In this suspenseful and twisted thriller, a companion to Seven Crows, vigilante Killian Delaney returns to use her unique skill set to fight for the justice of those who can't defend themselves. Kate Kessler's novels are "impossible to put down" (Hollie Overton). Killian Delaney has a skewed moral compass, a high threshold for pain, an unstoppable will, and she's just joined the Network: a group of well-funded individuals who help the weakest among us. Two sisters have gone missing, and Killian has been hired to track them down. The plan is straightforward: follow the trail, find the girls, and kill whoever stands in her way. They're living in a commune in upstate New York, one that looks a lot like a cult. And while one sister wants out, the other adamantly refuses. Breaking them free will push every skill in Killian's arsenal to its limit. But she's determined to get them home. For more from Kate Kessler, check out: The Killian Delaney Novels: Seven Crows Call of Vultures The Audrey Harte Novels: It Takes One Two Can Play Three Strikes Four of a Kind Zero Hour (novella) Dead Ringer
Release date: December 1, 2020
Print pages: 352
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Call of Vultures
The address she’d been given was for a nursery and gardening supply operation in Middlebury. Killian Delaney surveyed the dark property as she drove down the narrow lane between the store and greenhouse. There were some serious potholes that needed attention, but she wasn’t driving her own car, so she didn’t care if she hit them. In fact, she made a point of hitting every damn one, regardless of how the car jerked and bounced, and grinned with her teeth clenched every time the ass end bottomed out.
It was after two in the morning and rural enough that it wasn’t just dark—it was black. She had the headlights on low to illuminate the rough dirt road. And then, as she crested a small hill, she caught sight of a faint light at the bottom, coming from an old barn. Her contact had given her good directions.
The car coasted to the bottom of the hill. Killian killed the headlights and gave the brakes a gentle tap, rolling to a stop in the weak light coming from the barn door. Four women stood in that space, backlit. She didn’t have to see their faces to recognize them. Janelle was the tallest, built like a bloody Amazon. Narissa was a little shorter, with an abundance of soft, full curves. Then came Maya, who was a bucket of chicken—all boob and thigh—followed by Vishna, who was five foot nothing if she was lucky, and about as big around as Killian’s leg. These women didn’t have a lot in common and they hadn’t been friends all that long, but Killian liked—and respected—each of them.
She put the car in park and opened the door to get out.
It was quiet there. Eerily quiet. Stars shone in the beyond-black sky. Connecticut was like that. You could be in the middle of a city and then fifteen minutes later be in the middle of nowhere.
“Ladies,” Killian greeted, making eye contact with each of them.
Janelle stepped forward, fists clenched at her sides. “Did you bring it?” Her voice was low and edged like a blade.
“That was the job,” Killian replied as she opened the trunk. The other women moved closer, clustering around their leader. It was a warm night with a bit of a breeze, and Killian could smell the mingling of their perfumes, shampoos, and sweat.
There, curled up and bound on a sheet of plastic, was a man. Light shone on his bald head, highlighting the sweat on his cheeks and brow. He was gagged, but that didn’t stop him from making noise when his eyes adjusted to the light. He reared up at them, muffled curses punctuating the night.
Two of the women stepped back, but not Janelle. She held her ground. Killian gave her a look of respect before slapping the man into silence. She only had to hit him twice.
“Is that him?” Narissa asked, wide-eyed.
Killian nodded. “Vonte McKeithen of Bridgeport. Drug dealer and pimp. He’s the man who trafficked your daughters.” She locked gazes with Janelle. “And killed yours.” She’d seen the photos when she took the case—three young women still alive, but broken, and a fourth brutally ended.
Janelle swallowed, the whites of her eyes bright. She offered Killian an envelope, fat and sealed.
Killian hesitated. “I don’t want your money.”
The tall woman’s eyes narrowed. “We don’t want your pity.”
Understood. She took the envelope and shoved it in the waistband of her jeans. “He’s all yours.”
“I’ve been waiting so long for this, I don’t know what to do,” Narissa commented. The other women nodded in agreement.
“Whatever you want,” Killian told them. “No one’s going to miss this sorry sack of shit. At least not for long.” She pulled on the pimp’s arm, easing him out of the trunk. He whipped and coiled his body like a snake, swinging his head at her fast and hard. Killian easily sidestepped the attack and punched him in the jaw in retaliation. His feet were bound and the blow knocked him off balance. He fell hard against the edge of the car.
None of the women moved to help him. Vishna, the pixie of the group, sneered at the man, who was easily a foot taller and probably close to a hundred pounds heavier than her. “My baby still has nightmares about you,” she told him, her voice raw. “There isn’t enough pain in this world to make up for what you did to her.”
Her words seemed to stir something in her companions. Any uncertainty or hesitation they might have had seemed to evaporate under the heat of Vishna’s rage. Hate—it was contagious. Janelle gripped the pimp’s chin in her long hand and forced him to meet her gaze.
“You destroyed the only thing in this world that I truly loved. We’re gonna destroy you now.” Then, to Killian: “Thank you.”
Killian nodded. She hoped this brought the women some kind of peace, but she knew it wouldn’t. Nothing they did to this douchebag would change the damage he’d already done. It wouldn’t bring back innocence, or life. It might give them a little justice, though, and that was why she’d taken the job in the first place. She knew firsthand that revenge had little healing power. But a little was better than nothing. Better than feeling powerless.
She closed the trunk and handed Janelle a syringe she’d taken from her jacket. “He’ll tell you whatever you want to know if you give him this.” She’d no sooner handed the needle over than the pimp bolted. Where the hell did he think he was going, hopping like a scared jackrabbit with his arms tied behind his back?
Maya picked up a rock from the damp ground and threw it—hard. Killian’s brows rose in admiration when she heard the thud and saw the pimp drop to his knees. Nice shot.
“If you need anything else, you have my number,” she told them, rounding the driver’s side of the car. They wouldn’t use it; she knew that. Sometime in the next day or two, Vonte McKeithen would cease to exist. Maybe traces of him would show up in fertilizer or soil, but nothing that anyone would ever find. The cops certainly weren’t going to waste their time looking for a missing pimp. The only people who would miss him would be a few messed-up girls and his mama, and the girls would eventually get over him.
The last thing she saw in her rearview, as she left the scene, was them dragging him into the barn by his feet. The sad part was that his death wouldn’t change anything. There were two others waiting to take his place. They’d fight over who got his territory, and then his drugs and his girls would be under new ownership and it would be business as usual until another mother decided to take matters into her own hands.
Killian hoped she got the call when that happened.
It was almost four by the time Killian pulled into her parking spot behind the condo. She had to pick up her own car along the way—the other dropped off at the “cleaners” so all traces of Vonte McKeithen could be eliminated. She also stopped at an all-night Chinese place for something to eat. Kidnapping pimps and wrestling them into a trunk always gave her an appetite.
She’d taken on several traffickers since accepting Maxine Hollander’s job offer with the Initiative—a secretive network of gray-work specialists—and it gave her a real sense of satisfaction to do so. Killian had first learned of the Initiative through her boyfriend, Dash Clark. Then she found out Maxine had been watching her for a while—even when she’d been in prison for assault.
Taking the job had been the best thing she’d ever done. She got to hit people on a regular basis and get paid for it, and since they were all terrible people, she got to feel good about it, too. The only hard part was keeping it secret from her parole officer.
Her paychecks came every two weeks, deposited directly into her account. On paper she worked as a security consultant with New Amsterdam Security Inc.—a global company with their closest headquarters in New York. It made most of her income legal, and any off-the-books funds were deposited in an offshore account. It had made it possible for her to leave her shit-box apartment and rent a nice condo. She owned new furniture for the first time in her life. She was also able to help her sister save money for her nieces’ education.
She didn’t feel like a fuckup anymore. Sure, if she was ever caught she’d get sent back to prison in a heartbeat, but that was a chance she was willing to take. Tracking down “bad guys” was something… No, that wasn’t it. Violence was something she was good at, and violence was pretty much the only thing the people she was sent after understood.
Her condo was on the first floor of an old Victorian house in a suburban neighborhood in New Britain. Nothing too fancy, because she wouldn’t be comfortable, and it would look odd. It was still the nicest place she’d ever lived in. Hardwood floors and trim along the ceiling. It had been freshly painted right before she moved in. No roaches and no neighbors blasting music at two A.M.
Killian unlocked the door and stepped inside. Before her fingers flicked the light switch, she became aware that she was not alone. In one swift movement, she dropped the bag of takeout to the floor, pulled the.38 from the waistband of her jeans, and aimed it at the intruder.
Light filled the space, illuminating the shocked face of her niece—her biological daughter—Shannon.
The reality of what might have happened hit like a brick to the solar plexus. Killian dropped her arm, muscles twitching and trembling. “What the fuck, kid? We talked about this.”
Wide-eyed and clutching a pillow—as if it would have done any good—Shannon stared at her. “I texted you.”
Killian frowned as she punched the combination on the safe in the closet. “When?”
“I don’t know. A few minutes ago. When I got here and you weren’t home.”
“I didn’t get it.” She put the gun in the safe and locked it. “You should have called.” It was a struggle to keep her voice calm.
“I thought you might be at Dash’s. If I didn’t hear from you I was just going to crash.”
Picking up the bag of takeout, Killian set it on the coffee table. “Lucky for you I got enough for two. You hungry?”
The girl nodded. Inside, Killian sighed. “What happened?”
“Mom and I had a fight.”
She tossed her jacket on a chair and pushed up her sleeves. “Over?”
The flavor of the month. The girl had terrible taste in guys. Killian didn’t have to wonder too hard to figure out where she got that. She opened the bag and began setting containers on the table along with napkins and plastic utensils.
“You’re going to have to give me more than that.”
“She doesn’t want me to see him anymore. She says he’s a bad influence.”
Killian dug a piece of barbecue pork out of the container with her fingers and shoved it in her mouth. “Is he?”
“Don’t you have plates?”
“You got something against containers? Answer the question.”
“No, he’s not. He’s a good guy. He’s just gotten into trouble.” Shannon dug a wonton out of a bag and took a bite. “She doesn’t understand that sometimes good people mess up.”
“What did he do?”
“He got into a fight. Hurt a guy pretty bad.”
“For doing what?”
“I don’t know.”
“News flash, good people don’t hurt other people without good reason.”
“You hurt people all the time and you’re a good person.”
“Sweetie, I am not a good person. Does Meg know you’re here?”
Shannon shook her head. “I’m not talking to her.”
Sighing, Killian stood and took the container of meat with her to the kitchen. She loved her kitchen, not that she spent much time in it. It had an old-fashioned vibe to it that she found comforting. Standing in front of the sink, she pulled out her phone and dialed her sister’s number.
Megan answered on the second ring. “Is she with you?”
A frustrated sigh came through loud and clear. “I knew it. She has to stop pitting us against each other like this.”
“There’s no pitting. I’m on your side. Always.” It was the agreement she and her sister had made a few months back, after Killian rescued Shannon from an asshole who wanted to use the kid to get revenge on her. That’s when Shannon found out the truth about where she came from and that Killian had been the one to actually give birth to her when Killian was a teenager. Back then Killian had decided that Megan would be a better mother than her, and her opinion on that hadn’t changed.
“At least I know she’s safe.”
Guilt stuck hard in Killian’s heart. Ever since Shannon had been taken, Megan had become extra vigilant, worrying if Shannon was even five minutes late for curfew. Shannon, of course, felt like her mother should trust her more. The problem was, Shannon couldn’t be trusted.
“You want me to bring her home?”
“No. She’ll want to fight and I’m exhausted. I’m going to go to bed. Do you mind bringing her over in the morning?”
“Not at all. It’ll give me and her a chance to talk. I’ll see you in the morning. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Killian hung up and grabbed two sodas from the fridge before returning to the living room. She handed one of the sodas to Shannon. “Your mother was worried.”
Shannon snorted. Her father had been of black and Puerto Rican heritage. Mix that with Killian’s Irish and Iranian background and you got an incredibly beautiful girl who had just enough sense of her allure to be stupid about it.
“She knew I’d come here. She just wants me to feel guilty.”
“You can’t run away every time you don’t like what she says.” Killian picked up the container of beef and broccoli. She’d left the pork in the kitchen, shit. “And you can’t keep using me to piss her off.”
The kid had the nerve to look affronted. “I’m not using you.”
It was Killian’s turn to snort. “You’ve got to up your lying game, kid. It’s shit.” She dug through the carton for a choice piece of beef. “You use me to get to her and you use her to get to me and it’s got to stop. She’s your mother. Her word’s law.”
“You’re my mother.”
“Not in the way that counts. All I did was push you out. She’s been there for all the important stuff.”
“She didn’t save me from traffickers.”
“I was the reason they took you in the first place. If you’re going to be mad about that, you’d best be mad at me.” Killian sighed at the hurt look on the girl’s face. “Look, I love you as much as I’m capable of loving anybody—maybe more. But Megan? She loves you in ways I’m not capable of. She’s a better person than me. She’s better than most—and that’s why she’s your mother and I’m your aunt and not the other way around.”
Oh, for crying out loud. “Say I’d kept you. How much would you resent me for spending more than half your life in prison? How embarrassed would you have been when your friends found out about me? The only reason you don’t feel those things now is because I’m not the person you counted on to be there for you.”
Tears slipped down Shannon’s smooth cheeks. “You didn’t want me then and you don’t want me now. I get it.”
“Fuck.” Killian reached over and grabbed the girl’s hand in a grip that was probably a little too tight. “What I want—what I’ve always wanted—is for you to have the best life possible. That’s a life I knew I couldn’t give you. I pulled a gun on you, for Christ’s sake.”
To her surprise, Shannon laughed. “Fucking psycho.”
Killian grinned and moved her hand up to cup the girl’s face. “Listen to me. You’re the best thing I’ve ever done. And the best thing I ever could have done for you was let my sister raise you. This doesn’t have to be a soap opera unless you make it one.”
Shannon nodded. “Okay.”
“I’m going to grab a shower. Don’t eat all the wontons before I get back.”
A few minutes later, Killian stood beneath a pounding spray of water, thinking about that day more than sixteen years ago when she’d made the most difficult and painful decision of her life. She’d made the right one; she knew that with all her heart.
But that didn’t stop her from crying over it.
Shannon was still asleep in the guest room when Killian woke a few hours later. It wasn’t a surprise; the kid was like a cat. She’d sleep all day if you let her. Killian quietly dressed in her running gear and left the apartment.
Spring in Connecticut was a strange thing. It started off wet and messy and then quickly jumped into hot and oppressive, which meant humidity levels that could feel like an anvil to the chest. That morning it was blessedly cool, but the sun had already begun its ascent into the sky and it wouldn’t be long before cool gave way to hot. All the weather apps were calling for record highs that Memorial Day weekend.
She jogged to a nearby park where there was a playground and did her usual routine of crunches and pull-ups on the various equipment. Hanging from the monkey bars, she repeatedly tucked her knees up to her chest until her shoulders burned and her abs protested.
Killian dropped to the ground to find a young woman with a toddler watching her.
“Hi,” she said, rolling her shoulders.
“You make me want to run home and join a gym,” the woman replied with a slight smile. “I thought chasing him was all the exercise I needed, but seeing you I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.”
Laughing, Killian shook her arms at her sides. “I’m sure he keeps you on your toes.”
It was obvious from the way the woman looked at the kid that she was enraptured. “He sure does.” The toddler bolted toward the swings, giving his mother no choice but to follow. “Have a nice day,” she called as she gave chase.
Killian watched them go, waiting to see if she got that pang she’d heard other women talk about, but nothing happened. She might have doubts or regrets when it came to Shannon, but there was one simple fact Killian couldn’t ignore—she had never wanted to be a mother. In fact, the thought of being responsible for another person like that made her uneasy.
When Rank Cirello kidnapped Shannon last fall to force Killian to come after him, he’d pushed the right buttons. Killian had been more scared than she would admit, and she beat the snot out of every last person who stood in her way when she set out to bring the girl home. But when she brought Shannon home, it was to Megan’s house, not hers.
She really did love the kid as much as she was able. It just wasn’t what Shannon deserved.
Turning away, Killian limbered up for her run home and set out for her apartment. It was several degrees warmer than it had been when she’d left, the sun inching closer to noon.
There was a shiny silver Jaguar she didn’t recognize parked on the street in front of her building when she approached. It was a little flashy for that neighborhood, the kind of car that attracted attention. Her friend Story, who was a professional driver, would never be caught dead in one for that reason.
She walked into the apartment greeted by the smell of bacon and eggs and coffee. Shannon might be difficult sometimes, but the girl was one hell of a cook. Killian toed off her sneakers and padded into the kitchen, stomach grumbling.
“Smells good,” she said, then stopped in her tracks.
Raven Madera sat at the table with Shannon, drinking a cup of coffee. Dressed in a red jumpsuit and heels that screamed money, she looked more like she was ready to hang out in the VIP section than pay a social call. She raised a sharply arched brow at the sight of Killian. “Too bad you don’t,” she quipped.
Killian might have rolled her eyes if she trusted her old cellmate enough to take her gaze off her for that long.
“What are you doing here?”
Shannon got up from the table and poured a cup of coffee, which she then handed to Killian. “Raven needs your help. Sit down. I’ll get your breakfast while she tells you about it.”
Killian’s gaze narrowed. “Figured telling her would increase the chances of me saying yes, huh?” Shannon had witnessed firsthand the kind of violence of which Killian was capable; there was no point hiding what she did for a living from her.
Raven smiled coyly, her full lips the color of ripe cherries. “Something like that.”
“You could have called.”
“This is the kind of conversation I like to have face-to-face.”
“It’s a conversation you should have with someone else,” Killian told her. “I’m not interested in whatever you’re selling.”
“Killy,” she admonished softly. Killian scowled. How many times had she heard that husky voice whisper her name in the dark? Raven had been her cellmate, her friend, and her lover for several years. It had all been a setup—Raven had been planted there by Maxine—and Killian hadn’t found a way to forgive her for it just yet.
“Please, sit,” Raven tried again. “I’m here because I need your help and you’re the only person who can do what needs to be done.”
Those were the last words she expected to hear from a woman Killian had once seen beat the snot out of three inmates and a guard. Against her better judgment, she pulled a chair out from the table and sat down across from Raven. Shannon set a plate in front of her before joining them.
She was ravenous and not even a snake at her table could stop her from digging in. “What kind of help?” she asked, cutting into a fried egg with her fork.
“The personal kind.”
“Does Maxine know you’re here?”
“Of course.” The other woman sighed, shifting her long body. She was beautiful in an intimidating kind of way—dark skin, high cheekbones, eyes that were almost black, and glossy natural curls. Her father was Puerto Rican and her mother was from Ghana. They divorced when Raven was five—if she’d been telling the truth—but they made three beautiful babies first. “I wouldn’t be here if she didn’t.”
Raven didn’t take a shit without Maxine knowing about it. Still… “I find it hard to trust you.”
“I lied to you about why I was in prison. I never lied to you about anything else. Never.”
They were inching into uncomfortable territory. Killian backed down because she didn’t want to go there. What happened on the inside stayed on the inside. It wasn’t part of this world. Plus, Shannon was watching the two of them with far too much interest.
“What do you want, Rave?”
The other woman reached into the large purse on the floor beside her and withdrew a folder, which she then offered to Killian. “It’s a job offer.”
Killian hesitated. “I thought you said it was personal.”
Raven’s gaze was direct and unflinching. “It’s both.”
“I was hoping to take a vacation after this one.” She and Dash had talked about maybe driving up to Boston for a few days.
There was something in Raven’s voice that made her hesitate. Sighing, she took the folder and opened it. “Fill me in.”
“The photo on the left is of Dylan and Lyria Woodward. Their mother is—“
“Ilyana Woodward,” Killian interrupted, shooting her a sharp glance. “I don’t live under a rock, you know.”
Raven smiled slightly. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d care about Hollywood and celebrity.”
“I don’t, but I’ve seen a few of her movies. Everyone has.” She flipped through the pages in the file. “Incarnyx? What the fuck is that?”
“You haven’t heard of them?”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I had.” She flipped through more pages. “It looks like a self-help group?”
“That’s how they sell themselves. They popped up a few years ago in LA, referring t. . .
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