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Dylan

“They won’t talk to you.”

I look around, trying to pinpoint the voice offering that insight.

I spot her in the window. A tiny face with giant eyes and bouncy dark pigtails. She has a stuffed elephant clutched tightly in her arms.

“They don’t like cops,” she says solemnly.

I look down at myself, confirming what I know. I’m not wearing my police uniform. I’m not on duty and despite what this little sprite seems to think, I am aware that the street kids and working girls I’m trying to talk too aren’t big on cops.

“They can tell,” she informs me. “You’re a cop.”

Well, fuck

If this kid, not more than seven or eight, has me pegged than she’s likely right and none of the others around here are going to talk to me.

I rub a hand over my head in frustration, scowling at the short length. Academy cut. I can’t wait to let it grow out again.

Sighing in resignation I turn and face the little girl in the window. “Any suggestions?” I can’t believe I’m asking advice from a kid.

I hear a voice calling from farther inside the apartment. My new friend turns back and screeches, “I’m here! I’m talking to the police officer.”

Well. Anyone who hadn’t already ID’d me now definitely has. Who knew such a small body could produce such a loud sound?

A young woman, hardly more than a girl herself, comes racing forward and pulls the little girl out of the window frame. She eyes me up and down suspiciously.

I nod and smile, trying to appear non threatening. Normally, my height makes this tricky but she’s half a floor up in her apartment so looking slightly down on me. “Evenin’” I offer lamely.

Still stiff with tension she asks, “Can I help you?”

My little friend pokes her head around the woman and inform her, “He’s trying to talk to people.”

She smiles tightly down at the kid. “Why don’t you go read Mr. Elephant his bed time story? I’ll be up in a second.”

“It’s not Mr. Elephant’s bed time yet! The little hand is only on the seven.”

“Tonight it is,” she says firmly. “Go. I’ll be there in a minute.”

I hear the slap of small feet hitting the bare floor inside. The young woman watches her go before turning her attention back to me.

“I haven’t seen you in the neighborhood before.”

I shake my head. “I’m looking for someone.”

She hesitates, hanging back a bit while she considers me. Something she sees causes her to step forward and slide the screen up so she can duck her head outside. “Got a picture? Who is it?”

I pull Cheri’s picture out of my jacket pocket and hand it over to her. “Friend of the family. She’s been missing a couple months now.” I watch her carefully, but she remains expressionless.

“Months? That’s a long time to be missing.”

I know what she’s saying. Missing this long usually means dead.

But I promised her family I wouldn’t give up until we knew. One way or the other.

She hands the picture back, eying me thoughtfully. She doesn’t say anything for a long moment just continues to study me. Something, some instinct tells me to stand still and stay quiet. Don’t spook this one.

“What are you going to do if you find her?”

I tuck Cheri’s picture back into my pocket. “Hopefully bring her home. Back to her family.”

“Don’t think she’d like that plan.”

My heart thumps wildly. No way.

“Have you seen her?” I hardly dare to ask.

“I’ve seen her,” she confirms.

“Where? How long ago?”

“You have a card or anything?”

I don’t. I find a scrap a paper in my pocket and scribble my name and number on it.

Taking it, she starts to lower the screen back into place. “I’ll let her know you’re looking for her, if I see her again.”

“Wait!”

She doesn’t, moving to lower the window itself.

Stand still. Stay quiet. Don’t spook this one. I force myself to follow my instincts and not press for more information. I know where to find her.

“What’s your name?” I ask instead.

She pauses with the window half way closed and studies me again with those assessing eyes.

“Sloane.”

And then she closes the window, pulling the drapes for good measure.

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Connor

“You’re back.”

I grin agreeing to the obvious. “I’m back. I brought a friend with me.” I turn and pull my little sister forward for introductions. “Logan, this is Skylar. Skye, meet Logan.”

Skylar is predictably star struck. I swear, the fact that I’m a professional baseball player – and a damn good one – means absolutely nothing to her. People buy jerseys with my name on the back. My team went to the World Series last season. I was just re-signed to a massive contract here in Chicago. None of that impresses this fourteen year old. But when she found out I was coming to Vanished for a tattoo, that I’d already been here twice and met the Vanished staff, well, she hasn’t left me alone since. Hounding me with a million different questions, most of which I couldn’t answer to her teenage frustration. So I invited her to come along.

And I’ll admit, I’m more than a little relieved she seems more excited to meet Logan than any of the guys in the shop.

“Wait. You met them? Like, all of them? Lucas, Jax, Macy, LOGAN? You met Logan?!”

I nod, laughing at her enthusiasm. “Yes, I met them. Lucas did this tattoo.” I twist my wrist so she can see the design on the inside of my forearm. She looks at it with new respect.

“Oh my god. I love that show! Are they cool in person? They seem cool, not assholes. They’re not assholes are they?”

I assure her they are not assholes, are in fact a very cool, chilled out crew.

“What about Logan? Did you talk to Logan? She is such a freaking bad ass. I love Logan. One time these guys came in totally drunk trying to get tattoos and she shut them down so hard it was hilarious!”

That seems very on brand for Logan. I nod along as Skye continues to gush.

“And I love her hair. I tried to convince Mom to let me get streaks like hers but she said not until I was sixteen. And only if I keep my grades up.”

Skye rolls her eyes at what she undoubtedly sees as our mother’s ridiculous and unfair limitations.

“So?”

I realize I must have missed something because Skye has taken a breath and is looking at me expectantly. “So?” I ask, confused.

She sighs dramatically. “What are they like?”

Instead of answering that question, I invited her to tag along to my next appointment.

And here we are.

“Hi, Skylar. Welcome to Vanished.”

It’s the first time I’ve seen Logan genuinely smile in person and I’m stuck momentarily stupid. My sister isn’t the only one more excited to see Logan than any of the others in the shop. Unfortunately, Logan wasn’t as excited to meet me as she seems to be meeting my sister. I was more like the drunks she ‘shut down so hard’.

“I love your show,” my sister confides and Logan thanks her graciously. I stand back as my sister peppers her with questions and watch Logan answer them with patience and humor. At one point her amused gaze lifts to mine and something shifts between us. She stiffens slightly, her smile faltering before she tears her attention away from me and back to my sister.

I’ve never been jealous of my fourteen year old sibling before.

“Hey, Con. Sorry, have you been waiting long?”

Lucas wanders out front from the back room and greets me with a casual handshake.

“Hey, man. Good to see you. Came a little early for….” I nod at my sister a few feet away.

“Ah.” Luke chuckles knowingly. “Sister, right? I think you mentioned her last time.”

“She’s far more impressed with you all than she’s ever been with me,” I admit.

He laughs loud enough to catch Skye’s attention. She stares at him with wide eyes, her mouth forming a literal O.

Maybe she’s equally excited to meet Logan as she is the guys here. Damn.

I’d be more worried if I didn’t know Lucas and his crew are all decent guys. Despite their overnight stardom they’ve had very few ‘scandals’ attached to them and most of those have been bullshit and minor. I’d be more concerned with her hanging out with certain members of my team than I am with this crew.

Lucas smooths over the potentially awkward interaction, introducing himself to Skylar and ushering us back to his station. He explains what he’s doing as he’s doing it, giving my sister an easy way to ask him questions until she soon relaxes and is talking and joking around more naturally. Forty-five minutes into my appointment Logan pokes her head in and invites Skylar to check out some of the designs she’s working on. My sister jumps up eagerly and follows her.

“She’s sweet,” Lucas says, grinning as he focuses on his work and my newest tattoo.

“She’s a pain in the ass,” I counter, “but I kinda like her.”

He laughs and then it’s just the hum of the tattoo machine as he works.

“What’s Logan’s story?” I can’t resist asking.

He glances up at me quickly before returning his focus to my bicep. “Her story is her story to tell.”

That’s not very helpful.

I don’t see my sister again until we’re done. Luke covers my new ink with some clear cellophane and slaps me on the back before sending me upfront to settle up.

Skye and Logan are sitting close together, heads bent over a sketch book. When she spots me, Logan crosses over to the front desk and the register.

“All set?”

“Yep. For now.”

I pull out a couple twenty dollar bills and hold them out to Skye. “Why don’t you go next door and grab us a couple slices to go?” She starts to protest but I raise my eyebrows pointedly and with a grumble she grabs the money, heading for the door.

“Thanks, Logan! It was great to meet you!” she calls over her shoulder.

“Come back anytime!” Logan yells back.

The door jingles as it closes behind her. “She will, you know. You may regret that offer.”

Logan shakes her head, pressing buttons on the computer. “Nah. She’s a good kid.”

I hand over my credit card and she rings me up. After all the formalities are taken care of I summon my courage.

“Would you… want to grab a drink some time? Get together away from here?” I smile crookedly. I’ve been told I’ve got a great smile, although I’m not at all confident it will work on Logan.

She meets my gaze briefly before pretending to be absorbed straightening the papers on the counter. Nope. Smile didn’t work. “Sorry. Can’t date the customers.”

Wait. Seriously?

“Seriously?” I voice my thought aloud.

“Seriously.” She confirms.

“What if I don’t get any more tattoos here?”

She rolls her eyes before looking at me. “Because I want to be the one to tell Lucas the reason one of the most recognizable men in the city is no longer a customer is because I wanted a free beer? No, thank you.”

I study her intently, problem solving. There’s something about this woman I find fascinating. I’m not willing to give up so easily.

“Then I guess I’ll schedule another appointment.”

She relaxes imperceptibly. But I catch it.

“Luke’s booked a couple months out, but I’ll see if he can fit you in. He tries to accommodate regulars.”

“Oh that’s okay. I want to book with you.”

And she stiffens right back up.

But I get my appointment.

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Blake

“Who is that?”

At my question my best friend cranes her neck around, not at all subtle. But then neither am I, so who cares?

“The guy that just walked in? That’s Dylan.”

That’s Dylan? The cop that’s in love with you?”

Predictably, she rolls her eyes at me. “He’s not in love with me. We’re friends.” She emphasizes the word as if I’m not clear on the definition.

Sloane has no idea how fabulous she is. In fact, she is constantly trying to stay out of the limelight, hiding on the edges. It’s probably one of the reasons our friendship started and then survived through college. I wasn’t very good at sharing the spotlight back then. I wanted it all on me.

I like to think I’ve grown up a little. But I’m also an actress so obviously I’m still very comfortable, and desiring, of people’s attention.

But I did organize this surprise party tonight for her. Not me. If anyone in my life deserves some appreciation it’s Sloane. And it’s her birthday. So the perfect time to drag her out to center stage. I kept it small though, only a few close friends. And had it here at her favorite out-of-the-way dive bar. Choices I knew she’d like.

I watch as Dylan scans the room, his eyes finally landing on Sloane and I. He smiles and makes a beeline right to us. Well, to her. He doesn’t really know me.

Yet.

Damn. He’s handsome. Sloane’s been holding out on me.

He’s casually dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket. His dark hair cut short but with a little curl, it doesn’t look like he spends much time taming it. And his smile.

Damn.

Dylan zeroes in on Sloane, giving her a big hug and gentle kiss on the cheek. “Happy Birthday.”

She murmurs her thanks and he turns his hazel eyes to me.

“You must be Blake. Thanks for inviting me. Sorry I couldn’t get here before the ‘surprise’.” He extends his hand in greeting.

Strong. I note the warmth and strength in his grip as I meet those hazel eyes. And he’s tall. As a 5’8” girl who likes her heels, I appreciate tall. My most recent ex was the same height as me and he was clearly annoyed when I wore my favorite shoes.

Ugh. Why did I stay so long? I knew he was no good. I just wasn’t motivated to find anything better. Or confident there was anything better. It was boring but easy.

Until it wasn’t.

Boring OR easy.

Stupid bastard.

Pulling myself away from those memories I focus on the man in front of me.

“Glad you could make it.” I smile flirtatiously, out of habit, and then try to reign it back in. Despite her denials, I’m still not totally clear on Sloane and Dylan’s status and I am not in the business of creeping on someone else’s territory. Especially my best friend.

Dylan asks if either of us need anything from the bar before wandering off to order.

I pull Sloane aside. “Seriously, there isn’t anything going on there? He’s gorgeous. What are you waiting for?”

“Ew. No. Dylan is like a brother.”

“So, you won’t mind if I….? I mean, I’m fresh out of a relationship and am more than happy to be his ‘if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one your with’ situation.”

Sloane laughs at my ridiculousness. “No, honestly don’t let me stop you. But I should warn you he’s not your usual type.” She looks at me meaningfully.

“You mean…?”

She nods, gravely.

Glancing at the man in question, I watch him at the bar. “He’s the ‘R’ word?”

“And the ‘M’ word,” she intones with mock seriousness.

“No!” I turn back to her, eyes wide.

“It’s true. He’s a Relationship guy. And he’s Monogamous.”

Hmmm. She’s not wrong. I don’t tend to go for relationship guys. I’m not really looking for anything serious. I like having someone I can call but who isn’t really going to take up much of my time or energy. I want fun. And truthfully, I’m not the girl guys who want a serious relationship tend to gravitate too. I am fun.

He carries our drinks over, handing them off before going back to grab his own.

I’ll make an exception.

I’m too intrigued. And maybe a little bit into the challenge he presents.

A few hours later, we’re all tipsy enough to make this small dive bar our own personal dance party. There’s about a dozen of us enjoying the juke box, singing and dancing and drinking. Dylan and I have gravitated to the edge of the group, dancing and flirting. I’m an excellent flirt. And practiced enough to recognize that look in his eyes as the night progresses.

Someone, I’m guessing not from our group, selects a slow song on the juke box. Possibly an attempt to settle us down. Instead I take advantage to slide into Dylan’s arms and continue our flirting up close.

He grins down at me, his large hands resting on my hips as we move against each other to the music. Over his shoulder I spot Sloane talking to a man I don’t recognize. They also seem to be hitting it off, thrilling me. My girl deserves some fun! I try to divide my attention between the man in front of me and my best friend, making sure she’s okay and doesn’t need a BFF rescue. But she seems good. Better than good.

The stranger leans down and murmurs something in Sloane’s ear, she laughs up at him eyes shining. Then I see him turn to a man behind him talking to one of our old college roommates. That guy I know, I just hadn’t seen him arrive. But if Sloane’s stranger knows Erik he’s a good guy. Sloane and her stranger head to the bar, his hand resting on her lower back.

Relaxing I turn my attention fully back to Dylan.

“Looks like Sloane has picked her birthday present.” I nod to the couple in question.

Dylan glances over to them and smiles, then turns right back to me. He pulls me closer, but almost immediately I feel him stiffen. And not in a good way.

I’ve lost him.

He’s now focused entirely on Sloane and the man she’s with a grim expression on his face.

“I’ll be right back,” he mumbles but I doubt that’s true. I watch in confusion as he says a few words to the man with Sloane and then walks away, Sloane following him.

He’s talking, that same dark and concerned expression on his face. Sloane pales slightly and then abruptly pulls him outside with her.

They don’t come back.

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Ash

Today is going to be great.

Or at least not awful.

I will strive for not awful.

Quite the pep talk, Ash. Aim high.

Honestly though not awful would in fact be awesome. Lucas and I are spending the afternoon at his uncle’s annual July 4th barbecue. On paper it sounds like a delightful way to spend this gorgeous summer day but Lucas and his family have a pretty tumultuous relationship. I can count on one hand the number of interactions that haven’t ended in someone losing their temper and storming off.

Usually Lucas.

But they’ve all agreed to try to move forward, letting go of past hurts.

I’d like to see him make peace with his family but I’m also ready to pull him out of there myself if any of them do anything to hurt him.

Lucas is not excited about this barbecue. He’s going under protest – mostly protesting with himself. And I understand it. His family has a lot of damage to undo. But I honestly think they are trying.

And they did help him save my life. So I feel a little obligated.

His cousin Riley did an aggressive recruitment push for weeks before he finally, grudgingly agreed to attend. She at least has convinced him she has no ulterior motives. I can tell he’s starting to like her. And I’ve noticed Lucas isn’t the only Vanished member that finds it hard to say no to her earnest persistence.

Entering Vanished, I spot Logan behind the counter, her blond tresses with electric blue streaks piled high in a haphazard bun. She lifts her chin in a silent greeting.

I smile, no longer unnerved by her aloof exterior. She likes me. Logan doesn’t like many people, but I have managed to win her trust.

“He ready?”

Logan grimaces, not quite meeting my eyes. “He’s with a client.”

Immediately suspicious, I ask, “I thought he wasn’t on the schedule?”

Suddenly she’s very absorbed in the notebook in front of her. “He took a walk-in.”

“What? Logan!” She knows as well as I do that Lucas does not take walk-ins. He is booked solid for months out.

She shrugs helplessly, when I know she’s anything but. “What do you want from me? He’s the boss!”

“Call him on an obvious stalling technique?” I suggest. Logan is not intimated by any of the men she works with, not even The Boss, Lucas. She calls them on their shit without fear and I’ve been around long enough to see it happen on a regular basis.

“It’s just a consult. It shouldn’t be long.”

Sighing heavily, I pull out my phone to send him a text message.

I know what you are doing. And because I’m not unsympathetic to his nerves, I add a gif with a cartoon girl hugging a massive blue monster.

Get out here. Followed by the kissy face emoji.

Hopefully that will make him laugh. And move his ass.

I’m rewarded a few minutes later when I hear his voice saying good-bye to his consult. A man comes from the back and heads towards Logan at the front desk. I’m momentarily distracted by my cell buzzing, indicating a text message.

I think this earns me more than a few hugs and kisses.

I grin at his response and send one of my own. Not until you actually go through with it.

Slipping my cell into my back pocket, my attention wanders to Lucas’s newest client. The guy lucky enough to walk in at the right time and score a tattoo with one of the nation’s top artists. I hear him and Logan scheduling a time for him to come back and get his ink. Recognition filters through me. Even though I can only see his back it doesn’t take long for me to place him.

“Zane?”

He turns, spots me in the lobby, and grins widely.

“Hey! Doctor Ash!”

He looks the same, shaggy honey blond hair, stunning greenish hazel eyes, blindingly white teeth. He’s even wearing the same beat up flip flops and cargo shorts, although they are more out of place here in the heart of Chicago than when I last saw him in the desert in northern Nigeria. His beard is more closely cropped along his jaw but that’s really the only change I see.

I return his enthusiastic hug, so confused at his appearance here I feel a little dizzy.

“What are you doing here? When did you get here? I haven’t seen you-” I ask when he sets me back on my feet.

“Since Katsina,” he offers, “I know. What, two years ago?”

“Almost three.” I laugh and shake my head. “This is so crazy.”

“What’s crazy?”

I turn, hearing Lucas approach behind me.

As usual the sight of him makes my stomach flip. He’s so gorgeous and the affection in his eyes when he looks at me still makes me melt even after all these months together. I am so in love with this man.

Even when he drags his feet and makes me late.

I give him a quick kiss and re-introduce him to his client. “Lucas, Zane and I knew each other when I was working abroad. He worked with an NGO that delivered supplies to the camp I was based in.”

“No way.” He smiles at Zane. “Small world.”

Zane seems surprisingly sober as he watches us. “Small world,” he repeats. “How long have you two been together? I didn’t realize you’d been back in the states that long.”

I feel Lucas stiffen beside me and I slip my hand into his. “A while now,” I answer vaguely. Zane’s reaction is confusing. We’d never been more than friendly, kind-of co-workers. Discovering I’m dating someone else years later shouldn’t have any kind of effect on him, let alone this serious questioning.

I’m wracking my brain, thinking through our past interactions.

Oh no.

“You’re from Chicago originally?” I ask softly even though I know the answer. Know it but still can’t quite believe it.

“I am.” Zane’s expression is grim.

Oh shit. Oh my god. He can’t be.

“Ash? Babe, you okay?”

Lucas’s voice snaps me out of my growing panic. I realize I’m squeezing his hand way too tightly. Loosening my grip, I meet his concerned eyes.

Oh god. What do I say? I glance between the two men uneasily.

“She’s remembering.”

Zane sounds resigned. My gaze finally settles on Zane and narrows.

Did he know?

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Ethan #AtoZChallenge

I think we have a problem. When are you back?

I read the text I just received. Concerning but I know the sender well enough to know if she was in immediate danger she would have been more specific. And I suspect I already know what has her rattled. I type out a quick response and we make plans to meet two days from now, Monday night, when I return to Chicago.

Setting that aside, I have other things that require my immediate attention, I slip my phone back in my pocket and return my attention to the surveillance equipment in front of me.

“Boss, no movement in two days. What are we doing here?” Kurt Erickson, this assignment’s lead, asks me, his voice whispering through my ear piece.

I understand his frustration. He’s a field operative, he’s used to taking action, providing protection. He’s not like me. Research, information gathering, intelligence, observation. Spending so much time behind computers has made me incredibly methodical and patient. I know if I wait long enough my enemies, the men and women I target, will make a mistake. They’ll break a pattern, forget to delete some footprint, miss dotting that ‘I’ and as long as I do my job I will find them.

“We run the lead, Erickson. Like always. We wait.”

Silence greets me. He may grumble when he doesn’t have things to punch but I trust him with my life. And the lives of people I love. He’s proved his skill and loyalty more than once.

It’s also becoming increasingly likely that this particular lead is bringing us nothing. We’ve been staking out this private air field outside of Las Vegas for days with nothing to show. The information I gathered seemed to indicate a 72-hour window that a pilot with connections to a man I’ve been hunting would be coming to party on the Strip and using this airfield to house his plane. Seventy-two hours that is quickly dwindling. It’s already dusk, if he doesn’t come tonight I’ll have to consider pulling back. If we stay in place much longer someone is bound to spot us.

But even the smallest possibility I could get one level closer to him would motivate me to sit in this van for weeks if necessary. He wasn’t the first monster I met but he’s the one I need to stop before I can think about having a life beyond this.

He’s a ghost. Literally.

I saw him die.

Yet, there are still sightings of him all over the globe.

Money still moves through his bank accounts.

People still die in his name. Others kill by his order.

Even she is beginning to doubt she actually killed him.

But I saw her shoot him. I saw him fall. I felt his pulse fade.

I know he’s dead.

But I don’t know who has taken his place. And I don’t know why.

And until I do, no one I love is safe.

Sleep Walker. That’s what he calls himself.

Movement on the screens in front of me catches my eye, shaking me loose from my dark thoughts.

“Car approaching from the west,” I alert the team.

“I’ve got eyes on it.” This is from Peter Novak, another member of the team. “Looks like just the driver.”

My computer beeps. “Tower just approved landing for a plane coming in.”

Erickson orders his team to stay sharp. I feel the adrenaline moving through me as I lean forward, watching the lights of the approaching plane. The car has stopped near the hanger. Although I don’t see anyone I know Kurt has moved in to position, close enough to apprehend the driver once we have confirmation on our target.

The plane comes in for a landing, skirting right over us before touching down and taxing to the far end of the strip. I watch from the van as it turns and comes back, moving back toward the hanger.

“Tail number doesn’t match.”

Dammit! I squint at the cameras but none of them have the angle or lighting I need to see if Novak is right. My refusal to trust him is an obvious indication how different this assignment is than all the others. I refuse to accept this dead end. Something must be here.

Something has to be here.

Screw it.

I grab my gun off the table and check the safety. Then I slip out of the van.

“Boss?” Erickson must see me moving on the tarmac.

“I’m getting a closer look. Wait for my signal. Stay in position. And don’t shoot me.”

The last is a joke. No one on my team shoots without knowing what they are aiming at. But better to let them know I’m now in play.

By now the plane has done a 180 and is returning our direction, the on site mechanic preparing to refuel it as the engines shut off. I walk towards the hangar, knowing they’ll need to check in at the terminal, feigning ignoring the plane itself. Novak is right of course, the tail number isn’t a match.

But I still want to know who is on that plane before I give up.

Out of the corner of my eye I see the hatch open, stairs lowering and a few minutes later an average white guy descends. I pretend I’m on the phone, complaining about a late ride. He hesitates as he approaches, eying me carefully.

Trying to put him at ease, I turn my back again ‘ignoring’ him.

He takes another two steps.

Then turns abruptly and retraces his path at a sprint.

“Everyone move in! Do NOT let him get back on that plane!”

Want to know more about Ethan’s backstory? Click here.

And we find out more about Nathan here.

Peter appears briefly here.