Fate's Edge (The Edge #3)

by Ilona Andrews

PROLOGUE

IF she had only one word to describe Dominic Milano, it would be "unflappable," Audrey Callahan reflected. Stocky, hard, balding - he looked like he had just walked out of central casting after successfully landing the role of "bulldog-jawed older detective." He owned Milano Investigations, and under his supervision, the firm ran like clockwork. No emergency rattled Dominic. He never raised his voice. Nothing knocked him off his stride. Before moving to the Pacific Northwest, he'd retired from the Miami Police Department with more than a thousand homicide cases under his belt. He'd been there and done that, so nothing surprised him.

That was why watching his furry eyebrows creep up on his forehead was so satisfying.

Dominic plucked the top photograph from the stack on his desk. In it, Spenser "Spense" Bailey jogged down the street. The next shot showed Spense bending over. The next one caught him in a classic baseball-pitch pose, right leg raised, leaning back, a tennis ball in his fingers. Which would be fine and dandy, except that according to his doctor, Spense suffered from a herniated disk in his spine. He was restocking a warehouse when a walk-behind forklift got away from him, and the accident caused him constant, excruciating pain. He could frequently be seen limping around the neighborhood with a cane or a walker. He needed help to get into a car, and he couldn't drive because the injured disk pinched the nerve in his right leg.

Dominic glanced at Audrey. "These are great. We've been following this guy for weeks, and nothing. How did you get these?"

"A very short tennis skirt. He hobbles past a tennis court every Tuesday and Thursday on the way to his physical-therapy sessions." The hardest part was hitting the ball so it would fly over the tall fence. A loud gasp and a run with an extra bounce in her step, and she had him. "Keep looking. It gets better."

Dominic flipped through the stack. The next photo showed Spense with a goofy grin on his face carrying two cups of coffee, maneuvering between tables at Starbucks with the grace of a deer.

"You bought him coffee?" Dominic's eyebrows crawled a little higher.

"Of course not. He bought me coffee. And a fruit salad." Audrey grinned.

"You really enjoy doing this, don't you?" Dominic reflected.

She nodded. "He's a liar and a cheat, who's been out of work for months on the company's dime." And he thought he was so smart. He was practically begging to be cut down to size, and she had just the right pruning shears. Chop-chop.

Dominic moved the coffee picture aside and stopped. "Is this what I think this is?"

The next image showed Spense grasping a man in a warm-up suit from behind and tossing him backward over his head onto a mat.

"That would be Spense demonstrating a German suplex for me." Audrey gave him a bright smile. "Apparently he's an amateur MMA fighter. He goes to do his physical therapy on the first floor, and, after the session is over, he walks up the stairs to spar."

Dominic put his hands together and sighed.

Something was wrong. She leaned back. "Suddenly you don't seem happy."

Dominic grimaced. "I look at you, and I'm confused. People who do the best in our line of work are unremarkable. They look just like anyone else, and they're easily forgettable, so suspects don't pay attention to them. They have some law-enforcement experience, usually at least some college. You're too pretty, your hair is too red, your eyes are too big, you laugh too loud, and, according to your transcripts, you barely graduated from high school."

Warning sirens wailed in her head. Dominic required proof of high-school graduation before employment, so she brought him both her diploma and her senior-year transcript. For some reason, he had bothered to pull her file and review the contents. Her driver's license was first-rate because it was real. Her birth certificate and her high-school record would pass a cursory inspection, but if he dug any deeper, he'd find smoke. And if he took her fingerprints, he would find criminal records in two states.

Audrey kept the smile firmly in place. "I can't help having big eyes."

Dominic sighed again. "Here's the deal: I hire freelancers to save money. My full-time guys are experienced and educated, which means I have to pay them a decent wage for their time. Unless there is serious money involved, I can't afford for them to sit on a tough suspect for months, waiting for him to slip up. They get four weeks to crack a case. After that, I have to outsource this kind of stuff to freelancers like you because I can pay you per job. An average freelancer might close one case every couple of months. It's a good part-time gig for most people."

He was telling her things she already knew. Nothing to do but nod.

"You've been freelancing for me for five months. You closed fourteen cases. That's a case every two weeks. You made twenty grand." Dominic fixed her with his unblinking stare. "I can't afford to keep you on as a freelancer."

What? "I made you money!"

He held up his hand. "You're too expensive, Audrey. The only way this professional relationship is going to survive is if you come to work for me full-time."

She blinked.

"I'll start you off at thirty grand a year with benefits. Here's the paperwork." Dominic handed her a manila envelope. "If you decide to take me up on it, I'll see you Monday."

"I'll think about it."

"You do that."

Audrey swiped the file. Her grifter instincts said, "Play it cool," but then, she didn't have to con people anymore. Not those who hired her, anyway. "Thank you. Thank you so much. This means the world to me."

"Everybody needs a chance, Audrey. You earned yours. We'd be glad to have you." Dominic extended his hand over the desk. She shook it and left the office.

A real job. With benefits. Holy crap.

She took the stairs, jogging down the steps to burn off some excitement. A real job being one of the good guys. How about that?

If her parents ever found out, they would flip.

AUDREY drove down Rough Ocean Road away from Olympia. Her blue Honda powered on through the gray drizzle that steadily soaked the west side of Cascades. A thick blanket of dense clouds smothered the sky, turning the early evening gloomy and dark. Trees flanked the road: majestic Douglas firs with long emerald needles; black cottonwoods, tall and lean, catching the rain with large branches; red alders with silver-gray bark that almost glowed in the dusk.