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 schoolteacher; 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 past two days waiting for the announcement that Amy was found. The announcement never came.
Houston PD had had Jeff Caldwell for thirty- six hours. By now the cops had scoured his house, questioned his family, his friends, and his coworkers, and pored 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 Investigative Agency, a small, family- owned 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 an Alley Theatre production and belonged to Lady in Green, Scottish Highwaywoman and Heroine of the Highlands. According to Augustine, the outfit was so unusual that people would concentrate on it and nobody would remember 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 have 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’d 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’d 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 art 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 have a deal,” I repeated.
Augustine sighed. “Very well. Come with me.”
I followed him 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.
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 is.”
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 bucking 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’d gotten what I wanted anyway, and when I exited MII’s building, a caravan of cop cars had taken off down 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 postapocalyptic movie. The barrier hadn’t been 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- grey Mustang occupied the Civic’s former spot.
No charges had been 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.
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.
Maybe I’d imagined it.
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 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,” a role he had detested. Cornelius had helped me in my investigation. His older sister currently ran House Harrison.
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’d never met her. A large Doberman Pinscher 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 Investigative 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 backpack, 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.
There was something oddly adult about the way she held herself. If this was 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.
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’d 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’d invited 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?” I asked.
“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 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 Tuesday night.”
Oh my God. “I’m so sorry.”
Cornelius sank deeper into his chair. His eyes turned dull as if dusted with ash. 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 Tuesday 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 this morning, 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 gunshot 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 shorthand, as if writing something in hurry. HK 4.6 x 30 mm. Traces of HTSP. Stippling, twelve to eighteen 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’d come to me for professional advice. I had to give him my best opinion.
“Your wife was hit by armor- piercing rounds from a Heckler & Koch MP7. It’s a vicious weapon developed for the German army and the counterterrorism division of the German police and designed specifically to penetrate body armor. It’s meant for military use. The pattern of the gunshot 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 ballistic vest.”
“That makes no sense.” Cornelius stared at me. “She had a bulletproof vest, but she died anyway.”
“Yes. In fiction, vests stop everything. In reality, ballistic vests are only bullet resistant. They come in different levels of protection. Your wife was likely wearing a vest rated up to Level III, which means it would probably stop several 7.62mm rifle rounds. Even then, being shot in a bulletproof vest feels like taking a hammer to the body. In this case, your wife was shot multiple times by personal- defense- class military- grade firearms designed to pierce body armor. 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’d 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 anytime, anywhere, to any of your people,” Cornelius said quietly.
He understood the House politics better than I. He’d 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 that House Forsberg killed your wife and others as a warning to their people or that they got the message the killers sent and it scared them. My recommendation to you is to walk away.”
All of the muscles in Cornelius’ face were clenched so hard that 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- factly. 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 is 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 Investigative 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.”
“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 nontraditional scrutiny. He said that you were able, professional, and honest, and that you had good in-
stincts 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. “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 in. 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. I remembered when Mom sold our house to pay for Dad’s bills. I remembered when we mortgaged the business and kept it from him, because it would’ve killed him faster than any disease. If someone I loved was murdered, I would do the same thing Cornelius did. He had nowhere to turn. If I slammed the door in his face now, I wouldn’t be able to look my reflection in the eye.
I 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 nonnegotiable.” 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 . . .”
“This is a bad idea. Please reconsider.”
He shook his head. “No.”
“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 a.m.”
“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 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.”
Cornelius and Matilda left, the hellhound Bunny in tow. I sat at my desk for a few moments, long enough to shoot a quick email to Bern with everyone’s names and a brief description of what happened, then took a deep breath and let the air out slowly. Breaking this to my family would be hard. My mother might disown me.
I fished the dollar- sign bride out of the trash, smoothed her out the best I could, and stuck her and the ME report into a manila folder. This job would affect the entire family. They had the right to know the risk. Besides, experience proved that keeping secrets when you were a Baylor didn’t work. Sooner or later all your hidden schemes exploded into the light, and then there was hell to pay and hurt feelings.
I tucked the folder under my arm and grabbed my book, Hexology by Stahl. A few weeks ago a package of books had arrived at our doorstep in a padded yellow envelope, six books in all, dealing with spells, arcane circles, and magic theory. A plain rectangular label had just one word printed on it— Nevada. Interrogation of my family provided no leads. They didn’t know where the books came from, they didn’t order them, and they had no idea who did, although they offered many wild theories.
I’d dusted the envelope for prints but I didn’t find any. The label proved to be a generic four- by- four inches, and a half- dozen office stores in the ten- mile radius carried identical labels. And of course, they also carried the same yellow envelopes. My name was printed in Times New Roman font, 22 pt size. I briefly considered swabbing the envelope for DNA and paying a private lab to analyze it to eliminate my family and run it through their database for possible matches, but the lab quoted $600 to run the swab and I couldn’t justify the expense to myself. It was still driving me nuts.
The books had proven incredibly useful and I’d been reading them nonstop trying to catch up on years of neglected education in magic theory. This particular book was on hexes— magic constructs that locked information within a human mind. I had encountered a very powerful hex several weeks ago and had to peer under it to save the city. The book confirmed that I had come perilously close to killing a man through sheer ignorance.
I made my way through the office back door into a wide hallway. The delicious smell of seared carne asada swirled around me. I turned right and headed toward the kitchen.
When Dad was fighting his losing battle with cancer, we sold our house. We sold everything we could, but we still had to survive and make a living, so a strategic decision was made: we used our business to purchase a large warehouse. On the east side, the warehouse was the front for Baylor Investigative Agency. We installed interior walls and a drop ceiling, making a small but comfortable office space: three offices on one side and a break room and conference room on the other. On the west side, the warehouse turned into a motor pool, where Grandma Frida worked on tanks and armored vehicles for the Houston elite. Between the office and the motor pool, separated from the latter by a large wall, lay three thousand square feet of living space.
My parents had this vision of making our living space look like the inside of the ordinary house. Instead we succeeded in throwing walls where they were needed and sometimes not at all, so in certain areas our place bore a startling resemblance to a home- improvement showroom. The kitchen was one of those spots. Square, roomy, with a generous island and a big kitchen table made from an old slab of reclaimed wood, it would give most cooking shows a run for their money. Right now it sat mostly empty: my mother, Grandma Frida, and my oldest cousin, Bern, were the only ones left. My two sisters and Bern’s younger brother, Leon, must’ve run off already. Just as well.
Small bowls filled the center of the table, holding everything from grated cheese and pico de gallo to guacamole. Soft- taco night. I refrained from cheering, grabbed an apron out of the kitchen drawer, put it on, and landed in a chair next to Grandma. There was no way I could get stains on my hideously expensive suit, and taking it off and changing into casual clothes would’ve taken too long.
I was too hungry.
“And the hunter home from the hill,” Bern announced.
I squinted at him. “Decided to take British Literature after all?”
“It was the lesser of two evils. The nest semester will try my patience.” Bern wolfed down his food and reached for another taco. Over six feet tall and two hundred pounds, most of it bone and muscle, Bern went to judo twice a week and ate with all the appetite of a bear preparing to hibernate for winter.
I pulled a warm soft- taco shell out and began filling it with delicious things. I’d had to bust my butt to get through college as fast as I could, because I was the primary breadwinner. But now the business was making money. We weren’t rich— we probably barely scraped the bottom of the middle class— but we could afford for Bernard to take his time with his education. I wanted him to have the whole college experience. Instead he took every opportunity to pile more course work on himself.
I eyed my mom’s plate. One lone taco. Where Grandma Frida was naturally thin, with a cloud of platinum- white curls and big blue eyes, my mother used to be muscular and athletic, built with strength and endurance in mind. That was before the war left her with a permanent limp. She was softer now, rounder around the edges. It bothered her. She’d been eating less and less and a couple of weeks ago we realized she’d began skipping dinner altogether.
“This is my third one,” Mom said. “Stop staring.”
“It is,” Grandma Frida confirmed, poking at her taco salad. “I watched her eat two.”
“I’m just making sure all of our business assets are in fighting condition.” I stuck my tongue out at her. “Can’t have you passing out from hunger on the job. Any news on Senator Garza’s thing?”
“Nope,” Grandma Frida said.
“It’s all harebrained conjecture at this point,” Mom said. “The talking heads are trying to drum up hysteria, saying it was a Prime who had to have done it.”
Senator Timothy Garza died on Saturday in front of his cousin’s house. His security detail died with him. The story was so sensational it even pushed Jeff Caldwell’s arrest onto the back burner. The police weren’t releasing any information connected to the senator’s murder, which caused the news media to froth at the mouth in outrage. Without any data, they were forced to marinate in their own speculation, and the theories were getting wilder by the minute. If a Prime had been involved, I wouldn’t be surprised. Garza had run on a platform of limiting the influence of the Houses, which didn’t exactly make him the darling of Texas magic elite. The debates during his election campaign had turned ugly fast.
“What have you been up to?” Mom asked.
I stuffed a chunk of soft taco into my mouth and chewed to buy some time. I would have to come clean. I swallowed. “I took a high- risk job.”
“How high- risk?” Mom asked.
I opened the folder and slid the ME’s report toward her. She read it. Her eyebrows furrowed. “We’re solving murders now?”
“Who got murdered?” Grandma Frida asked.
“Do you remember the animal mage I told you about? The one with a raccoon who was bringing juice to his daughter in a sippy cup?”
“Cornelius Harrison,” Bern said.
“Yes. His wife.”
My mother’s expression was growing grimmer by the second. She passed the ME report to Grandma.
Grandma glanced at the report and whistled.
“This is above our pay grade,” mother said.
“I know,” I told her.
“Why would you take this?”
Because he’d sat in my office and cried, and I’d felt awful for him. “Because she’s dead and nobody cares.
And he’s paying us very well.”
“We don’t need the money that badly,” my mother said.
“According to my sisters, we do.” I slid the photograph with dollar signs toward her.
Mom swung toward Grandma Frida. “Mom!”
Grandma Frida’s eyes got really big. “What? Don’t look at me!”
“You started this.”
Ha! Attack deflected and redirected.
“I did no such thing. I’m innocent. You always blame me for everything.”
“You started it and you encouraged it. Now look, she’s taking on murders because you’re guilt- tripping her to put food on the table. And what kind of message does this send?”
“A true- love kind of message.” Grandma Frida grinned.
Bern got up and leaned to me. “You want me to run the background on everyone?”
“Yes, please. I sent you an email. I’m going to the Assembly tomorrow, so something on Matthias Forsberg would be great.”
“Will do.” He took his plate to the sink.
“Your granddaughters don’t need a rich Prime to pay for their college!” my mom said. “That’s why their sister, their mother, and their grandmother work long hours. We pay our own way in this family.”
“Oh, come on, Penelope, you know I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Well, how did you mean it exactly, Mother?”
Grandma Frida waved her hands. “I meant it to be funny! Nevada’s been moping for two months now. She’s turned into that sad donkey from the cartoons, the one that always gets rained on.”
“I haven’t been moping. I told Rogan no and if I never see him again, it will be too soon.”
“Oh please.” Grandma rolled her eyes.
“I mean it, Grandma. Let it go. It’s not like he’s beating down our door and proclaiming his undying love to me.”
And in my secret shameful moments I daydreamed that he would do just that. I had woken up in the middle of the night once, convinced that Rogan was outside. I almost ran out there in my nightshirt. Thankfully, nobody saw me before I came to my senses.
He’d never shown up. He’d never called. He’d never emailed. He hadn’t fought for me, not even a little bit. It hammered home the fact that I was right to turn him down when he stood in my garage, told me to pick a spot on the planet, and promised me he would take me there. Mad Rogan wanted a plaything. I said no and he moved on.
“He sent you those books!”
“You don’t know that.”
“Well, who else would?” Grandma Frida spread her arms.
“Maybe it was Augustine.” Yeah, hell would freeze over first. Augustine wouldn’t move a finger unless it helped his bottom line.
“You and Rogan aren’t done.” Grandma pointed her fork at me. “Just watch. Fate will throw you two together. One day you’ll just run right into him and boom! True love.”
“Well, if fate ever does throw us together, I’ll be sure to punch her in the face.” I turned to my mother. “Are you with me on this case or not? Because if you want to fight with me some more, now is the time to do it.” She looked at me for a long moment.
Oh. I’d just raised my voice at my mother for no reason.
“You told me yourself, it’s your business.”
“Mom . . .”
“Of course we’re with you,” she said. “But I don’t have to tell you this is a professional hit. You need to be careful.”
“I will be.”
“We don’t know what kind of pot you’ll be stirring. They’ll come after both you and him. They might come after us as well. Does your client have any House support?”
“No. He chose to live with his wife and daughter in
Royal Oaks. He was very proud of his independence.”
“Any security on his residence?”
“Not really.” Technically, Bunny counted as security, but there was only so much one dog could do against killers with guns.
“They’re not affiliated with any prominent families, as far as I know.”
“What’s your take on him?”
I grimaced. “He worshiped his wife. He’ll do anything for revenge.”
My mother nodded. “You may want to talk to him. His little girl will be safer here with us than with his grandparents.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She sighed. “It’s my job as a mother. I can’t make you stop doing something stupid but I can help you do it in the least dangerous way possible.”
I turned and headed toward the ladder leading to my rooms.
“Did you see how she got all hot under the collar?” Grandma Frida said in a theatrical whisper behind me. “She’s not over him.”
“I can hear you!” I climbed the ladder and pulled it back up after me. My little loft apartment greeted me— a large bedroom and a bathroom. When we’d originally moved into the warehouse, I really wanted my privacy, and the older I grew, the more I treasured it. I took off my suit, carefully put it in the garment bag, and hung it up in the back of my closet.
I wasn’t over Rogan.
When I kissed him inside the null space, I’d almost seen into him. For a few brief moments he wasn’t Mad Rogan. He wasn’t even a Prime. He was just . . . Connor.
A man. And I wanted to know that man so badly. But he’d slammed that door shut as soon as he noticed it was cracked open.
I turned on the shower to let the water warm up, and stripped. Obsessing over something that would never be did me no good. Shower, clean clothes, sleep. I had a big day tomorrow and I’d need to do some research for it before bed.
The morning brought rain and Cornelius, who arrived at exactly 6:55 a.m. in a silver BMW i8. The hybrid vehicle, sleek and ultramodern, looked slightly odd, its lines varying just enough from the established norms of the gasoline cars to draw attention.
Of course he would drive a hybrid car. He likely never bought bottled water either. Bern had run all of the usual checks on him yesterday. Aside from that new mortgage, Cornelius was debt- free. He had excellent credit history and no criminal record, and he generously donated to an animal charity. He also had been right about House Forsberg’s involvement in his wife’s death. The story was getting no press. Even with Garza’s murder flooding all available news channels, a brutal slaying of four people in a hotel downtown was at least worth a quick mention. It hadn’t received one, which meant someone somewhere was actively suppressing it. If House Forsberg truly had nothing to do with it, they’d have no reason to keep it quiet.
Cornelius stepped out of the car. He wore a white dress shirt open at the collar, with sleeves rolled up, dark brown pants, and scuffed- up brown shoes that looked ancient.
Comfort clothes, I realized. He must’ve chosen the outfit on autopilot and his subconscious made him reach for something old and familiar.
A large reddish bird swooped down from the overcast sky and landed on the branch of a big oak tree across the parking lot.
“This is Talon,” Cornelius said. “He’s a red- tailed hawk, commonly known as a chicken hawk, although really it’s a misnomer. They hardly ever target adult chickens. The Assembly won’t permit me to bring in a dog. It won’t permit you to bring in a gun either. However, on the fourth floor there is a bathroom where the window has been altered so it doesn’t trip the security system. It’s frequently left open.”
“Is it the secret smoking bathroom?” I guessed.
Cornelius nodded. “It’s just far enough from the smoke detector that an open window lets them get away with it. Are you armed?”
“Yes.” Before Adam Pierce, I got away with carrying a Taser 90 percent of the time. Now I didn’t leave the house without a firearm and I practiced with my guns every week. My overtime at the gun range was making my mother very happy.
“Can I see it?”
I pulled my Glock 26 out of the holster under my jacket. It was accurate, relatively light weight, and made for concealed carry. I’d opted for one of my cheap pantsuits primarily because I could get away with the kind of shoes that let me run and because the jacket was loose enough to obscure my firearm. Besides, I seriously doubted they would let me into the Assembly building in my typical attire of old jeans, running shoes, and whatever top wasn’t too wrinkled after one of my sisters dumped my laundry on my bed to make space for her own load in the dryer. I’d have to clear an X- ray and a metal detector as well.
Cornelius examined the gun. “Why does it have this bright blue paint on this part?”
“It’s matte fingernail polish. The black on black sight makes it harder to hit dark targets and the fingernail polish fixes that problem and cuts down on the glare.”
“How much does it weigh?”
“About twenty- six ounces.” I’d stuck with the standard 10 round magazine, hollow point. And I carried a lot of extra ammo. My adventures with Rogan made me paranoid.
“Talon can carry it through the bathroom window for you.”
Okay, I had to nip this in the bud. It’s not that the idea of walking into a building filled with the top crust of Houston’s magic users unarmed wasn’t giving me anxiety. It was. My favorite strategy when confronted with danger was to run away. People who ran away survived and avoided costly medical bills, loss of work hours, and increases in insurance premiums. They also escaped being lectured by their entire family about taking unnecessary risks. I used a gun only when I had no choice. Confronting a Prime inside a building filled with other Primes would make running away very difficult, so going in armed was tempting. But bringing a firearm into the Texas Assembly was suicide. Might as well pin a target to my chest with the words Terrorist. Shoot Me. “Why would I need to bring a gun into that building?” “It might be useful,” Cornelius said quietly.
Right. “Cornelius, if we’re going to work together, we have to agree on full disclosure. You want me to bring the gun into the Assembly because you’re convinced that Forsberg killed your wife and you want me to shoot him.”
“When I talked to them yesterday before coming to see you, one of his security people suggested that Nari may have been having an affair with one or both of the other two lawyers. When I told him it was unlikely, his exact words were, ‘We don’t always know the people we marry. Who knows what the investigation will uncover? I’ve seen it all, embezzlement, sex addicts, drugs. Terrible what sometimes comes to light.’ They’re not simply content to ignore her death. They’re now actively distancing themselves from her and, if I keep making noise, they’re threatening to smear her name.”
“That’s awful of them. But it doesn’t tell us that Matthias Forsberg is guilty. It only indicates that Forsberg Detective Agency employs scumbags and they’re trying to cover their asses.”
Cornelius looked away.
“You came to me for the truth. I’ll get the truth for you. When I point out the guilty person to you, it won’t be because of a hunch or a feeling. It will be because I’ll present you with the evidence of their guilt, because accusing someone of murder should never be done lightly.
You want to be sure, right?”
“Good. We need evidence. We’ll search for this evidence together and we’ll do it as safely and carefully as possible, so you can come home to Matilda. According to my research, the security at the Assembly is very tight. You can’t even get into the Allen Parkway parking lot without showing ID and having a reason to be there. If we were to follow your plan, and someone discovered that I carried a firearm into that building, the security wouldn’t detain me. They would shoot me and whoever I was with.” His face told me he didn’t like it.
“What happens if Forsberg attacks?” he asked.
“On a crowded Assembly floor? In plain view of his peers, while we’re unarmed?” Cornelius grimaced.
I smiled at him. “I think we should table the gun idea for now. If he attacks, I’ll do my best to handle it.”
I wasn’t exactly defenseless. As long as I could get my hands on my attacker before he or she killed me, they would be in for one unpleasant surprise. The military had been employing more and more mages. Military service wasn’t exactly a stress- free environment, and the people in charge had quickly figured out that they needed a method for neutralizing magic users. That’s how the shockers came on the scene. Getting them installed involved a specialist who reached into the arcane realm, the place beyond our fabric of existence, pulled out a creature nobody fully understood, and implanted it into your arms. I’d had mine implanted when I was hunting Adam Pierce. You primed them with your magic, suffering through some pain, and if you grabbed your victim, that pain would hit them and blossom into a convulsion- inducing agony. The shockers were supposedly nonlethal, but I had too much magic. I could kill an Average magic user, and although I had used them on a Prime only once, barely, he’d definitely felt it.
“I’ll defer to your judgment.” Cornelius opened the door of his vehicle. “Please.”
“Let’s take my car,” I said, nodding at my minivan.
He glanced at the Mazda. His face turned carefully neutral. My aging champagne mom- minivan clearly failed to make the right impression.
I walked to the minivan and opened the passenger door. “Please.”
Cornelius opened the trunk of his car and lifted out a large plastic sack similar to one of those fifty- pound bags of cheap dog food, except this one was plain white and unmarked. He heaved it onto his shoulder and carried it over to the Mazda. I opened the trunk and let him slide it in there.
We got into my car and buckled up. I drove out of the parking lot and turned right, heading to Blalock Road. Anything to avoid the hell that was the 290. Cornelius’ face was a grim mask. He didn’t trust me yet. Trust took time.
“May I ask, why your car?”
“Because I’m familiar with the way it handles and we may have to drive very fast. In addition, this type of car blends into traffic, while your vehicle stands out.” Also because my grandmother made some modifications to the engine and installed bulletproof windows after my Adam Pierce adventure, but he didn’t need to know that.
“What’s in that bag?”
“It’s a private matter, unrelated to our visit to the Assembly.”
Okay. Fair enough. But now, of course, I was dying to figure out what was in there.
“Do you smoke?” I asked.
“How do you know about the smoking bathroom?” Here’s hoping he hadn’t shared with anyone that we were planning to visit.
“My brother is deeply offended by its existence. He’s asthmatic.”
True. So far he hadn’t lied to me.
“My turn,” Cornelius said. “What do you hope to gain by speaking with Forsberg? He won’t admit any guilt.”
“I have a lot of experience with watching people, and I can usually tell when they’re lying.”
And we ran into roadwork. Of course. Now I would have to merge onto Katy Freeway.
“Curiously, that’s almost exactly what Augustine told me about you,” Cornelius said.
Augustine had kept my secret. Primes didn’t do anything without some ulterior motive. I wasn’t looking forward to finding out what he was planning.
“Are you having second thoughts? It’s not too late. We can turn around and I’ll refund your retainer.”
“No.” Cornelius looked out the window. “When I woke up this morning, I thought of kidnapping Forsberg and torturing him until he told me everything he knew.”
Homicidal fantasies were never a good sign. “That would be a terrible idea. First, it’s illegal. Second, we don’t know if Forsberg is involved. If he isn’t, you would’ve tortured an innocent man. Third, my cousin ran the background on House Forsberg. While they are not the wealthiest House in Houston, their net worth is substantial and so is their private security force. If you were to kidnap Forsberg and not die in the attempt, you would be hunted down and eventually killed.” Cornelius didn’t answer.
Bern and I had stayed up way too late with House Forsberg’s file. Matthias Milton Forsberg, fifty- two years old, was a fourth- generation Texan and very proud of it— so proud that he’d gone to the University of Texas instead of the usual Ivy League schools. He’d become the head of his House twelve years ago, when his father retired. He was married, with two adult children, Sam Houston Forsberg and Stephen Austin Forsberg, which made me laugh a little last night while drinking coffee. It was good that he’d stopped at two, because nobody was quite sure which man Dallas was named after. Matthias had never been arrested, never served in the military, and never declared bankruptcy. He did own a lot of houses.
Magically he was a hopper. Hoppers compressed the space around them, propelling themselves or others through it. Usually their hops were short- range, topping out at thirty yards. Still, they could cover short distances very quickly and were hard to target while hopping, which made them highly sought after by the military. I’d never encountered one before, so I had watched some YouTube videos. Most of them consisted of guys between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five launching things at walls with their magic, such as watermelons, pumpkins, cans of paint, and in one particular extra- stupid video, a gallon of gasoline with a lighted fuse made out of a long sock. That went about as well as you would expect. Most of them tried to throw each other or themselves as well, but none had enough power. The best they could do was stagger their friends a few feet. According to Bern, the mass and size of the object were a factor.
The internet claimed that Prime- rank hoppers could pass through solid walls if they timed their jumps right. If that was true, Forsberg’s reputation for flirting with corporate espionage made perfect sense.
Public records and YouTube videos weren’t much to go on, but unlike me, Cornelius had access to the House database and he’d probably met Forsberg.
“What can you tell me about Matthias Forsberg?” I asked.
“He’s a typical Houston Prime; he safeguards the family wealth, he has firm ideas of what is and isn’t proper for a person of his social standing, and he avoids public scrutiny. He considers very few people his equals and treats the rest with contempt.”
“Can he hop through walls?” “Yes. Could you take the next exit, please?” I pulled off the freeway.
“Make a right and park, please.”
We made a right and stopped before a construction site. The steel bones of the building were beginning to take shape, wrapped in scaffolding. Cornelius got out, took the sack out of the trunk, and walked down the road between the buildings, disappearing from view. Talon swooped down, following him.
What could be in the sack? It was plastic, reinforced with mesh. He could have body parts in there and I would never know.
I drummed my fingers on the dashboard and turned on the radio. “. . . no updates on Senator Garza’s murder investigation. The police department remains . . .” I turned it off.
It couldn’t be body parts. They would’ve made bulges. The sack seemed uniform, so unless he’d minced the body parts into mush . . . Okay, this was just morbid. Four months ago it wouldn’t even occur to me that there might be body parts in the sack.
Cornelius reappeared, carrying an empty sack. If it had been filled with something nasty, I would smell it when he put it back in the car.
He folded the sack carefully and put it in the trunk.
Nope, no weird smells. No suspicious dripping. “Thank you,” he said. “We can be on our way now.”
The Assembly occupied the America Tower, a graceful skyscraper on the corner of Waugh Drive and Allen Parkway. The forty- two stories of pale concrete and dark windows rose in elegant curves to almost six hundred feet above Houston’s midtown. This December had brought endless rain, complete with floods, and a perpetually gloomy overcast sky. The America Tower stood out against this dark backdrop as if some wizard’s mystical spire had escaped its legend and appeared in the middle of Houston. It was filled with mages, except this kind of mages wouldn’t sing songs in a bumbling, adorable way or send you on a heroic quest. They would murder you in an instant and then their lawyers would make any hints of a criminal investigation disappear.
We cleared a security booth, where Cornelius had to show his ID, then parked and stepped out of the car. Talon dived over us and took off, flying past a large dandelion- shaped fountain wrapped in a white fuzz of mist to the trees on the side.
We walked past the perfectly manicured emerald- green lawn toward the glass entrance. I missed the weight of my gun, but the Glock had to stay in the car.
“How does your magic work?” I asked softly. “Are you telepathically controlling Talon? Could you see through his eyes?”
“No.” Cornelius shook his head. “He’s his own bird. I give him food, shelter, and affection, and in return, when I ask for a favor, he answers.”
Talon wasn’t just a bird, he was a pet. That probably meant that Bunny was also a pet. If any of his animals got hurt, Cornelius would react very strongly. I would have to keep it in mind.
We were almost to the doors.
“Forsberg probably won’t dignify any of my questions with an answer,” I said.
“You may have to do the asking. I want you to be blunt. Yes- or- no questions are best.”
“So you need me to walk up to him and ask him if he’s responsible for Nari’s death?”
“No, that’s too broad a term. He may have had nothing to do with it, but he may feel guilty or upset because of what happened to her. We know that he himself didn’t do it, because at the time of the murder, he was photographed by about fifty people at the Firemen’s Annual Fundraiser Dinner. Ask him if he ordered her killed. No matter what he answers, your second question should be ‘Do you know who did?’ We need to see his reaction. Keep your questions short and to the point and don’t elaborate so he doesn’t have a way to weasel out of it. Silence puts people under a lot of pressure and they’ll try to respond. If I think he’s lying, I’ll nod.”
Cornelius held the door open for me and we walked into the lobby. The blast of air- conditioning after the rain made me shiver. The temperature outside hovered around the low seventies, but inside it must’ve been barely above sixty degrees. The floor, high- gloss sandy- brown marble, gleamed like a mirror. Logic said they had to have installed it in tiles, but I couldn’t even see the grout lines. The same marble sheathed the walls. In the center of the floor, three banks of elevators offered access to upstairs. Four guards, dressed in crisp white shirts and black pants and armed with Remington tactical shotguns, stood at the strategic points near the walls. Three more manned the desk in front of the metal detector. The Assembly’s guards weren’t playing. Prime or not, a tactical shotgun would make me reconsider any mischief really fast.
If I pointed a gun in their direction, they would fire without a second thought and whoever was in the immediate vicinity would be caught in that blast.
“You were right,” Cornelius said quietly.
We reached the desk, where Cornelius got a “Welcome, Mr. Harrison. We’re glad to see you again.” I got to pull out two forms of ID and fill out a three- page questionnaire that included my blood type and medical- insurance provider before they eventually issued me a one- day pass.
Finally, we made our way to the elevators. According to Cornelius, Forsberg would be on the twenty- fifth floor. I pushed the appropriate button and the elevator rose. The doors opened on the fourth floor and a man in a hooded robe strode in. The robe was jet black, split on the sides like the tabard of some medieval knight, and equipped with a deep hood that hid its owner’s face. Only his chin with a carefully trimmed red beard was visible. A dark green stole draped his shoulders, shining with silver embroidery. Underneath the robe the man wore black pants tucked into soft black boots that came halfway up his ankle, and a black shirt. He looked frightening, almost menacing, like a mage ready for war.
I took a step to the side, giving him room.
The man pushed the button for the tenth floor. A moment later the doors opened and he stepped out.
Another robed person, a woman this time judging by the braid of dark hair spilling from the hood, walked up to him before the doors closed, hiding them from view.
“Why are they dressed that way?” I murmured.
“It’s tradition. The Assembly has a Lower Chamber, where every Prime and Significant of a qualified House can vote, and the Upper Chamber, where only Prime heads of Houses can vote. The robes mean they belong to the Upper Chamber.”
The elevator stopped three floors later and another robed man got in, his stole gold embroidered with black.
The mage pulled back his hood, revealing the handsome face of a man in his early sixties, with bold features, a broad forehead, and smart hazel eyes caught in the network of wrinkles. A short beard, black and sprinkled with silver, hugged his jaw. His hair, once probably dark with some white, but now mostly white with some dark, was brushed away from his face. He looked like your favorite uncle who lived somewhere in Italy, owned a vineyard, laughed easily, and hugged you when you came to visit. Right now his face showed concern, and his eyes were saddened.
“My boy, I just heard.” The man hugged Cornelius.
“I’m so sorry.”
His regret was genuine. How about that?
“Words can’t express . . .” The man fell silent. “You, the young, you’re not supposed to die. Old men like me, we come to terms with our own death. We’ve lived full lives. But this . . . this is an outrage. What is Forsberg doing about it?”
“Nothing,” Cornelius said.
The man drew back. His deep, resonant voice rose. “Nari was an employee of his House. What do you mean he’s doing nothing? It’s his duty. The honor of his House is at stake.”
“I don’t believe he cares,” Cornelius said.
“This would’ve never happened under his father. There are certain things that the head of a House simply does. Let me see what I can do. My voice may not be as loud as it once was, but people still listen to it. If you need anything, anything at all, you know where to find me.”
True. A sincere Prime who actually showed compassion.
The man got off on the twentieth floor.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Linus Duncan,” Cornelius said. “Very old, very powerful House. He used to be the Speaker of the Upper Chamber. The most powerful man in Houston. Until they drove him out.”
“Because he was honest and he tried to change the Assembly for the better,” Cornelius said.
It didn’t surprise me. Houses feared change like it was a rabid tiger.
The elevator chimed, announcing our floor. We stepped off and turned right. Near the middle of the long hallway, by an open door, three men stood together discussing something, all dark- haired, middle- aged, and wearing black robes with their hoods down. One of them was Matthias Forsberg. Of average height but with the broad, sturdy frame of an aging football player, Forsberg stood out. His shoulders were wide and heavy, his stance direct. He planted his feet as if he expected to be run over. His face, with dark eyes, wide eyebrows that angled down without any hint of an arch, and a hint of softness around the chin, didn’t match his body.
Cornelius sped up, heading toward the men. I chased after him. Forsberg raised his head, glancing in our direction. His expression changed from tense to alarmed. The two other men looked in our direction and moved to the other end of the hallway, leaving Forsberg alone.
“Harrison,” Forsberg said, looking like he just found some rotten potatoes in his pantry. “My condolences.”
“Did you order the death of my wife?” Cornelius asked. His voice rang out. People looked in our direction. Smart. Forsberg would have to respond now and it was clear he wasn’t used to backing down.
“Are you out of your mind?” Forsberg growled.
“Yes or no, Matthias.”
“Do you know who did?”
“Of course not.”
My magic buzzed, an angry invisible mosquito. Lie. I nodded.
“If I did, I’d take action.” Lie.
“Was her death connected to the business of your house?” “No.” Lie.
Cornelius looked at me. I nodded again.
“Tell me who killed my wife,” Cornelius ground out through his teeth.
Argh. Wrong question.
“You’re delusional and grieving,” Forsberg said. His expression hardened. “This is the only reason you’re still breathing. I’m going to give you one chance to get out of this building . . .”
His gaze snagged on something behind me. His eyes opened wide and I saw fear ignite in their depths. It was so at odds with the bullheaded arrogance he projected, I almost did a double take.
I looked over my shoulder.
A tall man was striding from the far end of the hallway. He wore the black robe and it flared around him, the wings of a raven about to take flight. He walked like he owned the building and he’d spotted an intruder in his domain. Magic boiled around him, vicious and lethal, so potent I could feel it from thirty yards away. He wasn’t a man, he was an elemental force, a thunderstorm clad in black about to unleash its fury. People flattened themselves against the walls, trying to get out of his way. I saw his face and recoiled. Chiseled chin, strong nose, and blue eyes blazing with power under dark slashes of eyebrows.
My heart hammered so fast; my chest was about to explode.
He was coming toward me.
Our stares connected. I clamped all my thoughts into a steel fist, trying to keep my reaction under control. His expression softened and for a fraction of a second I saw him looking at me with a mix of surprise and relief. Then the gaze of those furious eyes fixed on Forsberg with predatory focus. I knew that expression. It said, “Murder.”
I whipped around. Panic drowned Forsberg’s face. Magic contracted around him, compressing in on itself like a spring coiling under pressure. The hallway around me stretched back as if marble and metal suddenly became elastic.
I shoved Cornelius out of the way.
The hallway compacted like an aluminum can flattened by pressure and suddenly I was airborne. I hurtled through the air, straight at Mad Rogan.
Fate threw us at each other. I could never tell Grandma.
I crashed into Rogan. Strong arms caught me. The impact spun us around, and I landed upright on the floor to the right of him. Before my feet touched the marble, Rogan hurled a handful of quarters in the air. The coins streaked at Forsberg, flattened bullets driven by Rogan’s power, dodging random people in the hallway as they shot toward their target.
The air around Forsberg shimmered. The coins collided with the shimmer and fell to the ground, bouncing from an invincible barrier. Forsberg blurred, landing twenty yards back from where he’d been.
“Shoot him,” Rogan said, his voice clipped.
Forsberg looked scared to death. People who panicked didn’t think; they ran. I dashed toward the elevator. We had to beat him to the lobby.
Forsberg jumped straight up, blurred, and then fell through the floor. I caught myself on the corner of the short hallway leading to the elevator, slid on the marble floor, and mashed the button going down. Rogan was only a step behind me.
The elevator doors slid open and we rushed inside. I hit the button for the lobby. The door began to slide closed and Cornelius squeezed through the gap at the last moment, causing them to reopen. Rogan jerked the animal mage off his feet, slamming him against the elevator wall, his forearm pressed against the blond man’s throat. Cornelius groaned, his feet above the ground, all of his weight pushing his neck against Rogan’s forearm. “Drop my client!” I barked.
Rogan pressed harder. Cornelius’s face turned red. I’d seen what Rogan could do with his bare hands to a person. If I didn’t pry Cornelius away from him, Rogan would crush his windpipe.
“Rogan! He’s a . . . he’s a civilian!”
Rogan stepped back as if I’d thrown a switch. Cornelius dropped to the floor, gulping air. Apparently I’d said the magic word.
“Try that again and I’ll shock you into oblivion,” I ground out.
The elevator doors opened. Twelfth floor. Rogan pushed the button, forcing the doors to close, and peered at Cornelius. “Is this my replacement?”
What? “I didn’t replace you!”
“Of course not. I’m irreplaceable.”
Cornelius finally managed to squeeze out a word.
“Rogan? The Butcher of Merida? Mad Rogan?” “Yes,” Rogan and I said in unison.
“Is this the R on the dress?” Cornelius’ eyes were wide.
Think of clouds, think of bunnies, don’t think about the wedding- gown pictures. Rogan claimed he wasn’t telepathic, but he could project images, which meant he could probably pick up impressions if I concentrated on things too much.
“Dress? What dress?” Rogan asked, honing in on the word like a shark sensing blood in the water.
“Never mind,” I told him. “Cornelius, not another word or I walk.”
Rogan’s eyes narrowed. He’d recognized the name. He was involved in this thing with Forsberg up to his elbows.
Just my luck.
Number two above us blinked. Almost there.
Rogan tossed the coins in the air and the quarters hung around him motionless. His magic brushed past me, a raging, terrible beast. Shivers ran down my spine. Suddenly the past two months of normal life tore apart, like fragile paper, and I was right back next to Rogan, about to charge into a fight. And it felt right. It felt like I’d been sleepwalking and had suddenly woken up.
I had to get away from him as soon as I could. He was bad for me on every level.
“Alive!” I told him. “I need Forsberg alive.”
The doors chimed and opened. We burst into the lobby to a wall of shotguns pointed in our direction. Behind the security, Forsberg lay on the floor on his back. A puddle of red slowly spread from his head. His eyes were gone.
In their place two blood- filled holes gaped at the ceiling. Rogan swore.
Normally it would’ve taken me days to extricate myself from the clutches of the Assembly’s security. With Rogan emanating menace and Cornelius explaining things in a calm, patient tone one normally used with small children, we walked out of the building in twenty minutes. They stuck to the truth: Forsberg attacked Rogan without provocation. Cornelius and I just happened to be in the way, and there were a dozen witnesses who would confirm it. When one of the security people asked if Rogan had threatened Forsberg, the Scourge of Mexico looked at him for a moment and condescended to explain that he hadn’t threatened anyone. He had been moving though the hallway with a purpose because he had someplace to be and if they had a problem identifying the difference between that and him actually threatening someone, he would be happy to demonstrate. They decided not to question him further after that.
Outside, Rogan raised his head and squinted at the sun that broke through the overcast sky. The robes were really too much. He needed some crimson banners and a glowing staff and he’d be all set.
His face was tight. He was pissed off. I was pissed off too. We’d lost Forsberg and we had no idea how he’d died, let alone any clues as to who might have helped him on his way. House Forsberg would circle the wagons and hunker down now. Everything about this investigation had just become a lot harder.
“Since when did you stop carrying your gun?” Rogan asked.
“Mr. Rogan . . .”
“Oh no.” Rogan glanced at Cornelius. “We’re back to formal ground. I’m clearly out of favor.”
“Mr. Rogan . . .”
“Why are you mad at me?”
I made a heroic effort to keep my voice calm and measured. “You panicked the witness I was interrogating, causing him to throw me around like a rag doll, hop his way through the floors, and get himself killed, which really complicates my life and robs my client of an opportunity to discover why his wife was murdered, and then you almost strangled said client in an elevator.”
“It does sound bad when you put it that way, Ms.
His words were meant to sound light, but his eyes remained dark and grim. Something bad had happened to Rogan. I almost reached out, then caught myself. No.
The man was a disease and I couldn’t get rid of the infection as it was. I so didn’t need another outbreak of Rogan fever.
Two Range Rovers pulled up, one gunmetal grey, the other white, both with familiar thick and tinted windows. Rogan owned a fleet of VR9 armored cars. They were state- of- the- art custom vehicles, built to be armored from the ground up while looking perfectly normal and blending into traffic, and they handled like a dream. I’d ridden in one just before Adam Pierce blew it up.
An athletic man in his twenties, with short blond hair and military bearing, jumped out of the grey Range Rover and brought the keys to Rogan. “Sir. Ms. Baylor.”
“Hello, Troy.” I was there when Troy had his job interview and was hired. He was ex- military and Rogan had saved him from a foreclosure. Today Troy wore a hip holster, full and in plain view.
“How is being an evil henchman treating you?”
“Can’t complain, ma’am. It’s a good gig if you can get it.”
Of course. Complaining wouldn’t be evil- henchman- like. Rogan’s people worshiped the ground he walked on. If Troy was any indication, he found them at the lowest point of their lives and offered them a chance to be somebody. To matter, to have a well- paying job they would be really good at, and to provide for their families. A pack of hounds raised from puppies couldn’t be more devoted. I just wasn’t sure he ever saw them as anything more than assets at his disposal.
Rogan turned to me. “Come with me to my house. I have some information you’ll want.”
Enter my lair, said the dragon. I have shiny treasure for you to play with, I’ll keep you warm and safe, and if it suits my purpose, I’ll chain you to the floor and kill your client by throwing quarters at him with my magic. Been there, done that.
“I don’t think so. But I’ll be happy to discuss things with you in daylight in a very public place. Would you like my card?”
When I was in college, one of my professors liked creative descriptions, and whenever he had to indicate that some historical figure was in a moment of monumental rage, he’d say he had thunder on his brow and lighting in his eye. I never understood what that phrase meant until Rogan’s face demonstrated it for me.
Cornelius took a careful step back. Troy backed up too. Yes, I did just tell Mad Rogan no, and look, the planet was still turning.
“Your card?” Rogan said, his voice very calm and quiet.
“It’s a little piece of paper that has my phone number, email address, and other contact information on it.” I waited to see if his head would explode. I shouldn’t have taunted him, but I was really pissed off. We’d had Forsberg until he butted in.
Rogan pivoted to Cornelius. “My condolences on your loss. It would be my honor to have you as my guest tonight. Permit me a chance to make up for our earlier misunderstanding.”
How nicely put. “You mean the part where you almost choked the life out of him?”
“Please don’t get into his car,” I told Cornelius. “He’s dangerous and unpredictable.” “Thank you,” Rogan said.
“Your life means absolutely nothing to him,” I continued. “When he doesn’t like somebody, he hits them with a bus.”
“I have no desire to start a feud with House Harrison,” Rogan said.
“I guarantee your safety.” Also truth.
“And I have a recording of your wife’s final moments,” Rogan said.
Cornelius glanced at me.
“He isn’t lying,” I told him. “But if you get into that car, I don’t know if he’ll let you leave. Please don’t do this.”
Cornelius squared his shoulders. “I’d be delighted to accept your invitation.”
Damn it. Why don’t people ever listen to me?
Rogan opened the back passenger door of the Range Rover. Cornelius got in. Rogan leaned over the open door to look at Cornelius.
“Would you mind if your employee joined us?” “Of course not,” Cornelius said.
Rogan turned to me. “See? Your employer doesn’t mind. If I’m such a villain, why don’t you tag along to ensure his safety?”
He was insufferable. That was the long and short of it. And getting into the same car with him was out of the question. The more distance between us, the better. Except now he had my client in his claws.
“I’ll follow you in my car. Cornelius, he also projects, so try not to think about anything you don’t want him to pick up.”
Rogan stepped close to me. Too close. I wished my body would stop betraying me every time he shortened the distance.
His voice was intimate. “I’m not one to judge, but it seems to me that you’re not taking me seriously as a threat. I could kill him en route.”
I crossed my arms on my chest. “Really? You’re actually going to stoop to direct threats now?”
“You think the worst of me, and you know how I hate to disappoint. Troy will be happy to drive your vehicle.”
Okay, something was definitely off with him. The Rogan I remembered was direct, but he could also be subtle. This wasn’t even remotely subtle. He had another car following him and usually he preferred to travel alone.
He was twisting my arm trying to get me into his armored vehicle. The cars had parked so their bulk blocked us from anyone entering the parking lot. Troy wore his sidearm in plain view. This wasn’t about abducting Cornelius or forcing me to do something I didn’t want to do. This was about safety. Both Cornelius and I would be much safer in a state- of- the- art armored vehicle than in my minivan.
As much as I wanted to be away from Rogan, if he was concerned about safety, I’d be an idiot not to take it seriously.
I handed the keys to Troy. “Mazda van over there. She handles light.”
Troy nodded and jogged around the cars.
I walked up to Rogan’s Range Rover, sat in the front passenger seat, and buckled my seat belt. I’d just have to endure and not think of him sitting next to me.
You’d think two months of not seeing him would’ve made a difference, and it had. It made whatever was pulling me to him worse. Yeah, do you remember how you woke and ran downstairs, because you thought you saw him, and when you opened the door, nobody was there?
He shut my door and got into the driver’s seat, scanning the parking lot in front of us with a thousand- yard stare. “There is a Sig in the glove compartment.”
I opened the glove compartment, took out the Sig, checked it, and put it on my lap.
“What happened?” I asked quietly.
“I lost some people,” he said. There was an awful finality in his voice.
I hadn’t thought he cared. I’d thought he viewed his people as tools and took care of them because tools had to be kept in good repair, but this sounded like genuine grief— that complicated cocktail of guilt, regret, and overwhelming sadness you felt when someone close to you died. It broke you and made you feel helpless. Helpless wasn’t even in Rogan’s vocabulary. Maybe I’d been wrong then or maybe I was wrong now. Time would tell one way or the other.
I closed my mouth and watched Houston slide by outside the window, searching the warm winter day for something I might have to shoot.
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