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I dressed carefully for the meeting. The setting was casual; since we were currently officeless, Dawna had agreed to meet Ms. Abigail Andrews, a potential client, for lunch at La Cocina. Unfortunately for me, my business partner had bailed on the meeting at the last possible moment, with what seemed to me to be a fairly flimsy excuse. This was just one of a whole number of things we were going to have to have a serious talk about in the very near future. I get that Dawna’s busy getting ready for her wedding. I understand that she’s distracted. But to not even have done the basic research on Ms. Andrews or filled out a client intake form was just sloppy. Dawna is better than that. She was better than that the first week she had started as my receptionist, years ago.
Graves Personal Protection was the company I’d formed shortly out of college. I am a bodyguard, and a good one. Until very recently I’d run a one-woman operation out of the top floor of an old Victorian mansion in downtown Santa Maria de Luna. Now that building was gone—long story—and I’d been forced to decide whether to expand the business or lose it altogether. I’d chosen to expand, but we were definitely experiencing growing pains.
Dawna Han Long and I have been friends practically since the moment we met, when she came to work for me. She’s smart, beautiful, hardworking, efficient, and one of the most ambitious people I’ve ever known. I’d thought that offering her a piece of the action and partnership in the business would make her even more committed to its success. Thus far, not so much. I reminded myself, yet again, that we’ve been through worse than this, more than once, and made it through just fine.
Still, no matter what I was feeling, I was about to take a business meeting. I needed to smile (but not show fang) and look pleasant, cordial, and ever so competent. With that in mind I’d decided to wear a purple silk shell over black jeans, with my standard black suit jacket. Black and purple are among the few colors that really look good with my paler-than-pale skin tone, gray eyes, and naturally blonde hair. I had to work very hard to find ways to look good—but not too good. Bodyguards are never, ever, supposed to outshine their clients. It’s a rule. Unwritten, but a rule nonetheless.
I was armed to the teeth. No, I did not think Ms. Andrews was going to attack me. But a few months ago some quasi-religious extremists had declared “war” on sirens, and while I’d helped take out the top of their hierarchy, there were still a few stray nut jobs on the loose with an axe to grind. So I don’t go anywhere unarmed—ever. Today I was wearing my Colt in an underarm holster and a new Derringer on my ankle, and carrying an assortment of spell disks. I also had on wrist sheaths that held a pair of very special knives. Made for me by a top mage, they are spelled heavily enough to be considered major magical artifacts. They’re worth more than my car, possibly more than my house. Five years in the making, they are my most prized possessions. Last, but not least, there is a garrote hidden in the collar of my jacket. I’ve never had occasion to use it, but it’s there nonetheless.
Most people think they should be able to tell if someone is a walking armory. Sometimes that’s true. Fortunately for me, my jackets are well tailored and have enough magical spells on them to make them hang perfectly, concealing everything. Still, I don’t look completely nonthreatening, and that’s just as well. After all, a touch of intimidation is part of the service.
La Cocina is a tiny family-run Mexican restaurant tucked up against the college campus. When I was an undergrad, my friends and I hung out there all the time, and we’d continued the pattern long after graduating. Barbara and Pablo, who run the place, feel like my aunt and uncle. When they found out that I’d been bitten by a vampire and partially turned, Pablo made it his mission to come up with something nutritious that I could actually digest—no easy task since solids were impossible for me. He more than succeeded, creating one of my favorite things ever. It’s called a Sunset Smoothie, and it’s made with cooked cow’s blood, spices, and melted cheese, all blended together and liquid enough that I can actually eat it.
I made my way to the back of the restaurant, where there was an area that was fairly quiet and private. Barbara came over as I took a seat with my back to the wall and a good view of the door and proceeded to wait for my potential client.
I didn’t have to wait long. She came a little early, a small, dark-haired, middle-aged woman with bright blue eyes. One side of her face was flawless. The other half didn’t quite match and bore faint scars that were slick and smooth. She’d had major reconstructive surgery at some point. Her medical team had done a great job, but it wasn’t perfect. My guess, the damage had been too severe. There’s only so much even the best doctors and mages can do.
I assumed her use of a motorized wheelchair could be attributed to whatever had led to the reconstruction. She steered the chair through the restaurant carefully but without hesitation, coming straight toward me. No real surprise that she knew what Celia Graves, bodyguard, looked like, considering how often I’ve been on the news in the past couple of years. She wore a traditional navy suit, her blouse a paler blue that exactly matched the color of her eyes.
I scooted a chair away from the table, making room for her. She slid smoothly into the space.
“Ms. Andrews. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I extended my hand. She shook it, her grip firm but not too tight. Her eyes raked me up and down, taking my measure. I could understand that. Hell, most clients do the same. But there was something irritating in the way she did it. Her attitude was just a teeny bit rude. I forced myself to smile politely, but I knew already that this was going to be difficult.
It was the siren thing.
I am part siren. It wasn’t really an issue until the vampire tried to turn me. Somehow the magic he used activated the latent siren abilities in my bloodline. My awakened heritage brought me in contact with family I never knew I had, which is a good thing. But there’s a definite downside to that lineage. One of the primary reasons I asked Dawna to take any meeting with a female client was that, unless the client was wearing a charm, was infertile, or was gay, she’d pretty much hate me on sight.
Ms. Andrews wasn’t wearing a charm.
“I’d recommend the quesadillas, they’re quite good.” I smiled so hard my cheeks hurt, trying hard to radiate bonhomie and goodwill.
“Is that what you’ll be having?” The words were polite, but her tone of voice and body language were just short of hostile.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t eat solids.” I smiled, flashing just a hint of fang. It probably wasn’t polite, but she was pushing me, deliberately provoking me under an oh-so-polite façade. I’d take it in the interests of business, but only for so long without pushing back a little.
“Oh? I’d heard you’d made some progress in that department.”
Really? Where on earth had she heard that? It was true. I was now able to swallow most baby food, something I would never have dreamed possible right after the bite. But it wasn’t the kind of information that had been passed on to the general public. I was very curious how Ms. Andrews had found out.
I gave her a noncommittal smile as Barbara arrived with water glasses and a menu for my guest.
Ms. Andrews wasted no time ordering, asking for quesas and iced tea. I ordered a smoothie, in part to be social but also because I’m less inclined to have issues with my vampire nature on a full stomach. Abigail Andrews was irritating the hell out of me, but I was not about to let her get to me to the point where I scared a restaurant full of customers.
“So,” I said as Barbara disappeared toward the kitchen, “shall we get to it? What exactly do you want to hire me to do?”
“I want you to protect my daughter.”
She blinked at me, as if I had asked the most stupid question in the world. I didn’t grit my teeth and I kept my voice even and pleasant as I said, “What does your daughter need protection from?”
“Not what, who.”
I raised my eyebrows and gestured for her to continue.
“I adopted my daughter when her birth mother, my sister, was murdered by her husband. He is scheduled to get out of prison two days from now. He is a terrible man—a vicious, violent killer.” She gestured to her chair. “He did this to me.”
“What’s his name?” I interrupted her. Yes, it’s rude, but she was gearing up for a tirade. And while her emotion was real, the speech itself seemed a little too pat, as if she’d rehearsed it in front of a mirror. I’ve run into that before, usually when clients are lying or hiding something I really need to know. They rehearse the BS they plan to feed me so that they won’t say what they shouldn’t.
Unfortunately, it’s what clients feel they shouldn’t say that is most likely to bite me in the ass. If I rattle them, I can sometimes get the straight scoop. Temperamental as Ms. Andrews was, this might cost me the job. But I’d rather lose a potential client than get myself or my people killed by walking blind into a dangerous situation.
Abigail sat straighter in her chair, her expression shifting swiftly from startled to annoyed. But she answered, her voice crisp and precise. “Harry Jacobs.”
It seemed like a simple enough question to me, but I repeated it. “Which prison is he getting out of?”
“Why do you need to know—”
“If I’m going to be protecting your daughter from someone, it’s generally a good idea to keep an eye on him. That way I can be ahead of the game instead of constantly reacting. Okay, I was making that up. But now that I said it, it seemed like a good idea. Assuming I had the manpower—which I was working on. If I actually hired one of the people I’d be interviewing tomorrow, I could sic him or her on Harry, if there actually was a Harry.
“Oh.” She was somewhat mollified by the explanation, but she shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Now that was weird. She knew he was being released but didn’t know from where? That made zero sense. My expression must have shown how dubious I was.
“I don’t,” she repeated with a bit more heat. “I got an anonymous call telling me he was getting out. So I called the parole board. I got the runaround for a bit, but eventually they told me that he was not being paroled but was being released early for good behavior. I didn’t think to ask which facility he’d been in.”
Okay, I still didn’t buy that, but I decided to move on. “How long was he in?”
“A little over twenty-two years. I don’t see why—” She stopped speaking in midsentence. She was obviously angry now. Red spots had appeared on both cheeks; her breathing was rapid and a little ragged. The overreaction told me I was right. Something was amiss. She’d intended to keep me off balance, maintain control. She wanted her daughter protected, but she didn’t want me to know from what. Not acceptable. If I’m going to put my life on the line, I want to know all the details. It can make the difference between success and failure, or success with a major hospital stay.
“This isn’t going to work,” she said grimly as she rolled away from the table and turned to leave.
She was right about that. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said. I was lying. I wasn’t sorry at all. “Before you go, can I give you a bit of advice?”
She turned her head, giving me an unfriendly look over her shoulder.
“If you hire someone ethical, he or she will maintain confidentiality. But we all have to know what we’re up against. Tell the truth. All of it.”
She gave me a long narrow-eyed glare before setting her chair in motion. She motored smoothly past Barbara, who was heading for our table carrying a pitcher of iced tea. Barbara watched her go, lips compressed in a thin line. Turning to me, she said, “I take it I should cancel her order?”
“Yep. And bring me a margarita if you would.” It was a little early, but all things considered, I figured I deserved a drink. While I was waiting, I pulled out my phone and dialed Emma’s number from memory. She answered on the first ring. “Hey, girlfriend,” I said, “you got any plans for the day?”
“None I can’t change. What’s up?”
“You know all those boxes cluttering up my house?”
“The ones from when your gran moved?”
“And the ones Dottie sent over before the office blew up, and the ones with Vicki’s stuff from Birchwoods…” I tried to think if there were any others.
“You still haven’t gone through Vicki’s stuff?”
Vicki had been my best friend. She’d died a couple of years ago, the same night I was attacked and partially changed by the vampire. She’d stuck around as a ghost for a little while but eventually had moved on to her final reward. I still miss her every single day. Until just recently I simply hadn’t had the heart to go through her stuff and sift through those memories.
“Not yet. You know how she was about pictures.” Emma laughed. I’m sure that, like me, she was remembering all the times Vicki had pointed a camera at us, or had someone else photograph the three of us together. “I’m thinking there should be some good shots of all of us.”
“I’d be happy to help. Will Dawna be coming?”
“Nope. She’s busy.”
If Emma heard the irritation in my voice, she chose to ignore it. “Her loss. See you at your place in an hour. I’ll bring the wine.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Copyright © 2013 by C. T. Adams and Cathy Clamp