Don't Back Down (Skylar)
The first thing I do in any room is check for the nearest available exit.
It’s part of my job, considering the tactical planning and logistics required to work for Enguard Security.
But it probably says a lot about me, too.
No matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing...I’m always looking for the quickest, safest way out.
Guess that’s just the kind of girl I am. Skylar Szabo, escape artist extraordinaire.
Right now the only available exit is the office door, and I can’t take it. Not until I’m done with this route planning and escort strategy for our firm's latest VIP client.
I rub angrily at my gritty, aching eyes and force myself to focus on the computer screen, clicking through Google Maps and using Street View to scope out any prospective dangers along the proposed route. I study every little area where concealed assailants or snipers might take advantage of exposed stretches of road.
Go ahead and snicker. It might seem a little far-fetched, violent ambushes in sunny, affluent NorCal, but I can’t take any risks with the Duke.
Yes, a freaking Duke.
We've moved up in the world, and now the company is invoicing royals.
Four months ago, it was a big deal when Enguard managed to land pop starlet Milah Holly as a client. Now, after my boss – Landon Strauss, Grade A grump and complete slave-driving hard-ass –
saved Milah’s life in some huge dramatic internationally televised event?
Everyone on the planet with a seven-figure paycheck is beating down our doors. I have more money than I know what to do with piling into my bank account.
And I’m officially going completely cray-cray trying to keep the heck up.
It doesn’t help that my home life is a minefield, and I’m at the end of my rope.
I don’t want to be here, mapping a convoy route for the Duke of Sealesland, no matter how well it pays.
The Duke is fine. The Duke is safe. The Duke doesn’t need me.
My family does.
More specifically my grandma, my sister, and little Joannie.
My throat tightens just thinking about my niece. I haven’t seen her in months.
No one has.
Not my sister, not the police, not the Feds – not that anyone but my sister is really trying to find her. You know all those truisms about how every day a child is missing exponentially reduces the chance of finding them alive?
What they don’t tell you is, every damn day exponentially reduces the interest law enforcement has in the case. In their minds, your missing munchkin is already a dead lost cause.
I know Joannie’s not dead. I need to believe that.
Not just for my sake, but for my family’s. Maybe the police and FBI have given up on her.
And I know who really took her: the asshole deadbeat she shares half her DNA with.
I just have to find a way to prove her father's the culprit, and I’m not going to do that by sitting here in an air-conditioned office, staring at a computer screen, wondering if someone with a good scope could take a shot from a tree that might not even be in a years-old Street View photo.
The Duke will be fine.
It’s almost midnight. I’m the last person at the office.
Even Riker left hours ago, murmuring something about his daughter – who he thinks hung the moon – and math club and regional semifinals or something else I don’t quite understand when I don’t have kids yet. A little part of me in the back of my mind wonders if I ever will.
If I’d even be able to stand the idea, after losing Joannie. She might as well be my daughter with the special, forever cozy place she has in my heart.
But she’s not lost. She’s not.
And it’s time to go home and do my real job.
I’m so used to being the last woman standing at Enguard that there’s really nothing all that unsettling about the darkened silence and haunted gloom of our late night office, though I suppose it would spook others.
I’m not easily spooked. I’m not easily anything. And if my coworkers think I either don’t hear, or I'm oblivious to the whispers wondering if I’m dead inside, a robot, whatever, I don’t care.
I don’t need emotions for this job. Being emotional leads to mistakes. Being emotional leads to trouble.
Being emotional leaves you vulnerable, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I was ever anything like vulnerable.
That’s not how Grandma raised me, or my sister, Monika.
But vulnerable or not, I can’t help deeply ingrained habits. Call it situational awareness.
As I sling my case over my shoulder, lock up with my little laminate RFID badge-card stamped with Skylar Szabo in big, black block print, and step outside into the balmy evening air, my senses range over the parking lot.
It’s all gold shadows of faded street lamps against concrete, turning everything a sort of dusty shade of half-night.
I breathe deeply, welcoming the night.
Someone needs to check their brakes. I can smell the strange, cool chemical scent of brake fluid, and the light turns green in an oily puddle left behind in one parking spot. I can taste the asphalt still baking after sundown, that bitter tar stench on my tongue. Then there's the faint sound of highway traffic, a whooshing, distant drone, and there’s a clang! about four blocks away that tells me someone just lost a hubcap to a speed bump.
Everything hits my brain in ordered streams of data, an instant tactical assessment of my environment. Old habits, again.
It’s almost automatic, idly percolating in the back of my mind while my thoughts focus on what I need to do tonight.
I go over the harsh litany, ticking them off on my fingers: leads I need to trace, info to compile, case files to review. There’s a sense of brutal urgency pressing down. Because I’m seeing Grandma and Monika tomorrow, in the flesh, and I need to be able to tell them something.
Something that will give them hope. Something that will ease the nightmare. Something that'll let them hold on just a little while longer.
But that sense of urgency turns into alarm as I draw closer to my car – a beat-up old Buick in a shade of champagne that hasn’t been on the market in at least fifteen years.
I know my car. Know it like I know my own body, and I know how the night shadows should fall over the interior and hood down to the last crooked silhouette.
And I know before I’m even ten feet away from the car that the shadows are wrong.
Someone’s been in my car.
Someone other than me has been in my car.
Someone other than me has been in my car, alone, with a Glock hidden away in the glove box and now, potentially, in an intruder's hands.
I go stock-still.
The muggy night suddenly feels cold as sweat beads and ices my skin, goosebumps rising.
“Fuck you. I'm not afraid,” I mutter quietly.
I don’t do fear, not if I can help it, one more irrational emotion I don't need – but there’s a tension like a static shock rolling through me. Adrenaline keys up in my blood until my heart’s playing hopscotch with the lines of my ribs.
I can hear my pulse in jumping patters against my eardrums. It can't stop my reflexes.
Carefully – no sudden movements – I bring my case around and reach inside. My Glock may be in the car or somebody's grimy hand, but I’ve got a Taser.
It’s firm and reassuring and slick in my palm, a solid weight that fits with the comfort of familiarity. I draw it out and let it hang at my side as I slowly approach the car; my keys fall into my other hand, one key spiked between each knuckle to make a fierce claw for close combat, the number one trick every girl learns as soon as she’s old enough to understand the dangers of a darkened parking lot at night.
Head down low, I move.
I'm not making an easy target for anybody inside the car. All I’ll have is the sound of a gunshot and glass shattering to warn me before I’m possibly eating a bullet. There’s an angle where the upper frame of the car creates a block, right where the corner molds around from the back driver’s side window to the rear.
A blind spot. I shuffle into it and edge closer, straining to see inside the shadows of the car with only the faint light from the street lamps to guide me.
There’s no one there.
Not that I can see.
No one in the front seat, no one hiding in the back – but there’s something scratched on the dashboard I can’t quite read. Warily, rising up on my toes, I lean in to ensure no one’s crouched down in the leg space behind the front seats.
Nope. Empty. The only other place they could hide is the trunk.
Before I look any further inside the car, I pop the trunk and then fling myself to one side. But there’s nothing inside except my spare tire, my oh shit go bag, and a case of bottled water I’ve been forgetting to bring inside since my last grocery trip two weeks ago.
Sighing, I glance around, but there’s no one in the lot. Nowhere they could even hide, when there’s nothing but my car, a couple of skinny light poles too small to conceal anyone, and an expanse of flat concrete.
Still, I dip to peer under the car as I round it again, just to be sure. No one there, either.
A straight up coward broke into my car.
Left his message, and then ran off before I could catch him.
LAST WARNING. ONLY WARNING.
STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM HER.
It’s scratched across my dashboard in big slashing letters as jagged and pointed as the bowie knife thrusting out of the shredded leather driver’s seat of my car.
Asshole. That’s going to cost an arm and a leg to fix.
My breath pours out of me in a tired yet explosive sigh. I dig in my case until I come up with the spare t-shirt I keep in the event of an all-nighter, wrap my hand in it, and gingerly pull the knife from the seat, careful to avoid any fingerprints I might be smudging.
Then I toss the knife on the empty seat, throw my case in the back, slide behind the wheel, check that the Glock’s still in the glove compartment, and start the engine grimly.
I’ll call the police tomorrow. Right now, I’m going home.
Nothing’s going to stop me from continuing the search for Joannie, especially not some pissant jackal who cuts up my car and disappears because he’s too shit-scared to look me in the eye.
For me, this isn’t a threat.
It’s a sign of hope.
No one would bother trying to scare me off if Joannie was dead.
And when I find my sister’s ex, I’m going to use his own knife to skin him before taking my little girl home to her mama where she belongs.
* * *
The night passes without further incident.
Not even the stiffest coffee can keep me up beyond 2:00 a.m., though, and I wake up in the morning drooling over a stack of printouts about my prime suspect, Harmon Ketchum – my sister’s ex, Joannie’s father, master scumbag with an almost comical amount of dirty ties to the vast San Francisco criminal underworld.
My neck aches, and I groan, rubbing at my eyes and leaning back in my creaking, high-backed chair. The first thing I notice is the air. It tastes like storms blowing in across the ocean and the tiny little patch of sandy scrub beach I can call my own, fronting my little fishing shanty house.
The second thing I’m aware of is, if I don’t haul butt, I’m going to be late for work.
I shower in record time, slap on the quickest gloss of natural-pink lipstick that’s the sole difference between my professional face and my private one, knot my hair into a neat bun, toss myself behind the wheel of my mangled car, and floor it.
I don't know why I think speeding helps. San Francisco traffic is hell as usual, and I just barely skid into the parking lot in the wake of my boss' Impala. He's just stepping out, rolling his massive shoulders, raking dark hair out of his eyes. Landon Strauss would look equally well put together and imposing in the thick of D-Day, I swear.
Us mere mortals aren't so lucky.
I slew into my parking spot, rage-tuck an annoyingly loose strand of my short hair back into my bun, and step out, still straightening my uniform shirt. He glances at me, lifting his hand in a lazy wave, only to freeze mid-motion, vivid blue eyes flashing hotly as he stares past me into the car.
“Pixie, what in the fuck?”
I really hate that nickname.
But what I hate even more is dumping this shit show on his doorstep. Even if Landon’s a hard-ass, he’s always been good to me – even more so since he found out about Joannie.
Too bad what happened to my car also falls under vandalism on company property.
No choice. I’ve got to clue him in, if only so he can cover his ass for legal reasons.
I’d just hoped for more than five seconds to be ready for this conversation.
He prowls toward me, expression black as he circles the car. His lips move soundlessly, shaping around the words carved across the dash, then jerks his head up, almost glaring. “Your niece is alive.”
“Would seem so, sir,” I answer tersely.
I don’t want to hear what he’s going to say next, but that doesn’t stop him.
“This is some serious shit. What if they’d gone after you instead of your car?”
“He’d have come away with a Taser to his balls, sir.”
Landon snorts briefly, but his amusement doesn’t soften the ferocity of his stare. “This isn’t funny, Skylar. Your niece may be in danger, but so are you, and I'm not having it. If you keep pushing –”
“I’m not quitting. Sir.” I bite off the last word as an afterthought. “Everyone else has given up. I won’t.”
“I’m not saying you have to.” He holds both hands up. “But hear me out, Sky. It’s time to stop trying to do this solo.”
I shake my head sharply. “No. I’m not dragging anyone from Enguard into this. I'll keep my personal and work life separate, thank you very much. I don't need a babysitter.”
“You need protection,” he growls. “And I’m not thinking about someone from Enguard. Even if I’m sure Riker would be happy for an easy bodyguard gig.”
My eyes narrow. “Again, I don't need a babysitter, sir. And I can knock Riker on his ass in two seconds flat.”
“Precisely the reason I’m not putting him on your detail. That, and he’s already going grey trying to raise a kid alone. Well, greyer.” Landon grins, but there’s something in it that says I’m not wiggling out of this. I'm groaning inwardly before he even says the next words. “But, you know, I think I've got just the man for the job.”
“I don’t want help.”
“Too bad, Pixie. Not an option.” He smirks. “Look at it as humoring an overprotective friend.”
“You’re an ass, is what you are.”
“Nah. Trust me, when you meet Gabe Barin, you’ll be thanking me.”
Not fucking likely.
But when Landon Strauss gets hung up on details like this, there’s no stopping him. And while I don’t think he’d fire me for refusing his help, I can’t exactly be an ungrateful brat and say no either.
There's no denying the harsh truth. Whoever tore up my car last night might do the same to me next.
I’ll just have to play along. Shake whatever loser he wants to dump on me at the first chance.
It shouldn’t be hard.
I’m better than over half the men at Enguard. I can drop anyone in two seconds flat.
If this Gabe guy wants to keep up with me, he’s got his work cut out for him.
I’ve got too much to do to babysit a bodyguard.