The cacophony of noise beat Julio down. He kept his gaze averted from the ring, not wanting to see the sickening sight of dogs tearing into each other. The growls, whimpers and yelps were nearly drowned out by the yells of the crowd gathered around the ring. Julio tried to wander through, not pushing or giving any of them a reason to remember him.
The little video camera attached to his shirt captured the faces of the bloodthirsty men and women, though he did notice that most of the women seemed as disgusted with the whole event as he did. They didn’t have much say as to whether they wanted to be there or not. Only the dogs had less control than the women over their lives.
Julio hoped the camera caught some good, clear images. It was time to shut down this dog-fighting ring. The men running it were getting suspicious of Julio’s constant appearance at the fights, yet he never bet or even stayed the whole night.
His leaving before it was over irritated not only his partner but his superiors. He couldn’t tell them that if he stayed until the conclusion, he’d end up vomiting in the corner or something. It was bad enough he went home and took an hour-long shower, trying to wash his body clean of the violence and blood, even when he hadn’t gotten close enough to get dirty. His mind imagined him covered in red.
Julio hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep since he’d started this assignment, and he doubted he would until it was over. The only light in the whole sordid thing was that he’d gathered enough evidence to shut down this ring, though his boss wanted the smoking gun. He wanted Julio to videotape the men killing underperforming dogs or something equally damning. Julio didn’t think he could stay there and watch while a monster killed an innocent dog. It went against everything in his nature.
He’d become a police officer to protect the defenseless, and a Humane Society investigator because, hell, there wasn’t anything more defenseless than an animal. They had no voice to speak out against cruelty or abuse. They had no way of sticking up for themselves. Julio could do it for them and wanted to with all of his heart.
His team had shut down three dog-fighting rings so far, but this one was going to be the largest bust in the history of the Humane Society. He would certainly be arresting some of the highest profile people. It would be bigger than when that football player had gotten nailed for running a dog-fighting kennel.
“Hey, Juke,” someone spoke from right beside him.
Julio managed not to jump before turning to face Caesar, one of the leaders of the ring. “Hey, man, how’s it going?”
“Good, dude. Real good. Got two grand champions set to fight at the end of the night. Oh, I need you to stay after. I got a proposition for you.”
Grimacing inside, he nodded. “Cool. I might have to leave for a few but I’ll be back.”
“Sure. No problem.” Caesar squeezed his shoulder hard and wandered off to chat up some other guy wearing an Armani suit.
Who the hell wears Armani to a dog fight?
Julio shook his head and strolled off toward the exit. Tipping his chin to the men guarding the entrance, he slipped out and headed to where his truck sat far enough way from the lights and people that no one could see him pull out his phone.
“What you got, Herendez?”
“Not much except video of the people at the fights, but the big guy wants me to stay after. Says he has a proposition for me.”
“Yeah. They don’t expect a dealer like me to wander around without some protection.”
“Good. We’re not that far away. If something starts going down, you get the hell out of there and we’ll take them. I don’t want to lose this case, Herendez.”
Julio caught movement out of the corner of his eye. “Hey, gotta go. Call you later.”
He hung up and stuck his phone in his pocket. Reaching around, he eased the gun from the small of his back and carried it close to his leg, sneaking closer to where the darker shadow was.
“Come on, baby. Just a little farther and you can rest.” Desperation colored the speaker’s voice.
Julio heard a whimper as he inched closer.
“I know you’re hurt. That’s why we gotta get you out of there. Uncle will kill you. It don’t matter to him that you make good pups. He just sees that you can’t fight no more. I won’t let you die.”
Julio was close enough to see a slender youth leading a limping dog from the back of the building. It was obvious that every step the dog took was painful, but there wasn’t any way the kid could carry it. The youth gave the impression that he’d blow away in a gentle breeze. Slender didn’t come close to describing the teen. Not sure why he did, Julio disengaged the camera on his shirt. Something said the kid wasn’t a willing participant in the fighting.
A twig broke under Julio’s foot and the kid dropped, covering the dog with his body. Staring directly at him, Julio thought how incredibly beautiful the kid was. What moonlight drifted through the trees painted the young man’s face with silver, highlighting gorgeous cheekbones and illuminating bright blue eyes.
Surprise and fear welled in those eyes, and Julio discovered he wanted to reassure the kid he wouldn’t do anything to him. Of course, how believable was that when he held a gun and, if the kid hung around the fights, he’d seen Julio in his undercover role. Juke, drug dealer and all-around badass.
“BB,” Caesar shouted, and the kid gasped.
Realizing he was going to regret this, Julio did the only thing his mind would let him get away with. He gestured for the kid to go.
“I got her,” he said softly, moving closer to the pair after tucking his gun in his waistband.
“How do I know you won’t just shoot her after I leave?”
The kid had guts, Julio gave him that. Not only did he have to worry about Caesar finding out about him taking the dog, but he was questioning Julio like he wasn’t carrying a Glock in his waistband and hadn’t beat up some asshole for just looking at him wrong.
“You have to trust me, kid. I’ll get her out of here.” Julio reached out and gave BB a push. “Now go, or he’ll come out here and there’s no way we’ll be able to save her.”
“BB, you fucking asshole, where are you? I need you in here.” Caesar’s voice ripped through the night, causing BB to jerk in terror.
Julio didn’t wait for BB to move. He swooped in, snatched up the dog, and carried her quickly to his truck. After setting her down, he opened the door and managed to get her in without hurting her worse. At least, he hoped he didn’t do any more damage. The dog didn’t make a sound, not even growling at him, though she had to be in a lot of pain. Maybe she knew he wouldn’t hurt her, or maybe she had lost enough blood, she just didn’t care what happened to her.
He stroked her wide head before stepping back and brushing at his shirt. Shit. There were dark streaks on it, which could only be blood. Quickly, he dug through one of his duffel bags and pulled out a clean shirt that was an exact match for the one he wore. After changing them out and switching the camera to the new shirt, he patted the dog one more time and tossed a blanket over her. It would keep her warm. He didn’t worry about anyone noticing. The windows were tinted so dark no one could see into the vehicle.
He strolled back inside, nodding to the guard while wandering closer to the ring. There was a lull in the action, and Julio knew it meant the big fight was coming. Two grand champions were slated to fight. One was Caesar’s own male, Stu. Julio cringed every time he saw the dog. Stu’s face and chest were covered with scars. At times, it seemed like it hurt for Stu to walk or do much of anything, but his overwhelming need to please his owners drove the dog to fight, even when he couldn’t move.
The dogs were brought to the ring, and Julio allowed the rush of the crowd to push him out of the way. He’d gotten enough video of the fights, he didn’t have to stay around for those. He eased his way through toward the back of the building, where the handlers usually hung around when their dogs weren’t fighting. Julio kept his eyes open for BB. Something about the kid called to him.
It had been a long time since Julio had allowed himself to feel any sort of attraction. Yeah, he figured BB was underage—and didn’t that make him feel like a perv?—but he couldn’t stop thinking about him.
What kind of courage did the kid have that he’d be willing to risk Caesar’s wrath by sneaking a wounded dog out of the building? Knowing Caesar as well as Julio did, he wouldn’t doubt that if the man discovered the kid doing that, Caesar would kill BB where he stood. No one went against the boss.
The sound of flesh hitting flesh caught his attention, and Julio casually walked down past the cages of dogs. Some of the animals lay quietly, overwhelmed by the scents of fear and anger. Others barked or whimpered, wanting to run away, but trapped in the wire boxes that held them until it was their time for blood and violence.
“I don’t want to.”
BB’s voice drifted to Julio’s ear, and he moved closer to one of the remaining stalls in the old barn. It was far enough away from the city not to draw attention, and the owner of the property turned a blind eye to what happened there as long as the money was good.
Staying in the shadows, he peered into the stall and saw Caesar, BB, and another older guy. Blood trickled from a split lip on BB’s face, but disgust and more fear shone in the kid’s eyes.
“I don’t give a shit if you want to or not, BB. This man’s paid me good money, so you’re gonna do what he wants. You know what’ll happen if you don’t.”
Caesar gestured to the corner where a small brindle pup cowered away from the men. Fuck! Something told Julio threatening the dog would get BB to do anything Caesar wanted.
Defeat settled on BB’s shoulders and he pushed away from the corner to walk toward the older guy. Julio didn’t like the way the man studied BB, as if the kid was a walking piece of meat he planned on devouring.
None of your business, Julio. You’re here for the dogs. Take care of the ring and the kid gets free.
Why didn’t that make Julio feel better? His thoughts made him careless and he kicked one of the cages, giving the dog inside a reason to lunge at him.
“Who the hell’s there?”
Julio muttered into his phone as Caesar stalked out. He held up a finger at the bald, overweight white man.
“All right, puta. I’ll be there in a few minutes. You tell that asshole he don’t get nothing until I talk to him. He’s screwed me out of too much money.”
He flipped his phone shut and punched the wooden stall door in anger. Caesar eyed him suspiciously.
“Sorry, hermano. It sucks being a businessman these days, huh? Can’t get good help. They don’t stay off the shit.” Julio shook his head. “So the fight’s about to start. Thought you’d maybe like to watch it with me and give me some pointers on what makes a good fighter. I’m thinking about starting my own kennel.”
Caesar stared at him for a moment then broke out into a big smile. “Great idea. I’ve got a couple pups I could sell you.”
Julio glanced over Caesar’s shoulder for a quick second, catching BB’s questioning gaze. The other man wasn’t watching them—he was visually fucking BB where he stood. Julio nodded slightly, knowing BB understood what he was saying, while Caesar thought Julio was agreeing with him.
Some of the tension left BB, but Julio knew BB was still going to have a hell of a night before it was over. He let Caesar drag him off to discuss the finer points of dog-fighting, while Julio tried not to think about what the stranger was doing to BB.
Somehow, he made it through the last fight without losing his mind or the contents of his stomach. When Stu stood, victorious, over his fallen opponent, Julio looked into the dog’s eyes and saw no blood lust or rage. No, only anguish and helplessness resided in those dark eyes. This particular dog didn’t want to fight. It hadn’t been bred into him through centuries of selective genetic manipulation. He’d been trained to fight and knew nothing else, and unfortunately for him, that meant attacking and even killing his fellow canines. Before the handlers closed in, Stu dropped his head and nuzzled the dog, seeming to be saying he was sorry. It broke Julio’s heart.