Midnight. The witching hour, some say. Since it was 12:07 A.M. and I was standing over a dead body, I had to agree.
The victim, William H. Steele, a thirty-six-year-old Caucasian male, six feet four, approximately two hundred and thirty pounds, brown hair, brown eyes, lay naked across a bed of crisp winter leaves. Moonlight spilled in every direction, and withered foliage mockingly framed his muscular physique. He bore no open wounds, no bruises. In fact, not a single blemish marred the perfection of his skin. He was only recently dead; heat still radiated from him and curled into the icy night sky.
Alien Investigation and Removal agents, also known as A.I.R., were scouring the area, meticulously searching between every blade of brittle grass, every grain of dirt. The faint murmurs of their chatter echoed in my ears. I tuned them out and intensified my focus on the body. The man’s legs were slightly spread and bent at the knees. One of his hands rested behind his head, and the other was bound to his penis with a—what the hell was that? I crouched down. Eyes narrowed, I reached out with a gloved hand and slid one finger under the material. A pale blue ribbon, tied in a perfect bow.
I scowled. Was he supposed to be a gift?
Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what he was, I realized, my scowl deepening. Frost gleamed in his hair like diamonds against dark velvet, yet he hadn’t been outside long enough to acquire the frost from nature. He was a gift that had been posed to look carnal, seductive. Alluring. To the average citizen, he would have appeared eager for a long night of sexual gratification.
To me, he just looked like the corpse that he was.
His eyes were fixed straight ahead, his lips slightly blue, and he wasn’t shivering from the cold. A dead giveaway, if you will. Besides that, his testicles were as smooth and shiny as marble, not shriveled like I supposed every other man’s out here were.
With a wry shake of my head, I pushed to my feet.
Perhaps my assessment was callous and indifferent; perhaps my humor was misplaced. Dead bodies were the norm in my line of work, and I couldn’t allow myself to view this man as an actual person. If I did, I’d have to acknowledge that he once had hopes and dreams, thoughts and feelings. I’d cry for the family he left behind, wonder about the life that had once pulsed through his veins.
I couldn’t do that and still hope to function. With tears came distraction, and with distraction came death. My first year of fieldwork, I had spent more time crying for victims than hunting for their killers, and I had almost become a victim myself. I glanced down at my wrist. The inky blackness of my glove didn’t quite meet the cuff of my jacket, leaving a small patch of skin visible. That skin boasted a tattoo of the Grim Reaper’s scythe and was just one of my many reminders to remain unemotional.
I’d gotten the tattoo after recovering from a nasty beating, courtesy of a pissed-off other-worlder. While I’d been lost in my grief for a victim I couldn’t even remember now, an energy-absorbing Rycan attacked me from behind—and kicked major huntress ass.
I had vowed never to cry again. And I hadn’t. Tears were a weakness only civilians could afford.
I am an alien huntress. I am part of the A.I.R. team, working with or against the New Chicago PD—whichever suits me at the time. Every night I stalk and kill other-worlders, and whether I’m investigating a death or causing one myself, I have to shove sentiment aside, find humor where I can, and concentrate on the facts.
I love my job despite the blood and gore—or maybe because of it. I love solving puzzles, fitting each piece of evidence together. I love that one by one, I’m ridding Earth of our unwanted visitors.
Yes, some aliens are peaceful and are allowed to live and work among us. Those, I leave alone. But the others? The rapists, the thieves, the killers? I despise them.
Alien sympathizers often ask me if I, a hunter, a legalized killer, live with guilt. My answer: Hell, no. Why should I feel guilty for destroying a predator? I’m proud of my work. I’m privileged to do what I do. Other-worlders who survive on human carnage deserve the sting of my pyre-gun.
A glacial blast of wind whirled past my shoulders, scattering a thin sheen of snow powder in every direction. The hem of my long black leather jacket danced around my calves. Four inches of snow had been predicted, so I needed to work quickly. Twenty minutes ago, I’d received a call from my boss, Commander Jack Pagosa. He’d briefed me on the situation. He’d also informed me I had until morning to present him with a suspect, or I would spend the next year behind a desk.
William Steele, a happily married father of one, had been abducted from his home four weeks prior. His wife and newborn child slept peacefully throughout the entire ordeal, unharmed and unaware. Abductor’s point of entry: undetermined.
Four other dark-haired, dark-eyed men disappeared soon afterward. One had been taken from his workplace, and two had been snatched straight from a crowded street during their lunch hour. Oddly enough, there had been no witnesses and not a single shred of evidence left behind at any scene. Because of the enigmatic nature of each disappearance, aliens were the prime suspect.
Just half an hour earlier, a hunter on patrol had found Steele in this deserted Southern District field. Thankfully, the hunter had preserved the scene until my team arrived. The first thing I’d noticed was that Steele’s body showed no indication of torture, no sign of having been restrained.
Second, I’d realized his death had nothing to do with impulse or rage—just as I knew the murder had nothing to do with stupidity or amusement. The scene was too precise, too perfectly planned. Mr. Steele had been killed for a reason.
What? I couldn’t yet fathom.
I drew in a deep breath—and stilled. Slowly, I drew in three more breaths. As I exhaled the last, I smiled. Since the first kidnapping, no one had dared guess which of the forty-eight alien species were responsible, but I had just narrowed it down to three.
The victim had been killed by poison. Onadyn, to be exact. A deoxygenating drug used by the Zi Karas, Arcadians, and Mecs for survival on this planet. They couldn’t breathe our air without it. To oxygen-breathers, the substance was lethal. Worse, it was virtually undetectable. Virtually, but not completely. A rare few could identify Onadyn by its scent, a subtle fragrance similar to a dewy breeze during a summer storm.
I was one of the rare few, and I smelled it now. The scent filled my nostrils, intoxicating and sweet, as lovely as it was deadly, and somehow suddenly more obvious to me than the scent of waste, rotting food, and charred leaves that made up so much of this domain. My observation wasn’t as solid as a neon sign blinking over the killer’s head that read I DID IT in bold red letters, but it did point us in the right direction.
Still, I wanted more.
I scanned the area to my right, paused, then scanned the area to my left. Except for the occasional twinkle from regulation halolights, the task force blended into the night.
I dragged my focus farther back, taking in the tall oaks that knifed the sky. The trees were sparsely scattered, their branches naked, their bark weighed down by dripping ice. Situated between the trees were homes and businesses. I use the term businesses loosely, of course. Nice people referred to this seedy, neglected district as Whore’s Corner. I’d once been fined for publicly saying what I called the place.
Had any of the residents seen anything unusual? Would they tell us if they had?
I’d already dispatched the most charming of my agents to question every citizen within a one-mile radius. But this late at night, civilians tended to be cranky and distrustful. Besides that, the Southern District was notorious for its hatred of law enforcement—human or otherwise.
“What do you think, Mia?” Dallas Gutierrez, my right-hand man, strode to my side. He wore a black leather jacket and black combat boots that fit the hard planes of his body to perfection. At times, I thought he was too handsome to be real. His hair was dark and thick, and the inky locks hung in sexy disarray over the wide, muscled length of his shoulders. Perfect eyebrows arched over perfectly shaped eyes. Perfect cheekbones framed a perfect nose.
For some reason, he was smiling—revealing perfect white teeth, the bastard—yet even as the brown depths of his eyes glinted with mischief, he still possessed the razor-sharp edge of a hunter.
I admired him for that.
On more than one occasion, Dallas Gutierrez had flipped Death the bird and come out alive. He was a man who rushed into the middle of danger without hesitation. He considered his friends’ safety before he considered his own, and he never regretted his choice, even when he lay wounded and bleeding. He’d saved my life so many times, I should have tattooed his name on my ass.
“What do you think?” he repeated. “Which group of aliens is responsible?”
“Zi Karas, Arcadians, or Mecs.”
A little of the sparkle left his eyes. “You sure?”
I tossed him an are-you-kidding-me frown. “Can a woman lose one hundred and seventy-five pounds of unwanted fat by divorcing her husband?”
“Damn.” He chuckled, the sound rich and husky in the twilight. “No wonder you’re still single. You’re vicious.”
Damn right I was. I had to be. I was a woman in a man’s profession, and just because I carried a pyre-gun did not mean I was taken seriously. Not even Dallas had taken me seriously at first.
His first week on the job, he fought to have me relocated. “Women aren’t hunters,” he’d said so many times I wanted to brand the words on his chest—while he was awake and tied to his bed.
I stand at five feet five, weigh one hundred and twenty pounds. I’m only twenty-eight years old, but I have an indomitable will. I do not take shit from anyone, especially when it comes to my job. The first time Dallas and I practiced hand-to-hand combat, I had him on the ground in three seconds flat, my palms wrapped around his windpipe while he gasped for air.
Funny enough, we were best friends after that, and he never again mentioned my relocation.
“What makes you so sure of yourself?” he asked, folding his arms over his chest and pinning me with a frown of his own. A plastic bag dangled from his fingers.
I shrugged. “Ever heard of Occam’s razor?” He blinked over at me, and I took that for a no. “Occam’s razor is a nineteenth-century principle that states the simplest explanation for a mysterious event is most likely the truth.”
His brow furrowed, and his eyes flashed dark fire. “How in the hell did you decide the most likely suspect was from an oxygen-intolerant group?”
“I smell Onadyn,” I said, biting back a grin.
“Christ,” he grumbled. “I was excited that I knew something you didn’t. Thanks for ruining it for me.”
“My pleasure. Now what’s in the bag?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, all traces of emotion drained from his expression. Silently, he studied me, as if trying to measure my inner strength. I knew what he saw. Straight black hair pulled tight in a ponytail, though several wisps had already escaped confinement. Wide blue eyes that had seen more evil than good, and an oval face that boasted delicate cheekbones better suited to a ballerina.
My appearance worked well for me at times. Suspects expected me to be feminine and delicate, and I was able to take them by surprise. At other times my appearance worked against me, bringing out all kinds of protective instincts in men. This was one of those times I wished I had a mustache and a long, hideous scar.
I kept my gaze locked on Dallas’s.
A sigh slid past his lips, leaving the words You win unsaid, though he didn’t answer my question right away.
“Notice any footprints around the body?” he asked.
I peered at the ground, studying, searching. “No.”
“Neither did we. And we’ve analyzed every inch of dirt in this godforsaken shit hole. At first we thought someone performed a beam-me-down-Scottie.”
I tossed that idea through my mind. “Maybe. But most aliens arrived here through interworld portals. Not spaceships. So they wouldn’t have access to the kind of technology required for a molecular transfer. Besides, the killer is cocky. What better rush than placing the body here, in full view of witnesses, and still getting away?”
“Give us some credit, Mia. I said at first. We soon changed our minds.” Smug now, he dangled the plastic bag in front of my face. Inside were six strands of white hair. “Found them snagged on a branch.”
I frowned, studied the hair more closely. They were thick and coarse and…my frown deepened. There weren’t six individual strands of hair; in actuality, there were only two. Three strands per follicle.
“Arcadian,” I said, confirming my Onadyn suspicions. Only the Arcadians had three strands of hair attached to one follicle.
Dallasnodded, his features suddenly tense, determined. “You got it.”
Dread prickled along my nerve endings, and my stomach twisted into a thousand tiny knots. Why couldn’t the Zi Karas or Mecs be responsible? Of all the aliens to invade our planet, Arcadians were the strongest, the deadliest. The hardest to capture. Their psychic abilities proved a sufficient weapon against us, helping them evade capture. And their talent for mind control…Damn. I didn’t even want to contemplate that right now.
No wonder there were no footprints around the body. An Arcadian could very easily use telekinesis to wipe them away.
“Good luck to us,” Dallas said, his voice punctuating the sudden silence. “Finding the other men alive doesn’t seem likely now.”
“We’ll find them,” I said, pretending I didn’t have my own doubts.
He pushed out a breath and motioned to the corpse with a tilt of his chin. “One thing I can’t figure out. Why only men with dark hair and eyes?”
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