by ILONA ANDREWS
Adam Talford closed his eyes and wished he were somewhere else. Somewhere warm. Where cool waves lapped hot yellow sand, where strange flowers bloomed, and birdsong filled the air.
“Take off the watch! Now!” a male voice barked into his ear. “You think I am fucking with you? You think I am playing? I’ll rip your flesh off your body and make myself a skin suit.”
Adam opened his eyes. The three thugs who pinned him to the brick wall looked half-starved, like mongrel dogs who’d been prowling the alley, feeding on garbage.
He should never have wandered into this side of Philadelphia, not in the evening, and especially not while the magic was up. This was Firefern Road, a place where the refuse of the city hid out among the ruins of the ravaged buildings, gnawed by magic to ugly nubs of brick and concrete. The real predators stalked their prey elsewhere, looking for bigger and meatier scores. Firefern Road sheltered scavengers, desperate and savage, eager to bite, but only when the odds were on their side.
Unfortunately, he had no choice.
“You have the cash,” Adam said, keeping his voice low. “Take it and go. It’s a cheap watch. You won’t get any money for it.”
The larger of the thugs pulled him from the wall and slammed him back into the bricks. The man bent over him, folding his six-foot-two frame down to Adam’s five feet five inches, so their faces were level, forcing Adam to stare straight into his eyes. Adam looked into their blue depths and glimpsed a spark of vicious glee. It wasn’t about the money anymore. It was about domination, humiliation, and inflicting pain. They would beat him just for the fun of it.
“The watch, you little bitch,” the thug ordered.
“No,” Adam said quietly.
A muscular forearm smashed into his neck, cutting off his air. Bodies pressed against him. He felt fingers prying at the metal band on his narrow wrist. His heart hammered. His chest constricted.
Think of elsewhere. Think of blue waves and yellow sand …
Someone yanked at the band. The world was turning darker—his lungs demanded air. Pain shot through his limbs in sharp, burning spikes.
Blue waves … Azure … Calm … Just need to stay calm …
Cold metal broke his skin. They were trying to cut the watch off his wrist. He jerked and heard the crunch of broken glass. Two tiny watch gears flew before his eyes, sparking with residual traces of magic.
Imbeciles. They’d broken it.
The magic chain that held his body in check vanished. The calming visions of the ocean vanished, swept away by an avalanche of fury. His magic roared inside him, ancient, primal, and cold as a glacier. Frost clamped his eyebrows, falling off in tiny snowflakes. The short blond hairs rained down from his head, and pale blue strands grew in their place, falling down to his shoulders. His body surged, up and out, stretching, spilling out into its natural shape. His outer clothes tore under the pressure as his new form stretched the thick spandex suit he wore underneath to its limit. His feet ripped the cheap cloth Converse sneakers. The three small humans in front of him froze like frightened rabbits.
With a guttural roar, Adam grasped the leader by his shoulder and yanked him up. The man’s fragile collarbone broke under the pressure of his pale fingers, and the man screamed, kicking his feet. Adam brought him close, their eyes once again level. The thug trembled and fell silent, his face a terrified rigid mask. Adam knew exactly what he saw: a creature, an eight-foot-tall giant in the shape of a man, with a mane of blue hair and eyes like submerged ice.
Inside him, the rational, human part of Adam Talbot sighed and faded. Only cold and rage drove him now.
“Do you know why I wear the watch?” he snarled into the man’s face.
The thug shook his head.
“I wear it so I can keep my body in my tracking form. Because when I’m small, I don’t draw attention. I can go anywhere. Nobody pays me any notice. I’ve been tracking a man for nine days. His trail led me here. I was so close, I could smell his sweat, and the three of you ruined it for me. I can’t follow him now, can I?” He shook the man like a wet rag. “I told you to walk away. No. You didn’t listen.”
“I’ll listen,” the thug promised. “I’ll listen now.”
“Too late. You wanted to feel big and bad. Now I’ll show you what big and bad is.”
Adam hurled the human across the alley. The thug flew. Before he crashed into a brick ruin with a bone-snapping crunch, his two sidekicks turned and fled, running full speed. Adam vaulted over a garbage Dumpster to his right and gave chase.
Ten minutes later, he returned to the alley, crouched, dug through the refuse with bloody fingers, and fished out his watch. The glass and the top plate were gone, displaying the delicate innards of gears and magic. Hopelessly mangled. Just like the thug who still sagged motionless against the ruin.
The alley reeked with the scavenger stench: fear, sweat, a hint of urine, garbage. Adam rose, stretching to his full height, and raised his face to the wind. The hint of Morowitz’s scent teased him, slightly sweet and distant. The chase was over.
Dean Morowitz was a thief, and, like all thieves, he would do anything for the right price. He’d stolen a priceless necklace in a feat of outrageous luck, but he didn’t do it on his own. No, someone had hired him, and Adam was interested in the buyer much more than in the tool he had used. Breaking Morowitz’s legs would probably shed some light on his employment arrangements, but it would inevitably alarm the buyer, who’d vanish into thin air. Following the thief was a much better course of action.
Adam sighed. He had failed. Tracking the thief now would be like carrying a neon side above his head that read, POM INSURANCE ADJUSTER. He’d have to give Morowitz a day or two to cool off, then arrange for a replacement watch to hide his true form before trying to find the man again.
A mild headache scraped at the inside of Adam’s head, insistent, like a knock on his door.
He concentrated, sending a focused thought in its direction. “Yes?”
“You’re needed at the office, Mr. Talford,” a familiar female voice murmured directly into his mind.
“I’ll be right there,” he promised, rose to his full height, and began to jog, breaking into the long-legged distance-devouring gait that thousands of years ago carried his ancestors across the frozen wastes of the old North.
Night was falling. Anyone with a crumb of sense cleared from the streets or hurried to get home, behind the protection of four walls, barred windows, and a sturdy door. The rare passersby scattered out of his way. Even in post-Shift Philadelphia, the sight of an eight-foot-tall human running full speed in skin-tight black spandex wasn’t a common occurrence. He drew the eye, Adam reflected, leaping over a ten-foot gap in the asphalt. He pounded up the wooden ramp onto the newly built Pine Bridge, spanning the vast sea of crushed concrete and twisted steel that used to be the downtown.
The bridge turned south, carrying him deeper into the city. Far in the distance, the sunset burned out, couched in long orange clouds. The weak light of the dying sun glinted from the heaps of broken glass that used to be hundreds of windows. The cemetery of human ambition.
Human beings had always believed in apocalypse, but they expected the end of the world to come in a furious flash of nuclear cloud, or in environmental disaster, or perhaps even on a stray rock falling from the universe beyond. Nobody expected the magic. It came during one sunny afternoon, in broad daylight, and raged through the world—pulling planes from the sky, stealing electricity, giving birth to monsters. And three days later, when it vanished, and humanity reeled, thousands were dead. Survivors mourned and breathed a sigh of relief, but two weeks later the magic came again.
It flooded the world in waves now, unpredictable and moody, coming back and disappearing on its own mysterious schedule. Slowly but surely, it tore down the tall buildings, feeding on the carcass of technology and molding humanity in its own image. Adam smiled. He took to it better than most.
The latest magic shift took place about half an hour ago, just before he got jumped. While unpredictable, the magic waves rarely lasted less than twelve hours. He was in for a long, magic-filled night.
The bridge split into four different branches. He took the second to the left. It brought him deep into the heart of the city, past the ruins, to the older streets. He cleared the next couple of intersections and turned into the courtyard of a large Georgian-style mansion, a redbrick box, rectangular in shape and three stories high. Anything taller didn’t survive in the new Philadelphia unless it was really old. The POM Mansion, as the house came to be known, had been built at the end of the eighteenth century. Its age and the simplicity of its construction afforded it some immunity against magic.
Adam jogged to the doors. Pressure clutched him for a brief moment, then released him—the defensive spell on the building recognizing his right to enter. Adam stepped through the doors and walked into the foyer. Luxurious by any standards, after his run through the ruined city, the inside of the building looked almost surreal. A hand-knotted blue Persian rug rested on the floor of polished marble. Cream-colored walls were adorned by graceful glass bells of fey lanterns, glowing pale blue as the charged air inside their tubes reacted with magic. A marble staircase veered left and up, leading to the second floor.
Adam paused for a moment to admire the rug. He’d once survived in a cave in the woods for half a year. Luxury or poverty made little difference to him. Luxury tended to be cleaner and more comfortable, but that was about it. Still, he liked the rug—it was beautiful.
The secretary sitting behind a massive redwood desk looked up at his approach. She was slender, young, and dark-skinned. Large brown eyes glanced at him from behind the wide lenses of her glasses. Her name was May, and in the three years of his employment with POM, he’d never managed to surprise her.
“Good evening, Mr. Talford.”
“Good evening.” He could never figure out if she had been there and done that and was too jaded, or if she was simply too well trained.
“Will you require a change of clothes?”
May held out a leather file. His reason for being called into the office. He took it. Priority Two. It overrode all of his cases. Interesting. Adam nodded at her and headed up the stairs.
* * *
The heavy door of the office slid open under the pressure of Adam’s hand. When he joined the ranks of POM Insurance Adjusters three years ago, someone asked him how he wanted his office to look. He told him, “Like the cabin of a pirate captain,” and that was exactly what he got. Cypress paneling lined every inch of the floor, walls, and ceiling, imitating the inside of a wooden ship. The antique-reproduction desk, bolted to the floor for sheer authenticity, supported a sextant, a chronometer, and a bottle of Bombay Blue Sapphire. Behind the desk, an enormous map drawn in ink on yellowed paper took up most of the wall. To the left, bookshelves stretched, next to a large bed sunken into a sturdy wooden frame, so it looked like it was cut into the wall. The bed’s dark blue curtain hung open.
His nostrils caught a hint of faint spice. He inhaled it, savoring the scent. Siroun.
“You smell like blood,” Siroun’s smooth voice said behind him.
Ah. There she is. He turned slightly and watched her circle him, scrutinizing his body. She moved like a lean panther: silent, flexible, graceful. Deadly. Her hair, cropped short into a ragged, messy halo, framed her face like a pale red cloud. She tilted her head. Two dark eyes looked at him.
“You fought with three people, and you let them break your watch?” Her voice was quiet and soothing, and deep for a woman’s. He’d heard her sing once, a strange song of murmured words. It had stayed with him.
“I was tracking Morowitz,” he told her.
“We agreed you would wait for me if his trail led into Firefern.”
“I did. I called it in to the office, waited, then followed him.”
“The office is about four miles from Firefern.”
“How long did you wait?”
He frowned, thinking. “I’d say about two minutes.”
“And that struck you as the appropriate length of time?”
He grinned at her. “Yes.”
A bright orange sheen rolled over her irises, like fire over coals, and vanished. She clearly failed to see the humor in this situation.
Post-Shift Philadelphia housed many people with something extra in their blood, including shapeshifters, a small, sad pack of humans stuck on the crossroads between man and beast. Occasionally, they went insane and had to be put down, but most persevered through strict discipline. Their eyes glowed just like that.
Adjusters worked in pairs, and he and Siroun had been partnered with each other from the beginning. After all this time together, working with her and observing her, he was sure that Siroun wasn’t a shapeshifter. At least not any kind he had ever encountered. When she dropped her mask, he sensed something in her, a faint touch of ancient magic, buried deep, hidden like a fossil under the sediment of civilization. He sensed this same primal magic within himself. Siroun wasn’t of his kind, but she was like him, and she drew him like a magnet.
* * *
Siroun pulled the leather file out of Adam’s fingers and sat on the bed, curling around a large pillow.
Adam was possibly the smartest man she had ever known. And also the biggest idiot. In his mind, big and strong equaled invincible. It would only take one bullet to the head in the right spot, one cut of the right blade in the right place, and none of his regeneration would matter.
He went into Firefern by himself. Didn’t wait. Didn’t tell her. And by the time she’d found out, it was too late—he was already on his way to the office, so she paced back and forth, like a caged tiger until she heard his steps in the hallway.
Adam sat behind his desk, sinking into an oversized leather chair. It groaned, accepting his weight. He cocked his head to the side and moved the bottle of Bombay Sapphire a quarter of an inch to the left. The bright blue liquid caught the light of the fey lantern on the wall and sparkled with all the fire of the real gem.
She pretended to read the file while watching him through the curtain of her eyelashes. For sixteen years, her life was full of chaos, dominated by violence and desperation. Then came the prison; and then, then there was POM and Adam. In her crazed, blood-drenched world, Adam was a granite island of calm. When the turbulent storms rocked her inner world, until she was no longer sure where reality ended and the hungry madness inside her began, she clung to that island and weathered the storm. He had no idea how much she needed this shelter. The thought of losing it nearly drove her out of her mind, what little was left of it.
Adam frowned. A stack of neatly folded clothes sat on the corner of the desk, delivered moments before he walked through the door, together with a small package now waiting for his attention. She’d looked through it: T-shirt, pants, camo suit, all large enough to accommodate his giant body. Adam checked the clothes and pulled the package close. She’d glanced at it—the return address label had one word: Saiman.
“Who is he?” Siroun asked.
“My cousin. He lives in the South.” Adam tore the paper and pulled out a leather-bound book. He chuckled and showed her the cover. Robert E. Howard: The Frost-Giant’s Daughter and Other Stories.
“Is he like you?” Apparently they both had a twisted sense of humor.
“He has more magic, but he uses it mostly to hide. My original form is still my favorite.” Adam leaned back, stretching his enormous shoulders. The customized chair creaked. “He has the ability to assume any form, and he wears every type of body except his own.”
“I’m not sure. I think he wants to fit in. He wants to be loved by everyone he meets. It’s a way of controlling things around him.”
“Your cousin sounds unpleasant.”
Siroun leafed through the file. Not like Adam would need it. He had probably read it on the way up. She once witnessed him go through a fifty-page contract in less than a minute, then demand detailed adjustments.
He was looking at her; she could feel his gaze. She raised her head and let a little of the fire raging inside color her irises. Yes, I’m still mad at you.
Most people froze when confronted with that orange glow. It whispered of old things, brutal and hungry, waiting just beyond the limits of human consciousness.
She looked back at the file.
He opened the top drawer of his desk, took out a small paper box, and set it on the desk. Now what?
Adam pried the lid open with his oversized fingers and extracted a small brown cupcake with chocolate frosting. It looked thimble-sized in his thick hands. “I have a cupcake.”
He had lost his mind.
Adam tilted the cupcake from side to side, making it dance. “It’s chocolate.”
She clenched her teeth, speechless.
“It could be your cupcake if you stop—”
She dashed across the room in a blur, leaped, and crouched on the desk in front of him. He blinked. She plucked the cupcake from his huge hand with her slender fingers and pretended to ponder it. “I don’t like a lot of people.”
“I’ve noticed,” he said. He was still smiling. Truly, he had a death wish.
Siroun examined the cupcake some more. “If you die, I will have to choose a new partner, Adam.” She turned and looked at him. “I don’t want a new partner.”
RETRIBUTION CLAUSE. Copyright © 2012 by Ilona Andrews
BIGFOOT ON CAMPUS. Copyright © 2012 by Jim Butcher
HOLLY’S BALM. Copyright © 2012 by Roxanne Longstreet Conrad
SNOW JOB. Copyright © 2012 by Carole Nelson Douglas
OUTSIDE THE BOX. Copyright © 2012 by P. N. Elrod
HOW DO YOU FEEL?. Copyright © 2012 by Simon R. Green
THERE WILL BE DEMONS. Copyright © 2012 by Lori Handeland
CHERRY KISSES. Copyright © 2012 by Erica Hayes
THE ARCANE ART OF MISDIRECTION. Copyright © 2012 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC