Mission road - By Rick Riordan

ANA HAD TO GET THE BABY OUT OF THE HOUSE. Things were about to get ugly.

She called Ralph’s sister, told her one of them would drop off Lucia in ten minutes.

She packed a bag of diapers, bottles, extra clothes, Lucia’s favorite blanket and stuffed beagle.

In the kitchen high chair, Lucia was finger-painting her tray with yams, her meaty little hands coated with orange goo. She’d managed to get some in the black tufts of her hair.

Ana stared at the mess on her daughter’s bib and realized she was thinking about blood-splatter patterns.

Looking at her own daughter, and thinking about the homicide case.

Ana had to end this. Tonight, before she lost her nerve.

She zipped the travel bag, unlocked the high chair tray and immediately got yams on the sleeve of her blazer.

“Damn it,” she muttered.

She hadn’t bothered changing from work. She’d only taken time to empty her shoulder holster and lock the service-issue Glock in the hallway closet where it always went the moment she got home.

She was trying to figure out how to get the baby cleaned up without ruining her clothes when Ralph stormed into the kitchen.

He’d showered and put on his old traveling outfit—black jeans, steel-tipped boots, crisp white linen guayabera, black leather jacket. His newly braided ponytail curled over one shoulder.

He clunked a Magnum clip next to the baby’s sippy-cup and started loading his .357.

“What are you doing?” Ana demanded.

He gave her that high-voltage look which had been bothering her for weeks.

Since laser surgery, Ralph had set aside his thick round glasses for contact lenses. There was no longer any shield between his ferocity and the rest of the world. His stare reminded her too much of the people she worked with—cops and killers.

She wasn’t afraid of him. She’d never been afraid of him. But tension from their earlier argument hung in the air like the smell of burnt fuses.

He finished loading the gun, hooked it inside his pants—a makeshift holster rigged from a coat hanger. “Johnny Shoes has a lead for me. I’ll drop Lucia on the way.”

Johnny Zapata.

That’s how desperate they’d become: begging for help from a drug lord who literally cut his enemies to pieces.

“Ralph, the last time you saw Zapata—”

“I’ll be fine.”

“He tried to kill you.”

“You want to give me a better lead?”

He must’ve known she was holding back. She’d asked for time alone tonight. She only did that when she needed to make an important decision. And this time, their lives hung in the balance.

“I can’t,” Ana told him.

“You know who killed Frankie, don’t you?”

“I’ve already told you more than I should.”

He considered that, his eyes boring into her. “Yeah. Maybe you did.”

“Ah-ba.” Lucia held up her gooey hands to her father. “Ah-ba.”

Ralph unfastened the seat strap and lifted the baby out of the yam disaster area. Her fingers made streaks of orange on his white guayabera, but Ralph didn’t seem to care. He kissed the baby’s messy cheek, put her over his shoulder. Lucia made a high-pitched squeal of delight and kicked her bunny feet against Daddy’s belly.

Ana’s heart felt sore.

Lucia never acted so happy when Ana picked her up.

Career necessity. Lieutenant Hernandez hadn’t put his butt on the line recommending her for sergeant so she could take six months off to change diapers. Still, the first year of Lucia’s life, mother and daughter had spent most of their time telling each other goodbye.

“Hey, Sergeant.” Ralph held out his hand, his tone so fierce he might’ve been issuing a challenge. “It’ll be okay. Tú eres mi amor por vida.”

She wanted to cry, she loved him so much.

Two years ago at their wedding, her police friends had given her horrible looks. Hernandez had pulled her aside, eyes flooded with concern, fingers like talons on her forearm: Ana, how can you love this guy? He’s a goddamn killer.

But they didn’t know Ralph. He loved her the way he did everything else—with absolute intensity. Since the day he’d decided he wanted Ana, she never stood a chance. He had boiled over her like a wildfire.

She laced her fingers with his.

She couldn’t let anything happen to him. She should never have opened that cold case file.

“Zapata will have proof,” Ralph promised. “Anybody does, it’s him. And he’s going to give it to me. Believe that, okay?”

She knew what Ralph was capable of. Which was exactly why she didn’t dare tell him everything she knew.

He gave her hand a squeeze, kissed her lightly. His whiskers were rough. He smelled of patchouli.

Ralph cradled the baby against one shoulder