Read the first three chapters of Code of Conduct!

Chapter One

** Shane **

“If you think they’re cheating, they probably are. Or you are, and you’re just trying to wipe your conscience.” – Shane, P.I.

I intimidate people. It’s one of my superpowers. 

I learned the benefits of intimidation early. When I was thirteen, I was five feet-nine inches tall and could wield a well-timed glare like a weapon. Now in my late twenties and six-one, I had bravado, athletic ability, and superior survival skills to add to my arsenal of intimidating glares.

I also had a pretty badass array of prosthetic legs with cool functions and Swiss Army-type gadgets at my disposal, but most of my clients didn’t realize they were getting Black Widow with an Iron Man leg when they hired me. And monogamy-impaired Chicagoans certainly had no idea who was coming for them. 

Another superpower, my private investigator’s license, added a little extra steel to my spine, which also helped disguise the limp that no amount of carefully-weighted titanium could erase.

The limp and the height were the reasons I’d arrived early to the little, out-of-the-way north side restaurant for my eharmony date with Chicago businessman Dane Quimby. 

I say “date” because that’s what he thought it was. To me it was a job with a high probability of being mostly unpleasant, but also served with a side dish of smug satisfaction.

I use the Black Widow analogy because of my Iron Man leg, but I grew up on a steady diet of Charlie’s Angels reruns. Even though I’d been compared to Jaclyn Smith, the glamorous P.I., I was way more Kate Jackson, the athletic one. My own P.I. license had taken six thousand hours and a test to earn, and as far as I was concerned, the fact that it was only legal in California, where I’d lived until the previous year, was a technicality. To get a license in Illinois required a twenty-hour training course and forty hours of firearms training, neither of which I’d done. I wasn’t a fan of guns, and I didn’t really want my fingerprints on file with the State of Illinois, because … reasons.

So, there I was, waiting for a married guy to buy me dinner before he tried to get into my pants. They happened to be my favorite skinny jeans, with enough Lycra to make sitting possible without blood-flow constriction, and they were tucked into my super-favorite tall riding boots. The boots were flat and therefore comfortable. They also did a great job of hiding my prosthetic lower leg from casual judgment and stale notions of “handicaps.” Someone would have to get me naked to know I was a below-the-knee amputee, and no one but my dog ever saw me naked.

Dane chose the location for our date, which was notable for its lack of pretension, a curvy waitress, and a cheap menu. I had nothing but respect for large-busted women, since I could only imagine the back pain and underwire bras they endured. I was just as happy with the two-dimes-and-a-piece-of-tape version of lingerie which kept my nipples from becoming a distraction that diminished my powers of intimidation.

The waitress greeted Dane with an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek when he came in, and I smirked at the difference between his internet dating profile picture and the truth of him. 

My date for the evening was somewhat vertically challenged and sported blond from a bottle. He had the athletic build of a man who did his treadmill miles with the Nasdaq scrolling under his news, and the smile of a shark who negotiated deals for a living. 

His eyes found me with just the slightest double-take, and I watched him take stock of all my visible body parts with a vertical visual sweep as he approached the table.

“Sophie?” he asked, wearing his attempt at a rakish grin. I didn’t bother to point out the bit of something green stuck in his teeth. Sophie wasn’t my real name, of course. I am far too paranoid to use verifiable information on the internet, and a name came with a degree of identifiability that was outside my comfort zone – my comfort zone encompassing all four U.S. time zones. 

I held my hand out to shake his. “Hello, Dane. It’s nice to finally meet you.” Dane was obviously not paranoid enough, or just exceptionally cocky, as that actually was his real name. His wife hired me to discover if he’d been cheating on her, and it had only taken three internet searches and fifteen minutes to determine that he was on four dating websites and was practically a platinum member of Tinder. 

He sat down across from me and shook his head with a chuckle. “You look exactly like your picture. I guess that means everything else in your profile is true?”

It had taken me twenty minutes to hack into the website and data-mine his search histories, and another ten to build a profile to match his wish list. “Yes, I really am a tantric yoga instructor. Doesn’t everyone tell the truth online?” I said with nary a blink.

He licked his lips, and I felt queasy. “I can’t really talk about my time in Special Forces, so I guess you could say my profile is true-ish.” 

It had taken thirty minutes of background checks using mostly public databases to determine he’d left the military in disgrace. “Oh, wow. Were you, like, a spy or something?” 

He chuckled. “You’re from California, aren’t you?”

Smile. Blink. “I basically grew up on the beach.” I’d grown up backpacking in the Sierras, but I threw the guy a bone and added a bikini to his mental image of me.

“I always thought I should live in Cali,” he said. “I’d work out on the strand like those guys in Venice Beach, and be friends with movie stars.”

The effort not to laugh out loud was costing me. “I’ve seen those guys in Venice. You’d fit right in,” I simpered. My first job as an insurance investigator had been in Venice, and I’d had to navigate sneering gangbangers and strung-out homeless guys every day. Also, no one in California ever called it Cali.

He held up a finger and did the “I’ll have what she’s having” thing to order a drink like mine. I smirked at the waitress’s raised eyebrow. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he got sparkling water with lime instead of the vodka tonic he thought I had?

“You must wonder what attracted me to you,” Dane said with a knowing smile.

Actually, I was mentally calculating my billable hours and hoping to be done here in less than thirty minutes because … round numbers. “You read my mind,” I said with a low, breathy voice. To my own ears I sounded asthmatic, but experience had taught me that horny guys dug breathless women.

Dane set his cell phone on the table next to him, screen up, so I’d see how very important he was when he got all those calls and texts he was expecting. A call from a number I recognized as his wife’s flashed on the screen as the phone buzzed, and he quickly declined it.

“Your profile says you’re looking for uncomplicated with a side of kinky,” Dane said, leaning forward to trace the path of ice sweat down the side of my glass. His meaningful glance was all imagine me doing this to you, and I barely suppressed a shudder as I forced a languid smile.

“I guess that’s one way to interpret my profile,” I said. The other way is to actually read the words, dumbass, which said I like simple pleasures and I’m open to trying new things. I pushed my drink away because he’d touched it and now his cooties coated it like crap smears on a public toilet. Dane took the gesture as an invitation to share, because he was presumptuous like that. He slid his hand down the outside of the sweaty glass with a suggestive wink. This guy had all the moves.

“So, tell me about tantric yoga.” His hand fisted up and down the glass before he took a big gulp. To his credit, he hid his shock at the bubbly lime-water well, but I shot the waitress a grateful smile when she set the fresh drink down in front of me.

“Are you ready to order?” she asked. Dane was about to answer, but I quickly interrupted.

“Could I have a minute?”

“Sure, take your time,” said Tiffani, with an “i” dotted by a smiley face sticker. She walked away with the self-assured hip-sway of a woman who knows her own appeal.

I turned my gaze back to Dane and answered his question with a slow, seductive smile. “Imagine the possibilities of a person who can hold her leg behind her head.” 

I conveniently forgot to mention that said leg wouldn’t actually be attached to the rest of me at the time. I pictured my peg leg prosthetic resting on my shoulder like a wooden bat. Of course I had a peg leg prosthetic, because who wouldn’t?

Dane thought my low chuckle was for him, and I could just imagine the mental images with which he was torturing himself. And because the thought of giving him even a moment of pleasure was approximately as appealing as sucking all the snot out of a dog’s nose, I changed the subject.

“Tell me about yourself, Dane. What do you do? I mean now that you’re out of Special Forces, there must be something you do besides work out.”

He actually preened. “Oh, you know, I dabble in web development, mostly for social media.”

This guy was awesome! What he really did, according to my background check and an hour’s worth of research on his company, was sell digital ad space. It explained his confidence in the ex-Special Forces cover, because if you could sell the promise of eyeballs – not the actual eyeballs themselves, mind you, just the possibility that x-amount of people might look at your thing for the two seconds it takes to scroll past it – you could probably sell birth control pills to your Great-Aunt Fanny.

“You must be really good at computers,” I purred. Actually, I was trying not to giggle and had to drop my voice to keep from choking.

“Oh yeah, baby. I’m the best.”

Seriously, how had this guy ever gotten laid? Ever.

“Are you on Tinder?” I thought about batting my eyelashes, but decided I’d probably blink out a contact lens.

“Of course I am. Aren’t you?”

I shook my head and bit my bottom lip. I’d practiced the move in a mirror once and thought it made me look dim, but apparently dim was like catnip to men who lied to get laid. I looked at his phone. “Can I see your profile? I’ve been trying to decide if I want to join.”

His grin went wide, and he quickly unlocked his phone for me. “Sure,” he said, as he scooted closer and showed me the app. “You get in like this, and see, here’s my profile.”

“That’s a great picture,” I said. “You look super fit.” In the ten-year-old photo.

“I know, right? I get a lot of matches with that pic.”

“Do you mind if I scroll around for a minute, just to look?” I asked sweetly.

He waved his hand at me. “Go ahead. Just don’t swipe right on any ugly chicks.” 

Just for that I’d be swiping right on the biggest, most redneck, Deliverance-looking guy I could find.

Tiffani approached the table again. “What can I get you, Dane?”

I silently blessed her for her timing, and after my right-swipe on Junior No-Teeth, I navigated to Dane’s Notes app, and about a second later air-dropped the whole file to my own phone. He had three banking apps in his office folder, and I clicked on one randomly. The account name was ADDATA, which was his business, so I switched to the next one. Dane was ordering something off-menu with a whole bunch of substitutions, so I took a minute to look back through his notes.

I had been counting on Dane’s arrogance and the simple statistics of probability, and neither one disappointed. The Notes app from his phone included a page of account information and passwords, which listed, among other vital things, his social security number and all his banking passwords. It took only a few more seconds to find Dane’s private bank account – the one which his wife suspected paid for his “entertainment” – and another minute to transfer half of the rather large sum of money into an account she’d already set up in her name. The wife had wanted to take it all, but I convinced her that a cornered dog was likely to bite, and she’d have a better chance of getting away with it if she left him some operating cash. 

“Hey,” Dane said suddenly. I cursed myself for jumping as I pasted a smile on my face. “Since you have my phone, you should just put your number in my contacts.”

“Oh, sure. Do you want me to put it under my first or my last name?” I was pretty sure the answer would be neither, and he confirmed my suspicions.

“Just leave it open to that page, and I’ll add your name.”

I typed in the number to my favorite bankruptcy specialist as he finished up his elaborate, high-maintenance order with Tiffani, and then I slid the phone across the table to him.

Tiffani stood patiently, waiting for me to order. “I just need another minute. Go ahead and put his order in, okay?”

She shrugged charmingly. “Sure. I’ll get his appetizer started.”

“So, what do you think about Tinder?” Dane asked with a slow wink.

I bit my lip again and realized I’d chewed off all my lip balm in my attempts to appear unthreatening. Dry lips were my kryptonite, so I re-applied and took enough time so it seemed like a tease. “I’ve heard it can be hacked, and that makes me nervous. You seem pretty confident about putting your information online, though.”

He shrugged. “Oh yeah, my company has the best private security money can buy. No one can touch me without setting off alarms all over the place.”

I was about to ask about such mythical security, but just then Dane’s phone rang. Cipher Security Systems flashed on the screen as he picked it up. 

“Speak of the devil,” he said with a grin. “I’ll just be a minute.” He answered the phone with a deep voice. “This is Dane,” he said importantly.

I looked up at Tiffani and said quietly, “I don’t think I can eat anything, thanks.” I’d heard about Cipher Security Systems, and they actually were pretty mythical. They were the kind of company banks used to check for hacking vulnerabilities. I hadn’t thought Dane’s business was big enough to rate that kind of protection.

Someone spoke briefly, and Dane answered. “At the Northside Cafe, why?”

My gut clenched in a way that usually signaled lactose intolerance or an attack of the flu. I didn’t like any association between Dane Quimby and Cipher Security Systems, much less one that placed me in Dane’s proximity. 

I stood up to pull a twenty out of my back pocket, and Dane’s eyes widened as they followed me up and up and up. He scowled and covered the phone again. “Where are you going?”

I nodded toward the phone in his hand. “You’re busy, and I have to prep for a colonoscopy tomorrow.”

He made a face and spoke into the phone again. “Hang on,” he snarled. Then he covered the mouthpiece again. “When can I see you?”

I brightened. “Why don’t I find you on Tinder and we can look for men to share.”

He frowned. “To share? But I’m not gay.”

I put on my saddest face. “You’re not? Oh, that’s too bad, because I am.”

Before he could untangle that ridiculous parting shot, I handed Tiffani the twenty as I headed for the door. “Thanks, Tiffani,” I said brightly. “Keep the change.”

“What happened to your leg?” she asked. “You okay?”

She must have seen my limp, and she looked sweetly concerned. Dane was still on his phone, and I could hear his voice rising angrily in the background. “What do you mean you’ll be right here? Why?”

“Oh yeah, it’s nothing. Just a shark bite,” I said with a quick glance back at Dane before I stepped outside into the evening twilight.

I’d taken about five strides down the sidewalk when a big, black SUV barreled around the corner and screeched to a stop in front of the restaurant. The passenger shot out of his seat and stalked into the building so fast I barely caught a glimpse of a good suit and neck tattoos. The driver was still in his seat, and I could see his eyes on me in the side view mirror. 

Something in those eyes locked my knees in place and forbade my legs to move.

Then the driver opened the car door and was out on the sidewalk facing me before I could exhale. I catalogued my options. Bond? Bond Girl? Or Bond Villain? I knew I looked good, and I could charm my way out of most situations, so Bond Girl was on the table. I’d worn a special knife holster on the titanium shaft of my prosthetic leg, invisible inside my boot, which gave me Bond powers of attack and defense. But I’d just emptied Dane’s private cootchie fund of half-a-million dollars and transferred it to his wife as payment for fifteen years of services rendered. So Bond Villain seemed appropriate too.

Then I took a breath and actually looked at the man on the sidewalk in front of me.

He wasn’t much taller or older than me, which made him about six-two or -three and put him in his early thirties. He wore a sharp, black suit tailored to make his shoulder-to-hip ratio look like an inverted triangle, which made me think quarterback instead of linebacker. He stood like a cop and dressed like a CEO, which made me think private security. If this was Cipher, I was in trouble.

An aura of power radiated from the man like wavy heat above a desert road. It didn’t help my temperature that the guy’s Idris Elba smolder threatened to set my skin and various articles of clothing on fire. For one insanity-filled moment, I imagined casually walking over and introducing myself. 

I must have flinched, because his hand twitched toward a holster he wasn’t actually wearing. Then reality intruded on the fantasy. I was a Caucasian female alone in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Logan Square, having just committed something akin to a felony, albeit justly deserved, standing in front of a guy who probably used to be in some form of law enforcement. 

And perhaps because I must have truly gone insane, I smiled at him. It was pure reflex, like the sigh at a spectacular sunset or the grin at a child’s laughter. He very nearly took a step toward me, then seemed to come to his senses and halted in place. It was at this point that I compounded my idiocy by accidentally waving to him as I turned to hurry away down the street.

Who waves at the guy who could probably bust her butt ten ways from Tuesday?

Finally, cold logic, survival skills, and James Bond took over control of my hands. I powered down my phone, took out the battery, and tucked both into my back pockets as I walked. I also ducked down an alley and circled back on myself twice. I never carried a purse if I could help it – my phone, keys, a credit card, my Ventra card for the CTA, lip balm, and two twenties were all I ever had on me. 

I half expected squealing tires and slamming doors to find me before I got to Fullerton, but remarkably, I made it onto my bus unimpeded. My heart still pounded uncomfortably in my chest as I dropped into a seat, and it annoyed me that I had reacted so strongly. Was it because the philandering asshat I’d just relieved of five hundred grand had connections to Cipher Security, or was it the Man in Black who had made my stomach clench in a way that was decidedly not like lactose intolerance or the flu? I was almost grateful for the two young hoods who sat down across from me and leered suggestively.

Seriously boys? That’s all you’ve got? I front-loaded disdain into my pointed glare until they got up and slid down the bus, leaving me alone with my slamming heart.

I’d just hijacked Dane Quimby’s phone and moved half his money into his wife’s account. How long until someone connected the dots between my “date” with Dane and the missing money?

I absently rubbed the skin above my leg socket and let my head fall against the window. I might have even tapped my head against the glass a couple of times to drown out the whooshing sound of impending doom that filled my ears.

Chapter Two

** Gabriel **

“You have to be smarter than them, talk softer, smile bigger, and let all the words roll off your back. It’ll be hard, son, but someday you’ll find someone who wants to see your light, and when you do, you’re going to shine.” – Miri Eze

Who the bloody hell was that?

I took another step forward, but she was already walking away – fast, as though she had a place to be. She had on tall riding boots and had a slight hitch in her gait, and I almost got back in the car to offer her a ride. But that was madness stemming from an overactive protective gene I seemed to have developed along with a penchant for self-destructive behavior, so I ignored the instinct. It didn’t matter how nice the suit was, a black man in an SUV did not offer a ride to a beautiful white girl he didn’t know, not even when the man in question had a British accent and an Oxford education. At a minimum, she’d call the police, and I did not need to explain my misguided chivalrous instincts to Chicago’s finest tonight.

“You alright, man? Why’d you stay outside?” O’Malley asked as he stepped out of the restaurant. Dan O’Malley had the Boston accent and tattoos of a thug, but the generosity of a gentleman. He’d been showing me the ropes at Cipher since I’d come on board, and he was one of those people who made the new bloke feel welcome without doing anything in particular to show it.

His voice broke the spell I was under, and I tore my eyes away from the excellent view disappearing around the corner. “I’m fine. What’s your opinion of Quimby?”

“Well, Quinn’s been phasing out private clients, and this one’s definitely on the block. Alex is taking a look at the numbers, but my gut says the guy’s a fucking mess. His company’s hemorrhaging stockholders like rats from a sinking ship, and guys who cheat on their wives lie like shag rugs. The liability’s too high for us to keep untrustworthy clients.”

“How do we know he cheats?” I hadn’t read the file yet and wondered if fidelity was a usual part of Cipher’s client profiles.

O’Malley gestured inside the restaurant. “The waitress said he brings a different woman in about once a week. Last one just left, actually.”

I tried to shrug off the unaccountable feeling of disappointment at the thought that the lovely bird with the spectacular rear-view had already been claimed. 

“The account breech that called us here is going to jack this up, since he’s still technically our client and he’s got one of the old insurance policies, which means we pay if we can’t protect. Hopefully we can wade through the shit and figure it out. Come on, you should meet him, get a feel for his rating on the dickhead scale.”

I followed O’Malley inside and wondered how any man, much less a married one, thought he could shag a girl after a date here. The waitress was Caucasian, in her early twenties, and wore a practiced pout. The bloke I assumed was Quimby sat at a table in the corner, scrolling manically through his phone. He was probably about my age, also Caucasian, and handsome enough to make up for being short in a tall man’s world. His date had looked to be over six feet tall, and this bloke didn’t seem like he had the confidence to pull that off. A mystery to ponder some other time, perhaps.

We approached the table, and Quimby looked up with a wide-eyed expression that had shades of panic in it. His quick glance dismissed me and landed on O’Malley. 

“It’s gone!” He sounded as though someone had his stones in a vice.

O’Malley didn’t say a word, just arched an eyebrow and waited. A good tactic, and one I’d used often during my tenure with the Royal MPs. I wondered idly if he’d ever been with the police.

Quimby nearly shrieked. “My money! It’s gone!”

The waitress looked over at us from the salt shakers she was refilling, and I gave her an easy smile. She looked away quickly and went back into the kitchen.

“Calm down, Mr. Quimby,” said O’Malley as he pulled out his phone. “Why don’t you tell Mr. Eze the details while I get our tech person on the line.” O’Malley pronounced my name with the proper “Ayzay” inflection that told me he had a good ear for language.

Quimby continued talking to him as though I wasn’t in the room. It was a standard attempt to establish hierarchy that I routinely ignored. “I have an account at National. It’s been emptied,” he said.

“How much is missing, Mr. Quimby?” I asked. 

He seemed startled by my accent, then glared and spoke to O’Malley again. “There was a million dollars in that account!”

O’Malley turned his back and walked away a few steps to speak on the phone. I knew he was doing it on purpose, and it seemed to infuriate Quimby.

“So, how much is actually missing?” My voice was deep, and I usually spoke quietly enough that people had to lean closer to hear me – a useful tool for gathering information about everything from unfortunate personal hygiene to lipstick or blood splatter on a collar.

Quimby glared at me. “Who are you?”

“Gabriel Eze with Cipher Security.”

“I don’t know you. I’m going to wait until he’s off the phone so I don’t have to repeat myself.”

I shrugged. “As you wish.”

I adopted an at-ease posture and studied the table Quimby had shared with … someone. I had no proof it was the lovely bird, but it was she I pictured sitting across from him. A barely-touched glass of sparkling water with a wedge of lime sat in a small puddle of ice-sweat on the table. She’d had at least one sip, but the sides of the glass were wet enough to make fingerprints unusable. She wore some sort of lip balm rather than lipstick, which, for some reason, made me think of pretty young girls and athletes instead of mistresses.

The chair had been pushed a significant distance back from the table, as though a tall person had been seated there. I studied the chair-back and saw a few strands of long brown hair caught in a crack in the wood. Again, totally circumstantial – the hair could have been there for months – but the bird outside was a brunette, with thick hair she’d worn down past her shoulders. I pictured it up in a sloppy ponytail, or long and loose, spread across a pillow, and I had to shake myself sharply to concentrate on Quimby again.

Why him? Why would she choose him? Unless …

“May I see your phone, Mr. Quimby?” I asked just as O’Malley returned to the table.

“I’m not giving you my phone!” he spat. 

“Give him the fucking phone, Quimby. We have to talk.” O’Malley sounded tired and disgusted, which was no mean feat for a man whom, despite his colorful vocabulary, I’d only ever seen behave like a professional. 

O’Malley’s tone startled Quimby, and he shoved the phone across the table at me through puddles left behind by wet glasses. I didn’t pick it up. It would be a cold day in hell before I wiped the water off on a tailored suit.

The phone was unlocked and on the home screen, so I navigated to the call icon. The screen opened to a blank contact containing a phone number but no name. I memorized the number and then searched the recent call list. There were three missed calls from “home,” then about ten minutes after the last one, O’Malley’s call. I took a screenshot of his call list, air-dropped it to myself, and then navigated back to the home screen and slid the phone back across the table.

O’Malley was just barely keeping his temper in check, if the jaw muscle flexing with every clench of his teeth was any indication. “Exactly how much is left in the account that you claim no one knew about?”

Quimby’s voice was back up to glass-shattering levels. “Five hundred thou.”

I started chuckling as I dialed the number I’d memorized from his contact list. “Half,” I said under my breath.

“You think it’s funny to have half a mil stolen from an account I worked damn hard to fill, Easy?” Quimby squeaked angrily. Calling me Easy rather than correctly pronouncing Eze with long “a” sounds was another tactic I’d come to expect from men with dominance issues. I also noted that he said fill, not earn, but I ignored him as the ringing phone in my ear was picked up by an answering machine.

“You’ve reached Cheatham and Howe, the divorce and bankruptcy specialists of the greater Chicago area. Please leave a message—”

I hung up and my chuckle turned into full-on laughter as I jerked my head at O’Malley, indicating we should leave.

“We’ll be in touch, Quimby,” he said to the cocky bastard as he followed me out of the restaurant.

“What’s so funny?” O’Malley asked as I climbed behind the wheel of the SUV.

“It was the wife, and she must have used the girlfriend to do it.” I told him about the phone number, the wife’s calls, and the fact that exactly half of the money was gone.

O’Malley looked impressed by my assessment, and he chuckled as I drove away from the curb. “Serves him fucking right for bangin’ someone else’s bongo.”

Chapter Three

** Shane **

“Pay attention to how he treats waiters and animals. How he treats waiters is how he’ll eventually treat you. How he treats animals is the way he’ll treat your kids.” – Shane, P.I.

Oscar was the world’s most dominant dog. I inherited the Bernese mountain dog from my neighbor in L.A. who couldn’t train him because the dog believed he was the boss of her. Oscar and I had settled on a fairly comfortable roommate situation, rather than master/beast, and sharing my apartment with him had made me a much better housekeeper – and shot – than I used to be. It was either hit the laundry basket with the socks and underwear every time, or find them in his poop the next day.

He greeted me with his usual dangerous exuberance, and I braced myself for impact as all one hundred pounds of him leapt straight up in the air like a bouncy puppy. I pushed past him to drop my keys and phone in the kitchen, then made my way to the bedroom to pull off my boots, jeans, and leg. Oscar waited until I flung myself back on the pillow before he jumped up, licked my face, then stretched out next to me for properly worshipful scratches.

I hadn’t been able to shut my brain off since I left the restaurant. Cipher Security had called Dane exactly three minutes after I’d transferred the money out of his account, and they were at the restaurant five minutes later. That was scary effectiveness.

I sat up and pulled my laptop off the nightstand. I did my work in bed, mostly because it was easier for Oscar to sit next to me there, and the bulk of it was internet research anyway. Cipher Security Systems had a simple, straightforward website, which wasn’t a surprise. They specialized in designing custom security systems for financial institutions, universities, hospitals, and any large corporation with significant assets. It seemed to me that Dane’s mid-sized internet advertising company was on the small side of Cipher’s business model.

There were no photos of Cipher employees – also not a surprise – so there was no way to confirm that the guy I couldn’t stop thinking about actually worked there. There was, however, a photo of Cipher’s owner, Quinn Sullivan, standing next to a dangerous-looking guy with neck tattoos who looked familiar. Since a very simple search on their part would show that the time of the bank transfer coincided with my “date” with Dane Quimby, I thought I should know who I might be up against.

Cipher had several mentions in the news, but all of the articles just confirmed what I already knew – I didn’t want them on my tail.

I disabled the internal wireless router on the laptop, then plugged in the external hard drive on which I kept my client files. I would admit to having a high degree of paranoia, but I knew what kind of unauthorized entries and data extractions I could affect, and my hacking skills were fair-to-middling at best. 

I extracted the Quimby file from the external drive, then made my private notes about the encounter with Dane. I pulled Dane’s Notes file off my phone via thumb drive and added it to the Quimby file, scrolling through quickly to see if there were any other financial sources that his wife might not know about.

Mostly, the notes contained numbers – gym memberships, airline miles clubs, pin codes, passwords, his passport number, and, I kid you not, his mother’s maiden name. I was honestly shocked that he had any money left at all. 

I shrugged, and Oscar grunted at the disturbance of his very important nap. I absently scratched his belly as I navigated to the Denise Quimby billing sheet, added the hour and forty minutes door-to-door that my rendezvous with Dane had taken, subtracted ten minutes for the sake of the round number, and created her final invoice, minus her deposit, payable by check to S. HANE Information Services. I then saved the invoice in my billing file, moved the case file back onto the password protected external drive, disconnected that, and then reconnected the laptop’s wireless router so I could e-mail Denise Quimby her final bill.

Shane wasn’t actually my real name any more than Sophie, but it was what everyone called me. Not that everyone was a lot of people, or more than ten actually, not counting clients. My list of friends could safely be counted on two hands and did not, for example, include the Vietnamese food delivery boy, who knew me as Miss Hane, or the Armenian family who ran the market and deli where I shopped every other day.

Shane was who I’d been since I left home. It wasn’t on my high school diploma, my college transcripts, my passport, or my P.I. license, but it was who I’d chosen to be. I wasn’t searchable, identifiable, or easily found as Shane, so when I answered to it, the person asking was always someone I trusted. 

I shifted Oscar off my thigh, and he grumbled but cracked an eyelid open to watch me. I hopped across to the dresser and grabbed a pair of tights that I’d modified for my prosthetic leg, and by modified I meant cut off. They fit just over the silicone liner that rolled onto my residual limb like a giant condom and attached to the leg socket with a pin locking mechanism. The modified cheetah leg I wore for running was one of my favorite prosthetics, not counting the fake nose I sometimes used when I needed a disguise for work.

A black hoodie went on over my head, and I laced up my left running shoe. Once a year I sent a box of right men’s size nines to Wounded Warrior Project, and last year I got a letter back from a twenty-year-old kid thanking me for the great shoe. It inspired him to try running again, he said, which made me smile for a whole month.

Oscar’s head had perked up when he saw the cheetah leg, but the shoe going on was his cue to race me to the door.

I liked to run by the lake after dark, the closer to midnight the better. Street traffic had slowed to almost nothing by that point, and even the homeless were mostly asleep. I stuck to bike paths for the smooth surface, and wasn’t worried about things that went bump in the night because physical therapy had made me strong and fast, and because Oscar was a deterrent for most predators. To me, a five-mile run by streetlight was like releasing the steam from a pressure cooker. It was always the most peaceful part of my day.

The early spring night was clear, and a breeze came in off the lake. I went south on the Lakefront Trail toward Waveland Park, and I let the wind push me into a nearly six-minute-mile pace. Oscar kept up with me easily enough, and we both reveled in the feeling of flying down the paved trail.

I spent the first mile clearing my head of noise – not so hard to do at nearly midnight on a Tuesday. I listened to the step-slap of my running shoe and the blade of my cheetah leg, heard my breath punctuate Oscar’s panting, and was dimly aware of the distant sound of nighttime traffic. When the scope of my world had narrowed to the sounds in it, I expanded it to include the shapes of trees, of streetlights, and in the distance, the skyscrapers of the Loop. Anything that moved caught my attention – car headlights on Lake Shore Drive, a rabbit scampering away from the sounds of the dog, and in the distance, down the trail, someone on a bicycle heading toward me.

I saw midnight cyclists occasionally, but they were rare, and I tightened my grip on Oscar’s leash. Bicycles and skateboards were approximately as welcome in his world as lice and misogynists were in mine.

This offender was a racing bike, with the clip-in pedal system that always made me slightly tense when I imagined stoplights and pedestrians. The rider had no headlamp or light of any kind, just a few strips of reflective tape on the forks of the bike. To be fair, I was dressed in head-to-toe black too, but I was attached to an unmistakably large black and white dog, and there was enough silver on my cheetah leg to catch headlights as needed.

When our encounter became inevitable, I hugged the far right of the path to keep Oscar’s lunge out of range. I should have stopped and pulled him off the path entirely, but I was at mile three and had just hit the sweet spot in my run. It was a perfect storm – I hit a hole in the grass with my blade and stumbled, which loosened my grip on the leash just as Oscar lunged to demand that the bike yield to his superior size. He traveled farther than he meant to, and the cyclist swerved to avoid the impact of a hundred pounds of indignant dog. And, because the cyclist’s feet were clipped into those damn racing pedals, he couldn’t drop them for balance and had nowhere to go but down.

So down he went in a spectacular crash of man over handlebars and bicycle over man. His feet did finally unclip from the pedals somewhere in the cartwheel of man and machine, but it was a brutal thing to witness, and a giant cavern of dread took up residence in my chest.

I yanked hard on Oscar’s leash and barked at him, “STAY!” The rider was curled on one side, facing away from me, and the bike had landed a few yards beyond him. One wheel was bent and the other was spinning like a bad cartoon.

“Are you okay?” I gasped as I knelt beside him and put a hand out to his shoulder. He was wearing a helmet, thank God, but in the dark I couldn’t tell where his black clothes ended and blood might begin.

The guy moved slowly, tentatively, as though testing for pain before straightening his joints. It took a few agonizing seconds before he finally rolled onto his back.

“Oh!” I stumbled backward, lost my balance, and my butt hit the ground. Oscar came to my side immediately, giving the vanquished bicycle a wide berth. I grabbed his leash before he could investigate the man on the ground, as I attempted to regain coherent thought.

The man I’d just caused bodily harm to was the possible Cipher Security agent from outside the restaurant where I’d had my “date” with Dane Quimby. He would undoubtedly recognize me – unless he was concussed and/or would die without speaking.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he growled in a deep voice laced with a British accent I could’ve listened to for days. I guessed a mute death had been too much to hope for. That he recognized me was oddly comforting, because maybe he’d been thinking about me like I’d been thinking about him, but it wasn’t good, particularly as my prosthetic leg was currently parked about three feet from his face, making me far too identifiable for someone with a reason to find me.

“Causing you injury, clearly.” There was too much sass in my tone for the circumstances, but he’d scared me, and I got defensive when I felt cornered. I took a breath and tried again. “Are you as badly hurt as you should be?”

“As I should be? You were trying to take me out?” His voice was too quiet for the depth of it, and even with the edge in his clipped accent, I wanted to lean in to catch his words. I shook myself out of the thrall.

“If I’d tried to take you out, you’d be in the lake.” I was proud of my matter-of-fact tone, even if I sounded like a twelve-year-old. I know you are, but what am I?

His eyes flashed dangerously, and I scooted backwards out of his reach. It was an automatic reaction to a perceived threat, but it drew his attention, and his gaze darted to my prosthetic leg.

“What happened?” he asked, probably before he could stop himself. Most people did that – asked reflexive questions without really wanting to know the actual story.

“Crushed in a thresher,” I answered automatically.

His eyebrows furrowed, and then his mouth twitched as if he were trying not to smile. Who smiled at an amputation story? Granted, it wasn’t my story, but still – who smiled at that?

“Right. Well …” He pulled himself to a sitting position, wincing as he did. “We’ll see if I need one of those after this.” He winced again and held his breath as he tried, and failed, to stand.

“Hang on,” I said, scrambling to my feet. I held out a hand and braced myself. 

He hesitated too long before he reached for my hand, and I was oddly insulted. Because I was female? Or white? Or “disabled?” Why hesitate to accept my help?

When he did finally take my hand, I had to resist the urge to snatch it away again. His hand was too big, too warm, too male, just … too. I pulled harder than I needed to, and he rose easily, if a little gingerly, to his feet.

He let go of me the moment he was upright, and I automatically wiped my palm on my tights to erase the memory of too much. It didn’t work, except that he noticed, and the line of his mouth tightened. Was it from pain, or did he imagine I wouldn’t want his touch?

I almost reached for him again, but then I stepped back and nearly stumbled over Oscar, who had completed the grass-sniffing task on his to-do list and sat down behind me. “Oscar was protecting me from your bike,” I said inanely.

The man picked his bicycle up off the path. “How noble of him.” There was a bite of well-deserved sarcasm in his tone, and I clamped a metaphorical hand over my mouth to keep from answering in kind.

He was moving slowly, but I was amazed he moved at all. “What hurts?” I asked.

“My pride. Everything else will hurt tomorrow.” He hefted the bike to his shoulder and started to walk south. He went about ten steps, then stopped and looked back at me.

“Are you coming?”

I stared at him. “What? Why?”

“So you can tell me about Dane Quimby.” His voice had dropped so far down in volume I almost jogged up to him just to make sure I didn’t miss any words. I resisted, but just barely.

“I don’t know a Dane Quimby.” I resorted to belligerence to cover up the feeling of being cornered again.

His eyes narrowed, and he studied me with a full up-and-down gaze that made my heart beat faster and my palms sweat. I rubbed my right hand absently against my tights, which brought his gaze back to my cheetah leg.

“He didn’t know about the leg, did he?” His voice thrummed deeply, and I felt it in my chest.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I did know, I just couldn’t admit to any of it, because once I did, I’d admit all of it.

“Quimby’s too shallow. Even a stunner like you couldn’t get past his idea of perfection with that.”

I couldn’t decide whether I should be insulted or flattered, so I was both – and neither. And I waited. Even Oscar stood silently at my side while I debated my next move.

He didn’t seem to need an answer and nodded to himself as he spoke out loud. “You’re also too tall for him, so you didn’t meet him in person. A blind date? Unlikely. Quimby doesn’t do blind. Online, then. That’s it. You found him, made him think you were his type so he’d meet you, and then you got in and moved his money.” 

I felt my insides flutter in an idiotic reaction to his deductive skills, and I crossed my arms in front of me like the tough girl I definitely wasn’t feeling. “You done?” I cocked my head at him and hoped I sounded more confident than I felt.

He smiled, and the fluttering intensified, sending tendrils of heat to my skin. “Not nearly. You?”

I arched an eyebrow at him. It was a move I’d perfected as part of my intimidation repertoire. My thirteen-year-old self had practiced in a mirror until disdain oozed from my eyes when the eyebrow went up. I wondered whether it was as effective without the disdain, since I couldn’t seem to muster any for this man.

“Maybe.” I had no idea what I was equivocating about, but he wasn’t going to win this … whatever it was.

“With Quimby?”

I shuddered involuntarily. “Definitely.”

His smile got bigger and held the glint of something … appreciative? “See you around, then.” He turned and continued walking down the path, the wrecked bicycle on his shoulder as if it weighed nothing.

See me around? How? He didn’t know my name, didn’t know anything about me. Chicago was a big city. How in the hell did he think he was going to see me around?

I watched him for another ten steps, half-expecting him to turn back and speak to me again.

He didn’t, and I was absurdly disappointed.

** END SNEAK PEEK **

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