Magic Gifts Page 7

"In the politest terms possible. We were extremely persuasive, but they are unavailable for comment."

"They aren't asking for Roderick?" What the hell?

"No, they are not," Ghastek said. "I found it extremely odd as well. The DA has circled the wagons. If you want any background on the boy and his mother, our Lawrence is your best bet. Give me access and I will share."

I looked at Curran. We needed that background.

His face was unreadable.

Come on, baby.

"Fine," he said.

*** *** ***

A wise man once told me that a man's house said a lot about his soul. Over the years I had come to the conclusion that it was complete bullshit. The Keep, with its foreboding, grim towers and massive fortifications, might have indicated something about Curran's need to protect his people, but it said nothing about how much responsibility he dragged around. It said nothing about the fact that he was fair and generous. And it sure as hell gave no hint that underneath all that Beast Lord's roaring, he was hilarious.

The Casino, on other hand, looked like a beautiful mirage born of desert heat, sand, and magic. White and so elegant, it nearly floated above the ground of the large lot decorated with fountains, statues, and colored lamps. All that beauty hid a vampire stable. Undead, forever hungry and gripped in the steel vise of navigators' minds, haunted its slim minarets. A casino milking money from the human greed occupied its main floor, and deep inside it, the People brewed their schemes and machination with ruthless precision of a high-tech corporation, interested only in results and profits.

I parked the Jeep in the parking lot and peered at the Casino palace through the windshield. I didn't want to go in. Judging by the surly look on his face, Curran didn't want to go in either.

We opened our doors at the same time and headed toward the Casino.

"We're doing this for the child," Curran said.

"Yes." It was good to remember that. "We're just going to go in and talk to them."

"And not kill anybody," Curran added.

"Or anything."

"And not break things."

"Because we don't want a giant bill from the People."

"Yes." Curran's face was grim. "I'm not giving them any of the Pack's money."

I nodded. "We'll be good, we won't have to pay any damages, and then we'll come out and take a nice shower.

"Wash the stench off. I can smell the bloodsuckers from here."

"I can feel them from here."

I could - the sparks of vampiric magic tugged on me from the white parapets.

"Thanks for doing this," Curran said.

"Thank you for coming with me."

Get in, get out, not cause a giant war between the Pack and the People. Piece of cake.

We passed through the tall arched entrance guarded by two men with curved yataghan swords. The guards wore black and looked suitably menacing. They very carefully didn't look at us.

Inside a deluge of sound assaulted us: the noises of slot machines, refitted to work during magic, metal ringing, music, beeping, mixing with shouts from the crowd surrendering their hard-earned money for the promise of easy cash. Lemon-scented perfume drifted through the cold air - the People were keeping their customers awake, because the sleeping couldn't gamble.

Curran wrinkled his noise.

"Almost there, baby," I told him, zeroing in on the service entrance door at the far end of the vast room.

A large overweight man spun away from the machine and ran into Curran. "Hey! Watch it!"

Curran sidestepped him and we kept walking.

"Asshole!" The man barked at our backs.

"I love this place," Curran said.

"It's so serene and peaceful, and filled with considerate people. I thought you'd enjoy the ambiance."

"I adore it."

We passed through the service entrance. One of the journeymen, a man in a black trousers, black shirt, and dark purple vest rose from behind the desk.

"How can I help you?"

"It's alright, Stuart." A woman descended the stairway on the side, walking into the room. She was five two and looked like anatomical impossibility made of adolescent boys dreams. Tiny waist, generous hips, and an award-winning chest, wrapped in dusky silk. Her hair fell down past her butt in red wavy locks, and when she smiled at you, you had a strong urge to do whatever she asked. Her name was Rowena and she ran the People's PR and piloted undead for a living.

She was also in debt to the witches, which in a round-about way caused her to be in debt to me. If I asked a favor, she had to do it, the fact which we both hid from everyone.

"Mr. Lennart. Ms. Daniels." Rowena fired off a beautiful smile. "Lawrence is waiting for you upstairs. Follow me, please."

We followed, Rowena's shiny perfect butt shifting as she walked the stairs two feet in front of us. Curran heroically didn't look at it.

She led us to a small room with a two way mirror. One would've expected a table, severe grey walls, and chairs bolted to the floor, but no, the room's walls were cream with a delicate pale lattice carved at the top and the furniture consisted of a modern sofa and two soft chair set with a coffee table between them. Lawrence sat in the corner of the sofa. He looked pale and his eyes were bloodshot.

We sat in the chairs.

"Do you know who we are?" Curran said quietly.

Lawrence nodded. "I've been briefed. I'm supposed to cooperate."

I pulled out a notepad from my pocket. "How long did you know Amanda?"

Lawrence swallowed. "Three years. She was admitted as an apprentice right after her high school graduation."

"How long have you dated?" I asked.

"Thirteen months next week," he said. His voice was hoarse. He cleared his throat.

"Tell us about her family," Curran said.

Lawrence sighed. "She didn't like them."

"Why not?" I prompted.

"She said her mother was very cold. Aurellia would go through the motions, make sure that Amanda and her brother were fed and appropriately dressed. She was very specific about their schedule. The Steel Calendar, Amanda called it. If they had to have a doctor's appointment or a school trip, it was put on the calendar and there was no deviation from it. Amanda had perfect attendance the entire four years in high school. No matter how sick she was, her mother would send her to school. Never late. But there was never any love or real warmth there."

"And her father?" Curran asked.

"Colin worships the ground Aurellia walks on." Lawrence gave a bitter laugh. "It's like he is blind when she's in the room. The only time Amanda could talk to him was when her mother was otherwise occupied. She couldn't wait to get out of there. She told me that's why she enlisted with People. The apprentices qualify for room and board in the Casino."

"Was her mother upset because Amanda did this?" I asked.

"Aurellia doesn't get upset. She is like a pretty robot," Lawrence said. "Never screams. Never loses her temper. I don't think she cared one way or another."

"Have you ever interacted with the parents personally?" Curran asked.

"Yes. We went to a dinner once. Colin seemed normal. Aurellia didn't speak, except when she ordered her food. I got a feeling she does only what is required of her, and talking to me or Amanda wasn't required."

"What about the necklace?" I asked.

Lawrence took several shallow rapid breaths.

We waited.

"It was a gift," he finally said. "It arrived to the house one Christmas, addressed to Colin. He took it out of the box - it was in a glass case - and tried to open it, and then Aurellia took it out of his hands. They put the necklace into a glass box and hung it on the wall in their foyer really high up. Amanda was about fifteen at the time. She loved it. She said she used to stand there and look at it, because it was so beautiful. She was never allowed to touch it. They had a break-in six months ago. The burglars took some jewelry, money, and somehow got the necklace down and made off with it. She was really upset about it."

Lawrence looked at his hands. "I saw it at a pawnshop a week ago. I bought it for her. I... I killed her. She was so nice, so beautiful. She would sing little songs sometimes to herself when she was thinking about something or when she made coffee. And I killed her. She put it on and she just... she just died. I was right there and I couldn't do anything..."

We stayed with him for another ten minutes, but Lawrence was done.

Ghastek waited for us in the hallway.

"Please tell me he's on suicide watch," Curran said.

"Of course," the Master of the Dead said. "He is under the care of a therapist, he's given access to the priest, and he is watched even when he sleeps. However, if he truly wants to kill himself, there is nothing any of us can do. It is unfortunate. He is nearing the end of his five-year journeymanship. We've invested a lot of money and time into his education."

Of course. How silly of me to forget: People didn't employees, they had human assets, each of which with a price tag attached.

"I've examined your drawing of the writing on the necklace," Ghastek said. "You said it appears to be a runic script of some sort but the characters are unfamiliar to me. How accurate is this drawing?"

"As accurate as humanly possible," I told him.

He raised his eyebrows. "Are you familiar with term 'human error?'"

Are you familiar with the term knuckle sandwich? "The person who copied the runes from the necklace is an expert at what they do. Just because you don't recognize the script doesn't mean it's not runic in origin. The Elder Futhark alphabet had undergone many modifications over the years."

Ghastek took out copy of the Julie's drawing. "I've studied this subject extensively and I've never seen a rune like this." Ghastek pointed to a symbol that looked like a X with a double left diagonal arm.

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