Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Snippet from White Hot (Hidden Legacy Series #2) by Ilona Andrews


PROLOGUE

A wise man once said, “A human mind is the place where emotion and reason are locked in perpetual combat.  Sadly for our species, emotion always wins.”  I really liked that quote.  It explained why, even though I was reasonably intelligent, I kept finding myself doing something really stupid. And it sounded much better than “Nevada Baylor, Total Idiot.”
“Don’t do this,” Augustine said behind me.
I looked at the monitor showing Jeff Caldwell.  He sat shackled to a chair that was bolted to the floor.  He wore prison orange.  He didn’t seem like much, an unremarkable man in his fifties, balding, average height, average build, average face. I read a news article about him this morning.  He had a job with the city, a wife, who was a school teacher, and two children, both in college. He had no magic and wasn’t affiliated with any of the Houses, powerful magic families that ran Houston. His friends described him as a kind considerate man.
In his spare time, Jeff Caldwell kidnapped little girls.  He kept them alive for up to a week at a time, then he strangled them to death and left their remains in parks surrounded by flowers.  His victims were between the ages of five and seven, and the stories their bodies told made you wish that hell existed just so Jeff Caldwell could be sent there after he died.  The night before last he had been caught in the act of depositing the tiny corpse of his latest victim in her flower grave and was apprehended.  The reign of terror that had gripped Houston for the past year was finally over.
There was just one problem.  Seven-year-old Amy Madrid was still missing.  She had been kidnapped two days ago from her school bus stop, less than twenty-five yards from her house.  The MO was too similar to Jeff Caldwell’s previous abductions to be a coincidence.  He had to have taken her and if so, it meant she was still alive somewhere.  I had followed the story for the last two days waiting for the announcement that Amy was found.  The announcement never came.
Houston PD had Jeff Caldwell for thirty-six hours. By now the cops had scoured his house, questioned his family, his friends, and his co-workers, and poured over his cell phone records.  They interrogated him for hours. Caldwell refused to talk.
He would talk today.
“If you do this once, people will expect you to do it again,” Augustine said.  “And when you won’t, they’ll be unhappy. This is why Primes don’t engage.  We’re only people. We can’t be everywhere at once. If an aquakinetic puts out one fire, the next time something goes ablaze and he fails to be there, the public will turn on him.”
“I understand,” I said.
“I don’t think you do.  You’re hiding your talent precisely to avoid this kind of scrutiny.”
I hid my talent because truthseekers like me were extremely rare.  If I walked into the police station and wrenched the truth from Jeff Caldwell, a couple of hours later I would get visitors from the military, Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, private Houses, and anyone else who had the need of a one hundred percent accurate interrogator.  They would destroy my life.  I loved my life. I ran Baylor Detective Agency, a small, family-owned investigative firm, I took care of my two sisters and two cousins, and I had no plans to change any of it.  What I did wasn’t admissible in court. If I took any of those people up on their offer, I wouldn’t be in the courtroom testifying in a nice suit.  I’d be at some black site facing a guy tied to a chair and beaten to within an inch of his life, with a bag over his head.  People would live or die on my word. It would be dark and dirty, and I would do almost anything to avoid that. Almost.
“I’ve taken every precaution,” Augustine said, “but despite my best efforts and your… outfit, the chance you will be discovered exists.”
I could see my own reflection in the glass.  I wore a green hooded cape that hid me from top to bottom, black gloves, and a ski mask under the hood.  The cape and the gloves came courtesy of Alley Theater production and belonged to Lady in Green, Scottish Highwaywoman and Heroine of the Highlands.  According to Augustine, the outfit was so unusual, people would concentrate on it and nobody would remember the details of my voice, my height, or any other details.
“I know we’ve had our differences,” Augustine started. “But I wouldn’t advise you to act against your self-interest.”
I waited for the familiar mosquito buzz of magic telling me he lied.  None came. For whatever reason, Augustine was doing his best to talk me out of an arrangement that directly benefited him, and he was sincere about it.
“Augustine, if one of my sisters was kidnapped, I would do anything to get her back.  Right now a little girl is dying of hunger and thirst somewhere.  I can’t stand by and let it happen.  I just can’t.  We had a deal.”
Augustine Montgomery, head of House Montgomery and owner of Montgomery International Investigations, held the mortgage on our family business.  He couldn’t force me to take clients, but he called my cell earlier this morning, just as I was walking to the police station about to destroy my life.  He had a client who specifically requested my services.  I promised to hear the client out if he arranged for me to have an anonymous shot at Jeff Caldwell. Except now he seemed to be having second thoughts.
I turned and looked at Augustine. An illusion Prime, he could alter his appearance with a thought.  Today his face wasn’t just handsome; it was perfect in the way the greatest works of Renaissance were perfect.  His skin was flawless, his pale blond hair brushed with surgical precision, and his features had the kind of regal elegance and a cold air of detachment that begged to be immortalized on canvas or better yet, in marble.
“We had a deal,” I repeated.
Augustine sighed. “Very well.  Come with me.”
I followed him from the room to a wooden door.  He opened it.  I walked through into a small room with a two-way mirror in the far wall.
Jeff Caldwell raised his head and looked at me.  I searched his eyes and saw nothing. They were flat and devoid of all emotion. Behind him a two-way mirror hid observers.  Augustine assured me that only the police would be present.
The door closed behind me.
“What is this?” Caldwell asked.
My magic touched his mind. Ugh. Like sticking your hand into a bucket of slime.
“I did nothing wrong,” he said.
True.  He actually believed that. His eyes were still flat like those of a toad.
“Are you just going to stand there?  This is ridiculous.”
“Did you kidnap Amy Madrid?” I asked.
“No.”
My magic buzzed in my brain. Lie. You scumbag.
“Are you holding her somewhere?”
“No.”
Lie.
My magic snapped out and clamped him in its vise.  Jeff Caldwell went rigid.  His nostrils fluttered as his breathing sped up, racing in tune to his rising pulse. Finally, emotion flooded his eyes and that emotion was raw sharp terror.
I opened my mouth, letting the full power of my magic saturate my voice.  It came out low and inhuman.  “Tell me where she’s.”

CHAPTER ONE

Figuring out when people lied came naturally to me and required no effort.  Compelling someone to answer my questions was a whole different ball game.  Until a couple of months ago I didn’t even realize I had the power to do it.  Picking through Jeff Caldwell’s mind was like swimming through a sewer.  He fought me every step of the way, his will buckling in panic, threatening to shatter his own mind in self-defense.  The trick wasn’t getting the information; it was keeping his mind intact enough to stand trial.  I’ve got what I wanted anyway, and when I had exited  MII’s building, a caravan of cop cars had taken off down the Capitol Street, an urgent cacophony of sirens demanding right of way.
Jeff Caldwell had drained me down to nothing.  Driving was an effort. Somehow I made it through Houston’s notorious traffic, turned onto the road leading to our house, and almost blew through a stop sign.  It was a bad place too; delivery trucks had a nasty habit of rolling out this way as if other cars didn’t exist.
Nothing rolled out today.  I glanced down the access road anyway. A two-foot-high steel barrier bristling with thick six-inch-long spikes blocked the street.  Judging by the indentations in the pavement it could be lowered into the ground. If you added some blood and tattered cloth on the spikes, it would fit into any post-apocalyptic movie. The barrier wasn’t here a couple of days ago. The last time two trucks collided here must’ve resulted in some serious lawsuit.
I yawned and kept going.  Almost home.  Almost.  I pulled into the lot in front of our warehouse and parked my Mazda minivan between my mother’s blue Honda Element and Bern’s 2005 Ford Mustang.  My cousin’s ancient Civic had died a sad death a month ago, when the descendants of two magical families decided to have words in the college parking lot.  Their words involved trying to crush each other with five hundred pound decorative rocks from the landscaping display.  Unfortunately, their aim turned out to be crap and they survived.  Their families reimbursed us – and five other car owners – for the damages.  Now a gunmetal gray Mustang occupied the Civic’s former spot.
No charges were filed.  In our world, magic was the ultimate power.  If you had it, you suddenly found that many rules bent around you.
I dragged myself out of the car and punched the code into the security system.  The heavy duty door clicked, I swung it open, stepped inside, and shut it behind me.  The familiar office walls, plain beige carpet, and glass panels greeted me.
Home.
Today was over.  Finally.  I exhaled and took off my shoes.  I had stopped by a client’s office before dressing up as a Scottish Highwaywoman so I was still wearing one of my “we’re not poor” outfits.  I owned two expensive suits and two matching pairs of heels, and I wore the first when I went to see a client who might be impressed by appearances and the second when I came to collect the payment. The heels I had to put on today should’ve been banned as evil torture devices.
Someone knocked.
Maybe I imagined it.
Another knock.
I turned and checked the monitor.  A blond man stood in front of my door.  Short and compact, with a serious face and thoughtful blue eyes, he was in his late twenties.  A zipped up brown leather folder rested in his hands.  Cornelius Harrison, the second son of House Harrison.  A few months ago Augustine had strong-armed me into looking for Adam Pierce, a lunatic pyrokinetic with the highest magical pedigree.  Cornelius had been forced by his family to play the role of Adam’s “boyhood companion” and he had helped me in my investigation.
The Cornelius I remembered was clean-shaven and meticulously dressed.  This Cornelius was still well dressed, but his cheeks were rough with stubble and an unsettling shadow darkened his eyes, as if he had seen something that disturbed him to the very core and was still reeling from the impact.
A little girl stood next to him, carrying a small Sailor Moon backpack.  She had to be about three or four years old.  Her hair was dark and straight and her eyes pointed at an Asian heritage, but her features reminded me of Cornelius. Their expressions, solemn and serious, were completely identical.  I knew he had a daughter but I never met her.  A large Doberman pincher sat next to the child, as tall as she was.
What would a member of Houston’s magical elite want from me? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be good. Baylor Detective Agency specialized in small-time investigations.  Contrary to the PI novels, gorgeous widows in search of their husband’s killer or billionaire bachelors with missing sisters rarely darkened my doorstep. Insurance fraud, cheating spouses, and background checks were our bread and butter.  Please don’t let this be a cheating spouse.  Those were always so difficult when children were involved.
I unlocked the door.  “Mr. Harrison.  How can I help you?”
“Good evening,” Cornelius said, his voice quiet. His gaze snagged on the shoes in my hand and moved on to my face. “I need your help.  Augustine said I could come by.”
Augustine… Oh.  So Cornelius was the client Montgomery wanted me to see.
“Come in, please.”
I let them in and shut the door.
“You must be Matilda.”  I smiled at the little girl.
She nodded.
“Is that your dog?”
She nodded again.
“What’s his name?”
“Bunny,” she said in a small voice.
Bunny looked at me with the kind of suspicion usually reserved for rattlesnakes.  Cornelius was an animal mage, a rare brand of magic, which meant Bunny wasn’t a dog. He was the equivalent of a loaded assault rifle pointed in my direction.
“He can smile,” Matilda offered.  “Smile, Bunny.”
Bunny showed me a forest of gleaming white fangs.  I fought an urge to step back.
“Is there a place Matilda can wait while we talk?” Cornelius asked.
“Of course.  This way, please.”
I opened the door to a conference room and flicked on the light.  Matilda took off her back pack, put it on the table, then climbed into the nearest chair.  She opened her bag and took out a tablet, a coloring book, and some markers.
Bunny took a spot by Matilda’s feet and gave me the evil eye.
“Would you like some juice?”  I opened the small refrigerator.  “I have apple and kiwi-strawberry.”
“Apple, please.”
I handed her a juice box.
“Thank you.”
There was something oddly adult about the way she held herself.  If this is what Cornelius was like when he was a child, Adam Pierce and his chaos must’ve driven him insane.  It was no wonder that he’d distanced himself from both Houses.
“Do you have many clients with children?” Cornelius asked.
“A few, but the juice boxes are mine.  I’m hiding them from my sisters.  This is the only place they won’t raid.  Let’s talk in my office.”
I led Cornelius across the hallway to my office and my head almost exploded.  A page from Bridal magazine was taped to my office glass door.  It showed a woman in a spectacular gown made with long white feathers.  Someone – probably Arabella – had cut out my head from some selfie and pasted it over the bride’s.  A big heart, drawn in a pink marker and sprinkled with glitter, decorated the bride’s dress.  Inside the heart someone had written N+R = LURVE.  Little pink hearts floated around my face.
Killer way to make the first impression. I wished I could fall through the floor.
Through the glass I could see another bridal photograph, this one embellished with glittering dollar signs, waiting on my desk. On the bride’s dress, big block letters written with Catalina’s painstaking precision, said, “Marry him, we need college money.”
I had to murder my sisters.  There just wasn’t any way around it.  No jury on this Earth would convict me.  I could represent myself and I would still win.
I pulled the photograph off the glass and swung my office door open.  “Please.”
Cornelius settled into one of my two client’s chairs.  I grabbed the second photograph off the desk, crumpled both, and threw them in the trash.
“Are you getting married?” Cornelius asked.
“No.”
R stood for Rogan.  Connor Rogan, except nobody called him that.  They called him Mad Rogan, the Scourge of Mexico, the Butcher of Merida, the man who nearly leveled downtown Houston trying to save the rest of the city. Mad Rogan and the rest of humanity were never on a first name basis.  He cut buildings in  half,  threw buses like they were baseballs, and when he and I were done with Adam Pierce, he offered me to become his… mistress would be the polite term.  It took all of my will to turn him down. Even now, when I thought about him, my pulse shot up.  Unfortunately, my grandma witnessed our parting fight and decided that sooner or later we would get hitched, a fact she shared with my two sisters and two cousins, and since three of them were under the age of seventeen, the teasing was relentless.
“Coffee? Tea?”
“No, thank you.”
If I closed my eyes, I could imagine Mad Rogan in my office.  I remembered the feel of his hands on my skin. I remembered his taste.  I slammed a mental door on that thought so hard, my whole skull rattled.  Rogan and I were over before we even had a chance to start.
“I ask only because my problem will be difficult and time-consuming, and if you have other obligations, I’ll make alternative arrangements.”
I took my seat, trying to remember everything I could about Cornelius.  He had distanced himself from his House and moved out of their territory to a very comfortable, but modest by the House’s standards, residence.  He was a stay at home Dad, while his wife worked somewhere, I had no idea where.   He detested the entire Pierce family.  That was pretty much it.
“Why don’t you tell me about your problem and I can tell you whether or not we’re equipped to handle your issue.”
“My wife was murdered on Monday night.”
Oh my God.  “I’m so sorry.”
Cornelius sank deeper into his chair.  His eyes turned ashen.  His words sat there between us, lead bricks on the table.
“How did it happen?”
“My wife is… was employed by House Forsberg.”
“Forsberg Investigative Services?”
“Yes.  She was one of the attorneys in their legal department.”
Private investigation was a small field and you got to know your competitors pretty quickly.  Full service juggernauts similar to Augustine’s MII were rare.  Most of us tended to specialize, and Matthias Forsberg’s firm concentrated on the prevention of corporate espionage, which meant they did bug sweeps, information security audits, and risk assessments.  The word on the street was that occasionally, if the check was big enough, they would change hats and engage in the very things they offered to protect you from.  Once in a while you’d hear rumors about possible legal action, but no cases had ever reached the public eye, which meant House Forsberg had a robust legal department.
“On Monday night my wife called at nine thirty to tell me she would be working late.” Cornelius’ voice lost all emotion.  “At eleven, she and three other lawyers from her department walked into Hotel Sha Sha. They came out in body bags. There is an established way to handle matters when someone dies in the service of your House.  When I approached House Forsberg on Tuesday, I was told that my wife’s death is a private matter, unconnected to her job.”
“What makes you think it was connected?”  Hotel Sha Sha was an expensive boutique hotel, located on Main Street.  It was small and private and just upscale enough to add glamor to a clandestine meeting without breaking the bank.  I’d tailed more than one cheating spouse there.
“I may not be a Prime, but I’m still a Significant and a member of a House.  When I ask for information, I get it.” Cornelius reached into the folder and handed me a piece of paper.  “Nari was shot twenty-two times.  Her body–” his voice caught “– her body was riddled with bullets.”
I scanned the ME report.  Nari Harrison’s body showed bullet wounds from left and right sides.  They had to have occurred simultaneously, because the trajectory of the projectiles would’ve changed once she fell.  Two of the gun wounds were in her forehead.  The ME noted that her face showed signs of gunfire stippling.  In the margins of the report someone had scrawled notes in a quick hand, as if writing something in hurry.  HK 4.6 x 30 mm.  Traces of HTSP.  Stippling, 12-18 inches.
I had this terrible feeling in my chest, as if a heavy cold ball somehow formed just under my heart and was growing larger and heavier by the second.  “Who made these notes?”
“The leading detective.  This is all he could give me and it took a lot to get that much.”
“Did he explain this to you?”
Cornelius shook his head.
The woman he loved was dead.  Now I would have to explain how she died.  He was sitting right in front of me, a living breathing human being.  His daughter was in the next room.
I took a deep breath to steady my voice.  He came to me for professional advice.  I had to give him my best opinion.
“Your wife was hit by armor-piercing rounds from Heckler & Koch MP7.  It’s a vicious weapon developed for the German Army and the counter terrorism division of German police and designed specifically to penetrate body armor.  It’s meant for military use.  The pattern of the bullet wounds indicates that your wife was in the center of two intersecting fields of fire.”
I took a mug with a little kitten on it and set it in the center of the desk, grabbed two pens, and lined them up diagonally in front of the mug, one pointing to the left, the other to the right.
“HTSP stands for High Tensile Strength Polyethylene. She was wearing a bullet proof vest.”
“That makes no sense.” Cornelius stared at me.  “She had a bulletproof vest, but she died anyway.”
“Yes.  In fiction, bulletproof vests stop everything.  In reality, bulletproof vests are only bullet resistant.  They come in different levels of protection.  Your wife was likely wearing a bullet vest rated up to Level III, which means it would have stopped a single round from a handgun.  Even then, being shot in a bullet proof vest feels like taking a hammer to the body.  The force of the impact could break your ribs.  In this case, your wife was shot multiple times by personal defense class military grade firearms from the angles that would render a bullet proof vest least effective.  Death was instant.”  At least I could offer him that.
He didn’t seem to draw any comfort from it.
I had to keep going.  I started this, I had to finish.  “The gunpowder stippling occurs when someone is shot at a close range and gunshot residue is deposited on the victim’s skin.  This includes gunpowder burns, soot, and pitting and tearing of the top layers of the skin, if the gun discharged close enough.”
He clenched his right fist.  The knuckles of his hands went completely white.  He was probably picturing Nari’s face in his head.
“According to this report, after your wife was already dead and prone on the ground, someone pumped two bullets into her forehead.  The lead detective estimated the range to be between a foot and a foot and a half.” Just about right for someone holding a Heckler & Koch straight down.
“Why?  She was already dead.”
“Because the people who did this were well trained and thorough.  If we get reports on the other three lawyers, it’s highly probable they were also shot in the head.  A group of people ambushed your wife and her colleagues, killed them with military precision, and then lingered long enough to walk through the scene and put two bullets in the heads of those present to ensure there were no survivors.  They did this in the middle of Houston, they made no effort to be subtle about it, and they got away clean.  This wasn’t just a professional hit.  This was a message.”
“We’re stronger than you are.  We can do this any time anywhere to any of your people,” Cornelius said quietly.
“Exactly.”
He understood the House politics better than I.  He had a front row seat to them most of his life.
“Mr. Harrison, you came to me for my opinion.  Based on what you told me, I believe House Forsberg is involved.  We don’t know if your wife…”
“Nari,” he said.  “Her name is Nari.”
“We don’t know if Nari acted in the interests of the House or against them.  We do know that House Forsberg is pretending that nothing happened, which either means they are the guilty party and they punished their people for their betrayal, or they got the message and it scared them.  My recommendation to you is to walk away.”
All of the muscles in Cornelius’ face were clenched so hard, his skin looked too tight. “That’s not an option for me.”
He wouldn’t survive this.  I had to talk him out of it.  I leaned forward.  “This is a war between Houses.  Last time we spoke, you told me you deliberately distanced yourself from yours.   You said that you loved your family, but they used you and you didn’t enjoy being used.”
“You have a good memory,” he said.
“Has that situation changed?  Will your House help you?”
“No.  Even if they were inclined to do so, their resources are limited.  House Harrison isn’t without means, but my family is reluctant to engage in combat, especially on my behalf.  I’m the youngest child and not a Prime.  I’m not necessary for the future of the House.  If it was my brother or sister, things might be different.”
He said it so matter of fact.  My family would do anything for me.  If I was trapped in a burning house, every single one of them, my knucklehead sisters and cousins included, would run in there trying to save me.  Cornelius’ wife was dead and his family would do nothing.  It was so unfair.
“It’s up to me,” he said.
I lowered my voice.  “You don’t have the resources to fight this war. Your daughter is sitting in the next room.  She already lost her mother.  Do you really want her to lose her father too?  You are the only parent she has left.  What will happen to her if you die?  Who will take care of her?”
“I could have an aneurysm in the next ten seconds.  If that happens, Nari’s parents will raise Matilda.  My sister hasn’t seen my daughter since she was a year old.  My brother never met his niece.  Neither of them are married.  They wouldn’t be good caretakers.”
“Cornelius…”
“If you are planning on telling me that revenge doesn’t make one feel better…”
“It depends on the revenge,” I said.  “Punching Adam Pierce was one of the best moments of my life.  Every time I think about it, it makes me smile.  But revenge has a price.  My grandmother almost burned to death.  My oldest cousin nearly died in the collapse of Downtown.  I nearly died half a dozen times.  The price for this will be too high.”
“That’s for me to decide.”
His eyes had that steely cold look to them.  He wasn’t going to back down.
I leaned back.  “Very well.  But you’ll have to find someone else to help you with your suicide mission.”
“I would like your help,” he said.
“No.  I understand that you are determined to hang yourself, but I won’t be holding the rope for you.  Not only that, but Baylor Detective Agency is a very small firm.  We specialize in low risk investigations.  I’m not qualified.”
He pointed at the ME’s report.  “You seem very qualified.”
“I know about guns, Mr. Harrison, because there is a long tradition of military service on my mother’s side of the family.  My mother and my grandmother are both veterans.  It doesn’t mean I’m capable of taking on this investigation.  Hire someone else.”
“Who?”
“Augustine.”
“I’ve already spoken with Augustine.  He did me the courtesy of being candid.  With the amount of money at my disposal, I can’t afford a full investigation.  My money will buy me some surveillance and the due diligence of his people, but it’s not really lucrative enough for him to throw the full power of his team behind it.  Even if he does so, House Forsberg is very well prepared for any traditional level of scrutiny. This means a drawn-out expensive investigation and I would run out of money before we obtained any results.  According to Augustine, you’re capable of non-traditional scrutiny.  He said that you were able, professional, and honest and that you had good instincts when it came to people.”
Thanks, Augustine. “No.”
“My finances aren’t enough for MII but they allow me to make a very attractive proposal to a smaller firm.”
“The answer is no.”
“I mortgaged our house.”
I put my hand over my eyes.
“I can pay you a million today.  Another million when you explain to me why my wife was murdered and who was responsible.”
Absolutely not. “Good-bye, Mr. Harrison.”
“My wife is dead.”  His voice shook with barely controlled emotion.  His eyes glistened. The knuckles of his fists turned white.  “She’s my light.  She found me in the darkest time of my life and she saw something in me…  She believed I could be a better man.  I didn’t deserve her or the happiness we had.  She loved me, Nevada.  She loved me so much, in spite of my faults, and I was the luckiest man alive because when I opened my eyes in the morning, I saw her next to me.  She had integrity.  She was kind and intelligent, and she tried her hardest to do the right thing so this world would be a better place for our child to grow up.  She didn’t deserve this.  She deserved to be happy.  She deserved a full and long life.  Nobody had the right to rob her of it.”
His face contorted with raw pain and grief.  I was trying so hard not to cry.
“I love her determination.  I love her spirit.  I’m proud to have been her husband.  And now she’s dead.  Someone took this wonderful, this truly beautiful human being and turned her into a corpse. I saw her on the morgue table.  She’s just… cold and lifeless as if she never was.  Everything is gone except for our daughter and my memories.  I have to strive to be the man she thought I was.  When my daughter grows up, she’ll ask me why her mother was murdered and I’ll have to answer her.  I have to account for my actions.  I want to tell her that I found those responsible and I made sure they wouldn’t hurt anyone else.”
He brushed moisture from his eyes with a furious swipe of his hand.  “Nobody else will do this.  Her family doesn’t have the means, my family doesn’t care, and her employer might have murdered her.  There is only me.  Will you help me?  Please.”
He fell silent  He was sitting here asking for my help and I couldn’t throw him out of my office.  I just couldn’t.  If it was someone I loved, I would do the same.
AI reached into the top drawer of my desk and took out the blue new client folder. I opened it so it faced him, placed it on the table, and wrote $50,000 in the margins on the front.  “This is my retainer.  This stays with the agency no matter what happens.  It’s non-negotiable.”  I used my pen to circle the bottom number on the right side.  “These are our rates.  This job is likely to be high risk, so the top rate right here will apply.  As you can see, it’s a daily and not hourly rate.  Depending on the situation, I may have to charge you hazard pay or additional expenses.  The retainer acts like a deductible.  Once the amount billed to you exceeds it, you will make additional payments in installments of $10,000.  After we’re done here, you may want to go to the bank and withdraw at least $20,000 in cash.  We may have to bribe people…”
“Thank you.”
“This is a bad idea.  Please reconsider.”
He shook his head. “No.”
I walked him through the privacy policy and had him sign all of wavers.  “What happens once we find whoever is responsible?”
“I’ll take care of things from there.”
“Meaning you’ll kill your wife’s murderer.”
“It’s the way Houses handle things,” Cornelius said.
“Well, I’m not a House.  I’m a person with a family, and I respect and try to obey the laws of this country.  I won’t hesitate to defend you or myself, but I won’t condone murder.”
“Understood,” Cornelius said.  “How do we start?”
“I need to be able to speak to Matthias Forsberg.  I need face to face time, so I can ask him some questions.  I can make the necessary calls tomorrow, but he’ll refuse to see me.”
“You don’t have the social status and you work for his competitor.”  Cornelius nodded.  “Matthias is an active participant in the Assembly.  He never misses a session.  Tomorrow happens to be December 15th.  The session starts at 9:00 am.”
“I don’t have admission to the Assembly.”  The Assembly was an unofficial executive body that governed the magic users at state and national levels.  The Texas State Assembly met in Houston.  A family had to have at least two Prime caliber magic users in three generations to be considered a House and each House had a single seat.  Technically the Assembly had no power within the US government, but practically when the Houses spoke in one collective voice, both the Congress and the White House listened.
“A family name has to be good for something, right?” Cornelius smiled.  It never reached his eyes.  They stayed bitter and haunted.  “As a Significant and a scion of a House I’m free to attend the Assembly and bring a companion of my choice.  I intend to be an active participant in this investigation, Ms. Baylor.”
“Call me Nevada,” I told him.  “Good.  Then we’ll meet here tomorrow at seven.”