Lethal in Love
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The fifty-inch plasma screen above the bar flickered.
Melbourne’s beloved police. Futile. Inept. Buffoons, the lot of ’em.
His lip curled. And her . . . especially her. Thinking he’d falter, create hack-work like some wannabe ass-wipe. They didn’t know shit. But they’d learn. Soon.
He lowered his bottle onto the beer-stained wood, adrenalin charging his veins.
He’d be legend. Transcend death.
Laughter hacked up his oesophagus. His breath caught, phlegm rising, spilling into his mouth. He gulped it back, along with a generous serving of blood. One of the good-for-nothing legacies passed down to him by the old prick.
Then there were others . . .
The pound against his skull slowed.
He knocked back a mouthful of ice-cold beer and rode the pain, a wildfire coursing down his throat.
His time had come. They’d pay. Every last fucking one.
The bitch included.
He looked up. The camera panned, then zoomed. His gaze latched onto her, the woman behind the thick blue-and-white tape. Her eyes avoided the lens, her body drawn tight, erect, watching the shiny black body bag disappear into the back of the State Coroner’s van. Then she turned, and he stared into the familiar green of her eyes.
He would carve his name into her heart, the way hers had been carved into his, day after day after day. But no more. Now he had no heart. No soul. None that belonged to him.
He flexed his fingers, cracked his knuckles one by one. Revelled in the pain. A final glance, then he shifted his sight to the woman nursing her nearly empty glass. The one he’d come for tonight.
His blood quickened, his groin tight. Anticipating.
He inhaled deeply, closed his eyes. The hunter. Testing the air, drawing on her essence, the very taste of it. Blind innocence. Youth. Vivacity. Before he drew each one from her like a vampire draws his blood fix.
He opened his eyes. Lips curving slowly upward, he cut his way around the bar. Her gaze lifted, his smile deepened. She liked what she saw. They always did.
Until that pivotal moment, when realisation speared through their bodies and death claimed them.
Fools. They were all fools.
He glanced at the wide screen, but the green-eyed witch was gone. No matter. He’d see her again. And she, him. Soon she’d do nothing but dream of him, in sleep and wakefulness. And then she’d be his.
‘Better make sure you keep your bra on.’
Jayda Thomasz shot Chase Durant a quelling look. As partners go, she could’ve had worse. She also could’ve had better. Still, one thing she did know – she could trust Chase with her life. That counted for a helluva lot when it was only your partner and his dependability standing between you and a whole lot of death.
If only she got a little less mouth from him. A little less interest, too.
‘Don’t worry. This sucker ain’t coming off, no matter what.’
‘More’s the pity.’
Her jaw tightened.
Fellow officer Georgie Tanneras frowned, tweaking the thin wire that now lined Jayda’s bra strap. ‘How’s that?’
‘Perfect.’ Jayda grabbed the silver lamé top from the bag at her feet and slipped it over her head. She straightened the neckline and tested the mic. Georgie nodded and moved away to twirl knobs and flick switches on equipment straight out of the space age.
Jayda grabbed Chase by the elbow and dragged him away from prying ears – almost impossible while in the back of a van crammed with tech equipment and the two techies that went with it.
Pressing her palm over the microphone on her chest, she forced her next words through gritted teeth. ‘What was it about last week’s sexual harassment talk that you didn’t understand?’
‘It’s just that when we’re talking about such a spectacular pair of –’
‘I was going to say speakers.’ He held up the two earpieces. ‘What’d you think I was referring to?’
Her face muscles clenched. She rolled her jaw to force it into relaxation mode. Not much she could do about the knots in her shoulders, or the war of butterflies churning her stomach.
‘Your hair may have lost the red, but your temper hasn’t. So tell me, is it really true what they say about blondes?’
She stared at the monitor and didn’t bother with an answer. It was doubtful he expected one. The time when Chase and his wisecracks had seemed charming was long past.
He’s not Liam.
She knew that. Knew this situation was nothing like before. But reason wouldn’t curb her dread. She’d dodged the aftermath once. Unlikely she’d dodge it a second time round.
Ousting both men from her mind, she tugged an over-folded scrap of paper from her skirt pocket and skimmed the ten points she’d written last night. Each was a definitive check. Warmth frittered through her. She was ready.
Movement on the small screen above the control panel captured her attention and that of her three colleagues in the mobile surveillance unit. As she tucked the list into the bag at her feet, all eyes watched a couple, male and female, perhaps in their early thirties, pause on the veranda of 21 Brayside Avenue, then slip through the barely open front door.
Just a normal Saturday night in the ’burbs. A nice house in a nice neighbourhood, deep in the hub of Melbourne’s northwest. Pleasant, quiet, happily dodging the radar. Until now.
She blinked, trying to ignore the unfamiliar scrape of blue-coloured contacts. Just one more facet of her multifaceted cover. A cover that could lead to a badly needed break in the case and stop a killer before he claimed his next victim.
It hadn’t taken much to convince Hackett. She was lead investigator and the only woman in the Pacu task force who fit the victim’s profile – age, build, apparent innocence. The one thing she’d had to change was her hair colour with a wig. Oh, and the green of her eyes. To a deep, bright tropical blue.
Images flashed through her brain; a young woman slumped against a dumpster, blue eyes gaping and vacant, her mouth a blistered, cavernous maw. She shook her head, wishing away the grasping, biting claws that snatched at her gut and squeezed every time the image appeared. A vision from crime scene photos, and – as of three weeks ago with the Night Terror’s return – her ever recurring dreams. Or should she say nightmares?
The victims were all women, like her. The only real difference – fate. And the unforgiving clutch of fingers around their throat. Impossible to imagine their terror in those last seconds as the oxygen squeezed from their lungs and they fought for existence.
Jayda blinked again. Looking in the mirror, it was difficult not to see the resemblance to her family that she’d longed for as a child. Sleek blonde hair. Blue eyes. When she squinted and tipped her head to the side, she could almost believe she was Bec’s real rather than adopted sister.
‘Jayda, you’re good to go.’
Her friend’s lips tightened, her gaze questioning as it darted between her and Chase.
Fan-bloody-tastic. The force’s ‘non-fraternising in the ranks’ policy may have been loose to the point of non-existence, but she’d learned the hard way how rumours – no matter how false – could turn a career into compost. Georgie was a friend, but others in the squad would be far quicker to comment. And judge.
Jayda’s hand dropped to her hip, devoid now of her badge. It didn’t matter that life outside the precinct had barely existed for her the past seven years. She’d matched her father’s success, made detective before her thirtieth birthday. And she’d done it by keeping her head down and the fly of her pants securely fastened.
Thank you, Liam.
There he was again. Elbowing his way into her thoughts.
After seven years, the anger still lingered, a reminder of her promise never to compromise herself again.
Which made her stupidity with Chase all the more regrettable. One drunken night and a blind fumble between the sheets, which almost sealed the end to her reputation. With her partner. With anyone able to read between the tension.
And now she had so much more to lose than back then.
No excuse that she’d been celebrating Ian Trentham’s twenty-year sentence for the cold-blooded murder of his family when her mother’s news hit – her parents were separating, one week shy of their twenty-fifth anniversary. Both extremes of the spectrum – one high, one low – sending Jayda off on a deleterious tangent.
She’d drowned her disappointment in a string of tequila shots before falling into bed with the wrong man. Thank heavens sense had overthrown insensibility before she’d taken the plunge and taken things further.
Still, dodging the mess of a one-night hook-up hadn’t changed that whole ‘morning after’ scenario, in which she’d stumbled out of his bed awash with mortification and regret, and a mother of a hangover. She’d regretted the slip ever since.
Better she stick to all work, no play. At least her job was the one scrap of her life she could depend on, where she felt safe.
Which was weird, considering what she was about to do.
The screen beside Georgie flickered, the house a fuzzy contrast of black, white and grey in the approaching dark. So sedate. Serene. Innocuous, even. No hint of what was really going on inside.
She could feel Chase’s gaze at her back, his crystal blue eyes piercing, hankering for more than she was willing to give. They were partners, and that professional boundary should never have been scaled, would never be again. Regardless of what he thought he felt.
She stepped away from Georgie’s over-alert ears, her hand shifting automatically to the mic on her chest. The familiar scent of spice assailed her nostrils as she whispered in Chase’s ear. ‘It won’t happen again.’
‘It was a mistake.’
He winced. ‘I know.’
‘We work together, for god’s sake.’
‘I know, Jayda.’
‘Then stop with the wisecracks.’
‘I only do it ’cos you’re so easy,’ he paused, his eyes sparkling, ‘to wind up.’
She fought the rising boil in her blood. The job was her focus right now, not this wannabe stand-up comedian.
‘Leave that to some other wise-ass who’s not my partner.’
His smile evaporated. ‘You know I’ve got your back, don’t you?’
She play-punched his bicep. ‘Yeah, I know, you big goofball. I trust you with my life.’
‘Just not your heart.’
She searched his expression. Impossible to tell if he was still serious. She knew he was attracted to her, but love? That was a stretch of mega proportions. And top on her ‘not in this lifetime’ list. Never date or fall in love on the job.
‘Chase, we’ve been through this.’
His expression lightened. ‘Just kidding, Jayda. Geez, better loosen up before you go in. I’ve never met an uptight swinger before.’
‘I didn’t think you’d met any type of swinger.’ She looked at him then. Really looked. They’d been partners for two years, worked together for the greater portion of that time, saw more of each other than they saw of their own families. Yet how much did she really know about Chase Durant beyond the odd snippets he’d shared?
Lately, something had felt off. If only she could put her finger on what that something was.
His gaze darted somewhere in the vicinity of her left shoulder. ‘I haven’t. Stop reading stuff that isn’t there.’
‘Now look who’s uptight.’
‘You guys ready?’ The techie who’d been sitting silently beside Georgie turned in his chair. ‘The private party’s in the house outside, not my van.’
Sam Hathaway may have been joking, but it didn’t stop the heat from finding and stamping Jayda’s face. Or the alarm from filling her stomach as she imagined the spin he was drawing from their behaviour.
Paranoia wasn’t a valuable commodity when you were about to go deep under cover.
Chase moved away and slapped the other man’s arm. ‘Stop being such a grouch, Sam.’
‘You try sleeping on the couch five nights running and let’s see who’s a grouch.’
‘Christine still not talking?’ Chase asked.
Jayda let out a sigh at the shift of spotlight, only half listening to the banter, her mind already on the job.
‘Oh, she’s talking alright. In volumes they can hear way down in Patagonia.’
Georgie’s control panel crackled and all eyes zipped to the man who appeared on the second of the three screens lining the wall. ‘Enough of the Oprah bloody heartbreak.’ Detective Inspector Hackett’s voice rumbled out of the speaker. ‘We’ve got an op to run.’
Jayda sipped sparingly at her citrus martini, willing her racing heartbeat to match the sensual murmur of Marvin Gaye. Not a practised spirit drinker, she calculated she could afford one drink, two at a stretch. They were a necessity to blend in, but she also needed to be sharp. Razor senses were the order of the night. One lapse in attention could be fatal.
She closed her eyes, inhaling deep and slow. Reminding herself that if her nerves showed, it only served to cement her role here as a newbie. A first-time swinger looking to skirt the boundaries to a world where inhibitions and limitations didn’t exist. Where lines were blurred and sex was free and easy and abundant.
Gaining admittance had been easier than she’d expected, despite the exclusivity of the club. She’d given Gina’s name as a reference, and while not necessary it had paved the way. They were expecting her.
She’d handed a wad of notes to Clara – the woman who’d answered the door in a black satin corset and stilettos – and won immediate acceptance, after the automatic condolences and niceties, of course. Gina’s murder had hit the news two days earlier.
Another sip and she opened her eyes, allowing her gaze to skim the dimly lit interior. Low chandeliers flickered from high, cornice-edged ceilings, their shadows providing obscurity to the guests gathered beneath.
Occasionally she sensed interest, hushed whispers, blatant curiosity and awareness. But as yet, no one had approached, which was fine. It gave her time to scan the layout, get a handle on the group’s dynamics. Work out if a ruthless killer could have wangled his way into their ranks.
Her gaze roamed as lemon zinged across her tastebuds, the icy vodka cool and refreshing but not nearly sweet enough. The sensation was, however, sophisticated. A perfect fit with the environment.
Unease shivered up her spine. Stifling the urge to bite her lip, she thrust her shoulders back and turned.
Premonition hadn’t prepared her for this. Him. Martini clogged in her throat, now drier than the drink itself.
She swallowed, tried to drag her focus back.
Their gazes locked, and steely eyes the grey of a gun barrel charged the distance between them.