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In the middle of a copse of trees, bordered on one side behind her by a dry creek bed and on the other in front of her by a low stone wall covered with moss and bird shit, Wren Valere crouched, her backside an inch off the leaf-strewn ground, her palms resting on her knees, and her knees complaining about the whole situation. She was tired, sweaty and pissed-off at the universe in general and one person in particular.
"Annoying, ignorant woman," she scolded that person, hidden inside the house on the other side of that wall. "You couldn't have taken the kid to Boston, or Philadelphia, or somewhere semicivilized? No, you had to go all bucolic and pastoral and leafy." Wren reached up to pull another twig out of her braid, and wiped sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. It was a lovely, autumn-crisp day, pale blue skies overhead, and she was sure that there were hundreds of people driving up and down the winding county road a few miles back for the sole purpose of enjoying the scarlet-and-orange display of the maples and oaks and whatever else those trees were. More power to them.
Wren Valere was not a nature girl. The leaves were pretty, and she was glad it was a nice day, but she wanted to be home, on concrete and steel, surrounded by the familiar and comforting hum of current running through the city. Home was Manhattan, where magic fed on and was fed by the torrents of electricity running in the city's veins. A Talent like hera current-mage, a practitioner of modern magicshad no business being out here in the woods, miles from anything more powerful than a solar powered bug-zapper.
Genevieve, you're exaggerating, she heard her mother's voice say, exasperated. All right, she admitted that she might be overstating things slightly. It still felt like middle-of-no-wheresville to her: too quiet, too green and too still, electrically speaking.
The thought made her reach instinctively, a mental touch stroking the core of current nestled inside her, deep in a non-existent-to-X-rays cavity somewhere in her gut, just to make sure it was still there. Like a bank, you could overdraw and forget to refill, and even though she knew she had enough in there, it was a nervous twitch, obsessive-compulsive, to make sure, and then make sure again.
Current was similar tobut not quite identical tothe electrical energy the modern world had harnessed to do its bidding. They were, so far as anyone could determine, generated off the same sources, and appeared in the same natural and man-made situations, but with a vastly different result when channeled by their natural conductors. Metal, in the case of electricity: Talent, in the case of current.
The more abstract and technical distinctions between current and electricity were lost on most of the Cosa Nostradamus, the worldwide magical community, except those very few who made an actual study of it.
Wren wasn't one of those few. She wasn't an academic; she was a Retriever. She came, she stole, she went home, with no interest in the whys, so long as it worked. Although she freely admitted that the feeling of it simmering inside was nice, too. Some Talent described their internal core of magic, the power they carried with them at all times, as a pool of potent liquid, or birds flocking together, their feathers rustling with power. For her, it was a pit of serpents, thick-muscled neon beasts sliding and slithering against each other. The touch filled her with a quiet satisfaction, a sense of power resting under her skin, ready if she needed it.
Reassured, she moved forward through the trees, only to be pulled up short by something tugging on her braid, before realizing that it wasn't an attackor at least, not one she needed to worry about.
Reaching back, Wren removed her braid from the grasp of a branch and scowled at it, as though it alone were responsible for her bad mood. "I hate camping. I hate bugs. I hate trees."
She didn't really hate treesRorani, one of her oldest friends, was a dryad in fact, which made her an actual, honest-to-God tree hugger. Wren had never needed to go camping to know how she felt about it. She preferred luxury hotels to sleeping on the ground.
She did hate bugs, though. Wren grimaced, and reached a hand down the back of her outfit, scratching at something irritating her skin. She pulled her hand away and made a face, shaking the remains of the unidentifiable insect off her fingers. She especially hated bugs that kept trying to crawl under the fabric of her slicks to reach the bare skin underneath.
"Ugh." She wiped her fingers on the grass. "Next job? High-rise. Climate controlled. Coffee shop on the corner." She kept her voice low, more from habit than belief that there was anyone around to hear her. "God, I'd kill for a cup of halfway decent coffee
She really shouldn't be in a bad mood at all, even with bugs and twigs. Coffee and the rest of civilization would be waiting for her when she got home, same as always. This was just a job, and it would be over soon. And money in the bank made every job better, in retrospect.
Tugging the hood of her formfitting black bodysuit over her ears, making sure that the braid was now tucked comfortably inside the fabric, Wren kept crawling forward until she reached a low hedge of some prickly-leaved bushes. Rising up to her knees, she scowled over the shrubbery at the perfectly lovely little cottage on the other side of nowhere.
All right, she told herself, enough with the griping and the moaning. Showtime.
She let herself reassess the scenario, just to get the brain in the right place. The area was on the grid. She could feel the quiet hum of electrical wiresman-made poweroverhead, not far away. There wasn't a lot, but if she suddenly had a need it was there to draw down on. Comforting. And the house wasn't totally isolateddespite the screen of trees, a half-hour hike would bring her back to the highway, and it was probably only a few minutes' drive from the front door to the nearest coffee joint. If, of course, you had a car.
The job had specified no traces, though, which meant that renting a car, even using one of her many fake IDs, was out. Frustrating, but manageable. The client was paying large sums for this to be a spotless, trouble-free Retrieval, and that was what The Wren would deliver. No muss, no fuss, no anything the courts could use at a later date against the client. Everything had to be perfect.
It was more than just ego at stake, that perfection, although she was always about that. This particular job had come to Sergei, her partner/business manager, not through the usual route of the Cosa Nostradamus or his art world contacts, but through a retired NYC cop now living upstate, a guy named McKierney who moonlighted as a bounty hunter. The client had gone to him originally, but this kind of grab wasn't McKierney's scene. He had heard about The Wren through his own contacts, and had given the client her name and Sergei's contact number as the go-to girl for this particular job.
She didn't get many jobs out of the urban areas, where most of the Cosa congregated. A satisfied client here, among human Nulls, could open up a whole new market for her, and there was no way she was going to give less than everything to it, even if it involved trees and bugs and crawling around in the dirt. Sergei had drummed that career advice into her head years ago: you never knew when the next client was going to be the million-dollar meal ticket.
Yeah, the job stank, on a bunch of levels. Moneyand clients with moneygot her into a lot of situations she didn't enjoy. But this job had something even better than money to offer: there was absolutely no stink of magic to the Retrieval. After spending a year of their lives immersed in a literal life-and-death struggle, when what seemed like half the city suddenly set out to wipe the streets clear of anything that looked as though it might be magical, and then having to give over another nine months to the job of cleaning up the aftermathand getting her own life back into some kind of order Wren was more than ready for something distinctly unmagical. Even a be-damned custodial he-said-she-said, with a four-year-old kid as the prize.
That was the job she was on, right now. Mommy had grabbed the kid and run. Wren was here to Retrieve him for Daddy, who was the client.
Wren shifted on her haunches, still feeling the creepy-crawling sensation of bug legs on her skin. That was the real reason she was griping, not the green leafy buggy nature thing. Live Retrievals were a bitch. She'd only done two before, and both of them had involved adults. One she'd been able to reason with, the other she'd had Sergei along to help conk the target over the head when the reasoning didn't work.
She steadfastly didn't think of the third live Retrieval she had done. That had been different. That hadn't been her, entirely.
Nobody had judged. Nobody had said anything after, except thank you. She had restored a dozen teenagers to their family, broken the spine of the anti-Cosa organization, the Silence. But Wren didn't list that Retrieval in her nonexistent CV. She didn't talk about it. She tried not to remember anything about it, the hours of cold rage and hot current spinning her out of control, making herfor the second time in her lifeinto a killer, however justified those deaths were, to save the lives of others. No matter that she hadn't been entirely sane at the time.
Inanimate things were easier to Retrieve, every way up and down. Adult live retrievals were bad enough: seriously tough to stash a four-year-old in your knapsack. They tended to squirm.
And yet the challenge was irresistible. The benefits for a job well done were deeply rewarding. So here she was.
Wren didn't let herself think about the morality of the Retrieval, either way. If possession was nine-tenths of the law, The Wren was the other tenth. Not that she didn't have standards about what was just or fair; she just didn't let them get in the way of an accepted job. If something set off Sergei's well-honed antenna for fishy, she trusted him to say no before she ever knew the offer had been made. That was his job.
"And you need to be getting on with yours already," she muttered, annoyed at herself. Taking a deep breath, she felt her annoyance, acknowledged it, and then let it go, slipping away like water down a drain.
Shifting to rise up a little more, risking exposure, she reached into the pouch strapped to her ribs, pulling out a pair of tiny, old-fashioned binoculars. She raised the 'nocs to her eyes and looked at the target. The lens allowed her to zoom in, picking up the details that blueprints and aerial shots couldn't give. Nothing like on-the-spot reconnaissance, no matter what the tech-types might claim.
The cottage was a build-by-numbers kit, probably prefab. Nice, though. One story, with a half attic, and windows designed to let in light without giving a direct view in. Brown wood and shingles with blue trim, and an off-white matte roof that, she had been told, was supposed to be more fuel-efficient than the traditional black ones. So, new, or at least with a newish roof. A roof, she noted, that overhung the windows just enough to allow someone with a decent amount of agility to drop down and reach those windows. Bad architect, and worse contractor, to let that get past.
Someone hadn't considered the landscaping from a security angle, either. The cottage faced into a small lawn and a gravel road that led down to the main road, but the back was set into a copse of mature trees. The contractor had managed to build into the existing site, rather than bulldozing and replanting. Pretty. Lousy security, but pretty.
She lowered the binoculars and looked at the cottage unaided. It still looked like an invitation to larceny. Perfect. Now she just had to find a way in, and the job was halfway done. Unfortunately, the hard half was still to come.
Dropping back down behind the hedge entirely, Wren settled herself into a more comfortable crouch on the damp soil, and let herself sink into fugue state.
It used to take her the count of five-seven, when she was still in training. Now, the thought was no sooner thought than it became action. The outside world didn't fade so much as become irrelevant; she could still see and hear and sense everything that went on around her but it was less real than the world she could "see" inside. In that world, every living thing was colored with vivid current, from the shadowy, flickering purple of the insects around her to the solid, slow-pulsing silver of the trees, and the passing bright red of something the size of a large cat, or maybe a fox. Stronger flickers up in the branches suggested that there might be piskies in the area. No other Fatae, not even the hint of a dryad or wood-mocker. Interesting. Not indicative, necessarily, but interesting.
Everything carried current within itself; sliding into a fugue state allowed a Talenta witch, a mage, or a wizard, if you liked the older termsto find, access and use it more efficiently. Strong Talenttraditionally called "Pures"could sense and use more current; weaker Talent, obviously, less.
Wren had always been strong, with little interrupting the flow of current in her veins. Last year, she had become however temporarilythe recipient of current gifted by the Fatae, the nonhuman members of the Cosa Nostradamus. That blast had temporarily unblocked every channel in her system, kicking her from mostly Pure to too Pure. Talent bodies might be able to handle that much magic, but human brains weren't designed for it. She had been able to work amazing things in the short term, but it had also screwed with her in ways she was still discovering.
One of those new long-term results was that, once in fugue state, she could sense the presence of current in almost every animate thing, and a few inanimate things, as well.
A nice little side effect, yeah. She could, if she had to, find a refueling station almost anywhere. Unfortunately, using fugue state now also gave her cramps that made PMS feel like a walk in the proverbial park. Everything had a price.