Diana Pharaoh Francis | Diana P. Francis | Diana Francis

Edge of Dreams

Edge of Dreams smallA Diamond City Magic Novel, Book 2
Belle Bridge Books (April 15, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1611945852
ISBN-13: 9781611945850

Paperback: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powells

eBook: Kindle | Nook | Google Play | Kobo | iBooks

Praise for Edge of Dreams:

“When we last saw tracer Riley Hollis, she had just been outed as a tracer of extraordinary talent, which means she now has a target on her back. For book two in her Diamond City Magic series, Pharaoh Francis wastes no time thrusting Riley into peril. Good pacing, a complex and layered plot and intriguing characters illustrate why the author delivers such amazing reads!”
—Romantic Times, Top Pick 4 1/2 stars review

Edge of Dreams is quick-paced, action-packed addition to the urban fantasy genre. It’s a great read for fans of Ilona Andrews, Jennifer Estep, and Kim Harrison.”
Vampire Book Club

“Edge of Dreams is a fast paced thrilling story with the perfect balance of romance and sexual tension”
Saints and Sinners

 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And a pound of flesh.

Magical tracking expert Riley Hollis is on a mission to save five teenagers lost inside a mountain. But nothing is what it seems, and soon Riley finds herself bruised, bloodied, and embroiled in a battle to bring down a sadistic criminal dealing in human souls and the darkest of magics.

Her only hope may be to swallow her pride and ask for help from her not-quite-ex-boyfriend and his notorious brother—Tyet criminal boss, Gregg Touray. Even that may not be enough to protect her. Something has gone very wrong in the trace dimension and in Riley’s head.

If she doesn’t figure out how to handle the past, the present, the trace, and the bad guys, the road to hell is going to look like a great alternative.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Diamond City had been hit with snowstorm after snowstorm. Every single one brought a foot or more of snow. The stuff was piled twenty or thirty feet deep in some places, and the city was dumping truckloads of the stuff into the river as fast as trucks could haul it. Most of the main streets had been plowed, but the side streets hadn’t been touched. I’d been getting around on snowshoes for the most part, and the subway. I’d have gone out and bought a snowmobile, but apparently everybody else had had the same idea. My name was on a waiting list for the next shipment. It couldn’t come soon enough. I was tired of being frozen.

“Here. This will help.”

I grasped the coffee cup like it was the elixir of the gods, which it was. I sipped and groaned. Sweet, creamy warmth spread down into my frozen core.

“C’mon. I’ll help you get your coat and boots off. You’ve got a new cli­ent waiting out front.”

Patti shoved me down onto a wood bench in the mud-slash-storage room at the back of the Diamond City Diner and started digging at the boot’s laces to loosen them.

“Stop,” I told her, taking another swig of the coffee. I didn’t even care if I scalded my tongue. As cold as I was, I would gladly have stood in the middle of a raging inferno just to warm up. “You’ll break your nails.”

“Screw my nails,” Patti said, but she paused to check them all the same.

I grinned. Patti is my best friend and half owner of the diner. She stands about five foot three in her stiletto heels, which she wears without fail. Otherwise she’s just scraping four foot eleven. She’s also tough as razor wire. She’s got several black belts in an assortment of martial arts, and she wouldn’t back down from a starving grizzly bear. But her nails were her pride and joy.

I set my coffee on the bench and bent over with a tired groan. The laces were crusted with ice and frozen stiff. I wasn’t going to get them off until they thawed out. Instead, I unzipped the sides of my snow pants and shimmied out of them. I unzipped my jacket and handed both over to Patti. She hung them on the line stretched across the back room.

I bent my fingers around my cup again and leaned back against the wall. I was starving, but most of me was still numb from the cold.

“Is this blood?” Patti demanded. She spun around. Her only conces­sion to the cold was a pair of indigo tights instead of fishnet stockings under her tight miniskirt. “Are you hurt?”

“Not really,” I said. “It’s nothing. It was barely even a knife.”

“Barely a knife? It was enough of one to cut you, wasn’t it? Let’s see.”

She dropped my coat and grabbed my arm to pull it straight. I was still too cold to feel any pain.

“What the hell happened? Who did this?”

“I was looking for that surgeon. The one who went missing a couple of months ago.”

“Right. I remember the case. The wife was in here a few days ago. All de­signer glitz and dripping money. I think she had a chauffeur.”

I nodded. “That’s the case.”

I’m a tracer. I can see the ribbons of light that everyone leaves behind and follow them. I can even see trace off dead people, which had been one of my biggest secrets, right up until a month ago when I’d been outed in front of the biggest Tyet kingpins in Diamond City—think mafia with magic. I’d come out of the proverbial closet with a big bang. I might as well have rented a billboard. The janitor in the local 7‑Eleven probably knew what I could do by now. Since then, my private tracer business had gone through the roof. Now I could charge a grand for an hour’s worth of work and still turn people away. As far as I knew, there wasn’t another tracer in the world who could track dead trace. That’s why the surgeon’s beautiful and plastic wife had come to see me three days ago.

Today had been the first day I’d had time to go out to track him down. The wife seemed to be hoping he’d turn up dead. Most people thought he was dead. She probably wanted the insurance that came with a death certifi­cate. I told her I was too busy for her case, but I’d read his trace and at least let her know if he was alive or dead. Not that my word would hold up in court. I wasn’t a bonded and licensed death authenticator.

She’d handed me his running shoes. I’d been about to tell her the happy news that he was alive and send her on her way, when she men­tioned the kids. That got me. My dad had disappeared when I was around sixteen. Just poof! Vanished. He hadn’t left any trace behind, which was . . . impossible. I still don’t know what happened to him. I figured the sur­geon’s kids deserved to know what happened to their dad. I took the case and then went under the knife, so to speak.

“He was down in the Bottoms, of all places.” I braced myself for Patti’s reaction. She didn’t disappoint.

“He was where? And you followed him? Alone? Crap on a cracker, Riley! Do you have a death wish or something? You’re lucky you didn’t end up worse off than this.” She shook my arm for emphasis.

I winced as pain began to wake in my flesh. “It’s not like I haven’t been to the Bottoms before,” I said by way of an excuse. I shouldn’t have bothered.

“Let me understand this. Being stupid once deserves repeating it again and again until someone kills you for real? Is that it? For fuck’s sake, Riley, you’re wanted, now. You’re like the tracer messiah. There’s no one you can’t find and everybody wants a piece of you, whether you like it or not.”

She let go of me and tossed her hands in frustration. “Why do I even have to say this? You know it better than I do. Every Tyet crew has been nosing around here looking for you, not to mention the FBI, CIA, NSA, Homeland Security, and every other agency on the planet. Given what you can do, most everyone would rather see you dead than working for some­one else. You seriously have to start looking out for yourself better. Did you at least shoot this asshole? Or did he just knife you and get away with it?”

I tipped my head back and looked at the plaster ceiling, exhaustion weighing me down. “It was the surgeon. He came at me with a scalpel.” He’d been hiding in a shack down near Helo’s, a ramshackle juice joint that served homemade liquor and surprisingly decent food.

Diamond City is built on the side of an ancient volcanic caldera. The higher you go, the more money you’ve gotta have to live. The people who lived in the Bottoms were dregs—those who’d fallen off the diamond dole, or who needed a place to hide from the Tyet or the law. My job took me down there fairly often. More often than Patti would ever know. What she didn’t know didn’t hurt me.

“What’s he doing down there? Why did he attack you?”

“I expect the answer to both questions is Sparkle Dust,” I said, and the words left a bitter taste in my mouth that the coffee couldn’t clean out.

“Sparkle Dust?” Patti repeated. “But—Why? He’s got money and a fam­ily. Why would he get on that stuff?”

I shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he wanted to find out what talent felt like. Maybe he just wanted to feel good.”

Sparkle Dust was an ugly new drug made from minerals found only in the Diamond City caldera. The stuff supposedly made the user feel invinci­ble and orgasmically good, to hear dealers tell it. Plus, it gave those with magical talents extra, if temporary, abilities. Fat lot of good that did. The drug-induced abilities were totally unpredictable. For people without any magical talent, they got to experience it for a brief time. ’Course, without any knowledge or skills in using that magic, they often killed or maimed themselves.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the drug had another side ef­fect—this one fatal. It turned the users into what the street had come to call wraiths. I didn’t know much more about how that worked, except users turned translucent from the outside in, fading away until they just vanished off the face of the earth. As Hollywood as that sounded, it seemed accu­rate. At least, you didn’t trip over a lot of dead SD users lying around the streets.

“You know, that shit is expensive,” Patti pointed out. “You wouldn’t think he’d have to go to the Bottoms to find it. You wouldn’t think anyone in the Bottoms would have any to sell.”

That fact had been bothering me, not that it really mattered to my case. “He was holed up in a little flophouse.” Sometimes those houses provided sexual company, but this one was just a warm place to sleep for a couple of bucks. Dirty, sleeping bodies had been squished inside like sar­dines. “I hadn’t realized he was dusted at that point. I went inside to see if I could talk to him.”

I ignored Patti’s sound of disgust. It had been stupid, but it’s not like I had options.

“When I put a hand on him, he jumped up and came at me with that scalpel.” I’d scrambled out over the sleeping bodies, leaving him raving and stabbing at anyone who came near him. I hadn’t even realized he’d got me until I was out the door. But one thing I’d seen for certain despite the gloom was the telltale opalescent shine of his teeth and the shadows of muscles and bone beneath his skin. He was going wraith.

I sucked down the rest of my coffee and set the cup down hard on the bench. I closed my eyes, trying to get rid of the memory. I didn’t think his wife or his kids would be happy with my news, though not for the same reasons.

I sat up and twisted to try to get a look at the cut. I couldn’t tell. Blood had clotted to my long-sleeved shirt, hiding the damage. I was beginning to feel a faint ache in it. I had a feeling it was going to hurt a lot worse. “Think I’ll need a tinker?”

“Maybe I can superglue it,” Patti said, rolling her eyes in pure disgust. “Don’t be an idiot. Of course you’ll need a tinker, if only to be sure you don’t get infected with rabies or something.”

I laughed. “I didn’t get bit by a stray dog.”

It wasn’t until then that her first words to me registered. “I’ve got a new client?”

“Yep. She’s been waiting awhile.”

I groaned. “Not another cheating husband case.”

“Probably not.” Patti hesitated. “She’s a cop.”

I stiffened as a wild mix of emotions crashed over me. My stomach flip-flopped. “A cop?”

The last cop who’d hired me had been Clay Price. He also moon­lighted as a Tyet enforcer. He hadn’t given me a lot of choice on whether to work for him or not. When my not-quite-brother-in-law was kidnapped, Price had helped me get him back. On the way, I discovered Price’s brother was one of the biggest Tyet kingpins in Diamond City. Rather than running for the hills, instead I’d fallen head-over-heels in love with Price. I’d never been much of a believer in love at first sight or chemistry—true chemistry—until Price. I fell fast and hard for him. I’ll admit, he was sexy as hell, but there was more to it. He was smart and funny and annoying. He argued with me and tried to keep me out of trouble, then followed me into hell and had my back, regardless of the cost.

I admit that what had happened between us was near unexplainable for me. I’d never let anyone that close. I’d even blindly followed him into enemy territory, where I was promptly captured and nearly killed twice—four if you count the times I didn’t bleed. We’d got out by the skin of our teeth. That’s when I’d kicked the love of my life to the curb.

I had to. To get his brother to leave me alone, he’d promised to join his brother’s organization. As bad as Touray wanted me, that made Price my enemy. I knew he would do whatever he could to protect me, but he had split loyalties and he loved his brother. Sooner or later push would come to shove, and I just didn’t believe I’d be left standing. Before we could even think of being together, I needed to find a way to stand on my own two feet and protect myself and my family. Then maybe we could figure things out.

If this was real love and not just a crush.

If he still wanted me then.

If I was still breathing.

Patti was right to worry. Hell, I was so deep into the woods, I doubted I’d ever get out. Not without a helicopter, a bucket of hand grenades, and one or two miracles. Now that my secret was out—now that I’d gone head-to-head with the highest-ranking members of Diamond City’s own magical mafia—I was on the top of every bad guy’s to-do list, not to men­tion on the lists of a few of the good guys. Neither list made me happy. I supposed that meant I was still on the right side of a psychotic break.

I rubbed my hands over my face and winced as pain burned up my arm from the scalpel cut. I didn’t want to think about Price or the trouble I was in with the Tyet. Both made me want to curl up into an emotional ball. Since I was a grown-up, I wasn’t going to do that. I told myself this firmly, and tried to believe it.

“I suppose I should talk to this cop,” I said, focusing on the here and now, pushing Price’s image out of my mind. I was more than a little bit curious what this potential cop-client wanted. “How long has she been waiting for me?”

“Through a dozen cups of coffee, two bathroom breaks, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a slice of pie,” Patti said.

“That long, huh?” I smiled and started to stand up.

Patti put a hand on my shoulder and shoved me back down. “No, you don’t. I’m going to bandage you up first.”

I waited while she fetched supplies. My mind skittered back to the sur­geon. What a waste. He’d been good, if his wife’s appearance was anything to go by. You didn’t make that kind of money by being a hack. In a world where he had to compete with tinkers and their magic, he must have been downright brilliant. Now he was nothing. What had made him start using Sparkle Dust? I’d probably never know. He was as good as dead. The addiction was awful. Most people couldn’t shake it.

I thought of my almost-brother-in-law, Josh. I hadn’t seen him since just after we’d rescued him. He’d been tortured and force-dosed with Sparkle Dust. My dreamer friend, Cass, had healed what the haunters had done to his mind. She had also done all she could to stop the effect of the SD, but I didn’t know if it had been enough. For all I knew, he was dead in the gutter somewhere. Hell, he could be totally invisible and watching me right now.

I shuddered. Not a comfortable thought. He and I had not ended well.

Did I mention my sister isn’t talking to me? She’s pissed I let him walk away without dragging him to see her. Since then he’s been nulling his trace so I can’t find him. Of course, if he can afford the nulls to do that, maybe that’s a sign he’s not drugged out of his gourd. I can’t be all un­happy he’s off the grid. He was one of the people who tried to kill me. Sure, he was drugged up at the time, and they’d tampered with his head, but he’d never even apologized. He wasn’t the same man my sister had fallen in love with. I was just as happy to see him stay away from her. Besides, he was as wanted by the Tyet as I was. Not to mention, he was tangled up with the FBI. My sister didn’t need that kind of trouble.

Patti returned. She pushed up my sleeve to reveal the cut. It was about two inches long. I looked away as she cleaned it with warm water and a washcloth. I gritted my teeth and sucked in a breath.

“Hurts, doesn’t it? Maybe you’ll think twice about going to the Bot­toms next time. At least take one of your goon squad. How did you lose them, anyhow?”

“I know the city better and I make good nulls.”

It actually hadn’t been that easy. I’d dodged through several buildings and into the subway, then switched lines and jumped off at a random spot. They’d followed me all the way to that point, but I had jumped the train quicker than they could, and by the time they could get back to where I’d ditched them, I was long gone. Nulling my trace meant that I hadn’t left any trail for them to follow once they no longer had eyes on me.

“Any idea yet who’s paying them to watch you?” Patti dabbed on some disinfectant ointment and then wrapped my arm with some gauze, followed by some hot-pink vet wrap. One of these days, I was going to buy myself some good heal-alls. Now that I had some money, I could afford a couple, and since I kept getting myself hurt on the job, it would be smart to keep one on me.

“My goons have got to be from Price or Touray. Neither of them wants me to fall into the wrong hands.”

I was guessing it was Touray, not Price, though. I tried not to feel like I’d lost my pet kitten. After all, I’d told Price to stay away from me, and one of the things I love best about him is that he respects my boundaries. Or maybe he’d given up on me. It’s not like I’d tried to call him or anything since I booted him out of my life. He might have figured out he wasn’t all that into me, that it was all just a case of the two of us getting thrown together in an intense situation and hormones just took over.

Or maybe he figured I just wasn’t worth it. After I’d ended us, I’d bro­ken the tab he’d used to lojack me before I went home. I suppose that was a sign I didn’t really love him as much as my heart seemed to think I did. I didn’t trust him enough to let him know where I lived. He wasn’t stupid. He’d have gotten that message loud and clear. So either he was respecting my wishes and letting me figure out my life, or he was over me. Why did both those possibilities hurt the same?

“I’m a contrary bitch,” I told Patti as she pulled my sleeve back down. Hopefully the hole and the blood weren’t terribly obvious. My arm was on fire. The rest of me was starting to throb and tingle as the numbness wore off, and I started to warm up. Deep inside, I could feel the fluttering of chills waiting to erupt.

“You won’t catch me arguing with that,” Patti said.

I laughed. “Tell me why we are friends again?”

“Because we both need someone to help bury the bodies, no ques­tions asked. Plus, I’m not sure anyone else will put up with you. Oh, that reminds me, your stepmother called me.”

“She called you?” I’d been dodging Mel’s calls. After I’d recovered from rescuing Josh, I’d let my stepbrother Leo update the rest of the fam­ily. Or rather, I’d totally ducked out on the drama of telling my family how much trouble I’d gotten myself into and that I’d fallen in love with a Tyet man. That, and I wanted to keep them safe.

I loved Mel. She’d been just as much a mother to me as my own had been. I’d always felt ridiculously guilty that my father had left her and me and everybody else without a word. Worse, I couldn’t track him. He was just gone. All his trace had vanished liked he’d never existed. It was totally impossible, and yet that’s the way it was. Mel couldn’t remarry, couldn’t move on in any way—my dad wasn’t dead. But this time it wasn’t the guilt that made me avoid her. I’d become a danger to my entire family. I couldn’t pretend they didn’t exist, but I could pretend not to have any real connection. At least until I figured out how to protect them. And me. I needed to figure that out, too.

“Apparently she was tired of talking to your answering machine. She said she expects you for dinner a week from Saturday. Six o’clock sharp. She also said, and I quote, ‘no excuses will be accepted.’”

“I guess I have Saturday night plans next week. My bathtub will be so sad. It’ll be the fifth Saturday in a row I’ve broken our date.”

“There’s always this week.”

“I already told Ben I’d help clean the kitchen this week after you guys close.”

“I’d say you lead a very boring life, but getting shot, stabbed, and other various and sundry scrapes and scares argue to the contrary,” Patti said. “You might want to get that wound tinkered before you help Ben. Most definitely before your dinner. Mel will notice real quick that you’ve got a bad wing.”

“She probably already knows. I swear the woman has her own intelli­gence network better than the NSA or the FBI or anybody else.”

“Good thing she doesn’t work for the Tyet or you’d be in trouble. Maybe you should make her your secret weapon.”

“Right. Get my stepmother involved in my mess. Good plan.”

Patti shrugged. “That’s what the mafia families all were—families. At least you can trust her. And your brothers.”

“Seriously? My brothers are jewelers.”

“Your brothers are expert metal tinkers. They are also jewelers. Your stepmother is a reader and a damned good one.”

It was true. Mel had worked for a while as a cop consultant when she was younger, reading the emotions of suspects and witnesses. It wasn’t legal to use dreamers, but you could use a reader, since they were picking up emotions, not trespassing into thoughts. After a few years, she’d gone on to work with mental patients and then to consult for the government. She’d spent a lot of time traveling to Washington and other places, helping with various negotiations and treaties.

She’d retired a few years ago at the ripe old age of fifty-two and now did some teaching at the university and spoke at conferences all over the globe. At dinner, she would read me like a book and make me talk about everything. I groaned. This was going to be a shark feeding frenzy, and I was going to provide the bait.

“Was that groan because you know I’m right about leaning on your fam­ily?” Patti finished packing up her medical supplies and shoved the box up on a shelf above my head.

“No. I just realized how painful next Saturday night is going to be.”

“Better than being dead.”

“Is that a choice? At the moment I’d consider it.”

She put her hand out to help me up. I towered over her by a good nine inches. “You can’t escape your family that easily.” She looked me over.

I was wearing my gun in a nylon shoulder holster, both gifts, courtesy of Gregg Touray. He’d sent them over with a message about how he didn’t want me to be defenseless. I’d destroyed my own gun with magic in the course of rescuing Josh. He’d also sent over a Kevlar vest, but I’d left it rolled up on my dresser.

Patti put her hands on her hips, her brows arching. “Did it not occur to you to approach that rat-bastard surgeon with your gun drawn?”

I flushed. It hadn’t, really. Before a month ago, I’d forgotten to carry my gun half the time, much less draw it. I was going to have to get better about it. I used to carry a Chinese telescoping baton. I needed to get into a store and replace it. In my defense, until recently my cover had been that I was a not terribly competent tracer, and the cases which came my way hadn’t been that dangerous. Except maybe for the occasional missing child cases I had worked anonymously and pro bono.

Patti shook her head at me. “Look up careful in the dictionary. You might want to learn about it. Now, come on. I’ll introduce you to your next client, and then I’ll have Ben cook you something.”

I didn’t bother to tell her what I wanted to eat. Patti didn’t work that way. She decided what I needed, and I didn’t complain or I might find myself eating liverwurst on burned toast for a week. I was not willing to go through that hell again.

I followed her up the hallway past the kitchen. I waved at Ben, Patti’s partner and a cooker. It was a branch of maker magic. There are five major kinds of magic: tracer, maker, binder, dreamer, traveller. Then there are tons of minor magics that are offshoots of the others. So for instance, my stepmom is a reader, which is related to dreamer magic. My stepbrothers are metalsmiths, which is an offshoot of maker magic. As a cooker, there’s nothing Ben can’t do with food.

It was well after the lunch rush, but the diner was still busy. Ellie, a plump, bubbly waitress with curly hair that hung to her waist slung coffee and plates and chattered brightly with the customers. Before Patti could introduce me to my new client, the door jingled, and a man stepped in followed by another man and a tough-looking woman.

“Oh hell no,” Patti muttered and stomped up the aisle to meet them. No mean feat in stiletto boots.

I hung back. These three were part of my bodyguard squad. They’d showed up on the diner’s doorstep a day after I’d left the safety of the healer’s house six weeks ago. They followed me everywhere, or tried. I didn’t give them the slip often, but sometimes it was necessary. Like when I went to the Bottoms. It was also necessary when I went home. The first time they tried to shadow me there, I scraped them off and didn’t come back to the diner for almost a week. By the time I showed up, they were going out of their gourds.

We pretty much had ourselves a Mexican standoff. That’s when we had our come-to-Jesus meeting. I wasn’t footing the bill for their protec­tion, so they didn’t figure they answered to me. On the other hand, they couldn’t do their job if I sneaked off and got myself killed. They’d proba­bly end up filleted or skewered pretty quick after, Tyet justice being what it was. So we made a deal. I’d come into the diner first thing every morning and report in, and they wouldn’t try to follow me home. It was the only concession they were willing to make.

“What the hell good are you idiots if you let her go off and get stabbed?” Patti demanded of Dalton, the one in charge.

He had a long face with a large, blunt nose, straight eyebrows, full lips, and a close-cut mustache and beard. His skin was light copper. What al­ways caught me up short were his eyes. Instead of the dark brown his coloring suggested, they were silvered steel. Definitely not natural. They were some sort of magical implant, but what they did was impossible to guess. He was a good three or four inches taller than me, and next to him, Patti looked like a child. If it came to a fight, I’d put my money on her.

As she continued to harangue him, he turned his silver stare on me, then strode up the aisle to stop right in front of me. I held my ground, unwilling to be intimidated. Everything about him was a threat. He had muscles on his muscles, and danger radiated from him like smoke off a bonfire. He wore animosity like a shield.

“We have to talk,” he said, his lip curling in a slight sneer.

He always sneered. I wondered if he even did it when screwing a beauti­ful woman. Or man. I didn’t know which way his bat swung.

He had a way of holding himself tight, like a lit piece of dynamite. There was no doubt he was pissed. I couldn’t really blame him. By risking myself, I’d risked his life and everybody else in his crew, given that the typical Tyet poor job evaluation included death. I’d have been surprised and maybe a little bit disgusted if he wasn’t enraged. Then again, as he liked to point out, he wasn’t working for me, so I wasn’t obligated to him in any way. Plus he’s an asshole.

“I have a client.”

His mouth twitched, and the muscles in his jaw knotted. Then his ex­pression smoothed out. “I’ll wait.” He glanced down at the pink band­age showing through the bloody hole in my shirt. “How bad?”

“I’ll live.”

“I’ve got a heal-all.”

I should have known. “Better save it for an emergency,” I said. “I’ll see a tinker later.”

His eyes narrowed, but he nodded. “Your call.”

I blinked. It was? I scowled. What was Dalton up to? He walked away without another word. He slid onto a seat at the end of the counter, with his back to the wall, where he could see everything. His companions took seats on either side. I felt his eyes follow me as Patti motioned me toward a booth.

“What’s the point of having them around taking up space if you get mauled on their watch?” she grumbled.

“I lost them on purpose,” I reminded her.

“So? If they were worth a damn you couldn’t have done it.”

“Maybe I’m just that good,” I suggested.

“Maybe you’re just that stupid.”

“You really think I can trust them?” I asked, startled.

“I think you don’t have a choice. For fuck’s sake, Riley, you almost got yourself killed today. Again. What’s it going to take before you realize you need a little help?”

I thrust my fingers into my copper hair, pulling it loose from its pony­tail. “Dammit, Patti.”

“You know I’m right.”

“I—”

Patti glared at me, daring me to argue or maybe just because I was play­ing with my hair in the diner and she was worried it would go flying off into the food. Her blue eyes sparked with anger. Nope. This was about putting myself into too many dangerous situations. I wasn’t going to win this argument. Not while I was still bleeding from the surgeon’s attack, anyhow. I decided to save time and irritation and give in now rather than after a long argument.

I gave an exasperated sigh. “Okay. Fine. You’re right, as usual. But that doesn’t mean I can trust them.” I hooked a thumb in the direction of Dalton and his two companions.

“So don’t. Find your own people, but stop acting like you’re Wonder Woman. You can die, Riley. Quit fooling around.”

I glanced at Dalton. He held his coffee cup between his palms, his sil­ver gaze locked on me. He had to have heard every word. I turned back to Patti, refusing to feel embarrassed or guilty.

“Okay. I will. Later. Where’s this new client?”

“Right here.”

A black woman with iron-gray hair rippling along her scalp in elegant cornrows stood up out of the booth behind Patti. She wore a navy-blue suit with an ivory turtleneck and heavy black boots. Underneath her jacket on her hip was a holstered gun. On her belt I could see the gold shine of a police badge.

I stretched out a hand. “I’m Riley Hollis.”

“Good to meet you, Riley. I’m Lauren Morton.” Her voice came out in a husky Southern drawl. That was about all I had time to register before she hit me with the big guns. “I’m here because rumor says you’re about the best tracer around. I need your help. I’ve got five teenagers lost inside the mountain, and if you can’t find them, they’re going to die.”