I was ten feet from the office door of Cutting Edge Investigations, when I heard our phone ring inside. Unfortunately the key to the office was in my sweatshirt pocket, which at the moment was full of pale pink slime dripping from the tentacles resting on my shoulders. The tentacles weighed about seventy pounds and my shoulders really didn’t like it. Behind me Andrea, my best friend and partner in crime solving, shifted the bulbous mass of flesh that was the rest of the creature, rearranging it. “Phone.” “I hear it.” I dug in my pocket, all but glued shut by slime. Cold wetness slipped through my fingers. Ew. “Kate, it could be a client.” “I’m trying to find the key.” Clients meant money and money was in short supply. Cutting Edge opened its doors three months ago, and while we were getting a trickle of paying jobs, most of them were lousy. Despite a good recommendation from the Red Guard, the premier bodyguard outfit in the city, clients weren’t knocking down our door in a rush to hire us. Our world was beset by magic waves.
They flooded us at random, smothering technology and leaving monsters in their wake. One moment you had rogue mages spitting fireballs and lightning, the next the magic would vanish, and the cops would gun down said mages with their now operational firearms. Sadly the consequences of the magic waves didn’t always vanish with them, and Atlanta by necessity had spawned many agencies to deal with magic hazmat. All of them had been in business a lot longer than us: the cops, the Mercenary Guild, a slew of private companies, and the big gorilla, the Order of Merciful Aid. The Order and its knights made it their mission to guard humanity against all threats and they did just that, on their terms. Both Andrea and I had worked for the Order at some point and both of us left under less than amicable circumstances. Our reputations weren’t stellar, so when we got a job, it was because everyone else in town had already shot it down. We were quickly turning into Atlanta’s business of last resort. Still, every successful job was a check mark by our name. The phone rang, insistent.
Our latest job had come courtesy of the Green Acres Home Owners Association, who showed up at our door this morning claiming that a giant levitating jellyfish was roaming their suburb and could we please come and get it, because it was eating local cats. Apparently the translucent jellyfish was floating about with half-digested cat bodies inside it, and the neighborhood children were very upset. The cops told them that it wasn’t a priority, since the jellyfish hadn’t eaten any humans yet, and the Mercenary Guild wouldn’t get rid of it for less than a grand. The HOA offered us $200. Nobody in their right mind would do the job at that price. It took us all damned day. And now we had to properly dispose of the cursed thing, because dealing with corpses of magical creatures was like playing Russian roulette. Sometimes nothing happened, and sometimes the corpse did fun things like meting into a puddle of sentient carnivorous protoplasm or hatching foot-long blood-sucking leeches. The weight of the jellyfish suddenly vanished from my shoulders. I rummaged in my pocket and my fingertips slid against the cold metal.
I yanked the key out, slipped it into the lock, and swung the heavy reinforced door open. Aha! Victory. I lunged through the door and made a break for the phone. I reached a second too late and the answering machine came on. “Kate,” Jim’s voice said. “Pick up the phone.” I backed away from the phone like it was on fire. I knew exactly what this call was about and I didn’t want any of it. “Kate, I know you’re there.” “No, I’m not,” I said.
“You will have to deal with this sooner or later.” I shook my head. “No, I won’t.” “Call me.” Jim hung up. I turned to the door and watched Andrea walk through it. Behind her, the jellyfish squeezed through the doorway on its own. I blinked. The jellyfish kept coming. It cleared the door, turned, and I saw Curran carrying it in his hands, as if the three hundred pound mass of flesh was no heavier than a plate of pancakes.
It’s good to be the Beast Lord. “Where to?” he asked. “Back room,” Andrea said. “Here, I’ll show you.” I followed them and watched Curran pack the jellyfish into the biohazard container. He slid the lid in place, locked the clamps, and closed the distance between us. I held my slimy arms out to keep from getting him covered in ooze, leaned forward, and kissed the Beast Lord. He tasted like of toothpaste and of Curran, and the feel of his lips on mine made me forget the lousy day, the bills, the clients, the two gallons of slime drenching my clothes. The kiss had lasted only a couple of seconds, but it might as well have been an hour, because when we broke apart, it felt like I had come home, leaving all my troubles far behind. “Hey,” he said, his grey eyes smiling at me.
“Hey.” Behind him Andrea rolled her eyes. “What’s up?” I asked him. Curran almost never came to visit my office, especially not in the evening. He hated Atlanta with all the fire of a supernova. I didn’t have anything against Atlanta in theory – it was half-eroded by the magic waves and it burned a lot – but I had a thing about crowds. When my workday was over, I didn’t linger. I headed straight for the Keep, where the Atlanta shapeshifter Pack and His Furry Majesty resided. “I thought we’d go to dinner,” he said. “It’s been awhile since we’ve gone out.
” Technically we had never gone out to dinner. Oh, we had eaten together in the city but usually it was accidental and most of those times involved other people and frequently ended in a violent incident. “What’s the occasion?” Curran’s blond eyebrows came together. “Does there have to be a special occasion for me to take you out to dinner?” Yes. “No.” He leaned to me. “I missed you and I got tired of waiting for you to come home. Come grab a bite with me.” Grabbing a bite sounded heavenly, except Andrea would be stuck here by herself. “I have to wait for the Biohazard to get here to pick up the jellyfish.
” “I’ve got it,” Andrea offered. “Go, there is no use in the two of us sitting here. I have some stuff I need to take care of anyway.” I hesitated. “I can sign forms just as well as you,” Andrea informed me. “And my signature doesn’t look like scratches of a drunken chicken in the dirt.” “My signature is just fine, thank you very much.” “Yeah, yeah. Go have some fun.” “I need a shower,” I told Curran.
“I’ll see you in ten minutes.” *** *** *** It was Friday, eight o’clock on a warm spring night, my hair was brushed, my clothes were clean and slime-free, and I was going out with the Beast Lord. Curran drove. He did it very carefully, concentrating on the road. I had a feeling he learned to drive when he was older. I drove carefully too, mostly because I expected the car to fail on me at any second. I glanced at Curran in the driver seat. Even at rest, like he was now, relaxed and driving, he emanated a kind of coiled power. He was built to kill, his body a blend of hard, powerful muscle and supple quickness and something in the way he carried himself telegraphed a shocking potential for violence and an entitlement to use it. He seemed to occupy a much larger space than his body permitted and he was impossible to ignore.
This promise of violence used to scare me, so I’d bait him until some of it came out. Now I just accepted him, the way he accepted my need to sleep with a sword under my bed. Curran caught me looking. He flexed, letting the carved muscles bulge on his arms, and winked. “Hey baby.” I cracked up. “So where we’re going?” “Arirang,” Curran said. “It’s a nice Korean place, Kate. They have charcoal grills at the tables. They bring you meat and you cook it any way you want.
” Figured. Left to his own devices, Curran consumed only meat, punctuated with an occasional desert. “That’s nice for me, but what will your vegetarian Majesty eat?” Curran gave me a flat look. “I can always drive to a burger joint instead.” “Oh, so you’d throw a burger down my throat and expect making out in the back seat?” He grinned. “We can do it in the front seat instead, if you prefer. Or on the hood of the car.” “I’m not doing it on the hood of the car.” “Is that a dare?” Why me? “Kate?” “Keep your mind on the road, your Furriness.” The city rolled by, twisted by magic, battered and bruised but still standing.
The night swallowed the ruins, hiding the sad husks of once mighty, tall buildings. New houses flanked the street, constructed by hand with wood, stone and brick to withstand magic’s jaws. I rolled down the window and let the night in. It floated into the car, bringing with spring and a hint of wood smoke from a distant fire. Somewhere a lone dog barked out of boredom, each woof punctuated by a long pause, probably to see if the owners would let him in. Ten minutes later we pulled into a long empty parking lot, guarded by old office buildings that now housed Asian shops. A typical stone building with huge store-front windows sat at the very end, marked by a sign that read Arirang. “This is the place?” “Mhm,” Curran said. “I thought you said it was a Korean restaurant.” For some reason I had expected a hanok house with a curved tiled roof and a wide front porch.
“It is.” “It looks like Western Sizzlin.” In fact, it probably used to be Western Sizzlin. “Will you just trust me? It’s a nice place…” Curran braked, and the Pack Jeep screeched to a stop. Two skeletally thin vampires sat at the front of the restaurant, tethered to the horse rail with chains looped over their heads. Pale, hairless, dried like leathery jerky, the undead stared at us with mad glowing eyes. Death had robbed them of their cognizance and will, leaving behind mindless body shells driven only by bloodlust. On their own, the bloodsuckers would slaughter anything alive and keep killing until nothing breathing remained. Their empty minds made a perfect vehicle for necromancers, who telepathically navigated them like remote controlled cars. Curran glared at the undead through the windshield.
Ninety percent of the vampires belonged to the People, a weird hybrid of a corporation and a research institute. We both despised the People and everything they stood for. I couldn’t resist. “I thought you said this was a nice place.” He leaned back, gripped the steering wheel and let out a long growling, “Argh.” I chuckled. “Who the hell stops at a restaurant while navigating?” Curran squeezed the wheel a little. It made a groaning noise. I shrugged. “Maybe the navigators were hungry.
” He gave me an odd look. “This far away from the Casino means they’re out on patrol. What, did they suddenly get the munchies?” “Curran, ignore the damn bloodsuckers. Let’s go and have a date anyway.” He looked like he wanted to kill somebody. The world blinked. Magic flooded us like an invisible tsunami. The neon sign above the restaurant withered and a larger brilliant blue sign ignited above it, made from hand-blown glass and filled with charged air. I reached over and squeezed Curran’s hand. “Come on, you, me, a platter of barely seared meat, it will be great.
If we see the navigators, we can make fun of the way they hold their forks.” We got out of the car and headed inside. The bloodsuckers glanced at us in unison, their eyes like two smoldering coals buried beneath the ash of a dying fire. I felt their minds, twin hot pinpoints of pain, restrained securely by the navigators’ wills. One slip up and those coals would ignite into an all consuming flame. Vampires never knew satiation. They never got full, they never stopped killing, and if let loose, they would drown the world in blood and die of starvation when there was nothing left to kill. The chains wouldn’t hold them – the links were an eighth of an inch thick at best. A chain like that would restrain a large dog. A vamp would snap it and not even notice, but general public felt better if the bloodsuckers were chained, and so the navigators obliged.
We passed the vampires and entered the restaurant. The inside of Arirang was dim. Feylanterns glowed with soft light on the walls, as the charged air inside their colored glass tubes reacted with magic. Each feylantern had been hand-blown into a beautiful shape: a bright blue dragon, an emerald tortoise, a purple fish, a turquoise stocky dog with a unicorn horn… Booths lined the walls, their tables plain rectangles of wood. In the center of the floor four larger round tables sported built-in charcoal grills under metal hoods. The restaurant was about half full. The two booths to our right were occupied, the first by a young couple, a dark-haired man and a blond woman in their twenties, and the second by two middle-aged men. The younger couple chatted quietly. Good clothes, relaxed, casual, well groomed. Ten to one these were the navigators who had parked the bloodsuckers out front.
The Casino had seven Masters of the Dead and I knew them by sight. I didn’t recognize either the man or the woman. Either these two were visiting from out of town or they were upper level journeymen. Both of the older guys in the next booth were armed. The closer one carried a short sword, which he put on the seat next to him. As his friend reached for the salt shaker, his sweatshirt hugged the gun in his side holster. Past the men in the far right corner, four women in their thirties laughed too loud – probably tipsy. On the other side a family with two teenage daughters cooked their food on the grill. The older girl looked a bit like Julie, my ward. Two business women, another family with a toddler, and an older couple rounded off the patrons.
No threats. The air swirled with delicious aroma of meat seared over open fire, cooked garlic, and sweet spice. My mouth watered. I hadn’t eaten since grabbing some bread this morning from a street vendor. My stomach actually hurt. A waiter in a plain black pants and a black T-shirt led us to a table in the middle of the floor. Curran and I took chairs opposite one another – I could see the back door and he had a nice view of the front entrance. We ordered hot tea. Thirty seconds later it arrived with a plate of pot stickers. “Hungry?” Curran asked.
“Starving.” “Combination platter for four,” Curran ordered. His hungry and my hungry were two different things. The waiter departed. Curran smiled. It was a happy genuine smile and it catapulted him from attractive into irresistible territory. He didn’t smile very often in public. That intimate smile was usually reserved for private moments when we were alone. I reached over, pulled the band off my still damp braid, and slid my fingers through it, unraveling the hair. Curran’s gaze snagged on my hands.
He focused on my fingers like a cat on a piece of foil pulled by a string. I shook my head and my hair fell over my shoulders in a long dark wave. There we go. Now we were both private in public. Tiny gold sparks danced in Curran’s grey irises. He was thinking dirty thoughts and the wicked edge in his smile made me want to slide next to him and touch him. We had to wait. I was pretty sure that having hot sex on the floor of Arirang would get us banned for life. Then again, it might be worth it. I raised my tea in a salute.
“To our date.” He raised his cup and we clinked them gently against each other. “So how was your day?” he asked. “First, I chased a giant jellyfish around through some suburbs. Then I argued with Biohazard about coming and picking it up, because they claimed it was a Fish and Game issue. Then I called Fish and Game and conferenced them in on the Biohazard call, and then I got to listen to the two of them argue and call each other names. They got really creative.” “Then Jim called,” Curran said. I grimaced. “Yes.
That too.” “Is there a particular reason you’re avoiding our chief of security?” Curran asked. “Do you remember how my aunt killed the head of the Mercenary Guild?” “Not something one forgets,” he said. “They’re still squabbling over who will be in charge.” Curran glanced at me. “That was what, five months ago?” “My point exactly. On one side there are the older mercs, who have experience. On the other side there is the support staff. Both groups have roughly an equal share of the Guild as a result of Solomon’s will and they hate each other. It’s getting into death threat territory, so they’re having some sort of final arbitration to decide who’s in charge.
” “Except they are deadlocked,” Curran guessed. “Yes, they are. Apparently Jim thinks that I’m supposed to break that tie.” The Guild’s now dead founder was a closet shapeshifter. He left twenty percent of the Guild to the Pack. As long as the Mercenary Guild remained deadlocked, nobody was getting paid and the Pack alphas wanted that income stream to start flowing again. They put pressure on Jim, and Jim put pressure on me. I did enough years in the Guild to be viewed as a veteran. Jim did enough years just as well, but unlike me, he had the luxury of keeping his identity semi-private. Most mercs didn’t know he was high up in the Pack.
I had no privacy. I was the Pack Consort. It was the price I paid for being with Curran, but I didn’t have to like it. His Majesty drank his tea. “Not looking forward to settling the dispute?” “I’d rather eat dirt. It’s between Mark and the veterans led by the Four Horsemen, and they despise each other. They aren’t interested in reaching a consensus. They just want to throw mud at each other over a conference table.” An evil light sparked in his eyes. “You could always go for Plan B.
” “Pound everyone to a bloody pulp until they shut up and cooperate?” “Exactly.” It would make me feel better. “I could always do it your way instead.” Curran raised his blond eyebrows. “Roar until everyone pees themselves.” A shadow of self-satisfaction flickered on his face and vanished, replaced by innocence. “That’s bullshit. I’m perfectly reasonable and I almost never roar. I don’t even remember what it feels like to knock some heads together.” The Beast Lord of Atlanta, a gentle and enlightened monarch.
“How progressive of you, Your Majesty.” He cracked another grin. The male necromancer in the booth next to us reached under the table and produced a rectangular rosewood box. Ten to one, there was some sort of jewelry inside. I nodded at Curran. “Your turn. How did your day go?” “It was busy and full of stupid shit I didn’t want to deal with.” The blond woman opened the box. Her eyes lit up.