Yasmin froze at the sound of the gruff voice, knowing what the man wanted without even having to turn around.
Fear rushed through her, adrenaline kicked in, and that was bad. Fear meant she was out of control. But how was she supposed to overcome fear when she instinctively knew—felt in her bones—that this man wanted to kill her?
Likely he’d hidden in between the cars and jumped up after she walked by, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that she hadn’t seen him, hadn’t been on the lookout. The day was going far too well; she should have been more alert.
Inside her head, his thoughts cut through her own like cars careening down a busy street. His need to kill her fought with his desire to not pull the trigger. The pressure surged like a headache. She could almost feel her own hand shaking like his was.
None of that mattered. What mattered was she could not die like this. She would not get shot down by a man who wouldn’t face her. She could not leave this as her legacy. For herself, she would fight.
“Aunt Meeni?” The little voice at her side was exactly why she not only had to fight, she had to win.
Her sister’s daughters clung to her, her charges for the week, after their mother dropped them off for a spur-of-the-moment business trip. Yasmin would not get killed in front of them in a grocery store parking lot for a gang initiation. She knew that’s exactly what this was. Exactly what everyone in Los Angeles feared most. But she was afraid of something else. She would not leave her sister that way and she would not leave the girls scarred from watching their aunt die.
Squeezing each small hand, she whispered. “It’s going to be okay. But you do not turn around until I tell you to. Tell me you understand.”
The gang kid behind her must have understood what she was doing, and he would have let her do it, too. Instead he was prodded by the second one. Older, harder, practically soulless, she felt him there now as well, along with several other pairs of eyes watching her from various points out in the distance allowed by the parking lot and the street beyond. In her bones, she could almost feel the purr of the getaway car engine.
In her mind, she heard the second voice as he applied pressure, though she was really too far away to catch the sound with her ears. “Do it now. Don’t tap out on me, man.”
The first one yelled out to her. “Bitch! Turn around!!”
The little hands flinched in her own. She heard Leyla, the seven-year-old say “yes.” She understood. In her peripheral vision, Yasmin saw Maryam nod, too.
So Yasmin barked at them, “Get down!” as she jerked around to face her attacker.
Spinning counterclockwise, the universal direction for ‘no,’ she brought her left arm up, elbow out, palm toward the kid with the gun. With her right first finger she unconsciously drew a circle on the pavement encompassing both herself and, more importantly, the girls.
She was chanting even before she started to move. “In this circle, out of reach, a place where evil cannot breach—”
There was more to it, but the gun cracked as her hand passed in front of her face, blocking her view of the kid, his weapon, his hate, and his own fear.
As she turned, she caught enough of a glimpse to know he was dressed in baggy black clothes with streaks of blue on them. She saw the one standing behind him, whispering in his ear, though she could see neither face. Mostly, she saw the barrel of the gun pointed at her. She’d chanted faster, but clearly not fast enough.
He must have missed, she certainly wasn’t dead. The palm of her hand stung, but that wasn’t enough to stop her.
More petrified than she’d ever been in her life, and far beyond conscious decision making, Yasmin let her anger flood her. Pure emotion was needed and she had it in spades right now. She bared her teeth and hissed out all her air at him. It was a powerful move, one she had not planned. Now both her hands came up in front of her, palm out as she shoved whatever power she had gathered at the two who threatened her and hers.
In her mind’s eye, she saw the gun glowing red and never questioned it as the gang kid screamed and dropped the weapon.
“Bitch!” The second man started to raise another weapon and she directed her focus at that gun.
Her hiss was turning into a yell as she fell into primal instincts, using everything she had to stay alive. She was pushing out another surge of power and praying to all four corners. But his gun didn’t heat like the other.
She could see his face clearly as he aimed right for her head.
The new, deep voice cracked through the haze of her fright from off to her left. “Put your weapon down or I will shoot.”
A sharp noise registered in the back of her head, high-pitched and long. Something moved to her left, multicolored and leading with a long arm, but she didn’t look at it. The threat was still in front of her.
The gang kid was holding his wrist, and she had the satisfaction of a split second thinking she’d burned that asshole. But losing her focus could mean losing her life here, so she kept her hands up where they were, her vision filled with her own long brown arms, charm bracelets, manicured nails.
She didn’t look as powerful as she was. . . . as she was learning that she was.
The gun in front of her wavered, but Yasmin stood her ground.
Beside her, the man who had yelled out he was police crept forward. Once again he implored the criminal to drop his weapon. Once again he was met with no real response except frustration.
The high pitched noise got louder and suddenly the two in front of her broke and ran. They darted between cars and were out of sight before she could register what had really happened.
Keeping her hands up, staying firmly planted, and scanning the scene for further threats, Yasmin fought the confusion pushing in on her from every angle.
She couldn’t sense anyone’s thoughts now. Beside her, the multicolored man ran into the scene in between her and where the others had stood. Voices raised in a cacophony off to her right and she heard car doors slam shut as the high pitched squeal started up again. This time she identified it as car tires.
Were they leaving?
No one was in front of her any more. She couldn’t see any guns, not any aimed at her. Her eyes darted left and right—was it over?
Yasmin didn’t move. Unsure what to do, she tried finishing the protection incantation, whispering the words. “In this circle, out of reach, a place where evil cannot breach. Strong as steel my heart has been, my foe without, I’m safe within . . .”
She couldn’t remember the third verse.
Yasmin blinked. She knew this one. Why couldn’t she find the third verse? The circle was not yet complete; she needed to complete the circle! What if they came back?
I am . . . It started with I am . . . Good Goddess! What came next?
A hand waved in front of her eye, breaking her stare and snapping her attention to the man in front of her. The multicolored man. Yasmin frowned at him.
He wore a pale purple, button down shirt, almost but not quite lavender. He had on gray slacks and two cloth grocery bags still slung over his shoulder, each in a different bold color. His teal tie was matched only in brightness by the blue of his eyes and the gold of his hair. Yasmin stared.
He looked concerned. “Ma’am? I’m a police officer.”
Only then did she see that he was holding a badge, trying to show her who he was, why he was talking to her. Empirically, she understood that. But he’d put his gun away. Traded it for the silver and gold shield.
She frowned again. “Why didn’t you shoot them?”
He ignored her question, but not the conversation. “Are you all right?”
She nodded in response, starting to feel a little fuzzy.
He pointed behind her. “How about your little girls?”
“I don’t have any children.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she gasped as though the sudden intake of breath would pull them back in. “Leyla! Maryam!”
Dropping to her knees on the harsh pavement, she gathered the small girls into her arms. “Oh, babies!”
They had only begun to move, staying where she had put them, doing as they were told, until she released them. Now they clung to her like monkeys, like the frightened kids they were. Her voice tumbled out of her mouth, platitudes repeating in a chant of their own. “It’s okay now, it’s okay now.” She rubbed one hand over each of their heads. Their dark hair smooth and silky beneath her fingers.
It was only then that she felt the sting in her left palm. Only then that she realized what she’d done.
She was glad she was facing away from Officer Multicolor. She’d used the craft out in the open. Oh shit. What had she done?
Her brain paused, what had her other options been?
That street thug had jumped out at her and her nieces with the sole purpose of achieving his first kill tonight. She’d heard his thoughts as clearly as if he’d spoken them to her. Honestly, she didn’t care one shred that he was conflicted about it. He’d held a gun on her and frightened her and the girls. He’d even fired at her.
She didn’t have the words.
A hand fell to her shoulder, but quickly lifted when she jumped at the touch.
“Can you tell me if you’re okay? If your girls are physically all right?”
The tone was soothing. Just a little low, just a little gravelly. As though he possessed some talent in the craft himself, she found herself wanting to do exactly as he said.
She grabbed one of the girls’ hands in each of hers and held on tight. Then she stood up and faced him. She looked him in the eyes and nodded. “Yes, we are physically okay. Just shaken up.”
Leyla piped up. “He made us drop our ice cream.”
Looking down past her older niece, Yasmin saw the crumpled bag. The puddle of orange juice, the brown of chocolate starting to pool in the L.A. heat. She pushed her lips together to keep the small laughs in her from becoming hysterical.
A mental list started to form in her head. She needed to tell Tristan. She needed to get more ice cream. Needed to find a new grocery store in another neighborhood.
Turning back to Officer Multicolor, Yasmin found him looking her up and down, probably checking to see if the fired bullet made contact and if she was still really upright or just held together by shock.
He must have declared her okay, because he started to reach into his pocket and only then seemed to realize he still had his grocery bags slung over his shoulder. Setting them on the pavement, he looked her in the eye.
“I’m Detective Luke Salzone with the LAPD. I’m going to call this in and get more officers here if you’re all right.”
He seemed to be waiting for her, so she smiled. “Oh, I’m okay!”
She was looking into the darkening blue of his eyes as the sparkles started crowding the edges of her vision. Her stomach pitched right before everything went black.
^ ^ ^ ^ ^
He caught her just as she fell. Thank goodness he’d set down his grocery bags.
Luke smiled at the irony. When he’d seen her in the store he’d wondered what it would take to make her swoon for him. Not in his wildest imagination had he envisioned this . . . not her and her two adorable little girls getting shot at in his neighborhood grocery parking lot.
He knelt, one arm around her torso, one cradling her head as he tried to balance her. She sure wasn’t putting any effort in; she’d blinked out cold. In an attempt to get her head down on the same level as her heart, he set her on the pavement, her hands listlessly rolling beside her. For a moment, he was thinking he’d just lay her down, it wasn’t all that clean, but she was passed out and people could be washed. Then again, if he ever wanted any chance with her, laying her on the blacktop of a grocery store in Los Angeles was a surefire way to guarantee that nothing ever happened. He probably didn’t stand a chance anyway as he was now associated with what was most likely the worst memory of her life. Luke certainly hoped she hadn’t been through worse.
He looked up at the little girls watching him. As they eyed him sideways, he remembered to smile. “Honey? Can you hand me . . .” he looked frantically around— “that blue bag? Empty the groceries out so I can use it for a pillow.”
They did as he asked, albeit warily. The older girl held it out to him, trying to complete the task assigned, but also clearly trying not to make any physical contact with him. Taking the bag, he looked up from where he was frowning at the woman in his arms and smiled again. “Thank you.”
He tucked the makeshift pillow under her head and tapped at the side of her face. She didn’t come around and he didn’t want to tap harder, so he just stood watch over her and scanned the parking lot.
He wanted to pay attention to her and see if he could get those whiskey-colored eyes to open. See if she would smile. He’d seen her light up in the store while she and the girls were picking out pizza fixings and ice cream. But right now there was too much to do.
For whatever reason the Del Sur boys had picked her to be their initiate’s kill. It hadn’t gone well, and his experience with Del Sur was that they were tenacious. If you screwed with them, you got back tenfold whatever you gave. There was every possibility they were circling the neighborhood, ready to finish the hit. Squealing wheels only meant they were gone right now. They could come back just as fast as they’d left.
Without taking his eyes from the street, he spoke to the girls. “Can you kneel down by your mommy? See if you can get her to wake up?”
They obeyed but still looked scared.
Shit, of course they were scared. There was nothing he could do about it right now.
He had to call this in. Then again, chances were, someone already had. There had been gunshots—and while that wasn’t horribly uncommon in L.A. it wasn’t common here at the Ralphs’ grocery parking lot in Hollywood.
He scanned the area again, listened for wheels, shots, and didn’t hear much. Traffic was going by on Melrose as though nothing had happened. No one came forward to help. Maybe because, while it felt like an hour, it had really only been a minute. Anyone who had seen anything was likely still cowering. The sad fact was, anyone who recognized the gang colors wouldn’t say anything at all. So he didn’t hold out hope for eyewitnesses.
Finally kneeling down next to the girls, he pulled his badge from where he’d automatically clipped it at his waist. He took a chance and showed it to them. “Hey, I showed your mom, I’m a police officer. I’ll take care of you guys. Make sure the bad guys don’t come back around.”
Luke hoped like hell he wasn’t lying.
They nodded at him solemnly. “Is she going to wake up?”
A welcome relief, the question showed that they trusted him. It could have gone either way. He’d been in neighborhoods here where the police were the enemy and the locals would just as likely shoot as show their faces. “Yes, she fainted, that’s all. She’s okay and she’ll wake up in just a minute.”
Once again, Luke prayed he wasn’t lying.
He touched the side of her face. “Ma’am? Can you hear me?”
He would have preferred to call her ‘honey’ or something equally endearing, but the second he’d seen the gun, he was officially on duty. On duty officers did not call women ‘honey,’ ‘baby,’ or anything of the like. And they didn’t ask those women out.
Her eyes opened and looked up at him. The color of deep cognac, they slowly focused on him, even if they continued to look confused.
Blinking, her hands came up to her head.
He hoped to hell her head didn’t hurt. But now that she was awake there was no putting it off. Pulling out his cell phone, he called into dispatch, rattling off his name and badge number automatically while he stayed focused on her face. As he watched, he told dispatch about the gunfire, the ID on the victim—as he now had to refer to her—and on the perpetrators. He referenced the evidence he’d seen that the perpetrators might be members of the Del Sur gang, even though he didn’t think they might be. Luke was damn certain.
Her hand reached up and touched the grocery bag he’d wadded up as a pillow. Trying to sit up and pull the bag out from behind her hair, she seemed just as disconcerted that he tried to keep her from doing exactly that. “Stay down.”
He was still on the open phone line, but Stacy in dispatch wasn’t at all confused by him holding two conversations at the same time. He spoke to her again, giving the address of the parking lot and his location in it.
Speaking to the woman again, he asked. “Are you in any pain? Your girls are right here.”
The two girls brought nearly identical dark-haired heads into her field of vision. He watched as her chest rose and fell with a sigh of relief. But there wasn’t really time to watch their relief. It all went down fast, and it could again.
Out of information to relay, he disconnected with dispatch knowing all the appropriate responders were on the way. Not that there was much left here to work with. Luke held a hand out to her. “Can you sit up? I can carry you if we need, but I’d like to move us to another spot.”
He didn’t have to say the words he didn’t want to. Alarm instantly flared in her eyes and she started to scramble. She didn’t have to do that; she wasn’t all together yet. He just didn’t want to be waiting in the place the gang boys would look first if they did come back. He wasn’t going to let her be a sitting duck.
Along with the girls, he took her around the corner of the store and out of line of sight of the parking lot. Though he kept a hand on her, he kept an eye on the surrounding area, always watchful.
It was another full three minutes until the first patrol showed up. They hadn’t been far away, but with traffic eeking along with its usual five pm drudgery, their timing had been slow enough.
Luke stepped out, gun and badge in the air for a moment until the two uniforms got closer and they could all recognize each other. There was a mild interchange of signals and the officers parked the patrol car in the lane as there were no open spots close by.
Once that was settled, he went back around the corner, checking on his charges. The woman still sat against the wall where he’d left her. Only now the littler of the girls was curled into her arms. The older one stood solemnly, clutching the woman’s hand. With the other she reached out and grabbed Luke’s in a fierce death grip. Startled, he looked down. Her dark eyes let him know she wasn’t letting go and she was now counting on him. No pressure.
Well, if that was what the kid needed, he wouldn’t let go either. He looked her mom in the face, both assessing her state and deciding to start a conversation.
“I’m detective Luke Salzone with the LAPD.”
Well, that was probably a good start. He reminded himself to smile. “What’s your name?”
He rolled the sound around in his brain for a moment like he always did to help him remember names. But he wasn’t going to forget hers. “And the girls?”
“Leyla and Maryam Sayeed.” He memorized their names, too. The uniforms came around the corner just then; they would take official statements. Although what the girls might contribute, he didn’t know. When the shooting started, Yasmin had put them on the ground, facing away, really quick. So they’d likely seen nothing of the scene.
Just as fast as that, the other two officers were talking to her, asking questions and jotting the info down on the ubiquitous little notebooks cops always carried. Since she was in good hands, and safe, Luke decided to do a preliminary check of the area. It wouldn’t be his scene, even though he was ‘on duty’ he wasn’t really on duty. Also his involvement meant he wouldn’t catch this investigation.
Standing there, holding the little hand still tightly clutched in his, he realized that his initial impressions were still with him and that was more than a little disconcerting.
He started to walk away, but the small grip held him anchored in place. Probably that was a good thing. Because if he went out to check the scene, he wasn’t certain he wouldn’t find a charred circle on the ground where she’d stood.