“Hey, Detective Cabrera. Good catch today.”
The newbie’s words caught the attention of the other Perdition police officers bustling around the bull pen. The rustle of paperwork and murmur of conversations dropped, leaving an eager silence.
“Thanks…” Joe Cabrera let his voice trail off, unsure of the kid’s name. He knew he should walk away rather than risk tainting this kid’s career with his presence. The guy was so new he was practically quivering in his crisply pressed uniform and glistening shoes.
“Rob Salazar.” The rookie held out his hand. “If you have a minute, I’d like to talk about the case. How did you track down the firm that makes the weighted dice?” He’d probably read a book on how to introduce himself and create a presence at work. Joe’s own eager rookie days were too distant to dig up from his memory. These days, he was too tired and cynical to even try.
“I just followed the leads.” Dammit, it was a good catch. But he didn’t dare brag about the work he’d done to track down the trio of scammers who’d been counting out cards and swapping out dice at the local casinos. He’d managed to catch them before the organized-crime family who ran the place caught up to them. “Nothing special.”
“How did you know that one guy would go back to his ex-girlfriend’s to hide out?”
The other cops in the precinct were starting to snicker. Joe shook the boy’s hand as quickly as he could. Time to bail. “Another time, Salazar.”
Joe turned and found himself blocked by a tall man whose girth ensured there would be no convenient retreat. Detective Dave Hampton carried a grudge stretching back to when Joe made detective first. Staring at the flecks of crumbs and lint dotting the man’s once-expensive wool trench coat, Joe reminded himself not to react and give Hampton the satisfaction of knowing his blows had struck home.
“Don’t waste your time, Salazar.” Hampton gave a broad grin, clearly eager to delve into old ground with a fresh audience. “Not unless you want a front-page story for the tabloids.”
“I don’t understand.” Salazar glanced between the two of them, eyes round and uncertain.
“Tell him what they call you.” Hampton smirked, his grin displaying yet more crumbs caught in his sandy-blond beard. Joe despised the man’s slovenliness, especially since it carried over to his police work. Hampton never bothered finding the right suspect if he could beat a convenient one into a confession.
“I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the pleasure.” Joe gritted his teeth in a pleasant, professional smile. Don’t react. Don’t give him the satisfaction.
“Creepy Cabrera.” Hampton should bein charge of crowd control. He didn’t need a megaphone to project his voice. “Guy’s a regular X-file.”
Salazar shook his head, confused. Joe tried not to roll his eyes. The kid probably didn’t even remember The X-Files.
“Once they figured out you were loony tunes, they took away the Dalhard Industries investigation and gave it to a real detective.” Hampton puffed himself up, tucking his thumbs into the nonexistent gap between his paunch and his belt.
Joe pushed past the bully, not trusting his temper to remain under control much longer. Obedient chuckles echoed down the hall as Hampton proceeded to loudly explain the facts to Salazar. “Creepy Cabrera used to be a hotshot, but no one trusts him since he started spouting off about the little-green-men brigade.”
It was psychics, not aliens, you moron. Try to keep your prejudices straight at least. Joe’s jaw tightened, and he ground his teeth hard enough to squeak.
The elevator doors slid shut, and Joe let himself slump. If only he’d kept his mouth shut this winter. The ancient machinery whirred in the walls as the elevator ascended slowly, giving Joe plenty of time to brood about what went wrong.
He was open-minded, willing to believe that the universe still held plenty of surprises. Tía Agata was always babbling about positive and negative energy, blessings and curses. He didn’t put much stock in such things himself, but he didn’t dismiss them either. But what had happened went far beyond a mere surprise.
Seven months earlier, he’d discovered that there were people walking around with the sort of superpowers that belonged in comic books and movies. The discovery hadn’t just yanked the rug out from under him—it had shattered the bedrock of his beliefs about the nature of the universe. He’d been doing all right with it, managing to pick up the pieces and fit them back into some semblance of order, until his so-called friends dragged him out to Alaska to hunt down André Dalhard, a man who could control people by touching them. Dalhard had used his skills for murder, kidnapping, extortion, fraud, and any number of other crimes. None of which Joe could prove.
Why did they even bother? He knew the reason. They’d needed his help to track the man down, but then they’d expected him to turn his back while they took care of the problem. Instead, Joe had insisted that even a man like Dalhard deserved due process, and he’d brought him back and put him on trial.
That was when the trouble started. Other officers could mock the tin-foil-hat crowd, but Joe knew that at least some of those dangers were real. He’d begged for enhanced security precautions to keep Dalhard in jail. But he hadn’t been able to come up with a rational explanation for why staff should avoid all skin-to-skin contact with the prisoner. Joe had gotten frustrated one day, and it all came spilling out. Two minutes of babbling had ruined ten years of his career and reputation.
His sergeant insisted on Joe seeing a psychologist. He’d gone, and he’d made all the right noises, claiming stress, bad medication, and whatever he thought might make a difference. Of course he understood that psychics weren’t real, and he’d been tired and had made a little slip while joking. No big deal.
His verbal footwork had kept his badge safe but hit his pride hard. Cops were worse than frat boys for holding on to an embarrassing joke. At least frats only lasted through college, though. He’d be Creepy Cabrera until the day he retired. Especially with Hampton stirring the pot at every opportunity.
Even worse was the knowledge that his brothers in blue were walking out there, ignorant of the dangers that Joe now knew existed. Keeping it to himself made him feel like a traitor, but how could he convince them of the truth if they hadn’t seen it for themselves? Joe’s eyes had been forced open, and slipping back into the shadows of ignorance wasn’t an option any longer.
The elevator doors dinged as they began to close, and Joe realized he’d been standing there, staring into space like a shell-shocked trooper from World War I. Grabbing the door to keep it open, he gratefully realized no one seemed to have noticed. I need to go home and start working on the end table for Mama and try to forget that I’m the only one who knows we’re balancing on the verge of some kind of superpowered apocalypse.
“Detective Cabrera!” his sergeant, Fran Modnik, called out before he could escape, her blond ponytail swinging like a hangman’s noose as she stalked across the lobby.
Shitshitshit. “Sergeant,” he replied politely.
“We need your help on something.” Modnik passed him, her sensible flats squeaking softly against the linoleum. She didn’t bother looking back to see if he would follow her as she made her way to the tech department without a single wasted step. A great believer in efficiency, Modnik didn’t use makeup or wear fashionable clothes or indulge in idle chitchat. Dark slacks and a department T-shirt were her uniform unless she was forced into something else by political necessity. Some cops didn’t like working for her, finding her cold and unforgiving. But Cabrera was impressed by her Sherlock-worthy detective skills and hoped the department would continue to recognize her incredible potential.
I was almost home free. He kept a discreet distance behind the sergeant. As they opened the door, the temperature rose—too many machines and too little air conditioning. The sheer number of storage units, tables, and monitors made Joe twitchy. They blocked his lines of sight and could potentially hide a half-dozen intruders.
“You’ve heard about the series of break-ins at data-storage facilities across the state?” Modnik logged into the main terminal, powering up the large central screen.
“It was in the morning briefing,” Joe said cautiously. The higher levels were frustrated and spreading a wide net, asking local cops to keep an eye out for anything that might be connected.
Modnik nodded. “Lockbox here in Perdition got hit yesterday. The thief is a pro—set the cameras on a loop, disabled the alarms. The only thing she tripped was a routine maintenance alert, which noticed the missing file.”
“She?” Joe’s interest perked its ears. His sergeant didn’t drop details like that by accident.
“Thanks to the alert, we knew the file was removed at 2:13 a.m. The security cameras at Lockbox were affected but not the street cameras.” Modnik delivered the news with grim satisfaction. She always told her officers to be patient because criminals were invariably sloppy. They made mistakes and then the cops could reel them in.
“A big oversight for a pro to make.” Joe frowned. After the last few months, what others called “easy” smelled more like a trap to him.
“She didn’t know about the red-light camera at the intersection of Roosevelt and Third. Tourist blew through the light at 2:16, and look what we found.” Modnik pointed at the high-resolution traffic photo. The prominent feature was a grey sedan midway through the intersection, but Joe focused on the area behind the car.
The steel doors to Lockbox had the company name and logo clearly stenciled on them. A woman wearing a long, cream-colored designer coat over a grey business suit held them open. The photo resolution was sharp enough that Joe could see a flash of coral pink on her painted nails and the heavy stitching on her slim leather briefcase.
“Any chance she’s an employee working late?” Joe asked.
Modnik shook her head, a smirk curving her pale lips. “Nope. Checked the employee records, and there’s no match. And no record of anyone in the building either. That’s our thief.”
“It’s a nice clear shot of her face.” Joe leaned in. She’d be easy to identify. She looked more like a model or actress than a criminal. Her makeup and dark hair were even done up like one of those fifties pin-up girls, emphasizing big eyes, pouting lips, and sharp cheekbones. “Were we able to track her movements?”
“The bank on Roosevelt has twenty-four-hour coverage of the street. Same with the drugstore on New Orleans Ave.” Modnik began typing again.
“Then we’ve got her.” Joe started to warm up to his sergeant’s enthusiasm. The two streets were a block apart and close enough to Third to have partial coverage of the area in front of Lockbox, although they were at the wrong angle to see the actual building.
“You’d think so.” She split the screen into two views, one from the bank and one from the drugstore. As the timestamp crawled from 2:10 to 2:25, the streets remained deserted except for the grey sedan roaring through the light and a homeless couple, both bundled so heavily against the cold that their features were impossible to pick up. The man was definitely African-American with a worn knit cap pulled low over his forehead. The woman was dark skinned as well, possibly Latina, with filthy bleached-blond hair. They meandered over to the dumpster in the alley across from the drugstore and picked through it. Modnik paused the playback. “They go through the dumpster for another half hour and then wander off. No sign of our Jane Doe.”
“How?” Joe’s mind began to click through possibilities. “She’d have to pass at least one of the cameras. Could the feeds have been tampered with?”
“No. The sedan confirms the recording isn’t from a previous night. I’m still having tech go through it to make sure, but it looks clean. Our mystery lady simply vanished into thin air.” Modnik clicked off the screen and faced her detective. “That’s where you come in.”
“Me?” Joe tried to keep his voice nonchalant while his heart sank deep below his belt. Another weird case for Creepy Cabrera.
“Too many cops get focused on what they expect to see. You keep an open mind and follow the evidence. I don’t need someone screaming ghosts or conspiracies. I need someone to find out what happened. The truth, no matter how strange.”
His reluctance seeped through his professional mask. “I’m not sure I’m the best choice.”
“Because they call you Creepy Cabrera?” Modnik hit the nail with a blunt-force sledgehammer. “I don’t care about a bunch of status-happy idiots poking at you because they haven’t heard a good joke in a while. You’re a good detective, Cabrera. You find the connections—you find the bad guys.”
“And what about the other stuff? This isn’t going to help my reputation, Sergeant.” Joe decided to be equally blunt.
“Trust me. You want this case.” Modnik paused, glancing around the room to make sure they were alone. “The data firms that have been hit all have a client in common: Dalhard Industries.”
Joe’s head snapped up. He wanted to ask if the sergeant was sure, but she’d take it as an insult. Careful. Dalhard’s lawyers had already slapped Joe with a police-harassment suit.
“I see I’ve piqued your interest,” Modnik said dryly.
“Hampton is the lead officer for the Dalhard investigation.” Joe forced his shoulders down, trying to appear relaxed.
“Officially, that’s not going to change.” She held up one finger to forestall any reply from Joe. “I’ve known you long enough to trust your gut instincts. This is too big a coincidence to leave unchecked, and I’m offering you a chance to prove what you’ve been saying. Find this thief, and you might find your evidence against Dalhard.” She offered him the slim file.
“Find a thief who disappears without a trace. Easy. And what should I do after lunch?” Joe accepted the file.
Modnik smiled briefly, and the weary sergeant morphed into an attractive woman. “Could be worse. The department is also asking for someone look into that shapeshifting viral video.”
No need to ask for details. Joe suppressed a wince. He’d caught the live version of the event during his trip to Alaska. “It’s fake. Probably a publicity stunt for some movie.”
“It’s caught the attention of some very prominent people. All sorts of experts are insisting the footage hasn’t been tampered with. Now I’m having to field ridiculous calls asking what I plan to do if we catch a suspect with unusual abilities.” She rolled her eyes. “If they find out about our mystery thief, I could end up having to handle a crackpot task force. So don’t thank me yet.”
“So you need me to keep this quiet.” Could their target be one of the lalassu? Was invisibility one of the possible powers? Joe made a mental note to get in touch with his best friend, Michael, to ask. After years of bringing Joe useful tips, Michael had found the secret society of people with an astonishing variety of supernatural gifts, and he’d dragged Joe down the rabbit hole after him.
Modnik nodded. “Whatever you find, you bring to me. And one more thing—stay away from Otisville.”
That was the prison where Dalhard currently lived. “Understood.”
“I mean it, Cabrera. This is your one chance, and you have no margin for bullshit. You don’t talk to Dalhard again until you have enough to hang him with.” Modnik delivered her final orders and stalked into the hall, ready to take out her irritation on the next hapless victim who crossed her.
Enough to hang him with. Only a figure of speech, but the words echoed what the other lalassu had suggested for Dalhard back in Alaska: a summary execution. Joe had stopped them, but lately, he wondered if his ethics had trapped him into making a fatal mistake.