A cold January wind whipped a gust of snowflakes around the corner of the rusty barn. Gabriel gripped his gun tighter and jerked his chin at Lucas Thibault, the universal signal for ‘I’ve got you covered.’ The young soldier raised his weapon and stepped around the pile of corrugated iron, scanning the dark yard for potential Guard activity.
This was the fourth location they’d raided that week. Their fourth attempt to find Gabriel’s missing partner. Their fourth failure. Parker Bourne had been missing for two weeks, and Gabriel was starting to lose hope that they’d find her in one piece. Or that they’d find her at all.
The thought hollowed his insides, and he barely kept down the bile rising in his throat.
“Clear,” Lucas said under his breath, but Gabriel’s sensitive ears picked up the sound easily, even over the whistling wind.
They approached the door but didn’t enter, waiting for Kai’s signal. The general had two more teams doing a perimeter search, so not one Guard member would escape this raid. They needed all the information they could get. Letting someone go by mistake was not an option.
“Breach now.” Kai’s voice crackled through the ear pieces.
Gabriel winced at the sound but grabbed the edge of the old sliding doors and shoved them wide while Lucas burst into the barn, ready to put a tranquilizer dart into whomever was hiding inside.
The vast, disused barn was completely abandoned, but the smell of urine, blood, and shifter sweat had Gabriel gagging and breathing through his mouth.
“Holy shit.” Lucas kicked over a wooden crate to check that it was empty. “This place stinks.”
From the other side of the barn, Kai and Nik approached, the general and the former Guard lieutenant an incongruous pair. Their partnership just showed how much this hidden war was affecting everyone’s lives. Enemies became friends became enemies—they’d been betrayed by allies and learned to forgive their opponents.
Though right now, Gabriel wanted to shake Nik, press him for more information. Surely he had at least some idea where Reid Maxwell was taking his cage fighting ring?
“All clear.” Kai’s announcement was followed by a series of groans from the soldiers outside, then both team leaders dispatched sentries to form a perimeter.
Finally, the forensic unit was allowed inside, and with them, Claire Thibault, Nik’s mate and future Councilwoman. And Parker’s best friend. She’d insisted on coming along, hoping that they’d find Parker, or at least some clue of her, though they hadn’t had luck before.
Still, Gabriel had to admire her tenacity. In fact, everyone at SANA was working double time to find clues about Maxwell’s maneuvers. Were they also having trouble sleeping? Did they wake up from nightmares in which Parker was being dragged into Maxwell’s car, limp and unconscious?
No, that was likely only him. Because he’d caused Parker’s abduction and—
“Sir, you should come look at this.” A middle-aged woman, a polecat shifter by her scent, was kneeling in the dirt.
Gabriel was the first to arrive at her side. She was pointing at the ground, where a trap door was visible beneath a layer of dirty sawdust and sand.
“Weapons,” Kai barked, and their team all drew their guns, aiming them at the hatch.
“What do you think is in there?” Lucas murmured. The bear still hadn’t learned to keep his mouth shut in dangerous situations—a fact that bothered Gabriel more than he cared to admit. Parker had always known when silence was called for. As partners, they’d developed a sort of non-verbal language that served them perfectly in cases like this.
But now Kai had put Lucas as Gabriel’s temporary partner, and Gabriel refused to teach the youngster that same code. He wanted Parker back, not some rookie who insisted on bringing homemade snacks to a stakeout.
“It could be a tornado shelter,” offered Nik.
“Or the entrance to a secret prohibition vault,” Lucas countered.
Stifled groans from everyone followed his suggestion. Clearly, raiding three empty warehouses and a barn wasn’t sufficiently exciting for him.
“Enough.” Gabriel holstered his gun and crouched to grip the iron handle. He looked at the general. “Ready?”
They all trained their weapons, and Gabriel pulled.
And saw…a woman. She was lying in a small, coffin-like cubbyhole. She wasn’t moving. His heart stopped, then skittered madly; blonde hair covered her face, her thin shoulders dressed in a black blouse…
“Oh god, is she—” Claire’s voice from above him, strangled, almost a sob.
With a trembling hand, Gabriel brushed the hair from the woman’s face…and his heart sank. Not Parker. This wasn’t Parker. The woman’s cheek was warm under his touch, and when he slipped his fingertips to her throat, her pulse beat steadily.
“She’s just sedated,” he informed his colleagues.
“Get her out of there,” ordered Kai. “Get the medical team here, check her vitals.”
Gabriel looked up at his boss, surprised at the gruff tone of his voice.
“They had to have left just before we got here.” Nik was holding Claire and spoke over the top of her dark head. “For her to still be unconscious.”
“They knew we were coming.” Gabriel had come to the same conclusion. This space, remote and derelict but in Long Island, of all places, was too perfect to be abandoned for no reason. They should have at least found some supplies, maybe a lowly guard or two. Instead, Maxwell had left them with this parting gift.
“Who do you think she is?” Claire, clearly recovered from her shock, peered at the unknown woman being lifted onto a stretcher. “She smells like a shifter.”
“A jackal, I’d say,” replied Kai. “If she doesn’t wake up soon and identify herself, we’ll have to run her prints against the SANA database. In fact…” He motioned at a technician dusting a long old table for prints. “Run her prints anyway. She could be a Guard spy.”
“You think she let herself be tranquilized and stuffed into a box just so she could infiltrate SANA?” Claire’s eyes went wide at the thought.
“You would have done it, wouldn’t you?” Nik countered, but there was no rancor in his voice.
Instead, Gabriel had to look away at the man’s admiring gaze. These two were just perfect for each other.
“There’s something tucked into her back pocket, sir.” One of the medics pulled a small envelope from beneath the woman’s shirt and handed it to Kai.
“Gloves,” barked the general.
A panicked technician rushed over to get him a pair.
Kai slid his army knife under the flap and sliced the envelope open. Gabriel inched closer for a look, so he felt more than saw Kai flinch when he glimpsed the contents.
Gabriel moved without realizing it, snatching the Polaroid photograph from the general’s hands.
Parker was lying in a cage in her fox form, sleeping, her fur dirty and stuck in clumps. A small chunk of her left ear was missing, a folded newspaper propped up next to her.
The pain that punched through Gabriel’s gut was enough to make him drop the photo; he fumbled it, nearly crumpling it in his fist. That’s when he saw the back held a message.
Your friend for Nik. Leave a message at this number. A telephone number was scribbled underneath in blue ink.
Kai took the photo back and read the message aloud.
“Let’s do it,” Nik said, earning himself a punch from Claire. “What?” The former Guard lieutenant looked from Kai to Gabriel and then back at Claire. “You know it’s a good trade. I’d… I’d do anything to bring her back. I know how much she means to you.”
“Let’s do it,” Gabriel agreed.
If there was a way to rescue Parker, and Nik agreed…
“No!” Claire pushed Nik away and strode up to Gabriel.
She was almost a head shorter than him, and he had to remind himself to stand his ground when she yelled at him.
“Do you think that’s what Parker would want?” Claire asked. “To trade someone else for her? We’re not trading Nikolai, and you’re an ass to even suggest it, Gabriel West.”
Gabriel was about to point out that he wasn’t the one who’d come up with the idea, but Kai’s deep voice boomed over them all.
“SANA doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.”
They all turned to look at him.
“Your offer to sacrifice yourself is admirable, Gorski,” he continued. “But you know better than I that Reid Maxwell isn’t to be trusted. If we decided to trade you for Parker, chances are, you’d both end up dead. There’s no saying she’s still—”
“Don’t say it.” Gabriel didn’t recognize his voice. “Don’t you dare say she’s…” Dead. His mind supplied the word even though his lips couldn’t form it.
Claire tentatively touched his arm. “We’re not, Gabe. We’re just as worried about her as you are.”
You’re not. He wanted to shout at her, to push them all away. You can’t know what it’s like to lose your partner, to lose the one person who makes your days bearable.
They didn’t understand. Claire had found Nikolai, and Kai—Kai was some kind of robot who never seemed to need anyone. And Gabriel was stuck with young Lucas Thibault who talked too much, baked homemade bread, and refused to understand that eating smoked salmon in Gabriel’s car was strictly forbidden.
He laughed, a bitter, hollow sound—because the alternative was to cry. And he had no intention of breaking down right there. “What else are we going to do?” he asked. “We have no leads. No more thugs to shake down for information. We’ve exhausted every single scrap of data we got, and we’re still no closer to finding that motherfucker.”
When he got his hands on Reid Maxwell, he was going to rip off the bastard’s tail and shove it down his throat. Then set him on fire.
His body shivered, heralding his shift.
“Gabe, calm down.” Kai might have lowered his voice, but the words bore the unmistakable edge of command. “You know we’re doing everything we possibly can. And while we’re at it, please hand over that photo. Let my crew see if there’s a print on it—apart from yours, of course.”
The gentle rebuke brought him back from the brink of shifting. “Shit. Sorry.” He slipped the Polaroid into a clear baggie that a round-eyed technician held out to him. What was he thinking?
“We’ll try to arrange a meeting via that number,” Kai went on, “try to at least catch any messengers they send to the drop-off point. But I’m worried they might hurt Parker if they see we’re trying to double-cross them.”
“Don’t you think it would be better…”
Gabriel tuned out the chatter when others joined the discussion to determine the best next step. He turned to face the empty barn, sweeping his gaze across the churned-up, dirty floor. What had happened here? Had Parker fought in those cage fights? Was she hurt badly? Half her fucking ear was missing.
Another shiver wracked his body, and he knew he only had moments before the need to shift overwhelmed him. Stripping out of his combat gear, he piled his two guns on top. Then he whistled to get the others’ attention.
“Can someone make sure this gets back to HQ?”
Kai dipped his head ever so slightly, though his lips pressed together in disapproval. But it was Claire who said, “Are you crazy? It’ll take you hours to get home. And how will you get into the city?”
“Subway.” He forced a grin, though his cheek muscles hurt; he probably looked as if he was in pain.
The truth was that human brains glossed over the unexpected. If they saw a wolf trotting down First Avenue, they’d convince themselves it was a large stray dog. And even the city that never sleeps got quieter at four in the morning.
He turned his back on his colleagues, shoved his underwear down, and shifted mid-step. His more sensitive wolf’s nose twitched at the acrid scents hanging in the air, so he raced for the open back door, plunging into the darkness outside. A medic gave a startled gasp, but Gabriel paid her no mind.
All he knew was the frozen ground beneath his paws and the disappointment of having failed, yet again, to retrieve his partner. For a couple of hours at least, he would leave behind the worry and the powerless rage at the Guard and everything they stood for. He howled to the crescent moon, just visible through the thin winter clouds, and surged into the woods.