Read Chill Factor Online

Authors: Rachel Caine

Chill Factor

Chill Factor

Book Three of the Weather Warden series

RACHEL CAINE

The author wishes to thank:

   

Good fortune, Godiva chocolates, and Slim-Fas
t

   

My long-suffering, long-haired Cat
.

   

Jo, Kel, Glenn, Jackie, Pat, Annie, Circe, and a
host of other wonderful friends too numerous
to name here
.

   

Lucienne Diver, for her magnificent support
.

   

My friends and colleagues at LSG Sky Chefs
.

   

Musical support: the great Joe Bonamassa,
Eric Czar, and Kenny Kramme
!

   

www.jbonamassa.co
m

   

(And thanks to all the JB fans out there who’ve
made me welcome in their family!)

 

My name is Joanne Baldwin. I control the weather.

No, really. I was a member of the Weather Wardens… You probably aren’t personally acquainted with them, but they keep you from getting fried by lightning (mostly), swept away by floods (sometimes), killed by tornadoes (occasionally). We try to do all that stuff. Sometimes we even succeed. It’s amazingly difficult, not to mention dangerous, work.

I had a really bad week, died, got reborn as a Djinn, had an even
worse
week, and saved the world, sort of. Except that in the process I let a kid go who may be a whole hell of a lot worse than just a few world-scouring disasters.

Oh, and I died
again
, sort of. And this time I woke up human.

At least I
still
have a really fast car…

I’d had a few brushes with how absolutely power could corrupt. The Wardens were built on solid, idealistic principles, but somewhere along the way some of us – maybe even a lot of us – had lost the mission. There were a few faithful, altruistic ones left (I didn’t dare count myself among them).

It’s never been my job, or my nature, to worry about whether or not what I was doing was right in the grand scheme of things. I’m a foot soldier. A doer, not a planner. I like being useful and doing my job well, and so far as the lasting satisfaction goes, owning a killer wardrobe and bitchin’ shoes doesn’t hurt.

I never wanted to be in an ethical struggle. It shouldn’t be my job to decide who’s right, who’s wrong, who lives, who dies. It shouldn’t be
anybody’s
job, but most especially not mine. I’m not deep. I’m not philosophical. I’m a girl who likes fast cars and fast men and expensive clothes, not necessarily in that order.

But you do the job you’re handed.

The sky overhead was blue. Clear, depthless, cloudless blue, the kind that stares back at you like Nietzsche’s abyss. Not a cloud in sight.

I hate clear skies. Clear skies make me nervous.

I ducked and leant forward again, trying to look straight up from the driver’s seat through the most tinted part of the windshield. Nope, no clouds. Not even a wispy little modesty veil of humidity. I leant back in the seat and adjusted my hips with a pained sigh. The last rest area I’d spotted had been a broken-down, scary-looking affair that would have made the most hardened long hauler keep on truckin’, but pretty soon cleanliness wasn’t going to matter nearly as much as availability.

I was so tired that everything looked filtered, textured, subtly wrong. Thirty hours since I’d caught three hours of sleep. Before that, at least another twenty-four of adrenaline and caffeine.

Before
that
I’d been on the road, driving like a
madwoman, for three weeks, poised on the knife edge between boredom and panic. In a very real way, I’d been in a war zone all that time, waiting for the next bullet.

I was desperate for a bathroom, a bath, and a bed. In that order.

Instead, I edged a little bit more speed out of the accelerator.

‘You all right?’ asked my passenger. His name was David, and he was turned away, soaking up the sun that poured through the side window. When I didn’t answer, he looked at me. Every time I saw his face, I had a little microshock of pleasure flash down my spine. Because he was gorgeous. High cheekbones, smooth gold-kissed skin, a round flash of glasses he didn’t need but liked to wear anyway as protective camouflage. He wasn’t bothering with disguising his eyes just now, and they flared a colour not found anywhere in the human genome…warm bronze, flecked with orange.

David was a Djinn. He even had a bottle, which currently rested in the pocket of my jacket, cap off. And that whole three-wishes thing? Not accurate. As long as I held his bottle, I had nearly unlimited power at my fingertips. Except it also came with nearly unlimited responsibility, which isn’t the supersized bowl of cherries it sounds.

He didn’t look tired. It made me feel even worse, if that were remotely possible.

‘You need to rest,’ he said. I turned my attention back to the road. I-70 stretched on to the horizon in a flat black ribbon, stripes faded to ghosts by the merciless desert sun. On either side of the car, the landscape bristled with more spikes than leaves – Joshua trees, squatty alien cacti. To a girl from Humidity Central, also known as Florida, the thin, dry air seemed too light to breathe, so hot it scorched the lining of my lungs. And it was all blurring into sameness, after days of playing cat and mouse out here in the middle of nowhere.

‘Oh, I’m just peachy,’ I said. ‘How are we doing?’

‘Better than we have,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they’ve noticed us yet.’

‘Yet.’ A sour taste grew in the back of my throat, not entirely due to the lack of toothbrush and minty freshness. ‘Well, how much farther do we have to go?’

‘Exactly?’

‘Approximately.’

‘Miles or time?’

‘Just spill it, already.’

‘We just passed a town called Solitude. Six more hours, give or take.’ David leant back in the passenger seat, still looking at me. ‘Seriously. You OK?’

‘I have to pee.’ I fidgeted again in the seat and glared at the road. ‘This
sucks
. Being human
sucks
, dammit.’ I should know. I spent a semi-glorious,
spectacular, brief period as a Djinn. And I’d
never
had this embarrassing need to pee in the middle of nowhere.

He kicked back in the seat and tilted his head up at the blank car roof. ‘Yes, so you’ve said.’

‘Well, it
does
.’

‘You didn’t mind being human before.’

‘Hadn’t seen how the other half lives, before.’

He smiled at the roof. Which was a shame, because the roof couldn’t appreciate it the way I do. ‘Want me to conjure you up a bathroom?’

Bastard
. ‘Bite me.’

He gave me that raised-eyebrows expression again, over mockingly innocent eyes. ‘Why? Would it help?’

He was taunting me with the whole bathroom thing. Oh, he could conjure one up, that wasn’t the problem; hell, he could probably conjure up one with Italian marble tile and hot and cold running Perrier. But I couldn’t let him, because we had to keep a low profile for as long as we could, magic-wise. David was doing all he could to keep us unnoticed, but any big, flashy conjurations would certainly light up the aetheric like a supernova.

And that would be bad. To put it mildly.

I pulled the car over to the side of the road; Mona protested, powered down to a throaty growl, and shivered to silence when I turned the key. In seconds, heat pushed through the windshield like a
bully. Had to be in the nineties already, even though it was barely mid-April. I felt sticky, unwashed, cramped, and frazzled. Nothing like a little two-thousand mile trip and spending three weeks in a holding pattern – driving nearly the whole time – to make you get that less-than-fresh feeling.

‘Are you OK?’ David asked me.

‘Fine, already!’ I snapped back. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Let’s see…in the past two weeks, you’ve been infected by a demon, chased across the country, killed, become a Djinn, been reborn…’

‘Got shot,’ I put in helpfully.

‘Got shot,’ he agreed. ‘Also a point. So there’s plenty of reason for you not to be OK, isn’t there?’

Yeah. I was a few clouds short of a brainstorm, as we like to say in the Wardens. I’d thought I was dealing well with all of the craziness that had become my life, but being out here, alone, with all of this desert and huge empty sky…

…I was beginning to realise I hadn’t dealt with it at all. So, of course, I insisted…

‘I’m fine.’ What else could I say, realistically?
I
suck, this is awful, I’m a complete failure as a
human being and a Warden, we’ll never pull this
off?
Hell, David already knew that. It was a waste of breath.

David gave me a look that said he plainly
thought I was full of crap, but he wasn’t going to argue. He pulled a book out of his coat pocket. This one was a dog-eared paperback copy of
Lonesome
Dove
, which somehow seemed appropriate to the current circumstances. One benefit of being a Djinn…David had a virtually limitless library of reading material available to him. I wondered how he was on DVDs.

‘I’m waiting here,’ he said, opening the book. ‘Yell if a rattlesnake bites you.’

He settled comfortably in the seat, looking every inch the normal guy, and refused to respond to my various irritated noises. I opened the door of the Viper and stepped out onto the shiny black asphalt of the shoulder.

And yelped, as my sexy-but-sensible heels promptly sank into the hot surface. God, it was
hot
! Forget about frying an egg on the sidewalk; this kind of heat would fry an egg inside the chicken. Waves of it shimmered up from the ground, beating down from the hot-brass sky. I tiptoed over to the safety of gravel, skidded down the embankment, and tromped off into the dunes.

Open-toed shoes and desert: not a good combination. I cursed and shuffled my way through burning sand until I found a likely looking Joshua tree that had just enough foliage to function as a privacy screen to the highway. It smelt astringent and sharp, like the thorns that spiked it. There was
nothing gentle about this place. Everything was heat and angles and the hot stare of a clear, unwilling sky.

No way around it. I sighed and skinned down my panties and did the awkward human stuff, worrying all the time about rattlesnakes and scorpions and black widow spiders. And sunburn in places that didn’t normally get full western exposure.

Surprisingly, nothing attacked. I hurried back to the car, jumped in, started Mona up. David kept reading. I pulled the car back out into non-existent traffic, shifting gears smoothly until I was cruising at a comfortable clip. Mona liked speed. I liked giving it to her. We weren’t even approaching the Viper’s top speed, which was somewhere around 260, but in about thirty seconds we were rapidly gaining on 175. It was a tribute to American engineering that it only felt like we were going about, oh, 100.

‘Much better,’ I said. ‘I’m OK now.’

‘You don’t feel OK,’ David said, without looking up from the book. He flipped a page.

‘That’s creepy.’

‘What?’

‘You ought to say, “You don’t
look
OK.” Not, you know,
feel
. Because you aren’t—’

‘Feeling you?’ He shot me a sideways look; those oh-so-lovely lips eased towards a smile. ‘I do, you know. Feel you. All the time.’

I understood what he meant; there remained this
vibration
between the two of us, something radiating at a frequency only the two of us could feel. A low-level, constant hum of energy. I tried not to listen to it too much, because it sang, and it sang of things like power, which was way too seductive and frightening. Oh, and sex. Which was just distracting, and frustrating, at times like these.

When I’d been a Djinn I’d existed in a whole other plane of existence, accessing the world through life outside of myself. The Djinn don’t carry power of their own; generally, they act as amplifiers for the world around them. When they’re paired up with someone like me – a Warden, someone with natural power of her own – the results can be amazing. David swore, and I believed him, that what we had going on between us now was something other than that, though. Something new.

Something scarier in its intensity.

‘You feel me all the time,’ I repeated. ‘Careful. Talk like that will get this car pulled over.’

‘Promise?’ He leant over and adjusted my hair, pushing it back from my face and hooking it over my ear. His touch was fire, and it sent little orgasmic jolts through my nervous system.
Jesus
. He was studying me very intently now, as if he’d never seen me before. ‘Joanne.’

He rarely used my full name. I was surprised enough to edge off the accelerator and cast another quick glance at him. ‘What?’

‘Promise me something.’

‘Anything.’ It sounded flippant, but I meant it.

‘Promise me that you’ll—’

He never got to finish the sentence, because the road curved.

Literally.

It heaved and bucked, black asphalt rippling like the scales of a snake, and I yelped and felt Mona rise up into the air, engine screaming. A sonic boom like a cannon going off slammed through the air, so loud I felt it shudder my heart in my chest.

Oh, shit.

‘Levitate!’ I screamed, which was about all I had time for, and instantly I felt that vibration between me and David turn into a full symphonic thunder of power. It cascaded out of me, into him, transformed into a nuclear explosion on the aetheric, and forged itself into a matrix of invisible controls.

The world just…stopped.

Well, actually,
we
stopped. Mona paused, hanging tilted in mid-air about three feet above the road. Her engine was still screaming, her tyres burning the air, but we weren’t going anywhere. Weren’t falling, either. Below us, I-70 continued to ripple and flow like it was trying to creep off to the horizon. I wasn’t sensitive to this particular
frequency of power, but I knew what it was.

‘Shit,’ I said. ‘I guess they found us.’

David, solemn and unrattled, eased back in the seat and said archly, ‘You think?’

   

The guy doing this to me was named Kevin, and I couldn’t really hate him. That was the worst part of it. You really
ought
to be able to hate your arch-nemesis. I mean, it’s only fair, right? Feeling sorry for him, and just a little responsible…that just sucks.

Kevin was a kid – sixteen, maybe seventeen – and the fact that his generally punk-ass personality was hard to like had something to do with his having lived a real fairy-tale existence. The bad fairy tales. His stepmother had been something right out of a Grimm story, if the Brothers Grimm had written about sexpot-stripper-wannabe-serial killers. What she’d done to Kevin didn’t really bear close scrutiny unless you had the cast-iron stomach of a coroner.

So it was no surprise that once power came his way, Kevin grabbed it with both hands and used it exactly the way an abused, near-psychotic victim would: offensively. To keep people at a distance, the way a scared kid with a gun pointed it at anything that moved.

Trouble was, the gun – or power – that he’d grabbed was named Jonathan, and if you could measure Djinn with a voltage meter, Jonathan
would melt the dial, he was so intense. I liked Jonathan, but I wasn’t really sure Jonathan returned the favour; he and David had a close friendship that stretched back into – for all intents and purposes – eternity, and I’d jumped right in the middle.

Jonathan was
not
somebody you wanted to be on the wrong side of. And now that he’d been claimed by Kevin, just like any other Djinn, the whole master-servant relationship was in force. Which was trouble enough, clearly, but I was beginning to get the very clear idea that while most Djinn had the skill of working creatively around their masters’ commands – it was like negotiating with the devil – Jonathan either hadn’t mastered the craft or just plain didn’t care.

He was certainly not averse to causing
me
trouble, at least.

So. We hung there in mid-air, and watched the landscape below rise and fall like the ocean. Mona slowly evened out from her tilt to a nice, even hover.

‘Do I need to ask?’ I asked. My voice was more or less steady, but my skin was burning from the sudden rush of adrenaline.

‘Earthquake,’ David said.

‘It was rhetorical.’

‘So I gathered.’ He looked icy calm, but his eyes were glittering behind the glasses. ‘Jo. You can slow down now.’

Right, I was still pressing the accelerator through the floor. I let up and, for no apparent reason, shifted to the brake. My legs were shaking. Hell, my whole body was shaking. I couldn’t get my hands off of the wheel.

‘You know, there are three kinds of waves associated with earthquakes,’ I said, in an attempt at nonchalance. ‘P waves, S waves, L waves. See, the sonic boom is caused by the primary waves—’

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