DIRK & STEELE
Book 11—Within the Flames
A pyrokinetic and former car thief, Eddie cannot refuse an assignment to cross the continent in order to rescue an extraordinary woman in peril…even though he fears losing control of the destructive power of flame at his fingertips. The last of her shape-shifting kind, Lyssa hides in the abandoned tunnels beneath Manhattan. Like Eddie, fire is her weapon, her destiny…and her curse. For beneath Lyssa’s extraordinary beauty are dangerous secrets…and even darker, nearly irresistible urges…
A dragon slept beneath New York City.
Her dreams were fitful. Her dreams always were. She had been hiding a long time, and had run a great distance with no home, no place to rest her head.
Her home now was humble and small, but it was hers. Filled with light and color, and glass. Small jars of paint, and a canvas to stretch her wings upon.
Others shared her underworld. Men and women, and children. The dragon protected them, when she could. Some, she considered friends. But always from a distance, where it was safe. Safe, for them.
Safe meant being alone.
The dragon had been alone a long time.
But sometimes, like tonight, she dreamed of a man.
And he was made of fire.
More than twenty-five hundred miles away, Eddie knelt on the polished concrete floor of a glass-walled cage, trying very hard not to catch on fire.
The cage was an eight-by-eleven block of concrete and fire-resistant glass, and the door was made of thick steel, framed in that same concrete. No furniture. No blankets. The space had once been part of the dining room, and the double-paned glass wall usually offered Eddie an unobstructed view of the kitchen. There was, however, a privacy curtain that he could draw over the exterior of the cage.
He had used it tonight. There was a guest upstairs.
It was over, thought Eddie, putting his back to the wall as sparks danced off his clothes. I was sure it was over.
He had not lost control in almost a year.
He had not needed the cage.
You know why.
Eddie closed his eyes, haunted. Every inch of him, so tender that the softest touch of his clothes hurt as though he was being dragged naked, on gravel.
Breathe, he told himself. Breathe.
Eddie breathed, but each breath was hot in his lungs – the same heat burning in his bones, rising through his skin. Smoke rose off his body, singeing his nostrils. He tried to think of cool water, ice, this morning’s silver fog around the Golden Gate Bridge. He imagined the flow of the salt-scented breeze on his face as he’d walked to his favorite coffee shop…
Everything, good and normal. Part of the life he had made for himself.
But it meant nothing. His mind kept returning to his mother’s sobs, the broken rasp of her voice—the sound of his grandmother in the background, trying to calm her. Trying, and failing – because she was crying, too.
Tears sizzled against his cheeks. Eddie held his stomach, overwhelmed with grief and anger. So much anger.
He pushed it down. Then he kept pushing, and pushing, methodically bottling his emotions: frustration, unhappiness, regret. He hid them all in a cool dark place inside his heart. He buried them, far away and deep, until he felt raw, empty.
Empty, except for the loneliness. An isolation so profound it bordered on despair.
Flames erupted against his legs and hands, flowing up his arms to arc over his shoulders—down his back like wings. Eddie tried to stop the fire – struggled with all his strength – but it was like trying to catch the wind. The flames slipped around him, through him, and all the control he had so carefully cultivated once again meant nothing.
He was powerless. Helpless. And he hated himself for that.
His spine caught on fire, a deep burn born in his bones, born deeper, rippling from his heart. Eddie closed his eyes, listening to the crackle of flames eating through his jeans and t-shirt, turning them to ash.
He didn’t make a sound, not even when the burn of his skin made him feel as though he would split apart. He pretended not to feel the soaring waves of heat moving around him, wrapping him in a nest of fire that brushed against the walls of his cage.
He tried so hard not to think about his sister’s murderer walking out of prison.
But in the end, it was easier just to burn.
When Eddie left the cage, a woman was waiting for him.
He happened to know that she was in her early fifties, though she hardly looked it with her loose red hair, creamy skin, and long supple body clad in black. A patch covered her right eye, and the other was golden, pupil slit like a cat. She leaned on the kitchen counter, arms folded over her chest – and even standing still, there was a lethal, inhuman grace about her.
Eddie froze, and clutched the curtain around his waist. None of his clothes had made it through the blaze.
“Ma’am,” he said, a little too hoarse.
Her gaze traveled down his body, cold and assessing. “You make me feel so old. How many times will we meet, Edward, before you call me Serena?”
Eddie waited. Serena gave him a slow, dangerous smile, and picked up a cloth bag on the counter behind her. She tossed it to him. When he looked inside, he found sweatpants and a t-shirt.
“Roland told me where you keep your things,” she said. “He also mentioned that your skin is sensitive….afterwards. I chose what seemed soft.”
“Thank you,” Eddie said. “Ma’am.”
Serena tilted her head, golden eye glinting. Eddie stepped back into the cage, letting the curtain fall behind him. The process of dressing made him feel more human – more grounded in his own body – though his skin still ached, and when he moved too quickly, lights danced in his eyes.
When he reemerged, Serena stood at the foot of the stairs.
“They’re waiting,” she said.
Eddie did not move. “No one mentioned that you would be here.”
“Shocking, I know.”
“Yes,” he admitted. “It’s a bad sign. What else has happened?”
“I don’t know. Yet.” Serena gave him a faint, mocking smile, and turned to climb the stairs. “If it’s any consolation, no one told me I’d be in San Francisco tonight. But here I am. I go where there’s trouble.”
“You make trouble,” he replied. “With all due respect.”
She laughed, quietly, and kept climbing.
Eddie did not follow. He watched until she disappeared around the landing, and then looked down at his hands. Small, circular scars covered his skin. He rubbed them, and shivered.
He was always cold after he lost control. Cold as winter, in his bones. When he felt like this, he couldn’t imagine losing control ever again. Drained of fire, burned out. Safe.
Eddie took a deep breath, and climbed the stairs.
He entered an immense room filled with overstuffed couches and low tables sagging with books and newspapers. The top floor, the penthouse suite of an entire building owned by one man, one organization – converted into a home and office. Nine floors that could be traversed by stairs and hidden elevators.
It was night outside. Only a few lamps had been turned on, but the floor-to-ceiling windows let in the scattered light of downtown San Francisco, and that was enough to illuminate the room, softly, as though with starlight.
Two people stood near the windows. Serena still had her arms folded over her chest. The man who stood beside her was taller by half a foot, and broad as a bear. His rumpled flannel shirt strained against his shoulders. Thick brown stubble, peppered with gray, covered his jaw. The scent of whiskey clung to him, but that was no surprise. Not for months now.
Roland’s bloodshot gaze was compassionate and sad as he studied Eddie. Edged with doubt, too. And pity.
Eddie tamped down anger. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Roland grunted. “Like what?”
“Like I’m broken,” he said hoarsely. “Like I’m you.”
Low blow. Eddie received no satisfaction from the surprise and hurt that flickered through the other man’s face—but he wasn’t sorry, either. He had never thrown a first punch, hardly ever used his fists at all, but for the last year he had wanted to—against the man in front of him. Words were a poor substitute.
And he needed to hit someone right now. Right now, more than anything, he needed to inflict some pain.
Roland cleared his throat. “You little shit.”
“I only look like shit. Don’t confuse the two.”
“In your case, it’s the same thing.” Roland tilted his head, watching him. “Are you going to be able to do this? Handle New York?”
Eddie hadn’t told him about his mother’s phone call. He hadn’t needed to. Roland had known from the moment Eddie entered the penthouse, heading for the cage. Some telepaths were like that.
“According to you,” Eddie said, “there’s no one else.”
“That’s not an answer.”
He set his jaw, warmth finally trickling back into his hands. “It’s the only answer I need. You taught me that.”
Roland stilled. Serena murmured, “Generous praise. Given that you’re speaking to a man who hasn’t left his home in over a decade.”
Roland blinked hard, tearing his gaze from Eddie. “You’re certainly free to go.”
“I wish I could. I have a grandchild I could be visiting right now, and you smell like a drunk.” Serena swung away from Roland to stare out the window. “But the new alliance stands. A’Priori wants me here, and I work for them. Not Dirk & Steele.”
Eddie was already tired, but hearing those words stole the last of his strength—whatever was left in his heart. He couldn’t keep the bitterness off his face, and it made him feel like a different man. A worse man. Too much like the man who had burned those scars into his hands.
“It’s all the same,” he found himself saying, even though he wanted to stay quiet, and hold in that bitterness and bury it, again and again as he had been burying it for months. “A’Priori. Dirk & Steele. It’s just family.”
Family and lies. And that was hardest of all to reconcile.
A’Priori was one of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world. Run by a tight-knit family of men and women who possessed singular gifts of a paranormal nature, gifts that had been used almost exclusively for material gain.
But more than sixty years ago, members of that same family had broken away to form another, much smaller organization, one founded on values that had nothing to do with money or power…but instead, helping others.
That organization had become Dirk & Steele. To the public, it was nothing but a high-powered detective agency – but in private it functioned as a refuge. For people like Eddie. And others, who weren’t human by any stretch of the imagination.
Until recently, however, almost no one at Dirk & Steele had been aware that A’Priori existed, or that its connections to the agency ran so deep.
And no one, certainly, had known that Dirk & Steele’s worst enemy, the Consortium—responsible for human trafficking and experimentation, bio-terrorism, mass murder – was part of that same family.
Your brother, Eddie said silently, looking at Roland, knowing he could hear his thoughts. Your brother runs the Consortium. You knew all along that it existed, and why. You never warned us, not even after it was too late.
Too late for me.
Roland flinched, but those bloodshot eyes showed nothing. And Eddie felt nothing except a dull ache when he looked at him.
At the other end of the room, a shadow detached from the wall: a slow, sinuous flow of movement made of perfect, dangerous grace.
Eddie had been aware of that presence from the moment he entered the room, but he still tensed; and so did Serena and Roland. It was impossible not to. The old woman who emerged from the shadows was deadly, in more ways than one.
Little of her face was visible, but her eyes glowed with subtle, golden light. She was Chinese, but so old – and so inhuman – that definitions based on ethnicity held no value.
“Ma’am,” Eddie said, with careful respect.
“Boy,” she replied, and the air seemed to hiss across his skin with power. “I’ve met immortals with younger eyes than you.”
He said nothing. Roland muttered, “Long Nu. Get on with it.”
The old woman’s hand flashed out, trailing light, and touched the corner of Eddie’s mouth. Not with a finger, but a claw – cool as silk, sliding across his lips, down his jaw. He smelled stone and ash, and a hint of sandalwood.
“You know what you have to do?” Long Nu said to him quietly.
“You want me to find a girl. A girl who can control fire.”
“A shape-shifter,” she murmured, as golden light continued to shimmer over her hand, and her flesh rippled with scales. “A dragon.”
Eddie reached up, very slowly, and pushed her hand away from his face. “I don’t understand why you don’t go yourself. One of your kind to another.”
“It would draw the wrong kind of attention. More than what is already focused on the child.” Long Nu glanced at Roland. “She is being hunted.”
Hunted. A girl, hunted. Eddie felt a cold, visceral disgust when he heard that. It made him think of his sister.
“No one told me,” he said.
“We were not sure. Now we are.”
“Who’s after her?”
Long Nu hesitated, and that was enough to convey to Eddie just how bad it was.
“They are called the Cruor Venator,” she said, in a cold, heavy voice. “Blood Hunters. Witches who steal power from blood.”
Serena sucked in her breath, a startling sound because it was filled with fear, dismay: two emotions Eddie had never, once, associated with her.
Eddie shared a quick look with Roland. “Witches?”
“Not just any witches,” Serena said sharply, continuing to stare at Long Nu. “Killers. Vicious, ruthless. They live for death. It’s their first, and only, pleasure.” She moved even closer to dragon woman, as though stalking her, hands flexing at her sides. “But it’s impossible. That magic hasn’t been seen in a hundred years.”
Long Nu shook her head. “I know what such a death looks like. A shifter in Florida was lost to a group of them only two weeks ago. The same shifter who contacted Dirk & Steele about the girl.”
A hard knot of unease hit Eddie’s gut. “I didn’t know he was dead.”
Roland rubbed a hand through his hair, and closed his eyes. “I only just found out. Long Nu discovered Estefan’s murder through different channels. When he stopped emailing me, I thought maybe he’d changed his mind about asking for our help in finding the girl.”
“I suspect he reached out to you because he had an idea of what threatened her. Except the Cruor Venator got him first,” said Long Nu in a cold, blunt voice – looking directly at Eddie as she spoke. “Estefan was ripped apart. Drained of blood. Part of his heart eaten. Skinned. It was a very bad death.”
Eddie did not blink or flinch. Long Nu, still watching him, added, “His wife is human, and was away when he was murdered. She explained that just before her husband died, Estefan told her that three women had been asking locals about a girl with golden eyes. It concerned him a great deal…especially when he learned that they were using her real name.”
“You think those women are witches,” he said, “and that they found the shifter, and murdered him, because they were looking for the girl.”
“I know it,” Long Nu replied, with chilling certainty. “And even if I am wrong, the mere possibility makes it urgent that we find her as quickly as possible.”
Serena’s eyes narrowed. “Did he know that she was headed to New York?”
“Yes. And everything he knew, the Cruor Venator now knows.”
Deep, dangerous, waters, thought Eddie, feeling that old familiar shift inside his skin, as though he was a shape-shifter himself, transforming into a different person.
That transformation had begun as soon as Long Nu said the girl was being hunted. After all these years, it was natural as breathing. Part of him was always quiet, always waiting, beneath the fire. A mindset, where nothing could be depended on, where violence was expected, promised, and always lethal. He had the scars to remind himself, if he ever forgot. But he never had.
His heart donned a cold armor: where he would feel nothing. Nothing, until this job was done.
Because it was obvious this job was going to require doing things he was going to regret.
“Just find the girl,” Roland said heavily, clearly reading his thoughts. “Serena, talk to your contacts. I’ll do the same here.”
Eddie didn’t need to hear more. He didn’t want to.
He turned and walked away, descending the stairs to the kitchen. He did not look at the cage. He strode down a long hall, and then took another flight of stairs to the seventh floor.
He had an apartment half-a-mile from here, but a spare room had been given to him several years ago, after contracting an artificially constructed virus: the prototype of a bio-weapon. The infection had almost killed him, with one additional side effect.
Eddie had lost all control over his powers. All those hard-earned years of focus, sacrifice, and isolation – gone, meaningless. Literally, up in flames.
The way he lived his life until then had revolved around his ability to protect people from himself. Suddenly, in an instant, that was no longer possible. For almost a year he had needed to live in that glass cage, where he would be safe from others.
Confidence, shattered. Heartbreakingly alone.
Those first few times venturing beyond its glass walls—terrifying. After that, months where Eddie did nothing but stay indoors or sit on the roof of the building, staring at downtown San Francisco. Watching people. Watching the world.
It had taken another six months for his confidence to return…but only because he’d had no choice. A friend needed help. That had been motivation enough for him to test the limits of his new control, and after that…it had gotten easier.
Taking back his old life had felt like a miracle.
Now he wondered if he needed to return to the cage again.
The spare room that Roland had given him was nearly a thousand square feet in size. No interior walls. Just windows, overlooking the city. His bed was a mattress on the floor, and his clothes were stored in plastic bins. Stacks of travel books, language study guides, and science magazines surrounded his bed, along with a small lamp and a box full of bottled water.
Eddie found a backpack, and began stuffing it with underwear, a pair of jeans, and some t-shirts.
He found a small leather wallet, covered in stains and worn so thin with age it almost broke when he handled it. No money inside. Just photos. He hesitated, but placed it in one of the bins, carefully. He had enough distractions.
Free. He’s free. Good behavior. They let him out because he was a model prisoner.
Oh, my God.
Oh, my God, baby.
Eddie closed his eyes, and focused on his breathing. With a great deal of effort he pushed away the memory of his mother’s stunned, grief-filled voice.
But there was another voice inside his head. His own.
Don’t go to New York City. Go after Malcom Swint, instead.
It would be so easy. All it would take was a thought.
Just one, little, thought.
Eddie shook his head in disgust. No. This was the perfect time to leave San Francisco.
He kept the lamp off. Old habit. He preferred working in the dark, unseen. The city lights were more than enough for going through the motions. He had packed this bag so many times he could do it in his sleep. It gave his brain time to sort through everything he had been told.
Find the girl.
Air moved across his neck. Eddie turned. Long Nu stood behind him, silent as a ghost. He was too surprised to speak – and then he was too busy keeping himself calm as heat flooded his bones and muscles, rising through his skin. The air warmed around them.
“One more thing,” she said.
Eddie never saw the old woman move. Suddenly he was falling, falling and falling until he hit the mattress so hard he bounced. Golden light flashed, and he heard a rough, rubbing sound; like the belly of an alligator dragging over the floor.
A huge clawed foot settled on the mattress beside his head. Heat washed over his body, but it was not from him.
“Look at me,” Long Nu whispered, her voice deeper now, almost a growl.
Eddie turned his head. It was too dark for details, but he glimpsed scales rippling over the muscles of a long, serpentine throat…the hard line of a jaw, the shine of a sharp white tooth. Golden eyes shone like fire.
“The Cruor Venator don’t just take the blood of shape-shifters,” she said, each word softly hissed. “Any blood will do. But yours…your fire…” A deep rumble filled the air, caged thunder, born in her throat. “Fire is elemental. Only dragons have fire in their blood. You will stir their hunger.”
“I’m no dragon,” Eddie whispered. “I’m human.”
Long Nu leaned away from him, a slow retreat, revealing a massive body that in the darkness resembled a sinuous coil of muscle and claws, and draped leather. Eddie did not look too closely. He began breathing again. His heart pounded so hard he was dizzy—and that was dangerous.
Staying calm kept him cool. Staying calm was the key.
“You’re wrong,” said Long Nu. “What you bury only grows stronger, in time. This is true of what sleeps in blood.”
Eddie swallowed. “Stay out of my head.”
“I can’t,” she said simply. “You hide so much of your heart, even from yourself. Hide too long, and you will forget it’s there.”
He sat up, but had to shield his eyes as golden light flared bright as the sun, blinding him.
When he could see again, he found Long Nu on her knees, human and mostly naked. Her clothes were torn, hanging off her in rags. Eddie averted his eyes, and dragged the blanket off his bed. He handed it to her.
“Ma’am,” he said quietly.
Long Nu’s hand touched his fingers as she took the blanket. Her skin was hot—just as hot as his. Even hotter, when she grabbed his wrist with her other hand, and held him tight. Smoke rose between them. Eddie set his jaw, and met her golden gaze.
“There are so few left of my kind,” whispered Long Nu. “Find the girl.”
“I will,” Eddie promised, and found himself adding, “Whatever it takes.”
Long Nu gave him a mirthless smile, and the smoke between them suddenly became fire. It did not burn him, but the flames flickered up both their arms, like tiny deadly fingers.
“If the Cruor Venator is hunting her,” she said softly, “it might just take everything you have.”
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Praise for Book 11—Within the Flames
“The psychology is delightfully complex…Fans of Dirk and Steele will love this installment, which is also quite accessible to newcomers.” – Publishers Weekly
“As a new reader of this author’s work I was impressed with her skillful use of vivid descriptive prose and analogies and her ability to swiftly draw a new reader into this dark and treacherous world. Liu offers plenty of action and intrigue, but the main focus is on a special bond forged between Eddie and Lyssa, two complex, desperately lonely people….This is a creative, emotional tale.” – USA Today