Magic Bites Chapter 7

SLAYER LAY IN ITS SHEATH ACROSS A NIGHT TABLE, next to a man reading an ancient paperback. On the cover of the book a man in a brown suit and fedora held an unconscious blonde in a white dress. I tried to focus on the title but the white letters blurred.

The man reading the book wore blue scrubs. He had cut the pantlegs midway down his thighs, and faded blue jeans showed below the blue fabric. I crooked my neck so I could see his feet. Big heavy work boots caught the jeans.

I leaned back onto the pillow. My father had been right: there was Heaven and it was in the South.

The man lowered the book and glanced at me. Of average height and stocky, he had dark skin, glossy with an ebony sheen, and graying black hair, cut military style. The eyes peering at me through the thin-framed glasses were at once intelligent and brimming with humor as if someone had just told him an off-color joke and he was trying his best not to laugh.

"Lovely morning, isn't it?" he said, the unmistakable harmonies of coastal Georgia vibrating in his voice.

"Shouldn't it be 'aint it'?" I said. My voice sounded weak.

"Only if you are an uneducated fool," the man said. "Or if you wish to appear country. And I'm too old to appear anything that I'm not."

He moved by my side and took my wrist in his hands. His lips stirred, counting the heartbeats, then his fingers lightly touched my stomach. Pain lanced through me. I flinched and drew a sharp breath.

"On a scale from one to ten, how much does it hurt?" he asked, his fingers probing my shoulder.

I grimaced. "About five."

He rolled his eyes. "Lord, help me. I have another hard case on my hands."

He jutted something on a yellow legal pad. We were in a small room, with cream colored walls and a paneled ceiling. Two large windows spilled sunlight onto the floor and light blue sheets covered my legs.

The man put down his pen. "Now, whoever told you, little lady, that you can slap on an r-kit and charge right down the mountain into the battle, needs a good wallop. Anything magic hits it and the damn thing will go screwy on you every time."

"Screwy," I said. "Is that a medical term?"

"Of course. Follow the finger with your eyes, please. No turning the head now."

He moved his left index finger around and I followed it with my eyes.

"Very good," he said. "Count backward from twenty five."

I did and he nodded, satisfied.

"It appears, mind you, only appears, that you've avoided a concussion."

"Who are you?"

"You may call me Dr. Doolittle," he said. "I've sailed through the night and day, in and out of weeks, to where the wild things are and now I'm their private physician."

"That was Max." The pain twisted my hip and I groaned. "Not Dr. Doolittle."

"Ah," he said, "what a pleasure to meet an educated mind."

I stared at him for a moment, but he just laughed at me with his eyes.

"Where are we?"

"In the Pack keep."

"How did I get here?"

"You were carried."

I felt an urge to rub my forehead and found an IV dangling from my arm.

"Who carried me here?"

"That's an easy one. His Majesty carried you out of the building, then you were slung over Mahon's back and brought to my doorway."

"How did Curran get a hold of me in the first place?"

"From what I understand, he leaped through some sort of a fire, grabbed you, and leaped back out. Which accounts for his third degree burns. Curiously, there are no burns on you. A mangled hip, some severe injuries to the stomach, massive blood loss, but no burns. Now why is that?"

"I'm special," I told him.

Curran had gone through the bloodward fire. Twice. To get me. Idiot.

"You won't tell me."


"That's gratitude for you," he sighed with mock sadness. "After you were brought here, I spent roughly four hours repairing your body, most of which" - he glared - "were spent on fixing your stomach."

"Third degree burns," I said.

"Yes. You haven't heard a word I said."

"I heard everything: four hours, stomach, hip, blood loss. You didn't do a blood transfusion, did you?" There was no telling what the magic in my blood would do to foreign plasma.

"Heaven forbid. I do believe you think me to be an amateur."

He ended "amateur" with a "tuar."

"What about bandages?"

He shook his head. "I've sworn a medmage oath, my lady, and I have yet to breach it. Your bloody bandages, clothes, and all such were incinerated personally by me."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"A third degree burn means that all the layers of skin are burned," I said.

"That's right." Dr. Doolittle nodded. "It looks bad but it feels much worse."

"On a scale of one to ten?"

"About eleven."

I closed my eyes.

"Our lord developed a lovely golden crust," Doolittle's soft voice said. "I do believe he could have gotten a part in an old-fashioned horror picture. He's quite comfortable now, floating, I imagine."


"I prescribed the tank. It's an oversized aquarium, filled with a certain solution yours truly developed in his youth. If His Majesty were an ordinary person, the only way to restore his epithelium would be through grafting. Since he's not an ordinary person, he will float in the tank for a few days and then come out with new skin. His shoulder will take longer. Which reminds me." He rose, walked to the door and stuck his head out. "Tell the Bear our guest is awake."

He returned and rummaged through the vials on the table.

"Shoulder?" I asked.

"I gather a small piece of a ceiling had the misfortune to land on him. Crushed his left shoulder blade."

He turned, a syringe in his hand.

"No," I said firmly.

"The tech hit twenty minutes after I was done with you," he said. "You're in pain and I'm goin' to give you an old-fashioned pain killer."

"No, you won't."

"This is Demerol. It's quite mild."

"No. I don't like Demerol. It makes me light-headed." It's not enough I was weak and in the middle of the Pack compound, now he wanted to mess with my head, too.

"Nonsense. Be a good girl and take your medicine." He stepped forward.

"You come near me with that needle," I said, putting as much malice into my voice as I could muster, "and I'll shove it up your ass."

He laughed. "Precisely the thing Jennifer said when I tried to put stitches on the cut across her buttock. Luckily for me, I don't have to stick you with this needle."

He showed me the empty syringe. I blinked and felt a rush of soothing cool. He must have squirted the bloody Demerol into my IV. Asshole.

I closed my eyes. I felt light-headed and tired. And I still hurt.

Heavy footsteps echoed through the room. I had a visitor and there was only one shapechanger that didn't bother to move like an assassin.

I opened my eyes and saw Mahon nod to the good doctor and say in his deep, quiet voice, "Well done."

Mahon approached, pulled up a chair, and sat next to me, his massive forearms leaning on his legs. His huge back stretched the black fabric of an oversized T-shirt, but despite barely fitting him in the shoulders, the shirt was a foot too long. The shapechangers had a fondness for sweats, and Mahon was wearing gray sweatpants and no socks. His hairy feet rested on the sun-warmed floor.

His brown eyes met my gaze. "The Pack appreciates your sacrifice."

"There was no sacrifice. I'm alive." And Curran is burned to charcoaly crispness.

He shook his head. "The sacrifice was intended and we're grateful. You have earned the trust and friendship of the Pack. You may visit us when you wish. You may ask us for help in a time of need, and we'll do our best to aid you. It's no small thing, Kate."

I probably should have said something formal and flowery, but Demerol kept tangling my thoughts. I patted his big hand and mumbled, "Thanks."

Mahon's eyes were warm. "You're welcome."

IT WAS FRIDAY AND I WAS WALKING. DRESSED IN matching gray sweats and sneakers that were too wide, both courtesy of the Pack, I conquered the hallway at a slow but persistent pace. I was dizzy and had to fight off the urge to spin right, which would have rammed my head into the wall.

Doolittle's wizardry had doused the pain in my stomach, muting it to a dull ache that gnawed on me when I bent the wrong way. He promised minimal scarring on the abdomen and I believed him. My thigh wasn't so lucky. The vamp had bitten off a chunk of flesh, and despite Doolittle's efforts, I'd carry a reminder for the rest of my days. I didn't care. I was grateful I had any days left.

The hallway opened into a wide room the size of a large gym. Assorted devices filled it, positioned with care on the stone floor, some born of technology, others of magic, and a few convoluted hybrids of both.

A wiry, medium-sized woman about my age sat on a padded square cot by the door. The cot resembled an oversized dog bed. The woman munched on saltine crackers. Probably a wererat. They ate constantly.

The woman glanced at me through a cascade of tiny dark braids. A wooden bead secured each braid.

"Yeah?" she said.


"I have an appointment," I told her.

"So?" she said.

I shrugged and walked past her. She didn't stop me.

The tank sat near the left wall, half-hidden by a large slab of stone on which someone had written cabalistic symbols in chalk. The symbols looked to be bullshit: a misshapen veve that should have been drawn in red; two Egyptian symbols, one for Nile and the other for Canopus; and something vaguely resembling the Japanese symbol for dragon.

I skirted this waste of space and approached the tank. Eight feet tall, it was cubical in shape. Its glass walls contained an opaque greenish liquid and I could make out dim contours of a human shape hanging motionless in the green water.

I knocked on the glass. The body moved and Curran surfaced with a splash. He took the oxygen mask from his mouth and held on to the edge of the tank for support, which resulted in the rest of him pressing against the glass. Just what I needed. Pasty Beast Lord in all his nude glory against the backdrop of swamp water.

His new skin was very pale. The thick blond hair of his scalp and eyebrows was now barely longer than morning stubble.

"Thank you," I said, keeping my gaze fixed on his face.

"You're welcome."

Feeling awkward, I fought an urge to shift from foot to foot. "I'm leaving."


"After I talk to you."

"Doolittle's released you?"

The memory of the aging doctor glaring at me in outrage popped into my head. "He didn't have much choice."

"You can stay if you need to." Curran wiped the moisture dripping from his chin.

"No thanks. I appreciate it and all, but it's time to go."

"Places to go, people to meet?"

"Something like that."

"Sure you don't want to join me in the tank? The water is fine."

I blinked, at a loss for words. Curran laughed, clearly enjoying every second.

"Ahh, no," I managed.

"You don't know what you're missing."

Was he coming on to me or just messing with me? Probably the latter. Well, then, two could play that game. I looked pointedly at his midsection. "No thanks," I said. "I know exactly what I'm missing."

He grinned.

I said, "I've come to talk about Derek."

Curran managed to shrug while still holding on to the wall. "I've released him from his blood oath."

"I know. He insists on tagging along and I don't want him to. I tried to explain that I do dangerous work for little money and that being in my vicinity is bad for his health."

"What did he say?"

"He said, 'Yeah, but will I get chicks? In truckloads?'"

Curran laughed, submerging like a dolphin, and surfaced again. "I'll talk to him."

"Could you do it sooner rather than later? He thinks he's going to drive me home."

"Alright. Tell Mila at the door to send him to me."


I turned.

"How did you get through the fire?" he asked.

Oh crap. "It wasn't fully up," I said. "Dumb luck. Couldn't get out of it though. I guess she was hell bent on bringing that ceiling down on my head."

"I see," Curran said. I couldn't tell if he believed me or not.

I turned around and made a little mocking bow that made my stomach hurt. "Would there be anything else, Your Majesty?"

He waved me off with a flick of his wrist. "Dismissed."

Curran was too dangerous to know. Too powerful, too unpredictable, and worst of all, possessing an innate ability to infuriate me, throwing me off balance.

Hopefully our paths would not cross again.

A young wolf whose name I didn't know drove me to Greg's apartment. I thanked him and walked up the stairs to find a white stain of a note pinned to my door. It said, "Kate, I tried to call but you didn't answer. I hope we're still on for tonight. I've made a reservation at Fernando's for six o'clock. Crest." I tore the note off the door, crumpling it, and tossed it aside. The wards shimmered shut. The sturdy door separated me from the rest of the world, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Kicking off the Pack's sneakers, I crawled into the bed, and fell asleep.

WHEN I AWOKE, LATE AFTERNOON WAS SLOWLY burning down to evening. I felt drained and uneasy, unsettled, as if I'd missed an important deadline. Searching my brain for the causes of my rotten mood produced no results and I felt worse.

I lay in bed and looked at the ceiling, considering calling Crest and telling him to forget it. That would be the sensible thing to do. Unfortunately, sensibility was not among my virtues. To miss the date was somehow equivalent to giving up without trying.

I shambled to the bathroom and washed my face with cold water. It didn't help.

There was only one dress I could wear to Fernando's, both because it was the only formal dress I owned and because it was the only dress hanging in Greg's guest closet. I had worn it to a formal function he had dragged me to in November, where I had spent two hours listening to people who loved hearing themselves orate.

I took the dress from the closet and dropped it onto the bed, then went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of water. I had lost a lot of blood. I forced one glass down, refilled it and came back, sipping the water. The dress lay on the sheets, bathed in the last rays of the tired sun. Of a simple cut, it had an unusual color, a nameless shade somewhere on crossroads between peach, khaki, and brass. Anna had picked it out for me. I remembered her going through the dresses hanging on wire hangers, briskly sliding them out of the way one by one, while an impossibly thin saleswoman watched in distress. "You don't need thinning," Anna had explained, "or padding. What you need is softening, which is a touch more complicated but can be done with the right dress. Lucky for us, you have the right complexion for the color. It will make you look darker, which in itself isn't a bad thing."

I looked at the dress and recalled the unsettling feeling of not recognizing myself when I put it on. I was proportionate, even lean, but not slender. Most women don't bulk easily, but if I flexed my arm, I could see definition. No matter how hard I tried to lose weight or become thinner, all I managed to do was to wind more muscle on my frame, so I'd quit trying to match the willowy standard of beauty when I was fourteen years old. Survival took precedence over fashion. Sure, I didn't weigh a hundred and ten pounds, but my narrow waist let me bend and I could break a man's neck with my kick.

This dress camouflaged the muscle, tricking the eye into seeing soft flesh where there was none. The trouble was, I wasn't sure I wanted to wear it today for Crest.

I touched the soft fabric and wished Anna would call.

The phone rang.

I picked it up and heard Anna's voice say, "Hello."

"How do you do that?"

"What? Calling when you want to talk to me?" She sounded amused.


"Most clairvoyants are slightly emphatic, Kate. The empathy with the person serves as a bridge for the things we do. I've known you for a very long time - I remember when you were learning to walk - and I've formed a permanent bond. Think of it as being tuned to a certain radio station that's off-line most of the time."

I sipped my water. I knew she wouldn't mention the vision, unless I asked her about it and I didn't feel like asking.

"How's the investigation?"

"I've found Greg's killer."

"Aha. What did you do to him?"

"Her. I disemboweled her and then crushed her heart."

"Lovely. What did she do to you?"

"I'll have a scar on my upper thigh and my stomach is still healing. But at least I had a professional medic this time."

Anna sighed. "I suppose it's not too bad for one of your outings. Are you satisfied?"

I opened my mouth to tell her yes and stopped. The cause for my unease became clear.


"No, I'm not satisfied." I told her about Olathe and her pre-Shift vampires. "Too many loose ends," I said. "One, I'm still not sure who killed Greg. I'd thought it could be one of her vamps, but that doesn't explain the animal power prints on the m-scanner and I saw no animals during the fight."

"There is no way to check now?"

"No. The building is kaput. Two, where are the missing women and why were they kidnapped?"

"As food for the vampires?" Anna ventured.

"Four women wouldn't have sustained her stable for more than a day. Why didn't she grab more?"

"I don't know."

I sipped my water. "Neither do I. And the enemy in your vision was male. There is more, but I can't remember right now. I have this awful feeling that I've overlooked something. Something ridiculously obvious."

I fell silent. Anna waited on the line.

"Anyhow," I said finally. "I'll have to wait until my brain sorts this out."

"Ah," Anna said. "Is there something more pressing?"

"A handsome plastic surgeon expects me at Fernando's at six."

"Aha. Did you happen to mention that you abhor Fernando's?"

"No," I said. "But I expected him to figure it out. Formal dining isn't me, Anna."

"Understatement of the year," Anna murmured. "Is he fun?"


"The plastic surgeon. Is he fun? Does he make you laugh?"

"He tries," I said.

"Doesn't sound like he's successful."

"I think I may have tried to force this thing too hard," I said.

"Which part? Intimacy or sex?"

"I suppose both." For me casual sex was an oxymoron. Sex placed me in a position of vulnerability and there was nothing casual about that. I never slept with a man I didn't trust and admire. I didn't know enough about Crest to either admire or trust him, yet I had wanted to get him into the sack. I had paraded naked in front of him, for God's sake. "It bothers me. I think it has something to do with Greg's death."

There was silence on the line. Finally Anna's voice murmured, "Lo and behold, a chip in your armor."

"I intend to repair it tonight."

"You're a maximalist, Kate. All or nothing. Perhaps he deserves a chance."

"I didn't mean that I would break it off. I'll just reassess the situation. I'll try to see if he is fun."

Anna sighed. "Will you wear the dress we bought that time?"


"A word of advice," she said. "Let your hair down."

I WALKED INTO FERNANDO'S WITH MY HAIR DOWN. It fell to below my waist, framing my face and softening the edges. With makeup on my face, a dress and matching heels, at least I looked like the kind of woman that would be eating at Fernando's. The heels made my hip hurt.

I gave my name to an impeccably dressed host and he led me deeper into the restaurant. My shoes made faint clicking noises on the marble floor as we walked past the round tables draped with crisp white tablecloths. Men in expensive suits and well-groomed women wearing gowns worth more than I made in a month conversed at the tables, eating at their leisure. Several vines heavy with pungent white flowers grew from ceramic urns. Someone had taken a lot of care in arranging their stems on the walls with artful precision.

I hated this place.

Crest sat at a corner table, studying the menu. He looked glum. He glanced up, saw me, and froze. It was shallow but the dumb look on his face made me feel better. Beautiful I would never be. Striking, that I could manage.

Moving with the grace of a dancer, the host held the chair for me. I thanked him - which was probably against the rules - and sat. Crest stared at me.

"Have we met?" I asked.

"I think so," he said. "You look different."

It was time to break the illusion. "Different? Amazing, radiant, gorgeous, any of those might get you laid, but I don't know about different."

It worked. He stopped staring. "I didn't think you were coming."

"Work," I said. "Besides, since I've tortured you with Las Colimas, the least I could do is let you return the favor."

"You don't like it here?"

No. The atmosphere is stuffy, the food is bad, and the only thing I can afford is a bowl of grits. Do they even serve grits here? I shrugged. "It's not too bad. Do you come here often?"

"Every three weeks or so."

Oh boy.

The waiter showed up and engaged Crest in conversation that I didn't understand and didn't listen to. I watched the patrons until the waiter murmured the code words, "And the lady?"

"What salads do you serve?"

I ordered a twenty-two-dollar salad and the waiter departed.

"No main course?" Crest asked.

"Not today."

A silence reined. Crest seemed content to gaze at me while I had no idea what to do with myself.

"You look stunning," he said finally. "So different."

"It's an illusion," I told him. "I'm still me."

"I know."

He smiled. By the way he looked at me, I knew he was wondering what I would be like in bed. Why wasn't I wondering the same thing about him? He did cut a nice figure in the dark suit. A few women overtly glanced at him.

I caught a man looking at me from a table nearby. I suppose I should've been flattered.

"So how's work?" I finally said to say something.

"I'm thinking of leaving the practice," he said.


"I'd like to spend more time studying Lyc-V," he said. "I think it's fascinating, particularly how the very structure of bones changes under the influence of magic. To develop that ability further would mean incredible advances for reconstructive surgery. No invasive procedures, no implants, no recovery, just the elimination of imperfections through will."

I smiled at him. Perhaps one day I'd introduce him to Saiman.

The waiter arrived with the wine menu. Crest ordered and then rattled on about the fascinating nature of Lyc-V, going into more technical detail than my limited comprehension could handle. I dutifully watched him, wondering why Olathe kidnapped the women. Something about it just didn't add up.

Crest fell silent and I blinked, turning off the autopilot.

"You're not listening, are you?"

No. "No, please go ahead."

"Do I bore you?"

"A little."

"I'm sorry," he said.

I shrugged. "Please don't be. You're being yourself and I'm being myself. For you shapechangers are a new and interesting frontier. For me, they are a part of my work. They are violent, often cruel, paranoid, and extremely territorial. When I see one, I see a possible adversary. You get excited because they can change their bone structure, while I get pissed off because their jaws don't fit together well in mid-form and they drip spit on the floor. And they smell awful when they're wet."

Crest looked at me.

"Besides, I lack the medical expertise to understand most of what you've said during the last five minutes. I hate feeling like a layman. It's too much for my fragile ego."

He reached over and touched my hand. His skin was warm and dry and for some unknown reason his touch comforted me.

"I'm shutting up," he promised solemnly.

"You don't have to," I said. "Let's talk about something else, though. Books, music, something not related to work."

"Yours or mine?"


The world skipped a beat as the magic crashed. The conversation at the tables died for a moment and resumed as if nothing happened. Our dinner arrived. My salad consisted of leaves of lettuce, tastefully arranged to frame the thin slivers of orange, and a scattering of other greenery. I poked at the lettuce with a fork. For some reason I wasn't hungry.

"How's your salad?" he asked.

I speared a slice of orange with my fork and ate it. "Good."

He smiled, pleasure evident on his face, and I recalled the advice given to me by someone a long time ago. If a man takes you to a restaurant of his choosing, don't compliment him. Rave about the quality of the food and he'll be thrilled, because he took you merc. It wasn't in me to rave.

We spoke for a few minutes about nothing at all, but the conversation kept dying. Whatever we had at Las Colimas had fled and we couldn't recapture it. I poked at my salad, looked up, and saw Crest glancing past my shoulder. "Is there a problem?"

"That guy keeps staring at you," Crest said. "It's going beyond polite. I think I might go over and ask what his problem is."

I turned and saw a familiar figure two tables down. Leaning against the chair, half-turned so he could have a better view of our table, sat Curran.

Why me?

A stunning Asian woman wearing a tiny black dress occupied the other chair at his table. The woman appeared nervous, her slender fingers twisting the corner of the napkin. She gave me a startled glance, like a gazelle at a waterhole, and turned away quickly. Curran appeared unconcerned.

Our gazes met and Curran grinned.

"I don't think talking to him is a good idea," I said.

"An old boyfriend?" Crest said.

"Lord, no. We've met professionally."

I motioned to the waiter and he glided over. "Yes, ma'am?"

I nodded toward Curran. "See that man over there with very short hair? Next to a beautiful woman?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Would you please deliver a saucer of milk to him with my compliments?"

The waiter didn't even blink, a testament to Fernando's excellent service. "Yes, ma'am."

Crest looked at me, obviously itching to ask for an explanation.

The waiter delivered the milk, murmuring to Curran. Curran's smile turned predatory. He took the saucer and raised it in a kind of salute. His eyes flashed gold. The gleam flared and vanished so quickly that if I hadn't been looking straight at him, I would've missed it. He brought the saucer to his mouth and drank from the edge.

"He looks out of place in jeans," Crest said.

"Trust me, he doesn't care. And nobody working at Fernando's is insane enough to bring it up." Actually, Fernando's didn't seem like Curran's kind of restaurant. I had pegged him for a steak-and-shrimp or Chinese place kind of guy.

"I see." Crest was trying to give Curran an intimidating stare. If he kept it up, Curran might collapse laughing. Suddenly I was angry.

Crest's gaze lingered on Curran's date. Something new reflected in his eyes, interest, admiration? Attraction, maybe? Curran winked at him.

Crest folded his napkin and put it on the table. At least half of his chicken breast remained on his plate. "I think we should go," he said.

I pushed away my mostly intact salad. "Good idea."

A waiter materialized by our table. Crest paid cash and we walked out into the night. Outside Crest turned to the left.

"My car is that way," I said, nodding to the right.

He shook his head. "I've got a surprise planned. Since we cut our dinner short, we might be early. Do you mind walking?"

"Yes, actually." Not in these heels and not with a red-hot needle in my hip. "Would you mind driving me?"

"It would be my privilege."

As we walked to his car, I felt someone watching me. I paused to adjust the strap on my shoe and made him across the street, leaning against the building. The leather jacket and spiky hair was unmistakable. Bono. Ghastek was keeping an eye on me, but this time instead of a vampire he sent his journeyman. Nice choice. Bono still had a grudge against me for our little chat at Andriano's. Had Ghastek found out that I'd squeezed the journeyman who had clued me in on Ghastek's unmarked vampires? Or maybe I was thinking about it all wrong.

Bono shifted slightly to keep me in his view. Why keep surveillance now, when Olathe was dead? Unless Bono had served Olathe. It made sense. If she had wished to take over Nataraja's operation, she would've tried to recruit young journeymen, and with her looks and power, luring them to her side wouldn't have been that hard. Was Bono here for revenge? Or was there another player to this drama and now Bono took orders from him?

It wasn't over. My instincts told me that it was too easy, too convenient, and now I had the confirmation from Bono. What did he know that I didn't? I thought about crossing the street and beating it out of Bono, pummeling him into pulp until he told me every last detail he knew. I could ram his head against the bricks and take him deeper into the dark of the alley. Or even better, smash him against the wall and take him to the car. In this neighborhood nobody would pay attention to a woman in an evening dress and her handsome companion that had a touch too much to drink and had to be supported by her. I could stuff him into the car and drive him someplace secluded.


Crest's pleasant face came into view. Bloody hell.

"Which one is your car?"

"That one."

I smiled at him, or at least I tried. Casting one last look after Bono, I let Crest open the door of his vehicle for me and forced myself to sit down. Later, Bono. I can always find you.

CREST'S RIDE WAS EXPENSIVE, METALLIC GRAY, AND bullet shaped. He held the door open for me and I arranged myself on the leather passenger seat. He got in and we took off. The inside of the car was spotless. No used tissues wadded and stuffed into the cup holder. No old bills or worn receipts littering the floor. No grime on the panels. It looked immaculate, almost sterile.

"Tell me, do you own a single pair of worn jeans?" I asked. "Just one pair so old that it has permanent dirt in it?"

"No," he said. "Does it make me a bad person?"

"No," I said. "You do realize that most of my jeans have dirt embedded in them?"

"Yes," he said, his eyes laughing. "But then I'm not interested in your jeans, only what's in them."

Not tonight. "Okay, just as long as we're clear."

The city scrolled by us, its streets channeling an occasional gasoline-burning car feeding on the death throes of technology. I counted as many horsemen as I did cars. Fifteen years ago the cars had dominated the streets.

"So who was that man?" Crest said.

"That was the Beast Lord."

Crest glanced at me. "The Beast Lord?"

"Yes. The top dog." Or cat.

"And that woman was one of his lovers?"


A snow-white Buick cut us off, squeezing into the lane and screeching to a halt before the traffic light. Crest rolled his eyes. The traffic light flickered, flaring with blinding intensity and dying to a weak glow.

"Residual magic?" Crest wondered.

"Or faulty wiring." The good doctor was picking up the magic jargon. I wondered where he'd learned about the residual magic effects.

"It makes sense." Crest parked next to a large building. "We're here."

A valet opened my door. I stepped out onto the pavement. Crest's car was in distinguished company. All around us Volvos, Cadillacs, and Lincolns spewed well-dressed people onto the sidewalk: women, smiling so wide, their lips threatened to snap and men, inflated with their own importance. The couples proceeded to make their way up to the tall building before us.

The valet got into the car and drove off, leaving us standing in full view. People looked at me. They looked at Crest, too.

"Do you remember the Fox Theater?" Crest said, offering me his elbow. Opening doors was one thing. Hanging on his elbow was another. I ignored it, walking to the door with my hands loosely at my sides.

"Yes. It was demolished."

"They took the stones from it and built this place. Great, isn't it?"

"So instead of building a new, fresh, sterile building, they dragged all of the agony, heartbreak, and suffering that permeated the stones of the old place into the new one. Brilliant."

He gave me an incredulous look. "What are you talking about?"

"Artists emanate a great deal. They agonize over their looks, over their age, over the competition. A very minute detail can become a matter of great gravity. The building in which they perform soaks in their failures, their jealousies, their disappointments like a sponge and holds all that misery in. That's why empaths don't go to anything above the level of spring fair performances. The atmosphere overwhelms them. It was incredibly stupid to transfer the weight of so many years to the new place."

"Sometimes I don't understand you," he said. "How can you be so damn pragmatic?"

I wondered what nerve I struck. Mister Smooth had suddenly turned confrontational.

"After all, there are other emotions." His tone was irate. "Triumph, exaltation at the magnificent performance, joy."

"That's true."

We stepped into the dim lobby, lit with torches despite the presence of electric bulbs. People around us moved in a steady stream toward the double doors at the far wall. We went with the flow, passing through the doors and into the large concert hall, filled with rows of red seats.

People looked at us. Crest looked pleased. We were the center of attention, tall, dapper Crest and his exotic date in a distinctive dress with a scar snaking its way down her shoulder. He didn't see how much the crowds bothered me, he didn't notice that I was beginning to limp. If I told him, it would only make matters worse. I kept walking and smiling, and concentrated on not falling.

We sat smack in the middle and I let out a tiny breath of relief. Sitting was a lot easier than standing.

"So who are we waiting for?" I asked.

"Aivisha," Crest said with gravity.

I had no idea who Aivisha was.

"It's the last performance of the season," he continued. "It's getting too warm. I didn't think she would perform this late, but the management assured me that she will have no difficulties. She can use the residual magic."

I leaned back in my seat and waited quietly. Around us people settled into their seats. An old woman, dressed in an impeccably white gown and escorted by a distinguished older gentleman, stopped by us. Crest jumped to his feet. Oh dear God, I would have to get up. I rose and smiled and waited politely until we completed the introductions. The woman and Crest chattered for a few minutes while the escort and I quietly shared each other's misery. Finally she moved on.

"Madam Emerson," Crest told me and patted my hand. "Probably the last true Southern socialite. You did very well. I think she likes you."

I opened my mouth and clamped it shut. I hadn't done anything but stand still and smile. Like a well-behaved child or a disciplined dog. Had he expected me to hump her leg?

A bell rang, commanding quiet from the crowd. A hush claimed the concert hall and slowly the velvet curtain parted to reveal a short woman. She was dark-skinned and heavy, with glossy coils of raven black hair styled high on top of her head. A long gown of silvery fabric cascaded in folds and plaits off her shoulders, shimmering, as if it was woven of sun-lit water.

Aivisha looked at the audience, her dark eyes bottomless, and took a tiny step forward, the cascade of silver moving all around her. She opened her mouth and let her voice pour forth.

Her voice was incredible. Startling in its clarity and beauty, it rose, gaining strength, building on itself, and power streamed from her, permeating the concert hall and the astonished crowd. I forgot about Crest, about Olathe, about my work, and listened, lost in the harmony of the enchanting voice.

Aivisha raised her hands. Thin slivers of ice grew from her fingers, spiraling, twisting, in perfect accord with her song. Like impossibly complex crystal lace, the ice stretched across the stage to climb up the side columns, blossoming into bundles of needle-thin feathers. It hugged the folds of Aivisha's gown, a dutiful pet, happy to please, and I couldn't tell where the silver of the fabric began and the crystal purity of ice ended.

Aivisha sang and sang, and ice danced for her, obeying her every whim. She commanded us, and mesmerized, we held our breath until her voice climbed to an overpowering crescendo. A burst of blue light pulsed from her, saturating the ice in an instant. The crystal lace burst, evaporating into the air. The curtain fell, hiding Aivisha from the audience. For a moment we sat stunned. And then the concert hall erupted in applause.

Crest squeezed my hand and I squeezed back.

Forty-five minutes later we pulled into the parking lot before my apartment building.

"Can I walk you to the door?" Crest asked.

"Not tonight," I murmured. "I'm sorry. I just wouldn't be good company."

"Are you sure?" Crest asked, hope dying in his eyes. I felt bad, but I couldn't do it. Something told me I should just stop this right here.

"Yes," I said. "Thank you for the dinner and company."

"I was hoping the evening wouldn't end this soon," he said.

I touched his hand with my fingertips. "I'm sorry. Perhaps some other time."

"Oh, well," he said. "There is always tomorrow night."

I opened the door and let myself out of his car. He lingered for a moment and then sped off. Too late I realized that he had expected a good night kiss.

MY HIP HURT MORE AND MORE AND BY THE TIME I crossed the parking lot, the ache had graduated to a full pain, spiced with sharp spasms.

"Just great." I slipped off my shoes. Barefoot, with heels in hand, I headed toward the door.

My foot found an imperfection in the pavement. I slid, and almost landed on my ass. Pain bit my leg. I bent forward, waiting for it to pass and growling wordless curses under my breath.

"Do you need me to carry you?" a voice whispered into my ear. "Again?"

I spun and hammered an uppercut into the speaker's midsection. My fist met a wall of solid muscle.

"Good punch," Curran said. "For a human."

Yeah yeah. I heard you exhale when I hit you. You felt it. "What do you want?"

"Where is your pretty date?"

"Where is yours?"

I started toward the building again. The only way to get away from him was to climb up the stairs and shut the ward in his face.

"Home," he said. "Waiting for me."

"Well, do me a fucking favor and go see her."

I reached the stairs and sat down. My leg demanded a break.


"No, I like sitting on filthy steps in an expensive evening dress."

"You're a bit surly tonight," he observed. "Not getting laid will do that."

I looked at the night sky, at the tiny dots of stars. "I'm tired, my leg hurts, and there's shit that needs answers and I can't find any."

"Like what?"

I sighed. "One, I don't know who killed Greg and why. Two, we found no evidence of the necro-tainted animals that killed your people. Three, Greg's file mentioned women. Why did Olathe take them and what did she do with them?"

He bent low toward me. "It's over," he said. "And you've got a bad case of spotlight deprivation."

"A bad case of what?"

"You're a no-name merc and all of a sudden everyone wants to talk to you. The power brokers of the city know your phone number. Makes you feel important. And now the dance is done. I sympathize." His voice dripped derision. "But it's over."

"You're wrong."

Curran walked away.

"She called you a half-breed," I told his back. "Why?"

He ignored me.

I forced myself to my feet and went upstairs. I got into the apartment, changed clothes, threw together a bag of stuff I didn't want to be without, took Slayer, and went downstairs again. I started Karmelion, biting off the words of the chant like a snapping dog, and pulled out of the parking lot. I've had it with this whole bloody city. I was going home. To my real home.

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