy, dark curls were highlighted with copper and swished around her shoulders as she turned around at the sound of the front door opening. Her eyes narrowed as she caught sight of Kira and Trevor.

“Come back to pay for the damage you caused?” She raised an eyebrow at them in accusation.

“What?” Kira blurted.

The woman strode over toward them, the heels of her shoes clicking against the tile floor. The teasing scent of her perfume mingled with the smell of bacon on the grill.

“I saw you chase off poor Cole.” She glared up at Kira, her gaze wandering to her bruised jaw. “You didn’t hurt him, did you? If you did—”

Kira stepped forward to say something, but Trevor shouldered her aside with a pointed look down at her hands. Kira realized she had balled them into fists.

“Ah, maybe you didn’t see exactly what happened,” Trevor said. He flashed the woman one of his trademark, charming smiles.

It didn’t seem to thaw the woman any.

“Then what did happen, exactly?” she demanded. “I know I saw you two skip out on paying for your meal right after you made my busboy drop all his dishes. Then, you chased one of my waiters down the street. No wonder all my customers left.” Her brown eyes flashed.

Trevor gave her an offended look. “We did not skip out on paying,” he said in a bit of a huff. Why do you think we came back?”

Kira bit her lip. Actually, paying for the meal had been the last thing on her mind. She had wanted to come back to the restaurant to try to find out more about the young man who had taken her wallet.

Trevor pulled out his own wallet and handed over a pair of bills—hundreds. “I’m sure this will cover the cost of our meal and whatever dishes were broken.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed again as she gave him a measuring look. “Is this some kind of payoff to make me look the other way?” Her hand drifted toward the pocket of her slacks, where Kira suspected she kept her phone.

This time, it was Kira’s turn to intervene. She leaned against Trevor for balance and applied pressure to his sandalled toes with her good foot as his mouth opened in protest.

“It’s not a bribe,” Kira said in a weary voice. “He’s just a little out of touch about how much things like dishes cost.”

Trevor inhaled to say something, but Kira leaned even harder against his toes.

The woman crossed her arms. “I see.”

She tilted her head as she took in Kira’s appearance. Kira tried not to flush. Her ponytail was askew, and the remains of scrambled egg still marred the front of her Nine Inch Nails T-shirt.

“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” the woman asked in a speculative tone.

“She’s Kira Brightwell,” Trevor chimed in before Kira could stop him. He eased his toes out from under her sneaker with a wince. “You probably recognize her from the papers.”

“Look,” Kira said, before Trevor could start singing her praises. “I was only chasing your waiter because he took my wallet. He’s the one who ran into the busboy on the way out.”

“What?” The woman’s eyes widened and she shook her head in disbelief. “Cole would never do anything like that… He’s a good kid.”

“We both saw him take it,” Trevor said when Kira gave him an unsubtle nudge to the ribs.

“What did you do to him?” the woman asked Kira in a wary voice.

Kira sighed. “Nothing. I didn’t lay a finger on him, except to try to catch him when he fell backward off a curb. That’s when this happened.” She gestured toward her swollen jaw. “He caught a cab and took off.”

The woman drummed her purple, manicured fingernails against her folded arm as she considered.

“Cole does get clumsy when he’s nervous…” She puckered her lips as if she had just bitten into something sour. “And he never gave back your wallet?”

“No.” Kira’s voice was flat. She tugged on her ponytail in exasperation. “Look, I’m not interested in pressing charges or hurting him. I just want to find him, so I can get it back. I was hoping you might be able to help by answering some questions.”

The woman eyed the pair of bills still clutched in Trevor’s hands. Her gaze shifted to Kira and Trevor for a moment before plucking them free.

“You did manage to scare off my customers,” she said as she pocketed the money. She held her hand out to Kira. “Jaida Samuel. This is my restaurant, in case you haven’t guessed.”

Kira shook Jaida’s hand with a nod. “It’s a nice place.”

“Who’s your eye candy?” Jaida jerked her head in Trevor’s direction.

“Trevor Wright,” he said as he extended his hand with another one of his smiles.

“He’s my, ah, associate,” Kira said for lack of a better term.

“I see.” Jaida gave Trevor an appraising look, which made him straighten his broad shoulders and puff out his chest.

“Was Cole having any money problems that you know of?” Kira asked with a roll of her eyes as Trevor continued his preening.

Jaida’s brow furrowed as she tapped her chin with one of her purple nails. “Not that I know of. I mean, he’s been picking up more shifts lately, but he never mentioned any money problems.”

“And he’s never stolen anything before,” Kira said. Cole didn’t exactly strike her as the criminal type, but since she had never met him before, there had to be something behind him taking her wallet.

“No!” Jaida’s voice was firm. “Cole Barton’s a good kid. Like I said, a bit clumsy when he gets nervous, and definitely not the sharpest tool in the shed. But he’s eager to please, and everyone likes him.”

Kira bit her lip. It was clear Jaida had a soft spot for Cole. Kira knew she was entering dangerous waters, but she still had a few more questions…

“Has any money gone missing around here lately?” she asked.

Jaida frowned. “The register’s been off a few times, but those were probably just mistakes.” She shrugged.

“Anything else?” Kira pressed.

“Well…” Jaida hesitated. “A few of the staff have complained that someone has taken some of their tip money.”

Kira’s green eyes narrowed. “From where?”

“The break room.” Jaida drew herself up. “But I’m telling you, Cole would never—”

“Has anything happened in Cole’s personal life lately?” Kira interrupted, seeming to switch gears.

She noticed Trevor’s blond head bobbing back and forth as he watched her exchange with Jaida as if he were at a tennis match.

Jaida blinked. “His mother was in an accident a few weeks ago. A hit and run. She was walking to the bus stop when someone ran her down. Cole had the car that day. She’s still in the hospital, poor woman.”

Kira clutched at Trevor’s arm as she leaned against him. “And how long ago did the money start to go missing from the register and the staff room?”

Jaida’s eyes closed as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. “About two weeks ago.”

“Hospital bills are expensive,” Kira said in a wry voice. “Does Cole have any family to help him support his mother?”

Jaida opened her eyes and shook her head. “It’s just the two of them. His father’s out of the picture—I’ve never heard Cole talk about him. He doesn’t have any brothers or sisters. Do you really think…?”

Kira met Jaida’s anguished gaze. “Yes.”

Jaida’s shoulders slumped with a sigh. “If only he had said something…” She raised her head to give Kira a defeated look.

“What else do you want to know?”

* * *

Kira pressed her phone to her ear and listened to it ring as she sat in the passenger seat of Trevor’s silver Porsche. For once, he was driving somewhat like a normal person. He was only going fifteen over the speed limit.

“Foster,” a curt, male voice answered on the other end of the phone.

Kira leaned back against the leather seat, inhaling its scent, mixed with the wafting from the warm, breakfast takeout bag sitting in her lap.

“Hi, Nick,” she said in a bright voice that wasn’t entirely forced. It wasn’t that she didn’t like talking to Nick. She just wasn’t a fan of the circumstances.

“Kira!” Detective Nick Foster’s voice warmed instantly. “Sorry, I didn’t notice it was you when I picked up. I’m wading through some paperwork. What’s up?”

Kira hesitated. “Well…”

Nick sighed. “What do you need?”

Despite his exasperation, there was a note of fondness in his voice. Kira felt her stomach tighten with guilt. She and Nick were friends, but she usually did end up calling him when she wanted something.

She uttered an awkward chuckle. “Since you mention it… Do you have any info on a hit and run that happened a few weeks ago? The victim’s name is Elizabeth Barton.”

“What are you looking into that for?” Nick asked with a trace of bewilderment. His voice turned wary. “It’s not connected to the Procurer somehow, is it?”

He knew her obsession with catching the serial abductor well enough.

“No,” Kira was quick to reassure him. “This is for something else.”

She felt her face flush. Even though she knew she was well within her rights to go to the police about the theft of her wallet, she hated the idea of having to tell Nick about how some clumsy waiter had managed to both steal from her, and almost knock her out. It was bad enough that Trevor knew. Besides, after all Kira had been through, surely she could handle a missing wallet on her own…

“I see,” Nick said. His voice had flattened. “I don’t suppose you care to elaborate?”

Kira winced. “Not really.”

“Right. Stupid question. OK, let me pull up the file…” Kira heard his fingers clattering against his keyboard.

“Elizabeth Barton, AKA Betty Barton,” he began. “She was walking toward the bus stop at Elm and Lennox on June the third when she was stuck by a vehicle running a stop sign. The driver fled the scene. There are no traffic cams at that intersection, so we don’t have any footage.”

Kira bit her lip. Elm and Lennox wasn’t exactly the nicest part of town. It was on the border of the industrial area. “Any witnesses?”

“A few. But no one had anything useful. Everyone agreed that the sedan that hit Ms. Barton was black—some kind of fancy ride. The windows were tinted. No one got a plate number.”

Kira frowned. “And nothing showed up on any of the other traffic cams nearby?”

“No. Whoever was driving either knew where to go to avoid them, or was smart enough to lie low.”

“And no one could tell you the make of the car?” Kira asked in disbelief. She wasn’t a car buff herself, but if it had been a fancy car, surely at least one of the witnesses would have been able to at least identify the manufacturer…

“I wasn’t the detective handling the case,” Nick said, sounding a bit defensive. “But it does say here in the case notes that a few of the witnesses seemed reluctant to give a statement.”

Kira pursed her lips. “So they recognized the car, but were afraid of pissing off the owner.”

“Probably. Look, are you at least going to give me a hint about what this is all about?”

Kira’s stomach tightened with another surge of guilt. “I’ll tell you all about it—after I get it sorted out.”

She could almost see Nick shaking his head on the other end of the phone. “Just promise me you won’t get into any trouble.”

“You know me,” Kira said with a forced smile. “I always do my best.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of…” Nick muttered, as if to himself. He blew out another sigh. “Take care, Kira.”

Kira lowered the phone from her ear.

“Anything good?” Trevor asked as he pulled over to park on the side of the road, across from her townhouse apartment.

Kira shrugged. Her ponytail brushed against her shoulders. “Not much.”

She filled him in as they got out of the car and walked across the quiet, residential street.

“A fancy, black car?” Trevor snorted. “Not much to go on.”

“I’m hoping Rob can find something useful,” she said as she led the way up the front steps, past the haphazard, blooming garden.

Kira’s best friend and roommate Rob was what was politely termed as an ‘online securities expert.’ Basically, he was a white-hat hacker for hire. Lately, he spent most of his time helping Kira with her cases and trying to find anything useful about the Procurer instead.

Even though Nick had said the police had checked the nearby traffic cams, she wouldn’t mind a second opinion. If the person who had run Cole’s mother down was highly placed, they might also have connections on the police force.

“Why do we even care about what happened to Cole’s mom?” Trevor asked. He followed Kira through the front door and shut it behind him. “I already tried calling the hospital while you were talking to Jaida, and they said Cole hasn’t visited lately—probably trying to avoid having to pay his mom’s bills.”

Kira tossed her keys into a bowl on the small, wooden table that stood near the door. They landed with a clatter as she used her toes to slip off her sneakers while clutching the paper takeout bag and leaning against the wall for support. She winced as she worked her right shoe free.

Of course, this was the moment Hathor decided to saunter down the hallway to rub up against her leg in greeting. The slender, black cat was already purring, oblivious to Kira’s precarious balance. Kira leaned down to give her an affectionate pat and disentangled herself. Hathor sniffed the takeout bag with interest before Kira stood up again.

“Cole’s desperate and not overly bright,” Kira said as she limped into the living room with Hathor following at her heels. “That’s why he took my wallet. I want to try to find out as much as I can about the situation before we go blundering in. Besides, the more I know about him and his problems, the easier it’ll be to talk to him when we find him.”

Even if Rob couldn’t find anything useful about the mysterious, black car, he could at least use the local traffic cams to help trace the cab Cole had jumped into. The gangly, young waiter could have gone anywhere.

Kira gingerly stepped around several piles of Rob’s clothing that were scattered across the living-room carpet—a mixture of both clean and dirty items that he claimed were organized by his ‘system.’ Hathor continued to follow closely, her yellow eyes on the takeout bag and her whiskers twitching. Between her and the piles of clothes, Kira had to keep her eyes on her feet to avoid tripping. She frowned as an odd realization struck her.

The room was silent.

Rob was always typing on his laptop (which never left his side), filling the air with his clatter. He had hardly ever left the apartment in the four years since they had moved in, and Kira had never even seen him sleep.

She looked up.

Rob’s laptop—nicknamed Princess Leia—was open on the dining-room table. It faced its usual direction toward Rob’s worn, padded chair, but the screen had gone dark. The table around it was littered with cans of Red Bull, a half-eaten bag of Doritos, and some kind of food wrappers from a takeout meal.

The doggie bag Kira had brought back for her roommate fell from her numb fingers with a rustling thump as her heart started to hammer in her chest.

Rob was gone.

* * *

“Where’s the cyborg?” Trevor asked as he poked his blond, curly head into the living room. “I thought he never left the apartment.”

Kira shook her head, her ponytail swishing around her shoulders. “He doesn’t.”

Her voice was numb. She picked up the takeout bag before Hathor could paw it open and placed it on top of a nearby bookcase that was crammed with a haphazard collection of Rob’s Star Wars collectibles and some books. Hathor shot her a disdainful look and slinked out of the room.

Trevor snorted. “Maybe he’s actually taking a shower for once.”

Kira shook her head again. Rob even brought Leia into the bathroom with him. The laptop was practically an appendage. Kira couldn’t imagine him leaving it voluntarily.

Memories of another time when she had arrived at the apartment to find Rob missing and thugs watching from outside rushed to the surface with a surge of panic.

“Rob?” She called out her friend’s name, fearing the worst.

A muffled response came from somewhere behind her in the hallway.

She whirled toward Trevor with a frown. “Did you hear that?” she mouthed.

Trevor nodded.

“Rob?” Kira called out again as she crept into the hallway with her fists held ready, just in case. There hadn’t been any signs of a struggle…

“I’m in here!” Rob’s muffled voice drifted toward her. Or at least that’s what it sounded like he was saying.

She followed his voice to the main-floor bathroom. The door was firmly shut.

“Rob!” Kira tried the knob and found it locked. “What happened? Are you OK?”

Visions of someone breaking in and Rob running to hide in the bathroom filled her mind.

“I’ve been better.” Rob’s voice was strained.

Kira’s green eyes widened in concern. “Did someone hurt you? Can you unlock the door?”

Rob snorted. “Yeah, a bad burrito beat me up.”

For a moment, Kira was sure she must have misheard him.

…Then she remembered the Mexican food they had ordered the day before.

Her eyes narrowed. “You did remember to put the leftovers in the fridge like I told you, right?”

Rob paused. “Well, I mean, what’s the point if I’m only going to have to heat them up again? Anyway, I blame the Doritos. I knew I should have gone with Cheetos.”

Kira rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that must have been it.”

“Did you really think I was in trouble?” Rob asked.

“Well… yeah,” Kira said. “I mean, you left Leia out.”

“My call of nature was very urgent.” Rob’s words were punctuated by a groan. “…And I didn’t want to risk getting back splash on her.”

Trevor made a gagging sound. “Ugh. TMI, dude.”

Kira realized she was also making a face. “Is there any chance you might be finishing up in there sometime soon? I could really use your help with something.”

“Is it a case?”

Kira heard movement on the other side of the bathroom door, followed by the click of the lock. Rob’s head popped out to greet them, his mass of unruly, brown curls only slightly more disheveled than usual.

Kira and Trevor instantly recoiled at the fetid stench wafting through the half-open door.

“Omigod,” Trevor said in a breathless rush.

He backed up a step and started to cough. Kira felt her eyes start to water.

Rob seemed oblivious to the miasma surrounding him. His brown eyes widened as he took in Kira’s soiled T-shirt and the bruise forming on her jaw. He blinked.

“What happened to you?

“My wallet got stolen,” she said in a nasal voice as she tried to focus on breathing through her mouth. (…Not that it was much of an improvement.) “I need you to check some traffic cam footage.”

Rob was her best friend, but she really didn’t want to go into the details of the theft right now.

“Dude, do you have any pants on?” Trevor craned his neck to peer through the crack of the bathroom door.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Rob gave him an arch look.

Normally, Trevor’s homophobic tendencies would have triggered a snarky comeback, but he was starting to look woozy from the smell. His blue eyes were glassy and unfocused.

“Look, I was in the middle of something when you got here,” Rob said in a huff. “And with the way things have been going, I need to keep both ends accessible.”

He burped and his face took on a greenish hue.

“Sorry, gotta go.”

Rob’s head disappeared back into the bathroom. The door slammed shut behind him. He didn’t even bother to lock it.

A moment later, Kira and Trevor heard grunting and retching sounds from the other side of the door, punctuated by curses in Spanish. Their eyes met with matching, horrified expressions as they listened to Rob empty the contents of his stomach in what had to be a violent fashion.

They were on their own.

* * *

“Are you sure you couldn’t have hacked the traffic cams?” Trevor asked as he drove through one of La Valentia’s less affluent neighborhoods. “I thought you were Rob’s apprentice before you started solving crimes.”

Kira gazed out the car window. Unlike the ones on her street, these townhouses were in varying states of disrepair. Most of the front lawns were either given over to weeds or used as extra parking space for rusted vehicles. Shingles were missing from several of the roofs and the driveways were cracked and pitted.

Kira shook her head. “I’m not anywhere near as good as he is. And if I had touched his laptop, he would have killed me.”

She had her own laptop, of course. But she would likely need to take a look at Rob’s to at least get an idea of where to start. Even then, who knew how long it would take? She had a feeling they were better off just waiting for Rob to pull himself together so he could do it.

In the meantime, she figured a visit to Cole Barton’s place couldn’t hurt. His mother was in the hospital and Cole was on the run. Maybe she and Trevor would be able to find something useful in the empty house to help her figure out where Cole might have gone.

She pressed a button on the passenger-side door handle and her window lowered with a dull whir. She took a deep breath of fresh, summer air as her ponytail stirred around her shoulders.

She was still trying to get the stench of Rob’s bad burrito out of her nostrils.

Otherwise, she was feeling a bit more like herself. She had taped up her ankle for the time being and was wearing her second-favorite Nine Inch Nails T-shirt.

“Is that even a different shirt?” Trevor asked with a nod in her direction as he drove, seeming to read her thoughts. “It looks the exact same to me—minus the egg spatter.”

“Of course, it’s a different shirt,” Kira huffed. “The other one is from the Wave Goodbye tour. This one is from With Teeth.”

Trevor raised an eyebrow. “They’re both black, with the same blue logo.”

His statement was ridiculous, of course. The rectangular NIN logo was teal on her favorite shirt, while this one was blue, with a distorted effect. Totally different.

You’re one to talk,” she said. “Is your closet full of blue polos and khaki shorts?” She gave his outfit a pointed look.

Designer blue polos and khaki shorts,” Trevor sniffed. “Not some unisex, groupie merch from off the rack.”

Kira reached over to punch him on the arm instead of dignifying his remarks with an answer.

“Ow!” Trevor recoiled and his blue eyes widened. “OK! I take it back.”

“Only because you know I could beat you up…” Kira grumbled. “Pull over here. This is it.”

Trevor parked against the curb in front of a house with a lawn that was actually well-maintained, along with a modest garden. It looked a bit less rough around the edges than the houses surrounding it.

“Driveway’s empty,” Trevor commented as he turned off the engine.

“Cole probably sold their car for the money,” Kira said as she got out.

Jaida had mentioned Cole having the car on the day his mother was hit, but he had run off in a taxi when Kira had chased him. If he had driven to work that day, his own car would have been close by, and probably the first place he would have run to.

Trevor pressed a button on his key fob after climbing out of the car, triggering the soft, double chirp of his alarm. Kira looked around the street. Trevor’s silver Porsche definitely looked out of place.

No one appeared to be around to watch them arrive. It was the middle of a Tuesday, and most people were probably at work. But Kira could have sworn she saw a curtain twitch from across the street.

Breaking into a house in broad daylight was a risky move. Kira decided some subterfuge might be in order. She grabbed a handful of Trevor’s blue polo (an accomplishment, considering how snug the fit was) and pulled him toward her before he could veer toward the backyard gate.

“Hey, watch the shirt,” he said as he pried her fingers free. “If you want a piece of what’s under it, just say so.” He waggled his eyebrows at her.

Kira rolled her eyes with a sigh and kept walking toward the front door.

Trevor trotted after her. “I thought we were going to try to get through a window in the back?” he asked in a low voice.

“Someone might be watching.” She resisted the urge not to cast a furtive glance over her shoulder. “We’ll ring the doorbell first, and put on a show to make it look like Cole’s invited us to come around back.”

Trevor frowned. “What if whoever’s watching knows Cole isn’t home?”

Kira shrugged. “Then we’re screwed either way.”

She just hoped that if someone called the cops, Nick would be the one to answer the call. As reluctant as she was to reveal this whole mess to him at the moment, it would be better than being charged with breaking and entering…

She pressed her finger against the doorbell. A muffled chime sounded from inside the house.

Kira tapped the toes of her sneaker against the cracked concrete of the front step as they waited.

No answer.

She sucked in a breath to call out to pretend Cole that they would meet him in the backyard, but Trevor’s muscled arm reached past her, accompanied by a waft of his cologne.

“What are you doing?” Kira demanded in a hushed voice as he gripped the door handle and pushed.

The door swung open.

Kira shot Trevor an incredulous look over her shoulder.

He shrugged. “I figured it was worth a try.” He raised his voice. “Oh, hi, Cole! Yes, we’d love to come in…”

He ushered Kira inside the house. She allowed him to herd her through the door to avoid any more of his questionable theatrics.

She blinked. The interior of the house seemed dark after the full summer sunshine outside. Trevor shut the door behind him with a soft click.

Kira looked around as her eyes began to adjust. The brown, linoleum floor was clean, but looked like it was from the Seventies. The front entryway was small and narrow, with only a coat rack and a mat for shoes instead of a closet. The air was warm and stale. Kira immediately felt herself begin to sweat.

No air conditioning.

She walked past a modest living room with burgundy, shag carpeting and well-worn furniture. A narrow set of stairs with matching carpet led to a second story. Kira’s foot creaked on the first step as she gripped the wooden railing. It had been worn smooth by countless years of use. If she was going to find anything useful about Cole, chances were she would find it in his room.

A deep, sliding sound reached her from somewhere upstairs.

Kira whirled to look at Trevor. “What was that?” she mouthed, her green eyes widening.

Trevor lifted his broad shoulders in a helpless shrug.

A strange sense of premonition struck her. She shouldered Trevor out of the way and rushed back down the stairs, toward the rear of the house.

She arrived in the kitchen just in time to catch a flicker of movement, followed by a dull thump.

Someone had jumped out one of the upstairs windows.

Kira’s gaze flew around the unfamiliar room until she found what she was looking for—the back door.

She rushed toward it, almost ripping the knob off in her haste to throw it open.

The sudden appearance of the sun-drenched backyard made her eyes water. For a moment, all she could make out was a sea of green. She shaded her eyes.

A gangly figure in a chain mail patterned T-shirt with ginger hair was scaling the wooden fence.

Cole Barton had been home all along.

* * *

Kira raced after Cole. The tape around her right ankle helped to keep her steady, but she knew she would pay for exerting it later.

She reached the paint-chipped, wooden fence just as Cole slipped down on the other side. She jumped up with a grunt of frustration. She and Trevor should have split up before entering the house.

But what kind of idiot took a cab straight home after robbing someone? Kira knew where he worked. Did Cole really think she wouldn’t use that to find out more about him?

Jaida did say he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed…

Her fingers caught the edge of the fence. She hoisted herself up, inhaling the mingled scents of grass and soil. Trevor was already straddling the precarious, wooden structure, making it totter. Meanwhile, Cole was racing across the neighboring backyard toward the next fence.

Kira jumped down to follow.

They repeated this exercise a few moments later at the next yard. Kira was fast, but so was Cole, his long limbs giving him an advantage. He maintained his lead as they reached the third yard.

A loud bark almost startled Kira from her perch atop the fence. A large, mud-spattered, black German Shepherd hurtled out from somewhere beside the house toward Cole, accompanied by a slithering jingle—a chain.

Kira swallowed. She loved animals, but she had never been much of a dog person.

…Especially when it came to big dogs.

She watched as the dog chased Cole across the yard until he tripped. She slipped down from the fence into the tall, weed-chocked grass. Maybe she could take Cole down while he was distracted…

But the dog sensed Kira’s presence immediately. It whirled toward her with a series of sniffs, followed by a deep growl as it glared up at her.

She backed away, hoping the chain would bring it up short. Her back pressed against the fence. She felt it quiver behind her and looked up to find Trevor straddling it. The dog strained against its collar, just inches away from where Kira was standing. It filled the air with loud barks as slobber dripped from its mouth.

Across the yard, Cole climbed to his feet and started running again. He managed three steps before he tripped again on something hidden in the tall grass.

The dog’s chain.

Kira’s green eyes widened as the German Shepherd surged toward her. The loose end of its chain jingled through the grass now that it had been pulled free. Kira stood frozen, waiting for the dog to attack.

Trevor landed beside her with a thump. “Hey, buddy!” he said in a friendly voice as he reached out to rub the enormous dog’s pointed ears. The dog closed its eyes and licked its lips with a long tongue. Trevor grimaced. “Ugh, you’re filthy, dude. Don’t get any of that mud on my clothes.”

Kira’s fascinated gaze was drawn away by movement across the yard.

Cole was scrambling for the next fence.

“Never mind the dog,” Kira growled. “Get him!” She pointed across the yard at Cole.

“Oh, right.” Trevor pulled away from the German Shepherd with a nod and started running again. It gave an excited bark and gave chase.

Kira forced her wobbly legs to steady themselves.

OK, it’s just a dog. If Trevor can get along with it, so can you…

She waded through the tall grass to follow. Something caught her eye when she reached the place where Cole had initially tripped.

He had dropped his phone.

She reached down and pocketed it. It was the first piece of good luck she’d had all day, unless you counted finding Cole at home…

A low growl made her look up.

The dog was back. And now that Trevor was up on top of the fence and out of reach, it didn’t look friendly.

“I think I’ve got him!” Trevor called out over his shoulder from his perch.

“Nice doggie,” Kira said with a forced smile as the German Shepherd advanced toward her.

She only hesitated a moment before she started to run.

The dog ran after her, barking. She leaped for the fence as soon as she got close enough. Trevor had already disappeared onto the other side. A wet splatter reached her ears.

“Seriously?” she heard Trevor demand. “You’ve got to be kidding me…”

She had no idea what he was on about, and she was too breathless to ask as her stomach slammed against the wooden fence while she dangled from her fingertips.

The dog hung from the leg of her jeans, its jaw firmly clenched. Her right leg, of course.

Kira uttered a stream of curses and tried to shake it free. The German Shepherd uttered a series of growls and refused to let go. She had the sneaking suspicion that despite her heart hammering in her chest, the dog thought they were playing some kind of game.

She wasn’t sure though.

“Come on, you stupid dog!” she said to it from between gritted teeth. “I’m trying to leave here.”

She shook her leg some more, her knuckles aching as they gripped the fence. She was afraid of what might happen if she allowed herself to drop back down on the dog’s side.

“Do you smell my cat? Is that your problem?” she demanded as the dog glared up at her. “Look, the sooner you let me go, the sooner we can both move on with our lives. You can go back to whatever it was you were doing, and I’ll tell everyone what a fierce dog you are. I’ll even send Trevor back to play with you. Sound good?”

Kira’s breathless voice wasn’t quite the same sing-song pitch she used with cats and smaller animals, but she tried to keep it reasonable. For a moment, something in the dog’s eyes softened.

Kira shook her leg once more. The dog landed on its paws in the grass with a heavy thump.

Thank you.”

Kira hoisted herself up as soon as her leg was free.

…Which was a good thing, because the dog started jumping at the fence a moment later. Its nails scrabbled against the wood and its barks filled the air.

“I thought we were friends now,” Kira said from her perch in an accusing tone. “You know what? Forget our deal. I’m out of here.”

She swung her legs over to the other side of the fence and prepared to jump down.

“Um, you might want to be careful about where you land,” Trevor said from below.

Kira blinked. She couldn’t quite make out where he was. “What are you still doing down there? And where’s Cole? I thought you said you almost had him!”

“Yeah, that was before I landed.”

Something shifted and the overpowering smell of freshly-laid manure hit Kira’s nostrils. She narrowed her eyes and tried not to gag. The flowerbed below was a rich shade of brown with bits of pale blue.

“Did you…?”

She looked down in bewilderment as part of the flowerbed moved. Trevor rose to his feet with a series of curses as manure dripped from his khaki shorts and blue polo. He was covered in it.

Kira immediately forgot about trying not to breathe through her nose and started to laugh.

“You know,” she said between chuckles as she clutched at her side with her free hand. “This almost makes up for some of the stuff you put me and Rob through in high school. I should take a picture for him…” She went to pull out her phone, her legs dangling from the fence.

Trevor glared at her. “Don’t even think about it.” His blue eyes flashed. “I’ll pull you down here if you do.”

A deep, coughing sound, followed by the revving of an engine cut off all other conversation.

“Hey!” a man called out from somewhere in the direction of the street. “That’s my bike!”

Kira hopped down from the fence, being careful to use a nearby rock as a stepping stone to avoid the manure. Both she and Trevor ran out of the backyard.

A burly man in a grease-stained tank top and jeans was shaking his fist from where he stood near a pitted oil stain and a pile of tools. Kira and Trevor followed the line of his gaze.

Cole Barton was already disappearing down the street on a motorbike.

* * *

“We should have gone after him,” Trevor grumbled. “I could have caught him.” He gestured toward his parked, silver Porsche.

He and Kira were sitting on the curb in front of Cole’s house. Kira knew they both must look a wreck. The leg of her jeans was muddy and shredded, and Trevor…

Well, even after going back to Cole’s to clean up, he still had manure stains on his shirt and shorts. And then there was the smell… Kira’s nose wrinkled as she scrolled through Cole’s phone.

This was her first chance to investigate her hard-won prize. She had spent most of the time that Trevor had been cleaning up convincing the man who had lost his motorbike not to call the cops—for the time being, at least.

“We can’t keep blundering after him,” she said with a shake of her head. She reached back with a distracted hand to tighten her disheveled ponytail. “I don’t know what Cole’s deal is, but it’s almost like clumsy is his superpower. The last thing we need is to get into a high-speed chase and wind up in an accident.”

Trevor sighed. “You’re probably right. You know, he didn’t even land in the manure? When I got on top of the fence, I saw him rolling around on the grass. He must have lost his balance when he went to jump and overshot it without even trying.” His expression soured. “I didn’t even notice the manure with all his flailing around on the grass. I figured all I had to do was jump down and tackle him.”

Kira shook her head, but a smile tugged at her lips at the memory of finding Trevor covered in manure. She couldn’t wait to tell Rob all about it. She had tried calling him for a status update, but he wasn’t answering, so she assumed he was still indisposed.

“And what took you so long to get up that fence, anyway?” Trevor’s blue eyes narrowed as he noticed Kira trying not to smile. “I figured even after I fell into that muck pile, you would have gotten him.”

Kira flushed. “I, ah, had some issues with the dog.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” Trevor gave her tattered jeans a pointed look. “Was this the same dog I met? Because he seemed pretty chill to me.”

Kira sniffed. “I guess I wasn’t his type. There also might have been some confusion about whether or not we were playing a game…”

She frowned at the screen of the phone. “OK, I think I’ve found something. This is a text about a meeting at a warehouse in the industrial district. It’s at three.”

She glanced at the current time on the phone. 2:34.

“Who’s it from?” Trevor leaned over to look.

Kira shrugged. “Some guy named Len. His last name starts with ‘U.’”

Either Cole didn’t know how to spell it, or he hadn’t bothered to enter it into his phone, other than the initial.

Trevor’s eyes widened. “Len Ulrich?”

Kira shot him a startled look. “Who’s Len Ulrich?”

Trevor’s face became expressionless. “A loan shark.”

“And how do you know that?” Kira’s brow furrowed. Trevor wasn’t exactly hard-up for money.

He looked away. “Ace told me about him.”

Kira leaned back in silence as she absorbed this information. Ace Kendrick had run a private gambling ring that Trevor had gotten involved with. Ace was dead now. The Procurer had killed him.

Trevor ran a hand through his blond curls and let out a long sigh. “I was in deep. Len was my backup plan if the whole thing with Steph didn’t work out,” he said in a quiet voice.

Kira pursed her lips. ‘The whole thing with Steph’ was a unique way of putting things… Trevor had worked with Ace to arrange his own sister’s kidnapping as a ruse. The ransom money from his father was meant to pay off Trevor’s gambling debts.

Except the Procurer had taken advantage of the situation and abducted Stephanie for real.

Kira knew Trevor was still ashamed about it. He had been desperate to find his sister once he had realized she was really missing, which was how he had reconnected with Kira. She couldn’t help but wonder how much of Trevor’s hanging around all the time in the months since was an effort to avoid his gambling habit, even though Stephanie had been rescued.

“Have you ever met this Len guy?” Kira asked, sidestepping the unwanted memories of his sister’s abduction.

Trevor shook his head. “I’ve heard about him though. He’s supposed to be tough, but fair—as far as loan sharks go, anyway. He doesn’t just deal with gamblers. He handles all kinds of debt when people can’t get help from the bank.”

Kira’s lips twisted. “Like Cole?”

Trevor shrugged. “Probably.”

Kira took a steadying breath. “Well, we know where he’s going now. We might as well meet him there—before he hands my wallet and ID over to someone who’ll do God knows what with it.”

Trevor gave her a measuring look. “It could be dangerous. Len will probably have protection with him, and you’re not exactly looking one hundred percent.”

Yes, she was sure the bruise on her jaw and mangled jeans didn’t exactly add to her aura of intimidation. But still…

She snorted. “I’m not the one who rolled around in animal excrement. Actually, maybe we can use that to our advantage. I can use the threat of your stench to make them give me back my wallet.”

Trevor shot her a flat look. “I could always just drive myself back home and leave you here, you know.”

Kira gave him a wry smile. “But you won’t, will you?”

Even though Trevor was an unlikely sidekick, they had been through enough together at this point for her to know he wouldn’t abandon her.

He rolled his eyes. “No.” He muttered his next words, just loud enough for her to hear.

“I’m starting to think some of your craziness is rubbing off on me.”

* * *

Kira spat out a mouthful of hair from her ponytail. She and Trevor were driving toward the industrial district with all the windows down and the sunroof open. Warm air blew at them from all directions.

It didn’t do much to help with Trevor’s lingering eau de manure.

“I’m going to have to drop her off to get detailed as soon as we finish this thing,” Trevor grumbled as he gave the leather steering wheel an apologetic pat while he drove. “Even then, she’ll probably never smell the same again.”

Kira quirked an eyebrow at him. “Don’t you have like, five other cars?”

“Six,” Trevor corrected in a huffy tone.

“My mistake.” Kira rolled her eyes. “I’ll try my best not to cry myself to sleep tonight feeling sorry for you.”

“So you think about me when you’re in bed?” Trevor waggled his eyebrows at her.

Considering his disheveled, blond curls and the brown stains all over his clothes, the suggestive look was even more ridiculous than usual.

“Well, I’ll probably think about finding you in that flower bed…” Kira’s lips twitched. Her gaze shifted back to the warehouses lining the street Trevor had just turned onto. “I think that’s it, over there.”

She caught sight of the warehouse she had looked up online after getting the address from Len’s text to Cole. Trevor slowed down and found a parking spot just down the street… only a few feet away from a familiar-looking motorbike.

“He’s here,” Kira said in a low voice. She silently cursed. She had hoped to catch up with Cole before he met with Len.

Considering how today had gone so far, she probably should have known better.

Her pulse quickened and she took a deep breath to steady herself. There was no way of knowing what she and Trevor were about to walk into.

A whirring sound filled the air as Trevor closed all the car windows and the sunroof before they got out. Kira spent a moment tightening her ponytail while Trevor locked the car. Her gaze drifted down the street. Several vehicles were parked along the curb—most of them pickup trucks or delivery vans. Trevor’s Porsche definitely stood out.

…Aside from a sleek-looking, black sedan with a distinctive triangle grille that pointed downward.

Trevor let out a low whistle as they walked past it. “Nice. An Alfa Romeo—looks like a Giulietta. Haven’t seen one of those around town before.”

He stopped to admire it until Kira tugged him along. “We didn’t come here to look at cars.”

“We also didn’t come here not to look at cars…” He continued to gaze longingly behind him for a moment until Kira gave his shirt another pull.

“OK, OK. I’m coming.” He pried her fingers free from his blue polo. “No need to woman-handle my shirt. My wardrobe has already taken enough of a beating today.”

“‘Woman-handle’?” Kira shot him a dubious look over her shoulder.

“Well, you’re not a man, are you?” Trevor looked her up and down. “Still, your handling is more aggressive than most women… I probably should have said ‘Kira-handle.’”

Kira sighed. “Maybe I should just leave you to look at the car.”

Trevor snorted. “And lose your muscle-bound sidekick? Probably not a good idea when you’re interrupting a meeting with a loan shark.”

Kira’s lips twisted. He might have a point. Trevor wasn’t a trained fighter, but he could swing a punch if he had to. And she didn’t like the idea of wandering into this meeting without someone to watch her back.

They walked down the sun-warmed sidewalk toward a single-story warehouse that was dwarfed by the ones surrounding it. No vehicles were parked in the loading area, and the high windows were covered in dirt. A worn-looking ‘For Lease’ sign had been stuck to the front door.

Kira suppressed a shiver. They weren’t that far from the place where the Procurer had initially taken Trevor’s sister.

From the way Trevor was avoiding her gaze, she suspected he was thinking the same thing.

Kira shook herself and returned to the present. She didn’t bother with the front door. She doubted Len and Cole had either. She skirted the side of the building, plunging into the shadow cast by the next warehouse, which was three stories tall.

The strip between the two buildings was narrow. Small shards of broken glass and other grit littered the pavement beneath her feet. She did her best to avoid making any scraping or crunching sounds as she crept forward with Trevor on her heels.

A pair of well-dressed men in suits and sunglasses stood outside the open, side door of the abandoned warehouse. They were both well-muscled and over six feet tall with matching buzz cuts. The only noticeable difference between them was that one was black and the other was white with blond hair.

Kira rolled her shoulders and shook out her arms as she tried to steady her breathing. She was hoping to get inside without a fight, but she would do what she needed to get in.

Both men had a professional bearing that reminded her of security guards standing outside a high-end night club, like they did in movies or on TV. (To say that Kira’s experience with actual night clubs was limited would be an understatement.) They stood with their feet planted wide and their hands folded in front of their waists. Both faces were expressionless.

“You want the one on the left or the right?” Trevor whispered in her ear from over her shoulder. “Assuming you can’t take them both down on your own, of course.”

Kira gave him a flat look. “Let’s just try talking to them first.”

They were already having a bad enough day without getting beaten up by a pair of well-dressed bodyguards of a loan shark.

* * *

Kira threw her shoulders back and strode toward the side entrance of the warehouse with her head held high, despite all her instincts telling her to advance in a fighter’s crouch. Her ponytail swished behind her shoulders. She flashed both men a friendly smile.

Both faces turned toward her with stony looks from behind their aviator sunglasses.

“Hello,” Kira said as she stopped a few feet away from them. “My name is Kira Brightwell, and this is my associate, Trevor Wright. We’re here to have a few words with Mr. Ulrich.”

She was proud of the fact that she managed to make it sound as if she requested admittance to clandestine meetings with loan sharks all the time.

The two men exchanged a look.

“Do you have an appointment?” the one on the right asked—the blond. His face remained expressionless, but Kira thought his voice held a wary trace of interest.

And he didn’t bother to deny that Len Ulrich was inside the warehouse.

Kira gave another self-deprecating smile. “No, but I believe Mr. Ulrich is about to come into possession of something that belongs to me.”

The men shared another look.

Trevor opened his mouth to say something, but Kira firmly stepped on his sandalled foot to keep him quiet while maintaining her calm, professional demeanor. Yes, these men would try to beat the pulp out of them if things went sideways, but their look and mannerisms told her they might be reasoned with.

The black man nodded. The blond disappeared through the open door of the warehouse. Kira saw the black man’s nose twitch.

“Does he always smell like that?” he asked in a rumbling voice, his square chin jerking in Trevor’s direction.

Kira was forced to step on Trevor’s toes again.

“He’s had a bad day,” she said before Trevor could say anything stupid. She looked down at her mangled, muddy jeans and shook her head. “We both have.”

The blond man came back. “Mr. Ulrich will see you.” he said with a nod.

Silent expressions and physical cues seemed to be an integral part of his and his colleague’s method of communication. Kira wondered if they ever managed to speak more than ten words between them when they got chatting. The blond stepped aside to allow them to pass.

“Thank you,” Kira said, giving a nod of her own before leading the way into the shadowy interior.

A bead of sweat slithered down her spine, despite her outward calm. Just because they had managed to talk their way past Len’s security didn’t mean they were out of the woods yet…

Especially since the two men were still keeping an eye on the door.

* * *

Kira blinked as she walked into the warehouse, willing her eyes to adjust to the dim light. The sound of her soft footsteps against the concrete floor made a hissing echo in the open interior. The air was musty and warm. Dust motes danced in the sunlight that managed to filter through the dirty windows high overhead.

Three figures stood near the center of the warehouse floor.

Kira’s gaze darted around the facility, taking in their surroundings, in case they had to make a run for it. The large, loading door was closed and would probably be awkward to get open. The front door facing the street was a possibility though. She and Trevor might be able to get through and reach Trevor’s car.

But with the side door open, and the two men standing right outside, a single cry from Len would send them into action. She suddenly wished she had taken Nick into her confidence, or at least told someone else where she and Trevor were going.

This could get messy…

She took a breath to steady herself as she approached the three figures.

The tallest one had to be Len Ulrich. He towered over the other two in an impeccable, pinstriped suit with a blue silk pocket square. He was even more lanky than Cole, and his lean face had a cadaverous cast, with prominent cheekbones and a hawk-like nose. His dark hair was slicked back with a dull sheen. A tasteful trace of cologne surrounded him. Even though he wasn’t physically threatening, he radiated a presence of someone who was in control.

He reminded Kira of a dignified raptor, eyeing its prey.

The young man who stood next to him looked like a miniature version of the same man—albeit with a few, slight differences. His eyes were blue instead of gimlet gray, and his dark hair was long. It hung around his shoulders, as if in defiance. His narrow chin was tilted upward so he could look down his nose at the people standing in front of him. A faint sneer tugged at his thin lips.

Cole Barton was definitely looking the worse for wear. His ginger hair was disheveled, and there were grass stains on his chain mail patterned T-shirt. He took a step backward as Kira and Trevor approached, his freckled face going pale as his blue eyes darted around the warehouse.

“Kira Brightwell, I presume,” Len said as Kira and Trevor stepped up beside Cole. The loan shark’s voice was dry and gravelly. “And Trevor Wright.”

He nodded to each of them in turn.

“Mr. Ulrich,” Kira greeted as she nodded back. She pointedly avoided looking at Cole.

“This is my nephew and apprentice, Daniel,” Len said, gesturing in the younger man’s direction. “I have a feeling you are already acquainted with Mr. Barton.” His lips twitched as his gaze darted to Cole, who cringed in response.

Kira and Trevor nodded in Daniel’s direction, but Daniel barely lowered his chin in response. His nose wrinkled as he looked them up and down. Kira wasn’t sure if it was because he was a self-important douchebag, or due to Trevor’s unfortunate scent.

Probably both.

“Now that we have all been introduced, I would like to know… What brings such a prominent resident of La Valentia such as yourself to interrupt what I thought was a private meeting?” Len directed the question at Kira, but his gaze flickered in Cole’s direction.

Cole shook his head. “I swear, I didn’t—”

Kira reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out Cole’s phone. “You dropped this.” She held it out to him.

Cole swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat, but he took back the phone.

Kira turned back toward Len and chose her next words with care. “Something was taken from me earlier today. I suspect that item and its contents might have been passed on to you.”

Len’s cadaverous face was expressionless. “I see. You didn’t bother contacting the police?” His voice was careless, but one of his dark eyebrows rose.

Kira held his gaze without flinching. “No, I considered it a private matter.”

Len gave her a measuring look. “The newspapers said you were clever. I am pleased to learn they were correct.”

He paused for a moment, his eyes narrowing as he considered. “If the item and its contents were returned to you, you would be satisfied? Assuming they somehow came into my possession by some kind of mistake, of course.”

“Yes,” Kira made herself say.

She wasn’t happy about the idea of turning her back on Len’s activities, but he hadn’t done anything that would make him worth the risk of trying to take him down.

Len snapped his fingers at his nephew, who reluctantly pulled something from the pocket of his suit jacket—Kira’s wallet.

“In that case, I am happy to reunite you with your mislaid property,” Len said.

Daniel handed the wallet over with a look of disdain, as if Kira might contaminate him somehow if they both were touching the wallet at the same time. Kira pulled it away from him and immediately thumbed through its contents.

Everything was there, aside from fifteen dollars of cash.

Cole coughed. “I, ah, had to pay for the cab.” He flushed. “I’m really sorry. My mom’s in the hospital, and—”

Daniel silenced him with a look. “No one gave you permission to speak. We will deal with you in a moment.” His pompous voice wasn’t as intimidating as his uncle’s, but it definitely managed to rub Kira the wrong way.

Cole lowered his head and fell silent.

Len watched the exchange with a mild air of interest, but didn’t interfere.

“I apologize for the confusion,” he said to Kira with a dry smile. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have other matters to attend to.”

His gaze drifted to Cole, who cowered beneath it.

Kira stiffened, but Trevor took her shoulder and turned her away. What was going to happen to Cole? Yes, he had stolen from her, but only because he had been desperate. What would Len do to him now that Cole couldn’t pay his debts?

Kira knew she and Trevor should leave. After all, this wasn’t their problem. And if they got involved, it would only end badly. The men guarding the door probably had guns, and the car Trevor had noticed on the street had to be at least as fast as his Porsche, considering the way he had been ogling it…

Kira turned back around.

* * *

“Where were you on June the third?” Kira asked Len, the question tumbling from her lips.

“I beg your pardon?” Len blinked.

“Kira,” Trevor said in a hushed voice as his hand tightened around her shoulder. He glared at her and jerked his blond head toward the side door. “I really think—”

Kira drew herself up. “June the third. Where were you at—” her green eyes flickered to Cole. “What time was your mother run down?”

Cole’s eyes widened as they went from Kira to Len and back again. “T-two thirty. She was on her way to the bus stop.”

Len’s expression didn’t change, but his eyes hardened. “Are you suggesting I had something to do with Mrs. Barton’s accident?”

Kira didn’t back down. “Where were you?”

Len snapped his fingers at his nephew again. Daniel hesitated before pulling a phone from his pocket.

“Where was I on June the third at two-thirty?” Len asked. His voice sounded lazy, but his eyes were glued on Kira.

“At the dentist,” Daniel said after a moment of scrolling through the phone. “Your appointment was at two.”

“Ah, yes.” A smile stretched Len’s thin lips. “The dentist.”

“And you were there until after two-thirty?” Kira pressed.

“I’m afraid so.” Len’s left cheek hollowed even further as his tongue probed his teeth. “It was a root canal, if you must know.”

Kira frowned. As far as she could tell, he wasn’t lying. And it would be easy for her to confirm such a thing herself—assuming the dentist hadn’t been paid off as an alibi. She shook her head. She had been so sure…

Her head snapped up. “Did anyone else have access to your car while you were there?”

Len’s eyes narrowed and Kira did her best not to flinch. “I have already credited you with being clever. Do not make me regret that statement. What information do you have that makes you think my car had anything to do with this?”

“Witnesses to Mrs. Barton’s accident saw a fancy, black sedan flee the scene,” Kira said as she watched his reaction. “No one was able to give a make or model, but the police suspect several of the witnesses recognized the vehicle and were reluctant to identify it.”

“Is that your Giulietta outside?” Trevor babbled with a forced smile. “She’s a real beauty—”

Kira elbowed him in the ribs to shut him up.

Len’s gimlet eyes flashed. “As I have already said, I was at the dentist, and there is only one set of keys to that car. Daniel was the one who dropped me off…”

Len’s head swiveled in the direction of his nephew, who took a wary step backward.

“Daniel,” Len said in a low, dangerous voice. “Tell me you didn’t run down Mrs. Barton while I was at the dentist.”

The snooty expression fell from Daniel’s face. His blue eyes widened as he raised his hands in a warding gesture and shook his head.

“Uncle Len, I—”

Len took a step toward him. “Tell me you didn’t hit someone with my car—in front of witnesses—and said nothing when the woman’s son came to us to help pay for her hospital bills.”

Daniel bit his lip. “It was an accident! I was careful to stay away from the traffic cameras when it happened so it wouldn’t get linked back to you…” He swallowed. “I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

“Do you have any idea what something like this could do to our credibility?” Len demanded. “What will people think if they find out we run people down, only to turn around and bleed them for money? What do you think that will do to our client base, once word gets around? People come to me for help because they trust me to be fair. Something like this would make me no better than the thugs who run their racket in the city!”

Daniel was sniveling now. “I’m sorry, Uncle! I didn’t think it mattered. She was just some woman catching the bus…”

Len shook his head in disgust before turning to look at Cole. “Mr. Barton, please believe me when I say I am very sorry for what has happened. I will of course return the funds you have already paid, and cover the rest of your mother’s hospital expenses. I’m hoping we can also discuss a mutually beneficial arrangement to keep this matter private. I promise to deal with my nephew personally.”

Cole’s jaw dropped. “Um, OK…”

“Ms. Brightwell,” Len said with a nod of acknowledgment at Kira. “I cannot say it has been a pleasure, but thank you for setting matters right. Is this still what you would consider a private matter?”

Kira considered. She was guessing whatever Len had in mind for his nephew was far worse than what the police would have done with him. And in the meantime, Cole’s mother would be cared for.

She tried her best not to feel too bad for Daniel. After all, he seemed like he could use a lesson in humility. He could have killed Cole’s mother during what Kira suspected had been a joyride, and he didn’t seem to have any remorse about hurting her.

Kira nodded. “I believe so.”

Len tilted his head at her. “And if I were to offer you a token in exchange for your part in this, would you accept it?”

“Ah, thank you, but no.” She gave him a smile to let her know she meant no offense. “This is between you and Cole.”

Leaving the two of them to hash it out without telling the police was questionable enough as it was without accepting a bribe. Trevor shot her a look that told her he disagreed.

A sudden idea struck her.

“Well, maybe there’s one thing…”

* * *

“Oh my God, slow down!” Kira said in a breathless voice as she and Trevor tore down an open stretch of highway.

At least there weren’t any patrol cars around…

Trevor pressed down on the accelerator and let out a whoop as the Alfa Romeo’s engine hummed beneath them. Kira felt as if her body were trying to meld with the leather seat as the Giulietta surged forward. Her heart pounded in her chest.

She hadn’t been sure whether Len would accept her half-baked request for the loan of his car, especially given Trevor’s lingering manure scent. But the loan shark had other matters to attend to, and had dropped the keys into Kira’s hand with a wave of dismissal, granting them an hour.

“I’m gonna have to get me one of these,” Trevor said in a breathless rush. He eased off a bit as a car drove toward them from the opposite direction and flashed Kira a grin. “I guess this day turned out OK after all.”

Kira gave his stained clothing and her own tattered jeans a dubious look.

“Oh, come on,” Trevor said as he nudged her with his elbow. “You got your wallet back, and I’m driving Len’s car. I mean, we’re still not as lucky as that clumsy idiot Cole, but still…”

Kira snorted. “You’re not the one who has to go home to whatever stench Rob’s made with that bad burrito.” A smile tugged at her lips. “At least hanging out with you all afternoon has prepared me for it.”

“Hey!” Trevor swatted at her in protest with one hand while gripping the steering wheel with the other. “I’m not the one who got freaked out by a perfectly friendly dog. Anyway, it wasn’t like I jumped into that flower bed on purpose…”

His blue eyes suddenly widened and flickered toward her.

“You’re not going to tell Rob about that, are you?” he asked. “I mean, it’s bad enough that you saw it. If he finds out, I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Kira bit her lip.

“What?” Trevor demanded.

“I, um, may have already sent him a picture.”

“What?” Trevor spluttered. “When?”

Kira leaned away from him in her seat. “When you went to clean up at Cole’s. I took a picture as you were walking away while I was talking to the motorbike guy.”

“And you actually sent it?”

Kira forced a weak smile. “Maybe?”

Trevor blew out a sigh. “That’s it,” he said. His voice was bleak, but Kira thought she saw a glimmer in his eye.

“What do you mean?”

Trevor shook his head. “If I’m going to be a laughingstock for the next few days—”

“Weeks,” Kira corrected.

He glared at her. “If I’m going to be a laughingstock for the next few weeks, I might as well have some fun in the meantime.”

Kira shot him a wary look. “What are you talking abo—?”

Trevor pressed down on the accelerator with a grin. They both slammed back against their seats and Kira’s breath came out in a startled whoosh. Trevor looked over and let out another whoop of excitement as the surrounding landscape flew by.

Kira found herself joining him.

* * *

Puncher’s Chance: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Copyright © 2021 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Arenacreative, Dmitrij Tkačuk, Pawel Talajkowski/Dreamstime

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