Travis fastened his jeans, whistling softly, the rich smell of genuine Java coffee drifting up from the mug at his elbow. His sweater hung by the bedroom door, while his jacket was in the living room. The cabin was laid out in a straight line — kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom. Plate glass windows and sliding glass doors showed the spectacular mountain views. Mirrors covered two walls of the bedroom, which made it easy to watch either the outdoors or see into the living room.
Along the cabin’s full length, a wooden deck was cantilevered over the canyon. Only a wooden balustrade kept the unwary from diving three thousand feet onto the rocks below. Personally, Travis had no intention of going near the rickety old structure. He’d rather climb to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, without ropes, and try to talk down a jumper.
A few hours earlier, he’d cuddled Gillian and admired a mountain sunrise out those windows, shimmering red above the snowcapped peaks. He didn’t need to have the old saying come true again, not after January’s events.
Red skies in the morning, sailors take warning.
Red skies at night, sailors’ delight.
There was a bad storm coming in. The deck was iced over and snow was starting to fall. But worse was forecast to the east. The weathermen had predicted the Blue Norther of the Century for the Texas Panhandle tonight.
Hell, he didn’t need to worry about the weather. He was hours west of Texas and had no intention of driving there.
He cracked open the door into the living room, so he could hear her moving around, over the weather forecaster bleating about the big blizzard, and sat down to pull on his boots.
Gillian was a very feminine creature, a few inches over five feet, red hair, creamy skin with a touch of golden freckles across that straight little nose, a slender figure that looked breakable. But she had more stamina and passion than Police Officer Patricia Murphy on the mayor’s detail had displayed two years ago, the last time he’d dated anyone.
He grinned, remembering some of Gillian’s more inventive ideas. Pity she was a cat burglar and his only interest was in Frank’s notebook. Otherwise, he’d be tempted to take some of the vacation the captain was always trying to shove down his throat and spend it with the little redhead.
Gravel skittered down the hill and splattered against the house.
Travis stiffened. Was that natural — or had Morelli’s men followed him here? Maybe there really was a leak at the FBI. He’d suspected somebody had set Frank up. Or maybe Morelli had just tracked Gillian down the same way he had.
He yanked his last boot on.
Slugs crashed into the front door lock, an all-too familiar sound.
Reflexes, honed by twenty-five years on New York’s toughest streets, took over. Travis immediately dived onto the floor, drawing his big Beretta Mini-Cougar, his off-duty weapon. “Gillian, get down!”
Simultaneously, the front door burst inward, followed by the bastard firing a shotgun. He knew that face — Big Charlie, Morelli’s toughest hit man, a vicious Jamaican sadist.
Glass and furniture shattered. Walls crumbled. The weatherman abruptly stopped foretelling catastrophe in the Texas Panhandle.
Travis lifted his head and risked a quick glance into the big mirror at the living room. Was Gillian safe in the kitchen?
Massive holes showed in the walls. What the hell kind of shot was Big Charlie using to cause so much damage? More than just slugs. Maybe linked by chain?
Travis slithered backward through the bedroom. He cracked the sliding door open and went silently onto the big deck, cautiously moving over the inch of ice in the gently falling snow. A rope and a full harness would have been useful, especially since he was hanging over a canyon. But what part of this old wooden cabin could he have tied onto to? He shook his head and stayed close to the cabin, edging back toward Gillian.
Christ, if Big Charlie tried some of his nastier tricks on her before Travis could stop him. . .
The shooting finally stopped and a man spoke, clearly audible through the shattered glass doors. He had an Eastern European accent, not Big Charlie’s Jamaican accent.
“You were supposed to be sleeping, Fitzgerald. Now we will have to do this the hard way. Give me the notebook and Morelli will call it quits.”
Crap, Big Charlie was working with an accomplice. He was so vicious that it took someone even nastier to work with him.
Travis smiled without mirth, his brain working as coldly as on any job in the 7-5, his old Brooklyn precinct. Stall, Gillian honey, and let me get into position. You’re a great cat burglar. Now’s the time to show your stuff.
He crept forward, using first the hot tub then the table for cover, until he could just see the intruders through a gap in the living room’s shredded curtains.
Gillian faced a dour-looking fellow in an Armani suit, startling attire for a family ski resort in late March. He was sneering at her, his lips curled like a drug dealer’s guard dog desperate to attack. Big Charlie flanked him, his shotgun restlessly sweeping everything in Gillian’s cabin except where she stood. His ammunition had left the walls and furniture looking like Swiss cheese.
“Did Morelli send my money?” Gillian countered, her voice as calm as her demeanor. Only her green eyes’ intensity betrayed that this was anything more than a casual conversation.
The Armani suit wearer snickered. “Pay good money to you, a whore? When he could send a vampiro mayor to recover what he had stolen? Not likely, bitch.”
“No matter what he paid you, it’ll rot in the bank. You’re not leaving here.”
“But now I’ll get a bonus,” the Armani suit wearer sneered, “since I’ve learned you too are a vampiro mayor.”
His body dissolved into mist and a Rottweiler sprang at Gillian, the silk suit collapsing onto the floor underneath it.
Travis opened his mouth to shout a warning but she too had already evaporated. In her place, a cougar’s svelte dusky gold blur snarled and sliced into the enemy’s bigger, black and tan body. Her quilted robe crumpled into a fluffy pink heap.
A shapeshifter duel?
Half-forgotten family legends rose up in his mind, wrestling for his attention. Vampiros and compañeros and prosaicos, loyalty unto death, Don Rafael Perez and the Santiago Trust. . .
Big Charlie headed for the bedroom, shotgun at the ready.
The fight in the living room was a whirling, yowling mass of teeth and claws and blood. Slender streaks of gold flashing against great bulky black and tan. And Gillian was in there fighting for her life? Don’t think about that now, Travis, just fight.
Big Charlie emerged onto the balcony, shotgun at the ready. Travis ran for the only cover available — behind the hot tub.
BAM! Big Charlie shot at him, shattering the trellis between them. Shards of wood rained over Travis. His foot slipped on the ice and he fell flat on his stomach, only to start sliding across the deck like a toboggan.
BAM! BAM! Keeping his back to the cabin, Big Charlie shot again at Travis. His damn slugs shattered the deck’s railing, leaving a gap big enough for two men.
Travis was skidding off the balcony, headed straight for the hole in the railing — and a two-thousand-foot drop into the canyon below.
Shit, he could really use a rope right now. . .
His flailing foot caught against a single post, stopping the fall but swinging him around on the ice like an Olympic skater. He caught himself against the hot tub’s base with one hand, one leg hanging over the edge above the canyon.
A freezing wind roared up the inside of his jeans, reminding him of just how far down he could fall. Snowflakes blurred his vision but he still held his Beretta.
BAM! Big Charlie blasted the hot tub’s cover. It shattered, sending knife-edged fiberglass shards shooting in all directions. Blood trickled down Travis’s face.
Would he make it back to Gillian in time?
BAM! Big Charlie shot at the hot tub, obviously trying to carve it away, as he’d done to the cabin’s interior. Water poured out of it, gushing toward him, not Travis. The Jamaican yelped and dodged the flood, briefly emerging into view.
Travis shot him in the head.
Big Charlie dropped his shotgun and fell onto his face, dead before he hit the icy deck. That sure brought justice for a lot of murders.
Travis pulled himself completely back onto the balcony, desperate to reach Gillian. He half-crawled, half-slid back to the balcony door. He reached in through one of Big Charlie’s holes and pulled the door open, then lunged back inside, reflexively glad of the comparative warmth.
Dammit, Gillian and the brute were moving too quickly, making it impossible for him to kill the bastard without hurting her. Come on, Gillian, break away and give me a shot. Just an instant is all I ask. Just one lousy instant and I’ll send the bastard to hell for you. . .
They closed on each other suddenly. Travis’s finger tightened on the trigger. Gillian…
The Rottweiler reared up onto its hind legs, desperately trying to shake the cougar off its jugular. But its struggles were jerky and ineffective.
Holy hell, Gillian had a death grip on the paid assassin.
The cougar pulled back, mouth full of fur, covered in blood and limping badly. But she was still in fighting mode, teeth bared to attack the enemy. Before Travis could fire, the Rottweiler’s hindquarters collapsed onto the polished hardwood floor — and dissolved into dust. An instant later, it had completely changed into a small heap of pale gray powder, stirred by a draft from the shattered windows.
Blood splatters melted away and disappeared, until only Big Charlie’s corpse lay in a large pool of blood on the deck.
The cougar settled onto the floor and shimmered. Then Gillian lay there, barely breathing, blood pumping from a dozen deadly wounds and a hundred minor ones.