Book 6 in Magic Series
Release date: July 30, 2013
“I am emotionally spent. No one can say Kate and Curran are boring now that they are mated. I need a cookie or something.”
Jen of Red Hot Books
Atlanta is a city plagued by magical problems. Kate Daniels will fight to solve them—no matter the cost.
Mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate, Curran, the Beast Lord, are struggling to solve a heartbreaking crisis. Unable to control their beasts, many of the Pack’s shapeshifting children fail to survive to adulthood. While there is a medicine that can help, the secret to its making is closely guarded by the European packs, and there’s little available in Atlanta.
Kate can’t bear to watch innocents suffer, but the solution she and Curran have found threatens to be even more painful. The European shapeshifters who once outmaneuvered the Beast Lord have asked him to arbitrate a dispute—and they’ll pay him in medicine. With the young people’s survival and the Pack’s future at stake, Kate and Curran know they must accept the offer—but they have little doubt that they’re heading straight into a trap…
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I spun the spear. “One more argument and I’ll ground you.”
Julie rolled her eyes with all the scorn a fourteen year old could muster and pushed her blond hair away from her face. “Kate, like when will I ever use this in real life?”
“You’ll use it in the next five seconds to keep me from impaling you.”
In my twenty-six years, I’ve held many jobs. Teaching wasn’t part of them. Mostly I killed people in bloody and creative ways. But Julie was my ward and my responsibility, and practicing with a spear was good for her. It built muscle, reflexes, and balance, and she would need all three when we moved on to the sword.
Several decades ago magic returned to our world, crushing our technological civilization and whatever illusion of safety we had with it. Magic and technology still fought over us, playing with the planet like two kids tossing a ball to each other. When one functioned, the other didn’t.
The cops did the best they could, but half of the time the phones didn’t work and all available officers responded to important emergencies, like saving schoolchildren from a flock of ravenous harpies. Meanwhile, with resources scarce and life cheap, people did a fine job preying on each other. Smart citizens didn’t go out at night. If the lowlifes didn’t get you, the magic aberrations with giant teeth would.
Every person was responsible for his or her own safety, and we relied on magic, guns, and blades. Julie’s magic was rare, and highly prized, but useless in combat. Seeing colors of magic wouldn’t help her to kill a vampire. My best friend, Andrea, was teaching her to handle guns. I couldn’t hit an elephant with a gun at ten feet, although I could probably bludgeon it to death. But melee weapons, that I could teach.
I struck at Julie’s midsection, moving slow like molasses. She rotated her spear like an oar and slapped mine, knocking it down.
She gave me a completely blank look. Most of the time Julie took practice seriously, but on days like this some switch malfunctioned in her head, disconnecting her brain from her body. There was probably some way to snap her out of it, some right “mom” words I could say, but I had found Julie about a year ago on the street and the whole parent thing was still new to me. My mother died before I could form any memories of her, so I didn’t have any experience to fall back on.
Around us the Pack woods teemed with life. The afternoon sun shone bright. Leaves rustled in the breeze. Squirrels dashed to and fro on the branches, completely undeterred by several hundred were-carnivores living next door. In the distance the faint sound of chain saws rumbled – the narrow road leading to the Keep was in danger of becoming impassable and a team of shapeshifters had been dispatched this morning to cut down some of the trees.
A yellow butterfly floated up. Julie watched it.
I pulled my spear back, reversed it, and stabbed her in the left shoulder with the butt.
I sighed. “Pay attention, please.”
Julie made a face. “My arm hurts.”
“Then you better block me, so I don’t make something else hurt.”
“This is child abuse.”
“You’re whining. Oar block.”
I spun the spear business end forward and stabbed at her again, in slow motion. Julie pinned my spear with hers and stayed there.
“Don’t just sit there with your spear. You have an opening, do something about it.”
She raised her spear and made a half-hearted attempt to stab me in the chest. I gave her a second to recover, but she didn’t move. That’s it. I’d had it.
I turned the spear and swept her legs from under her. She fell on her back and I drove the spear in the ground a couple of inches from her neck. She blinked, pale blond hair fanned out wide from her head.
“What’s your deal today?”
“Kevin asked Maddie to the Moon Dance.”
Maddie, a werebear, was Julie’s best friend. The Moon Dance was the Pack’s way of letting the teenagers blow off steam – every other Friday evening, provided the magic was down, the shapeshifters hauled the speakers out and blasted dance music from the Keep’s battlements. Being invited to the Moon Dance by a boy was understandably a big deal. It still didn’t explain why two months of lessons and spear practice vanished from my ward’s head.
“I’m supposed to help pick the outfit for tomorrow,” Julie said, lying there like a slug.
“And this is more important than practice?”
I pulled my spear out. “Fine. Go do your thing. You’ll owe me an hour on Saturday.” No force on the planet could make her concentrate when she got like this, so making her practice was a waste of time anyway.
The slug-child turned into a nimble gazelle and sprung to her feet. “Thank you!”
We headed out of the woods. The world blinked for a second and a tide of magic splashed us, drowning the woods. The chain saws sputtered and died, followed by loud cursing.
The official name for the phenomenon was Post-Shift resonance, but everyone referred to it as magic waves. They’d come out of nowhere and roll across the world, snuffing out electricity, killing internal combustion engines, strangling guns, and spitting out monsters. Then the magic would vanish, the electric lights came on, and firearms once again became deadly. Nobody could predict how strong a wave would be or how long it would last. It made for a chaotic life, but we persevered.
The trees parted, revealing a vast grassy field. In the middle of it the Keep rose like a grey man-made mountain, an example of what happened if several hundred deeply paranoid and superhumanly strong people got together and decided they needed a safe place to crash. From one angle, the Keep resembled a modern fortress, from another, a medieval castle. We approached from the north, which gave us a view of the main tower, and from here the place looked like a grim, foreboding high rise, complete with a penthouse, where Curran and I made our lair.
It wasn’t always this way. We hadn’t started out by looking at each other and instantly deciding we were soul mates. When we met, he thought I was a reckless merc who defied authority because I felt like it, and I thought he was an arrogant bastard who had enough issues to fill the Keep from top to bottom. But now we were together. He was the Beast Lord and I was his Consort, which put me in position of authority over fifteen hundred shapeshifters, the largest pack in the South. I didn’t want the responsibility and given the choice, I would run as far as I could away from it, but it was the price I had to pay to stay with Curran. I loved him and he was worth it. He was worth everything.
We circled the Keep and passed through the wide, open gates into the inner courtyard. A group of shapeshifters worked on one of Pack’s vehicles, a modified Jeep, its hood bloated and misshapen by the need to contain two engines, one for gasoline, another for enchanted water. They waved at us as we walked by. We waved back. The shapeshifters accepted me, partially because I fought for my position and gave them no choice, partially because while Curran was fair, he also had a very low tolerance for bullshit. We didn’t always agree on things but if the appeal had been made to me directly, he wouldn’t overrule me, and the Pack liked having the option of a second opinion.
The reinforced steel door stood wide open. Late May in Georgia was hot and the summer would get hotter. Trying to air-condition the Keep was a losing proposition, so every door and window was open in an effort to create a breeze. We went through into a narrow hallway and started up the enormous staircase that was the bane of my existence. I started hating them the first time I had to climb them and a knee injury only made my hate stronger.
Third floor. Stupid stairs.
The urgency in the female voice made me spin around. An older woman ran toward me through the third floor hallway, her eyes opened wide, her mouth slack. Meredith Cole. Maddie’s mother.
“They’re killing them!” She grabbed onto me. “They’re going to kill my girls!”
Every shapeshifter in the hallway froze. Putting hands on an alpha without permission counted as assault.
Tony, one of Doolittle’s assistants, rounded the corner, running down the hallway toward us. “Meredith! Wait!”
Doolittle was the Pack’s medmage. Dread washed over me. There was only one reason the Pack’s medic would ever kill a child.
“Kate? What’s happening? Where is Maddie?” Julie’s voice spiked into high pitch.
“Help me!” Meredith clenched my arm. My bones groaned. “Don’t let them kill my babies.”
Tony halted, not sure what to do next.
I kept my voice calm. “Show me.”
“This way. Doolittle has them.” Meredith let go of me and pointed down the hallway.
“What’s going on?” Julie squeaked.
I marched down the hall. “We’ll find out in a minute.”
Tony caught on and fell in behind us as we passed by him. The hallway brought us to the medical ward.
“He’s in the back,” Tony said. “I’ll show you.”
He took the lead and we followed him through the hospital wing to a round room. Six long narrow hallways led from the room, concrete grey tunnels. Tony picked the one straight ahead. A steel door with telltale silver sheen waited at the end. We walked to it, the sound of our steps bouncing off the walls. Three bars, each as thick as my wrist, guarded the door, for now unlocked. My heart sank. I didn’t want to see what was behind it.
Tony grabbed the thick metal bracket that served as the door’s handle, strained, and pulled it open, revealing a gloom-shrouded room. I stepped through. To my right, Doolittle stood next to some chairs, a black man in his early fifties, with a dark skin and silver-salted hair. He turned to look at me, and his usually kind eyes told me everything I needed to know: my worst fear was true and there was no hope.
To my left two Plexiglas prison cells sat side by side, drenched in blue feylantern light. Steel and silver bars wrapped around each cell. I could see no doors. The only access to the cells was through a vending-machine style drop in the front.
Inside the cells two monsters waited. Misshapen, grotesque, their bodies twisted into a horrible nightmare of semi-human parts, oversized claws, and patches of dense fur, they cowered in the corner, separated by the Plexiglas and bars, but huddling together all the same. Their faces, with oversized jaws and oddly distorted teeth, wouldn’t just stop you in your tracks, they’d give you a lifetime of flashbacks.
The monster on the left raised its head. Two human blue eyes looked at us, brimming with terror and pain.
“Maddie!” Julie dropped by the bars. “Maddie!”
The other monster stirred. I recognized the shock of brown hair. Maddie and Margo. Julie’s best friend and her twin sister were going loup.
Every shapeshifter had to face a choice: to keep his humanity by imposing order and strict discipline and practicing constant restraint or to surrender to the violent cravings generated by presence of Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, and become an insane loup. Loups murdered, tortured, and reveled in the pain of others. They could no longer maintain a pure human or animal form. Once a shapeshifter went loup, there was no turning back. The Pack put them down.
During times of extreme stress the Lyc-V exploded in huge numbers within the shapeshifter’s body. Adolescence, with its hormone fluctuations and emotional roller coasters, was the most stressful time a shapeshifter faced. A quarter of the children didn’t survive it.
“Tell him,” Meredith pleaded. “Tell him not to kill my children.”
Doolittle looked at me.
The Pack had a complicated way of figuring out the probability of loupism based on the amount of virus in the blood. “What’s the Lycos number?”
“Two thousand six hundred for Maddie and two thousand four hundred for Margo,” he said.
Over a thousand was pretty much a guarantee of loupism.
“How long have they been like this?” I asked.
“Since two o’clock last night,” Doolittle said.
It was over. It was over eight hours ago. We were just trying to put off the inevitable. Damn it.
Julie held on to the bars. My heart constricted into a painful hard ball. A few months ago, she looked just like that, a mess of human and animal, her body ravaged by the virus. I still had nightmares where I stood over her, while she growled at me, strapped into a hospital bed, and when I woke up, I’d walk down to her room in the middle of the night to reassure myself she was alive and well.
“Please, Consort. Please,” Meredith whispered. “You made Julie get better.”
She had no idea what she was asking. The price was too high. Even if I would agree to it – which I wouldn’t – purging the virus from Julie required magic of a full coven, power of several pagan priests, and my near death. It was a one-time thing, and I couldn’t replicate it.
“Julie recovered because of her magic,” I lied, keeping my voice gentle.
“I’m so sorry.” The words tasted like crushed glass in my mouth. There was nothing I could do.
“You can’t!” Julie turned to me. “You can’t kill them. You don’t know. They might still come out of it.”
No, they wouldn’t. I knew it but I glanced at Doolittle anyway. He shook his head. If the girls had any chance of a recovery, they would’ve shown the signs by now.
“They just need more time.” Meredith grasped onto Julie’s words like a drowning man grabbed at a straw. “Just more time.”
“We will wait,” I said.
“We would be only prolonging it,” Doolittle said quietly.
“We will wait,” I repeated. It was the least we could do for her. “Sit with me, Meredith.”
We sat together in the neighboring chairs.
“How long?” Doolittle asked quietly.
I glanced at Meredith. She was staring at her daughters. Tears ran down her face.
“As long as it takes.”
I checked the clock on the wall. We had been in the room for over three hours. The girls showed no change. Occasionally one, then the other, would rage, pounding on Plexiglas, snarling in mindless fury, then they would drop to the floor, exhausted. Looking at them hurt.
Doolittle had left for a couple of hours, but now he was back, sitting off by himself near the other wall, his face ashen. He hadn’t said a word.
A few minutes ago Jennifer Hinton, the alpha of clan Wolf, had come into the room. She stood, leaning against the wall, cradling her stomach and the baby inside with her hands. Her face had a haunted look and the anxiety in her eyes verged on panic. Approximately ten percent of werewolves went loup at birth.
Meredith slipped off her chair. She sat on the floor by the Plexiglas and began to sing. Her voice shook.
“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word…”
Jennifer clamped her hand over her mouth and fled out of the room.
“Momma’s gonna buy you a mocking bird…”
Margo stirred and crawled to her mother, dragging one twisted leg behind her. Maddie followed. They huddled together, the three of them, pressed against the Plexiglas. Meredith kept singing, desperate. Her lullaby was woven from years of love and hope, and all of it was now dying. My eyes teared.
Julie rose and slipped out of the room.
I listened to Meredith sing and wished I had more magic. Different magic. I wished I was more. From the time I could remember myself, my adoptive father Voron honed me into a weapon. My earliest memory was of eating ice cream and holding my saber on my lap. I had learned dozens of martial art styles, I fought in arenas and sand pits, I could walk into the wilderness and emerge months later, no worse for wear. I could control undead, which I hid from everyone. I could mold my blood into a solid spike and use it as a weapon. I learned several power words, words in a language so primal, so potent, that they commanded the raw magic itself. One couldn’t just know them, you had to make them yours or die. I fought against them and made them my own. At the height of a magic tsunami, I had used one to force a demonic army to kneel before me.
And none of it could help me now. All of my power, and I couldn’t help two scared girls and their mother crying her heart out. I could only destroy, and kill, and crush. I could only do rudimentary healing. In a pinch I could chant a healing salve into working and that was about it. I wished I could make this go away, just wave my arms, pay whatever price I had to pay, and make everything be okay. I wanted so desperately to make everything okay.
Meredith had fallen silent.
Julie returned, carrying a Snickers bar. She unwrapped it with shaking fingers, broke the candy in a half, and dropped each piece through the slits.
Maddie reached out. Her hand with four stubby nubs of fingers and a single four-inch claw speared the candy. She pulled it to her. Her jaws unhinged and she took one tiny bite of chocolate with crooked teeth. My heart was breaking inside me.
Margo lunged at the glass, snarling and crying. The half a foot thick Plexiglas didn’t even shudder. She hurled herself against it again, and again, wailing. Each time her body hit the wall, Meredith’s shoulders jerked.
The door opened. I saw the familiar muscular body and short blond hair. Curran.
He must’ve been out of the Keep, because instead of his regular sweatpants, he wore jeans. When you looked at him, you got an overwhelming impression of strength. His broad shoulders and powerful chest strained his T-shirt. Carved biceps bulged on his arms. His stomach was flat and hard. Everything about him spoke of sheer physical power, contained but ready to be released. He moved like a cat on the prowl, graceful, supple, and completely quiet, stalking the Keep’s hallways, a lion in his stone lair.
If I didn’t know him and I saw him coming in a dark alley, I’d make myself scarce. But his real power was in his eyes. The moment you looked into his grey irises, you knew he would tolerate no challenge to his authority, and if his eyes turned gold, you knew you were going to die. In a fit of cosmic irony, he had fallen in love with me. I challenged his authority on weekly basis.
Curran didn’t look at me. Usually when he entered the room, our stares would cross for that silent moment of connection, a quick check of “Hey, are you okay?” He wasn’t looking at me and his face was grim. Something was seriously wrong. Something besides Maddie.
Curran walked past me to Doolittle and handed him a small plastic bag filled with olive-colored paste.
Doolittle opened the bag and sniffed the contents. His eyes widened. “Where…”
Curran shook his head.
“Is that the panacea?” Meredith spun toward eyes, suddenly alive again.
The panacea was produced by European shapeshifters and guarded by them like gold. The Pack had been trying to reverse-engineer it for years and had gotten nowhere. The herbal mixture reduced chances of loupism at birth by seventy five percent and reversed mid-transformation in one third of teenagers. There used to be a man in Atlanta who somehow managed to smuggle it in small batches, which he sold it to the Pack at exorbitant prices, but a few weeks ago the shapeshifters had found him floating in a pond with his throat cut. Jim’s security crew tracked the killers to coast. They had sailed out of our jurisdiction. Now Curran held a bag of it. What have you been up to, Your Furry Majesty?
“There is only enough for a single dose,” Doolittle said, his voice hollow.
Damn it. “Can you get more?”
Curran shook his head.
“You must choose,” Doolittle said.
“I can’t.” Meredith shrunk back.
“Don’t make her pick.” How the hell could you choose one child over the other?
“Split it,” Curran said.
Doolittle shook his head. “My lord, we have a chance to save one of them…”
“I said split it.” Curran growled. His eyes flashed gold. I was right. Something bad happened and it wasn’t just Maddie and Margo.
Doolittle clamped his mouth shut.
Curran moved back and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed.
The paste was split in two equal portions. Tony mixed each into a pound of ground beef and dropped it into the cells. The children pounced on the meat, licking it off the floor. Seconds crawled by, towing minutes in their wake.
Margo jerked. The fur on her body melted. Her bones folded on themselves, shrank, realigned… She cried out and a human girl, naked and bloody, fell to the floor.
Thank you. Thank you, whoever you are upstairs.
“Margo!” Meredith called. “Margo, honey, answer me. Answer me, baby.”
“Mom?” Margo whispered.
Maddie’s body shuddered. Her limbs twisted. The distortion in her body shrunk, but the signs of animal remained. My heart sank. It didn’t work.
“She’s down to two,” Doolittle said.
The shift coefficient, the measure of how much a body had shifted from one form to the other. “What does that mean?”
“It’s progress,” he said. “If we had more of the panacea, I would be optimistic.”
But we didn’t. Tony hadn’t just emptied the bag, he had cut it and rubbed the inside of the plastic on the meat and then scraped it clean with the back of the knife. Maddie was still going loup. We had to get more panacea. We had to save her.
“You can’t kill her!” Julie’s voice shot into high pitch. “You can’t!”
“How long can you keep the child under?” Curran asked.
“How long is necessary?” Doolittle asked.
“Three months,” Curran said.
Doolittle frowned. “You’re asking me to induce a coma.”
“Can you do it?”
“Yes,” Doolittle said. “The alternative is termination.”
Curran’s voice was clipped. “Effective immediately, all loupism-related terminations of children are suspended. Sedate them instead.”
He turned and walked out.
I paused for half a second to tell Julie that it will be okay and chased after him.
The hallway was empty. The Beast Lord was gone.
I climbed the Stairs of Doom to the top floor. I had wanted to chase Curran down, but Julie was still freaked out and Meredith ping-ponged from hugging one daughter to crying over another. She didn’t want us to induce a coma. She wanted more panacea and couldn’t understand that there was none to be had. It took the three of us, Doolittle, Julie, and me, over an hour to convince her that Maddie needed to be sedated. By the time I finally left the medical ward, Curran was long gone. The guards at the entrance saw him walk out, but nobody knew where he went.
I reached the guard station at the entrance to our floor. Living in the Keep was like trying to find privacy in a glass bowl, and the two top floors of the main Tower were my refuge. Nobody entered here unless Beast Lord’s personal guard vetted them and they weren’t charitable when approving visitors.
Sitting in a dark room watching a child suffer, while her mother’s soul died bit by bit, was more than I could handle. I needed to do something. I had to vent or I would explode.
I nodded at the guards and went down the hallway to a long glass wall that separated our private gym. I took off my shoes and stepped inside. Weights waited for me, some free, some attached to machines. Several heavy punching bags hung from chains in the corner, next to a speed bag. Swords, axes, and spears rested in the hooks on the wall.
My adoptive father Voron died when I was fifteen, and afterward my guardian, Greg Feldman, took care of me. Greg had spent years accumulating a collection of weapons and artifacts, which he left to me. It was all gone now. My aunt paid us a visit and left a chunk of Atlanta a smoking ruin, including the apartment I had inherited from Greg. But I was rebuilding it slowly. I didn’t have any prized weapons in my collection, except for Slayer, my saber, but all of my weapons were functional and well made.
I shrugged off the back sheath with Slayer in it, lowered it to the floor, and did pushups for a couple of minutes to warm up, but my weight wasn’t enough, so I switched to the bag, hammering punches and spinning kicks. The pressure, building in me for the past hours, fueled me. The bag shuddered from the impact.
It wasn’t fair that children went loup. It wasn’t fair that there were no warning signs. It wasn’t fair that I could do absolutely nothing about it. It wasn’t fair that if Curran and I ever had children, I would be like Jennifer, stroking my stomach and be terrified of the future. And if my children went loup, I’d have to kill them. The thought spurned me on, whipping me into frenzy. I wouldn’t be able to do it. If Curran and I had a baby, I couldn’t kill him or her. I didn’t have it in me. Thinking about it was like jumping into iced-over water.
I worked the bag for the better part of the hour, switched to weights, then did the bag again, trying to drive myself to near exhaustion. If I got tired enough, I would stop thinking.
Exhaustion proved elusive. I’d spent the last few weeks recuperating, training, eating well, and making love whenever I felt like it. I had more stamina than the battery bunny from the old commercials. Eventually I lost myself to the simple physical exertion. When I finally came up for air, sweat slicked my body and my muscles ached.
I took a Chercassy saber off the wall and went and picked up Slayer. The saber had cost me an arm and a leg many years ago, when I still worked for the Mercenary Guild. I had kept it at my old house and it survived my aunt’s reign of terror.
I raised the two swords – the Cherkassy saber that was heavier and more curved, the Slayer that was lighter and straighter – and began to chop, loosening the muscles. One sword a shiny wide circle in front of me, one behind me, reverse, picking up speed until a whirlwind of sharp steel surrounded me. Slayer sang, whistling as it sliced the air, the pale, opaque blade like a ray of a steel sun. I reversed the direction, switching to the defense, worked for another five minutes or so, while walking, turned, and saw Barabas standing by the glass.
A weremongoose, Barabas was raised in the Bouda Clan. They loved him, but it soon became apparent that he didn’t fit into the werehyena hierarchy, so Aunt B, the alpha of Clan Bouda, had offered his services to me. He and Jezebel, the other of Aunt B’s misfits, acted as my nannies. Jezebel watched my back and Barabas had the unenviable task of steering me through Pack’s politics and laws.
Slender and pale, Barabas was born with a chip on his shoulder and he made everything into a statement, including his hair. It stood straight up on his head, forming spiky peaks of brilliant orange and pretending that it was on fire. Today, the hair was particularly aggressive. He looked electrocuted.
Barabas opened the glass door and stepped into the gym, his eyes tracking the movement of my swords. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes you scare me, Kate.”
“Barabas, you grow two-inch claws and can bench press a Shetland pony. And you find me scary?”
He nodded. “And I work with some very scary people. That should tell you something. How do you not cut yourself?”
“Practice.” I’d been practicing since I was tall enough to keep my swords from snagging on the ground.
“It looks impressive.”
“That’s mostly the point. This is the style of bladework used when you’re knocked off the horse and surrounded by enemies. It’s designed to let you carve your way out of the crowd as quickly as possible. Most people will see you doing this and decide they should be somewhere else.”
“I don’t doubt it. What if it’s one super swordsman guy that jumps in front of you?” Barabas asked.
I raised Slayer and drew a horizontal eight with the sword, rolling my wrist.
“Butterfly.” I sped it up and added the second sword below. “One butterfly higher, one butterfly lower, switch arms, repeat as necessary. Throat, stomach, throat, stomach. Now he isn’t sure what to guard so either you kill him or he gets out of your way, and you keep walking until you’re out of the crowd. Did you want something?”
“Curran is here.”
“He came in about an hour ago, stood here for a while, watching you, and went upstairs. I think I heard the roof door. I thought that perhaps he would come down, but it’s been awhile, so I thought you might want to know.”
I put the saber down, grabbed Slayer and the sheath, and went down the hallway to a short staircase. First landing led to our private quarters, the second to the roof. The roof was our sanctuary, a place we came when we wanted to pretend we were alone.
I pushed the heavy metal door open and stepped outside. The roof stretched before me, a wide rectangle of stone, bordered by a three-foot wall. In the distance, at the horizon, the skeleton of Atlanta rose against the backdrop of grey pre-dawn sky. Haze shrouded the ruined buildings, turning them pale blue, almost translucent, and the husk of the once vibrant city seemed little more than a mirage. The night was almost over. I hadn’t realized so much time had passed.
Curran crouched in the center of the roof, on top of some cardboard. He was still wearing the same grey T-shirt and jeans. In front of him a black metal contraption lay on its side. It resembled half of a barrel with long metal bits protruding to the side. The long bits were probably legs. The other half of a barrel waited upside-down to the left. An assortment of screws in small plastic bags lay scattered around with an instruction manual nearby, its pages shifting in the breeze.
Curran looked at me. His eyes were the color of rain, solemn and grim. He looked like a man who was resigned to his fate but really didn’t like it. Whatever he was thinking, he wasn’t in a good place.
“Hey there, ass kicker.”
“That’s my line,” he said.
I made my voice sound casual. “What are you building?”
The fact that we already had a grill and a perfectly fine fire pit about ten feet behind him must’ve escaped his notice.
“Where did you get it?”
“Raphael’s reclamation crew pulled a bunch of these out of the rubble of an old home improvement store. He sent me one as a gift.”
Judging by the number of parts, this smoker was more complicated than a nuclear reactor. “Did you read the instructions?”
He shook his head.
“Why, were you afraid they’d take your Man card away?”
“Are you going to help me or just make fun of me?”
“Can’t I do both?”
I found the instructions, flipped to the right page and passed him the washers and nuts for his screws. He threaded them onto the bolts and tightened them with his fingers. The bolts groaned a bit. If I ever wanted to take this thing apart, I’d need a large wrench to do it. And possibly a hammer to hit the wrench when it wouldn’t move.
Curran lined up hinges with the top of the smoker. They didn’t look right.
“I think these hinges are backwards.”
He shook his head. “It will fit.”
He forced the bolts through the hinge holes, tightened the screws, and tried to attach the top to the bottom. I watched him turn it around about six times. He threaded the bolts in, attached them, and stared at the mutilated smoker. The lid was upside down and backwards.
Curran glared at it in disgust. “To hell with it.”
“What’s bugging you?”
He leaned against the wall.