Heists required a lot of favors. And if you wanted to hack a military database, cover your tracks, and create a diplomatic relations nightmare on your way out of town? Well, the cost of those favors would be high—the “rarefied plasma of three ancient monks and 100 shares of stock in one of Sim Nation’s top manufacturing companies” kind of high. Such was the price of the Tartosian government’s cooperation and the hacking skills of former Rainy Day Entertainment wunderkind Cecilia Kang.
And creatures had the nerve to call Vlad unreasonable.
Now, however, he was tasked with securing one more favor. He dialed the number from memory, unsurprised when his ex-husband answered immediately.
“We’ve been divorced for ages; why do you insist on calling me by a pet name?”
“I show affection for you, carissime, because I care.”
That was expressly false, but Vlad didn’t have time to get into it. “I need a favor. You may ask for something in return, but that something cannot be sex.”
“Must be a big favor for you to be putting sex on the table. Lucky for you, I need something pressing handled for me in Moonwood Mill.”
Vlad should’ve guessed that Ethren would need something; usually, when they had some sort of explosive confrontation like they did at the conference, his ex made himself unavailable as punishment. “Again, sex is not on the table. And before you get carried away, I’m not even sure if what I am asking is possible or if you are capable of it.”
“I’m capable,” Ethren snapped. “Name one thing you’ve asked me for that I’ve been unable to do.”
The thought was automatic and filled Vlad with shame. He had no reason to want Ethren’s acknowledgment or apology, and yet he hungered for it. “I’m going on a long trip. I’ve made travel arrangements, but I need you to make something disappear.”
“Disappear,” Ehtren repeated, sounding uneasy. “What do you want gone?”
Vlad looked out on the pool, catching the reflection of the house, the lemon tree grove, and even himself. Of all the places he had lived—and there were many—this was by far his favorite. He used to think every detail was lovingly selected to please Betty, but now he could see it was to please himself. That was the plan all along. Betty knew he needed to learn to live again. And it worked.
“My life,” he said, ignoring Ethren’s sharp intake of breath. “You have 24 hours.”
Tracking Salim was the most exciting thing Bella had done in years. Whether it was ducking behind trees, following him two cars behind, or pulling on a gown so she could sit by him in a restaurant—she did it with a spring in her step.
He’d transformed. The former San Myshuno hustler cut his hair and donned expensive suits. He spent his days typing on a laptop and talking on the phone in languages she didn’t understand. No one questioned or bothered him, and she watched as he effortlessly took advantage of that fact by scooping up all sorts of information.
Two could play that game. Bella hid behind the veneer of “bored socialite.” And as she did it, she used her time to look up everything she could about Caleb’s father. He wasn’t hiding either. The vampire had a Sims Tok account, for llama’s sake! Though from what she could see, it wasn’t so much sinister as filled with sexy men lacing up corsets and, inexplicably, fan videos from the TV show Of Tea and Treachery.
Vampires were a mystery.
Eventually, Salim left the restaurant and changed again, emerging from a gas station bathroom dressed in fatigues. Bella changed her clothing, too, and followed him to a rundown cottage on the outskirts of Windenburg.
It had to be Alice’s place, though she was betting he didn’t know it was empty.
Quietly, she made her way around the back, intending to cut him off, when she heard the telltale click behind her.
Quick as a whip, she drew her pistol and turned around. “Police! Put your hands up!”
Salim didn’t flinch. “Even if I didn’t know you got fired and that you’ve been tailing me since San Myshuno, I’d still say covert ops trumps cop any day.”
“Then call me a concerned citizen who intends to report a breaking and entering.”
“You think I’m worried about some country cops?” he cracked a smile that made her plasma run cold. “Call them.”
“I don’t think you want any unnecessary attention.” At least, she hoped that was true. Salim just smirked and kept his weapon raised.
“Or maybe you don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to Alice,” Bella continued, warming up to her tactic, “Hard to murder someone in cold blood when everyone is watching.”
His jaw tightened. “You don’t know anything about Alice.”
“I know she’s not here,” Bella sneered to cover how intensely her heart was pounding. “Surprised to find your ex-girlfriend already packed up her house?”
His eyes narrowed. “Since you’re so knowledgeable, why don’t you help me out?”
“I don’t help men that hurt women,” Bella growled. Salim’s eyes widened, and he took a step back.
“I don’t want to hurt Alice! Listen, why don’t we both lower our weapons? I’ll go first.”
Even though trusting him was stupid, Bella knew she wouldn’t make a lick of progress if she didn’t take some risks, so she tucked her gun into her holster. “What are you doing skulking around if your goal isn’t hurting Alice? Oh, sorry, I mean, what are you doing framing her for murder and now hunting her down if your goal isn’t to hurt her?”
Salim winced. “I didn’t frame her! I was just…it was…I…” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, his expression softening. “I was involved with Alice for a case, and no matter what you’ve seen, she and I are friends. Or we were. She’s in over her head, and I only let her getting arrested go that far because I thought it would keep her out of the line of fire.”
It was a convenient explanation, though he looked genuine. Bella bit her lip and stayed quiet.
“If you know where she is, you need to tell me. She’s the mother of my kid, and she’s in danger! I know you want details, but the only thing that really matters right now is whether you want to help me save her or not.”
He let out a relieved breath. “Great. Then tell me what you know, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Not so fast,” Bella raised a brow, “How about you tell me more about this danger, and I’ll drive.”