Wildfire – Ilona Andrews

When life hits you in the gut, it’s always a sucker punch. You never see it coming. One moment you’re walking along, worrying your little worries and making quiet plans, and the next you’re rolled into a ball, trying to hug yourself against the pain, frantic and reeling, your mind a jumble of scared thoughts. A Christmas wreath hung on our door. I paused with my hand above the lock’s keypad. That’s right. Today was Christmas. This morning I was at a mountain lodge playing in the snow with the most dangerous man in Houston. Then Rogan’s surveillance expert texted him, and now here I stood, six hours later, my hair a mess, my clothes rumpled from being under a heavy jacket, in front of the warehouse that served as my family’s home. I would have to go inside and break the ugly news, and nobody would like what was going to happen next. With everything that had happened, we had agreed not to exchange gifts this year. Not only had I missed Christmas Eve, but I was about to deliver one hell of a terrible present. The main thing was not to panic. If I panicked, my sisters and my cousins would panic too. And my mother would do her best to talk me out of the only logical solution to our crisis.

I’d managed to keep a lid on my emotions all the way from the lodge to the airport, during the flight on the private jet, and through the helicopter ride from the plane to the landing pad four blocks away. But now all my fears and stress were boiling over. I took a deep breath. Around me the street was busy. Not as busy as it had been a few days ago, when I was helping Cornelius Harrison, an animal mage and now an employee of the Baylor Investigative Agency, find out who murdered his wife, Nari, but still busy. Rogan’s views on security were rather draconian. He was in love with me, and had decided that my home wasn’t assault-proof, and so he’d bought two square miles of industrial real estate around our warehouse and turned it into his own private military base. Everyone wore civilian clothes, but they weren’t fooling anyone. Rogan’s people had all gone through armed forces in one way or another, and they didn’t wander or stroll. They moved from point A to point B with a definite goal in mind.

They kept their clothes clean, their hair short, and they called Rogan Major. When we made love, I called him Connor. A dry popping sound came from the street. The memory of snapping David Howling’s neck gripped me. I heard the crunch his bones made as I twisted his head to the side. In my mind, I saw him fall as I let go, and panic drowned me. I let it wash over me and waited for it to recede. Finding Nari’s killer had been an ugly and brutal mess, and at the end I watched Olivia Charles, the woman who had murdered her, be eaten alive by a swarm of rats as Cornelius sang, mourning his wife. I relived her death in my dreams almost every night. I didn’t want to walk back into the world.

I just . I just wanted a little bit more time. I made myself look in the direction of the sound. An ex-soldier was coming my way, in his forties, with a scarred face, leading an enormous grizzly bear on a very thin leash. The bear wore a harness that read Sergeant Teddy. The ex-soldier stretched his left arm and twisted, as if trying to slide the bones back in place. Another dry crunch, sending a fresh jolt of alarm through me. Probably an old injury. The bear stopped and looked at me. “Be polite,” the soldier told him.

“Don’t worry. He just wants to say hi.” “I don’t mind.” I stepped closer to the bear. The massive beast leaned over to me and smelled my hair. “Can I pet him?” The soldier looked at Sergeant Teddy. The bear made a low short noise. “He says you can.” I reached over and carefully petted the big shaggy neck. “What’s his story?” “Someone thought it would be a good idea to make very smart magic bears and use them in combat,” the ex-soldier said.

“Problem is, once you make someone smart, they become self-aware and call you on your bullshit. Sergeant Teddy is a pacifist. The leash is just for show so people don’t freak out. Major bought him a couple of years ago. Major is of the opinion that fighting in a war shouldn’t be forced on those who are morally opposed to it, human or bear.” “But you’re still here,” I told the bear. He snorted and looked at me with chocolate-brown eyes. “We offered him a very nice private property up in Alaska,” the ex-soldier said. “But he doesn’t like it. He says he gets bored.

He mostly hangs out with us, eats cereal that’s bad for him, and watches cartoons on Saturdays. And movies. He loves The Jungle Book.” I waited for the familiar buzz of my magic that told me he was pulling my leg, but none came. Sergeant Teddy rose on his hind legs, blocking out the sun, and put his shaggy front paws around me. My face pressed into fur. I hugged him back. We stood for a moment, then the grizzly dropped down and proceeded on his walk, his leash dangling on the ground. I looked at the ex-soldier. “He must’ve felt you needed a hug,” he said.

“He stays in HQ most of the time, so you can come and visit him.” “I will,” I told him. The ex-soldier nodded and followed the bear. I punched my code into the lock. I had been hugged by a giant, superintelligent, pacifist bear. I could do this. I could do anything. I just had to walk in and call for a family meeting. It was almost dinnertime anyway. On a Sunday, everyone would be home.

I opened the door and walked into the small office space that housed Baylor Investigative Agency. A short hallway, three offices on the left, and a break room and conference room on the right. The temptation to hide in my office almost made me stop, but I kept going, through the hallway, to the other door that opened into the roughly three-thousand-square-foot space that served as our home. When we sold our house trying to raise money for my father’s hospital bills, we moved our family into the warehouse to cut costs. We’d split the floor space into three distinct sections: the office, the living space, and beyond it, past a very tall wall, Grandma Frida’s motor pool, where she worked on armored vehicles and mobile artillery for Houston’s magical elite. I took off my shoes and marched through the maze of rooms. Garlands hung on the walls. My sisters had been busy decorating. Faint voices came from the kitchen. Mom .

Grandma. Good. This would save me time. I walked past a big Christmas tree set up in the hang-out room, stepped into the kitchen, and froze. My mother and grandmother sat at our table. A young woman sat next to my grandmother. She was willowy and beautiful, with a heart-shaped face framed in waves of gorgeous red hair and eyes so grey, they looked silver. Ice gripped my spine. Rynda Charles. Rogan’s ex-fiancée.

Olivia’s daughter. “Do you remember me?” she asked. Her voice was breaking. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face so pale, her lips seemed almost white. “You killed my mother.” Somehow my mouth made words. “What are you doing here?” Rynda wiped the tears from her eyes and stared at me, her face desperate. “I need your help.” I opened my mouth. Nothing came out.

Mom made big eyes at me and nodded toward the table. I dropped my bag on the floor and sat. “Drink your tea.” Grandma Frida pushed a steaming mug toward Rynda. Rynda picked it up and drank it, but her gaze was fixed on me. The desperation in her eyes turned to near panic. Right. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath from the stomach all the way up, held it, and let it out slowly. One . two .

Calm . calm . “Nevada?” Grandma Frida asked. “She’s an empath Prime,” I said. “I’m upset, so it’s affecting her.” Rynda gave a short laugh, and I heard Olivia Charles in her voice. “Oh, that’s rich.” Five . six . Breathe in, breathe out .

Ten. Good enough. I opened my eyes and looked at Rynda. I had to keep my voice and my emotions under control. “Your mother killed an entire crew of Rogan’s soldiers and four lawyers, including two women your age. It was an unprovoked slaughter. Their husbands are now widowers and their children are motherless because of her.” “A person is never just one thing,” Rynda said, putting the mug down. “To you she might have been a monster, but to me she was my mother. She was a wonderful grandmother to my children.

She loved them so much. My mother-in-law doesn’t care for them. They have no grandparents now.” “I’m sorry for your and their loss. I regret that things went the way they did. But it was a justified kill.” Dear God, I sounded like my mother. “I don’t even know how she died.” Rynda clenched her hands into a single fist. “They only gave me back her bones.

How did my mother die, Nevada?” I took a deep breath. “It wasn’t an easy or a quick death.” “I deserve to know.” There was steel in her voice. “Tell me.” “No. You said you needed my help. Something terrible must’ve happened. Let’s talk about that.” Her hand shook, and the mug danced a little as she brought it to her lips.

She took another swallow of her tea. “My husband is missing.” Okay. Missing husband. Familiar territory. “When was the last time you saw . ” Rogan had said his name one time, what was it? “. Brian?” “Three days ago. He went to work on Thursday and didn’t come back. He doesn’t answer his phone.

Brian likes his routine. He’s always home by dinner. It’s Christmas Day. He wouldn’t miss it.” A note of hysteria crept into her voice. “I know what you’ll ask: does he have a mistress, did we have a good marriage, does he disappear on drunken binges? No. No, he doesn’t. He takes care of me and the kids. He comes home!” She must’ve spoken to the Houston PD. “Did you fill out a missing person report?” “Yes.

They’re not going to look for him.” Her voice turned bitter. She was getting more agitated by the minute. “He’s a Prime. It’s House business. Except House Sherwood is convinced that Brian is okay and he’s just taking a break. Nobody is looking for him, except me. Nobody is returning my calls. Even Rogan refuses to see me.” That didn’t sound right.

Rogan would never turn her away, even if I pitched a huge fit about it. I’d watched the two of them talking before. He liked her and he cared about her. “What did Rogan say exactly?” “I came to him on Friday. His people told me he was out. He was out on Saturday too. I asked to wait, and they told me it was a waste of time. They didn’t know when he would be back. I may be naive, but I’m not an idiot. I know what that means.

Two weeks ago, I had friends. I had my mother’s friends, powerful, respected, and always so eager to do Olivia Charles a favor. Two weeks ago, one phone call and half of the city would be out looking for Brian. They would be putting pressure on the police, on the mayor, on the Texas Rangers. But now, everyone is out. Everyone is too busy to see me. There is an invisible wall around me. No matter how loud I scream, nobody can hear me. People just nod and offer platitudes.” “He didn’t stonewall you,” I said.

“He was out of state. With me.” She stopped. “You’re together?” There was no point in lying. “Yes.” “The thing with my mother, it wasn’t just a job for you?” “No. She killed the wife of a man I consider a friend. He works here now.” Rynda put her hand over her mouth. Silence fell, heavy and tense.

“I shouldn’t have come here,” she said. “I’ll get the children and go.” “That’s right,” Grandma Frida said. “No,” Mom said. I knew that voice. That was Sergeant Mom voice. Rynda knew that voice too, because she sat up straighter. Olivia Charles was never in the military, but three minutes of talking to her had told me that she had ruled her household with an iron fist and had a very low tolerance for nonsense. “You’re here now,” Mom said. “You came to us for help, because you had nowhere to turn and because you’re scared for your husband and your children.

You came to the right place. Nevada is very good at tracking missing people. Either she’ll help you, or she will recommend someone who will.” Grandma Frida turned and looked at Mom as if she had sprouted a pineapple on her head. “Right,” I said. I may not have personally murdered Rynda’s mother, but I made that death possible. And now she was a pariah, alone and scared. She had lost her mother, her husband, and all of the people she thought were her friends. I had to help her. I had to at least get her started in the right direction.

“Can I talk to the two of you for a damn minute?” Grandma Frida growled. “One moment,” I told Rynda and got up. Grandma grabbed my arm with one hand, grabbed Mom’s wrist with her other hand, and dragged us down the hallway all the way to the end, as far from the kitchen as we could get. “Children?” I glanced at Mom. “Your sisters are watching them. A boy and a girl.” “Have the two of you lost your damn minds?” Grandma Frida hissed. “She isn’t lying,” I said. “Her husband is really gone.” “I expect that of her!” Grandma Frida pointed at me with her thumb, while glaring at my mother.

“But you ought to know better, Penelope.” “That woman is at the end of her rope,” Mom said. “How much do you think it cost her to come here? This is what we do. We help people like her.” “Exactly!” Grandma Frida hissed. “She’s at the end of her rope. She’s beautiful, rich, helpless, and she’s desperately looking for someone to save her. And she’s Rogan’s ex-fiancée. There is no way Rogan and Rynda won’t be spending time together if Nevada takes this case.” I stared at her.

“She’s a man magnet.” Grandma Frida balled her hands into fists. “They eat that helpless rescueme crap up. Her husband has been gone for three days. If he hasn’t run off, he’s probably dead. She’ll need consoling. She’ll be looking for a shoulder to cry on, a big strong shoulder. Do I need to spell it out? You’re about to serve your boyfriend to her on a silver platter!” Rynda was very beautiful and very helpless. I wanted to help her. I knew Rogan would too.

“It’s not like that. He broke off their engagement.” Grandma Frida shook her head. “You told me they knew each other for years, since they were little kids. That kind of thing doesn’t just go away. Rogan’s people know it too; that’s why they didn’t give her any information. You’re playing with fire, Nevada. Cut her loose. Let somebody else take care of her. She’s a Prime.

She’s rich. She isn’t your problem, unless you make her your problem.” I looked at Mom. “Third rule,” she said. When Dad and Mom started the agency, they had only three rules: first, once we were paid, we stayed bought; second, we did everything we could to not break the law; and third, at the end of the day, we had to be able to look our reflection in the eye. I could live with Olivia’s death. I had nightmares about it, but it was justified. Throwing Rynda out now, when she sat at our kitchen table, was beyond me. Where would she go? “If Rynda’s crying will make Rogan break up with me, then our relationship wouldn’t last anyway.” Most of me believed the words that came out of my mouth, but a small, petty part didn’t.

That was okay. I was human, and I was entitled to a little bit of insecurity. But I was damned if I let it dictate my actions. “Thank you, Grandma, but I’ve got it.” Grandma Frida threw her hands up in disgust. “When your heart breaks, don’t come crying to me.” “I will anyway.” I hugged her. “Egh . ” She made a show of trying to knock me off, then hugged me back.

I opened the door to the office and started down the hallway toward my desk and laptop that waited on it. “It’s James,” Grandma Frida said mournfully behind me. “He ruined all of my practical grandchildren with his altruism.” Mom didn’t answer. Dad had been dead seven years, but hearing his name still hurt her. It still hurt me. I grabbed the laptop, a notepad, and the new client folder just in case, walked back into the kitchen, sat down at the table, and opened my laptop. A few keystrokes told me Bern was home and online. I fired off a quick email. Please send me the basics on Brian Sherwood ASAP.

I set the laptop aside and switched to the writing pad and a pen. People minded notes on paper a lot less than a laptop or being recorded, and I needed Rynda to relax. She was already keyed up. “Let’s start at the beginning.” “You don’t like me,” Rynda said. “I felt it back when we first met in the ballroom. You were jealous of me.” “Yes.” That’s what I get for deciding to take on an empath as a client. “And when you walked in and saw me, you felt pity and fear.

” “Yes.” “But you are going to help me anyway. Why? It’s not guilt. Guilt is like plunging into a dark well. I would’ve felt that.” “You tell me.” Her eyes narrowed. Magic brushed me, feather-light. “Compassion,” she said quietly. “And duty.

Why would you feel a sense of duty toward me?” “Have you ever held a job?” She frowned. “No. We don’t need the extra money.” That must be nice. “Do you have any hobbies? Any passions?” “I . make sculptures.” “Do you sell them?” “No. They’re nothing spectacular. I’ve never participated in any exhibits.” “Then why do you keep making them?” She blinked.

“It makes me happy.”


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