THE PHONE RANG IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. THE magic wave was in full swing, and the phone shouldn’t have worked, but it rang anyway, again and again, outraged over being ignored, until finally I reached over and picked it up. “Yehmmm?” “Rise and shine, Kate.” The smooth cultured voice on the line suggested a slender, elegant, handsome man, all things that Jim was not. At least not in his human shape. I clawed my eyes open long enough to glance at the windup clock across the room. “Two in the morning. Some of us sleep during the night.” “I’ve got a gig,” Jim said. I sat up in the bed, wide-awake. A gig was good—I needed the money. “Half.” “Third.” “Half.” “Thirty-five percent.
” Jim’s voice hardened. “Half.” The phone went silent as my former Guild partner mulled it over. “Okay, forty.” I hung up. The bedroom lay quiet. My curtains were open and moonlight sifted into the room through the metal grate shielding the window. The moonlight acted as a catalyst and the metal bars glowed with a weak bluish patina where the silver in the alloy interacted with the ward spell. Beyond the bars, Atlanta slept like some hulking beast of legend, dark and deceptively peaceful. When the magic wave ended, as it inevitably would, the beast would awaken in an explosion of electric light and possibly gunfire.
My ward wouldn’t stop a bullet, but it kept the magic hazmat out of my bedroom, and that was good enough. The phone rang. I let it ring twice before I picked it up. “Fine.” Jim’s voice had a hint of a snarl in it. “Half.” “Where are you?” “In the parking lot under your window, Kate.” Calling from a pay phone, which shouldn’t have worked, either. I reached for my clothes, left by the bed for just such an occasion. “What’s the gig?” “Some arsonist wacko.
” FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER, I WAS WINDING MY way through an underground garage and cursing Jim under my breath. With the lights knocked out by magic, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my nose. A fireball blossomed in the pitch-black depth of the garage. Huge, churning with violent red and yellow, it roared toward me. I jumped behind the concrete support, my throwing knife sweaty in my hands. Heat bathed me. For a moment I couldn’t breathe, and then the fire hurtled past me to burst in an explosion of sparks against the wall. A thin gleeful cackle emanated from the garage depths. I peeked out from behind the support in the direction of the sound. Nothing but darkness.
Where was the tech shift when you needed one? Across from me at the next row of supports Jim raised his hand and touched his fingers to his thumb a few times, imitating an opening and closing beak. Negotiate. He wanted me to engage a lunatic who had already turned four people into smoking meat. Okay. I could do that. “Alright, Jeremy!” I yelled into the night. “Give me the salamander and I won’t cut your head off!” Jim put his hand over his face and did some shaking. I thought he was laughing, but I couldn’t be sure. Unlike him I didn’t have the benefit of enhanced night vision. Jeremy’s cackle reached a hysterical crescendo.
“Stupid bitch!” Jim peeled himself from the support and melted into the darkness, tracking Jeremy’s voice. His vision worked better than mine in low light, but even his sight failed in absolute darkness. He had to hunt by sound, which meant I had to keep Jeremy talking. While Jim stalked Jeremy’s melodious voice, Jeremy, in turn, stalked me. Nothing to worry about, just a homicidal pyromaniac armed with a salamander in a sphere of enchanted glass and intent on setting what’s left of Atlanta on fire. The main thing was to keep the salamander’s sphere safe. If that thing broke, my name would be more famous than Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. “Damn Jeremy, you need to work on your vocabulary. So many good names to call me and the best you could come up with is bitch? Give me the salamander before you hurt yourself.
” “Suck my dick…whore!” A tiny spark flared into existence to the left of me. It hung suspended in the darkness, illuminating both the scaly outline of the salamander’s mouth and Jeremy’s hands clutching the glass sphere with white- knuckled need. The enchanted glass parted and belched the spark. The air hit the tiny packet of energy and the spark exploded into a fireball. I ducked behind the support just as the fire smashed against concrete. Flames shot past on both sides of me. The acrid stench of sulfur stung my nostrils. “That last fireball missed me by a mile. You shoot blanks with your other salamander, too, Jeremy?” “Eat shit and die!” Jim had to be close to him by now. I stepped into the open.
“Come on, you sniveling shit for brains! Can’t you do anything right?” I saw flames, lunged to the side and hit the floor rolling. Above me the fire howled like an enraged animal. The handle of the knife burned my fingers. The air in my lungs turned to heat, and my eyes watered. I pressed my face into the dusty concrete, praying it didn’t get any hotter, and then suddenly it was over. Screw this. I jumped to my feet and charged in Jeremy’s direction. The salamander flared within the sphere. I caught a flash of Jeremy’s crooked smile above the glass. It wilted as Jim’s dark hands closed around Jeremy’s throat.
The arsonist slumped, ragdoll limp, the sphere rolling from his weakened fingers… I dived for it, caught it three inches above the cement, and found myself face-to-face with the salamander. Ruby-red eyes regarded me with mild curiosity, black lips parted, and a long, spiderweb-thin filament of a tongue slithered from the salamander’s mouth and kissed the sphere’s glass in the reflection of my nose. Hi, I love you, too. Gingerly I got to my knees and then to my feet. The salamander’s presence tugged on my mind, as eager to please as an overly enthusiastic kitten arching her back for a stroke. Visions of flames and heat wavered before me. Let’s burn something…I slammed my mental shutters closed, locking her out of my mind. Let’s not. Jim relaxed his hold on Jeremy and the arsonist sagged to the ground like a wet blanket. The whites of his eyes stared at the ceiling from his slack face, caught by death in a moment of utter surprise.
No pulse check needed for this one. Shit. There goes the capture bonus. “You said it was a live-preferred bounty,” I murmured. The living Jeremy was worth a lot more than his corpse. We’d still get paid, but we had just waved a third of the money good-bye. “It is.” Jim twisted the body on its side, exposing Jeremy’s back. A thin metal shaft, tipped with three black feathers protruded from between Jeremy’s shoulders blades. Before my mind had the time to digest its significance, I hit the deck, cradling the salamander.
Jim somehow got there before me. We stared into the gloom. Darkness and silence. Someone had taken out our mark with a crossbow bolt. Could have taken us out, as well. We had stood by the body for at least four seconds. More than enough time to squeeze off two shots. I touched Jim and touched my nose. He shook his head. With all the sulfur in the air he probably couldn’t smell a skunk if it sprayed him in the face.
I lay very still and tried to breathe quietly. Listening was our best bet. A minute dragged by, long, viscous, and silent. Very slowly Jim shifted into a crouch and nodded to the left. I had a vague feeling the door lay to the right, but in the darkness with some unknown crossbowman waiting, I would trust Jim’s senses over mine. Jim grasped Jeremy’s corpse, slung it over his shoulder, and we took off, bending low, running fast, him ahead and me, half-blind in the gloom, slightly behind. Concrete supports flashed by, one, two, three, four. The tech hit, and before I could put down my raised foot, the magic drained from the world, leaving the battered technology in its wake. The fluorescent lamps in the ceiling blinked and snapped into life with a buzz, bathing the garage in a weak man-made glow. The black rectangle of the exit gaped ten feet before us.
Jim dived into it. I lunged to the left, behind the nearest support. The salamander in the globe stopped glowing and went to sleep, looking like a harmless black lizard. My long-range weapon was tuckered out. I set it down on the floor and slid Slayer from its sheath. Salamanders are overrated anyway. “He’s gone,” Jim said from the doorway and pointed behind me. I turned. Far at the back, the concrete wall had crumbled, revealing a narrow passageway probably leading up to the street. He was right.
If the bowman wanted to take us out, he had had plenty of time to do it. “So he sniped our mark and left?” “Looks that way.” “I don’t get it.” Jim shook his head. “Weird shit always happens around you.” “This was your gig, not mine.” A shower of sparks fell from above the door and a green EXIT sign burst into life. Jim stared at it for a moment, his features twisted in a distinctly feline expression, disgust and fatalism rolled into one, and shook his head again. “Dibs on the bolt in his back!” I called. “Be my guest.
” Jim’s pager went off. He checked it and a familiar neutral mask slid onto his face. “Oh no, you don’t! I can’t carry him by myself.” “Pack business.” He headed for the exit. “Jim!” I killed the urge to throw something at the empty doorway. Served me right for taking a job with a guy who served on the Pack Council. It’s not that Jim was a bad friend. It’s just that for shapeshifters, Pack business always took precedence. On a scale from one to ten, the Pack was eleven and everything else a one.
I stared at a very dead Jeremy lying like a sack of potatoes on the floor. Probably a hundred and fifty pounds, dead weight. There was no way I could carry him and the salamander at the same time. There was no way I could leave the salamander unattended, either. The magic could hit anytime, setting the little lizard ablaze. Plus, the sniper might still be around. I needed to get out of here, and fast. Jeremy and the salamander, each worth four grand. I no longer did a lot of work for the Guild, and gigs of this size didn’t come my way too often. Even split in half with Jim, the bounty would cover my two mortgages for two months.
The thought of leaving four grand on the floor made me physically ill. I looked at Jeremy. I looked at the salamander. Choices, choices. THE MERCENARY GUILD’S BOUNTY CLERK, A SHORT, trim, dark-haired man, stared at Jeremy’s head on the counter. “Where is the rest of him?” “I had a slight logistics problem.” The clerk’s face split in a wide smile. “Jim took off on you, didn’t he? That will be one capture ticket then?” “Two tickets.” Jim might be an asshole, but I wouldn’t screw him out of his share. He’d get his capture ticket, which entitled him to his half of the bounty.
“Kate, you’re a pushover,” the clerk said. I leaned over the counter and offered him my best deranged smile. “Wanna push and see if I fall over?” “No thanks.” The clerk slapped the stack of forms on the counter. “Fill these out.” The inch-thick stack of paperwork promised to occupy me for a good hour. The Guild had pretty lax rules—being an organization of mercenaries, they took keen interest in profit and little else—but death had to be reported to the cops and thus required red tape. The small significance of Jeremy’s life was reduced to the price on his head and a lot of carefully framed blank spaces on a piece of paper. I gave the top form the evil eye. “I don’t have to fill out the R20.
” “That’s right, you work with the Order now.” The clerk counted off eight pages from the top of the stack. “There you go, VIP treatment for you.” “Yipee.” I swiped my stack. “Hey, Kate, let me ask you something.” I wanted to fill out my forms, go home, and take a nap. “Shoot.” He reached under the counter. The Mercenary Guild occupied an old Sheraton Hotel on the edge of Buckhead and the clerk’s counter had been a lobby bar in that previous life.
The clerk pulled out a dark brown bottle and set it in front of me with a shot glass. “Why, no, I won’t drink your mysterious love potion.” He guffawed. “Hennessy. The good stuff. I’ll pay for the info.” “Thanks, but I don’t drink.” Not anymore, anyway. I still kept a bottle of Boone’s Farm sangria in my cabinet for a dire emergency, but hard liquor was right out. “What’s your question?” “What’s it like to work for the Order?” “Thinking of joining?” “No, I’m happy where I’m at.
But I’ve got a nephew. He wants to be a knight.” “How old?” “Sixteen.” Perfect. The Order liked them young. All the easier to brainwash. I pulled up a chair. “I’d take a glass of water.” He brought me water and I sipped it. “Basically the Order does the same thing we do: they clear magic hazmat.
Let’s say you’ve got a harpy in a tree after a magic wave. You’re going to call the cops first.” “If you’re stupid.” The clerk smirked. I shrugged. “The cops tell you that they’re busy with a giant worm trying to swallow the federal courthouse, instruct you to stay away from the harpy, and tell you they’ll come out when they can. The usual. So you call the Guild. Why wait, when for three hundred bucks a couple of mercs will bag the harpy with no fuss and even give your kid a pretty tail feather for his hat, right?” “Right.” “Suppose you don’t have three hundred bucks.
Or suppose the job is code 12, too nasty for the Guild to take it. You still have a harpy and you want her gone. So you call the Order, because you heard they don’t charge that much. They ask you to come to their Chapter, where a nice knight talks to you, gets your income assessed and tells you good news: they’re charging you fifty bucks because they’ve determined that’s all you can afford. Kismet.” The clerk eyed me. “What’s the catch?” “The catch is, they give you a piece of paper to sign, your plea to the Order. And there in big letters it says that you authorize the Order to remove any threat to humanity that arises in connection with this case.” The Order of Merciful Aid had chosen its name well. They provided merciful aid, usually on the edge of the blade or by the burn of a bullet.
Trouble was, sometimes you got more aid than you wanted. “Let’s say you sign the plea. The knights come out and observe the harpy. At the same time, you notice that every time you see the damn thing, your elderly senile aunt disappears. So you watch the old lady and sure enough, the magic wave hits and she turns into a harpy. You tell the knights you want to call the whole thing off—you love your aunt and she does no harm sitting in that tree anyway. The knights tell you that five percent of harpies carry a deadly disease on their claws and they’ve determined her to be a danger to humanity. You get angry, you yell, you call the cops, but the cops tell you it’s all legal, there is nothing they can do, and besides the Order is part of the law enforcement anyway. You promise to lock your aunt up. You try a bribe.
You point to your kids and explain how much they love the old lady. You cry. You beg. But nothing helps.” I drained my glass. “And that’s what it’s like working for the Order.” The clerk poured himself a shot and tossed it down his throat. “Did that really happen?” “Yep.” “Did they kill the old lady?”