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Wrong Place, Wrong Time
For once, when people started dying, Sylvie Lightner wasn't at ground zero. When things went wrong, really wrong, she was fifteen miles away from the crime scene, haggling with a werewolf bitch over her finder's fee.
Five days ago, Sylvie had asked Tatya to keep an eye out and a nose up for a woman who'd gone missing from Alligator Alley, figuring she could turn Tatya's nightly perambulations through the Everglades to good use. Delegation had paid off: Three days later, Maria Ruben was no longer a missing person. Dead, but no longer lost, and that was something. Finding her body could bring its own resolution to the family and was worth every penny.
So Sylvie had met Tatya at the scene, called the cops, and split without waiting for them to show, spooked.
Maria Ruben hadn't been alone. There were four other dead women, drowned, pushed beneath the duckweed surface of an Everglades lagoon, and left to sway slowly in the dark, stagnant waters. Maria's short dark hair stuck out like a frightened puffer fish, showing the shock her slack face couldn't. A pink barrette—cheap plastic butterfly—floated free, trailing a long bronze lock of hair belonging to a woman barely into her twenties.
All of them were young, Maria likely the oldest, and all were Hispanic. Someone had particular tastes. Sylvie swallowed disgust, studied the other three women by the sullen gold of the setting sun. Their ethnicity and ages might match up, but their clothes argued they came from different parts of the city: Maria's casual business wear; swimsuit and sarong; halter top and skirt; demure blouse and khaki skirt; and one who reminded Sylvie of her sister—a budding fashion plate.
That was the moment Sylvie had called the police. The moment she felt over her head. This was someone's sister. Sylvie might have a reputation as a vigilante, but she knew when to leave a crime scene the hell alone.
Tatya wanted a finder's fee for each woman. Sylvie didn't object on any moral ground—never mind that their agreement only covered Maria Ruben—but finances dictated haggling. Five hundred dollars had been half of the fee Sylvie had charged Maria Ruben's husband, but $2500 started eating into rent. Sylvie would be willing to take that financial risk, but her business partner, Alexandra Figueroa-Smith, wouldn't. Sylvie wanted to keep Tatya happy—the werewolf was a good source as well as a quasi friend—so the discussion lasted longer than Sylvie liked, culminating with Sylvie's writing an IOU for another thousand, payable the next month.
Once the rest of the women were identified, Sylvie could see about spreading around the cost of doing business. There might be a reward, or more likely, a client who'd want her to investigate how their loved one had ended up underwater. Now that she had an in with the local cops, courtesy of her making nice with Detective Adelio Suarez, she could be a useful liaison to a grieving family. And she thought that the police were going to be struggling with this one. The scene had felt… charged, a spark in the still, hot air that tasted of theMagicus Mundi.
Maria Ruben's car had been found abandoned beside the road, the battery run-down, the driver's door hanging open. Her husband had reported his wife's last words via cell phone, Salvador, you should see this. A two-headed alligator. I'm stopping for pics… and nothing more.
Whatever had happened that night had seen Maria Ruben transported nearly fifty miles, her camera bag gone, her forehead marked, and her body left in a crowded and watery grave. It smacked of ritual murder.
Those women hadn't died natural deaths; that much seemed evident. The question that lingered was—how unnatural had they been?
Back in South Miami Beach, Sylvie put the key in her office door, the phone shrilling on the other side of the glass like a race clock timer counting down. She forced the key to turn, slammed into her office—all haste, no caution, rushing to hear what Suarez had to say about the 'Glades scene, cursing him for calling the office instead of her cell—and fell into a nightmare.
A cobweb brush of sensation lingered and jittered on her skin, the sign of a spell laid over the doorway. A trap she'd bulled right on through.
Stupid, she thought, and froze, trying to control the only thing she still could: herself.
Her office changed around her, warped by powerful magic, an inferno blossoming. The illusion worked all her senses—drowned her vision in flickering flames that crackled and hissed, licked around and out of electrical sockets. She tasted acrid plastic; the chemical burn of it seared her nose and throat. Only furious control kept her from coughing, flailing for air.
Heat scalded her every inborne breath, dried her lungs. Her skin prickled, tightened, felt puffed with heat. Stretching a cautious hand forward resulted in blistered fingers.
Even with the memory of the telltale sensation, that cobweb cling across her face and throat, she nearly believed in the illusory fire turning her office into a maze of heavy smoke and hellish light.
Believing in an illusion gave it power.
Illusion could kill if you accepted it as truth.
Her little dark voice fed her a nasty thought, What if the spell is layered over a real fire? What if you burn trying to prove it isn't real?
That moment of doubt cost her. Smoke choked her, tightened her lungs and throat, scouring her insides; her hair stank of burning. Sylvie fumbled for the door handle, just behind her, so far away, backing up and not finding it. Was she even moving?
Faintly, she heard the ringing of the warning bell on the main desk. A singing chime, growing faster, shriller, an audible sign that magic was saturating the air. It steadied her, gave her a focus. If the bell was still ringing, then the charred wreckage of the desk was illusion. It was all illusion.
And it was centered on her. Even if she fled, the flames would follow.
Meant to send you screaming outside, into traffic or the ocean, that internal voice muttered.
If she didn't flee? She risked being an anomalous death, a woman dead of smoke inhalation in an untouched office.
This, she thought grimly, was what came of playing by the rules. Of leaving the bad guys alive. If she'd killed Odalys the necromancer instead of seeing her arrested, if she had punished Patrice Caudwell for returning from the dead instead of balking at the complications involved—if, if, if. If Sylvie had disposed of her enemies properly, she wouldn't be one step from having her lungs ruined by imaginary smoke.
Anger surged. Hell with that. It wasn't a mistake worth dying for.
She broke the paralysis the illusion had forced her into. The illusion might be cleverly crafted, the mark of a talented if malign witch, but Sylvie refused to yield.
Sylvie's lips drew tight over her teeth, snarling. Hot air rushed into her mouth, drying it. Three ways to break an illusion spell for a non–magic-user. Kill the caster. Wait the illusion out. Or overwhelm it.
Sylvie would gladly put a bullet in the witch's brain, but the coward had struck from a distance. Waiting wasn't an option; not when it was a struggle just to keep breathing, to override her body's instinctive panic. But the ringing bell on the desk was a protective spell, defensive magic…
She thought cool thoughts about AC, about health-giving air, about freshwater cascading over her skin, then stepped into the thickest gouts of flames. The fires licked her flesh, gnawed her hands, singed her jeans, her jacket, turned her gun to a hot brand against her back. Sylvie pushed it all aside.
The bell rang on, her guiding beacon. Sylvie moved by memory and sound, trusting her will above her body and mind. Control. Calm.
She slammed her hand down on the bell—agitated metal quivering against her skin, cool stone containing it, and the unyielding strength of the desk beneath. Her world erupted in an entirely new wave of heat/pain/magic. The offensive and defensive magics warred, her body the battlefield, the choice of weapon—fire. Pain ran liquid through her body; her blood sizzled as if it boiled within her.
Her hair streamed upward, rising like smoke, her eyes blind to both illusion and reality—completely vulnerable; then it was over, and she stood panting and aching in her office, on a balmy and peaceful South Beach evening, the only scent of fire in the air that of the restaurants searing freshly caught fish and shrimp. The warning bell was slagged silver in a cracked marble bowl, and beneath them, the desk was crocodile-scaled with char.
Wonderful. Just after she learned she had a powerful witch gunning for her, she destroyed the one piece of magic that would warn her of an attack.
She just wondered who it was that wanted her dead. The list was regrettably long—the sorcerous Maudits community; the ISI, America's government spook squad; even a miffed Greek god or two. If Sylvie had to choose, though, she'd pick Odalys Hargrove, the necromancer she'd managed to get slapped behind bars two days ago. Odalys wasn't the type to suffer in silence. Sylvie had managed, with the help of the Ghoul, to prevent Odalys from fulfilling her vicious business plan: destroying teenagers' souls and selling the newly emptied bodies to hungry ghosts looking for a new lease on life. Odalys was exactly the type to have contingency plans lying around.
Sylvie checked the clock absently—10:00 p.m.—then took a second, disbelieving look. Fury rose all over again. That ridiculous attack had cost her nearly an hour. An hour trapped in battle with her own senses. An hour gone. An hour… in which she hadn't heard anything at all from Lio.
Since she'd given him the heads-up on the bodies in the 'Glades close to two hours ago, she felt justified in her impatience.
While she doubted she'd have heard the phone ring, neither her cell nor her office phone had any messages though the office phone's caller ID listed the call she'd missed as from Salvador Ruben, his nightly check-in on her progress.
Until today, Sylvie had had none to report. Now that she did, she had to wait on Suarez.
She said, "Dammit," aloud, and the dry rasp of it hurt. She leaned against the kitchenette counter, drank straight from the sink faucet. Lukewarm water had rarely tasted so sweet. She wiped at her damp mouth and cheek, thinking dark thoughts about police cooperation.
Detective Adelio Suarez would still have Maria Ruben as a missing person without Sylvie's help. He'd better not be cutting her out of the loop. Their relationship was supposed to be a two-way street, dammit.
The phone rang again, and she snatched it up, hoping it was Suarez continuing his habit of calling the office first. He was one of the long line of people who'd rather talk to Alex than Sylvie.
Sylvie cursed herself for not checking the ID. Salvador Ruben. The last person she needed to talk to just then. "Mr. Ruben—"
"Have you heard from your friend yet? Did she find anything? Did she find Maria?" Sylvie imagined that Ruben would have a nice voice when it wasn't pitched high with stress and hope. Now it quivered with so much tension, she felt her back and neck lock up in sympathy.
She let out a careful, soundless breath, stared out at the soothing flow of South Beach traffic, the glow of headlights and taillights, the glitter against the dark. She could lie, tell him she hadn't found anything, let the cops break the news; but he was her client. She had a responsibility to tell him the truth. Or at least as much of it as she could without jeopardizing the police investigation. "Mr. Ruben. It's not good—"
"Oh god," he said, reading her tone accurately. "Is she dead? Did someone do something to her?"
"Yes," Sylvie said. "I expect you'll be contacted by the police soon."
"You're sure?" he asked. "You saw her? It was her? The picture I gave you wasn't very good. Maybe it's someone else…" A last hope thinned his voice, turned it to a whispered prayer, a man asking for a miracle.
Sylvie had dealt with gods; she knew miracles didn't come cheap.
"The police will answer your questions," she said.
"But you'll keep looking? For whoever did this thing?"
Sylvie hesitated. She shouldn't. It was a police matter now, not hers. But something about the scene nagged at her, left her with the same jittery discomfort in her bones that came from being around inimical magic. "I will."
It took her another few minutes to verify that he wasn't alone, that he had a friend who could wait with him for the news. For the inevitable call that would shatter his world. A few minutes of evasion, not telling him exactly what had happened to his wife.
They felt like the longest few minutes of her life.
She set the receiver down, crossed to the couch, and slumped onto it with a creak of stressed leather. The air vent above cooled her skin, her agitated nerves. She wasn't good at patience. She wasn't good at offering comfort. She wished that Alex or Demalion had been around to take that call. But Alex was done for the day, and Demalion was… finding himself in Chicago, trying to see what he could salvage of his old life in the new skin he wore.
Sylvie kicked at the armrest, a brief spurt of frustration, then dug out her cell phone.
Suarez wasn't getting off the hook so easily; if he wouldn't call her, she'd call him. She couldn't make him pick up, though. It went straight to voice mail.
"Call me, Lio," she said. "I've got a client who's waiting on official word about his wife."
The ceiling above her striped light, dark, light with passing cars; the plate-glass window beside her grew cooler as the day's heat faded. Sylvie flipped the phone, checked the time again. Almost ten thirty. She'd spent most of the day on the road, meeting Tatya, then taking an ATV down bumpy trails and hiking through saw-grass paths, then doing it all in reverse; she'd have to find out when Alex left. It might give her a vague idea of when the illusion trap had been laid. If it was after working hours, the odds of a witness dropped.
There was a sweet spot Sylvie had taken advantage of herself when breaking into businesses. That gap of time between people heading home and heading out to dinner. If she were the witch, she'd have laid her trap then.
Of course, if Sylvie were the witch, she'd have sent goons in to take Sylvie out while she struggled with the illusion. Sylvie believed in being thorough.
She forced herself off the couch and folded the phone away, fighting the urge to redial Suarez. The kitchenette light flickered, bringing to mind that there were leftover enchiladas in the little fridge, just the thing for a bite before she went home to her apartment and its perennially-in-need-of-groceries kitchen.
While she nuked the enchiladas, munching absently on the cold corn chips stored in the fridge to avoid attracting palmetto bugs, she clicked on the local news. The microwave dinged, but she didn't notice.
Breaking news and local news, and it was full of streaming lights, red and blue, and searchlights shining down on flames against a grey-green backdrop.
Everglades, she thought. Guess Suarez hadn't called because he was too busy dodging the media.
There hadn't been flames when she left.
The news bar across the bottom of the screen made her heart jolt: Three policemen killed in Everglades.
She hit the volume, listened to the newscast, trying to filter the controlled hysterics of the news anchor for actual fact—everything was urgent these days, everything was imminent doom on Channel 7. As far as she could tell, it was her crime scene, but what had changed? When she and Tatya had been there, it was as quiet as death; there hadn't even been mosquito hum in the air. Now, the newscasters mentioned bombs and ambushes in a single breath, followed it with a totally inane recap of how many helicopters were circling the scene, and a self-referential media report.
Sylvie muted the set, hit redial on her cell phone. "Lio. Give me a call if you're all right—" Stupid message, but she felt the need to try something more than just waiting to see if the news anchors would broadcast the names of the dead.
Her office phone rang again, and Sylvie grabbed it, chanting Be Lio, be Lio in her head.
"Shadows Inquiries," she said.
There was silence on the line, a silence of words, not breath. She heard a rasp of controlled air, a clogged sound that might be a stifled sob, and her hand tightened on the receiver. "It's Sylvie. Who is this?"
"…Lio wants you," the woman said, just when Sylvie was about to reluctantly let the line go dead again. "You come. You see him. Then you get away from my family."
"Lourdes," Sylvie said. Adelio Suarez's wife. She skipped the questions rising to her lips—Was Lio all right? Was he hurt? What happened?—and homed in on the information she needed right at this moment. "Where are you?"
"Jackson Memorial," Lourdes spat, and slammed the phone down.