Phone calls from the Harris County District Attorney are rarely a good thing. The probability that I'm going to like what Matt Anders has to say diminishes exponentially on Friday nights. When the conversation starts with the words "favor" and "friend", I know my night is destined for hell.
"Whatever you want will have to wait until tomorrow, Matt."
I'm running ten minutes behind schedule, thanks to the moron who caused the three-car pileup on the Katy Freeway. Kassiopa Taylor is a stickler about punctuality. If I'm two seconds late for our date, I'll miss out on what I'm told is the sexiest use of tassels on the planet. Nothing Matt could promise could make up for missing Kassie's tassels.
"The Mage of New Orleans is in town, Rick,” Matt says.
Intriguing, but this isn't New Orleans and I'm not a member of the Mages' Council. The Council tends to bar its fancy doors when hairy creatures with sharp fangs and short tempers come skulking around. Not that I'm bitter. I have no use for a bunch of pansy-ass magic users who hide behind incantations and wands when things get rough.
"Sorry, Matt. Call me in the morning."
"He has a job for you."
"Five times my normal rate." My rate alone is exorbitant because, yes, I am just that good. I don't believe that notorious miser Matt'll go for it. It's a quick way to get him off the phone so I can get going. The last man Kassiopa sent packing leapt off his ninth-story balcony.
Well, hell. Ms. Taylor is a walking cure for erectile dysfunction, but there are plenty of hot redheads in the city. At five times my normal rate, even a two-hour case will make up for the lackluster month I've had. It'll get the mortgage company off my ass, and I can see about replenishing the pack's anorexic slush fund.
"Your office. Twenty minutes."
I hang up on Matt and consider calling Kassiopa. Nah. Text is the way to go. She is a dream to look at, but her voice is worse than a drunken Warsah attempting a mating call. Guess I won't need those earplugs after all.
Matt paces the sidewalk outside the Criminal Justice Center like hellhounds are nipping at his heels. The relief that washes over his face when he spots me sends apprehension trickling down my spine. I should have gone for eight times my rate or instituted the “Oh Shit” retainer clause.
"Parking garage," he says, hand extended but not touching me. Smart man. Touching is a no-no. "This meeting never happened."
Of course not. Because nothing ever goes wrong when there are clandestine meetings involved. "What's going on?"
"The Mage needs a bodyguard for his daughter. He said that this was something only a Shifter could handle.”
Okay, no. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk. A uniformed cop gives me a dirty look. I glare right back. Keep moving, bud. Plenty of concrete to go around.
I don't do bodyguard work. It's been rule numero uno since I got my PI license. I'd rather play butler, carry a silver tea tray, and blister the fuck out of my hands than play babysitter for a sniveling, little rich kid. I don't have the patience for it, and I'm far too pretty for prison.
"Ten thousand a day plus expenses," Matt says.
Damn. The Mage's little brat must be a hellion. "What's the catch?"
"No one can know she's here." Matt rakes a hand through his girly hair. "I didn't even know he had a daughter until this afternoon. He’s worked hard to keep her out of the spotlight."
Handcuffs, even enchanted ones, are relatively cheap. So are ball gags. For two hundred bucks, I could keep the brat locked up in one of the pack's safe houses and catch up on my reality TV. I can't cave that easy, though. If you give Matt a bit of slack, he'll tie a noose.
"I want to meet her first."
Matt flashes that oil-slick smile that got him elected three times in a row. "Sure. She's in the parking garage."
“Is this a recommendation you expect a cut on?”
“No.” Matt shrugs suit-clad shoulders. “He already had your name. I’ve worked with him a time or two. He called once he was already in Houston and asked me to set up this meeting. He requested you. He said he’d consider it a favor from both of us. This is the kind of man you want to owe you a favor”
I’ve met the Mage once, but I’ve never worked with him or for him. I am not sure if having a reputation that stretches all the way to New Orleans is a good thing or a bad thing. At least I won’t have to kick Matt’s ass for setting me up for a babysitting gig.
Despite the prestige of his position as Mage of New Orleans, Leo Vardan isn't much over fifty. His brat has to be a kid. Teenager at the oldest. Probably got caught with drugs or got involved with something way over her brainless head and has to stay out of sight until Daddy can smooth things over. She's likely spoiled as the milk in my fridge. A fairy princess locked up in an ivory tower. Rapunzel in the middle of teenage rebellion. Wonderful.
Giddy laughter echoes through the dark parking garage. The madness threaded through the tone raises my hackles. I instinctively move closer to Matt to protect the weaker animal. "Someone get loose or something?"
“We’re almost there." Matt's nervous now. Rat bastard. He knows more than he’s said. Once this is over, I'll point out how painful it is to keep things from me.
"Astraea!" Leo Vardan's voice cracks like thunder. "Remain still."
More laughter. The lights around us flicker. Two bulbs burst. I don't have a chance to react to the pounding of feet on the concrete before a warm, squishy freight train slams into me. I hit the ground flat on my back. There's a cackling anchor on my chest and absolutely no air in my lungs. Spots dance in front of my eyes. It's too early for fireworks.
Small, hot hands slap my cheeks. At the first scrape of fingernails, I snatch up two thin wrists in one hand. The bones are fragile and creak with the slightest squeeze. The cackling stops.
The voice is feminine but too old for a teenager. Older than twenty. Younger than thirty. Slight southern drawl under the laughter. She doesn't sound sorry, either. Something just out of touch with reality lingers in her tone. Hell. Just what I needed. Why do I always get the batshit ones?
The anchor on my chest shifts. Long, honey blonde hair obscures the woman's face. Great. A crazy Cousin Itt. As if I wasn't already screwed beyond belief.
"World's on fire. A witch’s funeral pyre. Burning and screaming all around. Fall like ashes to the ground."
She sings it like a nursery rhyme. I'm mostly tone deaf so her voice isn't enough to send me running for the hills. It would be a pleasant, if fucking weird, song if not for the fact that I can smell burning hair. Matt stomps on the ends of my dark hair, shoots me an apologetic smile. As soon as I've dealt with the pyro, I'm going to set his pretty-boy hair on fire and see who is smiling then.
"Astraea, apologize to Aldric," Leo Vardan, the Mage of New Orleans, scolds. Scolds. His little bitch of a princess set me on fire, and he's scolding her like she just stepped on my foot or forgot to say please.
The woman on my chest goes still. Too still. If not for the pulse thundering under my fingers, it would be easy to mistake her for a zombie. She bobs her head once. "Sorry, Daddy. I wanted to play with the puppy."
Yeah. Like I said: the batshit ones. I draw them in like a magnet. If Princess tries that torch thing again, she's going to get an up-close view of this puppy's teeth.
"Here. Now." The bastard even snaps his fingers. Given how her father treats her, no wonder she has a thing for puppies.
Princess can't move, of course. Not while I have both her scrawny wrists in my hand. She tries to pull free, a half-hearted effort at best. I'm ready to turn her loose so she'll stop wriggling like a beached fish on top of me when the hair falls away from her face.
While it would be romantic and shit to say that her beauty is what strikes me dumb, it doesn’t. The purple-and-black bruises on her cheekbone sure as shit do, though. So does the matching split lip. And the finger marks on her pencil-thin neck.
Fate's a fickle bitch, you see. I was all set to tell Vardan where he could shove his money and his babysitting gig. Now I can't. I have a sinking feeling that Vardan's fingers will match the marks on the girl’s throat. There's no way in hell I can send her back with that monster. Protecting weaker creatures is ingrained in my bones. It’s a character flaw I see no point in correcting.
Vardan digs his fingers into her shoulder. She screeches as if he’s ramming a hot poker through her side. The sound makes me long for those earplugs or a long conversation with Kassie.
"Don't touch me," she begs, flinching away from him and closer to me. "Oh please, please, don't touch me. It’s too much."
Vardan doesn't back down. His daughter is pleading with him, honest-to-god tears in her eyes, and the bastard keeps grabbing for her. That's it. I can’t ignore my instincts any longer. Vardan retreats when I surge to my feet. I keep my hands on the daughter’s wrists - she's got sharp little nails - and move her out of Vardan’s grasp.
"Fifty thousand buys you five days of peace and quiet."
Vardan's smile makes Matt's look downright angelic. "Three hundred thousand, and I'll forget she ever existed."
"Daddy?" Princess - Astraea - shuffles closer. I don't want to have to hurt her, but I don't want her near her father. If he lays one hand on her, there's no guarantee I'll be able to control myself. I spent too many years watching loser boyfriend after loser boyfriend use my momma as a punching bag. I can’t stomach that sort of violence.
"The grownups are talking, Astraea," he snaps.
She stiffens. Throws her head back and straightens her shoulders. Yeah, she still looks like the losing half of a boxing match but regal, too. Not hard to imagine she's the Mage's daughter.
"Your empire will fall," she proclaims. There's no trace of insanity in her declaration. No emotion at all in her voice, just an icy certainty. "Crumble around you like a castle made of sand, and I'll be the wave that sends it crashing to the ground."
"Astraea." Vardan tries to interrupt. She holds up a hand and, by some miracle, he falls silent.
"Your greediness has already cost you your heir. The next payment required will be your soul." Astraea's lips curl back in a snarl that would make any Shifter proud. "Black and oily and dark as midnight. I'll slurp it with a straw."
Okay. That's creepy. Apparently Vardan believes so, too, because he takes a small step backward. Three burly men dressed in dark suits emerge from the shadows to close ranks around him.
"I can be generous. Four hundred thousand. I may or may not have someone deliver a box of her belongings." Vardan doesn't look at his child. "Kill her if you'd like. Her mother already believes she's dead."
"Four hundred thousand," I agree. What I don't mention is that if I'm forced to say in the garage for one more second, it won't be the pretty princess I kill.
Vardan snaps his fingers. Goon number one stalks forward and shoves a briefcase at me. I know I'm going to regret it, but I release Astraea’s wrists. She doesn't attack me. It's progress, I suppose.
The briefcase is full of cash. I can't count it all right then and there, but it looks right. I'm not going to quibble over a couple thousand dollars.
Not another word is spoken until Vardan's scent has dissipated. Briefcase in hand, I spin around to glare at Matt. The bloodsucker has a hell of a lot of explaining to do. He's the reason I don't trust vampires. Or lawyers. I should have known better than to answer his call.
Astraea, the newest member of my pack of strays, is plopped on the floor like a kid ready to play jacks. Matt crouches next to her, eyeing her as if she's an exotic animal in a zoo. He ghosts a hand along her hair. She flinches away from the touch but, thank God, doesn't start screeching again.
"She's a void."
I'm not hip to all the magic lingo. Most witches I've met are whiny barnacles. It took bribing a warlock into performing a repellent spell to lose the last one I made the mistake of taking home. That was the first and only time I let myself get fooled by magical breast enhancement. Once the illusion fades, so do a lot of other things. I’ll work with them for the money, but I don’t associate with them for fun.
"What's a void?"
Astraea fixes bloodshot, but lucid, blue eyes on me. Her smile is more mischief than malice. I hope that means she won't set my hair on fire again. "Sometimes, when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much, they…"
My growl shuts her up nicely.
Her smile turns to acid. "Sometimes when the most powerful Mage in the South tries to make a baby with the most powerful witch in the area, things go kablooey."
"Kablooey?" Not the most technical term I've ever heard.
She waves a hand at her chest. "Kablooey."
"From what little I’ve read, I would say that magic doesn't work on her or around her. She likely has very little ability of her own," Matt clarifies. "I've never seen a void before. I thought they were a myth. In theory, she should be able to absorb magic through her skin and redirect the energy."
"She's sitting right here," Astraea snidely reminds the vampire. Good girl.
Matt brushes the tip of his index finger across her bruised cheek. There's a moment of blessed silence, and then she screams. And screams. Just as I'm about to knock her out before the cops come running and make my night even more of a crapfest, she launches herself in my arms and wraps herself around me like a chimpanzee.
"Sleep with devils, Matthias DuPont Anders, and you'll wake with hellfire in your veins." The manic laughter is back. "Crosses to bear, and oh, the bears you’ll cross."
"Why is she doing this?" I ask, not expecting an answer. Matt's not real good about answering direct questions. He says it's the lawyer in him. It's more likely the asshole in him.
"I ate a seer once. Gave me hallucinations for a week."
"She's not a vampire." The undead make me tingle – and not in a pleasant way. This girl's only giving me a headache. And a backache.
"No, but the same principle applies. She absorbs magic. Witches spend decades training, learning how to handle the magic. She may be able to process the energy, but if her system isn't designed to process the magic."
"Kablooey. With a side of clairvoyance." Of course. Just my luck. Astraea's heels are digging into the small of my back. It's almost as bad as the elbows digging into my shoulders. She's a bony little hellion. "Come on, Princess. Let's get the hell out of here."
Every attempt to put her on her feet only results in her digging those heels even deeper into my spine and squeezing my windpipe. All right. She's not heavy, and I did skip weightlifting this morning. Matt offers to take the briefcase. Yeah, right. I trust vampires as much as I trust lawyers. Lucky Matt gets the wrong end of both sticks.
"Hank ate a mouse again," Astraea informs me solemnly. She pulls back just enough press her nose against mine. My eyes cross for a moment before she shifts to rest her ear over my heart. "He left the cheese in your bed. Traps tossed all willy-nilly, you never know what you're going to catch."
Hank, a bobcat-were, is one of only two feline Shifters in my pack. There are too few Shifters in the area to warrant separate packs. After a month solid of challenges, I united the dozen Shifters residing in the Houston-metro area.
I'm not worried about taking a non-Shifter into a house filled with Shifters. Members of my pack are well-trained. Discipline is the first lesson learned. Besides, I'll make it clear that messing with her is the same as messing with me. No one dares mess with me.
"Jose wants to make litters of kittens, but he likes bows in his tail. Big, pink bows with lots of lace and polka-dots. Confused kitties are silly."
No. They're pains in the ass. Just like chatty voids. "Think you can shut up for a while, Princess?"
Her smile widens. Pink lips curl into something soft and seductive. It's almost enough to mask the bead of blood that wells from the cut on her bottom lip. Her eyelids droop to half-mast. "You know, if you want me to stop talking you could always…." She shakes her head swiftly. The siren smile is gone and mischief once again dances in her eyes. "Oops. Sorry. Not supposed to know that yet. It's a secret. Hate clairvoyants. They make everything swirly."
We make it to my truck without incident. I have no problem calling it a miracle. The suitcase of cash fits nicely beneath her feet once she's buckled into the passenger seat. As long as she doesn't set the damn thing on fire, we're golden.
"Aldric?" she asks, emphasizing the first half of a name I hate.
"Daddy didn't leave my suitcase."
Crappity-crap-crap. Our female Shifter is twice Astraea's size and proprietary as hell about her clothes. I don't mind a little light shopping, but I don't relish having to do so with a whacko at my side. There's no telling what she'll do if left alone. With a sigh, I pull into the nearest Wal-Mart parking lot.
"The big blue box houses many frustrations,” she murmurs, face pressed against the window.
Truer words have never been spoken.