Authors: Kim Harrison
To the man who invariably says, “Really? Okay,” instead of, “You want to do
he solid thud of David's car door shutting echoed off the stone face of the eight-story building we had parked beside. Leaning against the gray sports car, I shaded my eyes and squinted up at its aged and architecturally beautiful columns and fluted sills. The uppermost floor was golden in the setting sun, but here at street level we were in a chill shadow. Cincinnati had a handful of such landmark buildings, most abandoned, as this one appeared to be.
“Are you sure this is the place?” I asked, then dragged the flat of my arms off the roof of his car. The river was close; I could smell the oil and gas mix of boats. The top floor probably had a view. Though the streets were clean, the area was clearly depressed. But with a little attentionâand a lot of moneyâI could see it as one of the city's newest residential hot spots.
David set his worn leather briefcase down and reached into the inner pocket of his suit coat. Pulling out a sheaf of papers, he flipped to the back, then glanced at the distant corner and the street sign. “Yes,” he said, his soft voice tense but not worried.
Tugging my little red leather jacket down, I hiked my bag higher on my shoulder and headed to his side of the car, heels clunking. I'd like to say I was wearing my butt-kicking boots in deference to this being a run, but in reality I just liked them. They went well with the blue jeans and black
T-shirt I had on; and with the matching cap, I looked and felt sassy.
David frowned at the chunkingâor my choice of attire, maybeâsteeling his features to bland acceptance when he saw me quietly laughing at him. He was in his respectable work clothes, somehow pulling off the mix of the three-piece suit and his shoulder-length, wavy black hair held back in a subdued clip. I'd seen him a couple of times in running tights that showed off his excellently maintained, mid-thirties physiqueâyumâand a full-length duster and cowboy hatâVan Helsing, eat your heart outâbut his somewhat small stature lost none of its presence when he dressed like the insurance claims adjuster he was. David was kind of complex for a Were.
I hesitated when I came even with him, and together we eyed the building. Three streets over I could hear the shush of traffic, but here, nothing moved. “It's really quiet,” I said, holding my elbows against the chill of the mid-May evening.
Brown eyes pinched, David ran a hand over his clean-shaven cheeks. “It's the right address, Rachel,” he said, peering at the top floor. “I can call to check if you want.”
“No, this is cool.” I smiled with my lips closed, hefting my shoulder bag and feeling the extra weight of my splat gun. This was David's run, not mine, and about as benign as you could getâadjusting the claim of an earth witch whose wall had cracked. I wouldn't need the sleepy-time charms I loaded my modified paint ball gun with, but I just grabbed my bag when David asked me to come with him. It was still packed from my last runâstorming the back room of an illegal spammer. God, plugging him had been satisfying.
David pushed into motion, gallantly gesturing me to go first. He was older than I by about ten years, but it was hard to tell unless you looked at his eyes. “She's probably living in one of those new flats they're making above old warehouses,” he said, heading for the ornate stoop.
I snickered, and David looked at me.
“What?” he said, dark eyebrows rising.
I entered the building before him, shoving the door so he could follow tight on my heels. “I was thinking if you lived in one, it would still be a warehouse. Were house? Get it?”
He sighed, and I frowned. Jenks, my old backup, would have laughed. Guilt hit me, and my pace faltered. Jenks was currently AWOL, hiding out in some Were's basement after I'd majorly screwed up by not trusting him, but with spring here, I could step up my efforts to apologize and get him to return.
The front lobby was spacious, full of gray marble and little else. My heels sounded loud in the tall-ceilinged space. Creeped out, I stopped chunking and started walking to minimize the noise. A pair of black-edged elevators were across the lobby, and we headed for them. David pushed the up button and rocked back.
I eyed him, the corners of my lips quirking. Though he was trying to hide it, I could see he was getting excited about his run. Being a field insurance adjustor wasn't the desk job one might think it was. Most of his company's clients were Inderlandersâwitches, Weres, and the occasional vampireâand as such, getting the truth as to why a client's car was totaled was harder than it sounded. Was it from the teenage son backing it into the garage wall, or did the witch down the street finally get tired of hearing him beep every time he left the drive? One was covered, the other wasn't, and sometimes it took, ah, creative interviewing techniques to get the truth.
David noticed I was smiling at him, and the rims of his ears went red under his dark complexion. “I appreciate you coming with me,” he said, shifting forward as the elevator dinged and the doors opened. “I owe you dinner, okay?”
“No problem.” I joined him in the murky, mirrored lift, and watched my reflection in the amber light as the doors closed. I'd had to move an interview for a possible client, but David had helped me in the past, and that was far more important.
The trim Were winced. “The last time I adjusted the claim of an earth witch, I later found she had scammed the
company. My ignorance cost them hundreds of thousands. I appreciate you giving me your opinion as to whether she caused the damage with a misuse of magic.”
I tucked a loosely curling lock of red hair that had escaped my French braid behind an ear, then adjusted my leather cap. The lift was old and slow. “Like I said, no problem.”
David watched the numbers counting up. “I think my boss is trying to get me fired,” he said softly. “This is the third claim this week to hit my desk that I'm not familiar with.” His grip on his briefcase shifted. “He's waiting for me to make a mistake. Pushing for it.”
I leaned against the back mirror and smiled weakly at him. “Sorry. I know how that feels.” I had quit my old job at Inderland Security, the I.S., almost a year ago to go independent. Though it had been roughâand still was, occasionallyâit was the best decision I'd ever made.
“Still,” he persisted, the not unpleasant scent of musk growing as he turned to me in the confined space. “This isn't your job. I owe you.”
“David, let it go,” I said, exasperated. “I'm happy to come out here and make sure some witch isn't scamming you. It's no big deal. I do this stuff every day. In the dark. Usually alone. And if I'm lucky, it involves running, and screaming, and my foot in somebody's gut.”
The Were smiled to show his flat, blocky teeth. “You like your job, don't you?”
I smiled right back. “You bet I do.”
The floor lurched, and the doors opened. David waited for me to exit first, and I looked out onto the huge, building-sized room on the top floor. The setting sun streamed in the ceiling-to-floor windows, shining on the scattered construction materials. Past the windows, the Ohio River made a gray sheen. When finished, this would be an excellent apartment. My nose tickled at the scent of two-by-fours and sanded plaster, and I sneezed.
David's eyes went everywhere. “Hello? Mrs. Bryant?” he said, his deep voice echoing. “I'm David. David Hue from
Were Insurance. I brought an assistant with me.” He gave my tight jeans, T-shirt, and red leather jacket a disparaging look. “Mrs. Bryant?”
I followed him farther in, my nose wrinkling. “I think the crack in her wall might be from removing some of those supporting members,” I said softly. “Like I said, no problem.”
“Mrs. Bryant?” David called again.
My thoughts went to the empty street and how far we were from the casual observer. Behind me, the elevator doors slid shut and the lift descended. A small scuff from the far end of the room sent a stab of adrenaline through me, and I spun.
David was on edge too, and together we laughed at ourselves when a slight figure rose from the couch set adjacent to a modern kitchen at the end of the long room, the cupboards still wrapped in plastic.
“Mrs. Bryant? I'm David Hue.”
“As prompt as your last yearly review claims,” a masculine voice said, the soft resonances sifting through the darkening air. “And very thoughtful to bring a witch with you to check your customer's claim with. Tell me, do you take that off your end-of-the-year taxes, or do you claim it as a business expense?”
David's eyes were wide. “It's a business expense, sir.”
I looked from David to the man. “Ah, David? I take it that's not Mrs. Bryant.”
His grip on his briefcase shifting, David shook his head. “I think it's the president of the company.”
“Oh.” I thought about that. Then thought about that some more. I was getting a bad feeling about this. “David?”
He put a hand on my shoulder and leaned in. “I think you should leave,” he said, the worry in his brown eyes running right to my core.
Recalling what he'd said in the elevator about his boss gunning for him, my pulse quickened. “David, if you're in trouble, I'm not leaving,” I said, boots thumping as he hustled me to the lift.
His face was grim. “I can handle this.”
I tried to twist from his grip. “Then I'll stay and help you to the car when it's over.”
He glanced at me. “I don't think so, Rachel. But thanks.”
The elevator opened. Still protesting, I was ill prepared when David jerked me back. My head came up and my face went cold.
The lift was full of Weres in various levels of elegance, ranging from Armani suits and sophisticated skirt and top combos to jeans and blouses. Even worse, they all had the collected, confident pride of alpha wolves. And they were smiling.
. David had a
“Please tell me it's your birthday,” I said, “and this is a surprise party.”
A young Were in a bright red dress was the last to step from the elevator. Tossing her thick length of black hair, she gave me a once-over. Though sure of herself, I could tell by her stance that at least, she wasn't an alpha bitch. This was getting weird. Alphas never got together. They just didn't. Especially without their respective packs behind them.
“It's not his birthday,” the woman said cattily. “But I imagine he's surprised.”
David's grip on my arm twitched. “Hello, Karen,” he said caustically.
My skin crawled and my muscles tightened as the Weres ringed us. I thought of the splat gun in my bag, then felt for a ley line, but didn't tap it. David couldn't pay me to leave now. This looked like a lynching.
“Hi, David,” the woman in red said, satisfaction clear in both her voice and in her stance behind the alpha males. “You can't imagine how overjoyed I was to find you had started a pack.”
David's boss was now there too, and with quick and confident steps he moved between us and the elevator. The tension in the room ratcheted up a notch, and Karen slinked behind him.
I hadn't known David long, but I'd never seen this mix of anger, pride, and annoyance on him before. There was no
fear. David was a loner, and as such, the personal power of an alpha held little sway over him. But there were eight of them, and one was his boss.
“This doesn't involve her, sir,” David said with a respectful anger. “Let her leave.”
David's boss lifted an eyebrow. “Actually, this has nothing to do with you.”
My breath caught.
Okay, maybe I was the one with the problem
“Thank you for coming, David. Your presence is no longer needed,” the polished Were said. Turning to the others, he added, “Get him out of here.”
I took a heaving lungful of air. With my second sight, I reached for a ley line, latching onto the one that ran under the university. My concentration shattered when two men grabbed my arms. “Hey!” I shouted as one ripped my shoulder bag off and sent it spinning to land against a stack of lumber. “Let go of me!” I demanded, unable to twist easily from their twin grips.
David grunted in pain, and when I stomped on someone's foot, they shoved me down. Plaster dust puffed up, choking me. My breath whooshed out as someone sat on me. My hands were pulled behind my back, and I went still. “Ow,” I complained. Blowing a red curl from my face, I gave another squirm. Crap, David was being dragged into the elevator.
He was still fighting them. Red-faced and wrathful, his fists lashed out, making ugly sounding thumps when he scored. He could have Wered to fight more viciously, but there was a five-minute downtime when he would be helpless.
out of here!
” David's boss shouted impatiently, and the doors shut. There was a clunk as something hit the inside of the elevator, and then the machinery started to lower the lift. I heard a shout and the sounds of a fight that slowly grew muffled.
Fear slid through me, and I gave another wiggle. David's boss turned his gaze to me. “Strap her,” he said lightly.
My breath hissed in. Frantic, I reached for the ley line
again, tapping it with a splinter of thought. Ever-after energy flowed through me, filling my chi and then the secondary spindle I could keep in my head. Pain struck through me when someone wrenched my right arm too far back. The cool plastic of a zip-strip was jammed over one wrist, snugged tight with a quick pull and a familiar ratcheting sound to leave the end dangling. My face went cold as every last erg of ever-after washed out of me. The bitter taste of dandelions was on my lips.
Stupid, stupid witch!
“Son of a bitch!” I shouted, and the Weres sitting on me fell away.
I staggered to my feet and tried to wedge the flexible plastic-wrapped band off me, failing. Its core was charmed silver, like in my long-gone I.S. issue cuffs. I couldn't tap a line. I couldn't do anything. I seldom used my new ley line skills in defense, and I hadn't been thinking of how easy they could be nullified.