Shards of glass lay scattered across the alley, along with the charred bits of plastic mini-blinds, splinters of wood, and balls of stuffing from the smouldering couch currently rocking half-in, half-out of the window above him. There wasn’t enough smoke billowing out the window to raise the alarm yet, but Duncan “Mac” MacDonnell expected to hear sirens any moment.
Whether those sirens would come from the fire department or the cops was anyone’s guess. And that was cops other than him, ones who didn’t spend their days behind a desk following the terrorist money trail and their nights policing the unnatural things that went bump in the night. Always showing up at strange occurrences like this one outside of a work shift was going to get him noticed one day, and not in a good way.
Watching the puffs of smoke, he sighed as the truth settled on his shoulders like an unwanted coat. It was only a matter of time before he had to move on from his day job with the Los Angeles Police Department, even though he wasn’t ready to give it up. It had taken a lot of years to get where he finally felt he was doing some good, even if there had been some behind-the-scenes tinkering going on to fast-track him into his current position.
Being a cop had been a childhood dream, but working for the Arsenal was his adult responsibility. One of them had to go.
The earlier screaming, four-way argument had quieted since his arrival. Or maybe his selective hearing had kicked in. Either way, the disturbance was less likely to draw unwanted attention now that it was quiet. Unless they’d all killed each other. That would make for a long night. It was getting harder and harder to cover up disasters like that.
“Hey, Mac,” called a familiar voice from down a dim walkway. “If I’d known there was going to be a barbeque, I’d have brought beer.” The voice belonged to his Arsenal partner, Chance Ryan, arriving from wherever and whatever trouble he’d been out getting into. It was after midnight, and neither of them were on the clock. He wasn’t on duty with the LAPD, and Chance wasn’t working a late shift at the Arsenal.
Mac’s other, slightly less official job with the Arsenal was a twenty-four seven gig, and he could be called in or sent out anytime, if needed. President Roosevelt had probably never imagined that the ragtag group of psychics he’d dragged out of their respective nuthouses in 1938 to counter Hitler’s use of the occult would still be around, and thriving, more than seventy years later. The last weapons in FDR’s Arsenal of Democracy now received their paychecks from the Department of Homeland Security.
“What set off Ivan the Terrible this time?” Chance asked.
“Hell, if I know.” Mac glanced up at the couch. He should probably move. With his luck, it would suddenly become unbalanced for no damn reason whatsoever, slide out the window, and fall on his head. Unless Chance stood beside him. Then it wouldn’t dare. Chance had been born under a lucky star. In fact, everyone called him Lucky except him, or, if they were feeling even more imaginative, they called him Lucky Chance.
As Chance joined him under the window, a piece of orange paper fluttered down from somewhere above and gently landed in Chance’s outstretched hand, because that was what clues did when he was around. A wisp of smoke curled from one charred edge. Monopoly money. Five hundred dollars.
“Hey, look! I landed on Free Parking,” Chance said, the smile evident in his voice. “I should buy another hotel with it. How much does it cost for one on Park Place again?”
Goddamn Monopoly. “Two hundred, plus four houses.” Why did he remember this garbage? “And I guess that explains what happened here.”
Chance flashed him a toothy grin. “Probably. Losing seems to really piss you off. I didn’t realize you could make a complete sentence with just swear words.”
“That game should be banned for the good of humanity. And you can so make a complete sentence just using fuck.” The couch wobbled, but because Chance was now beside him, after the wobble, it slid back into the apartment instead of out of it. Naturally. “I wonder if there’s a central database for homicides caused by board game disputes.”
Chance chuckled softly. “If there isn’t, you should make one.”
“Ha-ha. Don’t think so.” Anyone who vaguely, and even not so vaguely, knew Mac in the major crimes unit thought he was an anal-retentive, bean-counting pencil pusher, so that would simply cement their good opinion of him. Or would they think it was cool? “Hmm, I dunno, maybe I will. Someone should put a stop to this insanity.”
Twin car headlights shone down the dingy, narrow alley and yanked his mind from the logistics behind creating a board game murder database. The beams flashed on several melted blobs of green and red plastic. “Are those…?”
Chance kicked one with his toe. “Yup. Hotels and houses.” He grinned evilly. “We should play a game, sometime, you and me. It’s been far too long.”
“Not goddamn likely.” Chance’s special ability, his psychic talent, if you could call it that, was a ridiculous, freakish, never-ending run of good luck. That luck extended to cards, board games, poker, horse racing, ferreting out bad guys, and picking up every unattended gay male in the vicinity. Sometimes even straight ones.
“Oh, come on,” Chance teased. “I’ll even let you start out with half the properties up front.”
“You’d still win.”
“Yeah, but it’d be more fun.”
For one of them, maybe. “I’ll play you if it’s an electronic version. Anytime you want.” Chance may have horseshoes up his ass, but that luck didn’t seem to work nearly as well on electronic things. Most of the time. “I’ll even buy that fancy martini gin you like, and we’ll make a night of it.”
“You’re such a chickenshit. And forget the martinis. I’m into cosmopolitans right now.”
Good God. “How can you even admit that with a straight face?”
“And just what are you implying? I’ll have you know they’re delicious. I’m making my way through my bucket list of all the famous vintage drinks.”
And apparently trying most of them tonight…
The car finally crawled to a stop and the engine died. Chance sighed loudly. “Wonder what brings the Chihuahua out so late.”
“I heard that!” the Chihuahua screeched and, with her strange grace, exited the car. Her voice was worse than fingernails on a chalkboard and could make enemies surrender in five minutes flat, just to make her go away.
And goddamn Chance, now he had him calling her Chihuahua too, if only in his head.
“Good evening, Chinhua.” Chinhua only ever used one name, like Cher, and thank God, because her surname was unpronounceable and spelled with a bunch of x’s and i’s. She was also more of a fluffy, yappy, mean Pomeranian with sharp little teeth than one of those cute Mexican ankle snappers that always hated him on sight.
As usual, she ignored his polite greeting and glared at Chance. “Why are you all tarted up?”
“Me?” Chance sounded both surprised and offended. “You’re calling me tarted up when he’s the one wearing a skirt?”
Mac sighed. “It’s a kilt, not a skirt.”
“He’s Scottish. It’s allowed.” Chinhua waved her red-lacquered, dragon-lady fingernails at Chance’s rather…slutty attire. “You?” She shook her head. “In that outfit, I make quick hundred dollars renting you out for half hour, right around the corner on the street.”
Only a hundred? “Don’t sell him so cheaply, boss. You could easily get two hundred.” Chance was…yeah. Worth every penny of that two hundred. Just to look at. Double that if he was dancing. Plus, the thin, pale shirt he’d squeezed into was so tight, every muscle was visible and rippled with every breath he took. His small, hard nipples poked at the tissue-thin cloth. And goddamn, those leather pants…
“I’m not for sale, and if I was, I wouldn’t be working the corner like a cheap whore. I’d be kept somewhere in style, bitches. Kept.” Chance looked over, then down, eying Mac’s new kilt hose. “And you do know what he’s wearing under that kilt, don’t you?” Chance affected a good pout and put his hands on his hips. The fabric stretched over his chest, almost tearing on those tight little points. “Not a goddam thing.”
True, and it was perfectly legal.
“So don’t call me tarted up and not him.”
Wasn’t the same thing at all. And Jesus—was Chance…wet? What the hell? Under the folds of Mac’s kilt, the temperature shot up by roughly a hundred degrees.
Chance and his too-tight pants moved out of the direct beams of light, which actually made him easier to see. Yes, he was wet, both hair and clothes. And halfway drunk, according to the laughing light in his eyes, the pretty flush to his cheeks, and the way his lips had turned that dark shade of red that only ever happened when he had a drink or two in him.
He had to quit noticing these things. Had to quit noticing how that ridiculous sun-bleached streak down the left side of his light brown hair always made his left eye twinkle more than the right, like he was perpetually up to no good. It served no purpose other than to make him miserable. And horny.
This was all Chinhua’s fault. She never should have partnered them. She had to have known. She knew everything about everybody. He’d always had a crush—yes, a stupid, impossible, boyish crush—on Chance since he’d first laid eyes on him, back before they were ever partners and only worked together on bigger cases. Not that his crush was reciprocated. Chance was out of his league and then some. And they were partners, however that happened, so a big, fat, no for that reason alone.
Not to mention, Chance’s idea of commitment was staying all night before ditching his latest conquest. That didn’t mesh with Mac’s own one-man-at-a-time, and preferably for life, policy.
Besides, the two of them getting together would only fuck up the best friendship he’d ever had and would likely ever have. Ordinary men who didn’t know about the real world, about the other things that existed, about the strange things he saw or that happened to him, would never understand. But Chance did.
He shook off the momentary rush of unrequited lust and tuned in on the conversation between Chinhua and his hot, and inexplicably wet, partner.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Chinhua demanded of Chance.
“Mac texted me.”
“Sorry.” He was. “I should’ve messaged someone else.” He’d known Chance had plans and hadn’t really expected a reply either. It had just been habit to check in. At this time on a Friday night, Chance should have been on his knees somewhere with some guy’s dick down his throat. So why wasn’t he? He’d responded to that text in ten seconds flat.
Chinhua turned her cold appraisal from Chance to him. “And what about you? I suppose you just happened to be passing by?”
Sheesh. Like that hadn’t happened a few hundred times before. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Of course I was.” That was his talent, his psychic ability, showing up right when things were about to happen. He’d get these weird compulsions from out of nowhere and would suddenly have the urge to go for a walk, a drive, or out for an ice-cream cone when it was twenty below and he didn’t even like ice-cream. If he obeyed the compulsion, sure enough, he’d come across a Happening. Something would go down, blow up, flip over, or fall from balconies. Like babies. Which had happened twice. You’d think people would keep a better eye on their kids.
He could ignore the compulsions if he really wanted to, even if it drove him crazy, an itch he couldn’t scratch, but as far as special abilities went, it sucked. Especially tonight. It was in overdrive. Which made no sense, because, goddamn it, he was here. The thing that was going to happen, happened. Yet that strange, prickling sensation kept crawling up and down his back with a vengeance.
Another car pulled up behind Chinhua’s expensive, flashy BMW. Backup. Chinhua tiptoed over to him, tottering on five-inch heels, and stabbed him in the side with a painted, inch-long claw. “Go home.” She glanced over at the approaching car. “It’s their call, and they’ll handle it.”
Which meant the Monopoly game that ended badly was going to end even more badly. Chinhua never left the comfort of her office sanctuary unless she and her foot-long jade hairpin, robbed from the tomb of an ancient Chinese philosopher and rumoured necromancer, had to mete out some serious punishment.
Ivan, the owner of the smoking, second-floor apartment and a former Arsenal operative, had psychically exploded his last couch. His temper tantrums had been escalating, and with his abilities, that was dangerous. He and Chance had been here twice in the last six weeks sorting out his messes. Ivan had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, and the Ruskies were probably still looking for him. If he didn’t quit letting his power get away from him, they’d find him. Which would be bad news not just for Ivan but for the Arsenal as well. Nothing like getting your own weapon used against you.
“You sure you don’t need an extra set of hands?” Chinhua was five foot nothing, weighed about ninety pounds, if you included her usual ten pounds of jewellery, and was somewhere between fifty-five and a hundred. Since he was ol’ Mr. Reliable, and the crawling sensation was digging into his spine, he had to offer. “I’d be happy to stay and help.”
“No,” she snapped. “I said go home. And take Slutty Pants with you before he gets over-enjoyed by a carload of well-hung black men who just happen to be driving by.”
“Hey!” Chance said. “You do know that was racist, slut-shaming, and crude all at once, right? You don’t hear me making racial slurs about your saggy old Asian ass, do you?”
Chinhua squinted ominously.
“Often,” Chance added.
Even Chance’s legendary luck would carry him only so far. “Come on, Slutty Pants, let’s get out of here. I can tell when we’re not wanted.” He grabbed Chance by the elbow—which was surprisingly warm despite being damp—and towed him out of the alley. Oddly, Chance didn’t yank his arm back until they reached the road. Weird, but okay.
Standing far more steadily than the number of drinks in his belly should have allowed, Chance flicked his head toward the alley and at the thin drift of smoke coming from Ivan’s broken window. “She’s going to do something with that hairpin, isn’t she?” Chance shuddered visibly. “I hate that thing.”
Yes, yes, she was. “It won’t be fatal.” Probably. But what did he know? “He’s getting worse. Even hurting people, you know that. God, Chance, he could have lit the whole apartment block on fire. Talking to him, giving him warnings—it isn’t working anymore. He’s dangerous. To all of us.”
“Yeah, I know.” Chance frowned. His happy mood had vanished. “Still wish, you know, there was another way.”
“Chinhua will go easy on him.”
Chance snorted derisively. “You’re the worst liar. I don’t know why you bother.”
True. But that meant he didn’t have to do the deep undercover work, which suited him fine. Poor Chance, stuck with his boring, stodgy old ass. They did, however, have the whole good-cop, bad-cop routine perfected and wielded it like a weapon. Especially Chance, who could be a little too convincing sometimes…
Chance followed him to his car but dawdled, which was completely out of character. The man walked fast, talked fast, and usually did about four things simultaneously. If he was wasting another Friday night brooding over his imaginary nemesis again, they’d have to talk. Not that the criminal mastermind they’d been trying catch for more than a year was imaginary. Unfortunately, he was all too real. It was just that Chance seemed to think whoever it was, was personally out to get him.
Whoever he—or she—was, they had Chance’s own luck. They had thus far managed to stay one step ahead of them. Chance considered it an affront to his luck. However they kept managing to escape undetected with their loot, even with the best security in the world, it was starting to make both the LAPD and the Arsenal look bad. The market for the more…unusual antiquities was hot, and mind-bogglingly lucrative. It was strange, the way they couldn’t seem to get a break. Not even Mr. Lucky Chance had gotten lucky, but it was Friday night, for Christ’s sake, and Chance was taking it far too personally.
Chance brooded all the way to the car almost two blocks down. Mac had parked on the sidewalk. Right beside a fire hydrant. Sometimes being a cop had its advantages. Instead of circling over to the passenger door, Chance paused at, then leaned against, the back fender.
“What’s with the kilt?” Chance asked, finally breaking his silence. “You back teaching that Scottish sword-fighting class again?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Must be a new movie out. Every time one comes along with sword-fighting scenes in it, the class fills up, practically overnight. They only last about two classes before giving up. Probably ’cause they don’t get a real sword in the first five minutes and can’t maim each other showing off their instantly acquired super ninja skills.” It was fun teaching that first class but disappointing when they all stopped coming. Kept his training up, though.
But enough of that. Chance was stalling. “What about you? You’re dressed to thrill but obviously didn’t come here from a club.”
Chance raised a lone brow and made a slight, almost imperceptible change in his stance. “How do you know I didn’t?” he taunted.
Oh-ho, a challenge. Chance wanted to play what they’d come to call Sherlock. Fine. It would take his mind off Chinhua and her hairpin. “You wanna play, huh?”
“Put up or shut up, Mac.”
Someone was about to get powned. “You’re on, Slutty Pants.” Although he didn’t need to confirm his hypothesis, he cast a quick glance at Chance. Because he could. “First of all, you’ve had more to drink than usual.” He feigned a disdainful sniff. “Two extra somethings with vodka as the main ingredient.” When Chance was on the prowl, he liked to keep his wits about him. Made it easier to escape bad hookups. “Second, you’ve hardly danced at all tonight. Maybe once, if that.”
“How do you deduce that, Mr. Holmes?”
“I can still smell your shampoo and some of your aftershave. But nobody else’s. Therefore, nobody’s been rubbing up against you, making you all sweaty, and rubbing their sweat on you—and whatever cheap cologne they bathed in hoping to get some. And then there’s your clothes.”
“What about them?”
“They’re barely rumpled.” Although they were probably too tight to wrinkle. “And the laces on your pants are still tied tight, and your shirt’s mostly tucked in. Front and back.”
“It means nobody’s mauled you yet tonight. Which would have been the case had you been dancing or even stayed in whatever club you were at longer than the half hour or so you were there.” Mac wouldn’t quite call Chance flamboyant, but no one ever confused him for a straight man either. He was striking, charismatic, and usually dressed like a model from a magazine. Never mind gay bars, Chance got mauled by admirers in the line at the deli.
Chance gave him a crooked smile. “Keep going, Detective.”
“The rest is easy. You answered my text almost immediately and arrived here unbelievably fast. You weren’t far away.”
“Maybe I was somewhere on the strip.”
“Ha—not with this traffic, you weren’t. You were nearby. You don’t have your car, so that means you started off at some club or other, because you always take a taxi instead of drunk driving—which is commendable, by the way—but were bothered about something unrelated to not finding the next hot guy to torment. To shut up that nagging little voice in your head, you drank two more cosmopolitans or whatever the fuck you downed, left before getting picked up, and then, for whatever reason, took off walking before running into trouble and ending up here, leaning on my car.”
Chance chuckled. “You think I ran into trouble?”
Damn straight he did. And judging by the way his spine was still prickling, Chance had only outrun it, not lost it. “Your clothes are wet.”
Chance straightened. “Wet T-shirt contest.”
That was a thing? “Bullshit. You detoured through some apartments, climbed over a five-foot cement fence into someone’s private courtyard, startled the ever-loving fuck out of the tenant who was sneaking some water on his lawn in the dark, and he sprayed you.”
Chance startled slightly, then slouched back against the car. “There’s no goddamn way you could know that!”
“Clues, dear Watson, clues.”
“Oh, screw you, Mac! How’d you know? Did you see me?” He scowled. “You could’ve stopped.”
“Of course I would have stopped. For fuck’s sake—someone was chasing you.”
“They were easy to lose.”
Oh, so not what he wanted to hear. “Tell me about it.” Because he was going to kill them. Half a dozen swords were waiting in the trunk, and his gun was locked in the glove box. Hell, he’d snap their neck with his bare hands if he had to.
“Finish the game, first.”
“What?” This was serious, and Chance was dicking him around. As usual. “All right, but don’t think you’re going to weasel out of it like you usually do.”
Chance folded his arms across his chest. “You said something about a five-foot fence?”
“It was too tall for you to vault over. Or your pants were too tight. You scraped the toe of your shoe hoisting yourself up, so that tells me the fence was either plaster or cement. You also scuffed the hip and thigh of your pants on the top edge.” Chance looked down at the scrape on his black pants. “That’s not good for expensive leather, you know.”
“You’re on a roll tonight, Sherlock. Carry on.” Chance’s lips curled into his patented, irritate-the-hell-out-of-you smirk. “What about this supposed hose guy?”
Supposed? Hardly. It was all so obvious. The weird part of this was, he really wasn’t a very good detective unless it involved numbers. He just seemed to have a second secret ability—worrying about Chance Ryan, who could damn well take care of himself and who was ten times the detective he would ever be. “Your hair and shirt are wet, but not your pants, only the bottom inch, along with your shoes. From soggy grass.”
“So how does that mean some guy got me with a hose?”
“You startled him, and he jumped back, causing the nozzle to jerk upwards. Then when he realized what was going on, he deliberately nailed you in the head. Good thing it wasn’t a gun, eh?”
Chance chuckled softly, but it sounded a little forced. “Yeah, but if it was a gun, he would’ve missed.”
Or the gun would have jammed, or hose-head would have tripped over thin air or an earthquake would have struck the greater Los Angeles area. A bullet wouldn’t dare put a hole in Chance’s perfect skin. “You rely on Lady Luck far too much.”
Chance scowled darkly. “Yeah, and I have no common sense. I’m just a big, brainless golden retriever who chases his ball into traffic with no regard to cars and wags his tail at the cruel master who beats him.”
Whoa. Where did that come from? “I have never said that. Anything like that! Not once.” Had someone else? Recently?
The scowl vanished. “Finish up, Sherlock. Just because one or two things may have unfolded as you say doesn’t mean I was in trouble. Maybe I took a bad shortcut. It could happen.”
“Oh, please.” If Chance hadn’t been so insanely lucky, he’d probably have been murdered ten times over by now. Five of them by Mac. But there had to be a reason Chance wanted him to play the game. He just needed to figure it out, and figure out who’d called Chance a dumb dog so he could punch their face in later. He moved closer to his partner and used the one-inch height advantage he had on him to glare into his shadowed eyes. “You weren’t just in trouble, but big trouble.”
“I was not.”
“Oh, yes you were. And you’re still spooked.” Mac crowded him, forcing him back against the car. Sometimes Chance needed a mental boot in the ass to send him in the right direction. He was a brilliant man, although you’d never think it by looking at him, and because he changed his mind so frequently, and leapt from subject to subject so fast, if you didn’t know him well, you’d think he was a big flake. Compounding that, he had no regard for his own life. Or limbs.
Mac raised his hand. The finger he meant to poke Chance on the chest with instead slid over the slinky material of his almost-dry shirt and the firm flesh underneath. His finger seemed to move all by itself. Whatever the hell was the matter with him tonight?
Chance gasped softly in response, as if startled.
The sound Chance made, the feel of that solid muscle, and the hard ridge of the tight nipple under his fingertip went straight to Mac’s dick. He snatched his hand back. Goddamn. What was with him? Not like Chance didn’t look sexy every minute of every damn day. Tonight was no different. Horrified by his slipup, he stepped back. He had to focus. Remember what was important. Remember that Chance wasn’t his to touch and never would be.
“I wasn’t in trouble,” Chance said with a slight hitch to his voice. Instead of meeting his eye, Chance cast his glance in the direction of Ivan’s apartment, at the cars speeding by, at anything but him. “Not really.”
Which was a bald-faced lie. “You were! The fact that you ran into sprinkler man with the killer aim and had to jump over fences to shake whoever was dogging your ass tells me that your guardian angel was working double-time. Your getting soaked and having to outmaneuver whoever was after you was actually your good luck saving your butt, compared to what else would have happened if Fortuna, Goddess of Luck, hadn’t kissed your pudgy little baby butt the day you were born.”
Chance’s lips curled into a smirk. “So that’s how it happened, huh? I always wondered. No wonder everyone keeps admiring my ass. They can see the kiss mark, even through my pants.”
Normally that would have been funny, but not tonight. “Quit fucking around, Chance. What’s going on?”
The last of the teasing glint in Chance’s expressive gold-brown eyes faded. He suddenly seemed a lot more sober. Nervous. Or was that frightened? His gaze flicked to Ivan’s apartment building, then down the street before settling once again on Mac’s eyes. “It was him.”
Oh, okay. Him. That cleared up everything. “Chance, don’t be a tool. If you start with that whole he who shall not be named thing again, I’m gonna smack you so hard, you’ll forget your own goddamned name.” Which would never happen. Mac’s temper had a long, slow fuse. Burned hot when it finally caught, but he liked to save the flames for the bad guys. Besides, Chance was quick, and he fought dirty. “For the sake of argument, what makes you think it was him? Or her?”
“What!” And he was just telling him this now? “When?”
“Jesus, Chance! Could you not have mentioned this earlier? Sometimes you drive me nuts.” Mac dug his cell phone out of his sporran. “I’m calling this in. How long ago was it? Location?”
He never even got his password entered before Chance’s strong fingers tugged his hand down. “Don’t.”
“Wrong law enforcement agency.”
“What do you mean, wrong? No way am I calling the Feds. This is LAPD’s case to finish fucking up, not theirs. You can’t be serious.” From the look on his face, he was.
“Not that agency, you idiot. Your other employer.”
“Oh. That one.” Fuck. “Get in the car.”
Now that he’d made up his mind to give it up, Chance jumped in the passenger side the second he unlocked it. “Head down Santa Monica Boulevard.”
So, Chance had been out looking for fun. How then had everything managed to go so wrong, so fast? “Start talking.”
Chance turned away to stare out the window. “Gimme five minutes.”
“Two. And the clock’s ticking. Starting now.”
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