The cherry red vintage Mustang flew past Brendan’s unmarked as if he were standing still.
He stepped on the gas at the same time as he picked up the radio to call in the plate. “License number HOT CAR 7. Heading north on the Dan Ryan.” He squinted, trying to ID the driver, but saw only a dark hoodie pulled up around the guy’s head.
He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Driver wearing a hoodie. Could be a banger. Lighting him up now.”
Brendan put down the radio and flipped the siren and lights switches as he maneuvered behind the red Mustang going – Jesus – one hundred five miles an hour on the late-night-quiet expressway. The car accelerated, and Brendan gripped the steering wheel, focusing on nothing but controlling his car.
He welcomed the rush. He was scheduled to start an undercover op next weekend, but until then, he was spending his time sitting on a drug house. It was driving him nuts. Surveillance for three days with nothing to show for it.
Recovering a stolen vintage car would make up for his lack of production this week.
He tried to get a better look at the driver, but couldn’t see anything. The rush of excitement lit him up. There was some serious shit going on here. That car was worth big money. Would the owner be taking such risks with it? Probably not. But a thief might.
He glanced at the radio, as if that would prod it to divulge information. Heard nothing but static.
Suddenly the car braked, swerved across two lanes of traffic and slowed as it pulled onto the shoulder. On the left side. Maybe the guy knew cops didn’t want to approach a car on an expressway with his ass hanging into traffic.
But a banger driving a stolen car wasn’t going to do a cop any favors.
Brendan glanced at the train tracks running down the median of the Ryan. Was the driver going to hop the fence and escape out the El station?
The Mustang rolled to a stop, and Brendan’s car rocked on its tires and he stomped on the brakes. He stepped onto the cracked asphalt, his hand hovering over his gun. Part of his brain noticed the meticulously restored Mustang and filed away the details for later. Shiny, smooth paint. Pristine bumpers. Even the chrome around the tail lights gleamed.
The rest of him was focused on the driver, now sitting motionless in the car. Had he carjacked the ‘Stang? Was he holding a gun on a hostage crouched on the floor beside him?
That would be the scenario in a novel. Terrified car owner, afraid the banger was going to shoot him. Brendan tightened his grip on the gun.
His gaze flicked onto the radio, then back to the red car in front of him. He should wait for dispatch to tell him about the car and its owner. But if he heard a gunshot while he waited, he’d never forgive himself.
Brendan approached carefully, watching for any sudden movement. He tensed when the window rolled down, watching for the flash of metal that meant a gun. When nothing happened, he barked, “Open the door. Keep your hands where I can see them. Step out.”
“Pretty stupid cop, aren’t you?” The voice was low-pitched, but he had no trouble hearing the taunt over the noise of the cars rushing past.
“Pretty stupid banger,” he said immediately. “Driving like a bat out of hell down the Ryan in a flashy red car.” He curled his fingers around the grip of his Sig. “Out. Now.”
The door sprung open and a slight figure slid out, hands in the air. He turned around slowly to face Brendan.
“Lose the hood,” Brendan ordered.
One hand flicked the hood back. A woman stared back at him, all golden skin, high cheekbones and wide eyes. In the faint glow of the halogen lamp above them, her hair gleamed golden-brown. Masses of waves fell below her shoulders.
She matched her license plate – hot woman driving a hot car. He swallowed once. “License and registration, please.”
“Okay if I put my hands down?” Her mouth curled into a smirk, and instead of irritating him, it turned him on.
“Yeah. Keep them where I can see them, though.” He clenched his teeth. He was the cop. He was in control.
She knelt on the seat and reached toward the passenger side. It highlighted her ass in tight jeans. Brendan’s gaze lingered on it. Even a bad night had some positives.
After letting him stare at her ass for far too long, she backed out of the car with papers in her hand. The dark handle of what he assumed was her purse dangled out the door. She extended the papers toward him, then fumbled in her purse again.
“Hands where I can see them,” he ordered.
As soon as she withdrew her hands and held them up again, he used his flashlight to study her driver’s license.
She even looked good on her driver’s license photo. His gaze fell to her name. Priscilla Marini. “Ms. Marini, do you know how fast you were going?”
“One hundred and two miles an hour,” she said, her voice cool.
Her unruffled answer pissed him off. “No excuses? ‘You didn’t realize how fast you were going? Your foot must have slipped on the accelerator? Your speedometer is broken?'”
“Nope. On my way to a call.” She turned her right hand and the light gleamed on something metallic. His hand fell to his gun again until she extended her arm toward him.
A detective’s badge. Chicago Police Department. “You’re a cop?”
“So they say.” She tucked the badge back into her purse.
“Why didn’t you tell me right away?”
“Why didn’t you wait until dispatch told you who was driving the car? Then you would have known, too.”
“Figured it was a stolen car,” he said evenly. “Carjacked. Maybe a hostage involved. Didn’t think it could wait.” She’d called him a stupid cop, but she’d been driving fifty miles over the speed limit. The knowledge made him fume.
“You have quite the imagination.”
“Saved my life more than once.” He dropped his Sig back into its holster. “If you’re on your way to a call, why the hell did you pull over?”
“I have a few extra minutes. They’re putting up their perimeter and calling in the spec ops guys.”
He narrowed his eyes. “What kind of call are you heading to?”
“Hostage situation. I’m the negotiator.” She raised one eyebrow. “Any more questions?”
“No. Get going.”
He turned toward his car, but she said, “What’s your name?”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Donovan. Brendan. Detective. Tactical team, out of the nineteenth.” He kept his gaze on her. “What district you in?”
Interesting. You needed a lot of seniority – or clout – to get assigned to the sixteenth, a relatively low-crime district. “Good luck with your hostage.”
She turned toward her car, and he allowed himself another glance at her rear end. “Any cop bars up in sixteen?” he called.
She turned to face him again, a tiny frown wrinkling her forehead. “Why?”
“I could meet you there tomorrow night. I’d like to know how the hostage situation works out.”
Her expression went flat. “Sorry, Detective Donovan. I don’t date cops.”
“Wasn’t asking for a date. Just a beer.”
“Same difference.” She slid into her car without another look at him and took off. The car leaped forward and the engine rumbled as she accelerated quickly. In less than a minute, she was out of sight.
Brendan stared after the car long after it had disappeared. He wanted to know more about Detective Priscilla Marini. No priss in Priscilla, that was for sure. Tough cop. She’d been cool, in control, very smooth. Until he’d mentioned meeting up.
Then she’d shut down.
He frowned. Huh.
* * *
He was still thinking about Marini the next evening. Wondering how her hostage situation had gone. And why she didn’t date cops. So he sent a text to his brothers Connor and Quinn and his sister Mia, all fellow cops. “Get a beer after shift?”
They agreed on a place and time, and by the time he arrived at Oscar’s, Quinn and Con were working on their first beer. “Mia should be here any minute,” Quinn said.
Brendan slid into the booth next to Con, caught the server’s eye and ordered a Guinness. By the time the server returned, Mia was easing onto the bench beside Quinn. “Hey, guys. What’s up, Bren?”
“Nothing’s up,” he said. “Just haven’t seen you lately.”
Mia narrowed her eyes. “We had dinner with Mom last Sunday. So what do you want, Brendan?”
He took a drink of the cool, smooth Guinness and plunked the glass down with a sigh. “Fine. Any of you know Priscilla Marini? Detective in the sixteenth? Hostage negotiator.”
Connor frowned. “Nope. Never heard of her.”
Quinn shook his head. “Me either.”
Mia leaned against the back of the booth. “I haven’t met Cilla, but I’ve seen her around. Why do you ask?”
Cilla. That suited her. “Met her last night. Pulled her over for speeding on the Ryan. Didn’t tell me right off that she was a cop.”
Mia laughed, then turned to the server and ordered her own Guinness. “Made a fool of yourself?”
Maybe. Brendan scowled. “Not at all. She was interesting.”
“Translation: you thought she was hot,” Mia said with a nod.
“Yeah. That, too.”
“Don’t waste your time. Cilla doesn’t date cops.”
“So she said.”
“Believe her. She’s turned down a lot before you, Bren.”
“None better, though.”
Connor rolled his eyes. “And he wonders why he has a hard time getting women.”
“I can get all the women I want,” Brendan retorted.
“Just not Cilla Marini,” Mia smirked. “Nobody gets her.”
“What’s her story?” Brendan asked.
Mia slid her glass of beer from one hand to the other. “She used to work in the twenty-first,” Mia said. “She came across a guy in an alley roughing up a woman, and arrested him. Guy told her he was a cop, but she arrested him anyway. Ryan Ward. He claimed he was questioning a suspect. Cilla said he was over the line. Excessive force. Big stink. She was transferred to the sixteenth. Stashed there.”
“I know Ward,” Brendan said. “His partner is Anson Bates, a guy from my class at the academy. Ward’s an okay guy.”
Mia shrugged. “Cilla’s a good cop. Does things the right way. Smart, too. She has a great record as a hostage negotiator.”
“She said she was on her way to a situation last night. That’s why she was driving one hundred and two on the Ryan.”
Quinn whistled. “Woman with brass balls.”
“Drove like it.” Acted like it, too. “Great car, too. Vintage Mustang.”
Connor slapped him on his back. “Good luck, Bren. Keep us posted.”
“Yeah.” With a tug of regret that went deeper than it should have, he knew he probably wouldn’t run into Cilla again. Once he went undercover, he’d be focused only on the job.
His next sip of the Guinness tasted a little less sweet. “So, what’s new with the rest of you?”
* * *
“I have an update on the hostage situation from last night.” Cilla’s captain, Pete Francisco, motioned her into his office.
Cilla froze. Was Francisco going to tell her the guy was out on bail? She couldn’t imagine any other reason the captain would be calling her into his office.
She lowered herself into the chair in front of his desk and clenched her fists in her lap. Damn it! She hoped they’d at least put the victims in a safe house.
“Nice work on that, by the way,” Francisco said. “He’s in Cook County Jail, no bail.”
Cilla’s shoulders relaxed, and she unclenched her fists. Thank God. The guy had held three of his co-workers at gunpoint for several hours, periodically firing shots into the wall. “Good. He’ll kill them if he gets out.”
“I heard you told him he’d get bail if he sent out the hostages and came out himself.”
Francisco laughed. “Why you’re a great negotiator, Marini.” His smile faded. “How are you really doing? This was your first hostage situation since the last one went bad.”
“I’m doing fine, Captain.” She held his gaze steadily, ignoring the memory of the nightmare that had woken her, screaming, the night before. All the hostages on the floor. Dead. The hostage taker firing at her. The bullet coming toward her in slow motion.
“Thanks for the update, sir.” She put her hands on the arms of the chair and began to rise. “Is that all?”
He shifted some papers on his desk and didn’t meet her gaze. “No. There’s an undercover job, and I think you’d be perfect for it.” He studied her for a long moment. “You still play keyboards?”
Cilla nodded, frowning a little. Why did her captain seem nervous? “Yeah. I can still play.”
“I need someone who can play in a band. Modern stuff, oldies, nothing heavy metal or too hard. Background music for a pub.” He was speaking too fast.
“I could probably do that,” she said cautiously. “As long as I got a playlist before the gig. What’s the job?”
The captain shuffled his papers again, then met her gaze. “There’s a new drug showing up in clubs. We’ve had three deaths in two clubs downtown, and one in the Pipe and Shamrock Pub in the Beverly area. A sex drug. An erectile dysfunction drug on steroids. According to the narcotics guys, men who’ve used it are clamoring for more. Except for the ones who’ve died.”
Where was he going with this? “What am I supposed to do? If I’m in the band, I’m not in the crowd. Can’t see what’s going on.”
“Yeah. But it’s perfect cover. Who’s gonna suspect a woman in the band is a cop?”
“So I’m supposed to use mind control to figure out who’s selling the stuff?”
“Don’t be a smart-ass, Marini,” the captain said, finally relaxing. Clearly, he’d expected her to turn down the job. “You’re gonna have a partner. There’s a group of singles that meets there on Friday and Saturday nights. Another cop is starting this weekend. He’s going to talk to people, insert himself in the group. You’ll start next weekend.” He grinned at her. “It’ll be love at first sight between the guy in the singles group and the keyboard player.”
A guy and his girlfriend were perfect cover for a pair of cops looking for a sex drug. “Clever,” she said. “But what about the current keyboard player?”
The captain’s eyes took on a predatory gleam. “The current keyboard player has a couple of warrants out on him. We’re going to take him into custody and put out that he had an accident. You need to go to the pub and apply for a job before we do that. Today, if you think you can handle the job.”
“I’m not a full-time keyboard player, Captain.” But the idea interested her. She liked going undercover. Submersing herself in a role. Getting away from the station and flying on her own.
“You don’t need to play like a pro. Just keep up with the band. Think you can do that?”
“Maybe. Probably.” She’d played in a band in high school. She hadn’t knocked anyone’s socks off, but she’d been okay. Held her own. “So we’re supposed to find out who’s distributing this drug at the pub and bring him in. Lean on him for his contact.”
“Exactly.” The captain beamed at her. “You’re quick, Marini. We need someone on this job who can think on her feet.” He leaned forward. “It’s the perfect set up. There’s already a group there looking for hookups on the weekends. The band is going to have an opening for a keyboard player.”
“Okay. I’ll head down to the pub and apply. Who’s my partner?”
“You’ve never worked with him. And it’s better not to know ahead of time. That way the meet will be more authentic. All he knows is you’ll be the keyboard player.”
“Sounds pretty straightforward. Why were you nervous about asking me?”
His gaze flickered away. “You ever do undercover work for vice?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. She knew what was coming. “I’ve got…revealing clothes. I’ll wear something sexy.” She didn’t like that part of the job, but she knew it was effective. Flash some skin and guys got stupid.
He nodded, his shoulders finally relaxing. “I trust you to get the info once you’re in place.” He studied her with a faint smile. “You probably don’t need the skanky clothes. You’re smart enough and quick enough to get whatever you need. You’ve got the attitude to pull this off, too. But you need to nail the keyboard job down first. We don’t have any other seasoned undercover officers who can do this.”
“Right. I’ll make sure I get the job.”
“Here’s the address of the place.” Francisco pushed a piece of paper toward her, and she picked it up and shoved it in her pocket. South side was good. She’d grown up in a northwest suburb, so very little chance anyone would recognize her. The job was tailor-made for her.
“You need to focus on the drug case. But FYI, there have been a number of rapes in the Beverly area over the past six months. Captain down there thinks they’re connected – same MO, similar descriptions of the guy’s height and build. Always wears a mask. So keep your eyes open. You see or hear anything suspicious, call 911. Have the guys from the twenty-second handle it.”
She stood up to leave, but the captain held up his hand. “One last thing.” Francisco looked nervous.
“Ryan Ward works in the twenty-second. That includes Beverly.”
Her stomach clenched. Twisted. But she managed to shrug. “As long as he doesn’t come into the pub and recognize me, that’s not a problem.”
“Absolutely.” She stood up. “I’ll apply today and let you know how it went.”
Cilla left the office and hurried toward the restroom. Dread made her heart race, and she swallowed to wash away the taste of bile.
Ryan Ward. The reason she’d been banished to the sixteenth.
The door banged shut behind her, and she leaned against it. She needed a moment to put the mask back on.
She hated that she needed it here in the station, around her fellow cops. But after the situation with Ward, there were still a lot of people who either ignored her or were outright hostile.
She’d crossed the blue line of silence. Accused another cop of excessive use of force.
Pushing away from the door, she splashed cold water on her face. Studied herself in the mirror as she blotted dry with a paper towel. Good. Cool eyes. No emotion showing. No chinks in the armor.
Despite the need to dress like a hooker, she wanted this undercover job. It would keep her out of the station for days, possibly weeks. Away from the cold-eyed cops.
And if Ward came into the pub, she’d deal with it. Until it happened, she wasn’t going to think about it.
Sooner or later, people would forget what had happened. Sooner or later, her fellow cops would thaw out. But until then, she was happy to go undercover. On this job, she’d only be dealing with one other cop, and he’d be playing a role, too.
Her mind started revving, thinking about strategies and ways of getting the information they needed. Who was the other cop? How would he be to work with?
She was looking forward to finding out.
* * *
Ten days later, she walked into the Pipe and Shamrock, carrying her keyboard. As she headed for the stage, she glanced around the crowded room.
She spotted her undercover partner immediately. Damn it!
She’d already met him.
Even worse, she hadn’t been able to forget about him.