Authors: Laura Anne Gilman
For Mom and Dad, of course.
And for Mir and ElaineMc,
who have some small blame in all thisâ¦
Because no writer works alone,
no matter what it feels like at 3:00 a.m.,
I need to praise and thank the following people:
Jennifer Jackson (agent) and
Mary-Theresa Hussey (editor). Finestkind.
Peter, who understood that there was something I
needed to do, and gave me the space to get it done.
The Cross-Genre Abuse Group, for smacking this
around the room more than a few times.
eluki, who said “yes” to my kids before anyone else,
and Dana and Lynn, all of whom took time out
to pay forward.
The folk in my newsgroup who came up with the info
when I needed it (and the Hounds, who howl on cue).
James, who told me to shut up and get back to work.
Marina Frants, who taught me all sorts of lovely Russian
phrasesâ¦some of which even made it into the book.
To you all, if I haven't said it recently,
grazie. Molto grazie.
The Mississippi's mighty, but it starts in Minnesota
At a place where you could walk across
with five steps downâ¦
ey, lady! Move it or lose it!”
The cyclist sped past her, a blur of expensive aluminum, narrow wheels and Lycra-clad body topped by a screaming-orange helmet. Heâshe? it?âhopped off the curb and dove into the light traffic moving up Madison Avenue, almost slamming into a cab that was cruising around the opposite corner looking for an early-morning fare. The cabbie slammed on the brakes and the horn at the same time, and the bike messenger made a rude gesture as he wove in and out of the middle of the street, heading downtown.
“Oh, for a stick to spoke his wheels,” Wren said wistfully, staring after the cyclist with annoyance. The man standing next to her smothered a surprised burst of laughter. Wren blinked. She hadn't been kidding; bicycle messengers were a menace.
Dismissing the incident with the single-minded focus she brought to every job, Wren turned her attention back to the building in front of her; the reason she was standing out on the corner at this ungodly hour of the a.m. on a Monday. What terrible sin had she committed in a past life, to get all the morning gigs in this life? She made a soft, snorting noise, amused at her own indignation. At least it was a pretty morning as those things went.
In fact, Manhattan in the spring was a pretty decent place to be. Winter meant slush and biting winds, while summer had a range of heat-induced smells that ranged from disgusting to putrid. You could live in the city then, but you generally didn't like it. But spring, she thought, spring was the time to be here. The sun was warming up, the breeze was cool, and people were in the mood to smile at each other. Even bad days had an edge of promise to them.
But right now, spring weather aside, Wren couldn't find a damn thing to be happy about. Seven in the morning was way too early, and the job that had sounded like quick and easy money at first was rapidly going deep into the proverbial shitter. She was going to have to do some actual work for her paycheck on this one.
“Maybe that will teach you to answer the phone before six,” she said out loud.
Rafe, the guard who had been detailed to “help” her, had a cute little wrinkle between his eyebrows, totally spoiling his until-now perfect Little RentACop look.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
Don't talk to yourself in front of civilians, Valere.
It wouldn't have mattered, anyway. Even if she had ignored the phone's ringing two hours ago, before either she or the sun had thought about getting up, the sound of Sergei's voice on the machine would have made her pick the receiver up. She might have the skills that people paid for, but her partner was the one with a nose for jobs that was slowly but surely making them moderately well-off, if not obscenely wealthy. Only a fool would pass up a call from someone like that, no matter what the time.
And while Wren Valere was many things, a fool had never been one of them.
“Rafe? Can you go get me a refill of water?” she asked, handing him the plastic sports bottle she had been holding. He wasn't thrilled at being an errand boy, she could tell, but his orders had been explicit. Give Ms. Valere all the help she needed. Type of help not specified. So he went.
Freed from observation, she sat back on her heels and closed her eyes slowly, holding them shut for a count of ten. She had been doing this long enough that it didn't take her any longer than that to slip into a state of clear-minded awareness. The sounds of early-morning traffic, the smells of exhaust and fresh-budding greenery all faded, leaving her with a clear, concentrated, settled mind. As she opened her eyes slowly, not rushing anything, her gaze went back to the sleek marble foundation in front of her, as though there might have been some change in those ten-plus seconds of blackout.
Nope. Nothing. It still looked as ordinary and commonplace as before, one of any of a hundred-plus buildings throughout the city built in the same time period. No bloody handprint, no chisel marks or dust left on the pale gray surface, no sign of any kind of disturbance at all. Nothing to suggest there was something different about this northeast corner of the building, as opposed to the southeast, the southwest or the northwest sides. The four corners of this building stretched out over a full city block, and she'd just spent the past hour becoming far too familiar with all four.
God, she hated prep work! But you had to check
before you started looking for anything. Even the stuff you knew you wouldn't find. Except, of course, the fact that one corner, or rather one small block inside of this corner, wasn't really there anymore.
A deliberate letting-go of her concentration, and the fugue state slipped away. Wren stood, arching her back to release some of the tension that had gathered there. Magicâcurrent, in the post-eighteenth century terminologyâwas easy enough to use, if you had the Talent, but that didn't make it
Her throat felt like sandpaper. She looked around, but Rafe wasn't back yet with her water. He must have gone all the way up to the executive lunchroom for San Pellegrino.
She clicked on the miniature recorder in her hand, and spoke into it, remembering to speak slowly enough that she would be able to transcribe correctly later on that day. “No indications of newly-made marks or disturbances on the site, not that that means anythingâI bet they have a team of sanitation experts who come in every morning and sluice the building down, just in case a pigeon poops on it accidentally.”
A slight exaggeration. But not by much.
The guy who'd designed this had obviously had some penile issues that needed to be worked out, though.
The building in question was a thirty-eight-floor skyscraper, gleaming steel and glass in the early-morning light. A troop of window washers could spend a full year just wiping and polishing the expanse of windows. An edifice built to proclaim the owner's ego to a city already overwhelmed with capital-P Personalities.
“From the exterior, the building looks intact. This is supported by the engineer's reportâ” And how the hell had they found someone willing and able to do a full review of the building this morning? Money not only talked, it must have bellowed.
But the report she had found in the folder left at her door by one of Sergei's ever-efficient contacts was clear on that. The missing piece had been removed from within the building, without cracking the concrete and steel surrounds. The building itself had not been harmed in any way by the alleged disruption to its structural integrity. Therefore, it was only her imagination that made the headquarters of Frants Enterprises tilt ever-so-slightly to the left. Cornerstones didn't actually support any weight in modern buildings, or so she had been informed by a quick skim through the multitude of building and construction sites on the Internet while she waited for her coffee to brew. They were there for show, to display the construction date, as tradition. Sometimes, as receptacles of time capsules, or good-luck charmsâ
Or protection spells.
Wren had been part of the magic-using community since she was fourteen. She'd never once used a protection spell, or known anyone else who did, either. But a lot of people swore by them, apparently. And were willing to pay good money to get them back.
She drummed her fingers on her denim-clad thigh, thinking. Sometimes you needed to know all the facts. Sometimes, knowing anything more than the essentials just clogged the works. The trick was knowing which situation called for what method. She glanced up the length of the building, then blinked and looked away again quickly. The view made her dizzy, not so much from the sunlight reflecting off the glass as the sense ofâ¦no, not menace, exactly. But a looming emptiness that was disturbing. As though something more vital than a chunk of rock had been stolen away.
Wren frowned, redirecting her attention to the building's foundation again, squinting as though hoping to suddenly be struck with X-ray vision. Not one of the recorded skill sets of Talent, worse luck. But if a Talent couldn't get the job done, it was time to use your brain, and she had a pretty decent one if she did say so herself. Eliminating the impossible, you're left with the obvious; it would take magic to get the missing slab out without doing major damage to the entire building. And that was exactly the feat someone had apparently mastered on this very building, at approximately 11:32 the night before. So, magic. Which narrowed the playing field not only for culprits, but motives.
She nodded to herself, twirling the recorder absently in one hand. A rather impressive act of vandalism, in more ways than one; it showed off the vandals' abilities without making a fuss the usual authorities could follow, assuming they would even be interested in a case like this; it in no way harmed the integrity of the building and therefore didn't put anyone working there at risk; and it struck deep in the heart of the building's owner and prime resident's deepest, ugliest fear.
It was a hacker's trick, showing how easy it would be to really harm the target, without doing anything they could easily be prosecuted for. Only in this case, it wasn't all just show. Damage
been done, if not anything you could explain on a police report, or an insurance waiver.
Their employer had two very simple questions: who did this, and how soon can you get it back? Right now Wren was more concerned with
it had been done. In her experience, once you found the tools, it was generally a simple matter to find the workman. And once they'd found him, the fun part began.
Only problem was, this bastard didn't seem to have left any external traces at all. Wren wasâgrudginglyâimpressed.
Clicking on the 'corder again, she continued making her comments, pacing down the sidewalk.
“The night watchman finished his rounds at 4:45 a.m. At that point, he claims not to have seen anything out of the ordinaryânothing that would have given him even an instant's pause at all.” She hesitated, continued. “Which raises the question, I guess, if the theft was done remotely, or if the guard was under the influence of a spell himself.”
A jogger went past her at a heavy-breathing clip, and she moved out of the way with the instinctive radar that big-city residents evolve by instinct, but didn't pause in her recitation. Even if the jogger had been inclined to listen inâselective deafness being another big-city survival traitâWren doubted that he would have recalled itâor herâan instant later. Being invisible was one of the things she did very best. Part of it was by design: her jeans, white button-down shirt and leather jacket were quality enough that she would be categorized as “employed,” and the temporary security badge that came with the reports was now hung around her neck, giving her a reason to be in the building. Most people didn't look any further than that. But the real secret to her success was a carefully cultivated result of the genetic lottery. Not a winning ticket; more like a “sorry, try again” one. Her shoulder-length hair was the color that could only be described as “brownish,” and her features were unremarkably regular. Average height, average weight, unremarkable measurementsâshe never warranted more than a swift once-over by anyone, male or female. Her appearance was neither unpleasant nor remarkable. Forgettably average.
Sometimes she wondered if dying her hair bright screaming red, or bleaching it platinum blond would make any difference to the way the world didn't see her. But it never seemed worth the bother to experiment. And why screw with success? Besides, Sergei would kill her.
“The fact that there is no sign from the exterior of the building of digging, or any kind of disturbance at all, confirms the suspicion that it was a purely magical theft.”
But you checked everything anyway, just so it didn't come back later and bite you on the ass.
“A remote grab seems more and more probable.” And narrowed her eventual list of suspects. Far easier to steal line-of-sight, especially something this size.
Rafe appeared by her shoulder, holding out a water bottle glistening with fresh condensation. Wren shut off the recorder and tucked it into the inside pocket of her bomber jacket, then took the bottle from him and poured a stream of the water down her throat.
“Thanks. Let's go take a look at the inside, shall we?” The
was ironic, and they both knew it. Rafe wasn't so cute when he was annoyed. Oh well. She shouldered her way through one of the large revolving glass doors that led to the lobby, and walked inside the building, her eyes scanning the floor and walls with a practiced eye. She was looking for any indication that something might have been chalked or painted on the gleaming marble surfaces. Especially if it was a remote grab, signposts would show up somewhere. Remotes were tough enough, easier to focus if you had something there to guide you in. Leaving something of your own was best, but risky if you couldn't pull it on your way out.
Admittedly, it would have been difficult for anything to adhere to that expensive marble-and-brass slickness, but the lobby would be the logicalâeasiestâplace for the thief to lay a marker. Wren was surprised when her scan didn't turn up anything. Markings were a safer way to do the job than actually being on-site at the time, something you could do well in advance of the job, and assuming that the victim knew enough to call in someone like herself afterward. If
had been doing the grab, she would have markedâ¦the ceiling. Wren scanned upward, squinting against the overhead light, and let out a soft triumphant “hah!” There, up on the ceiling behind her, by the door. A faint streak, difficult to find even if you knew where and how to look for it. Wren did a rough calculation and decided that if you followed the end of the streak down and at an angle, it would point directly to where the northeast cornerstone was laid.