“I’m not going to kill anyone,” I said evenly. “I am not a killer.”
“Yes,” he said over the top of my unspoken protest, “you are.”
I don’t know if he or if I drew up the memory of Lon Trager, full of bullets, his knife in my leg, my knife sunk so deep in his chest I could feel his heart beating out blood over my knuckles under his skin. Blood poured down the knife, over my body. Trager crumpled to my feet, dead because Martin Pike had shot him. Dead because I had stabbed him. It was real, so real I could smell the blood and sweat again. Bile rose up my throat and I wanted to puke.
“You have killed.” My father’s voice pushed at me. “And you will kill again.”
I could not look away from his eyes, darker than mine, hollowed by a death he would not accept. His own death. There was madness in him, burning with a frenetic hope I had never seen in life.
Life, I suddenly realized, had limited my father’s options and ambition. It had forced him to deal with the all-too-human boundaries of day-to-day minutiae, such as running a business, being married, or other minor irritants like eating and sleeping. But now that he was dead . . . -ish, those boundaries no longer applied to him. He was free to do anything his dark, hungry heart desired.
The intensity burned in him like an unholy fire, and I could not look away. It scared the hell out of me.
“To survive, Allison Beckstrom,” he said calmly, in the sort of tone one uses to cast spells. No, in the sort of tone he always used to cast spells on me. “You will do anything. You will use anything at your disposal.” The weight of his words was physical. Each word fell heavier upon me until I couldn’t stand. Could do nothing more than sit there and sweat.
“You will use any magic. Any person. Anything to survive. Even if it means killing. Again.”
He traced a spell with his fingers so quickly, I could not read what it was.
I pulled my hands up and began a Shield spell. Began. I could not remember the correct glyph for Shield. The spell, being half finished and empty of magic, was as effective as if I had waved my hands to stop a hurricane.
My father did not have the same problem. Magic, cold as winter’s caress, followed the glyph he drew and wrapped around my body.The spell tightened, bit into my skin, burned cold like frozen wire twisting around my arms, my stomach, my legs. Everywhere the magic touched went numb.
“You,” my father said calmly, “will survive. You will listen to me. You will do as I advise you to do.”
With each short command, the Binding tightened, cutting its own glyph into me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. But damn it, this was still a dream—my dream. And I was not going to let my father pin me down.
“Go,” I exhaled. “To.” Pause. “Hell.” I pushed hard against the Binding, straining to move my hands, my arms, to push up to my feet, to slap him, to slap myself, to do anything to end this dream.
As easy as pushing aside a mountain, I finally managed to spread my fingers. Then I made a fist. Magic wasn’t the only way to do someone harm. Hells, it wasn’t even the easiest way.
Dad had gone red in the face. Sweat beaded his forehead—it was an effort to keep me Bound—and I took no end of delight in that. This wasn’t as easy for him as he would have me believe.
Boo-ya for me.
I cocked back my elbow and punched my fist forward with every ounce of strength in me, breaking the Binding and aiming for my father’s face.
“You will not—” His command cut off, replaced by the mechanical buzz of my alarm clock.
I rolled over, turned off the alarm, and lay there, staring through the darkness at the ceiling. The clock said it was morning—ten o’clock, to be exact, but I didn’t feel like I’d gotten any sleep at all. I pressed my fingers over my eyes and concentrated on my father. Was he there in my mind? Or had he retreated into the territory of my nightmares?
The moth-wing flutter behind my eyes flickered. An electric snap of pain stabbed at my eyes. Ow. He was still there. And he was angry.
“Enjoy it while you can,” I said. “First chance I get, you are so out of my head.” I didn’t know if he could read my thoughts while I was awake, but the fluttering stopped and that feeling of otherness, of someone else’s awareness hovering behind mine, grew quiet and distant.
I sat and stretched. The Binding he had cast in my dream had felt too damn real. My muscles twitched, sore as if I really had been straining against ropes. I rubbed my hands over my bare arms. That was no memory of my father. That was him. His mind. First thing I’d ask Maeve was how to dig my dad out of my brain.
The warm smell of freshly brewed coffee floated into my bedroom. Nola must already be wake. I swear she was half rooster—always up before the sun. Of course, running a farm required early rising. The great thing about her visiting was since she was up earlier than me, I didn’t have to wait for the coffee to brew.
I heard her voice, and another voice. A man. Radio? TV?
I pulled on my robe and shuffled out into the living room. Nola was at the small table by the window, drinking coffee. That, I had expected. What I had not expected was the man sitting across from her.
Gray trench coat with a nice maroon scarf at the collar, slacks, and loafers, Detective Paul Stotts looked like he was at the end instead of the beginning of his day.
“Morning?” I asked.
They both looked over at me. Nola gave me a bright smile. “I wondered if I was going to have to come in there and get you. Let me pour you some coffee.” She stood and bustled past me toward the kitchen. I couldn’t quite place the twinkle in her eye. Something was making her very happy. And I was pretty sure it wasn’t the coffee.
“Sorry to catch you so early,” Stotts said, his gaze lingering just a little too long on Nola. “I thought you’d be up by now.”
I crossed my arms over my robe and tipped my head to one side. Something looked different about him too. He raised one eyebrow, and I realized what it was. He hadn’t shaved in a while and his five o’clock shadow gave him that just-rolled-out-of-bed, sexy-cologne-ad look. But more than that, he looked comfortable. In my living room. What was wrong with this picture?
“Okay, I give up,” I said. “Why are you here?” Stotts and I weren’t exactly buddies. I’d Hounded for him. Once. The kidnapping case that had nearly gotten me killed more than once and had left me with new scars and my angry father lurking in my brain.
Stotts told me he ran the MERCs, Magical Enforcement Response Corps, an undercover branch of law enforcement that handles magical crimes. Other than that, we barely knew each other. Or at least didn’t know each other well enough to have breakfast. In my living room.
He leaned back a little, looking too damn at home. “I called. Ms. Robbins told me to come by. “
“This, whatever this is, couldn’t wait for me to shower?”
Nola breezed back into the living room, a cup of coffee and a plate of something that looked a lot like homemade coffee cake in her hands.
“Hope you don’t mind me getting comfortable in the kitchen.”
I took the cake and cup she offered and glanced at Stotts.
He was not watching me. He was all eyes on Nola. And, I noticed, Nola was pointedly not looking at him, all the while hiding a smile.
“I could wait for you to take a shower,” Stotts offered amiably. “Is there a chance I could get a piece of that coffee cake?”
“Sure,” Nola said. “I’ll get us both a slice.” Nola tucked her hair—unbraided, which was weird; she always wore it braided—behind her ears and gave me an innocent look. “Shower. Take your time. We’ll wait.” And then she was off to the kitchen again.
I scowled at Stotts. “Are you hitting on my friend?” Have I mentioned that I am not known for my tact? Especially in the morning?
“If that’s how you define a cup of coffee and friendly conversation, I suppose I am.”
“Listen, Wedding Ring,” I growled. “She’s my best friend. And I won’t let her be hurt by anyone.”
Stotts, who was in midswallow of his coffee, choked and coughed into his fist. He wiped at his eyes. “What did you just call me?”
“You heard me.” I raised my eyebrows and stared at his left hand and the gold band on his ring finger. “As far as I’m concerned, this will only ever be a friendly conversation between the two of you. You got that?”
“I don’t think I could miss it,” he said. “It was a threat, right?”
Since I could hear Nola heading back our way, I smiled sweetly. “Yes, it was.”
“Are you going to eat that standing?” Nola asked as she passed me to sit back at the table in front of Stotts. She placed a coffee carafe—the one she’d given me a few years ago—in the center of the table.
“No. Save me a seat. I’ll be right back.” I put the plate on the table (yes, between their plates) but couldn’t bring myself to leave my coffee behind. With one last warning look at Stotts, I took a drink of coffee and headed to the shower.
I wasn’t going to linger in the shower, but the heat and steam made me realize that I really was stiff from my dream. Or maybe I was just stiff from running around in four-inch heels all night.
Whatever, the water and warmth felt great. I eventually got around to washing with the mild soap that seemed to be helping the fingertip burn marks on my skin, left there by the bits of dead magic users, the Veiled. And even though I didn’t want to, I found myself drawing my fingers over my newest permanent scars. The thumb-sized circle beneath my collarbone—a bullet I did not remember taking. The thicker palm-sized scar beneath my left rib cage that was still numb to the touch. And the spread-hand scar on my thigh where I’d made a mess trying to cut out the blood magic Lon Trager had worked on me.
I wondered if the scars would bother Zayvion. Wondered if they would remind him that my life seemed to be one long series of screwing up and trying to fix it, with and without magic.
, I told myself. That was why I was going to learn from Maeve. So I could stop screwing up. So I could understand how to use magic. The right way. No matter what.
A chill snaked down my spine. That thought, those words, did not sound like me. They sounded like my father. They sounded like what he’d said in my dream.
Sweet hells, but I wanted to be rid of him.
I scrubbed a little harder, wishing I could wash free of him, and knowing I couldn’t.
One thing at a time
, I thought. First, find out why Stotts wanted to talk to me, and make sure he wasn’t gunning to break my best friend’s heart. I wondered if he had found out about the gargoyle statue. Technically, that was a magic problem—or crime, I guess. Criminal mischief? Tampering with other people’s property? Stealing? Well, no, not stealing, since I hadn’t actually taken the statue, I’d just sort of broken it or set it free or something.
I got out of the shower, toweled off, and brushed my hair, slicking it back, then messing it up with my fingertips so it dried halfway decently. No, I did not look in the mirror to see if my father was behind my eyes. I knew he was. But his occupying my brain was a limited-time offer, and it was about to expire.
I dressed in my bedroom, tugging on a pair of jeans, T-shirt, and heavy brown sweater that I’d picked up at a thrift store and loved down to holes. I took the time to put on my tennis shoes. Stotts might be here to ask me to Hound for him. I didn’t often contract out to the cops, but now that Pike was dead, I guessed his job had some need of filling.
Laughter rolled through the apartment—Nola and Stotts having a good ol’ time. That was my cue to lay on some wet-blanket action.
I strolled into the living room. They were still sitting at the table. I’d caught them just as they were both lifting their coffee cups to drink. I hated to admit it, but they looked pretty good together. Nola was shorter than me, compact, blond as summer, and freckled. She looked like the country, honey and wheat fields. Stotts was her opposite. Dark hair, wide shoulders, unconsciously intense and strong in that way cops always are, and he took after his Latino heritage, with a square face, heavy brows, and amazing eyes. When he smiled, or when he looked at Nola like
, the cop intensity melted away into something else. If she was sunlight and the country, he was sunset against the mountains, strong, vibrant, dangerous, and yet somehow sheltering, protective.
Picnic, meet rain.
“So,” I said as I pulled up an extra chair and sat down so close, both of them had to scoot back to make room for me. “What brings you by, Detective?”
If he was annoyed by my intrusion, he didn’t show it.
“There’s a job I’d like you to Hound.”
“While the trail’s fresh.”
I thought over what I had to do today. Go see Maeve, but that wasn’t until one o’clock. It was only ten thirty. I had time. Except I had promised to help Nola with the Cody situation. I didn’t know how I was going to fit both those things in, but I’d try.
“That works okay for me.” I took a drink of coffee, and put my fork to use to wolf down half my cake. I hoped there was more in the kitchen. “This is fantastic,” I said to Nola.