A QUESTIONABLE CLIENT
by ILONA ANDREWS
The problem with leucrocotta blood is that it stinks to high heaven. It’s also impossible to get off your boots, particularly if the leucrocotta condescended to void its anal glands on you right before you chopped its head off.
I sat on the bench in the Mercenary Guild locker room and pondered my noxious footwear. The boots were less than a year old. And I didn’t have money to buy a new pair.
“Tomato juice, Kate,” one of the mercs offered. “Will take it right out.”
Now he’d done it. I braced myself.
A woman in the corner shook her head. “That’s for skunks. Try baking soda.”
“You have to go scientific about it. Two parts hydrogen peroxide to four parts water.”
“A quart of water and a tablespoon of ammonia.”
“What you need to do is piss on it. . . .”
Every person in the locker room knew my boots were shot. Unfortunately, stain removal methods was one of those troublesome subjects somewhere between relationship issues and mysterious car noises. Everybody was an expert, everybody had a cure, and they all fell over themselves to offer their advice.
The electric bulbs blinked and faded. Magic flooded the world in a silent rush, smothering technology. Twisted tubes of feylanterns ignited with pale blue on the walls as the charged air inside them interacted with magic. A nauseating stench, reminiscent of a couple of pounds of shrimp left in the sun for a week, erupted from my boots. There were collective grunts of “Ugh” and “Oh God,” and then everybody decided to give me lots of personal space.
We lived in a post-Shift world. One moment magic dominated, fueling spells and giving power to monsters, and the next it vanished as abruptly as it appeared. Cars started, electricity flowed, and mages became easy prey to a punk with a gun. Nobody could predict when magic waves would come or how long they would last. That’s why I carried a sword. It always worked.
Mark appeared in the doorway. Mark was the Guild’s equivalent of middle management, and he looked the part—his suit was perfectly clean and cost more than I made in three months, his dark hair was professionally trimmed, and his hands showed no calluses. In the crowd of working-class thugs, he stood out like a sore thumb and was proud of it, which earned him the rank and file’s undying hatred.
Mark’s expressionless stare fastened on me. “Daniels, the clerk has a gig ticket for you.”
Usually the words “gig ticket” made my eyes light up. I needed money. I always needed money. The Guild zoned the jobs, meaning that each merc had his own territory. If a job fell in your territory, it was legitimately yours. My territory was near Savannah, basically in the sparsely populated middle of nowhere, and good gigs didn’t come my way too often. The only reason I ended up in Atlanta this time was that my part-time partner in crime, Jim, needed help clearing a pack of grave-digging leucrocottas from Westview Cemetery. He’d cut me in on his gig.
Under normal circumstances I would’ve jumped on the chance to earn extra cash, but I had spent most of the last twenty-four hours awake and chasing hyena-sized creatures armed with badgerlike jaws full of extremely sharp teeth. And Jim bailed on me midway through it. Some sort of Pack business. That’s what I get for pairing with a werejaguar.
I was tired, dirty, and hungry, and my boots stank.
“I just finished a job.”
“It’s a blue gig.”
Blue gig meant double rate.
Mac, a huge hulk of a man, shook his head, presenting me with a view of his mangled left ear. “Hell, if she doesn’t want it, I’ll take it.”
“No, you won’t. She’s licensed for bodyguard detail and you aren’t.”
I bloody hated bodyguard detail. On regular jobs, I had to depend only on myself. But bodyguard detail was a couple’s kind of dance. You had to work with the body you guarded, and in my experience, bodies proved uncooperative.
Mark shrugged. “Because I have no choice. I have Rodriguez and Castor there now, but they just canceled on me. If you don’t take the gig, I’ll have to track down someone who will. My pain, your gain.”
Canceled wasn’t good. Rodriguez was a decent mage, and Castor was tough in a fight. They wouldn’t bail from a well-paying job unless it went sour.
“I need someone there right now. Go there, babysit the client through the night, and in the morning I’ll have a replacement lined up. In or out, Daniels? It’s a high-profile client, and I don’t like to keep him waiting.”
The gig smelled bad. “How much?”
Someone whistled. Three grand for a night of work. I’d be insane to pass on it. “In.”
I started to throw my stink-bomb boots into the locker but stopped myself. I had paid a lot for them, and they should have lasted for another year at least; but if I put them into my locker, it would smell forever. Sadly the boots were ruined. I tossed them into the trash, pulled on my old spare pair, grabbed my sword, and headed out of the locker room to get the gig ticket from the clerk.
When I rode into Atlanta, the magic was down, so I had taken Betsi, my old dented Subaru. With magic wave in full swing, my gasoline-guzzling car was about as mobile as a car-size rock, but since I was technically doing the Guild a favor, the clerk provided me with a spare mount. Her name was Peggy, and judging by the wear on her incisors, she’d started her third decade some years ago. Her muzzle had gone gray, her tail and mane had thinned to stringy tendrils, and she moved with ponderous slowness. I’d ridden her for the first fifteen minutes, listening to her sigh, and then guilt got the better of me and I decided to walk the rest of the way. I didn’t have to go far. According to the directions, Champion Heights was only a couple miles away. An extra ten minutes wouldn’t make that much difference.
Around me a broken city struggled to shrug off winter, fighting the assault of another cold February night. Husks of once mighty skyscrapers stabbed through the melting snow-drifts encrusted with dark ice. Magic loved to feed on anything technologically complex, but tall office towers proved particularly susceptible to magic-induced erosion. Within a couple of years of the first magic wave they shuddered, crumbled, and fell one by one, like giants on sand legs, spilling mountains of broken glass and twisted guts of metal framework onto the streets.
The city grew around the high-tech corpses. Stalls and small shops took the place of swanky coffee joints and boutiques. Wood-and-brick houses, built by hand and no taller than four floors high, replaced the high-rises. Busy streets, once filled with cars and buses, now channeled a flood of horses, mules, and camels. During rush hour the stench alone put hair on your chest. But now, with the last of the sunset dying slowly above the horizon, the city lay empty. Anyone with a crumb of sense hurried home. The night belonged to monsters, and monsters were always hungry.
The wind picked up, driving dark clouds across the sky and turning my bones into icicles. It would storm soon. Here’s hoping Champion Heights, my client’s humble abode, had someplace I could hide Peggy from the sleet.
We picked our way through Buckhead, Peggy’s hooves making loud clopping noises in the twilight silence of the deserted streets. The night worried me little. I looked too poor and too mean to provide easy pickings, and nobody in his right mind would try to steal Peggy. Unless a gang of soap-making bandits lurked about, we were safe enough. I checked the address again. Smack in the middle of Buck-head. The clerk said I couldn’t miss it. Pretty much a guarantee I’d get lost.
I turned the corner and stopped.
A high-rise towered over the ruins. It shouldn’t have existed, but there it was, a brick-and-concrete tower silhouetted against the purple sky. At least fifteen floors, maybe more. Pale tendrils of haze clung to it. It was so tall that the top floor of it still reflected the sunset, while the rest of the city lay steeped in shadow.
“Pinch me, Peggy.”
Peggy sighed, mourning the fact that she was paired with me.
I petted her gray muzzle. “Ten to one that’s Champion Heights. Why isn’t it laying in shambles?”
“You’re right. We need a closer look.”
We wound through the labyrinth of streets, closing in on the tower. My paper said the client’s name was Saiman. No indication if it was his last or first name. Perhaps he was like Batman, one of a kind. Of course, Batman wouldn’t have to hire bodyguards.
“You have to ask yourself, Peggy, who would pay three grand for a night of work and why. I bet living in that tower isn’t cheap, so Saiman has money. Contrary to popular opinion, people who have money refuse to part with it, unless they absolutely have to do it. Three grand means he’s in big trouble and we’re walking into something nasty.”
Finally we landed in a vast parking lot, empty save for a row of cars near the front. Gray Volvo, black Cadillac, even a sleek gunmetal Lamborghini. Most vehicles sported a bloated hood—built to accommodate a charged water engine. The water-engine cars functioned during magic waves by using magic-infused water instead of gasoline. Unfortunately, they took a good fifteen minutes of hard chanting to start, and when they did spring into action, they attained a maximum speed of forty-five miles per hour while growling, snarling, and thundering loud enough to force a deaf man to file a noise complaint.
A large white sign waited past the cars. A black arrow pointed to the right. Above the arrow in black letters was written, “Please stable your mounts.” I looked to the right and saw a large stable and a small guard house next to it.
It took me a full five minutes to convince the guards I wasn’t a serial killer in disguise, but finally Peggy relaxed in a comfortable stall, and I climbed the stone stairs to Champion Heights. As I looked, the concrete-and-brick wall of the high-rise swam out of focus, shimmered, and turned into a granite crag.
I squinted at the wall and saw the faint outline of bricks within the granite. Interesting.
The stairs brought me to the glass-and-steel front of the building. The same haze that cloaked the building clouded the glass, but not enough to obscure a thick metal grate barring the vestibule. Beyond the grate, a guard sat behind a round counter, between an Uzi and a crossbow. The Uzi looked well maintained. The crossbow bore the Hawkeye logo on its stock—a round bird-of-prey eye with a golden iris—which meant its prong was steel and not cheap aluminum. Probably upward of two hundred pounds of draw weight. At this distance, it would take out a rhino, let alone me.
The guard gave me an evil eye. I leaned to the narrow metal grille and tried to broadcast “trustworthy.”
“I’m here for one fifty-eight.” I pulled out my merc card and held it to the glass.
Code? What code? “Nobody said anything about a code.”
The guard leveled a crossbow at me.
“Very scary,” I told him. “One small problem—you shoot me and the tenant in one fifty-eight won’t live through the night. I’m not a threat to you. I’m a bodyguard on the job from the Mercenary Guild. If you call to one fifty-eight and check, they’ll tell you they’re expecting me.”
The guard rose and disappeared into a hallway to the right. A long minute passed. Finally he emerged, looking sour, and pushed a button. The metal grate slid aside.
I walked in. The floor and walls were polished red granite. The air smelled of expensive perfume.
“Fifteenth floor,” the guard said, nodding at the elevator in the back of the room.
“The magic is up.” The elevator was likely dead.
Oy. I walked up to the elevator and pushed the Up button. The metal doors slid open. I got in and selected the fifteenth floor, the elevator closed, and a moment later a faint purring announced the cabin rising. It’s good to be rich.
The elevator spat me out into a hallway lined with a luxurious green carpet. I plodded through it past the door marked 158 to the end of the hallway to the door marked with the exit sign and opened it. Stairs. Unfortunately in good repair. The door opened from the inside of the hallway, but it didn’t lock. No way to jam it.
The hallway was T-shaped with only one exit, which meant that potential attackers could come either through the elevator shaft or up the stairs.
I went up to 158 and knocked.
The door shot open. Gina Castor’s dark eyes glared at me. An AK-47 hung off her shoulder. She held a black duffel in one hand and her sword in the other. “What took you so long?”
“Hello to you, too.”
She pushed past me, the thin, slightly stooped Rodriguez following her. “He’s all yours.”
I caught the door before it clicked shut. “Where is the client?”
“Chained to the bed.” They headed to the elevator.
Castor flashed her teeth at me. “You’ll figure it out.”
The elevator’s door slid open, they ducked in, and a moment later I was alone in the hallway, holding the door open like an idiot. Peachy.
I stepped inside and shut the door. A faint spark of magic shot through the metal box of the card-reader lock. I touched it. The lock was a sham. The door was protected by a ward. I pushed harder. My magic crashed against the invisible wall of the spell and ground to a halt. An expensive ward, too. Good. Made my job a hair easier.
I slid the dead bolt shut and turned. I stood in a huge living room, big enough to contain most of my house. A marble counter ran along the wall on my left, sheltering a bar with glass shelves offering everything from Bombay Sapphire to French wines. A large steel fridge sat behind the bar. White, criminally plush carpet, black walls, steel-and-glass furniture, and beyond it all an enormous floor-to-ceiling window presenting the vista of the ruined city, a deep darkness lit here and there by the pale blue of feylanterns.
I stayed away from the window and trailed the wall, punctuated by three doors. The first opened into a laboratory: flame-retardant table and counters supporting row upon row of equipment. I recognized a magic scanner, a computer, and a spectrograph, but the rest was beyond me. No client.
Excerpted from Dark and Stormy Knights by P. N. Elrod.
Copyright © 2010 by P. N. Elrod.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.