Thank you once again for all the beta help. I think I’ve sent just about all of them out. We even scored two readers for the time when the manuscript will need hard core scouring.
I keep delaying the Innkeeper. I know you guys are waiting, but we are really swamped and we would like to do this next scene justice. I thought I’d treat you to a snippet from Magic Rises. We have the cover for it. It has a girl and a sword and a lion. We can’t show it yet.
Okay so rough, blah blah blah. First draft, blah blah blah. Still working on it, blah-blah-blah.
I stood on the grassy hill. In front of me a garish sunset burned with violent intensity, the scarlet and crimson clouds floating like bandages in the open wound of the sanguine sky. Against the sunset, on the plain below, people were building a tower. Magic churned and roiled around them as the roughly hewn stone blocks rose in the air, held up by power and human will. Far in the distance, another tower stretched to the sky.
I wanted to stop it. Every instinct I had screamed that this was wrong. It was dangerous and wrong, and we would all suffer at the end of it. Something terrible would happen if it was completed. I wanted to go down there and scatter the stones.
I couldn’t move.
Cold sweat drenched me. I couldn’t look away, I just watched as the tower rose block by block, a monument to my father’s growing power and ambition. It kept going up, unstoppable, like an ancient legion, like a tank crushing all that stood before it.
Someone moved to the right of me. I strained, trying to tear myself from the scene, turned, and saw Julie. Wind stirred her blond hair. She looked back at me, her eyes terrified. Tears ran down her cheeks.
The knock ripped through the dream. I sat upright in my bed. Darkness reigned, diluted but not conquered by moonlight coming through the open window. My face felt damp. I brushed my fingers at my hairline. Sweat. Great. I used to have nightmares about Roland and being found, but they stopped when Curran started holding me at night. They were never this vivid.
The covers next to me were rumpled. Curran must’ve slipped out of our bed in the middle of the night. Well, that explained. He was gone, and watching Maddie going loup had rattled me. It was stress. Eventually my dear dad would find me, but not today.
The knocking sounded again, persistent. I slipped out of bed, shrugged on my sweatpants, and went to the door.
Barabas stood on the other side. He had done something to his hair, and it didn’t just looked spiky. It was shiny, as if his head pretended it was on fire. He looked electrocuted.
I searched his eyes. No alarm. Whatever it was, it wasn’t Curran. I made some sniffing sounds.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Checking the air for smoke.”
“Because you know I dragged myself to bed less than two hours ago. You wouldn’t wake me up unless it was an emergency. I’m guessing you must’ve set the guard room on fire with your hair and now you want me to evacuate.” Kate one.
“Ha. Ha. You have a phone call, alpha.”
I hated to be called alpha. Kate one, Barabas one. A draw. “Who is it?”
Barabas looked disgusted, as if someone just offered him some moldy bread. “The Clerk from the Guild. He says it’s about the pervert.”
“Yes. The Clerk says it’s an emergency.”
Okay. “Lead on.”
Saiman was an information broker, who happened to also be an expert on all things magic. He also made a small fortune in shipping and other ventures. He charged exorbitant prices for his services, but because I had amused him, he had offered me a discount in the past. I had consulted him a few times, but he kept trying to entice me into his bed to prove a philosophical point. I’d put up with it, until he had the stupidity to parade our connection in front of Curran. The Beast Lord and I had been in a rough spot in our relationship, and Curran didn’t take that exhibition well, the fact which he expressed by turning a warehouse full of luxury cars Saiman had slipped past customs into crushed coke cans. Since then, Saiman lived in mortal fear of Curran. He avoided me and all things shapeshifter like we were a plague.
Saiman feared physical pain, so he maintained a VIP account at the Mercenary Guild for times when he needed to use brute force. Unfortunately for him, the Pack now owed a third of the Guild and I was in charge of that third. I’d flagged his account, making sure I was notified about his activities. Saiman wasn’t exactly vindictive, but he had a long memory, and I wanted to make sure he didn’t spring any surprises on us.
Anything involving Saiman would make Curran lose his temper. A pissy werelion was rather difficult to live with. He wasn’t in a great mood today anyway. Three days had passed since we decided to go to Black Sea. We still had no ship and it was driving both Curran and Jim up the wall.
“Do you know where Curran is?”
“He went out to talk to a guy about a ship.”
“Did he seem optimistic?”
Barabas shook his head. “No.”
We arrived to the guard rooms and Janice offered me the phone. A seasoned guard, Janice was a werejackal, about ten years older than me. She looked like a soccer mom on steroids.
I took the phone and pressed the speaker button. “Yes?”
“Kate?” the Clerk’s familiar voice asked. The Clerk had a name but nobody among the mercs used it. He was simply the Clerk and he didn’t seem to mind the name.
“Yep. What can I do for you?”
“Saiman’s been kidnapped.”
“Aha.” Aha was an excellent word. Neither a question, nor a statement.
Janice scribbled on a piece of paper, transcribing the conversation.
“They’re holding him for ransom. They dropped the note off at his accountant who called us.”
“How much do they want?”
“A big one.”
Barabas’s eyes went wide. Janice clamped her hand over her mouth for a second. The Guild charged ten percent of ransom for rescuing kidnapped victims. That was quite a chunk of change.
“Where do they want the money delivered?” I asked.
“Mole Hole, in the crater. You know the place.”
Everybody in Atlanta knew the place, but I knew it really well. That’s where my insane aunt nearly killed the lot of us and almost burned the city to the ground. That’s where I had killed her and almost lost Curran.
“Any details?” I asked.
“I’ve got the note. It says, “I’ve been kidnapped. I’m under heavy guard. Please draw $1,000,000 and deliver it to the Mole Hole before sunrise or my attackers will see red.”
“I wouldn’t know,” the Clerk said. “We got one the other night that said if we didn’t come and get this guy, the kidnappers would feed him to a giant tortoise. Do you want me to do anything about this?”
“I’ll take it,” I said.
“Just so you know, you’re on record for that.”
“That’s fine. Thank you for calling.”
I looked at Janice. “Did you get all that?”
She passed me the paper. Under guard, seeing red. Interesting choice of words, atypical of Saiman. He spoke like a college intellectual. His philosophy was that if he couldn’t pack at least three syllables into a word, it wasn’t worth his attention.
Saiman was a self-admitted sexual deviant and egomaniac. The last time he put me into a life-threatening situation, he’d jumped into his car and taken off so fast, the snow from his tires pelted my face. But if I saved him, he would owe a favor. A very large million-dollar favor.
The beginnings of a plan formed in my head.
“We’re not going to pay that ransom, are we?” Janice asked.
“Hell no.” I looked at the paper again. “Is Jim still up?”
“He’s in his spy rooms,” Janice said.
Most shapeshifters were semi-nocturnal. Late to bed, late to rise.
“Oh good. If Curran comes through here, this whole thing never happened.”
“Are you asking me to lie to the Beast Lord?” Janice’s eyes narrowed into slits. A subtle grin hid in the corners of her mouth.
“No, I’m telling you not to volunteer information.” If Curran got involved, it would be all over. “What Beast Lord doesn’t know can’t hurt him. Or me.”
I went through the security check point and down the wide staircase that ran the height of the Keep’s main tower. Luckily I didn’t have to go too far. Jim’s spy operation occupied rooms two floors below.
I found Jim in the small kitchenette getting a cup of coffee. Normally Jim didn’t stand, he loomed like a menacing shadow, but right now he was on his home turf, and the air of threat had dropped off to tolerable levels. He looked relaxed and when he saw me, he smiled without showing his teeth. Jim Sharpshire, a sweet and welcoming jaguar. Ah-ha. Not buying it, buster.
“Is there any coffee left?”
Jim hefted the metal pot. “There is.”
I grabbed a mug and watched him pour the nearly black liquid out. Back when we both worked for the Mercenary Guild, Jim preferred to take night jobs. The giant vat of coffee was made once, in the morning. By the end of the night, no sane soul would touch it. Jim drank it like water.
Jim filled my mug. I sniffed it. So far so good. I took a brave sip. The bitter scalding liquid slid a third of the way down my throat and got stuck. “Dear god.”
“Jim, if I turn the cup upside down, it will roll out slowly like molasses.”
“That’s how you know it’s good. Drink it, it will put hair on your chest.”
“My chest is fine as is, thanks. You’re in a good mood.”
“I think I might have found us a captain. Not sure yet. What brings you to my lair?”
Jim skewed his face. He hated Saiman the way cats hated water. “What does he want?”
“He’s been kidnapped and he wants someone to bring his kidnappers a million dollars.”
Jim blinked. For a second his face froze, slapped by surprise, then the Pack chief of security leaned back and laughed.
I sipped the horrible coffee. I’ve known him for years and I could count on one hand the number of times I heard him laugh.
“Keep it coming.” I waved at him. “Get it out of your system.”
I managed two more swallows of coffee by the time he finally got himself under control enough to talk.
“Do you have a million dollars, Kate? You must’ve done a lot better at the Guild than I did.”
Laugh it up, why don’t you. “Have you heard anything about Red Guard going rogue?”
The Red Guard was a premier bodyguard outfit in the city. If you wanted private cops, there were none better. I’ve worked with them a few times.
I passed him the paper with Saiman’s conversation. Jim read it and raised his eyebrows. “Under heavy guard seeing red, huh. You remember Rene Benoit?”
I nodded. I first met Rene when she ran security for an illegal gladiatorial tournament. Since then she’d hired me for a job, and her glowing endorsement of my fledgeling investigative firm was driving business my way.
“After the whole Lighthouse Keepers mess, she was promoted,” Jim said. “She’d come up through the ranks and knew who was pulling their weight and who wasn’t, so when she got to the top, she cleaned house. Two weeks ago twelve people got let go. A couple of them showed up at the Guild looking to enroll and bitching about how unfair it was.”
“Which one of the twelve would be more likely to hammer together a gang and stoop to kidnapping?”
Jim frowned. “Leon Tremblay. He’d been in the Guard for over a decade, so he’s got seniority and people would follow him. The word is, if you’ve got enemies with deep pockets, you don’t want him to guard you.”
“He sold his ‘bodies’?” I hated bodyguard detail. I’ve done my fair share during my time with the Mercenary Guild and some of my clients had done everything in their power to get themselves killed, while you put yourself between them and danger. Selling the life of the person you guarded went against the very spirit of the job. It made you the lowest of the low.
Jim nodded. “He wasn’t obvious about it, but once every eight to six months one of his clients would manage to croak under entirely plausible but very convenient circumstances. When Rene made Major, she booted his ass out on the street. He must’ve been trouble, because when Rene fired him, she had six people in the room with her.” Jim finished his coffee. “You’re going after Tremblay?”
“Don’t have anything better to do,” I told him. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“Kate, you know you don’t have to save that asshole. He isn’t worth it and he won’t appreciate it.”
“I know.” I went to the door. “There is a method to my madness. Trust me.”
“Take backup,” Jim called after me. “At least bring that dog with you.”
Backup wasn’t a bad idea and I knew just the right person to bring with me. I climbed the stairs up one floor and knocked on Derek’s room. A raspy voice called, “Come in.”
I stepped into the room. Derek was doing a one-armed handstand against the wall. As I watched, muscles flexed on his chest under a torn up T-shirt. His biceps bulged. Derek lowered himself down and pushed up. One-arm-upside-down pushup. Young werewolves. Full of energy.
“Show off. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
Derek kept moving, lowering and raising his body in a smooth measured rhythm, like a machine. “I was about to turn in. Just a little end of the day work-out before the shower.”
It’s good to be a werewolf. “I need backup.”
“Who are we killing?” He switched to the other arm and kept pushing.
“Some ex-Red Guards and we’re not necessarily going to kill them. We’re just going to visit them and explain that kidnapping Saiman for ransom is a bad idea.”
Derek stopped moving. “They kidnapped the pervert?”
He hopped to his feet. “This I’ve got to see.”