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The demon in her kitchen was making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
"How the hell did things get so bad, so fast?" Wren asked him, staring down at the sheets of paper on the table in front of her. Nothing to make her break into a cold sweat, on first or even second glance. It was just paper. Nice paper, but nothing expensive. Three double-spaced sheets, neatly typewritten, with decent margins. It had arrived in a manila envelope with her name written on the front in dark blue ink, carried in a courier bag slung over the shoulder of the demon, who had handed it to her wordlessly and then gone to investigate the innards of her refrigerator.
"Do you really want me to answer that?" the demon asked now, curious. The butter knife looked odd in his clawed paw, as though he should not be able to handle it, but he wielded the dull blade with surprising dexterity.
"Only if you're going to reassure me that everything's peaches, and the city's about to break out into spontaneous song and dance," she said. "And I don't mean West Side Story kind of dancing, either."
She forced her eyes away from the letter, and looked at her companion. There was a smear of jelly on the counter, and another one in his coarse white fur. And he had used the last of the peanut butter. So much for a midday snack. She sighed, and looked away again. Other than that, it was the kind of late autumn day that Wren Valere loved the most: cool and crisp, the sky a bright blue, what little of it she could see out her kitchen window and past the neighboring buildings. Almost like Mother Nature was apologizing for the hell she had put everyone through over the summer.
And, as always, thoughts of that summer made Wren close her eyes and take a moment to center and ground, emotionally.
The entire summer had sucked. The deal with the devil that her business partner Sergei had made with his former employers to keep her safe when the Council of Mages had threatened her and her livelihood had come back to haunt themliterally. The Silencea group of mysterious do-gooders with a sizable checkbookhad offered what had seemed like a lifesaver of a job, but
Her grounding faltered, then came back.
Lee's death during that job hadn't been her fault, no. But it was her responsibility. And the simple fact of it made her corethe inner storehouse of magic that every Talent carried within them, like a power packseethe under the weight of the guilt she carried. It felt like snakes in her gut, tendrils in her brain. It felt like
A furry, leather-palmed paw struck the side of her face, not as hard as it might have, but harder than a love tap.
"What the hell was that for?" she asked, her hand going to her face as though expecting to feel blood, or at least heat rising from the skin. Thankfully, he'd kept his long, curved black claws away from delicate human flesh.
"Self-pity." The demon climbed back onto his chair, bringing his sandwich with him and watching her with those dark red eyes that were the mark of his breed. "Doesn't look good on you."
"Great. The entire lonejack community is freaking out over what might or might not be Council-directed attacks on them, the fatae are claiming that humans are targeting them, my love life is going seriously weird, and I'm getting slapped for self-pity by a four foot tall polar bear with attitude. Who has jelly in his fur."
P.B. took a bite out of his lunch, and swallowed, ignoring her last crack. "You're wallowing, Valere. Lee's dead. He's gone. Move on, or you're going to be distracted at the wrong time, and get yourself dead, too." He relented, only a little bit. "Damn it, I liked him, too. I trusted him."
"You didn't get him killed."
That made her look up and meet his gaze.
She had known the demon presently sitting in her kitchen for years. Almost ten, in fact. In all that time, he had been effective in his job as courier of privy information and items, witty in his comments, and aggressive in his refusal to get involved in anything other than his own life. In short, the perfect lonejack, even if he was a fatae, one of the non-humans who were part of the Cosa Nostradamus, the magical community.
All that had changed over the past six months, when P.B. had somehow, for some reason, gotten tangled up in the vigilante attacks against other fatae; human vigilantes, preaching hate with guns and bats.
Wren had friends among the fatae, more than just this one demon. She was ashamed now to admit that she had shrugged the first attacks off as random violence; not acceptable, but normal enough. Prejudice happened. Violence happened. That was life, unfortunately. She had been angrybut not proactive. The question of who these humans were affiliated with, how they knew about the fatae: those things hadn't been dealt with the moment the severity of and prep behind the attacks became clear. The fact that she had been ears-deep in a job was no excuse.
She had been worried enough to ask her friend Lee to keep an eye on the demon when she and Sergei had left for Italy to Retrieve the Nescanni parchment, the "little job" the Silence had hired them for. But that had been just to keep her friends out of trouble. P.B. had then inveigled Lee into helping him with his investigation into the human vigilantes who seemed to be targeting the non-human population. That investigation had led to the two of them meeting with various fatae leaders, trying to prevent the anger against humansspecifically, Talentsfrom growing out of control. What had been a relatively simple case of hate crimes then blossomed into a potential Cosa-wide chasm.
And then a fatae had tried to kill Wren, for some reason seeing her as the human behind those meetings, and Lee paid the price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Grow up," P.B. advised, not unkindly. "You did everything you could do, more than anyone else bothered to. If you want to beat yourself up because you're not some perfect goddess of unfailing generosity and loving kindness, do it when I'm not around. That sort of thing makes me sick." He took a bite of his sandwich and said again, "Really. Grow up."
"Growing up sucks." It really did. "And you still have jelly in your fur. Left shoulder. Messy eater." He was right. Miserable bastard. She wasn't any kind of goddess. She was a selfish, self-interested, puny excuse for a sentient being. She also couldn't change what had happened.
Nobody had enough current to do-over the past.
She picked up the paper and stared at it again. Deal with what's happening now, Valere.
The paper still said the same thing it had the first three times she read it. Another Talent has gone missing. Tally up to seven. WTF is going on? And why? Are you doing this? Godless bastards, why?
Not on those words, of course. Not to the Council.
The language was formal. The wording was polite. The passion behind it unmistakable. And the paranoia practically leaking out of the ink. A manifesto, if ever she'd seen one. Which, actually, she hadn't.
The Talents who had drafted this document weren't calling it that, of coursethey fell back, as Talents tended to do, on historical precedent, and called it a she checked to make sure she had the wording correct "a petition to address the grievances of," etc., etc.
This wasn't exactly unexpected, even if it was annoying. Fatae were blaming all humans for the attacks on their kind. Lonejacks were blaming the Council for Talents who had gone missing, or were otherwise assaulted. There was just enough truth in all their suspicions to make violence in return seem like a logical response.
Wren didn't know who the Mage Council was blaming for what, but she was pretty sure it was someone, for something.
"Am I the last sane person left in this city? Don't answer that," she warned the demon. "A petition to the CouncilJesus wept. All right, all right. I don't know what they think this is going to do, but " She made a few final additions in the margin with a red ballpoint pen, and then signed her initials next to them in a small, neat hand. She wasn't ready to sign onto this version, not yet. But if they made those changes, moderated the paranoia, asked for specific things rather than a blanket admission of guilt that hadn't been proven yet
"Take this back. Tell them to don't tell them anything, just give it back to them." She caught a glimpse of the small, battery-operated clock on the far wall. Almost 4:00 p.m. "And scoot. I have a client coming."
"Yes, here." She picked up the courier's bag from where he had dropped it, and handed it back to the demon, giving him clear indication that this conversation was over. He looked as though he might argue, but simply sighed and took the bag from her. Dropping the paperwork into the internal pocket, he slung it back over his shoulder.
"Go. Get paid. Go home. And next time you have to deliver anything here," she said as he crawled back out the small kitchen window onto the fire escape, "bring your own damn lunch. Or at least clean up after yourself!"
The mess actually wasn't too bad; P.B. was a mooch, but not a slob. Wren had managed to give the entire kitchen a wipe-down, throw the dark green coverlet over her bedcovering night-rumpled sheetsand straighten the books and papers in her office before the client was actually due to arrive. Not that the client should be seeing either bedroom or office, but her mother's training seemed to kick in at the most inconvenient times. God forbid someone should be in the house when a bed was unmade.
The buzzer rang before she could start to contemplate the state of the kitchen floor, all five square feet of it.
"Is this do I have the right address?"
The voice on the other side of the intercom was female. Attractively nuanced. Young. Educated, but not hoity-toity, to use one of her mother's most annoying phrases. You could tell the difference, if you listened. People gave so much away in their voices, you could close your eyes and see their emotions in the tenor of their throat. And that had nothing whatsoever to do with current.
"Is this The Wren?" The voice was coming as though from farther away than street level. "It's Anna Rosen. We spoke yesterday?"
Upstairs, Wren leaned against the wall, pressing her forehead against the cool plaster as though to ward away the headache that had kicked in the moment the buzzer sounded. Bad sign. Very, very bad sign.
Finally her hand came up anddespite the headache, despite the forebodingshit the door buzzer, letting the client in.
The intercom was new. Or rather, not new, but newly working. Sergei had hired an electrician to come in and fix it after years of waiting for the landlord to do something, paying triple-time to get it done over Labor Day weekend, and making her promise to use it. No matter who she knew was coming, no matter how silly it made her feel.
The fact that the first time anyone used it was a potential client, a potential client that she was meeting behind his back and without his knowledge, wasn't something she was willing to think about, yet. Maybe not ever.
She hadn't had a secreta real secretfrom Sergei since she was twenty-four.
Rosen took the stairs at a decent pace, and wasn't breathing heavily when she stood in front of the apartment door. Wren gave her points for that, then promptly took those points away when she saw the ridiculously expensive and useless shoes the client was wearing. Still, if she could afford those, she could afford Wren's fees. And then some. Well-heeled, you betcha.
Young, maybe midtwenties. Long, naturally blond hair pulled back into a thick braid, classic Princess WASP features enhanced by just the right amount of cosmetics, darkening the blond eyebrows and enhancing the pale peach mouth to be noticeable but not stand out. Everything about the girl said Moneybut her dark green eyes were sharp, and showed a wry understanding of where she was and what she was doing.
Hiring a Retriever.
"You're The Wren?"
"None other." And she didn't offer any more information than that. Within certain ever-expanding circles, her identity was well-known, but for various reasons she preferred to go by the nickname she worked under.
And you screw all secrecy-for-a-reason by inviting her to meet here? In your home?
Shut up, she told the voice, and focused her attention outward, honing herself into a version of Sergei's "All Business, All The Time" persona, as best she could. Beside. Wasn't as though the Council didn't know where she lived. The Silence, too. And pretty much every fatae in the city, since this summer and Lee's wake, which she still sometimes had nightmares about. Might as well just put a sign over her door: Wren Valere, Available Here.
Miss Rosen's peach mouth quirked into a smile that showed perfect, perfectly white teeth and meant absolutely nothing. Wren returned the same, aware that her own beige featuresbrown hair, brown eyes, and pale beige skinnever made that much of an impression. Curse and a blessing: if asked by anyone Official, this Anna Rosen wouldn't be able to remember anything about Wren that could be used to identify her. She hoped.
"Come in," Wren said, opening the door all the way.
The apartment was large by Manhattan standards three tiny shoebox bedrooms off a narrow hallway, a kitchenette to the right, and one large main room to the left of the front doorbut it was almost painfully bare of furniture. Despite living there for dog years, Wren had never really had the time to think about buying chairs. Or a sofa. Or putting anything on the landlord-white walls.
Clients never, but never saw her home. She had lived here a year, in fact, before anyone other than her mother and Sergei walked through the door. There had been more people in this space in the past four months than in all the time previous, and Wren hated it. But it also made her look around and notice that her nest was missing a few items most folk would consider essentials. Like, oh, furniture.