Authors: Terry Bolryder
© 2015 by Terry Bolryder
All rights reserved.
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at the small piece of paper in his hand one last time, then stuffed it in the pocket of his beat-up leather jacket as he walked down the abandoned street.
Though quiet, this was the dangerous part of town. The part where if you parked overnight, you’d wake up to find your car stripped to its frame in the morning. The kind of place where gunshots were a regular occurrence and every window was either barred or boarded.
1230 Willow Street
, the paper read. One of Jace’s informants had given it to him earlier that day, and with luck, it would be the last piece of the puzzle that led him to the bastard he was after.
Then it would be payday.
In spite of how devoid of glamor his job was, Jace loved being a bounty hunter. The thrill of the hunt, always chasing someone, always zeroing in on his prey. The tiger inside him was only satisfied when he was at work.
And thanks to the general state of shifter society these days, there was plenty of work to be done. With packs dissolving, leaders and alphas scarce, and crime rates on the rise, it was like all hell had broken loose in this part of the country.
The dragons in his area that normally monitored things and took care of unruly elements were swamped, leaving them looking for ways to better handle the crime levels in their area. As a rare, powerful tiger shifter, Jace was one of those ways.
He casually checked the placard on the building to his right. 1200. Almost there. Even though it had only rained a little earlier today, the streets were still moist and glistened under the dim light of streetlamps. Every sort of rank smell you could imagine hung in the air around him—motor oil, dumpsters, wafting cigarette smoke from open windows, and rain gutter stench, just to name a few. Around him he could hear the buzz and crackle of dying streetlights, the whistle of a chilly breeze as it passed through alleys and between buildings, hushed conversations in the buildings that lined the streets and far-off traffic from the interstate on the other side of the railroad tracks.
1230. This was it.
All Jace knew about this guy was he was a wolf shifter and his name was Brenner. And he was wanted for murdering his pack alpha in cold blood a few months ago, along with a string of other crimes.
Wolf shifters were generally pretty easy. Except for the fact that they rarely worked alone—unlike bears, who could pack a punch but were usually loners. But you name it, Jace had hunted it at least once or twice in his years of doing this.
He tested the outer door of the five-story apartment complex that looked like every other five-story building in this area. Dilapidated red brick, an entryway that looked like someone had taken a bat to it, and a buzzer that looked a half century past its prime. He considered buzzing someone, but that rarely worked, and the last thing he needed was to alert his quarry that he was coming.
Jace pulled his wallet from his back pocket and found a curved tool that was the thinness of a credit card. He inserted it into the space between the door and the frame and pulled once. The door came free, and he slipped inside, closing it behind him.
Thankfully, the second door was wide open. Inside, he was greeted by a small lobby with no furniture and only one large, ugly rug that was so dirty and worn Jace could only guess at what color it used to be.
Now he was on full alert, all his senses working at a hundred percent. Every sound, every conversation, even a whisper, he could hear with his tiger hearing. As he made his way up the winding stairwell, his footsteps were completely noiseless. He moved silently up the first floor, the second floor, the third, meeting no one and hearing nothing of import.
When he reached the fourth floor, he could hear low voices speaking. He moved past apartments A, B, C, and D, arriving finally at E. Inside, he could make out what sounded like three men, probably seated around a table. He could smell smoke filtering through the cracks around the door and could scent what was probably cheap alcohol. He could hear the quiet sound of cards being shuffled and passed around.
“So when are you going to take the merchandise for a spin?” one man said in a suggestive voice.
“When she’s come to. Doing it with a limp noodle ain’t my thing,” another spoke, this one deeper and gruffer.
While they talked amongst themselves, Jace pulled a pair of clean leather gloves from the inside pocket of his jacket and quietly slid them on. Last thing he needed to do was leave his fingerprints everywhere in case some worried neighbor called the cops. Not that they ever did, but it was worth avoiding catching hell from his older brother.
After they were on, he unholstered a pistol from inside his jacket, cocked it, and waited at the door, looking for an opening. He wouldn’t use his gun unless he absolutely had to, since gunfire always increased the chance of someone calling the police. But at this time of night, people locked themselves inside their apartments and stayed put, so he had time to wait for the right opportunity.
“I’m going to take a piss. Count me outta this hand,” one of the men said preceding the sound of a chair squeaking across the floor as he stood and walked out of the room.
This was the opportunity.
Every muscle in Jace’s body sprang into action as he kicked open the door and rushed into the apartment. He passed a tiny kitchen on his right and came into the living room, which was in fact only a little larger than an average bedroom in size. At a small, round fold-up table were seated two large men who stared up at him, both shocked and angry.
One of them was Brenner. Shaved head, countless scars, a squat, stout body that would have made him an excellent bouncer.
“Brenner Johnson, you’re coming with me. We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way. Your choice,” Jace commanded.
For a second, the room was dead motionless except for a thin trail of smoke from a cigarette lying in an ashtray and the minute twitch of a small vein at the corner of Brenner’s forehead as he considered his options.
In an instant, Brenner’s expression changed as he overturned the table in Jace’s direction and kicked it toward him.
Part of Jace always loved it when they chose the hard way. It gave him an excuse to get rough.
Jace stopped the table with his foot and kicked it aside like an empty can, holstering his gun in the same motion, just as both men charged him.
First he grabbed the closer, smaller lackey and threw him into the wall behind him, his body crashing into a small flatscreen TV and crushing the inadequate, cheap stand beneath it. Brenner was right behind him, a flurry of rage and punches. With catlike reflexes, Jace just dodged and countered with a knee in Brenner’s gut, sending him flying back against the far wall, knocking over chairs in his way.
In that same moment, the third man came charging from around the corner, wildly swinging a knife. Jace grabbed the man’s wrist and twisted, breaking his arm and forcing him to drop the knife, which clattered to the ground. With one swift punch to his face, the man was out cold.
By now, Brenner had recovered and was standing a few feet away. In the air, Jace could scent both fear and anger, and he was ready to give chase if Brenner decided to make a run for the fire escape.
“Who the hell are you?” Brenner asked, fists raised.
One of the advantages to being a tiger was the ability to camouflage one’s scent, enabling Jace to obscure the fact that he was a shifter. More often than not, men like Brenner would try and fight, assuming Jace was just some dumb human who was in way over his head, which gave him the element of surprise in these situations.
“Nobody. Just someone who’s here to take out the trash,” Jace said, unable to hold back a smile at seeing the criminal look so cornered.
Justice would be served. It just so happened it would also result in a nice payout as well.
To Jace’s right, the man that had been thrown into the TV moved, stumbling to try and stand amidst the rubble of the broken furniture. Jace pulled him up and gave him one more hook to the face, knocking him out before he caused any more trouble.
To his surprise, the criminal made a run for it rather than charging like Jace expected. With one swift motion, he pulled a small pistol from a back holster and fired a single, noiseless shot at Brenner as he shoved the window open and was about to make it down the escape.
Brenner stopped, pulled the small dart from his back, then slumped to the ground, motionless. Jace walked over, retrieved the dart, and put it into his pocket.
Though tranquilizers weren’t nearly as satisfying as beating the crap out of delinquents, it worked great for situations like this. And the last thing Jace needed was to make a scene out on a fire escape in public where everyone else could see.
Jace crouched over Brenner’s still body and checked his pulse.
He holstered the pistol, then pulled out a pair of custom-made, heavy-duty handcuffs that more closely resembled old-school shackles than modern cuffs. Jace had learned early on that handcuffs, even doubled up, were often not enough to restrain shifters, especially if they had an alpha power like enhanced strength. And even if beating up a criminal shifter the first time was fun, the second time around was usually more like a chore.
Jace fastened the cuffs around Brenner’s hands and pulled out his phone, sending a text to the man who took care of picking up bounties and delivering them to his clients.
Out of nowhere, Jace heard a soft moan from the bedroom in the back. His nerves went on alert before he realized it definitely hadn’t been the sound of a grown man. Regardless, he needed to investigate just in case there was someone else in the house that he hadn’t accounted for.
Jace stood and crept over to the room, listening for any sounds coming from inside. He heard a light snore and then sheets rustling. He slowly pushed the door open. Then when it creaked, he swiftly swung it wide, holding it so it didn’t hit the back wall or make any more superfluous sounds.
Inside the room, lying on a mattress planted on the floor, was a woman sprawled out on the bed. She was probably in her mid-twenties, with long brown hair splayed out across the pillow-less mattress. She had pretty mocha skin and lips tinged a deep red, slightly parted in her slumber. She was dressed in a pair of skinny jeans that hugged her luscious curves and a red blouse that accentuated her ample breasts.
If Jace hadn’t been on a job, seeing this woman would have made him do a double-take; she was so beautiful. But right now, he needed to get out of here and finish his work before anything else happened.
He came up to the woman and noted she was wearing makeup. That, coupled with what she was wearing, gave him the idea that she’d probably gone out tonight, perhaps with friends to a bar or maybe on a date. How she’d ended up in a rundown, criminal-infested dump like this remained to be told.
Jace sniffed the air and he could smell a slight hint of alcohol on her breath. But it was nothing near what it would take to knock someone out, even if they were a lightweight. He took a second sniff, and this time he caught her scent, flowery and fresh and scintillating all at the same time. It was the most arousing smell he’d ever experienced, and he shook his head to try to clear the erotic, distracting fragrance from his mind.
As much as Jace would have loved to continue to stop and smell the rose-like aroma, the elephant tranquilizers he’d put in Brenner could potentially wear off at any time, and he needed to finish his job and try to get this lady to safety.
“Hey, wake up,” Jace whispered, prodding the woman. No response. He prodded a little more firmly and spoke a little louder, but the woman remained unresponsive.
“Dammit, they must have really drugged you,” he said under his breath, mostly to himself since nobody else was around that could listen.
He quickly rifled through her purse but found no identification or evidence of where she lived. Maybe she’d forgotten it wherever she’d come from. She had a cell phone on her, but it was locked, and Jace didn’t have time to try to figure out the passcode. He could call the police to come get her, but that would lead to questions about why he was there and the mountain of red tape that came with it, and the pickup he’d texted would be outside any minute.
Jace stuffed the woman’s purse into his jacket, picked her up, and slung her over his shoulder. Aside from a groggy moan and a halfhearted swipe at him, the woman cooperated. He could feel her luscious curves pressing into him, but he tried to ignore it as he came back to Brenner’s body. He grabbed the chain that ran between the two cuffs, dragged him out of the apartment and headed for the stairs.
As he made his way down the long, four-story stairwell, he was careful with the woman on his shoulder, shifting occasionally so she wouldn’t bump into any corners.
Before long, Jace was on the cold, empty street again, with Brenner at his feet and the woman now held in his arms. The wind picked up, so Jace took off his coat and wrapped it around the woman so she wouldn’t catch a cold. Just a girl like her being in a place like this meant she’d probably had a hell of a night already.
After a minute or two, a black SUV came roaring down the street and screeched to a stop in front of him. Two men in black suits hopped out, examined Brenner momentarily, and then threw him into the back of the car. The driver got back in and started the car while the other pulled a small black briefcase out of the SUV and stepped up to Jace.
“Good work. You have our appreciation. Here’s our agreed-upon payment,” the man said, setting the suitcase at Jace’s feet. “As always, it’s a pleasure doing business with you.”
“Pleasure’s all mine,” Jace replied and nodded to the man before he slid back into the passenger seat and closed the door.
The car zoomed off, headed to whereabouts that were unknown to Jace, leaving him alone with the soft, warm body in his arms. The woman sighed quietly and smiled, snuggling against his chest, and Jace nearly lost it. He let out a long puff of air that dissipated into the night. Shifting the woman in his arms once more, he stooped down to grab the briefcase with his free hand.