The first time he’d been at Korbin Aldrich’s place overlooking the Pacific, Caleb Roth had come close to hyperventilating. So that’s what seven plus million dollars bought in San Diego. That had been four years ago, specifically nine days after his sister’s violent death. If nothing else, taking in the multimillionaire’s estate had briefly separated him from a mixture of rage and grief. Even tonight with one beer in his belly and another on its way, he remembered his determination to bury himself in booze so he wouldn’t emotionally break down like his folks had. He’d drunk too much back then, way too much. The need to escape still occasionally swamped him because, hell, Hanna had been only nineteen.
He wouldn’t go down that nightmare of a road on this humid Southern California summer evening but he had no objection to taking the edge off. It wasn’t as if Korbin Aldrich or fellow detective Joe Risinger would caution him to stop at two stupidly expensive imported beers. Korbin could afford the best. More to the point, the older man had no objection to paying law enforcement for information.
“You’re sure?” Korbin asked. “No doubt Ethan Crowl still has his fingers on the whole operation?”
Joe grunted and continued separating orange sections and popping them in his mouth. In the six months since Joe had left Seattle and become a detective in the land of endless sunshine and drugs, he’d lost his rainy Washington pallor. He was nearly as tanned as Caleb. More to the point, Joe had the relaxed look of a man who got all the sex he wanted when he wanted.
“You can’t be surprised,” Joe told Korbin before Caleb could speak. “Just because Ethan’s in prison doesn’t mean that asshole isn’t still in charge.”
“Hold on,” Caleb corrected. “He’s determined to keep his position but that doesn’t mean he has it. His conviction messed up the mafia’s management. There’s going to be bloodshed until a new godfather takes control.”
Korbin chuckled. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he dispensed with maybe a quarter of his beer. The three men were on a massive redwood deck overlooking the ocean watching the sun try to make up its mind whether it was ready to lose its hold on the day. Caleb loved endless evenings like this. He’d put his career to bed and wouldn’t have to think about it until tomorrow—at least he wouldn’t most nights. Tonight however, Korbin had asked to be brought up to date regarding their mutual foe, only the obscenely wealthy man who ran J and J—Judge and Jury—never just requested something. Cloaked in low, quiet tones, he let it be known he wouldn’t accept anything except the broad and absolute truth.
Hell, he had every right to.
“I can’t help but liken what’s going on to what happens when a wolf pack loses the alpha male,” Caleb said. He’d never seen a live wolf but the predators had long fascinated him. The way he saw it, the mafia wasn’t much different from wolves. Dangerous. “The soldiers who’ve been waiting to move up in the ranks smell weakness. They push. Nip at heels. Sometimes, if they think they’re macho enough, they challenge the boss.”
“I take it Ethan knows what’s going on in the streets?” Korbin chuckled again. “Serves the bastard right not to be able to call all the shots. All these years he’s been pushing his weight around. Believing no one’s stupid enough to take him on. Then he’s charged, tried, and found guilty.” He gave Joe a thumbs up. “Speaking of, how is Lainey doing?”
“She’s back in school. Taking four classes, three of them online. Speaking of, she told me to make sure I thanked you for everything you did.”
“She’ll do fine. That’s one smart young woman—too good for you.” His smile died. “How does she feel knowing her stepfather is still pulling strings? I assume you’ve told her how far Ethan’s power still reaches.”
“I have.” Joe flexed his big, hard shoulder muscles. “She doesn’t like it.”
“Of course she doesn’t. The things he did with that sex slavery scheme of his—make sure she knows how proud I am of her for testifying against him.”
“I did my best to prepare her. Her determination came from inside. Men like Ethan Crowl will never be anything except bastards. A guilty verdict doesn’t change a cur’s nature.”
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Korbin said.
“What do you mean?” Caleb had known Korbin for more than five years, but he was still trying to get through the man’s layers.
“Simple and selfish on my part. Judge and Jury needs a worthy opponent. Where’s the challenge if the Ethans of the world fade away once their cell doors are locked?” Korbin leaned forward and watched a trio of seagulls glide overhead. “As long as the mafia exists, and it’s going to be around longer than we are, people’s lives will be ruined.” He turned his attention to Caleb. “Or destroyed. What happened to your sister was—”
“I can’t change reality.” It still tore at his heart to talk about Hanna’s last days. No one’s life should end at nineteen. “I focus on what I can accomplish. What any of us can.”
“Point taken,” Korbin said. “So you two are getting hints of conflict?”
“More than hints,” Joe said. “Right now the mafia is split into several divisions.”
“It’s hard to tell how many underbosses are vying to become godfather,” Caleb said. “Ethan isn’t about to let anyone strip that title from him. It pisses me that he only got ten years. It’s a damn shame the DA’s office couldn’t tie him to Nate’s death.”
Nate was—had been—Joe’s younger brother, a brash, self-confident young man who’d worked for Ethan until he’d figured out that Ethan was using his skill as a street race driver to enrich Ethan. Instead of obeying Ethan’s order to throw a race, Nate’s ego had been in control. In exchange for ruining Ethan’s payday, Ethan had ordered Nate killed.
Nate’s death hadn’t been Ethan’s downfall. His attempt to set up a sex slavery operation had done the deed thanks in part to Korbin. Caleb kept telling himself it didn’t matter which crime had brought Ethan down. What did was that the mafia kingpin was behind bars and helpless—only he wasn’t out of operation, damn it. From what Caleb was picking up from the streets, the battling underbosses were determined to turn the sex slave setup into a major moneymaker. Unsuspecting women had been safe from the moment Ethan had been locked up, but the danger was back.
“I’m frustrated,” Korbin said. “I should have seen it coming, but I’d hoped a conviction would weaken the mafia.” He rubbed his eyes and went back to watching the seagulls.
“It did,” Caleb told him.
“But it isn’t down and out.”
“So where do we go from here?” Korbin stabbed a glance at Caleb. “If you were a betting man, where do you think Ethan is focused? Does he still have an interest in making money from street racing?”
“No.” Caleb didn’t have to look at the fellow detective he considered a trusted friend to know Joe was uptight. After all they’d both lost a sibling to the mafia. “There’s nothing sexy about having the fastest car in this part of the city. Not enough money behind it either.”
“Drugs will always be a core part of what the mafia’s about, but I don’t think Ethan’s in a position to have a real impact on that money stream. Besides, it’s been around for so long it practically runs itself.” He wasn’t sure where Korbin was going with this line of discussion. “Money laundering’s pretty much on autopilot.”
“I agree,” Korbin said. “A new income stream is vital for someone looking to move up in the organization. From personal experience I know loyalty hinges on workmen respecting management’s decisions. Do you two think sex slavery has enough potential to interest all of the underbosses? Joe, I’ll cut you some slack when it comes to answering that. You have other things on your mind.”
“Just one.” Joe massaged his thighs. “But Lainey doesn’t expect or want me to give her all of my time. She understands what my job entails. Besides, she has her mother’s welfare to deal with.”
“Speaking of,” Caleb said, “how is Magara doing?”
“Not bad considering.” Joe licked his orange-stained fingers. “My future mother-in-law is a pro when it comes to acting. No matter how much shit her soon-to-be ex is putting her through, and he’s making the divorce as hard as he can, she earns every penny she’s being paid. I’ve watched. The emotion she puts into her role—”
“So she is divorcing Ethan?” Korbin broke in.
“Slowly. Like I said, Ethan’s being a bastard about it. Lainey spends as much as she can with her mother, listening, giving advice when it’s asked for, sometimes cursing Ethan more than Magara does.”
“Good for her. I’m sure it helps to have you to talk to.”
“I like to think it does.”
Seeing the light of love in Joe’s eyes, Caleb fought a wave of envy. The whole time he’d been growing up, he’d believed love and devotion would cement his parents’ marriage no matter what life threw at them. He’d wanted what had sustained them—until his sister’s cruel death had torn his parents apart. He still wanted to believe there was such a thing as happy ever after but it hadn’t happened in his family. Maybe nothing would ever threaten Joe and Lainey’s relationship but maybe—
“Listen to him,” Korbin said. “Only a few months with Lainey and Joe thinks he’s an expert in the romance department. Shit, I imagine there was a time when Magara felt the same way about the shithole.”
The shithole was Ethan Crowl. “Speaking of,” Caleb said, “several of my sources are convinced Ethan is sold on sex slavery lining his pockets. He’s willing to leave the other operations to the wolves nipping at his heels.”
“That’s interesting,” Korbin said. “I’m kind of surprised he’d specialize but there are limits to what he can do from where he is.”
Korbin snorted. “Breaks my heart. One thing, he was just getting started on the slavery angle. He probably sees it as a challenge.”
“A big one considering he has to handle things from a distance,” Caleb pointed out. “He has to rely on soldiers he trusts.”
Korbin and Joe laughed, prompting Caleb to join them. “Loyalty within the mafia is the same as believing a wolf won’t attack,” he said. “They want the world to believe honor is what it’s about but there are a lot of hungry soldiers.”
“To say nothing of the consigliere, bosses, caporegime, soldiers, even a picciotto or two,” Joe said. “That adds up to a lot of bodies the godfather doesn’t dare turn his back on. I wish we had a better idea who’s convinced spilling blood leads to power and who is biding their time waiting to see who’s left standing.”
“Yeah.” Korbin frowned. “For a while I hoped Magara would turn out to be the connection we were looking for. There she was, a civilian married to the godfather.”
“She wasn’t much different from me,” Joe said. “An outsider no one looks at.”
“Which is why I brought you into Judge and Jury,” Korbin allowed. “Unfortunately now the mafia doesn’t trust you any more than they do Caleb.” He studied the redwood decking his shoes were planted on. “Where do we go from here? How do we keep potential slaves safe? We can’t stop what we can’t see coming.”
The world saw Korbin Aldrich as a highly successful man with a knack for making every business he was involved with succeed. Only a handful knew what really got him up every morning—a gut-deep determination to hamstring the mafia. He didn’t just use his money and resources toward that end. He sometimes got personally involved. In addition he chose others, mostly cops who shared his loathing of organized crime, to do what he couldn’t.
“No, we can’t.” Like Korbin was doing, Caleb studied the long, wide swath of redwood. This wasn’t the first time he wished he’d become a carpenter. “If I did my sister might still be alive.”
“You couldn’t do anything,” Korbin ground out. “Just be the wolf you’ve been talking about. Stalk your prey. And when you’ve cornered it, bring it down. Gnaw off its fucking legs.”
Groaning under her breath, Mia Hess struggled to catch the page coming into the ER. Unfortunately, the squalling toddler she was dealing with made that impossible so she pulled back the cloth partition in preparation for stepping into the hall.
“Where are you going?” the toddler’s frazzled mother demanded. “She’s in so much pain.”
“I know she is. I’ll be right back.”
“Sure you will. After your break.”
What break, Mia wanted to challenge. She was in hour eleven of a twelve-hour shift, all of it spent on her feet. Her bladder was grateful for the two minutes she’d managed to carve out earlier, but she was so hungry she was lightheaded. At times like this she questioned her decision to go into nursing but it was worlds better than how her mother kept her lights on.
“What was that?” she asked the nurse who was heading for another room with an IV bag.
“Two ambulances. One critical.”
It was Friday night, specifically a few minutes before midnight, which had her figuring booze might have played a role in what had happened. Her belly clenched. Where was her brother? Not at the disaster of an apartment he shared with several other young men. She’d bet a month’s salary on that.
When the nurse said the ambulances were at least five minutes away, she went back to dealing with the youngster who’d parked a small plastic stick in her ear. The too-young mother with bags under her eyes was rocking a wide-eyed and thankfully silent newborn while trying to calm her blonde older child.
“Do you like dogs?” Mia asked the now sniveling girl. “I just got a puppy.” She pulled a small, white stuffed dog out of a drawer and handed it to her patient. “She looks a lot like this. I don’t know what to call her. Do you think you can help me?”
Despite a suspicious stare, the girl clutched the much-used toy to her chest. “Precious,” she whispered.
Tweezers in her palm so the girl couldn’t see what she had, Mia cupped a small trembling chin with her free hand to keep her patient from moving. “That’s kind of long for a little puppy. How about a nickname?”
“No. It has to be Precious. And she has to wear a pink collar.”
Fortunately Mia had gotten a decent look at the offending intrusion so she knew how to angle the tweezers. “Of course she does. Now, how about you show me how far you can count?”
No longer suspicious, the child started counting. Mia waited until she heard five then slipped her tool into the girl’s ear, took hold, and slowly pulled. Mom, who’d been counting along with her daughter, nodded and asked the girl to draw an eight with her forefinger.
“There.” Mia held up four inches of red plastic with rounded ends. “All gone.”
At the sight of the object, the girl started crying again. Judging by the sounds beyond this bit of sub-drama, Mia knew the critical patient had arrived. Dismissing her ache, she used an otoscope to be sure the ear hadn’t sustained any damage. After telling the mother to check at the nurse’s station before leaving, she stepped into the largest emergency room.
Most of the ER nurses were already there, prepared to perform their designated tasks. As she backed against a wall to leave room for the stretcher, she assured herself that the various equipment they’d need was in place. The expressions on the ambulance staff’s faces as they rushed in left no doubt that this was a hot one. So did the EMT riding the stretcher so he could pump the patient’s chest. The taut muscles in his arms left no doubt that he was using every bit of strength in his upper body.
“I can’t do this much longer,” he muttered. “Someone has to take over.”
“Right,” Dr. Martin Guyer said. “Who has this?”
Fortunately before Mia felt compelled to volunteer, Angela, one of the other nurses, held up her hand. Angela waited until the patient had been transferred to the bed then grabbed a stepladder so she could lean over the patient.
“What do you know?” Dr. Guyer asked the EMTs.
“Knife or knives.” One of the EMTs shook his head. “Wounds in his belly and side. We packed the hole in his femoral artery but couldn’t get it to stop bleeding. He wasn’t breathing when we got there. Blood everywhere.”
“My partner talked to the other victim,” a man Mia couldn’t see supplied. “Who knows whether he was telling the truth but according to him, the fight took place a while before someone thought to call nine-one-one.”
Dr. Guyer, who’d been one of the hospital’s ER doctors for longer than anyone remembered, swore. “Gang related?”
“Looks like it.”
As she placed a blood pressure cuff around the patient’s arm, Mia glanced at whoever been talking to Dr. Guyer. She wasn’t surprised to find a police officer studying the victim. She’d seen that expression in a cop’s eyes more times than she wanted to think about. It said he’d been part of what happened on the streets for years but experience didn’t mean it had gotten easier.
Teeth clenched and praying she wouldn’t see the one thing she couldn’t handle, she turned her attention to the patient. If it wasn’t for the effort being put into pumping his heart, he would have been motionless. Blood drenched his shirt and jeans. Too much had pooled at his sides. Some dripped onto the floor. His head lolled to the side away from her making it hard to focus on his features. His longish black hair had been dyed the same too-bright red as his clothes.
He was young, too damn young for this. Barely old enough to have enough facial hair to count. His shirt had been pulled away from his chest, revealing several slashes. Mia couldn’t tell if what she was certain were knife wounds had gone deep enough to reach vital organs. Judging by the amount of blood that had escaped despite the crimson bandages at his groin, the damage to his femoral artery put his life in the greatest danger.
“Fuck,” the cop said in time with Angela’s motions. “Fuck fuck fuck.”
“You don’t have to stay,” Dr. Martin Guyer told him. “Obviously the patient isn’t going anywhere. Paddles. I’m going to shock him. Try anyway.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the cop said. “My partner’s with the other—victim. Fuck it. Just a kid.”
A kid. Same as Ricky.
In her mind Mia heard her younger brother reminding her that he was god damn twenty, a man, not a kid. She didn’t give a damn on this lousy summer night when it looked as if another young man had thrown his life away.
Despite her own heart’s warning of an attack, she moved around the head of the bed and forced herself to study the patient’s face. It seemed to be melting, all energy and emotion stripped away. He was past being scared or pissed, past giving a damn why he wasn’t alive when he’d been a few minutes ago.
He wasn’t Ricky.
Blinking hot eyes, she went to work. In the four years since she’d become an emergency room nurse she’d gotten good at her job. Most times weren’t this savage but there’d been enough of them—people killing each other for the sake of killing. Men thinking they were gods because they had guns or knives. Maybe both. Full of bitterness because the gang that gave their existence meaning said they had to hate anyone who wasn’t part of their brotherhood.
Or belonging to the mafia because—hell, she had no idea why anyone would want to be part of a widespread criminal activity.
One her family either was or had been part of seemingly forever.
“I don’t believe you. Shit, where the hell is he?”
Ricky. Nearby. Amped up. A little scared but not about to let anyone know.
After Dr. Guyer announced what everyone already knew, Mia had walked out of the room where a young man had ceased to exist. Her thoughts, such as they were, had been to head for her locker where she kept a change of clothes. She’d already taken off her disposable gloves and mask. Most times she didn’t bother to remove her scrubs before going home, but she didn’t want to have to explain the bloodstains in case she ran into a civilian.
Now, hearing her brother’s voice, the helpless anger and fear she’d managed to cast off returned. She should leave it at gratitude because he was alive but she needed to know what he was doing there. Chances were he was the other victim. She found him in another treatment room with blood on what remained of his T-shirt and jeans. The right pant leg had been cut from cuff nearly to crotch and a mostly white bandage had been taped near his ribs.
He was reclining on a bed with his left wrist cuffed to a side rail. Anna Barnes, who was the toughest nurse Mia had the honor of working with, had buried her fingers in his right armpit. Despite Ricky’s curses, he didn’t try moving that arm. A cop was the only other person in the room.
“I’ve had enough of your mouth,” Anna said. “And more than enough of your whining and complaining.”
“Screw it. I don’t give a damn what you think.” He tried to pull his cuffed arm free. Winced. “Get this damn thing off me so I can go find—”
“Shut up,” the police officer interrupted. “I told you all you need to know.”
“Konga ain’t dead. No way.”
“Konga.” The officer nodded. “I thought that’s who it was. My partner was in the room when the doctor pronounced your friend.”
“Fuck.” Ricky’s cheeks blazed. “They’ll god damn pay.”
“Yeah.” The cop sighed. “I know.”
The officer sounded as tired as she felt and when she chanced a look at his eyes, she found the same done-in expression she too often saw on herself.
“What happened to Ricky?” she asked Anna. “Where was he hurt?”
“Side mostly. Knife. Fortunately whoever got to him only nicked his thigh.”
“Ricky?” the cop said to her. “You know him?”
“Yes.” No way would she reveal more. “Is he under arrest?”
“I’m not sure. It depends on whether I can charge him with more than stupidity.”
“Wrong place, wrong time?” she asked. The way the cop returned her stare was getting to her. The problem was she had things she needed to hide while he was determined to pull everything he could out of her. “Is that a crime?”
“What is it to you?” he asked.
Anna whistled and relaxed her hold on Ricky’s armpit. Her brother flexed his fingers but didn’t try to shake off her hold. The four of them—one cop, two nurses, and a stupid twenty-year-old—were taking their measure of each other. It should be a simple matter of her plastering the word cop on the tall, strong officer’s forehead followed by turning her back on him and what he represented, but there was nothing simple about tonight. Not only had she watched life drain out of someone who could have been her brother, this officer had been part of the same nightmare. If she wasn’t who she was, they might discover they had a lot in common.
“Maybe I’m trying to decide whether he’ll be back here in the near future.” She pointed at Ricky. “Anna, how serious are his wounds?”
“They aren’t, fortunately for him.”
When the officer closed the distance between him and Ricky, she was able to read his name tag. Detective Caleb Roth. There was something direct about it, a no-nonsense man with a name that was quickly said and dismissed, only she couldn’t imagine a perp ever dismissing the muscular law enforcement officer who’d cuffed and restrained him. Caleb Roth was hard to his core.
“What happens now?” she asked because she knew her brother wouldn’t tell her. “Are you taking him to jail?”
“For now.” His gaze intensified. “Until I’ve figured out what happened when and why. Who was involved. Locking Ricky up gives him time to change his mind about talking to me.”
“He won’t,” she muttered.
“Figured.” The detective’s stare intensified. “How about you speaking for him? You’re related, right? It feels like it.”
Caleb was goading her, trying to get her to say more than she wanted to. What he hopefully didn’t know was how much experience she had keeping walls between her and law enforcement. Silence hadn’t been her idea. She’d never wanted the life her parents had trapped her in but she’d learned how to function in it. Mostly she said nothing.
“How do I get in touch with you?” she asked. “In case I need answers he won’t give me?”
“What makes you think you and I will ever have a meeting of the minds?” Despite the challenge, he reached into a shirt pocket under his bulletproof vest and extracted a card. Her thoughts hung up on the reality of the vest. “How about me contacting you?”
“I don’t have a card if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Why don’t you?”
What was the man’s problem? Didn’t he ever let up? “If you need to reach me, you can do that through the hospital.”
By way of response, he stared at her until she understood what he was getting at. He wanted their next conversation to take place in privacy. Like that was going to happen.
“Look,” Anna said, “as fascinating as this exchange is, we don’t need to keep this young man here. Seriously, where is he going?”
With me so I can shake some sense into him before it’s too late, Mia wanted to say, but she wasn’t responsible for the cuffs.
“He’s mine. Every damn bit of him.” Caleb leaned toward her. “Where are you heading?”
Belatedly realizing that he was reading her name tag, she straightened as much as her overwrought body allowed and shook her head. “I don’t have to answer you.”
“Oh, this is getting interesting,” Anna said. “Mia, I’m stuck here a few more hours but if you need to talk—”
“Sure you are.”
The other nurse’s comment faded away, leaving Mia feeling as if only she and Caleb Roth were in the room. She didn’t need Anna looking out for her. Hell, she’d stopped depending on anyone except herself years ago. But something about this cop had her on edge. He was part of the world her part had damn little in common with. As much as she wished it wasn’t like that, she’d accepted reality.
“He isn’t shittin’ me?” Ricky asked. “Konga’s dead?”
“I’m sorry but yes,” she answered.
“Stop talking like that,” she snapped. “I hate it when you do.”
“You weren’t there. You didn’t see—”
“No, I didn’t, and you shouldn’t have.”
The connection between them was what it was, strained. She knew better than to try to change things, but she’d held Ricky’s hand while he was learning how to walk. She’d changed his diaper and had sometimes stolen so they wouldn’t go hungry. Although they didn’t talk about it, they remembered what those years had been like.
“One question, for now,” Caleb said. “Are you two siblings?”
“Yes,” she answered.
His nod was slow and appraising, trying to put things that didn’t fit together. “Interesting.”
Ricky started rocking. There was so little movement most people might not notice, but she understood what her brother had to do to keep it together. He wouldn’t cry over Konga’s death. On the outside he’d rage and threaten revenge, but what he’d seen and been part of tonight meant another chunk of humanity torn out of him.
Did Caleb Roth feel the same way?
Was he capable of grasping what she’d been through?
“Talk to your brother,” Caleb told her as the cop who’d watched Konga die came into the room. “Convince him to tell me who went after him and Konga. That’s the only way we’re going to stop the bloodshed.”
“It ain’t none of your business.” Ricky stared at the blood on the other officer’s pants. “We take care of our own.”
“And it works so well.” If anything, Officer Roth sounded more done in than he had a moment ago. “Moves civilization in the right direction.” His dark eyes ground into her and touched a place she didn’t know she had. “Shake or punch some smarts into him or you’ll be burying him.”
“Don’t say that.” She struggled to keep her voice from giving her fear away.
“Someone has to.”