I sat at a table in my shadowy kitchen, staring down a bottle of Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit. My wards shivered and died, leaving my home stripped of its defenses. The TV flared into life, unnaturally loud in the empty house.
I raised my eyebrow at the bottle and bet it that another urgent bulletin was on.
The bottle lost.
“Urgent bulletin!” Margaret Chang announced. “‘The Attorney General advises all citizens that any attempt at summoning or other activities resulting in the appearance of a being of supernatural power can be hazardous to yourself and to other citizens.”
“No shit,” I told the bottle.
“Local police have been authorized to subdue any such activities with all due force.”
Margaret droned on, while I bit into my sandwich. Who were they kidding? No police force could hope to squash every summoning. It took a qualified wizard to detect a summoning in progress. It required only a half-literate idiot with a twitch of power and a dim idea of how to use it to attempt one. Before you knew it, a three-headed Slavonic god was wreaking havoc in downtown Atlanta, the skies were raining winged snakes, and SWAT was screaming for more ammo. These were unsafe times. But then in safer times, I’d be a woman without a job. The safe tech-world had little use for a magic-touting mercenary like me.
When people had trouble of a magic kind, the kind of trouble that cops couldn’t or wouldn’t handle, they called the Mercenary Guild. If the job happened to fall into my territory, the Guild then called me. I grimaced and rubbed my hip. It still ached after the last job, but the wound had healed better than I expected. That was the first and last time I would agree to go against the Impala Worm without full body armor. The next time they better furnish me with a level four containment suit.
An icy wave of fear and revulsion hit me. My stomach lurched, sending acid to coat the root of my tongue with a bitter aftertaste. Shivers ran along my spine, and the tiny hairs on my neck stood on their ends.
Something bad was in my house.
I put down my sandwich and pushed the volume button of the remote control, reducing the TV to a low hum. On the screen Margaret Chang was joined by a brick-faced man with a high-and-tight haircut and eyes like slate. A cop. Probably Paranormal Activity Division. I put my hand on the dagger that rested on my lap and sat very still.
No sound troubled the silence. A drop of water formed on the sweaty surface of the Boone’s Farm bottle and slid down its glistening side.
Something large crawled along the hallway ceiling into the kitchen. I pretended not to see it. It stopped to the left of me and slightly behind, so I didn’t have to pretend very hard.
The intruder hesitated, turned, and anchored itself in the corner, where the ceiling met the wall. It sat there, fastened to the paneling by enormous yellow talons, still and silent like a gargoyle in full sunlight. I took a swig from the bottle and set it so I could see the creature’s reflection. Nude and hairless, it didn’t carry a single ounce of fat on its skeletal frame and every dry, hard cord of muscle was clearly visible beneath its taut pallid hide.
Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.
The creature raised its left hand. The dagger talons diced the empty air, back and forth, like curved knitting needles. It turned its head doglike and studied me with eyes luminescent with a particular kind of madness, born of bestial blood thirst and free of any thought or restraint.
In a single motion I whipped around and hurled the dagger. The black blade sliced cleanly into the creature’s throat.
The vampire froze. Its yellow claws stopped moving.
Thick, almost purplish blood swelled around the blade and slowly slid down the naked flesh of the vampire’s neck, staining its chest and dripping on the floor. The vampire’s features twisted, trying to morph into a different face. It opened its maw, displaying twin fangs that glistened with yellow like miniature ivory sickles.
“That was extremely inconsiderate, Kate,” Ghastek’s voice said from the vampire’s throat. “Now I have to feed him.”
“It’s a reflex. Hear a bell, get food. See an undead, throw a knife. Same thing, really.”
The vampire’s face jerked as if the Master of the Dead controlling it tried to squint.
“What are you drinking?” Ghastek asked.
“You can afford better.”
“I don’t want better. I like Boone’s Farm. And I prefer to do business by phone and with you, not at all.”
“I don’t wish to hire you, Kate. This is merely… a social call.”
I stared at the vampire, wishing I could put my knife into Ghastek’s throat. It would feel very good cutting into his flesh. Unfortunately he sat in an armored room many miles away.
“You enjoy screwing with me, don’t you, Ghastek?”
The million-dollar question was why. “What is it you want? Make it quick, my Boone’s Farm’s getting warm.”
“I was just wondering,” Ghastek said with dry neutrality particular only to him, “when was the last time you saw your guardian?”
The nonchalance in his voice sent tiny cold shivers down my spine. “Why?”
“No reason. As always, a pleasure.”
In a single powerful leap the vampire detached itself from the wall and flew through the open window, taking my knife with it.