A blood-curdling scream split the stale air like an icy breeze and Calder McKenna rolled into a crouch, his hands groping for a weapon as his eyes searched the dark void. The panic was palpable, choking him, robbing him of his focus as he stumbled and fell to the hard ground.
When his fingers clutched the soft carpeting beneath him, he gasped and jolted fully awake, the hammering of his heart the only sound that greeted him there.
The scream had been his own.
Dropping onto his back, he ran fingers through his dark, wet hair and swallowed hard.
Disturbing dreams about the war plagued him regularly, but they seemed to be getting worse.
“Fuck me,” he said, kicking out his legs, trying to untangle them from the discarded clothing thrown there the night before.
He reached out and thumbed a button on the bedside table, breathing shallowly until the darkened windows cleared and the morning sunlight poured in, giving light to the bleakness that surrounded him.
This had to stop.
How many more nights would he relive the horror of his past before his mind would allow him to rest? As if living with the guilt wasn’t enough of a penance, the visceral dreams robbed him of his sanity. Not a moment went by when sparks of memories didn’t shock him awake or catch him off guard.
Admittedly, he was still alive to relive this horror, but there were days he considered the peace he would have found if he were killed during the battle that took his friends and colleagues from him. A battle that he could have turned another way if he had made different choices. Smarter choices.
These nightmares were his deserved punishment.
Sitting up and coming to his knees, he threw his arms onto his bed and pressed his face into the sweat-soaked sheets. He let out a long breath as he tried to clear his head, but it was no use. The sudden, sharp peal of his doorbell cut through him, and he jerked in surprise.
Rolling his head to the side, he lifted his arm and squinted at it. The numbers glowing faintly beneath the skin of his wrist told him it was only eight in the morning.
Who the fuck would bother him so early, and on his day off?
Calder groaned into his mattress and pushed himself to his feet grudgingly. He stooped to grab a pair of shorts off the floor and kicked his legs into the waistband, quickly pulling them into place around his hips.
Cracking his neck and back, he made his way out of the bedroom and across the sparsely furnished living room. Upon arriving in his small foyer, he waved at the screen on the wall next to the kitchen and it hummed to life, giving a murky view of the area outside his door.
No one there.
What the fuck?
Maybe he’d only dreamed he heard the doorbell? Wouldn’t be the first time. Or the last.
Dropping his chin to his chest, he blew out a long breath and shook his head.
This was not going to be a good day.
Passing through the galley kitchen, he grabbed a container of juice from the fridge. Drinking it straight, he made his way to the bathroom on autopilot, as he did most mornings. He tossed the empty container into the recycling port in the hall and swiped a few buttons next to the shower as he kicked off his shorts.
“Optimal temperature, one hundred and twenty degrees,” a disembodied female voice stated, and the plexi door rolled aside at his proximity. Stepping in, he let the hot water hit his body full on. Palms against the wet wall, he leaned forward and stretched his neck, letting the water soothe him. Everything in his body was tight, rigid. He needed to relax.
Turning, he sat on the inset bench and leaned his elbows onto his knees, allowing the water to wash his hair forward over his face. And he breathed in the hot, wet air. For a moment, he was lost in the sensation.
“Incoming call from Sierra Mason,” the voice articulated through his wet haze. His partner--and this was very early for her.
He cringed for a moment, praying that it wasn’t a call canceling his day off. Wouldn’t be the first time for that either. The precinct always seemed to get chaotic without him there.
“I’ll take it,” he said, and after a pause, he leaned back and flipped the hair off his face. “Hey, Mason, what’s going on?”
“Just checking in, making sure you’re not going batshit crazy.”
“It’s eight in the morning. I haven’t even had a chance to wake up yet. I figured I’d have at least four more hours before I heard from you. Why you up so early?”
She chuckled, and the infectious sound of it brought a smile to his face.
“Couldn’t sleep,” she said, her voice suddenly flat.
Calder smirked, not missing the irony of her words.
“Welcome to my world. Is something wrong?”
“No, just couldn’t sleep. I hate when that happens on my day off.”
“Yeah, me too,” he said sardonically, then filled his mouth with water and spat it out, repeating the action several times until his teeth didn’t feel nasty anymore. “Any plans for today?”
“Well, I don’t want to see your ugly face, that’s for sure,” she said.
This time, he chuckled.
Theirs was definitely a love-hate relationship, but the hate was only a mockery of the closeness they’ve come to share over the years. It hadn’t escaped him how she became sarcastic when any hint of connection between them was made. It was like a nervous tic she had around him.
“It wasn’t an invitation. Just curious,” he said, leaning his head back against the wall.
“Not sure yet. I may go in to Branson to pick up some new gear, see what’s new on the market.”
Branson, one of his favorite places in NE1. Filled with great, old tech shops and street hawkers who could get you a twenty-year-old comm board brand new, still shrink-wrapped in the box.
“Business or pleasure?”
“Can’t it be both?” she asked. He heard a distinct evil smile in her voice.
“That’s your call,” he returned, then stood and began washing. “Did you see the write-up on the new AD452?”
“The super pulse? Yeah, that shit’s wicked. We need to get our hands on one and try it out.”
“Already did.” He grinned widely and blew into the water as it sprayed his face, envisioning the sleek black weapon in her hands. The thought did more than arouse him, and he balked at the stir it caused, sending jolts of heat to his groin. Stepping out of the spray momentarily, he wiped his face in his hand and blew out a stunned breath.
“Bastard--you weren’t going to share?” she nearly shrieked, and, shaking off his obvious arousal, he stepped back into the spray.
“Hey, you said you didn’t want to see me. That was your choice,” Calder said with some snark to his tone, but the edgy pulse running through him made it sound angrier than intended.
Mason was quiet for a moment, and he leaned out of the spray once more and wiped the water from his eyes.
“Mason, I’m kidding.”
“Fucker.” She wasn’t pissed; he could hear her grinning. It was something she did easily around him, and it warmed him to think he did that to her. After mornings like this, hearing her smile was heaven. A beacon of light in a rather dismal day. He needed it to get through the haze.
“Why don’t we meet at the range in an hour? We can get a drink at Shelby’s later.”
“Sounds like a plan,” she said. “And I’m in the mood for some sliders. Care to get lunch?”
She had a healthy appetite, to be sure. She could usually eat him under the table at a burger joint, which was no easy feat. Thinking about a greasy burger this early in the morning, though--not a good idea. It was starting to curdle the juice that currently filled that void.
“We can talk food later when I’m actually awake enough to defend my choices.”
“Fine by me. See you in an hour, then.”
“Yup. See you out there,” he said, and stepped back into the spray when he heard the call disconnect. But the hot relaxation of the water did nothing to get her out of his mind. One minute he was thinking about what he needed to do that afternoon before he met her, the next, he was seeing her in his head, her BDUs hugging her firm ass and her wet black t-shirt molding her tits.
Christ, he needed to get laid.
The thought of rubbing one out in the shower, though a daily necessity, seemed crass in comparison.
What he wouldn’t give to sink into her, get lost in her.
She was small, maybe five foot four at best, but she was solid. Built like a gymnast, she was sleek, but firm and rounded in all the right places. And though it was her MO to wear her hair in a ponytail and cover her head with a ball cap or unit beret, he knew that without the hair tie, it would fall in long, glorious waves, skimming that tight ass of hers. And he could just imaging wrapping it in his fist while he gripped her hip and just plowed into her.
Yeah, he had no choice but to rub one out now. His cock was hard as a rock, staring up at him like he was a fucking idiot.
And he was.
Sierra was off-limits. Not because she was his partner, but because she was currently living with someone she said she loved, though he couldn’t see why.
He’d met Eric on a couple of occasions, and the guy was far from what he thought she would be into. He was beefy but not fit, not like her, and he seemed a bit domineering, which Calder could not fathom her dealing with well.
Sierra was, for all intents and purposes, an independent woman. She was more than capable of taking care of herself in any situation, and as his partner, he was glad of it because it meant they could both focus. Though lately when he was around her, his focus was a little lacking. Thank God she wore sweats and Kevlar jackets when they were on the clock, or he’d have a hard time dealing with her proximity.
Giving in to his libido, he dealt with his growing problem then stepped out of the shower a little weak-kneed, but relieved to get on with his day.
Making his way to the bedroom, he flung his towel so it landed in a pile with his other discarded clothing, and he headed into the closet to dress.
His usual attire was comfortable and functional. Black BDUs with lots of pockets and a plain-colored t-shirt. Uniform of his unit. That was it. Sleeve length depended entirely on the weather.
His tactical jacket was a last layer. It was well worn, one of the few things he had left from his time in the military. Made of a mid-weight black Kevlar and a layer of graphene, it was fairly bulletproof on its own without any additional armor. He never left the apartment without it.
Footwear always had him at an impasse. He saw the utility of the tactical boots the police force prescribed, but they were heavy and hot, and it wasn’t like people shot at his feet very often. He was a sneaker kind of guy anyway. Dark colors. Mid-top. Easy, comfortable, and well suited to his work, which had him running after street thugs pretty often. He had lighter pairs that were mesh and hi-tech polymers, but the leathers were what he chose most often. Comfort of use always won out.
Fully clothed, Calder turned to pick through his gear. Sonic guns, stunners, shock wands, and the typical restraints littered the low shelves. A less-educated man would think he was into some serious kink sorting through his gear, and he had to admit that a good weapon was a huge turn-on. Feeling that power in your hand. Knowing you could take someone down. Hot.
He ran his fingers over several of the weapons. Being off duty, he would load lightly. A C24 pulse gun and a Scorpion. That was all he would need.
The Scorpion was of the stinger class, lightweight with a custom grip and an output of a seventy five-milliamp burst. Enough to seriously fuck up your day if you were hit. The C24, which could amp to double that, would kill you. Dead stop.
He tucked them into the fitted pockets inside his jacket then stepped back into his bedroom and checked himself in the mirror to make sure everything was secure.
Running another hand through his dark hair, he smirked. He needed a haircut. Sierra would bitch about it.
Going back into his closet, he ducked beneath the hanging items and pulled out a black armored box and walked it to his bed, where he laid it down and popped open the locks.
The AD452 that Sierra was so interested in was a sonic pulse rifle with a multifunctional stock. And, as always, it had been customized to his liking. All his weapons and vehicles were. That was something he was very particular about.
At its lowest setting, the AD452 gave a ninety-amp burst, enough to make you forget your name for about a week. It could be easily cranked up to kill levels if needed, but it also had a powerburst option--a sonic blast that could knock you off your feet before you knew what hit you. It was a great tool during a chase when you just didn’t feel like running anymore.
Mid-sized and lightweight, it was quickly becoming his favorite weapon.
On top of the stun and kill mechanisms, it also had numerous dart and explosive capabilities. He had it set with synthetic curare darts that would drop a four-hundred-pound gorilla and paralyze everything but its mind. It would make interrogation a much simpler operation.
The thermal grenades spoke for themselves.
And, of course, the flame-thrower option.
That was extra.
He checked to make sure all the safeties were locked, and the stock was fully charged and loaded properly before placing it back into its case. He would have to sequence it at the range so Mason would be able to handle it.
All of his weapons and vehicles, as a matter of choice, were bio-locked to only work with his DNA. It was an expensive option, but one he was willing to pay for. No one played with his toys but him. Mason was the only exception.
He was looking forward to watching her handle the AD452, see if it would knock her on her ass while she fired it. She was a tough woman, but physics just weren’t in her favor with this one. He’d have to stand behind her and support her when she used it, and that thought had him readjusting his BDUs.
Checking his wrist, he balked. It was after nine and he needed to get going. No time for any self-manipulated relief.
“Security, I’m leaving,” he said as he made his way to the door.
“Have a great day, Calder,” the voice responded, and the door swung open for him.
He almost crushed the package that leaned against the doorway as he stepped out into the hall and bent to pick it up as the door shut and locked itself behind him.
It was a small padded envelope and had no return address. No markings whatsoever. He felt the package, squeezed it. Whatever was inside was small.
Poking his thumb into the corner of the envelope, he tore it open and poured the contents into his hand.
A single data stick. Generic.
He looked in the envelope, but it was empty. No note or packing slip.
“Open the door,” he said, and the door clicked and opened as he turned toward it.
Going back into his apartment, he tossed the envelope onto a side table and went into the living room. Waving the stick near a grid on the wall, he looked up at the large inset screen. Nothing. He tried to scan it into his home system again, but it wouldn’t upload.
What the hell?
He held the small stick up and looked at it more closely. There were no identification marks, no labels. Nothing. Just a generic black stick shaped like a tiny, blunted pencil.
He sat at the edge of his coffee table, leaned on his elbow, and pondered the small item in his palm.
He didn’t normally do this but using his own neural uplink to read it was the only other logical option. The processor had been installed while he was in service, a mandatory installation the special ops soldiers needed to covertly share and control documents during missions. It had been wet-wired into his brain, and the small titanium disc that lay beneath his skull behind his right ear added the ability to store and upload information at will from an external wireless source. The security was tight, and viruses had a hard time getting in, so the risk for him was minimal.
Letting out one last breath, he rolled the stick in his hand then tapped a few codes into the illuminated numbers on his wrist.
He felt the data stick pulse in his hand, and suddenly his mind was awash with excruciating color and sound.
He clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut against the intrusion of immediate pain that flashed through his body like molten silver.
His brain felt as if it caught fire.
Roaring, he clutched his head in his hands and dropped the stick, but whatever it had encapsulated had already uploaded into his neural systems.
Moments later he found himself sprawled on the floor, too weak to move. Every muscle in his body tensed, hardened, setting him rigidly against the floor, curling his fingers violently into the carpeting.
Holy fucking Christ!
Calder used every ounce of energy he had to open his eyes and turn himself over. It were as if he had been drugged and beaten repeatedly over his entire body. Every muscle throbbed. Every joint ached. He could not contain the moan that escaped his lips when he finally turned over and lay flat on his back. Convulsions coursed through his muscles and his back arched against the pain until he lay exhausted.
The room became blindingly, painfully bright. He patted himself down awkwardly until he found his shades in a breast pocket. Struggling to steady his hand to put them on, he used one last burst of energy to get them in place before letting his arm fall to the floor just as another convulsion hit him. Squinting his eyes open once more, he directed his shades to darken to an almost completely black level. The light was still painful, but bearable.
Clenching his teeth against the onslaught of spasms, he breathed heavily until his body finally relaxed and he panted, spit trickling down his chin.
The grid on his wrist blinked relentlessly. Whatever it was that he’d uploaded, it was certainly wreaking havoc with his internal systems.
He tried to uplink to his augment to see what was going on, but the feedback that reverberated through his skull nearly knocked him unconscious.
His thoughts scrambled.
Had someone tried to kill him? Had they found a way past his military security to bug his brain? Dear God, how do you even get something like that back out?