Chapter 1

As I lay in the rafters of the Old West Cattle Co., surrounded by dust, shadows, and the smell of stale hay, anticipation raced through me. I cradled an A-7 pyre-rifle in my hands, the barrel aimed at a steep angle. Below me, several halogens hung strategically from the walls, giving me the visibility I needed, but at the same time shielding me from view. No one wanted to stare up at those harsh lights.

To be honest, I didn’t like staring down at them.

The warehouse boasted no furniture for my target to hide behind. Only people (human and alien), dirty floors, and weapons. Right now, a crowd of other-worlders teased and taunted two naked, whimpering females banded to the far wall. The bastards who weren’t participating were watching, waiting their turn. My anticipation for the kill increased, and I gripped my gun tighter. The tormentors were having such a lovely time, butmy fun would come when I broke up the party with a few rounds of deadly fire.

See, I’m paid by the government to destroy other-worlders so vile, so disgusting, they can’t take a chance alien rights advocates will get involved in the case. I’m not A.I.R., Alien Investigation and Removal. I’m worse.

Just a little longer, Eden.Information first. Kill second. EenLi (my target) and his compadres were abducting humans and shipping them off-planet to sell as slaves. I needed to know where they were storing the human “cargo” before deportation. More than that, I needed to know how they were hopping from one planet to another.

Oh, I knew they were using interworld portals—the same portals they’d used to invade our planet. I just didn’t know where or how to find these portals.

I should have known exactly where they were. I’m an alien. A Raka. A golden one, some humans call us, because our hair, skin, and eyes resemble liquid gold. But I was conceived here and raised by a human. The portals are as much a mystery to me as they are to every other Earth-born.

One of the women screamed, slicing into my thoughts. A man was pinching and twisting her ni**les, laughing while he did it, laughing while she writhed and sobbed in pain. My finger twitched on the trigger.Hold. Hold.

Tonight I’m going to prove I’m as capable as any man—as any human. Over the years I’ve been delegated the easy marks, the ones requiring no more skill than a blind man in a virtual game. Since my father is also my boss, he’s the reason for my lack of hard-core cases. I know he hopes to protect me, but I’m long past the need.

My success tonight is critical. I took this case against his wishes, and I would not fail.

I had my target in sight: EenLi Kati, a.k.a. John Wayne and Wayne Johnson. He was a thirty-something Mec, average height, with eerie, narrow white eyes. We didn’t know a lot about Mecs, only that they had some control over the weather and preferred hot, dry climates.

Like every Mec, EenLi possessed opalescent skin that glowed different colors with different emotions. He was the leader of this elusive group, and right now his skin glowed bright red. The bastard was pissed.

Dressed like a desperado from the past—hat, boots, and spurs—he stood in a shadowed corner, arguing fiercely with another Mec known as Mris-ste. The latter wore boots and spurs, but had opted not to wear a hat. Who did they think they were fooling? Cowboys. Please.

They spoke in their native tongue—a halting, guttural rhetoric of clipped syllables and high-pitched timbres. Languages were one of my specialties, and I’d mastered this one years ago. As I listened, I managed to pick up words likebodies, profit, andunderground.

Technically my assignment is to eliminate EenLi. However, I’m going to do Mris-ste for free. A bonus, if you will. At the thought, my lips curled into a half smile. The two men had been working together for over a year. No telling how many men and women they’d raped. No telling how many people they’d enslaved.

I drew in a measured breath, then slowly and calmly released every molecule of air. Sharp, spiky splinters from the old wooden rafters dug past my shirt and into my belly, but that wasn’t the worst of my discomfort. The air was stifling and hot, and it didn’t help that I wore military fatigues and a face mask. The heat wave blasting through New Dallas had yet to dissipate—probably because of the Mecs. Sweat pooled between my shoulder blades and ran down my back.

I yearned to spirit-walk just then, to force my consciousness out of my body so I could leave my body behind and walk unnoticed,invisible, below. Like a ghost. A phantom. I had killed many of my targets like that, but I only did so when my body was totally and completely protected. Otherwise, I was left physically vulnerable because I couldn’t do my job and guard my body at the same time.

Just then EenLi’s cell unit erupted in a series of beeps, and he barked an irritated “What?” into the receiver. I couldn’t hear the voice on the other end, but whatever was said caused the other-worlder’s spine to stiffen and his fingers to clench into fists.

One heartbeat of time passed. Two.

As he continued to listen, he removed his hat and swirled the gray felt between his fingers. Give the man a pony and ask him to shout “Yee haw.” That’s all the scene lacked. By the time he returned his hat to his shiny, bald head, his skin pulsed so brightly red, I wanted to shade my eyes.

Finally, he replaced the unit in his back pocket. Then, growling low in his throat, he shoved Mris-ste, propelling the hatless Mec backward. The latter man’s long, dark hair (obviously a wig) danced around his shoulders.

“Tell me you moved the tainted cattle from the Pit,” EenLi shouted. “Tell me you have not screwed this up yet again.”

The pit. The pit.I rolled the phrase through my mind. An image quickly clicked into place, and I frowned. The Pit was a local bar known for its criminal patrons, druggies and whores who bought their way into oblivion. Could that be the place under discussion?

“Well, I—they have been moved,” the other man offered, righting himself. “I am not so stupid that I would leave the sick in cells with the healthy.”

Cells…I’d followed EenLi inside the bar just two days ago, but he never left the main area. Never even went to the bathroom. I hadn’t noticed any doorways leading to other rooms. The cells could be hidden. Or underground. Very, very interesting.

“Do you want to know who just called me, Mris-ste? Pablo. He found two of our cattle dead in their cells. They’d obviously been sick, and you left them there.”

“I…I…” Mris-ste’s opalescent skin began to pulse with blue. Even without the distinctive shading, the alien would have reeked of fear.