Heights. Damn it, why does it have to be heights?
Diego Escobar scanned the steel beams of the unfinished skyscraper against a gray morning sky, and acid seared his stomach.
Heights had never bothered him until two years ago, when five meth-heads had hung him over the penthouse balcony of a thirty-story hotel and threatened to drop him. His partner, Jobe, a damn good cop, had put his weapon on the balcony floor and raised his hands to save Diego's life. The men had pulled Diego to safety and then casually shot them both. Diego had survived; Jobe hadn't.
Diego's rage and grief had manifested into an obsessive fear of heights. Now, going up even three floors in a glass elevator could give him cold sweats.
?Way the hell up there?" he asked Rogers, the uniform cop.
?Hooper's pretty sure it's not human," Rogers said. ?He says it moves too fast, jumps too far. But he hasn't got a visual yet."
Not human meant Shifter. This was getting better and better. ?Hooper's up there alone?"
?Jemez is with him. They think they have the Shifter cornered on the fifty-first level."
The fifty-first level? ?Tell me you're fucking kidding me."
?No, sir. There's an elevator. We got the electric company to turn on the power."
Diego looked at the rusty doors Rogers indicated, then up, up, and up through the grid of beams into empty space. He could see nothing but the gray dawn sky between the crisscross of girders. His mouth went dry.
This cluster of buildings in the middle of nowhere?which was to have been an apartment complex, hotel, office tower, and shopping center?had been under construction for years. The project had started to great fanfare, designed to draw tourists and locals away from the heavily trafficked Strip. But construction slowed, and so many investors pulled out that building had ground to a halt. Now the unfinished skyscraper sat like a rusting blot on the empty desert.
Tracking Shifters wasn't Diego's department. Diego was a detective in vice. He'd responded to the call for help with a trespasser because he'd been heading to work and his route took him right by the construction site. Diego figured he'd help Rogers chase down the miscreant and drive on in.
Now Rogers wanted Diego to jaunt to the fifty-first level, where there weren't any floors, for crying out loud, and chase a suspect who might be a Shifter. Shifters were dangerous?people who could become animals. Or, maybe animals who became people. The jury was still out. In any case, they'd been classified as too dangerous to live with humans, rounded up into Shiftertowns, and made to wear Collars that regulated their violent tendencies.
Diego had heard that regular guns didn't always bring them down, Shifters having amazing metabolisms. Shifter Division used tranquilizers when they needed to shoot a Shifter, but Diego was fresh out of those. Rogers, rotund and near retirement, watched Diego with a bland expression, making it clear he had no intention of going up after the Shifter himself.
A high-pitched scream rang down from on high. It was a woman's scream?Maria Jemez?followed by a man's bellow of surprise and pain. Then, silence.
?Damn it." Diego ran for the elevator. ?Stay down here, call Shifter Division, and get more backup. Tell them to bring tranqs." He got into the lift and shut the doors, blocking out Rogers' ?Yes, sir."
The lift clanked its way up through the few completed finished floors, then onto floors that were nothing but open beams and catwalks. The elevator was an open cage, so Diego got to watch the ground and Rogers recede, far too rapidly.
Fifty-first level. Damn.
Diego had been chasing criminals through towering hotels for years without thinking a thing about it. He and the sheriff's department even had followed one idiot high up onto a cable tower two hundred feet above Hoover Dam five years ago, and Diego hadn't even flinched.
A bunch of cop-hating meth dealers hang him over a balcony, and he goes to pieces.
It stops now. This is where I get my own back.
Diego rolled back the gate on the fifty-first level. The sun was rising, the mountains west of town bathed in pink and orange splendor. The Las Vegas valley was a beautiful place, its stark white desert contrasting with the mountains that rose in a knifelike wall on the horizon. Visitors down in the city kept their eyes on the gaming tables and slot machines, uncaring of what went on outside the casinos, but the beauty of the valley always tugged at Diego.
Diego drew his Sig and stepped off the lift into eerie silence. Something flitted in his peripheral vision, something that moved too lightly to be Hooper, who was a big, muscular guy who liked big, muscular guns. Diego aimed, but the movement vanished.
He stepped softly across the board catwalk, moving into the deeper shadow of a beam. The catwalk groaned under his feet. There were no lights up here, just the faint flush of morning and the glow from the work lights down on the ground that the power company had turned on.
Diego saw the movement again to his left, and then, damned if he didn't see a similar flit to his right.
Son of a bitch?two of them?
A sound like the cross between a pop and a kiss came from down the catwalk the instant before something pinged above Diego's head. Diego hit the floor instinctively, trying not to panic as his feet slid over the catwalk's edge.
His heart pounded triple-time, his throat so dry it closed up tight.
What the hell was he doing? He should have confessed his secret fear of heights, gone to psychiatric evaluation, stayed behind a desk. But no, he'd been too determined to keep his job, too determined to beat it himself, too embarrassed to admit the weakness. Now he was endangering others because of his stupid fear.
Shut up and think.
Whatever had pinged hadn't been a bullet. Too soft. Diego got his feet back onto the catwalk and crawled to find what had fallen to the boards. A dart, he saw, the kind shot by a tranquilizer gun.
Uniforms didn't carry tranqs, and Shifter Division hadn't showed up yet. That meant that one of the Shifters he was chasing up here had a tranquilizer gun. Perfect. Put the nice cop to sleep, and then do anything you want with him, including pushing his body over the edge.
Diego moved in a crouch across the catwalk to the next set of shadows. The sun streaked across the valley to Mount Charleston in the west, light radiant on its snow-covered crown. More snow was predicted up there for the weekend. Diego had contemplated driving up on Saturday night to sip hot toddies in a snowbound cabin, maybe with something warm and female by his side.
On the other side of the next beam, Diego found Bud Hooper and Maria Jemez. Maria was fairly new, just out of the academy, too baby-faced to be up here chasing crazy Shifters. The two cops were slumped together in a heap, still warm, breathing slowly.
Diego heard footsteps, running fast?too fast to be human. He swung around as a shadow detached itself from the catwalk in front of him and rose in a graceful leap to the next level.
Diego stared, open-mouthed. The thing wasn't human?it had the long limbs of a cat, but its face was half human, like a cross between human and animal. Did Shifters look like that? He'd thought they were either animal or human, but as he watched, gun ready, he realized he was seeing one in midshift.
The Shifter landed on open beams on the next floor up, then its shape flowed, as it ran, into the lithe form of a big cat. Morning sunlight caught on white fur and the flash of green eyes. Snow leopard? It sprinted along the beam, never losing its balance, and vanished back into the shadows.
Diego heard a step behind him. He whipped around in time to see the flash of a rifle barrel in the sunlight, aiming directly for him. He heard the pop as his reflexes made him dive for the floor.
He came up on his elbows to return fire, but there was nothing to aim at. Whoever had the tranq rifle had vanished back into the shadows.
All was silence. Nothing but rising wind humming through the building.
Diego reassessed his situation. He had a Shifter running around up here, plus one asshole with a tranquilizer gun. Someone hunting a Shifter? Could be. The laws about humans hunting un-Collared Shifters?those Shifters who had refused to take the Collar and live in Shiftertowns?had loosened in the last couple years.
But this Shifter hunter had pegged Jemez and Hooper with tranqs, and was trying to shoot Diego too. Why, if the guy was hunting the Shifter legally?
Another pop had him rolling out of the way just before a dart struck the catwalk where Diego's head had been.
As he scrambled up again, the catwalk, loosened and dry-rotted from years under the desert sun, slid out from under his feet. Diego lunged at the nearest steel beam, the metal burning his skin as he tried and failed to grab it.
The catwalk's boards splintered and came away from the bolts. Diego's heart jammed in his throat as his body dropped. Splinters rained past him. At the last desperate moment, he got one arm hooked around a girder, and he hung there, stuck like a bug fifty-one stories up.
Son of a fucking?
He couldn't swing his feet around to get them back on the girder. His arm shook hard. He realized he still held his Sig in his other hand, but for some reason, he could not make himself open his fingers and let it go.
His arm was aching, and he was slipping. He was going to fall. Five hundred feet to the ground. Why the hell hadn't he asked to be put on desk duty?
Diego tried to swing his feet up again, but he missed the girder. The jolt of his feet swinging back down nearly jarred him loose. That's it, his hold was going.Damn it, damn it, damn it . . .
Two strong hands caught Diego under his shoulders; two very strong arms dragged him up and up, stomach grating on the beam, and onto the catwalk. Diego lay there, on his stomach, on the relative solidity of a catwalk, drawing long, shuddering breaths.
When he could, he rolled onto his back, and found himself looking up into the white green eyes and ferocious face of the Shifter, again in its half-shifted state. A female Shifter, from the hint of breasts under the fur and from the sheer, strange beauty of her. She had a wildcat's face, and the morning light glinted on silver links of a chain around her neck.
Before Diego could find his voice, the Shifter spun away in another gravity-defying leap. She landed on all fours, flowing back into the shape of a snow leopard. Diego sat up and watched her, stunned by the beauty of the long, powerful animal running with inhuman grace fifty stories above the ground.
Another pop of the tranq gun had him on the floor on his stomach again, this catwalk staying in place. Diego raised his head, finger on his trigger. He heard a snarl, the leopard's angry growl, and then running feet, both human and animal.
Diego pointed the gun through the dark, but he could see nothing. The rising sun showed that he was on this floor alone, though the footsteps continued above him. Lights approached on the road below, Shifter Division finally arriving, bringing a couple patrol cars and an SUV.
A blinding flash lit up the floor above him. Diego squinted through the spaces in the catwalks, aiming, but the light vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The running ceased, and all was silent except for the patrol cars' sirens wailing below.
Diego lowered his Sig and was about to sit up when two feet landed on the catwalk in front of his face.
Two human feet, female feet, naked feet. Diego lifted his head to find two strong female legs, skin tanned from the desert sun, right in front of him. He looked up those legs to two strong thighs, with an enticing thatch of dark blond between them.
Diego forced his gaze to continue upward, over her flat stomach with a small gold stud in her navel to firm human breasts tipped with dusky nipples. He made his gaze move past them?though he knew he'd dream about them for a long time coming?to be rewarded by a breathtaking face.
The Shifter woman's face was strong but contained the softness of beauty. Her eyes were light green, a shimmer of jade in the darkness. Sleek, pale hair fell past her shoulders, and a chain with a Celtic cross fused to it glinted around her slender throat.
Damn. And damn.
She was definitely all woman, not in any in-between state now. Diego had never seen a female Shifter before. His cases had never taken him to Shiftertown, which lay north of North Las Vegas, and he'd only ever seen the male Shiftertown leader, Eric Warden. He'd had no idea that their females were this tall or this crazy gorgeous.
Her breasts rose with her even breath, and she expressed no embarrassment at her nakedness, didn't even seem to notice it. ?He's gone," she said. ?You all right?"
?Alive," Diego croaked. He dragged himself to his feet, trying not to look at her delectable body or to imagine what that smooth, tanned skin would feel like under his hands. ?Where'd he go? The guy with the tranq gun?"
?I don't know." The answer seemed to trouble her. The man hadn't fallen, the lift wasn't moving, and no one below was chasing him.
?At least I've got one of you," Diego said.
?Wha??" She stared at him, stunned, then her light-colored eyes flicked to the beams above, calculated the distance. Diego brought up his pistol.
?Don't try it, sweetheart. Get face down on the floor, hands behind your back."
?Why? I just saved your ass."
?You're trespassing on private property, that's why, and I have two cops down. On the floor."
He gestured with the gun. The Shifter woman drew an enraged breath, eyes flashing almost pure white. For a moment, Diego thought she'd leap at him, maybe change into the wildcat or half Shifter and try to shred him. He'd have to plug her, and he really didn't want to. It would be a shame to kill something so beautiful.
The Shifter woman let out her breath, gave him an angry glare, and then carefully lowered herself face down on the catwalk. Diego unclipped his handcuffs.
?What's your name?" Diego asked.
Her jaw tightened. ?Cassidy."
?Nice to meet you, Cassidy," Diego said. ?You have the right to remain silent." He droned on through Miranda as he closed the handcuffs on her perfect wrists. The Shifter woman lay still and radiated rage.
Diego's hands were shaking by the time he finished. But that had less to do with his fear of heights than with the tall, beautiful naked woman on the floor in front of him, hands locked together on her sweet, tight ass. The best ass he'd ever seen in his life. He wanted nothing more than to stay up here and lick that beautiful backside, and maybe apply his tongue to the rest of her body.
Diego broke into a sweat, despite the cool wind wafting from below, and made himself haul her to her feet. The Shifter woman's look was still defiant, but he couldn't help himself imagining crushing her against him to kiss that wide, enticing mouth.
Diego made himself steer her to the lift.
Not until they were rapidly descending did Diego realize that since Cassidy in her human form had come into his view, he'd not once thought about how far he might have fallen had she not caught him, and the spectacular splat he'd have made when he hit the ground.