A beard was a mortal who acted as a front for troop activities. Beards-or goats, as the Shadows referred to them-were given gifts, usually monetary, in exchange for allowing us to own their lives. Most thought we were a new crime organization, while others were sure we were government special ops. Interesting that there didn’t seem to be any perceptible difference. Naturally, some beards figured out the truth and ran to the press with fantastic stories about superheroes and monsters battling for the soul of the city, but the stories never ran. When you had your thumb on the pulse of the entire valley, it was easy to intercept one frantic, babbling mortal.

The Shadows, of course, had no qualms about torturing and killing our human allies in an effort to ferret out our secrets, and seeing this unidentifiable black cloud so close to one of our beards’ outposts worried me. Meanwhile, they flaunted their allies, knowing we wouldn’t harm them. The most notorious of them? The man I’d once believed was my father, the seemingly untouchable casino magnate, Xavier Archer. I had to admit, the first time I’d heard the term goat, I’d laughed. The thought of a heavyset, thick-jowled billy goat wearing Armani cracked me up.

But I wasn’t laughing as we slipped past the construction fence into the old rail yard. The black cavity above the steel scaffolding appeared even denser as we advanced into the construction zone. Even the sky looked dry- erased around and above its field. Yet the structure below appeared sound, and more, the explosive particles that tasted like microscopic tin arrows on my tongue seemed to be drawing closer, pinging off one another with each breath, as if desperate to re-form whatever object had been obliterated. I doubted anyone inside that bubble of darkness could see a foot in either direction, but I covered my face with my mask anyway. I wanted my Olivia identity protected in the event that the particle-charged sac burst.

“You sure this is it?” I asked Hunter when he halted in front of one of a dozen construction trailers circling the shell of the high-rise. It was hard to tell one nondescript building from another in the haze.

“I’m the one who set it up,” Hunter replied coolly, angling his head back at the giant structure. “I did the research, scouted the location, picked our man, set him up as foreman. He’s in charge of this project in the day, and at night maintains visual surveillance of the entire downtown area from the top floor of that structure. His name’s Vincent Moore.”

Gone was the man whose deep gaze and subtle flirtation had made me squirm. Equally absent was the one who’d taken cheap shots at the urban cowboys. In front of me stood our troop’s weapons master, the man who lived and breathed hand combat, weaponeering, and all the arts of martial command that so perfectly aligned with an Aries’ natural physicality.

Physical talents aside, however, Hunter’s greatest weapon was his mind. Ever the tactician, he was constantly assessing and planning, and was more at home in a combat situation than in a La-Z-Boy. Like a general marshaling his forces, he called on everyone to be their best, and if you fell short-and I had on occasion-the silent rebuke was deafening. In short, Hunter was the hero we all wanted to be.

“So then where’s the top floor?” I said, straining to see any sign of life in the pitch-topped tower. Now that we were closer, I could make out filmy veils of ionized air draping to the ground from the thick nucleus in the blackened sky. They were like black flags hung up to dry in uneven layers from the top of the two-hundred-foot scaffolding.

“It was blown to smithereens about ten minutes ago.”

We turned to find a filthy, greasy, soured, and tattered man approaching. His hair was matted with dreadlocks, and an authentic limp had him swishing and swaying in horror movie mode. “I can’t see him,” I told Hunter, “but boy can I smell him.”

Our troop leader stepped closer and his features sharpened, as if drawn by a coal pencil. His sun-slammed skin was muted in the dark, but brown eyes pinpointed us in beady assessment. He was dressed in secondhand fatigues and a tattered trench coat, his standard vagrant guise, and one that’d served him well. Mortals found him too frightening to approach, and the Shadows found him too repulsive to scrutinize. “Better?”

“Not particularly,” I said, eyes watering. Olfactory acuteness was both a blessing and a curse.

“It’s about to get worse,” he said, motioning us away from the base of the building. Sharing a confused glance, Hunter and I followed.

“I’m assuming you mean the haze,” Hunter said, as we sped up. Warren’s leg injury had done nothing to slow him down. If so, he’d never have ascended to troop leader, much less remained there.

“And the situation. Our contact was up there just before the corporeal explosion. Top three stories fell like hotcakes. Indication is they have him imprisoned on the same level used to gain access.”

We all glanced up, then diagonally to the crane that any enterprising Shadow could traverse. And they were all that. Shit.

“How many?” Hunter asked, meaning Shadows.

“At least four from the way they’ve managed to secure all lower-level passages. But my guess is more than half a dozen.” Warren smiled then, and I had to shiver a little. The look was off-center, brittle, slightly whacked, and thin. Don’t get me wrong, Warren was one of the good guys, but he was the leader of a troop of paranormal beings who got off on this sort of situation.

“An ambush then.”

“Their largest yet.”

The troop charged with the paranormal security and safety of the Las Vegas valley was huddled beneath an isolated hydraulic crane. The sheets of destroyed wave matter, presumably fallout from the explosion, hung around them in tatters on every side. In the right-hand corner we had a doctor, a reporter, an oversexed college student, and a reclusive psychic. In the left-hand corner there were a dental student, a taxi driver, and a high school teacher. They all turned as one to watch as a bum, a security guard, and a socialite joined to create the whole of Zodiac troop 175.

Or what remained of it, I thought wryly. The Zodiac chart had twelve signs, but our Pisces star sign had been murdered last year after our troop had been infiltrated by a mole working for the Shadows. Our Libra, I thought, with guilt, had died only last month. Their star signs had yet to be filled.

“Movement, Felix?” Warren asked, falling in beside him.

Felix jerked his head in the opposite direction of our approach. “I saw the Shadows’ Gemini. She was headed to the top of the crane.”

“Sure it was her?”

“Only Dawn can wear a leather corset and still manage to look that sweet.”

“Yes, she’s so sweet,” Vanessa said acerbically. Her hair was pulled back in a haphazard knot, soft curls escaping to frame her honeyed face, and she’d thrown on a mask similar to mine in style, because her reporter’s profile might be high enough to get her noticed by the Shadows. “I almost never want to put a foot through her chest cavity.”

“Violent,” commented Felix, brow quirked.

“Only when I see her.”

“You mean smell her,” said Riddick, wrinkling his nose as he sorted through his set of oversized carvers and picks, deciding at last on a palm-length bar with double-sided hooks. Hunter had designed the set especially for him, as he did all our weapons. Fitting for a dentist, I thought. His was the only weaponry that gave me the heebie- jeebies.

“Did she see you, Felix?” asked Warren, steering us back on track.

Felix shook his head, and his hair fell over his forehead. He was older than me by a few years, but had the look of a college freshman, and his smile attracted coeds like bees to honey. He enjoyed his cover more than any of us. “Don’t think so. But they’ve gotta know we’re coming.”

We always came when mortal lives were threatened.

“All right, here’s the plan.”

As Warren outlined our attack formation, I glanced at Hunter and waited. Feeling my gaze on him, he shook his head imperceptibly, so I returned my attention to the grouping of our combat positions. I’d asked if we should tell Warren about Regan’s reaction to the initial blast, and that the Shadows hadn’t been responsible for the plague of explosions upsetting the vibrational matter of this reality prior to now. He was telling me to wait; this particular event was the work of the Shadows, and it was all we needed to occupy our minds now.

I agreed. Though new to the troop, I was no longer the least experienced star sign. Jewell and Riddick had joined the ranks after me, and though they’d been raised in the troop’s sanctuary, trial by

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