Vibrations from the bass were already working their way up through the pavement, penetrating the soles of Detective Miranda 'Randy' Hart's impractical but sexy high-heel sandals and rattling into her system before she had covered three quarters of the distance between her car and the popular nightspot that was her target for the night. Her heart thrummed in time to the beat, or at least it seemed to, pumping the blood more rapidly through her, producing a heightened awareness of everything around her, a level of excitement that seemed almost equal parts nerves and anticipation. Flicking a practiced 'casual' glance at the smattering of other cars parked in the back of the rear parking lot, at the deep shadows created by the lone security light near the building, she wondered a little wryly if the music itself had set off the adrenaline rush or if it was 'the hunt'.
And, if it was 'the hunt', was it her feminine side anticipating the possibility of finding that perfect man? Or the detective in her hoping to catch a predator?
Ordinarily, there wouldn't have been any question in her mind. The detective side of herself saw far more action than her feminine side, had risen to dominance long since, suppressing the softer side that she'd been forced to realize was a weakness she couldn't afford if she wanted to stay alive and relatively sane. It helped that her personal life had only been a series of disappointments that had gradually worn down her optimism to the point that she no longer had any real expectation that there was a 'perfect man' out there for her.
There was still the sporadic twinge of interest when she saw a man that appealed to her on at least a physical level. Occasionally, she even gave in to the emotional and physical need to find release in a warm, male body, but without expectations, without the starry-eyed little girl dreams she'd indulged at one time that it was, or could be, more than what it appeared--a raw, animalistic coupling to assuage physical needs. About the most that could be expected of that sort of liaison was a few days, weeks, or months of pleasure and aggravation that slowly degenerated until it was more a trial than pleasure of any kind.
The search for a life partner with cool logic produced even worse results because then there wasn't even passion to hold it together.
There was still hope, though, she realized. Deep down she'd never really given up entirely on the dream that one day, when she least expected it, she was going to walk smack into the one man that did it all for her. The white knight that thrilled her to her core with no more than a look, drove her wild in bed, intrigued her with his intelligence and complex personality. And, at the same time, gave her a sense of unshakable security because integrity was so deeply ingrained in him that trust was a matter of course.
She didn't really believe that, but she still hoped, and it was that tiny hope that accounted for a little of the excitement thrumming through her because she felt so feminine tonight. She'd indulged herself in an orgy of primping she rarely took the time for. She'd donned a slinky black dress, sexy high-heals, just enough make-up to highlight her best features.
Even the pistol tucked in a thigh holster didn't diminish the glorious sense of femininity she felt as she strolled across the parking lot toward 'single territory' where she knew there was at least some possibility that man that was just the right 'fit' might be waiting to be found.
She shook the thoughts off as she reached the corner of the building, struggling to suppress the inappropriate sense that she was just a woman seeking a mate. The night was all business and she'd do well to remember that if she wanted to wake up tomorrow with a whole hide.
Her backup was sitting in an unmarked car three rows over. He eyed her assessingly for so long that amusement flickered through her. She was going to rag him tomorrow about not recognizing her--because she could see he didn't, could pinpoint the exact moment when it dawned on him.
Mildly annoyed that he hadn't immediately recognized her as the same woman he worked with every day, she lifted a hand as if to smooth her hair and shot him a bird. He was glaring at her when she glanced in his direction again.
Prick, she thought, feeling slightly mollified.
Ignoring him, she scanned the main parking lot. The pickings were slim tonight, she thought, feeling vaguely deflated. Of course it was still early, but it wasn't 'prime night' either and wasn't likely to get terribly busy even if the club was one of the most popular in the city.
All business again, she focused on her purpose, grappling with the fresh spurt of adrenaline that flooded her bloodstream as she spied the entrance.
Without a doubt, there was no greater 'rush' than knowing she was closing in on quarry--a combination of sheer terror and fierce satisfaction that always arose regardless of the potential for danger. Truthfully, though, she had no sense that she was closing in on her quarry, felt none of the 'vibes' she'd learned to expect that told her she was close.
The painful fact was, she was pretty damned sure she wasn't any closer to figuring out what was going on than she had been when she'd been given her current assignment. If there was any sense of urgency whatsoever to account for the surge of her heart rate it was the fact that time was against her, and she hadn't managed to come up with a damned thing, not one lead beyond the club itself, and even that was a long shot.
More than a dozen women--that they knew of--had disappeared in the past two days and nobody had a clue of why, of whether the same perp or group of perps were responsible, or what, exactly, they meant to do with the young women.
They had their suspicions and it was possible they were right on target, but it had been her experience that the most obvious possibility turned out to be a dead end as often as it was on target and, what was worse, tended to act as blinders if one wasn't damned careful.
In this case, it was nothing short of a miracle that they'd tumbled to it as quickly as they had. Ordinarily, they probably wouldn't have even picked up on the case so quickly. People went missing all the time and, in general, when it was an adult, it turned out that they weren't actually missing at all. They'd just decided on impulse to take off with someone--friends or a new acquaintance--and reappeared a few days or a week later. It was so commonplace, in fact, that they wouldn't even entertain the possibility that a person actually might be missing until they'd been a no show for at least three days.
The police chief's daughter had been one of the first to disappear, though. Nobody had quite dared to suggest that, maybe, she'd found a man that appealed to her when she was out 'clubbing' and had just decided to take a few days to get to know him a little better. They'd gotten right on it--and discovered in the course of their search that a bare minimum of six other young women had also turned up missing the same night from various nightspots around the city--Carol, Captain Sloan's daughter, and two of her friends, Lynn Patterson and Joy Freemont had all disappeared together. The captain had found Carol's abandoned car behind the club she'd told him she intended to visit that evening.
Almost a half dozen others were 'maybes'--women who'd pulled a similar stunt before and hadn't been reported as MIA, yet, because they were still expected to turn up alive and well and tired from their little weekend adventure.
Despite the doubts that had plagued them about the chief's daughter, that many women going missing all on the same night just didn't sit right. Especially when not only had not a single one turned up by evening of the following day or even called to touch base with anybody that knew them but nearly a dozen more had vanished the following night.
No bodies had turned up.
Nobody had actually expected that they would--certainly not if the cases were connected and, oddly enough, they seemed to be. Serial killers, thankfully, didn't seem to be 'in' to wholesale slaughter.
It had to be a white slavery ring. Even Miranda was inclined to accept that a ring must be working the area, despite her tendency to discount the most obvious. Nothing else would explain such a massive disappearance of young--mostly blond--white females.
No doubt, at least some of the cases weren't connected at all, but just as surely the majority were.
Although she doubted he would agree, they were damned lucky that the chief's daughter had been among the first. Otherwise it could have been weeks, possibly months, before they'd become aware that someone was stalking and taking young women from the city and, by that time, the perps would almost certainly have moved on.
Because the one thing all, or at least most, of them seemed to have in common was that they were all single women living alone and, in far too many of the cases, they hadn't had anyone to report them missing. Every one of the women that had vanished had been out clubbing.
Reaching the door to the club at last, Miranda pulled it open and stepped inside. Instantly, a wall of music crashed over her, the assault so loud it set her eardrums to rattling. She glanced around the small vestibule, noting the woman behind the counter and the two bouncers that stood like matching bookends on either side of the 'gateway' to adult land.
Leaning close enough to the bullet proof cage the woman stood behind to hear the woman's demand for the cover charge fee, Miranda pulled a bill from her purse and passed it through the small slot provided. Wondering if the woman had any idea how ineffectual her 'safety cage' was, she moved away from the window as soon as she'd collected her change and stuffed the bills back into her evening purse. One of the bouncers held out his left hand in silent demand, a stamp poised in the other.
Miranda flicked an assessing glance over both men as she extended her right hand and waited to be stamped and tagged with the neon wristbands the club used to differentiate legal from illegal drinkers. Unable to detect even a spark of interest in either man's eyes, she glanced at her wrist as the one tagging her finished, abruptly feeling a strange sense of uneasiness sweep over her.
She wasn't a habitual clubber. She was single and she had been the rounds a few times, but it was hard to get away from the fact that the club scene seemed to be more of a route for hook ups than anything else.
Not that she was against an occasional hook up. Sometimes it seemed the best way to juggle a demanding career and the need for companionship when it couldn't be ignored anymore, but she rarely even had time to indulge those needs.
Oddly enough, though, she felt a sudden threat in being tagged, despite her familiarity with the practice.
She wasn't certain why, but she pondered it as she passed between the bouncers and paused just inside the club proper to allow her eyes to adjust to the cave-like interior.
With little surprise, but a good deal of disappointment since she knew she was early and it wasn't a 'peak' singles night, she saw at a glance that the club was a long way from packed.
There were still an impressive number of barflies hunched around the long bar and scattered throughout the dim interior.
Wryly, she wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It would certainly make it easier to attract the kind of attention she was looking to draw, but it seemed a little less likely that her quarry would be working the bar when the pickings were not only slimmer, but the chances of attracting attention to themselves was higher.
They were brazen bastards, though, she reminded herself. Even the thugs that ran the white slavery rings were generally a good bit less blatant about shopping than the perps she was looking for--which was the one thing that bothered her the most about just accepting the most likely scenario in this case.
Moving to the bar after a moment, she ordered herself a mixed drink, glancing around to study the patrons while she waited to be served. She noticed a few interested glances cast in her direction, but nothing particularly pointed. Most of the men were either perched at the bar, nursing their drinks, or gathered around the pool tables in the backroom.
When she'd collected her drink, she debated briefly whether to climb onto a stool and give her feet a short break from the sexy shoes that were already killing her or to troll and finally decided to troll. She hadn't gotten nearly as much interest as she'd hoped.
Of course, from what she could see, the only females in the place getting any attention were the ones wearing the wristbands that clearly marked them as legal to screw but illegal for drinking--eighteen to twenty.
How convenient that the management had found a way to mark the young does for the bucks!
Ignoring the pinch of her shoes, she strolled around the club, pausing now and then to study the dancers on the floor. She wandered toward the backroom to watch the pool players awhile, and then back to the main club. Four hours later, the club had filled, her feet were killing her, and she still hadn't been approached.
Jeeze! What did a woman have to do to get a little attention these days?
Strip naked and wave their tits?
Roll back the clock, evidently.
Either she looked like a cop or nobody twenty one or over was getting any action.
She was putting her money on age discrimination. Even the men that were clearly thirty and up had no eyes for anything but the tender young things.
Disgusted, she decided to call the night a bust and headed for the exit, wondering uneasily if the kidnappers had already collected all the women they needed or wanted and had moved on.
There were a few loiters outside the club when she exited. A patrol car was parked just outside to pick up the drunks. She didn't recognize either officer and, in any case, she was undercover. With barely a glance in their direction, she struck off across the parking lot, headed toward her own vehicle, which she'd parked in the rear--not because the lot was overflowing when she'd arrived but because all the abandoned vehicles they'd found that belonged to missing women had been parked in isolated areas.
She tensed as she rounded the side of the building and moved beyond the view of the patrolmen and the few patrons that had been in the lot. Chances were, this was where she was going to run into trouble if trouble had spotted her--and marked her.
The thought shifted her mind to the neon wristband she was still wearing, and she abruptly realized why that circumstance had bothered her even though she knew it was standard practice at clubs.
She'd been tagged. Anyone that spotted her would know that she'd just come from a club, was probably at least a little tipsy if not downright drunk, and that she was most likely single since she was a female and far fewer women who had attachments showed up in the singles clubs than men.
The thought had barely completed the circuit in her brain when she abruptly found herself spotlighted.
She jolted to a halt, blinded, startled. For just a split second her mind leapt to the conclusion that she'd been marked by a police chopper. Even as it clicked in her mind, though, that she didn't hear the very distinctive sound of a helicopter--in fact didn't hear anything--her mind leapt in another direction entirely, to the realization that she'd been tagged, hunted, and bagged. Her mind had just shifted to the gun she had strapped to her thigh when she blacked out.
Adrenaline spiked in her system as she jolted toward consciousness and her mind--temporarily suspended--completed the instinctive move she'd attempted before blacking out. She groped for her weapon as her eyes flew open. In one corner of her mind, she knew it was the wrong move. She needed to assess her situation before she acted, and yet her mind was completely disordered by the transition from consciousness to blackout and abrupt awareness again.
She reacted instantly and instinctively to the certainty of threat.
And she was still too sluggish to move with any swiftness or surety of coordination, shoving awkwardly upright, grabbing for the butt of her pistol, and whipping her head around to target the threat almost at the same time. A wave of dizziness washed over her as she scanned the small, shadowy room. She blinked, trying to clear her mind of confusion and focus her eyes.
She'd nursed one drink throughout most of the night, had drunk no more than half of the second. Her reflexes shouldn't have been affected to such a degree as to make her head swim with so little motion, and yet it did.
She nearly dropped her pistol as she dragged it out of the holster and staggered to her feet, wavering as she gaped at her surroundings, or more precisely the thing she saw coming toward her. Her mind refused to supply her with an identification of the thing--mechanical, metallic, threatening in its very strangeness.
Jerking her pistol up, she fired at it. The bullet made a dull clanging sound as it impacted with the thing, the sound registering as not quite that of metal against metal, though she thought that was what it should've sounded like.
Robot--her mind registered that. She just couldn't grasp why or how it was even possible that she'd found herself faced off with a robot--the most bizarre looking thing imaginable at that--not humanoid in appearance or even anything that fit the catalogue of Hollywood representatives stashed in her mind.
The robot stopped. A hissing noise slipped past the dull roar in her ears from hours of being pelted by music loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss.
She'd barely had time to assess the fact that she'd been transported from the parking lot to where ever this place was too quickly for her hearing to recover when she felt darkness fall over her again. The last sound she heard before complete nothingness engulfed her, and that with a vast sense of despair, was the sound of her pistol hitting the floor at her feet.
A buzz of voices was the first thing Miranda heard as she drifted toward consciousness again. This time the transition was slower. She lay with her eyes closed for some time, a faint frown between her brows from the pain she'd become aware of and the struggle to figure out where she was and what she was doing there.
She was laying on something hard, and she was cold.
The 'hard' she could understand since the last thing she remembered was heading toward her car in the parking lot. The chill confused her.
It was a muggy summer's night. Why would she be chilled?
Air conditioned room?
And who the hell were the people she could hear murmuring around her?
Not people, she corrected after a moment--women. All of the voices she heard were women's voices.
Opening her eyes, she stared blankly at the smooth surface above her head.
"She's come around," somebody said close by, drawing Miranda's attention.
She couldn't seem to focus her eyes at first but gradually the dark blob she was peering at through the strange glow of light resolved itself into individual shapes and she realized she was staring at a fairly large group of women, most of whom were staring back at her.
Her confusion deepened rather than lifting. "Where am I?" she croaked as her gaze finally met that of a woman who looked to be around her age, in her late twenties.
Something flickered across the woman's face--stark terror. Her voice was shaky with it when she spoke, although it was obvious she was struggling to preserve at least a surface calm--whether for Miranda's benefit or her own Miranda couldn't tell. "We don't know ... exactly."
Miranda frowned at her as the woman's eyes slid away. She was lying. It was one of the first things they taught at the academy--people who lied generally shifted their gaze away from their interrogators--the left indicated probing memories, the right indicated fabrication.
Miranda felt for her gun.
She glanced at the other woman who'd spoken.
"Whatever you're looking for, they took it."
Pushing herself upright, Miranda ignored the group of women, glancing around the room. It was a cell. Her mind registered that right away.
What it wasn't was a jail cell, which ruled out the possibility that she'd found herself thrown in with a group of hookers even if it wasn't for the fact that they certainly weren't dressed as hookers.
They were all wearing identical shifts that were almost hospital-like, but the only hospital-like environment that she knew of that would include locking up the patients was a lunatic asylum.
She shied away from that assessment. They looked frightened--every face pale and tense--but there was nothing but fear in their eyes, not insanity.
"How did I get here?" she asked finally.
"One of the robots brought you."
Miranda's head snapped toward the speaker, but she couldn't tell which of the women had spoken.
Not that it mattered. The moment the woman had said it memories had flooded her mind. A bizarre sense of unreality settled over her. She remembered the robot. She'd known that was what it was even though it had thoroughly rattled her that the thing had seemed so ... purposeful--so real, not toy-like, not like some remote controlled bucket of wires and bolts that moved with the awkwardness of a person trying to manipulate a 'body' not their own. "What the fuck is going on here?" she demanded, feeling a surge of anger and fear.
The women all looked at each other and, almost as if some silent communication had passed between them, they began to disperse. Moving back to the bunks that lined the walls of the cell, they settled on the lowest bunks in little frightened knots.
"We were hoping you could tell us."
Glancing toward the speaker, Miranda discovered it was the same woman who'd first addressed her. The woman smiled shakily. "I'm Deborah Moss."
Miranda stared at her, feeling a flicker of recognition for the first time. Coldness swept over her when she finally realized why both the name and the face seemed familiar.
She was one of the women who'd gone missing.
Scanning the faces of the other women, she also recognized the captain's daughter, Carol Sloan, her two friends, Lynn Patterson and Joy Freemont, Mary Jane Carter, Stacy Smith, and Jan Hutton. All in all, she counted nineteen women--twenty including herself, though she didn't recognize any of the others--because they hadn't made it to the 'list'.
Aside from looking scared half to death, she didn't see any obvious signs of mistreatment--which was at least some relief. White slavers generally beat the hell of the women they took right off to show them who was boss.
After studying the women, Miranda finally swung her feet over the side of the bunk where she sat and examined herself. They were right, she saw without much surprise but with a good deal of dismay. Everything she'd had was gone--her weapon, her identification, her clothing, the fucking high heels from hell. A vague sense of nausea washed over her.
The wonder of it all was that she was still alive. They had to know--whoever had taken her--that she was a cop.
Why was she still alive?
She was still reluctant to give up her own identity, but what was the point in trying to maintain secrecy? "Detective Miranda Hart," she responded finally.
The admission caused a brief flurry of excitement before it dawned on all of the women that their 'rescuer' was locked in the cell with them.
"You would've had backup, though, right?" one of the young women said hopefully.
Captain Sloan's daughter, Carol, Miranda realized. "Right," she muttered instead of pointing out that her backup obviously hadn't managed to catch up to her or the perps or she wouldn't be where ever it was that she was now. She didn't particularly want to dwell on that unnerving circumstance herself.
"You were looking for us?" another woman asked.
Miranda nodded, standing up and moving around the room to examine it. There weren't any bars--no door that she could see. How the hell had they brought her in?
"The robot dragged you in through the door," one of the women answered her thoughts, pointing to a blank wall.
Miranda moved toward it, examining it closely, and finally turned to search the room for the woman who'd spoken.
"She isn't crazy--not unless we all are. It brought us all in the same way."
Miranda glanced at Deborah again when she spoke. She'd been among the first to go missing. "What do you remember?"
Deborah shrugged. "Probably not much more than you do. I'd been out clubbing. The place was packed, and I'd had to park at the far back of the lot. I decided to leave around midnight--even though everything was still hopping. I never made it to the car, though. I'd just realized that I was completely alone when I was caught in this blinding beam of light. The next thing I knew, I was here. Everybody else's experience was pretty much the same."
Miranda glanced around at the other women for confirmation, but she didn't really need it. Not only had they already come up with that scenario regarding the missing women--at least the part where they'd been snatched on the way to their cars--but it was pretty much like her own experience. "Any idea where 'here' is? Any theories?"
The women all exchanged uncomfortable glances.
"Yes," Carol Sloan responded. "But you're going to think we're all crazy."
"Try me," Miranda said grimly.
Carol gnawed her lower lip. "We're pretty sure we've been 'taken'."
Oddly enough, Miranda didn't feel any urge to laugh. She did feel perfectly blank for several moments before she managed to come up with a definition that seemed to fit the connotations. "'Taken' as in 'the rapture'?" she asked cautiously.
"Taken as in aliens," Deborah said flatly.