Chapter 1 – Connell
My wings beat against the rising air currents, their feathers—like the rest of me—invisible. Up here, I’m weightless. Untethered. Free.
After a deep inhale of early morning cool, I cast aside euphoria and focus on the skyline. The sun breaks the horizon, flashing like a full carat diamond on the edge of a golden ring.
Eyes narrowing to the glare, I lift a hand instinctively, then drop it again. Being transparent has advantages but shielding my face isn’t one of them.
The wind jostles me. I drop my chin and squint at the ground. Far below, luxury homes speckle Beverly Hills, most wrapped like Christmas gifts in thousands of twinkling lights.
A final check on my phone’s maps app, and I zero in on my target, a gated Tuscany mansion with a red-tiled roof and manicured lawns that carpet its sprawling grounds.
Maybe I should feel guilty that I’m breaking the law hovering over this place, or that I happen to be stalking one of the rich and famous.
One Maxine Judas Slate to be precise. Actress. Single mother of two. And soon to be leaving.
How soon is the question, and my job to find out.
I spear downward, cutting a path through the air, until I’m five hundred feet off the ground. With a twist and a turn, I spread my wings and hover within comfortable spying distance.
Thanks to my enhanced vision, I perceive the shapes of four people moving about the house.
Based on hours spent trawling social media and news sites, I conclude the occupants are Maxine, her two kids and their nanny. One visual hotspot heads toward the mansion’s four-car garage. That’ll be Maxine, leaving her kids with the nanny for the day.
I activate my earpiece with a sharp tap and dial Azera’s number, then switch to my locator app which tracks her phone. She’s in position at the side fence, the only location with a clear view of the garage doors through the azalea bushes surrounding the property.
“Hey, Az. Maxine’s entered the garage.” I hold position, eyes glued to my target.
“Okay, Connie. Which door?”
With her 400mm telephoto lens, she can see up close, but she needs to know exactly where to look. As long as Maxine drives out the door I’m betting on, Azera will get a clean shot of the actress leaving.
I glance at the wrought iron gates where a dozen photographers mill around, waiting for Maxine to exit onto the street. By the time she gets there, her tinted windows will be closed, sun visor dipped and expression—if anyone can see it—irritated, at best.
“East door. It’ll be the Maserati.”
This could be the first picture of her since rumors broke last night that she and fellow actor, Jay Hinkelbeck, got engaged. Let’s hope Maxine has her window open when she rolls out.
The automatic door starts to lift.
Tension mounts in my feathered belly. If Azera gets this shot, rent will be covered for the month. “Definitely the Mas. Get ready.”
“On it,” she chirps.
“Hey, you!” A growling baritone voice shouts across the lawn. Its owner, a man in a black suit and shiny leather shoes, squelches through the freshly watered grass, arms waving. His tailored jacket billows, flashing a holstered pistol.
A security guard, and he’s spotted Azera.
My eyes dart toward the garage as the pale silver Maserati slides into view. From high above, I can’t tell if a window’s open or not, but that doesn’t matter if Azera can’t get this shot.
The security guy barrels toward the gap in the azaleas. “This is private property. Get out of here!”
He can yell all he wants. Azera’s standing on the sidewalk. Public property. Even so, she dodges out of sight.
The Mas rolls down the driveway toward the entry gates.
“Az, did you get it?”
“Azera?” Did I lose her?
I tap my earpiece frantically. Too frantically. The damned thing drops out and plummets toward the ground.
My eagle eyes zero in on the falling earbud. The device hits the grass.
With a groan, I flap in an arc, dropping altitude until I’m less than a hundred feet above the security guard’s head.
Seems he’s on an intercept course for my earpiece.
His giant feet plod across the green blades, closer and closer, and squelch. His foot misses the device by an inch but lands on the hind quarters of a dark green toad hunkered down in the cool grass.
My insides twist into a knot. Ugh.
The security guy keeps going, heading for the front gate.
The paparazzi outside have tightened into a cluster, eyes to cameras. Maxine and her Maserati disappear through the entry, followed closely by the guard.
The guy starts yelling at the photogs waiting outside.
What is his problem? They’re not doing anything illegal.
Jeez, I hope Azera stays out of sight. It’s not unheard of for an overzealous type like that security guard to grab a photographer’s camera and yank out the storage card, doing who knows what damage in the process.
The coast is clear while Mr. Security hassles the photogs out front. Heart pounding, I flutter down to the soaked lawn. My clawed fingers curl around the earpiece. I pop it back into place, and pause.
The toad pulls himself across the grass with his front feet, flattened back legs dragging.
I slide a clawed finger across his back. Crushed legs and ruptured organs in his nether region. I push healing energy into him.
His hind legs fill out and his internals reshape back to normal.
One side of my mouth lifts as the rejuvenated amphibian hops with gusto across the lawn. I spare him a wink, then race across the grass in the opposite direction and take off.
Technically, my reconnaissance is illegal, but as long as I’m not taking pictures, who’s to know? I mean, I’m invisible.
Even so, I want the hell out of here.
Crossing the Slate property line, I choose an empty section of tree-edged street to touch down. Utility cables are my greatest enemies. Around here, roads make the safest landing strips.
Greeting the tarmac at speed, I take a dozen strides and draw in my wings. I hate the bone-jarring sensation of meeting solid ground and the awkwardness that doesn’t exist when I’m airborne. I bet birds feel the same way.
Not that I’m a bird. Exactly.
I pass a fancy stone-walled entrance as a blue Mercedes pulls into the street right in front of me.
I dive out of the way, flapping my wings in a partial take off.
The side of the Mercedes collides with my hip as the vehicle turns. The impact knocks me over. My knees take the brunt of the force, feathers doing nothing to prevent my skin being grated like cheese across the asphalt.
My skinned knees burn like a son of a gun. Road rash is the worst.
Can this morning get any worse?
I scramble to my feet, checking my sores by touch and trigger healing. The pain recedes as I stagger along a pristine sidewalk, thankfully deserted.
Nobody from this area travels on foot. Too much chance of running into a schmuck like me, a paparazzo.
Grumbling inwardly, I jog down the street naked—except for the few million invisible feathers blanketing my body—until I reach my aging green Taurus.
After a swift glance around, I pop the trunk and retrieve my waiting pile of clothes. A nearby bush offers cover while I pull underwear on over my plumed legs.
I know this feathery physique by touch well enough to be glad the creature is invisible. In my mind’s eye, I’m an oversized crow with a hairless humanoid face and hybrid limbs. Six in all. Two scrawny legs, two wings and two hollow-boned arms with slender fingers that grip like crow’s feet.
Once my private parts are covered, I transform, feeling a faint tingle from the crystal embedded against my breastbone. Liquid silver morphs into a tanned chest and arms.
A sheet of jet hair takes shape and flops across my jaw. I tug a hairband from my jeans pocket and secure the straight curtain into a ponytail at the base of my neck, then finish dressing.
Clad in shades of gray and shod in worn Nikes, I sidle up to the Taurus and check my hair in the wing mirror. A face that reflects my Korean ancestry peers back. A face four years older than my seventeen years. One I adopted at age twelve because I needed to look old enough to qualify for a job.
Satisfied with my state, I return to the rear of the vehicle and snag my camera from its hidey-hole in the wheel well, then slam the trunk.
Man, that was too close. I should have spotted the security guard before he picked out Azera. I must be getting overconfident. Sloppy.
As I approach Maxine’s front gate, Azera’s brown bob cut comes into view. The security guard has disappeared.
Azera is chatting with the competition, a shooter who should’ve left in pursuit of his next photo op by now. I hate it when she talks to those guys.
Getting closer, I recognize the dude. Dirty-blond hair, leather jacket and black wraparound shades. Ryker.
A couple of weeks ago, he tried to weasel intel out of Azera, like he thought being a girl meant she was a pushover. Quite the reverse. In this line of work, females need to be tougher than nails.
At twenty-two, the girl’s put up with more BS than most people twice her age. And she has more skill as a photographer than Ryker’s entire team of halfwit amateurs combined. Most of whom are twice her age.
Azera said she put Ryker in his place, so what’s that jerk after now?
He situates himself up close. Too close for a professional conversation from where I’m standing. And close enough that he’s pissing me off.
She laughs at something he says, her gray-green eyes sparkling.
My fingers clench as the adrenaline, already coursing through my body after this mess of a morning, spikes higher.
What is she doing? Talking to a loser like that is bad enough under normal circumstances, but our situation is anything but normal.
My mind reels through a dozen fight scenarios, every one of them ending with Ryker on the ground in a TKO. I’m pretty good at street fighting. Even the Jujitsu guys I practiced with when I worked at Hyun’s respected my skills. Not that I’ve had to use them in a while.
But times may be changing.
Azera notes my arrival and takes a step away from Ryker.
Was she flirting with the guy?
Her self-satisfied smile meets the accusing frown puckering my brow.
If she got the picture, she’ll have already emailed a low res proof of Monica out to her news agency contacts and received an offer. But she knows better than to tell me anything in front of this idiot.
Azera shows her skills the second a celeb passes in front of her lens. She knows how to get the best images and negotiate the best prices. It’s my job to get her to the right places at the right times.
That’s what makes us such a great team.
Except for today. Because I screwed up. I should’ve been paying better attention. I should’ve seen that security guard coming.
“Think about it,” Ryker says, his head shifting my way.
I square my shoulders. “Think about what?”
Ryker’s lips curl into a sneer. “Well, well, if it isn’t Mr. Better-Late-Than-Never.”
My jaw tightens. “So, what’s he want you to think about, Az?”
Her eyes slide from him to me. “Ryker was asking if we’d be interested in signing on with his team.”
His team? What happened to our team?
“If you were interested,” Ryker interjects. “I don’t hire the habitually late.”
Azera shrugs. “Well, my brother and I come as a package, so I guess the answer’s no for today.”
For today? What the hell is she thinking giving this guy a follow-up opportunity?
“Like I said, think about it,” Mr. Redundant says, like no isn’t a definitive answer. “We’ll talk again.”
She gives him a bright smile.
I want to reach out and shake some sense into her. Why’s she leading him on? The answer is a billion times no.
As Ryker walks away, I reiterate, “There’s nothing to talk to that asshole about. Nothing to think about.”
Azera lets out a sigh as she turns and heads for the car.
I hurry after her, pulse quickening. “You’re hearing me, right?”
She slows while I catch up. “I’m hearing you, Connell,” she says, voice snippy. “But I don’t think you’ve been hearing me for the past three months.”
I roll my eyes. “Job security. Benefits.” She’s said the words a thousand times. “If that is what’s important to you, you might as well take a minimum wage gig with the burgers and fries guys. Regular hours. No stress. You take a job with Ryker, and you’ll be running your ass off, working around the clock and barely scraping by.”
Azera’s face tightens. “Plus a bonus for every image sold, and we sell images.”
“While he takes the lion’s share. What’s the point? We take great images and we get paid for them.” I wish I understood her obsession with security. Or the illusion of it. Like Ryker wouldn’t fire her the second she didn’t meet quota. I haven’t missed his turnover rate.
“But a regular paycheck, benefits and a team of people to work with. I’m tired of the isolation, of being in competition with these guys. I can’t even talk shop with them.”
I pull back my chin. “I see you talking to them all the time.”
She shakes her head. “But there’s always this pretense. Like they think I’m out to get something from them.”
“Azera, if you want to talk, then talk to me. I’ll talk shop all day long. You know I will.”
“It’s not the same.”
Frustration quivers through me. What is it with the female brain? Why do girls need to be friends with everyone?
“Maybe you should find other women photographers to hang out with.”
She stops short. “There aren’t any. Not in our profession.”
And for good reason. The paparazzi is made up of mostly jerks. And pretty nasty ones at that. I’ve been on the receiving end a time or two over the year we’ve been doing this. Come to think of it, I’ve delivered once or twice, as well. Every single shove totally justified, I might add. But women don’t stick at this job for long. Seems like they get tired of the muscling in and pushing around.
For some reason, Azera’s different. Most of the guys treat her with respect.
But that’s not going to last forever. The more successful she becomes, the more resentment she’ll run into. It’s a cutthroat industry, and it’s getting tougher every day.
“Maybe you should join a women’s group. There’s got to be an organization for female photographers.”
She grumbles softly. “I don’t have the time or money to join an organization. Besides, I want to be part of a community. Have a circle of friends.”
I really don’t like where this is going, but I need to keep my cool, make light of it, because angering Azera isn’t going to help. I give her a sideways glance, eyebrows rising. “What? I’m not good enough?”
She bumps into me. “You know that’s not what I’m saying. We’re family. A unit. That’s not going to change, but I need more.”
I hear what she’s saying, but I don’t understand it. We’re making ends meet. Which reminds me, “Did you get Maxine?”
Azera smiles. “Engagement confirmed. I got the rock on her finger and the smile on her face.”
All the pain suddenly seems worth it.
I lift a hand and she high fives me. “And you sold it?”
Azera’s smile stretches into a grin. “For three thousand.”
I blow out a breath. I love it when we score big. “Then I guess you’re taking me out to dinner tonight.”
Still grinning, she unlocks the car on approach and tosses me the keys. “What else have we got on tap for today?”
“A couple of celebrity arrivals at LAX this afternoon, and the usual slew of holiday parties. I’ve got my top picks. Figure on some late nights this week.” I slip into the driver’s seat and start the engine.
“Fine. Let’s go home.” She slumps and closes her eyes. “I need to sleep if you’re keeping me up all night.”
I pull into the street. “Hey, I’m sorry about that security guard.”
“It’s fine, Connie. Your eyes were on the prize. You can’t see everything.”
“Yeah, well, sorry, anyway.” Because I should’ve noticed that guy from the get-go.
She straightens in her seat. “We just made three thousand bucks. A security guard having a hissy fit isn’t the worst I’ve had to deal with. Not by a long shot.”
Well I know it. And if it weren’t for my healing ability, she’d have plenty of scars to prove it too.
We haven’t made it five miles when we’re greeted by siren wails. Ambulances and fire trucks.
I throw Azera a sideways glance. “I should check them out.”
She’s already sitting up, eyes scanning the road ahead. “Yeah, I guess.”
I pull into an empty restaurant parking lot and climb into the back of the car.
Azera takes the wheel while I pull off my hoodie and T-shirt, and turn invisible. My wings crumple around me. I adjust them and wiggle out of my jeans and underwear.
Naked, I check no one’s around, then push open the door and slip from the vehicle. “See you at home,” I murmur through the driver’s window.
She looks toward me, though she can’t see anything. “Just be careful and choose someone good this time. Drug dealers are a waste of space.”
“Hey, Jax is a good kid. He’ll change his ways. Guaranteed.”
Azera cocks her head. “Keep dreaming, Crow Boy.”
I jet across the parking lot and take to the air. The wind slices across my face, but in this form, the cold never gets to me. I could stay up here forever.
A rueful smile comes. The idea of leaving behind the weight of earthly responsibility forever is sweet, but that’ll never happen.
Some ties will always bind, but I’m a better person for having them.
Wheeling in a wide arc, I triangulate the siren songs and fly in their direction.