Once in a while, Ricardo Torralba hit the hired gun jackpot and scored a job in a high-rise office building. For all the owners of those places convinced themselves their properties were ultra-secure, they were… not. Hundreds of people came and went all day long, and sometimes that continued well into the night. Security had neither the time nor the inclination to give photo IDs more than a cursory glance, and those who did were quickly chewed out by important people in a hurry to conduct important business. Briefcases were as much a part of the scenery as frazzled workers, shouted cell phone conversations, and the ever-present marcato of dress shoes and high heels on hard floors.
About the only thing Ricardo didn’t like about working in an office building was that he usually had to wear a suit to blend in—God, he hated suits—but the hits paid top dollar and most of those places had excellent coffee shops on their ground floors. A hundred grand and a perfect caramel macchiato? He couldn’t complain. Those jobs were the best.
Today, Ricardo was on a job, but he wasn’t going into an office building.
No, this contract meant working in his absolute least favorite venue—some rich asshole’s fortified citadel of a mansion. In this case, the multimillion-dollar monstrosity belonging to tech billionaire Lance Baldwin. Ricardo was more than happy to take out that fuckwit for a lot of reasons, but his liaison had insisted it had to happen at Baldwin’s home.
“It doesn’t matter why,” she’d told him after giving him a laundry list of strict rules about the when, where, and how. “This is the job. Take it or leave it.”
He would’ve been happy to leave it. After all, he had plenty of money and plenty of work, and he didn’t need that kind of bullshit in his life. The problem was all the bullshit that could follow on the very rare occasion he did turn down a job. “Take it or leave it” in this line of work basically meant “take the job, or get shot because you know about the job.”
At least the employer had sweetened the deal this time with a five-million-dollar payday. In cash. With half of it upfront.
Okay, fine. Twist his arm.
In the moment, all the inconveniences associated with infiltrating the mini Fort Knox home of a self-important prick had seemed minor in comparison to the suitcase full of cash. This afternoon, as he drove a shitty exterminator van toward the Baldwin compound, his thought process was basically Damn it, past-Ricardo. What were you thinking?
No matter. He was here, he’d taken the deposit, and there was no turning back until Lance Baldwin was dead. And at least he didn’t have to wear a suit, though his tactical gear was a little uncomfortable beneath the stained gray Pest Assassin coveralls. He could live with it.
In an effort to hide in plain sight, Ricardo conspicuously drove past three of the wall-mounted cameras in broad daylight before reaching the southwest gate, which was a service entrance. Seriously, who the fuck had a service entrance at his house? Lance Baldwin, that was who, but as ostentatious as it was, it did make Ricardo’s life a little easier, so while he judged the shit out of it, he didn’t complain. It would probably be the last piece of Baldwin bullshit that worked in his favor tonight.
At the gate, Ricardo pulled up to the security booth, eased the Pest Assassin van to a halt on its shrieking brakes, and rolled down the window.
A tired-looking security guard shuffled out. “You here to deal with the rats?”
Ricardo smiled and tapped the magnetic sign on the driver’s side door. Carefully masking his Catalan accent with an American one, he said, “That’s what they pay me to do.”
The guard grunted. “Good. Baldwin’s wife sees another rat, she’s going to blow a gasket.”
“Can’t blame her.” Ricardo handed over his fake identification and a clipboard containing the work order for today’s extermination. “I’ll get ‘em out of there.”
With a nod, the guard took his documents. He skimmed over them, then nodded again and handed them back. “You’re all set. I’ll let the staff know you’re on your way up.” He motioned at the driveway beyond the gate. “Just follow that, and when it splits off, hang a right. It’ll take you where you need to be.”
Ricardo nodded and offered a congenial smile. “Thank you.”
The guard stepped back into the security booth, and a second later, the gate began a slow inward arc while twin rows of tiger teeth and a pop-up barrier descended into the ground. Ricardo rolled his eyes. If the gates were this secure, the house was probably something out of an Indiana Jones movie. His favorite.
That was the problem with jackwagons like Baldwin: they were narcissistic enough to believe entire armies might come after them, and they also had the money to protect themselves from those imagined armies. No one gave enough fucks about Baldwin to send in an army, but he had pissed off enough people that someone was sending in Ricardo, and that meant Ricardo had to deal with the inconvenience of an obstacle course comprised of paranoia-induced security protocols.
All of that was why he’d gone to the lengths he had to gain legitimate-looking access to the house, rather than trying to infiltrate the property and the structure like a wannabe ninja. Crap like that only worked in the movies. People who wanted to stay alive, get the job done, stay alive, get out, still stay alive, and live long enough to get paid… didn’t learn the trade from Hollywood.
Ricardo slowly followed the long, winding driveway, looking around like someone who wasn’t entirely sure where he was supposed to be going. On any of the ridiculous number of CCTV cameras watching him now, he’d appear to be clueless rather than giving his surroundings a tactical sweep and memorizing potential escape routes, hazards, and annoyances.
The landscaping was, unsurprisingly, designed for more than just aesthetics. Dense bushes that were useless for cover even without taking into consideration the poison ivy growing along the edges. Narrow, well-lit pathways monitored by cameras mounted on the many trees. Ponds that looked deceptively like a place someone could hide in a pinch… right up until he noticed the swan standing with water just barely cresting its knees. Did swans have knees? Well, whatever that joint was. And the swans were an issue too—they could be even meaner and louder than Canada geese, which said something. There were also a few Beware of Dog signs, which may have been a bluff (the dogs hadn’t eaten the swans after all) or they may have underscored what assholes those birds could be if they roamed fearlessly on the same turf as guard dogs.
Guard swans. Awesome. That was exactly what Ricardo needed. The feathery bastards were probably armed and everything.
After the driveway had taken him through nearly a mile—seriously, a fucking mile—of forest and landscaping, the house came into view. Ricardo had been surprised when he’d scoped out the property online. He’d expected a tech guru to have one of those ridiculously over-the-top modern houses with a bizarre angular design and too many windows. Instead, Baldwin had gone for an enormous plantation style mansion with soaring white columns out front. Maybe after this job was over, Ricardo could ponder how nauseatingly poetic it was for a man known for exploiting workers both here and abroad to be living in a house that gave oversized homage to the people who once owned slaves.
But there wasn’t time for that now. He had a job to do.
The driveway split, and as instructed, he followed it right. Several cameras were mounted here, probably to alert staff that someone was heading their way. A gate closed behind him; good to know for when he made his escape, especially since this one also had a pop-up barrier and tiger teeth. If things went well, he’d drive out as casually as he’d driven in, but if things went to shit, that gate could be a problem.
Yes, this job was definitely going to be a pain in Ricardo’s ass. Possibly a literal one, he realized when he saw that Baldwin even had rosebushes under all the windows. Cliché, perhaps, but effective. Ricardo squirmed at the memory of tumbling onto a rosebush during a botched burglary in his youth. Those thorns had left some nasty scars, including three that were still noticeable on his left butt cheek—something that had thoroughly amused the last few men he’d taken to bed. Needless to say, he never threw himself blindly out windows anymore.
The driveway led him to a covered portico behind the house. There were a couple of security guards waiting for him out here along with a white man in a suit who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.
Ricardo stopped the van and got out.
As he did, the man in the suit approached, tapping his watch. “You’re late.”
Adopting the American accent again, Ricardo said, “I know, I’m sorry. The last place took a little longer than—”
“I don’t want your excuses.” The suit jabbed a finger at Ricardo. “We’ll be expecting a discount.”
Ricardo arched an eyebrow. This guy was lucky Ricardo had a policy of only taking out his target or people who directly threatened him. He’d had to crawl through traffic to get here, and right now, his moral compass was kind of tilting in the direction of being okay with shooting someone just for being an asshole.
But he schooled his expression and his tone. “Of course. I’ll be happy to take thirty percent off the final total.”
The suit blinked, mouth open and pointed finger hovering in the air as if he’d been poised to argue, but had been caught off guard by the generous accommodation.
Ricardo smiled. “So. Could you show me all the places where rats have been sighted?”
* * *
It was common knowledge that when rats started fleeing a ship, humans would be wise to follow. As much as people didn’t think much of rats, they collectively understood the animals’ survival instincts and their ability to sense that something wasn’t right, especially once the ship started filling up with water.
Even the most self-important paranoid billionaire, however, didn’t stop to question why a colony of rats had suddenly arrived in his house. Or if it was perhaps unwise to, regardless of the desperation to be rat-free, give an exterminator a thorough tour and near unlimited access to one’s home, particularly the basement and attic.
Ironically, Baldwin’s propensity toward overworking and underpaying his workers extended to his household staff, and that had worked to Ricardo’s advantage. For someone barely pulling in twenty thousand dollars per year with no health insurance and two kids to feed, a fifty thousand dollar bribe was irresistible. Baldwin could put in millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of security and fortifications, and in the end, all it had taken was fifty grand to get one staff member to turn a bunch of rats loose in the basement, and another fifty to compel a second staff member to call a specific exterminator to take care of the problem.
Two bribes, a few dozen rats, and some fake decals later, no one even blinked when “Marty” from Pest Assassins asked to see where the rats had been spotted.
It took a good hour and a half to show Ricardo all the places where the rats seemed to be congregating.
“They just came out of nowhere,” the suit—whose name turned out to be Kyle—told Ricardo on the way down to the wine cellar. “There’s never been any issue with pests in this house. Never. Then suddenly we have rats!” He huffed melodramatically. “If Mrs. Baldwin sees another one, I swear she’s going to fire us all.”
“The rats aren’t your fault,” Ricardo said blandly. “A couple of them must have come in through a weakness in the foundation. Once they’re inside, it only takes a few months for a single pair to produce hundreds of descendants.”
Kyle blanched. “Oh God.”
“Don’t worry.” Ricardo gave his shoulder a friendly pat. “I’ll have them out of here soon. We might have to fumigate, though, and that’s—”
“Fumigate?” Kyle squeaked. “But the party is tonight!”
Ricardo froze. “Party?”
“Well, yes!” Kyle flailed a hand toward the stairs they’d come down into the wine cellar. “Didn’t Ian tell you when he called?”
Kyle huffed as if Ricardo were the most clueless man on the planet. “The Baldwins are hosting a joint fundraiser for Governor Hall and Mayor Young. Everyone who’s anyone in town—in the entire state—is going to be here tonight.”
Ricardo’s blood turned cold. Everyone who’s anyone… and all of their security. He had no doubt about that. They wouldn’t leave their heavily-armed entourages at home just because they were going to a well-protected fortress; how could they demonstrate how important they were without their own personal mini-armies? Plus it wouldn’t be a Mayor Young event without some representatives from the police department, and Governor Hall was forever harping on the fact that he had an exceptionally good relationship with both the National Guard and the brass at a nearby Army base. Ricardo would be genuinely stunned if no one from those bases showed up.
Fuck. Fuuuck. This was not good.
In theory, he could bail on the job, but his liaison had been specific that it had to happen tonight. She’d made it clear that whoever had arranged this job would have Ricardo’s head—literally—if Lance Baldwin survived to see dawn.
Keeping his voice calm and his American accent in place, Ricardo cocked his head. “I’m surprised there’s no press here already, with a crowd like that showing up tonight.”
Kyle huffed. “Oh, no. Mr. Baldwin kept this event very hush-hush so the press wouldn’t show up and no one would try to sneak in.” He lowered his voice. “You know how he is with security.”
Ricardo’s mouth had gone dry. Oh yeah, he knew how Baldwin was with security.
A sick feeling crawled up the back of his throat. Someone who was willing to shell out five mill to drop Baldwin had to have been thorough. His employer had to have known about this party. Was that why it had to go down tonight?
His blood turned even colder. Either his employer had been spectacularly unprepared, or they were completely prepared and knew exactly what they were doing. Both of those options meant Ricardo was on his own in an elaborately protected house that was about to be filled with hired security, cops, National Guardsmen, and soldiers. That meant that this was most likely a setup, and Ricardo was leaning heavily toward that being the case. He wasn’t as paranoid as Lance Baldwin, but he had a healthy suspicion of anyone and everyone, especially those who were willing to pay a hitman.
“So.” Kyle gestured toward the rows and rows of wine racks. “Can you take care of the rats before tonight?”
Ricardo swallowed. Oh, he’d be taking care of some rats soon, but not the small squeaky kind. “Let me have a look around down here, see if I can locate the nest, and I’ll see what I can do.”
“All right.” Kyle tapped his foot on the concrete floor. “But hurry up. The last thing Mr. Baldwin needs is a rat showing up on the hors d’oeuvre table during an event like this.”
Ricardo forced a laugh. “I’ll get it done.”
“Good.” Kyle checked his watch. “I need to go chase down the decorators and make sure food will be ready on time.” He thrust a business card at Ricardo. “If you need me, just call my cell.”
Accepting the card, Ricardo nodded. “Will do.”
Kyle took a deep breath, then hurried back up the stairs. “Jessica,” he was calling as he walked. “Any word on the ice sculptures?” Then the door shut behind him, cutting off his voice, and Ricardo exhaled hard as he pressed his shoulder against a post.
Fuck. This was bad. He had to assume the worst-case scenario, which was that this was a setup. That he had unwittingly become the rat in the exterminator’s crosshairs. Someone (he had no idea who) had sent him into a trap (he had no idea why), and he had to—
A footstep on concrete straightened his spine. He was just about to turn around when cold metal dug into the back of his neck.
“Don’t move.” The voice was smooth, lyrical, familiar…and as cold as the gun muzzle biting into Ricardo’s skin. “Or I will blow your fucking head off.”
And don't forget, this one is free!
Rich Cody joined the U.S. Marshals to hunt down bad guys, not babysit
witnesses. Orders are orders, though, and now he’s protecting a hacker
with ties to the Albanian and Sicilian mobs. It’s just another exciting
day in WITSEC.
Leotrim Nicolosi was born into a world of crime and bloodshed. When that bloodshed hits too close to home, taking down Leo’s boyfriend—the son of a notorious mob boss—Leo is determined to destroy the Grimaldi family. He’s got evidence that will send every last Grimaldi to prison, he’s got the family’s wealth in an electronic chokehold, and he’s got a vendetta that can only be settled with the blood of the man who killed his lover.
When a routine transfer to a safehouse goes horribly wrong, Rich and Leo narrowly escape with their lives. With the Marshals compromised and Leo being framed for murder, he and Rich are on the run from criminals and law enforcement alike. They have no one to trust except each other, and nowhere to go that their enemies can’t reach.
And the only way out might mean making a deal with the Devil.