BOOK 5 OF HIDDEN LEGACY
BOOK 2 OF CATALINA’S TRILOGY
AVAILABLE ON AUGUST 25, 2020
Ilona Andrews, #1 New York Times bestselling author, continues her spellbinding series set in the Hidden Legacy world where magic controls everything…except the hearts of those who wield it.
As Prime magic users, Catalina Baylor and her sisters have extraordinary powers—powers their ruthless grandmother would love to control. Catalina can earn her family some protection working as deputy to the Warden of Texas, overseeing breaches of magic law in the state, but that has risks as well. When House Baylor is under attack and monsters haunt her every step, Catalina is forced to rely on handsome, dangerous Alessandro Sagredo, the Prime who crushed her heart.
The nightmare that Alessandro has fought since childhood has come roaring back to life, but now Catalina is under threat. Not even his lifelong quest for revenge will stop him from keeping her safe, even if every battle could be his last. Because Catalina won’t rest until she stops the use of the illicit, power-granting serum that’s tearing their world apart.
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The wolf was coming.
Lander Morton knew this because he’d invited the wolf into his home. His body man, Sheldon, had come to tell him the wolf was at the door and had gone to fetch him. Now the two of them were coming back, but Lander only heard one set of footsteps echo through the house.
He shifted in his wheelchair and took a long swallow of his bourbon. Fire rolled down his throat. His old guts would make him pay for it later, but he didn’t care. Some men were men, and others were wolves in human skin. He needed a human wolf for this job, and he would get one.
For the first time in the last three days he felt something other than crushing grief. This new emotion cut through the thick fog of despair, and he recognized it as anticipation. No, it was more than that. It was a heady mix of expectation, apprehension, and excitement tinged with fear. He used to feel like this years ago, when he was on the verge of closing a huge deal. It had been decades since he’d experienced this splash of adrenaline, and for a moment, he felt young again.
Sheldon appeared in the doorway of the study and stood aside, letting the other man enter. The guest took three steps inside and stopped, letting himself be seen. He was young, so young, and he moved with an easy grace that made Lander feel ancient. Strong, tall, handsome in that Mediterranean way, shaped by sun and salt water. When Felix’s boy grew up, he might look like that.
Pain lashed him, and Lander struggled with it.
His guest waited.
Lander looked at his face. There it was, in the eyes, the wolf looking back at him. Cold. Hungry.
About time he got here. No, he couldn’t say that. He had to be civil. He couldn’t fuck this up. “Thank you for coming to see me on such short notice.”
Sheldon stepped back into the hall and closed the doors. He would wait by them to make sure they wouldn’t be interrupted.
“Please think nothing of it,” the guest said. “My condolences.”
Lander nodded to the bottle of Blood Oath Pact bourbon waiting on a corner of the desk. “A drink?”
The guest shook his head. “I don’t drink on the job.”
“Smart.” Lander splashed another inch of bourbon into his glass. He wasn’t sure if he was drowning his grief or building up liquid courage. If he failed to state his case and the man walked away . . . He couldn’t let him walk away.
“I knew your father,” Lander said. “I met him and your mother while I was over there making a deal for Carrara marble for the Castle Hotel. It was expensive as hell, but I wanted the best.” The man shrugged.
Panic squirmed through Lander. Words came tumbling out. “They killed my son. They took his money, they used his knowledge and connections, and then they murdered him, and I don’t know why.”
“Do you care why?”
“Yes, but I’ve already hired someone for that.”
“So, what do you want from me?”
“I loved my son. He was smart, sharp, sharper than I ever was, and honest. People hate my guts, but everyone liked him because he was a good man. His wife, Sofia, died three years ago, and he took care of their kids by himself. A son and two daughters. The boy is the oldest, fourteen years old. I’ve had a stroke, and there’s cancer eating at me, but now I can’t croak for four more years. I’ve got to hold on until the boy is old enough to take over. I want those bastards to die!”
Lander clenched his fists. His voice had gone hoarse and some part of him warned him he sounded unhinged. But the hurt was too raw, and it bled out of him.
“I want them to suffer, and I want them to know why. They took my son from me and from his children. They’ve ruined my boy, my handsome, smart boy. Everything I built, everything he built, they think they can just rip it all away from me.” His voice dropped barely above a whisper, rough and dripping pain. “Kill them.
Kill them for me.” Silence filled the study.
Worry drowned Lander. Had he said too much? Did he sound too crazy?
“My mother remembers meeting you,” the guest said. “There is a photo of the three of you on the yacht. She was pregnant with me at the time. She said her morning sickness was unbearable and you told her that ginger ale was the best for upset stomachs. There was no ginger ale to be had so you ordered a case of it from Milan by courier.”
The guest stepped up to the desk, splashed a finger of bourbon into the second glass, and raised it. “To your son.”
He drained the glass in one swallow and Lander saw the wolf again, staring at him from within the man’s soul.
“Does this mean you’ll take the job?”
The relief was almost overwhelming. Lander slumped in his chair.
“I reviewed your situation prior to my visit,” the guest said. “It will take time and money. It will be complicated, because it has to be done right.”
“Whatever it takes,” Lander said. He felt so tired. He’d done it. He could look at Felix’s gravestone now and he could promise his son that revenge was coming.
“The proof of their guilt must be irrefutable.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Lander said. “You’ll have your proof. I only hire the best.”
House Baylor Investigative Agency,” I shouted. “Holster your weapons and step away from the monkey!”
The orange tamarin monkey about the size of a large squirrel stared at me from the top of the lamppost, silhouetted against the bright blue sky of a late afternoon.
The two men and a woman under the post continued to grip their guns.
All three wore casual clothes, the men in khakis and T- shirts, the woman in white capris and a pale blue blouse. All three were in good shape, and they held their guns in nearly identical positions, with their barrels pointing slightly down, which marked them as professionals who didn’t want to accidentally shoot us. Given that none of us had drawn weapons yet, they must have felt they had the upper hand. Sadly for them, their assessment of their personal safety was wildly off the mark.
Next to me, Leon bared his teeth. “Catalina, I really don’t like it when people point guns at me.”
Neither did I, but unlike Leon, I would be highly unlikely to shoot each of them through the left eye “for
“Montgomery International Investigations,” the older of the men announced. “Pack it in and head back to the mystery machine, kids.”
Usually Augustine’s people wore suits, but chasing monkeys through the sweltering inferno of Houston’s July called for a more casual attire. Leon and I had opted for casual as well. My face was dirty, my dark hair was piled in a messy bun on top of my head, and my clothes wouldn’t impress anyone. Of the three of us, only Cornelius looked decent, and even he was drenched in sweat.
“You’re interfering with our lawful recovery,” I announced. “Step aside.”
The female agent stepped forward. She was in her thirties, fit, with light brown skin and glossy dark hair pulled into a ponytail. “You seem like a nice girl.” You have no idea.
She kept going. “Let’s be reasonable about this before the testosterone starts flying. This monkey is the property of House Thom. It’s a part of a very important pharmaceutical trial. I don’t know what you’ve been told, but we have a certificate identifying the ownership of the monkey. I’ll be happy to let you verify it for yourself. You’re still young, so a word of advice, always get the proper paperwork to cover your ass.”
“Oh no she didn’t,” Leon muttered under his breath.
At twenty- one, most of my peers were either in college, working for their House, or enjoying the luxury carefree lifestyle the powerful magic of their families provided. Being underestimated worked in my favor. However, we’d been looking for the monkey for several days. I was hot, tired, and hungry and my patience was in short supply. Besides, she insulted my paperwork skills. Paperwork was my middle name.
“This monkey is a helper monkey, a highly trained service animal, certified to assist individuals with spinal cord injuries. She was snatched from her rightful owner during a trip to the doctor and illegally sold to your client. I have her pedigree report, immunization records, vet records, certificate from the Faces, Paws, and Tail nonprofit that trained her, a signed affidavit from her owner, a copy of the police report, and her DNA profile. Also, I’m not a nice girl. I am the Head of my House conducting a lawful recovery of stolen property. Do not impede me again.”
On my left Cornelius frowned. “Could we hurry this along? Rosebud is experiencing a lot of stress.”
“You heard the animal mage,” Leon called out. “Don’t we all want what’s best for the stressed- out monkey?”
The shorter of the men squinted at us. “Head of the House, huh? How do you even know this is the same monkey?”
How many golden lion tamarin monkeys did he expect to be running around in Eleanor Tinsley Park? “Rosebud, sing.”
The monkey raised her adorable head, opened her mouth, and trilled like a little bird.
The three MII employees stared at her. Here’s hoping for logic and reason…
“This proves nothing,” the woman announced.
As it happened so often with our species, logical reasoning was discarded in favor of the overpowering need to be right, facts and consequences be damned.
“What about now?” Leon asked. “Can I kill one? Just one. Please.”
Leon was extremely selective about shooting people, but the MII agents drew on me and Cornelius, and his protective instinct kicked into overdrive. If they raised their guns another two inches, they would die, and my cousin was doing his best deranged rattlesnake act to keep that from happening.
Leon wagged his eyebrows at me.
“No,” I told him.
“I said please. What about the kneecaps? I can shoot them in the kneecaps, and they won’t die. They won’t be happy, but they won’t die.”
“No.” I turned to Cornelius. “Is there any way to retrieve her without hurting them?”
He smiled and looked to the sky.
Cornelius Maddox Harrison didn’t look particularly threatening. He was white and thirty- one years old, of average build and below average height. His dark blond hair was trimmed by a professional stylist into a short but flattering cut. His features were attractive, his jaw clean shaven, and his blue eyes were always quiet, calm, and just a little distant. The three MII agents took one look at his face and his badass ensemble of light khaki pants and white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and decided they had nothing to worry about. Next to him, dark haired, tan, and lean, Leon radiated menace and kept making threats, so they judged him to be the bigger risk.
“This has been fun and all,” the older MII agent said. “But playtime is over, and we have an actual job to do.”
A reddish- brown hawk plummeted from the sky, plucked the monkey from the pole, swooped over the agents, and dropped Rosebud into Cornelius’ waiting hand. The monkey scampered up Cornelius’ arm and onto his shoulder, hugged his neck, and trilled into his ear. The chicken hawk flew to our left and perched on the limb of a red myrtle growing by the sidewalk.
“Well, shit,” the woman said.
“Feel free to report this to Augustine,” I told them. “He has my number.”
And if he had a problem with it, I would smooth it over. Augustine Montgomery and our family had a complicated relationship. I’d studied him with the same dedication I used to study complex equations, so if he ever became a threat, I could neutralize him.
The older of the men gave us a hard stare. His firearm crept up an inch. “Where do you think you’re going?”
I snapped my Prime face on. “Leon, if he targets us, cripple him.”
Leon’s lips stretched into a soft, dreamy smile.
People in the violence business quickly learned to recognize other professionals. The MII agents were well trained and experienced, because Augustine prided himself on quality. They looked into my cousin’s eyes and knew that Leon was all in. There was no fear or apprehension there. He enjoyed what he did, and given permission, he wouldn’t hesitate.
Then they looked at me. Over the past six months I’d become adept at assuming my Head of the House persona. My eyes told them that I didn’t care about their lives or their survival. If they made themselves into an obstacle, I would have them removed. It didn’t matter what I wore, how old I was, or what words I said. That look would tell them everything they needed to know.
The tense silence stretched.
The woman whipped out her cell phone and turned away, dialing a number. The two men lowered their guns.
Oh good. Everyone would get to go home.
Augustine’s people marched toward the river, the shorter man in the lead, and turned right, heading for the small parking lot where I had parked Rhino, the custom armored SUV Grandma Frida made for me. They gave us a wide berth. We watched them go. No reason to force another confrontation in the parking lot.
We’d been looking for Rosebud for five days straight, ever since Cornelius took the case. Her owner, a twelve- year- old girl, was so traumatized by the theft, she had to be sedated. Finding the little monkey trumped the rest of our caseload. We accepted this job pro bono, because snatching a service animal from a child in a wheelchair was a heinous act and someone had to make it right.
Scouring Houston in hundred- degree heat looking for a tiny monkey took a lot of effort. I barely managed five hours of sleep in the last forty- eight, but every bit of my sweat would be worth it if I could see Maya hug her monkey. My Monday was looking up.
Cornelius smiled again. “I do so love happy endings.”
“Happy ending for you, maybe,” Leon grumbled. “I didn’t get to shoot anybody.”
First, we would deliver Rosebud to Maya, and then I would go home, take a shower, and then a long, happy nap.
Cornelius shook his head. “Your reliance on violence is quite disturbing. What happens when you meet someone faster than you?”
My cousin pondered it. “I’ll be dead, and it won’t matter?”
Talon suddenly took to the air with a shriek, swooping over Buffalo Bayou River. Leon and Cornelius stopped at the same time. Cornelius frowned, looking at the murky waters to the left of a large tree.
Directly in front of us, a narrow strip of mowed lawn hugged the sidewalk. Past the grass, the ground sloped sharply, hidden by tall weeds all the way to the river that stretched to Memorial Parkway Bridge in the distance.
The river lay placid. Not even a ripple troubled the surface.
I glanced at Leon. A second ago his hands were empty. Now he held a SIG P226 in one hand and a Glock 17 in the other. It gave him thirty- two rounds of 9 mm ammunition. He only needed one round to make a kill.
“What is it?” I asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” Leon said.
“The hawk is scared,” Cornelius said.
The surface of the river was still and shining slightly, reflecting the sunlight like a tarnished dime.
The distance in Cornelius’ eyes grew deeper. “Something’s coming,” he whispered.
We had no reason to hang around and wait for it. “Let’s go.”
I turned right and sped up toward our vehicles. Leon and Cornelius followed.
Ahead the shorter of the MII agents was almost to the lot. The woman trailed him, while the taller agent brought up the rear.
A green body burst through the weeds. Eight feet long and four feet tall, it scrambled forward on two big muscular legs, dragging a long scaly tail fringed with bright carmine fins. Another fin— this one bloodred and crested with foot- long spikes— thrust from its spine. Its head could have belonged to an aquatic dinosaur or a prehistoric crocodile— huge pincher- like jaws that opened like giant scissors studded with conical fangs designed to grab and hold struggling prey while the beast pulled them under. Two pairs of small eyes, sunken deep into its skull, glowed with violet.
This didn’t look like anything our planet had birthed. It was either some magic experiment gone haywire or a summon from the arcane realm.
We would need bigger guns.
The beast rushed across the grass. The taller MII agent was directly in its path.
“Run!” Leon and I screamed at the same time.
The man whipped around. For a frantic half second he froze, then jerked his gun up, and fired at the creature. Bullets bit into the beast and glanced off its thick scales.
The two other MII agents pivoted to the beast and opened fire. I sprinted to Rhino and the combat shotgun inside it. Leon dashed after me, trying to get a better angle on the creature. Cornelius followed.
Augustine’s people emptied their magazines into the beast. It plowed through them, knocking them aside. Purple blood stained its sides, but the wounds barely bled, as if the bullets had merely chipped its scales.
The beast’s gaze locked on me. It ignored the agents and hauled itself toward me, two massive paws gouging the turf with red claws.
Leon fired a two- bullet burst from each gun. Four bloody holes gaped where the creature’s beady eyes used to be. It roared, stumbled, and crashed to the ground.
I halted. Cornelius ran past me to the lot.
The female MII agent rose slowly. Her tall friend stared at a bright red gash in his bare thigh. His left pant leg hung in bloody shreds around his ankle. He shifted his weight. Blood poured from the wound and I saw a glimpse of bone inside. The agent gaped at it, wide- eyed, clearly in shock.
“Holy shit,” the shorter MII agent muttered and snapped a new magazine into his HK45.
At the edge of the parking lot, Cornelius spun around and waved his arms toward the river. “Don’t stop! There’s more! More are coming!”
Green beasts poured through the weeds, a mass of scaled bodies, finned tails, and fanged jaws, and in its center, buried under the creatures, a dense knot of magic pulsated like an invisible beacon. The knot’s magic splayed out, touched me, and broke around my power, like a wave against a breaker. A sea of violet eyes focused on me.
The pack turned toward me and charged.
Whatever was emanating magic in the center of the pack was also controlling them. If I had a second, I could’ve fought it with my magic, but the cluster of bodies was too thick, and the beasts came too fast.
I turned and sprinted toward Rhino. The thing’s magic followed me, pinging from my mind like radar. I didn’t need to look back to know the entire pack chased me.
Ahead Cornelius jerked a car remote from his pocket. The lights of his BMW hybrid flashed. The hatchback rose and a massive blue beast tore out, a tiger on steroids, with glossy indigo fur splattered with black and pale blue rosettes.
Zeus landed, roared, flashing fangs the size of steak knives, and bounded across the parking lot. The fringe of tentacles around his neck snapped open, individual tendrils writhing. We passed each other, him sprinting at the creatures and me running in the opposite direction to Rhino.
Gunfire popped behind me like firecrackers going off— Leon, thinning the pack. He’d run out of bullets before they ran out of bodies.
I jumped into Rhino, mashed the brake, and pushed the ignition switch. The engine roared. Cornelius flung the passenger door open and landed in the seat. I stepped on it. Rhino’s custom engine kicked into gear. We shot forward and jumped the curb onto the grass.
In front of us the lawn churned with bodies. A trail of scaled corpses stretched to the left, piling up at the curb of Allen Parkway. Across the street, Leon methodically sank bullets into the creatures in short bursts, using traffic as cover. Zeus snarled next to him. A corpse of a scaled beast lay nearby and Zeus raked it with his claws to underscore his point.
On our right the female agent and the leader had put their arms under the injured man’s shoulders and staggered toward the parking lot. He hung limp, dragging his bleeding leg behind him. The leading beasts on the left snapped their jaws only feet behind them. No people would be mauled by these things today if I could help it.
I steered right, cutting the creatures off from the MII agents at a sharp angle. The enormously heavy bulk of Rhino smashed into the closest creature with a wet crunch. The armored vehicle careened as we rolled over a body. We burst through the edge of the pack into the clear. I put my foot down on the accelerator, tearing down the lawn. Behind me the pack thinned out as the creatures got in each other’s way trying to turn to follow us. For a moment, the cluster of bodies dispersed. Something spun in their center, something metal, round, and glowing. The strange magic knot.
“You see it?”
“I see it.” Cornelius pulled the tactical shotgun from the floorboards and pumped it.
“Can you reach their minds?”
“No. They’re too preoccupied.”
Asking him what that meant now would distract him. I made a hard left, clipping what was once the back of the pack, knocking the stragglers out of the way.
“Ready,” Cornelius said, his voice calm.
I hit the button to lower the front windows and cut straight through the pack, mowing a diagonal line to the left. The churning rolling thing spun on our right, drawing tight circles on the grass. Cornelius stuck the barrel of the shotgun out the window and fired at the metal object.
My ears rang.
“One more time,” Cornelius said, as if asking for another cup of tea.
We flashed by the pack, smashed head- on into a beast, and I veered right and jumped the curb back into the parking lot. In front of us, the MII vehicle, a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee, peeled out onto Allen Parkway with a squeal of tires. The stench of burning rubber blew into the cabin.
“You’re welcome,” Cornelius called after them and reloaded.
I made a hard right onto the parkway. The pack of beasts streaked by on our right.
“Didn’t get it,” Cornelius said. “The slugs bounced off the metal. There’s something alive inside that spinning shell.”
If it was alive, we could kill it.
We could drive around until the pack tired enough to slow down, grab Leon and Zeus, and drive off, but then these things would rampage through Houston. There was a group of kids playing baseball just a quarter of a mile down the road. We had passed them and the adults who were watching them on our way in to retrieve Rosebud.
“Where’s the monkey?”
“Safe in the BMW.”
Oh good. Good, good, good.
I pulled a sharp U- turn and sped down the street back toward the parking lot. The beasts scrambled to follow. The gaps between the bodies widened to several feet and I saw clearly the source of the magic. Two metals rings, spinning one inside the other, like a gyroscope. A small blue glow hovered between them.
We passed Leon. He pointed to the glowing thing with his SIG and pretended to smash the two guns in his hands together. Ram it. Thank you, Captain Strategy, I got it. That thing had survived the river. If I hit it with Rhino, it might just bounce aside, and if it was arcane, there was no telling what sort of damage it would do to the car. No, this would require precision.
“Rapier?” I asked.
“One moment.” Cornelius turned and hit the switch on the console between our seats. Most SUV vehicles had two front seats and a wide backseat designed to seat three. Rhino’s backseat was split into two, with a long, custom- built console storage space running lengthwise between them. The console popped open, and a weapon shelf sprang up, offering a choice of two blades and two guns secured by prongs.
I pulled another U- turn. A white truck screeched to a stop in front of me. The driver laid on the horn, saw the beasts, and reversed down the street at breakneck speed.
“Got it.” Cornelius turned back in his seat, my rapier in his hand.
I aimed Rhino at the gyroscope. Bodies slammed against the car.
“This is foolhardy,” Cornelius advised. “What if it explodes?”
“Then I’ll be dead, and I won’t care,” I quoted.
“Using Leon as inspiration is a doubtful survival strategy.”
I slammed on the brakes. Rhino slid across the lawn and stopped. I grabbed the rapier from Cornelius and jumped out of the SUV. The rotating thing spun only fifty feet away from me. I sprinted to it.
A beast lunged at me. I jumped aside and kept running.
Behind me Rhino thundered as Cornelius revved the engine to distract them.
The air turned to fire in my lungs. I dodged a beast, another . . .
The shining object pinged me with its magic.
The metal rings spun in front of me, a foot wide, splattered with slime and algae. Inside a flower bud glowed, a brilliant electric blue lotus woven of pure magic and just about to bloom.
My family’s magic coursed through me, guiding my thrust. I stabbed it.
The bud burst, sending a cloud of luminescent sparks into the air. Its glow vanished. The rings spun one last time and collapsed.
The beasts around me froze.
For a torturous moment nothing moved.
The creatures stared at me. I stared back.
The pack turned and made a break for the river.
It was over.
Relief washed over me. A steady rhythmic noise came into focus, and I realized it was my heart racing in my chest. My knees shook. A bitter metallic patina coated my tongue. My body couldn’t figure out if it was hot or cold. The world felt wrong, as if I had been poisoned.
The ruins of the device lay in front of me. I tried to take a step. My leg folded under me, the ground decided to spontaneously tilt to the side, and I almost wiped out on a perfectly level lawn. Too much adrenaline. Nothing to do but wait it out. Some people were born for the knife’s- edge intensity of combat. I wasn’t one of them.
Focusing on something to distract myself usually helped. I crouched and scrutinized the rings. The metal didn’t look exactly like steel, but it might have been some sort of iron alloy. A string of glyphs ran the circumference of each ring.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and snapped a pic.
The rings fit inside each other, the inner about three inches smaller than the outer one. The flower stalk was attached to the bottom of the inner ring. No, not attached. It grew from the inner ring, seamlessly protruding from the metal.
I picked up the ring and tugged on the stalk. It held. I ran my fingers along the flower. Toward the severed end, where the flower bud had been, the texture felt like a typical plant. But the lower I moved my fingers, the more metallic the texture became. A true biomechanical meld. To my knowledge, no mage had yet achieved it.
Rhino rolled up next to me and Cornelius jumped out. Pale purple blood splattered the armored vehicle’s custom grille guard. Bits and pieces of alien flesh hung from the metal.
“Are you all right?” Cornelius asked.
No. “Yes. I’m so sorry,” I told him. “I know this was very unpleasant for you.”
Animal mages formed a special bond with a few chosen animals, but they cared about all of them, and we had just mowed down at least a dozen, maybe more.
Cornelius nodded. “Thank you for your concern. They weren’t true animals in the native sense of the word. It helped some.”
“Is this a summon?” I asked.
Cornelius shook his head. “I don’t think so. They feel slightly similar to Zeus. Not of Earth but not completely of the arcane realm either.”
“Earlier you said they were too ‘preoccupied’ to reach?”
Cornelius frowned and nodded at the rings and the bud within. “This object emitted magic.”
“I felt it.”
“The emissions were so dense, they effectively deafened the creatures. They couldn’t feel me. I tried to contact the object itself, but the biological component of it is so primitive, it was like trying to communicate with a sea sponge.”
The House lab scenario looked more and more likely. If these proto- crocodiles had come out of the arcane realm, we would have seen a summoner and a portal.
Massive holes in reality were kind of hard to miss.
Linus would just love this.
I pulled out my phone and dialed his number. One beep, two, three . . .
At the other end of the lawn Leon jogged across the road, Zeus in tow.
The phone kept ringing. Officially Linus Duncan was retired. In reality, he still served the state of Texas in a new, more frightening capacity, and I was his deputy. He always answered my calls.
Linus’ voice came on the line. “Yes?”
“I was attacked by magic monsters in Eleanor Tinsley Park. They were controlled by a biomechanical device powered with magic.” Leon ran up and halted next to me.
“Do you require assistance?” Linus asked.
I activated FaceTime, switched the camera, and panned the phone, capturing the device, the corpses, and the fleeing creatures. On the screen, Linus stared into the phone. In his sixties, still fit, with thick salt- and- pepper hair, he always had the Texas tan. His features were handsome and bold, a square jaw framed by a short beard, prominent nose, thick dark eyebrows, and dark eyes that looked either hazel or brown, depending on the light. He smiled easily, and when he paid attention to you, you felt special. If you asked ten people who just met him to describe him, they would all say one word— charming.
The man looking back at me from the phone was the real Linus Duncan, a Prime, former Speaker of the Texas Assembly, focused, sharp, his eyes merciless. He looked like an old tiger who spotted an intruder in his domain and was sharpening his claws for the kill. A dry staccato came through the phone, a rhythmic thud- thud- thud, followed by a mechanical whine. Linus’ turrets. He was under attack.
Who in the world would assault Linus Duncan in his home? He was a Hephaestus mage. He made lethal firearms out of discarded paperclips and duct tape and his house packed enough firepower to wipe out an elite battalion in minutes.
They attacked me and Linus simultaneously. The thought burned a trail through my mind like a comet. Was someone targeting the Office of the Warden?
“Disengage,” Linus said. “Go straight to MII and take over the Morton case, use the badge. Repeat.”
“Go straight to MII, show the badge, take over the Morton case.”
Usually Linus brought me in after jurisdiction had been established. In the last six months, I’d had to use my badge exactly once, to take over an FBI investigation. To say they had been unhappy about it would be a gross understatement.
“I’ll send the files.” Linus hung up.
“That was turret fire,” Leon said.
“It sure was.”
My cousin grinned, no doubt anticipating another fight. “What are we doing?”
“You’re driving me to MII.”
“I’ll follow.” Cornelius sprinted to the parking lot, Zeus on his heels, bounding like an overly enthusiastic kitten.
I grabbed the device. The metal rings were slick with mud and slime. I walked to Rhino, threw the device into the bin in the back, and jumped into the passenger seat. In the distance, police sirens wailed, getting closer.
Leon peeled out onto the street. In the rearview mirror, Cornelius’ BMW glided out of the parking lot. We’d likely lose him before long. Cornelius’ top driving speed usually stayed four miles over the posted limit. MII was roughly thirty minutes away but knowing Leon we would get there much faster if the traffic let us.
My cousin answered on the second ring, his voice coming from Rhino’s speakers as the phone synced with the car’s control panel.
“I was just attacked by some magical monsters. So was Linus.”
“Was he with you?”
“No. He was at his mansion. Lock us down, please.”
“Done. Do you need help?”
“No. Is everything okay there?”
“Everything is fine.”
“I’m fine too, Bern!” Leon yelled.
“That’s debatable,” his older brother said.
“I’ll call you in a bit,” I told him and hung up.
My phone chimed, announcing a new email. I clicked my inbox. A message from Linus with a video file attached. The file was huge. Linus didn’t optimize the video. I tapped it to download. This would take a while.
“Let me get this straight. Linus is attacked. You don’t ask him if he needs help. You just drop everything and go to MII to take over some case you never heard about before.” Leon shook his head.
“Yes. If Linus required my help, he would tell me.” The Morton case was likely connected to the attacks somehow.
“One day you’ll have to tell me what you do for Linus Duncan,” Leon said.
“But then I’d have to kill you, and, as you often point out, you’re my favorite cousin.” Leon snorted.
Most of my family had no problem with secrecy. Grandma Frida and Mom both served in the military, Bern naturally kept things to himself, and Nevada was a truthseeker. She could fill her and Rogan’s mansion with other people’s secrets and kept them to herself. But Leon and Arabella thrived on gossip. They knew I was doing something confidential for Linus Duncan, but they had no idea what exactly, and it was driving them both up the wall.
I dialed Augustine’s direct number. Voice mail. Getting to see the head of MII on short notice could prove to be a problem. He was busy. But like Leon and Arabella, he loved to collect information— the more exclusive, the better. I had to bait my hook and dangle it in front of him just out of reach.
“This is Catalina Baylor. I have critical information regarding the Morton case. I must see you in person. I’ll be at your office in twenty minutes.” I hung up.
“Who is Morton?” Leon asked, taking a corner too fast.
“Most likely Lander Morton. A Prime geokinetic very old, very rich, one of the prominent developers in the state.”
“How do you know that?”
I knew that because I did my homework. Linus Duncan had had a long and eventful career and he made no effort to conceal the close relationship between our two Houses. I wasn’t sure if we would inherit his friends, but we would definitely inherit his enemies, which was why I had built a biographical database around Linus complete with charts profiling his relationships with various Houses.
“After Linus retired from the Army, he went into politics. Lander Morton used to be Linus’ political rival. The first bill Linus tried to bring to the floor of the Assembly involved zoning restrictions for various Houses. Lander Morton opposed it. A lot of people owed him favors, and he called them in to kill the bill. It got ugly. Morton gave an interview to Houston Chronicle and told them that he would trust Linus with governance as soon as he took ‘his mama’s titty out of his mouth.’ ”
Leon choked on air. “How old was Linus, exactly?”
“And he let that slide?”
“He got Morton back three years later. They both tried to buy the same building, and Linus won. As soon as the ink dried on the closing papers, Linus bought earthquake insurance.”
And he got it dirt cheap too. The last time a natural earthquake occurred around Houston was in 1910, near Hempstead. It was so weak, the city didn’t even feel it.
“Two months after Linus moved his company in, a very small yet surprisingly powerful earthquake destroyed the building. Nobody died. The Assembly and the insurance company investigated, and Morton was slapped with a huge fine and barred from voting in the Assembly for three years. What he really lost was political power.”
Leon frowned. “Is this Linus settling an old score?”
“I doubt it.”
While it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, it was highly unlikely. Linus dedicated himself to service, first military, then civil. Using his official position in a petty political squabble went against everything I knew about him.
The video file finally downloaded. I opened it.
Someone was flying a drone above a swamp. Bright algae islands, emerald green, electric blue, and neon orange floated on the surface. Here and there an abandoned husk of a building thrust through the bog, wrapped in vines and sheathed in moss. Lilies bloomed on the dark water, but rather than the usual white or pink, they were bloodred, so vivid, they almost glowed. Strange trees spread their branches over the mire, their limbs contorted and knotted.
Where was this? It looked like some alien world.
The drone ducked under a tree tinseled with long strands of bizarre moss and emerged into a clearing. Four rickety wooden bridges met at a small island supporting the remnants of what once must have been an office building. Someone had jury- rigged power lines and several long cables converged at a small power pole on top of the structure. One of them supported a body.
It hung above the water, its neck caught in a loop of the cable stretching from the nearby building. The drone turned, getting a better view of the corpse. A man in his late thirties, white, dark haired, wearing pants from a business suit, a torn blue dress shirt, and black dress shoes.
The drone’s camera dipped down, closed in, then panned up, capturing the body from bottom to the top.
No, he wasn’t wearing shoes. His feet had been burned to charred blackness. Ragged gaps marked his trousers over the knees, their edges stained with blood.
A melon- sized chunk of his right side was missing, the wound red and jagged, dripping blood from where it had pooled in the body cavity. Prickly heat stabbed at my spine. He’d suffered before he died.
Breathe. This is your job. Do your job.
His face was an awful mess of blood and broken bone. His left eye had swollen shut. The bridge of his nose jutted to the side. His mouth gaped open and a green slimy trail had leaked from his busted lips, staining the front of his shirt.
The sheer brutality of it was nauseating. I wanted to cover my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look at him.
How could anyone do this to another human being?
“Catalina?” Leon asked, concern in his voice. “Are you okay? What is it?”
“It’s not Lander Morton.” Lander was eighty- three. The dead man had the build and dark hair of someone much younger.
What was this? Where was this?
A silver Alfa Romeo Spider flew past us down the street.
The thought sliced through me, hot and sharp. I yanked myself back from it. Alessandro left six months ago. He was never coming back.
“It wasn’t him,” Leon said. “In the car.”
“If it was that jackass, I would’ve shot him by now.” His voice was cold and measured. He meant it.
“Why would you want to shoot him?”
“He broke your heart. You were miserable for weeks.”
“I broke my own heart, Leon. He was just the hammer I hit it with.”
Leon raised his eyebrows. “That’s deep, Catalina. Small problem though. I was there. He took advantage of your feelings, used you to help him, and then he split. You were depressed for months. You know that saying ‘I’ll make him wish he was never born’? If he shows his face here again, I’ll actually do that.”
Leon’s face had that particular calm, focused look that came over him when he locked on to his target.
If I detached enough to look at what happened between me and Alessandro, it made perfect sense. My magic had isolated me since I was born. If I liked someone or wanted them to notice me, they fell in love with me, completely and absolutely. Soon magic- fueled love progressed into obsession that turned violent. I was homeschooled until high school, because every time I thought I had my magic under control and tried to enroll in public school, disaster followed.
My attempts at relationships had been hesitant and always ended badly. A boy in middle school had built a shrine out of my used tissues and chewed- up pencils in his room and cut his wrists open to keep his parents from confiscating it. His family moved out of state to escape his obsession and I had to go back to being homeschooled. A high school football hero who all of a sudden noticed me panicked at the end of our perfectly nice date because I was leaving, grabbed me by the hair, and tried to force me into his car. There were others. Some escaped with their lives relatively unscathed, but others didn’t. I didn’t make a true friend outside the family until a few months ago. By that point, I had learned to control my power but lived in a constant state of paranoia, afraid that I would slip up and ruin someone’s life and endanger mine.
There was a time somewhere between fifteen and twenty when I desperately wanted friends. I had wanted a boyfriend, someone who was amazing, and handsome, and smart, who could carry on a conversation with me
and get my jokes. Someone who would take off his jacket and drape it over my shoulders if we were caught in the rain. I wanted a connection, that simple human feeling of having someone to share things with. Handsome witty princes were in short supply, so I invented one, woven from book- inspired fantasies and naive little dreams. And then, one day I stumbled over Alessandro Sagredo’s Instagram account.
He was everything I had imagined my prince to be. Smart, handsome, charming. He lived in Italy, he was a Prime, an heir to an old noble family, and he sailed on the Mediterranean and rode horses in Spain. He was safe to dream about because he and I would never meet, and so I did.
Then, when I was eighteen, our family was forced to become a House, and I had to face off against Alessandro in the trials to prove that I was a Prime. He was everything his Instagram promised, and he noticed me. I was so terrified I had cooked him with my magic that when he came to ask me on a date, I did everything I could to push him away and then called the cops to keep him safe from me.
Six months ago, he crashed into my life again. The carefree playboy turned out to be a front. Alessandro was a ruthless, lethal killer. He tried to protect me, he flirted with me, he ate dinner with my family. He was immune to my magic, which meant that when he said he was obsessed with me, he actually meant it. He liked me for me.
The enormity of all that had short- circuited what little sense I had left. I never had a chance. I wanted to save him from the life of a contract killer and set him free. I wanted him to be happy.
And then the investigation ended and his fascination with me did as well. I had come to confess my love to him and found him packing. He was moving on to the next target on his hit list. When I asked him if he would ever come back, he told me he didn’t want to lie. It felt like someone pushed me off the top of a tall building and I hit the ground hard.
The rough landing woke me up. He had chosen the life he had for a reason and he wasn’t planning on giving it up. And whatever he felt for me, it sure wasn’t love. If you’re obsessed with someone, you don’t leave. You stay and try your hardest to make it work. I had been a fun diversion on his way to someplace else.
The obsession was now over. It hurt, but according to Sergeant Heart, who supervised my martial arts training, pain was the best teacher. Alessandro had people to kill, and I had a House to run and MII cases to take over. Leon was right. I had been depressed for months, but I wasn’t mourning Alessandro abandoning me. I was mourning the old me. For the new me to emerge, the old me had to disappear and killing her bit by bit hurt.
Alessandro was a catalyst for that change. Eventually I’d scrounge up some gratitude for the lesson. No matter how agonizing, it was a necessary transformation. The old me would have gotten the lot of us killed. For now, I had to settle for determination. I would never again let myself sink that deep. And I wouldn’t allow my cousin to be hurt for my sake.
“Leon, if you shoot Alessandro, he will know he hurt me. I don’t want him to.” Leon glanced at me.
I met his gaze.
“You have a point,” he said and pulled into the parking lot.
In front of us the MII building rose, a sharp triangular blade of cobalt glass and steel. It was time to earn my pay.
I marched through the gleaming lobby of Montgomery International Investigations at full speed. Cornelius and Leon walked a couple of steps behind me. Rosebud still perched on Cornelius’ shoulder, her tiny arms around his neck.
The guard by the metal detector focused on me. Recognition sparked in his eyes.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Baylor.”
I walked through the metal detector and kept going to the stainless- steel elevator doors. Cornelius and Leon followed me. We took the elevator to the 17th floor. The double doors whispered open to glossy indigo floors and whiter walls. To the left lay a waiting area, tinted by the light spilling through the floor- to- ceiling wall of blue glass. Directly in front of us Lina sat at the reception desk. Today her hair was a rich purple and twisted into a conservative slick bun, contrasting nicely with her deep bronze skin and blue eyes. She wore an impeccably tailored olive- green sheath dress, which, combined with her hair, made her look like a stalk of flowering lavender.
“He’s expecting you,” she said.
I nodded and turned right at her desk, trailing the curving white wall. Behind me Lina asked, “Can I get you some refreshments, gentlemen?”
“Could I trouble you for some grapes?” Cornelius asked. “For the monkey.”
“We can get her all the grapes ever, because she is so adorable, yes, she is,” Lina cooed.
Walking through Augustine’s domain was like swimming underwater. The entire left wall was cobalt glass, two floors high, the city distant and remote behind it. The blue light colored the pale floor and walls, the pattern within the glass creating a perfect illusion of sunlight fracturing on the surface of water. It was its own little world, away from everything, soothing and calm, and I treasured the few moments I had to enjoy it.
I was about to expose my official status to Augustine. There would be no turning back from it.
Ahead a wall of frosted glass blocked the way. When Augustine wanted to impress, he projected his magic onto it, painting it with shifting patterns like frost growing on a window. But I had been to his office before and he felt no need to impress me. The wall remained beautiful but mundane. And solid. Augustine must’ve been wrapping up some business. I had to wait.
I crossed the floor to the wall of cobalt glass and looked at the city below, a great big sea of people. Towers of glass, steel, and concrete were its islands and icebergs, the currents of cars through the streets were the schools of its fish, and within its depths, hidden in luxurious offices, human sharks ran their magic empires.
The world didn’t always have magic. Oh, there were rumors and legends, but nothing obvious. Then, a century and a half ago, half a dozen countries were looking for the cure for the influenza pandemic ravaging the globe. They shared their research and discovered the
Osiris serum, almost simultaneously. Those who took the serum could expect one of the three equally likely outcomes: they would die, they would turn into a monster and die after living for a couple of years, or they would gain magic powers. The quality of magic varied: one could have a minor talent, or one could become a Prime, able to unleash devastating power.
At first, the serum was given to anyone brave enough to chance the consequences. Nobody stopped to think that randomly handing people the power to incinerate entire city blocks and spew deadly plagues could be a terrible idea. Then the World War broke out. The eight years that followed were known as the Time of Horrors.
Lord Acton, a 19th century historian, once wrote that power tended to corrupt. According to him, great men were almost always bad men. Great mages of the Time of Horrors proved him right. They were abominations who slaughtered their fellow human beings like cattle because they felt like it. People died by the thousands. Revolts and riots sparked all over the planet. The world caught on fire, and when the blaze finally died down, humanity learned three lessons.
First, the use of Osiris serum had to be banned by an international decree.
Second, the magic powers turned out to be hereditary. Primes beget Primes, leading to the formation of magic families referred to as Houses.
Third, the magic community had to find a way to stabilize itself. During the Time of Horrors people without magic weren’t the only ones who died. Stronger magic users had preyed on the weaker mages, and those who committed atrocities eventually met mob justice. No matter how powerful an individual mage was, they were always vastly outnumbered. Nobody wanted the repeat of riots and mass executions. They were bad for business, and having achieved power, the Houses now wanted order and safety to reap its benefits.
The Houses came together and instituted state Assemblies, where each Prime had voting power. The state Assemblies answered to the National Assembly, the ultimate authority on all things magic. The National Assembly required someone to investigate breaches of its laws. That’s where the Office of the Warden came in. The Texas Rangers’ official motto was “One riot, One Ranger.” The National Assembly subscribed to that philosophy. There was only one Warden per state, a mage of outstanding power whose identity remained confidential. Each Warden was allowed one apprentice.
Linus Duncan was the Warden of Texas and six months ago I became his Deputy. It happened almost by accident. If you had asked me a year ago who Linus Duncan was, I would’ve said that he was a family friend. He’d been one of the two official witnesses at the formation of our House and had taken an interest in us from that point. He invited us to his backyard barbecues. He’d been to our home multiple times. He was like a rich uncle everyone liked.
Now I knew better. Linus Duncan was the last line of defense between humanity and the horrors spawned by people with too much magic and consumed by lust for money and power. In the past six months, I had seen things that made me wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Between that and the crucible of Victoria Tremaine, they forged me from a shy person who stammered when an older adult gave her a critical look into this new version of me.
I became the Deputy to keep the people I loved safe. No matter how many family dinners Linus attended, how much he doted on us, and how often he invited the entire House Baylor to his ranch and his mansion, if I breached the boundaries he laid out for me, he would eliminate us without hesitation. So no matter how many cute comments my cousin made, I would tell him nothing. I would follow my orders and do my job.
A section of the glass slid aside. Prime Montgomery was finally ready for me.
I strode into the ultramodern office. Augustine looked at me from behind his desk. An illusion Prime, he could look like anyone, including me. He chose to look like a demigod. His pale skin all but glowed. His face was masculine but heartbreaking in its beauty. His nearly white hair framed his features with impossible perfection. If it wasn’t for the sharp awareness in his green eyes and wire- thin glasses, people would worship him when they saw him on the street.
The demigod in a three- thousand- dollar suit spoke. “Ms. Baylor. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Augustine hoarded information. Keeping my deputy status confidential was in my best interest, but he would never give me the case without it. I had walked into his place of business and was about to strong- arm him. That would infuriate any Prime, and I would need his cooperation through this investigation.
I had to soften the blow. The only way to do that was to make him think he was forcing me to do something I didn’t want to. It would give him the illusion of having the upper hand.
“I would like you to give me the Morton case.”
Augustine leaned back in his chair, his eyes amused.
“And why would I do that?”
“I would consider it a personal favor.”
“No. Even if I were inclined to pass on this lucrative opportunity, I wouldn’t be doing you any favors. This case is a nightmare, which explains its commensurate price tag.”
Augustine studied me. “You haven’t given me a reason to do so. The answer is still no.” Good enough.
I raised my arm, bending it at the elbow so he could see my forearm, and concentrated. Magic twisted through my bone and muscle. It was like trying to squeeze a rubber ring with my fingers. A circle braided from a stylized vine shone through my skin with an amber glow, enclosing the five- point star inside.
Augustine blinked. For a shocked moment, he just stared. Then a slow smile curved his lips. “This explains so much.”
“Should we skip the formalities?”
“No, by all means, continue. I would like the full treatment.”
I sighed. “Prime Augustine Montgomery, by the authority vested in me by the National Assembly, I, Catalina Baylor, Deputy Warden of the State of Texas, hereby claim ownership of all matters pertaining to House Morton. You are commanded to provide all information and render all necessary aid to me in my pursuance of this matter. You will present me to the involved parties as a representative of MII and you will maintain the highest level of secrecy regarding my true affiliation. The National Assembly appreciates your compliance.” I let the badge fade.
Augustine looked like a hungry kid in a candy store.
“Is Duncan the Warden?”
There was no point in lying. “Yes.”
“Does Connor know?”
The rivalry between Augustine and my brother- in- law stretched all the way back to their college days. Was he asking if Connor knew that Linus was the Warden or that I was his Deputy? The less information I gave him, the better.
“Please be more specific.”
Augustine snapped his fingers. “He doesn’t know about you, but he knows about Duncan. Did Duncan try to recruit him?”
“You would have to ask him.”
“He did, and Connor must’ve turned him down, and now you took his place. This is wonderful. I love it.”
“If you’re done gloating . . .”
“I can gloat and cooperate at the same time.” Augustine pushed a key on his desk phone and said, “See me.
Catalina, what do you know about the Morton case?”
“Lander Morton’s only son, Felix, was murdered three days ago. He was involved in a reclamation project with representatives of four other Houses.”
“What are they reclaiming?”
Jersey Village? The little city, a part of Houston metro, had been flooded years ago during a harebrained attempt to build a subway system. Now the alien swamp in the video sort of made sense. But the last time I had gone to the Pit, over three years ago, it looked just like a typical flood zone with stagnant water and half- burst buildings where drug addicts, the homeless, and the magic- warped hid among the moldy garbage. It hadn’t looked like the arcane realm had thrown up in it.
“The five Houses had signed a contract specifying that they would submit to an investigation in case one of them died under suspicious circumstances. Each of the principles carries a vital personal insurance policy that won’t be paid out until such an investigation is concluded. The four surviving partners are currently suspects. They and Lander Morton are coming here today to meet with my chief investigator.”
Five Primes expecting a top-of-the-line professional investigator, Montgomery’s best. “Today when?”
The wall opened and Lina walked through the door.
“Ms. Baylor is about to meet with five Primes,” Augustine said. “I need you to fix . . .” He waved his hand at me. “That.”
Lina pursed her lips.
I wore athletic sandals, jean shorts, and a sleeveless T- shirt with spaghetti straps, stained with sweat. My bun had fallen, my hair was a tangled mess, and I was pretty sure there were twigs in it, since two hours ago I had climbed a giant pecan tree because I thought I spotted Rosebud in it and my hair got caught in the branches. I had also climbed onto a roof of a building to peer into a chimney, and the dust and soot had combined with sweat to give my face a swirly sheen of grime. Minor scrapes covered my arms and legs. Purple blood splattered my clothes. And the star of the show— a three- claw- shaped scrape on my left thigh, which I must have gotten sprinting to the device. It wasn’t deep, but it had bled, adding dried blood to my award- winning fashion ensemble.
“How much time do I have?” Lina asked.
“The meeting is in forty- three minutes,” Augustine said. “I still need to brief her.”
“Could you glamour her?” Lina asked.
“No. She’s meeting with her grieving client and a room full of Primes, who know they are suspects. They would recognize illusion. She needs to inspire trust and be a beacon of integrity.”
Lina rolled her eyes and grabbed my hand. “Come with me.”
Twenty minutes later I sat in Augustine’s office trying not to move while Lina attempted to brush my hair. The shower in the executive bathroom was truly lovely but scrubbing all the blood off my skin took longer than I expected. I wore light grey slacks with a white blouse and a towel draped over my back, so my half- dried hair wouldn’t stain the satin top.
“Over the years, the Pit became the go- to place to dump magical hazmat,” Augustine said. “Currently the amount of arcane matter within the Pit has reached critical levels. Summoned creatures that escape control of their summoners seem to be drawn to it and now they are breeding in the bog. The city council offered a lucrative contract to whoever could fix it. If reclaimed, the Pit would become an area of prized real estate, to which the reclamation crew would hold certain rights.”
That made sense. The former Jersey Village was close enough to Houston’s downtown to be valuable as both residential and commercial property and since nobody lived there, aside from the homeless and junkies, there would be no relocation costs associated with it. Whoever claimed it could build whatever they wanted and make a fortune.
“The contract went to the alliance of five Houses.” Augustine clicked a remote. A section of the frosted wall turned into a large digital screen. On it, five people sat, obviously posing for a publicity picture.
“How can you have so much hair?” Lina growled. “And it’s so long too.”
“Seventeen minutes,” Augustine told her. “First from the left, our victim, Felix Morton. Forty- two years old, widower, three young children, a geokinetic like his father.”
The athletic white man in the picture, dark haired, handsome, with an easy genuine smile, looked nothing like the mutilated corpse hanging from the electric cable. “Publicly Lander and Felix were estranged. Privately, Lander adored his son. Like his father, Felix was smart and had a talent for making money. Unlike his father, he was amiable and likeable. Lander realizes that even his close associates detest him. He didn’t want his son to inherit his enemies, so they concocted this feud and took pains to keep it up, but privately Lander and Felix were a team. Lander was consulted on all major decisions Felix made.”
Lina finished brushing and moved on to braiding.
“Did you do the preliminaries?”
Augustine gave me a look reserved for someone with half a brain and passed me a zippered leather folder. I unzipped it. The coroner’s report, police report, notes from the detectives on the scene, timeline, a set of keys . . .
I held out the keys.
“Lander took the grandchildren to his house. You have full access to Felix’s home and his computer. The passwords are on a card in the left pocket.”
“These are Felix’s business partners,” Augustine said, turning back to the publicity picture.
“You said that these four Primes are the primary suspects. Why them? Felix’s death threatens the project. Don’t they have an interest in keeping the reclamation going?”
Augustine nodded. “Indeed. The Pit is a chain of islands, connected by bridges and accessible by a single road. At night, the Pit is shut down. All personnel withdraw except for the guard at the gate that blocks that road. The main island with the project’s HQ is protected by a fence and a gate. The gate requires an after- hours code that is known only by the five members of the board. The night Felix died the code was used twice. First time by an unknown member of the board or their agent, who then proceeded to destroy the surveillance footage from the hidden camera feed, and second, by
“He walked into a trap.”
“Yes.” Augustine turned back to the publicity shot. “From left to right. Next to Felix is Marat Kazarian, Prime, Summoner.”
Marat was a tan- skinned man in his midthirties with curly dark hair, dark eyes, a prominent nose, and a short dark beard. He wore a wine- colored suit, an unusual choice, but it fit him. The last name pointed to Armenian roots. I didn’t immediately recognize the House. There was something dangerous about Marat. He would look at home in a black outfit atop a dark horse brandishing a sword. He stared at the camera as if it was challenging him.
“Cheryl Castellano, Prime, Animator.”
Cheryl could have been anywhere from twenty- five to forty- five. She had olive skin and a beautiful full face with a wide mouth and big grey eyes under artfully shaped eyebrows. Her brown hair with caramel highlights was pulled back into a loose, effortless updo. Her expression was kind and slightly tired, as if she fully understood the artificial nature of the picture but had resigned herself to playing her part. I hadn’t come across her House either, although I’d heard her name before, associated with some charitable work.
“Stephen Jiang, Prime, Aquakinetic.”
Stephen was ridiculously handsome. If I didn’t know better, I would have taken him for an illusion Prime. In his early twenties or possibly thirties, he sat on a stool wearing a navy suit with a white shirt and dark blue tie. His dark hair was cut in a fashionable style and brushed back, exposing a broad high forehead. His cheekbones were perfect, his cheeks slightly concave above a square jaw with a strong chin. His nose was narrow, his lips full, and his eyes, dark and piercing, looked at the world with surprising intensity.
He also looked vaguely familiar. For the life of me I couldn’t remember where I’d seen him before. We hadn’t met. I would remember that.
“Yummy,” Lina volunteered, twisting the braid in the back of my head.
“Yes, he’s handsome.” Augustine looked at me. “Almost as handsome as Alessandro Sagredo.”
Grabbing a pen off the desk and stabbing Augustine Montgomery with it wasn’t in the best interest of my House and would significantly hamper my investigation.
But I would have enjoyed it.
“And finally . . .”
“Tatyana Pierce,” I finished. “Prime, Pyrokinetic.”
About four years ago, Adam Pierce, the youngest son of House Pierce, handsome and spoiled by his family, involved himself in a political conspiracy, which was now known as the Sturm- Charles conspiracy, and tried to burn down Houston. My older sister, Nevada, and my brother- in- law were the reason the city was still standing, and Adam was now rotting in a high security prison in Alaska. Tatyana Pierce was his sister.
I looked at Tatyana. She was thirty- six years old, with chestnut hair pulled into a loose braid and tossed over one shoulder. Both Adam and Peter, her older brother, were lean, but she was softer, with a rounded face and a generous figure. A beautiful woman, the kind who would turn heads and reduce stainless- steel beams to puddles of glowing metal in seconds. And she hated Connor, Nevada, and our entire family.
This was less than ideal. Much, much less.
“Time’s up.” Augustine rose. “Remember, every participant contributed money to the Pit but the bulk of the investment came from House Morton. The project was plagued with issues from the start. If the flow of that cash stops today, tomorrow the site will become a construction equipment graveyard.”
I pulled the towel off my shoulders. The section of the frosted wall turned into a mirror in front of me. I looked exactly the way I would have chosen to look for this meeting. Well put together, professional, with subtle makeup and my hair out of the way in a complex plait on my neck. Lina’s expertise with cosmetics made me look older. I let Victoria Tremaine’s granddaughter out of the cage.
“Whoa,” Lina murmured.
“I believe we’re ready.” Augustine waved his hand and the section of the frosted wall slid aside. He invited me to go through. “Please.”
We walked down the underwater hallway side by side.
“Any words of wisdom?” I asked. Augustine enjoyed a mentor role.
“Life is full of surprises,” he said. “Try to cope with grace.”
We entered a small room. Inside two MII employees waited by an elderly white man sitting in a wheelchair. Gaunt, his grey hair cut very short, he stared through me with dark eyes, like an old buzzard defending its carrion. If I showed any weakness at all, he would claw me bloody. Lander Morton. My new employer.
Lander peered at Augustine. “About time. I thought you said it would be a man.”
Augustine shrugged. “She’s better.”
“She looks young. How old are you?”
“Old enough. I’m here because I deliver. Do you want results, or do you want someone who looks the part?”
Lander squinted at me. “She’ll do. Let’s get on with this.”
Augustine nodded. The female employee opened the double doors, revealing a luxury conference room. The four Primes from the publicity photo sat at the table, each with an assistant standing behind them.
Lander motioned me over with a wave of his bony fingers. I stepped closer and bent down.
“One of these fuckers killed my boy,” he told me in a hoarse whisper loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. “You find which one of them did it.” I nodded and straightened.
Lander touched the controls on his chair, and it rolled forward into the room. Augustine and I followed, he on the left and I on the right.
Nobody rose. Clearly, manners were in short supply.
Lander stopped his chair a few feet from the table, peering at the group. Augustine smoothly steeped to the side, out of the way, leaving me and Lander on our own.
“Our deepest condolences,” Cheryl said. She sounded like she meant it.
“Save it,” Lander snapped at her. “You all know why we’re here. My son is dead and the contract you signed obligates you to cooperate with the inquest into his death. Montgomery will handle the investigation. This is his girl. She’ll be doing the grunt work. I expect you to talk to her or I’ll haul you before the Assembly so fast, you’ll piss yourselves.”
Marat began to rise. “Who do you think— ”
“Also,” Lander’s voice cracked like a whip. “If you give the girl any trouble, you won’t get another dime out of my House. In case you forgot, my House is bankrolling most of this project.”
Tatyana put her hand on Marat’s forearm. He sat back down.
“House Jiang extends its deepest regrets for the loss of the heir,” Stephen said. “Should you take some time to mourn and make the necessary arrangements, we will extend you every courtesy.”
Lander swiveled toward him. “Fuck your regrets.” Stephen blinked.
“I have more money than all of you put together,” Lander announced. “I can tie this up in court for years.
It will give me something to live for.”
Cheryl cleared her throat. “Of course we will cooperate fully. The sooner the cause of this tragedy is discovered, the better. As much as it pains me, I must point out that Felix was involved in every aspect of the project and often served as tiebreaker during our votes. Will you be taking over for him?”
“I’m old,” Lander said. “My health isn’t good. I have doctors and grandchildren to keep happy. This project needs someone young with a good head on his shoulders. Someone none of you can influence.”
Marat opened his mouth. Lander glared at him, and Marat clamped it shut.
“You’ll appoint a proxy?” Tatyana asked.
“Yes. It’s my right.”
The sound of quick steps echoed through the open doors.
“That would be him now,” Lander said.
A dark- haired man walked through the doorway, gliding as if his joints were liquid. All the air went out of the room. I tried to take a breath but there was none to be had.
“My apologies,” Alessandro Sagredo said with a charming Italian accent. “So sorry to be late.”