Ajax’s Harpy Holiday

Chapter 1

“Take your grimy paws off my damn pie, you bully!” Hildy screamed at the brute currently tussling with her for the last sweet potato pie.

A motorized scooter provided by the supercenter store rolled by as a rather judgmental older lady drove it. She got closer than she should to see what they fought over. When she saw the mangled box of pie, she gawked and shook her head. The mechanical squeal of the vehicle’s motor wailed its disapproval as she passed.

This was a full-fledged battle to win. Hildy snatched the box free and cradled it like a football before the man could respond. Her reflexes were lightning fast. She had no qualms about using them and any of her other considerable attributes to get that pie from this guy. He was trying to take the pie from her.

The nerve.

Right here for the world to see in the bakery section of the giant supercenter, Hildegard Newton was locked in a battle of blind ambition and stubbornness with the large stranger for the last holiday sweet potato pie that everyone was clamoring about. The pie was pitiful-looking by now. Sounds of grunting effort reverberated through the tightly arranged section as they continued to tussle.

“Ow! Really? That’s rich. You stomped on my foot. I was going to give you the pie, but now…” the large man said, pressing in with his weight to wedge himself between her body and fingers.

She elbowed him as she bent down to envelop the pie box into the dip of her stomach. At five feet eleven inches and definitely able to pass for a heavyweight in any fighting class, Hildy took nothing from any one. She could give as good as she got. Her current situation? She was hell-bent with a singular determination on giving this guy the shaft to free her pie.

He continued, what would be a futile attempt if she could help it, to pry her steel-shut fingers off the molested box that contained the one symbol of the holiday she hoped she could capture. There was no way this buffoon was getting out of here with her pie. Hildy wasn’t sure if she’d like sweet potato pie, but she sure as sugar wasn’t giving up the chance to find out.

“I’ve got just as much right to this pie as you do,” he said, huffing between breaths of what she hoped was exertion. “And who are you calling a bully? I’m not the one refusing to act like a lady in public,” he said, allowing the last part of his statement to hint at how un-ladylike she must be to him.

Using her ample hip to distance him from her fingers, Hildy gave him her best shove. Her calculation of his body placement backfired. Instead of pushing him away, her ass cheeks were planted firmly in his crotch. Evidence of their intimate predicament felt hard, thick and long. Jerking away to correct her misstep, Hildy caught his scent.

Delicious, enticing and potent, the scent of testosterone mixed with what could become an addiction if she didn’t stop sniffing the air teased and tempted her nose. Arousal spiked, producing hardened nipples and an itch in her sex. He must have realized their rather intimate position too. Another knee-jerk reaction, this time from him, to dislodge them from this uncomfortable predicament had them snatching away from each other. Angry breaths ripped a savage path out of Hildy. Why had her temper gotten the best of her yet again?

Startled onlookers stood around, eyes locked on the grudge match between her and this rude bastard. She regained enough composure in time to watch the ripped box of the prized pie sail over a middle aisle of deli-prepared food. As the crumpled package crashed into bottles of wine, neatly lined up on the corresponding shelves, rage at the unnecessary loss of the pie reignited her.

Swinging at the man, he dodged, quicker than normal for a man of his size. Sure he had her by about five inches, but she could still take him, had done it hundreds of times before. Getting a good look at him, her stomach leapt. He was attractive and sexy. His footwork didn’t go unnoticed even wearing loose ugly boots, as she advanced. He was light on his feet and a fighter — like her. Still, no matter. He’d pay for ruining her holiday pie. Hildy punched, hoping her hit would connect with his way-too-trim gut. He pivoted, landing behind her. This guy was attempting to humiliate her now.

He had to go down. Still aware of where she was, Hildy wouldn’t resort to her normal strategy. She couldn’t unleash her talons, her go-to gun was in the strong box back at her apartment and this was not the place to unleash one of her killing claws on her feet. Nope, she had to whip his ass with her bare knuckles.

Hildy sensed more than saw the circle forming around them, as she turned and advanced again. Another miss, but this time she felt his large hand cupping her head and keeping her from him.

“You’re going down, pretty boy.” Yep, she was pissed off. Her voice hung out in the lower part of her register. The snarl that punctuated it should be his clue to run too.

And he just smiled.

That was it. She ran, tackling him to the ground. She’d pin him and make him scream for mercy. That would teach him. Getting into position to complete her takedown, or so she hoped because this guy was solid, a different large presence came behind her.

This couldn’t be good. Instinct took over as she rounded, about to swing. Fighting the urge to unleash her claws, Hildy stopped short as a blue uniform loomed over her. It blocked everything else from her sight range.

“And that’s about enough.” Another set of large hands grabbed her from behind as she went up vertically in the air, feet flailing.

It was an ambush. They were attacking her.

“What are you doing? Get your hands off me!” she said as she fought the air still trying her hardest to make contact with the obstinate male who had refused to let go of her pie.

“You’re so stubborn you just wouldn’t let go. I would’ve given it to you, then you punched me!” the man said looking at her with amazement as he was restrained by another man in uniform.

Dang it! The cops were here.

“Right, rough up the black girl while you allow the pretty white boy over there to have it easy,” she said, knowing it could be incendiary. She was fair-skinned, but when it came down to it, black was black. Things could go south fast, depending on the situation with the law.

“We’ll get this sorted out in the back,” the one holding her said. Then he was closer, speaking for her ears only. “And if you’d stop wiggling so much, we wouldn’t have to restrain you as much. He on the other hand,” the cop said, referring to the cute guy who had now been released and was standing there without restraint, “is behaving and acting like he has some control of his faculties. If you stop resisting us, we’ll stop restraining you. Simple.”

Hildy was too angry to give much attention to how pained the men standing next to that guy looked. Their looks were pronounced enough to get a consideration later when she was done with this. It that guy had done something to defend himself from them, she wanted in on how to do it too. Hildy never gave up a chance to learn more techniques. Game recognized game. The cute pie guy was skilled. If he had some tricks she could use, that might be worth playing nice with him after they finished up here.

A guy way smaller and who looked like he was a member of security for the store said, “You two — with me. To the back office, now.”

Hildy knew this wasn’t going to end well. All she’d wanted to do was get something that would make her feel like it was holiday time. Decorations weren’t her thing and she didn’t have family, so festive food had been the answer. Hildy’s one hope was that her holiday would finally go well.

She’d walked into the store looking for some type of way to celebrate. Determined not to spend another holiday sad and lonely even if she was alone, Hildy had made the rare trek to the supercenter to get some sort of festive food. When Hildy saw the woman put one of the prized sweet potato pies she had in her buggy back, she’d made a mad dash over to it.

The crust had a crumbled section, but that wouldn’t stop her. Hildy didn’t need a perfect pie. She needed to feel this magic of the holidays everyone else seemed to have. She needed to feel like she was human and capable of possessing the holiday spirit.

Her fingers had been mere inches from the box that contained the imperfect pie when another large hand swooped in to grab it. Before her mind could connect to her action, she grabbed the hand of the assailant and snatched the box from him. He looked at her, really looked at her in amazement. Brooding hazel eyes with a ring of green stared at her. She didn’t care.

This was her pie, damn it. She’d gotten to it first. There was no way she’d let some guy come in at the last moment and take her pie away. This was her connection to the holiday. It was the last pie and her last chance at having her freaking warm and fuzzy holiday spirit.

Sure, he hadn’t hit her or done anything directly to her, but his refusal to let go of that pie and then ruining it was too much. So what if she found herself attracted to him. It wasn’t like he’d paid her any attention. All he’d wanted was that stupid pie. Now in the back, sitting so close to him, heat radiated off him like a furnace. Although everything within her wanted to get a better look at him, Hildy didn’t want to chance getting into it again. He might be cute but he was still on her shit list for ruining her pie and landing her in here.

Chapter 2

The cramped little office she’d been hauled off to was dull and dusty. Hildy sat there with her hands folded across her chest determined not to look at or say anything to this sexy guy, who sat inches away from her. Hildy continued to feel the heat emanating from him as he appeared to fume with quiet anger. She didn’t care. That’s what he got for trying to take a pie away from a determined woman.

“So you’re just going to sit there and pretend like it’s not your fault we’re sitting here in this office?”

“Nope, sure am not.”

He huffed. “Unbelievable… and you’re not going to apologize for hitting me?” he asked.

Hate to admit it, but his voice matched his appeal. It was strong, deep and fairly calm. She could easily respect it, if he hadn’t tried to take her pie, that is. Hildy tamped down the tinge of guilt creeping up at hitting him so hard. She hadn’t held back and knew he must be feeling the aftermath of her rage now.

“No, because I didn’t do anything. You were the one who tried to steal that pie from me. You ruined it, you insufferable brute.”

“My, my, how delusional we are today.”

“Delusional? You’re the one who’s delusional. I’m simply stating a fact. You can’t bully me as you just found out. Take that crap somewhere else, because I’m not having it. No, you’re sitting here because of what you did. I had nothing to do with the fact that you chose to fight with a lady over a pie she already had dibs on.”

“Dibs? You were standing there looking at a lot of stuff. I knew what I wanted and went for it. I can’t help it if you were in a daze. You only decided you wanted that pie when you saw me get it.”

“I was reaching for it, you Neanderthal… fighting with me over my pie! I’m a woman you know.”

“You weren’t fast enough. You snooze, you lose. And, I never hit you. I wouldn’t hit a woman, no matter how much she was asking for it. You’re excessively mean, you know that, right? Stomping, kicking and punching me, was totally uncalled for. But, I never returned the attack. You should learn some manners. It was just a four-buck pie. You were way out of line.”

“Yeah, well… you’re childish, you know that? I hope they throw the book at you.” She didn’t like how riled up this guy was making her — again.

“It takes one to know one. And yeah, it’s your fault we’re in here. If you’d just let go and realized you were in the wrong, we wouldn’t be stuck in here.”

“Hey, don’t try to blame anything on me because it’s not my fault that your actions landed you here. I’m grown enough to accept when I’ve done something. You can learn a lesson from that.” There, she’d regained enough of her composure to respond like a sane adult.

The door swung open and the two men in police uniforms entered the tiny dingy room. Hildy gave them a quick once over and concluded she had no feelings, one way or the other, for them. They came in and scowled at the two of them. The older of the two, with rust-colored hair, grimaced as he looked between them. Guess it was time to get this show going. He had the threat level of a gingerbread cookie, if she had to rank it.

“I can’t believe you two were fighting over a pie in the middle of the store. You were in front of everyone, including children.” He stared at them as if trying to infuse guilt or embarrassment.

Hildy couldn’t care less what he thought. She wanted to get out of here and find another pie to have her holiday before the stores closed. He continued to eye them. She’d play nice for now.

Uncrossing her arms to show him how much his act was not affecting her, Hildy sat up a little straighter. Then she allowed a little bit of a smile to lift the corners of her mouth. The officer blinked, her actions clearly throwing him off. Just as she thought. His interrogation skills were sorely lacking. Yep, she could do better with the flu and a one hundred and five-degree fever.

The other officer came in and sat down at the desk with papers in hand. He made a great show of shuffling them; possibly attempting to get the two of them to be a little more nervous. It wasn’t working. She could sense the cute guy’s agitation, growing by the second at this Barney Fife show.

These guys were lightweights. Time to get out of here.

Hildy looked over at the guy sitting next to her. She knew he was pissed but his demeanor portrayed him as calm as she was. What was his deal? She found herself running possible ideas of who he was and what he did — besides fight. He wasn’t flinching or getting agitated anymore. Instead, he was as calm as could be.

Intriguing.

A quick look at a hand he had resting on his lap didn’t show signs of any type of profession. Sure, it was strong, large with long fingers that conveyed power. Other than that, she couldn’t readily pick up any other clues about him. His jeans fit just right, not too tight and not too loose. His t-shirt beneath a flannel shirt showed he had some sense of dress. And his hair was a deep mahogany brown, full of waves and thickness.

She changed her previous assessment of his ability to dress like he had some sense when she caught sight of the God-awful set of silicone rubber galoshes he wore. It wasn’t raining and they were the kind that could lace up like boots. Except he hadn’t lace them up. What sort of sloppy mess was he into? He might be just as crazy as he was fine and gorgeous. Hildy would watch her back with him. She continued to take in what she could out of her periphery until the original officer’s voice cut through the small office.

“Since it’s the holiday season and the store doesn’t want the unnecessary publicity, they’re not going to press charges. But, you two must leave the store immediately without incident. Do you understand me?” the older rusty haired man asked still attempting to look menacing. Yep, Barney Fife right here in the flesh.

Hildy tried with all her might not to giggle at him. If she didn’t know better she’d say he was too nervous to keep going. She’d give him a bone and nodded her head in agreement. Hildy wanted nothing more than to get out of here and go home — after she found another pie. The guy sitting next to her followed suit, nodding his own head.

The younger officer who sat at the desk shuffling papers spoke up. “Each of you are to sign here.” He pushed papers in front of Hildy and then to the quiet, cute guy, as he pointed to a blank line for them to sign. “This is an affidavit. It says you understand that you are not allowed on the premises of this store again.” He paused to look at each of them. “You sign and you can go. Don’t sign and you can go with us.”

Well, I’ll be. Someone has a wee bit of a backbone in here.

She liked this young officer way better than the older fidgeting one that still stood with his hands on his hips slightly above his firearm. Hildy returned her attention to the younger officer sitting at the desk. He leveled a look on her that let her know he wasn’t as quiet as he’d made it out to be. She knew that look. He liked to fight. Looked like there were three fighters and a fidgeter here in this small spot.

“I’ll be happy to sign. Here?” the man asked, snatching the papers and positioning them on his knee to prepare to sign, instead of using the table in front of him.

Uh-uh, they weren’t going to get her as easily.

“I need time to read what this says. After I’ve read it then I may or may not sign. Do I at least get a phone call before I have to sign?” she asked.

What Hildy wasn’t prepared to do was give them an inroad to find out more about her. They didn’t need to have any clue. What she couldn’t let them know was that in her line of work she couldn’t put her name on anything official. What she did was classified. To this store, she’d remain anonymous. Let the agency handle this. The slightest blip on the radar and her handler would be notified. Mr. Scott wouldn’t be happy about this latest adventure of hers, but she was sure he’d fix it.

The younger officer sat back in the chair and stared at her as if trying to figure out her angle. It was his turn to cross his arms over his chest as he spoke up, “Ma’am, you can either sign or you can go with us. Once we get you to the station and booked, you can make that phone call you asked about.” The grin that spread across his face confirmed he was the real one in charge between the two of the officers.

Running a quick calculation in her head to see just how much trouble she would be in after this, the decision was made. She still wouldn’t sign anything. Hildy would roll the dice.

“I’ll just have to take my chances then. Now I know I’m not signing anything,” she said.

The other guy had signed all three pages and slammed the pen and the pages down on the desk in front of him. He looked between the two officers, totally ignoring her, and said, “I signed. Am I free to go? I don’t have a problem never coming back here again.”

The younger officer refused to take his eyes off Hildy as he said, “Yes, sir, you’re free to go. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Hildy didn’t care one way or the other what the other guy did. She did wish she’d gotten to learn his name though. For posterity of retelling the story, that is. She watched his impressive ass beat a track to the door. Out he went without a backward glance.

When she turned back around, the young officer was still engaged in his stare. Wasn’t he adorable? Not.

After a sigh of her tiredness with this whole mess seeped out, Hildy informed them both, “There’s no way I’m putting my name on any papers. Happy Holidays.”

Chapter 3

Ajax… Later at the Clan Lair that evening

“You won’t believe what happened to me,” Ajax said, bursting through the large doors of the Clan’s Lair.

If the building were visible on the Earthly plane, to the ordinary human eye it would look like a gym. Instead, the Lair was the home of the Dragon and Gryphon brethren known as the Dragofin Clan. More than that, it was their Interdimensional home base that straddled various dimensions and contained a sanctioned entrance to Inner Earth.

On the ground floor, Matt and Nolan were the only ones in the common area. They sparred in the octagon. Matt defended against an offensive combination from Nolan, landing a solid roundhouse kick, hook, and punch to ring Nolan’s bell as Jax approached.

“For the gazillionth time, watch your damn guard. I could do that because you left yourself wide open.” Matt helped Nolan up from the mat and added, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a dragon when not in shifted form. Quit celebrating your small wins each time you complete a combination or land a punch, and stay focused. We’re fighting enemies who don’t obey the gravity rules of Earth. Close combat is messy, and most of your opponents don’t fight clean. Nolan, stay alert!” Matt continued to move, urging Nolan to come at him again.

Ajax approached the ring as Matt took a punch to the chest. Nolan flipped backward landing on the upper portion of the cage above.

“Nice!” Matt clapped, giving Nolan props for clever improvisation. Noticing Ajax, he added, “Change and join us. Your turn next. We still need to work on your jumps, landing, and takedowns before you go out tonight to take on that sex trafficking operation.”

As Nolan and Ajax’s gryphon partner and trainer, Matt was tasked with not only fighting with them but also in their training. As a gryphon, he was also imbued with mystical abilities. Matt could diffuse most situations with his presence alone. This worked especially well when dealing with Ajax and his older brother, Nolan.

Ajax continued to vibrate with excitement and the aftershock of his encounter with that woman from the supercenter. He had to tell them or explode from the impact of her touch.

“Yes, but did you guys hear what I just said?” Ajax, or Jax as he was known to the Clan, asked.

Looking over to him, Nolan said, “What are you going on about? I need to focus. Matt’s been kicking my ass all damn session. On the next mission at the portal, I’m going to do more close-up combat with him. Now either get to the point or let me go back to getting my ass handed to me.”

“You know you can be such a twit, Nolan.” Ajax didn’t like it when his brothers treated him like he was still a child. In human years, he was thirty and well into adulthood.

“Nolan, take a break. What happened to you, Jax? And where’s my sweet potato pie?” Matt exited the Octagon and started adjusting the wraps on his wrists and hands.

“That’s just it. I tried to get the pie from that supercenter you told me about. And get this… a woman fought me for it.”

“So what, you gave her the pie. No worries. Lucien went on and ordered some from Miss Connie anyway.” Matt said, waving it off.

“No, you don’t understand. This wasn’t some ordinary woman. She could touch me without anything happening to her. And, she’s strong. I’m talking superhuman strong.”

Nolan was out of the cage now and standing behind Jax. “Is this your way of telling us you got your ass beat by a strong woman at the grocery store?”

Ajax swung around to confront Nolan. He was annoying for no good reason. “Shut the hell up and listen to me. What I’m trying to say is that I felt something. You know, a spark like she’s more than just human.”

Matt asked, “Do you think she’s like Julia then? If so, you have to let Lucien know immediately. He’s still trying to make sure she stays away from you.”

“No, she’s not like her. I promise.”

“Then where and who is she?” Nolan asked.

“I was so thrown off by the encounter; I had to get out of there to think straight. I believe she lives close by but got out of the office they were holding us in too fast to learn much about her.”

“What office? Back up and start from the beginning. Give up the details,” Matt said.

The last think Ajax wanted to do was tell the whole story. He wasn’t proud of how he’d acted with her. It was something about her that made him want to challenge and subdue her at any cost. He’d been turned on by her too. It was like she was his and he had to make her see that. Ajax still craved her touch.

Two pairs of eyes stared at him, waiting.

“All right. I went to the supercenter to get that sweet potato pie like you asked. When I got to the area where they were, I might have snatched the pie from in front of her.”

“You didn’t. Jax, your a Guardian and she’s a female. We honor them, and not steal pies from them.” Matt’s rebuke sort of hurt, because Ajax knew better but couldn’t help himself.

That was the problem. Around her, he’d lost his shit and couldn’t think rationally.

“Go on, finish telling us what you did,” Nolan said.

A punch between the eyes would knock him out. Why did it have to be Nolan here and not any of his other brothers? Hell, he’d even take the twins over Nolan’s arrogant ass.

Matt raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue. When Ajax remained silent, he sent him a gentle mental nudge.

“Tell me what happened. I’ll get Nolan to shut up. Something’s up with you, and I need to know what it is. It seems like this encounter shook you.”

Ajax nodded.

“Hey, not cool you two. No talking in front of me like that,” Nolan said, although Ajax thought it sounded more like a whine than anything.

“Hush up; you don’t have a problem doing it all the time when everyone’s together. Be quiet and let your brother get through his story before you interrupt him again.” Matt gave Nolan a look that meant he would make it hurt if he didn’t do as Matt said. “I mean it. Take a break, shut up and listen. Somethings up, I can feel it.”

After Nolan had taken a seat on one of the nearby benches, Ajax started again. “When she snatched the pie box out of my hands, it felt like a switch clicked on. I couldn’t help myself. I had this weird mix of emotions going on. I had to win, subdue her and… I wanted her. I was attracted to her like she was the only woman I’d ever wanted. Crazy right?” he asked looking at both of the other men.

Matt took a seat too. “Jax, you know human women are off limits, no matter how attracted you are to them. Have you thought that it might have been adrenaline causing her to ignore any sensations from contact with you?”

Ajax thought about it for a minute. “No, it — she was different. We spent some time in the office after the police were called. She was fine — mean and aggressive — but fine. Nothing she did suggested she was in pain. If anything, I thought it was strange she wasn’t winded or taxed in the least bit. Around her, she drove me crazy. I was caught between attraction for her and anger. When I was in her presence, I wanted to be kind. Instead, I was irritated, terse and aroused by her. The entire time I had to concentrate not to reach out and touch her. I wanted her so badly, my skin burned. Has that ever happened to either of you before?”

Matt shook his head. “No, nothing like that. Just the usual fleeting attraction here and there. I suggest you speak with Lucien about it, though. He or Greg might know more. They’ve been around long enough to remember what it was like back home. Whatever this is, I believe you. One thing about you, Jax, your instincts are solid. Not like your brother here, who couldn’t detect a solar flare, if it blinded him.”

Nolan spoke up. “Watch it Matt. No need to bash me to make him feel better.” When he looked over to Ajax, his expression was serious, sending a cue to Ajax to pay attention to what he said. “Bro, I know I give you a hard time, but like Matt, I think you may be on to something. Did she say or do anything that indicated she knew who you were?”

“No, she was just pissed I had the pie. She was laser focused on getting it from me. The more she fought, the more I tried to keep her from winning. Then the store security and police came and broke us apart.” Ajax didn’t like how bad he sounded in the retelling of what went down. “Matt… Nolan, you know I’d never treat a woman like that. I don’t know what came over me.”

Matt spoke up. “Jax, take a moment. How do you feel now, telling us about your encounter with her?”

“That’s easy. I feel like shit. Looking back at the situation, I fucked up. Instead of fleeing the scene as fast as possible, I should have slowed down, apologized and gotten more information about her. I can’t stop thinking about her and how I should have handled it better. Matt, I need to find her.”

“Maybe the Goddess will smile on you, and you’ll meet her again. For right now, though, change and meet me back here. You’ve got to be ready for tonight.” Then Matt softened his posture, and Ajax recognized his compassionate side coming forward. “We’ll figure out something — promise. But for real, right now, I need you to get your mind right. You’re solo tonight, and I don’t want you messing up, thinking about this mystery woman. Got it?”

“Got it.”

Ajax changed and joined Matt, sparring and giving it his all for the rest of the afternoon.

Chapter 4

“Hildy, if you weren’t so damn good at your job, I’d leave you here to rot.” Mr. Scott was his usual sourpuss self. “I mean, it’s two days before Christmas and you still manage to wind up in jail.”

She refused to say anything. Respond and this could wind up taking forever. She wanted to get out of here and away from him and people. Her little experiment to fit in and do something festive had backfired. Now she wanted the solitude of her own nest — her small but comfortable apartment.

He stopped in the parking lot a few feet from his luxury sedan. She’d known it was coming — the lecture. Instead he gave her a look that revealed how tired he was.

As if pleading he said, “Why can’t you stay out of trouble? I know you’re only twenty-three and prone to adventure, but I don’t like having to come down to the police station. Do you know how hard it is to dodge explaining why they shouldn’t book you? Or, why I have the special permission I do to take you out of there without any trace?”

She didn’t answer. This was the first time he’d ever had to come bail her out of any situation. Mr. Scott liked to have something to complain about. If it hadn’t been this, then he would have found something else to go on about. He was deep into his normal tirade and nothing she could say would make him stop it. Instead she remained quiet, not moving. Looking at her as if he wanted to yank her, he stopped as well. Mr. Scott knew better than to touch her. Instead, he walked faster toward his car. Hildy didn’t follow.

He turned around and asked, “What now? Hildy, I don’t have time for this. It’s getting late and my family is waiting on me for dinner. Please, get in the car so I can take you to wherever you live these days.”

“I’m going to walk from here. I’ve got it and thank you for coming,” she said, not mentioning the fact that Mr. Scott should be thanking her for refusing to put her name on any type of documents. She knew this ultimately would save him and the headaches that would come from above. So, what? This was part of his job. It was hard being… nice to him, but if this is what it took to throw him off her intentions, she’d do it.

“Hildy, please, don’t be like that. I need to get you home and know you’re safe… and not causing any more trouble. Plus, I need to discuss something else with you.”

Hildy eyed him in the dark. With extraordinary vision, she could make out every line and crease that gave away his agitation. He wanted to make sure she wouldn’t cause him any more trouble tonight. Like hell. Knowing him, he wanted to send her out on another assignment.

No, not tonight.

There was no way she wanted to give him any satisfaction of her doing anything he asked of her. This man deserved nothing and least of all, her loyalty. His assurance? Yeah right.

She said, “Nah, I’m good. I’m going to walk and I promise I won’t get into anything else tonight. You go on home to your family and I’ll see you in the new year.”

Before he could respond she took off at a speed faster than any human and didn’t stop until she was a few miles down the road. The buzz in the back pocket of her jeans signaled dread. It was him.

“Yes?” She already knew who it was.

“I wasn’t finished speaking with you.” Mr. Scott’s voice had the irritation-laced tone she’d come to expect. This was more like him. “Unfortunately, you have an assignment tonight.”

“What? It’s two days before Christmas. I’m off until after the new year. You know that.”

“I do, but this is an emergency. It appears that there is a large transfer taking place tonight and you’re the best um… person, to handle it.”

His pause didn’t go unnoticed. Hildy had trained herself to ignore his stumbles and foibles when interacting with her. But today, it hurt — more than it should. He didn’t view her as human or worth the compassion of a living, breathing person. Instead, he handled her like an object that could talk. She was the asset and he was the handler. Mr. Scott had referred to her as such too many times to count. That’s why tonight it would be easy telling him to suck it. He had a family to go home to and she had… well, she had another pie to locate before the stores closed for Christmas Eve.

“Hildy, please. It’s true.”

She waited, determined to stand her ground. Hildy hated being too dependable and predictable. Mr. Scott would have to find someone else to do this tonight.

He spoke again, that strain of tiredness etching his words. “I tried to get someone else to take the assignment but everyone had already left to be with their family and friends. When I had to come and get you from lock up, the order came for you to take the assignment. You know, as a sort of payback for your antics.”

“You didn’t have to come get me. Remember, I wasn’t the one who called you.”

“But you know what would have happened if I didn’t come to get you. We both know.”

“I’m not that bad.”

“Really? Hildy, your temperament is what makes you so good at your job and so hard to handle. There’s no way we could have allowed you to stay in lock up any longer than necessary. I’d hate to think what could have happened.”

“I would have been fine and stayed there until they arraigned me.”

“Hmm doubtful, but if that were true, who would have posted bail for you?”

“Me. I could have posted my own bail.”

She wanted to shut this down. Pain that was old and familiar weighed her down. Hildy wasn’t some loose cannon, going off at the slightest provocation. No, she was a highly skilled recovery expert. Her ability to do her job had nothing to do with her temper. But it was more than that. He played on the fact that she had no family, like she had nothing else better to do than to do the agency’s bidding. True, she didn’t have anyone to go home to, but he didn’t have to take her for granted either.

“Is that so? You could have made bail?” His voice grated on her nerves.

He didn’t believe her and she had to fight the urge to play into his hand. No way was she divulging any more non-essential information about herself. That last bit of information had been too much as it was. Mr. Scott might be a lot of things but stupid or daft wasn’t one of them. Determined to stop this train before it crashed, Hildy put more force behind her words this time.

“Enough with the talking. I’ll take the assignment. Send the details.”

“Good. I thought you’d see it that way.”

A tiny thrill slid through her as the screen of her phone gave her the best news of the day — call ended.

Chapter 5

Hildy crouched, perched high up on an adjacent building, still as stone. Crisp night air snaked down her throat as she took in large gulps to steady her breathing. The prospect of killing always did this to her. Mr. Scott had done it again, gotten her to take the assignment before knowing what it entailed. Although she was a natural at it, killing never left her in a normal state. It took time to siphon out the finality of death each of her marks tattooed onto her soul.

Cursing herself for being too gullible, Hildy fumed at how he’d played her again. He might be annoying, old and sour, but Mr. Scott’s game was smooth.

Hildy looked down at the top she wore. The material was heavy in the front with more flexible and lighter fabric in the back. The back had an opening to allow for her wings to expand. It had taken her more than a few tries to develop the right kind of top for these missions. With a hook at the neck and then clasps starting at the waist, she had room for her wings, while not having to completely expose her back. A shudder of cold ran through her. One thing that sucked was the amount of night air her back was still exposed to.

The good thing about her look was that in normal form, she looked like any other black girl nerd geek. That was the look she pulled off best.

Here she sat, waiting for her latest mark hoping it wouldn’t take much longer. Hildy never got their names when the intel was as solid as it was tonight. He was a pervert and human sex trafficker. Tonight, this would be a natural kill. He needed to feel what it felt like to have forceful hands laid on him for a change. Weapons would be too merciful, too quick.

No, she hadn’t brought any guns, ammo, knives, or anything else. Based on what this guy was up to now, she had no problems using her natural skills and ability to end his life. This guy was part of the scum class and she’d provide the service needed to do away with him without hesitation. The mantra instilled in her through her teachers from years of training played through her mind as she prepared to do her job…

Some souls inflicted too much pain on others to continue breathing.

Sounds of a heavy set of reinforced doors opening cut through the night. Eyes, able to see tiny details for miles, located the exact spot as Hildy had allowed only what she needed to complete this job to emerge — her talons and wings. Once again, she pushed back the loathing that accompanied the unleashing of this part of herself. No time to process why she was like this or how to be rid of it. Right now, she had a job to do.

The door she’d been staring at for over an hour opened as a golden light from inside traced its outline. Her mark stepped out, but he had someone with him — two other men and… young girls.

“Hell.”

More sounds floated up, pricking her acute hearing. This time it was voices. Cocking her head to decipher them, Hildy shifted through the extraneous background noise of city life to isolate the target. Young feminine voices carried whimpers and cries as he spewed invective at the assembled group. She had to move.

Adrenaline increased making her edgier than was good. Hildy didn’t like it when this happened. She was too invested in this. Mr. Scott had sold her on the assignment when he said the victims were underage teens. The longer her body pumped with aggression, the harder it took to shift back. The last thing she wanted was to scare these kids. It had only taken one time for Hildy to learn that harsh lesson — full humans couldn’t handle seeing her like this. Perched on this corner of the skyscraper, where the wind shear was the most grueling didn’t feel great, but it would do in a pinch to help her get back into her skin.

Hildy watched as the men pushed the young women too hard, forcing them toward a waiting service van. It was now or never, but she hadn’t counted on the young women being there as well. With keen eyes, she knew must look more bird than human, Hildy took in the surroundings and recalculated what she’d have to do to take him out. She decided instead of letting him see his demise, she would make use of the shadows in the element of surprise. Hildy looked at the young women and how he now dragged some of them along. She’d make sure he paid for his mistreatment of these young women too.

A shadowed figure caught the corner of her eye as she prepared to descend. No matter, she’d take care of the lookout after this gutless wonder met his maker. All sense of cold left when she stood, balancing on the building ornament to expand her wings. In this full, powerful state, Hildy allowed her body to free fall forward down into a dive.

As she came closer to the alley of the building she angled her body to glide into the cover of darkness. This man was going to meet his worst nightmare in the shadows. Closing in on the ground, she pulled her wings in tight to her body. Aerodynamics came instinctively to her and this was how she could skim the surface of the ground without making too much noise.

When she was within ten feet, Hildy still hadn’t seen or sensed anything out of what she’d already taken in. One of her fighting claws extended out of her foot in preparation. This would be short, quick and quiet. No use exciting the young women any more than needed. As she went in for the kill, someone from behind her clasped a hand on her leg and tugged. She crashed to the ground

“What the hell?” The whispered shock came out before she could catch it.

Hildy made a valiant effort to ditch the figure, striking at it in the darkness. It moved lightning fast, gaining on her to clasp her talon-tipped hands together — inhumanly fast. She gave a determined yank, only to have the grip tighten. Quieting herself to gain the offensive, Hildy looked up to see the figure remove a hood of a jacket. Enticing scents of musk, spicy cinnamon and testosterone fused with her nostrils to play with her senses. It couldn’t be. Only a moment expired before it registered on both of them.

They said in unison, “You — oh God, no.”

Standing here, messing up her assignment was the cute guy that had ruined her pie. This sucked major swamp ass.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, as if he was scolding a child.

“That’s classified. Now get out of my way. You’re obstructing me from my assignment.”

“Your assignment… and what would that be? It seems like it’s getting in the way of others.”

She watched as a distant light caught a fleck of green from his eyes.

Beautiful.

Shaking off that wayward thought, Hildy focused in time to see him take in her talons. The lump that hit the bottom of her stomach reminded her of how hideous she must be right now. Never mind, there was no time. As a matter of fact, time was wasting and she needed to get the mark before it was too late.

“I don’t have time to explain in a way that you can understand. Trust me though, I have to get going or some innocent people are going to get hurt.” Willing her eyes to soften and shift back from black to their normal deep brown, she continued, “Please let me go. I have an important task to do. If you don’t get in my way, I promise to circle back around and make sure you’re all right.”

And he just smiled. The jerk.

Eying her as if this was a normal thing to see a woman with features like a bird of prey, he released her and nodded. “Go do your thing, but after, we talk. Got it?”

“Got it, now get out of the way, pretty boy,” she said, not waiting to allow him time to do it.

Hildy reached out with her mind to check for vibrations and movements in the air. They were still here. It appeared the girls were putting up a fight. Good.

“Hold on, I’m coming,” she whispered as her wings unfolded in preparation for takeoff.

Her climb was short but fast. Only about fifteen feet off the ground, Hildy made quick work of the distance between her and the van. Thankful the area was next to a noisy patch of Interstate, she used the sounds to cover the flapping of her wings. It never seemed to amaze her at how infrequently people looked up. They were occupied to obsession with what was directly in front of them. This was a flaw she’d used many times to foil a target.

Once she was directly over the target, Hildy locked on to him, digging the curved talons of her feet deep into his back, scraping along his spinal column. The screams he let loose rivaled an operatic soprano in volume, force and conviction.

“Yeah, how do you like it when someone makes you scream?” she asked, allowing herself this one moment to engage the mark. But her assignment was termination and not interrogation.

“Wait! I need to get some information from him,” cute pie guy — she had to get his name soon — called out behind her.

“That’s not my assignment.”

“It’s mine,” he said, staring at the mark like he wanted to kill him too. “Okay, I get it. We’re on opposite ends of a lot of things tonight, but I have to find out where he was to take them.” He looked up at her with a pleading look, locking her in a duel of stare downs. “That’s my assignment.”

“Fine, but make it quick. And, I’m not releasing him.” She didn’t want to risk this one getting away.

“Thanks.” He gave her a quick nod and proceeded to launch a barrage of questions at the guy.

When the mark was hesitant to answer, Hildy dug in a little more. Soon and she’d get to vital organs. This mark was stubborn; she’d give him that. Once cute pie guy had gotten quite a bit of valuable information from him, he gave her another quick nod, then turned his attention to the girls. She could smell their shock and trauma from up here. This bastard had abused them in too many ways for her to count. Opting to make this part more private, Hildy lifted him off the ground, moving him closer to the back of the building.

“Let go of me, you monster. Let go. I’m not the guy you’re looking for. I’m just the transporter. Ask ’em, you know, the girls. Ask them and they’ll tell you.”

“Is that so? I smelled you on them just now. You perverted piece of shit. They’re kids. How could you? This is some sick shit. You know that?”

Hildy was beyond caring about who was whom. She wanted to get this done and those girls to safety.

“I’m innocent. I’m just here for the money. There’s a shit ton of money. I know, I could give you a cut of my part. Just let me go. No one has to know.”

“But I’d know.” The adrenaline was back. The beast within knew when it had its prey. Her beast wanted to end this dreg of society.

“You monstrous bitch. Let me go. I didn’t do nothing.”

Hildy saw him fumbling for what must be his gun wedged into the back of his jeans.

Time to get to killing.

She heard cute pie guy in the distance corralling the other men, as the girls did what he asked of them. It appeared he must be the liaison the agency had sent to deal with them. She never dealt with the victims when she was in this state. Good, more time to deal with this trash and no need to worry about shifting back to interact with those young women.

Extending the killing clawed talons on both feet, she punctured his back. Warm blood oozed. It was deep in color, the blood used to infuse life force to him. Hildy had pierced an organ. More blood burst out as she dug in deeper. She’d let gravity have a little bit of the retribution too. Pulling up in a vertical assent, Hildy felt the weight of him sagging beneath her. Yes, gravity would help her mete out his end. It would pull on him, straining his ability to breathe as the air grew thinner.

Then they were higher up, but not too high. She had to be more careful than ever. Of late, irritating drones were everywhere, messing up her flight patterns and causing havoc. The bastard was heavier than she had anticipated but with strength and determination she pulled him back up to her perch on the adjoining building. Once she cleared the roof, Hildy dropped the man the ten feet she’d climbed to clear the twelve-story building’s roof and landed. His crumpled form lay still as she swooped back around to make the fatal blow.

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