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Every Talent in the city probably felt it when The Roblin arrived, but most of them didn't know what it was, not even after everything was done and dusted. There was maybe a sense of unease, a niggling in the back of their minds, not like they'd forgotten something but that something was happening that they should know about, that was going to affect them.
And then it was gone: fading into the still-chilly predawn air, lost in the quiet bustle of hospital workers changing shifts, police cars idling on street corners, shortorder cooks strapping on fresh aprons and firing up grease-skimmed griddles. Those particularly sensitive to bad vibes, Null and Talent alike, shifted restlessly in their sleep, or woke feeling particularly anxious or alert, but there was nothing to tell them why they felt that way, and most of them forgot it after the first cup of coffee, and the first crisis of the day.
But because it was forgotten didn't mean it was gone.
The malaise started downtown, and spread, like fingers of a hand stretching out to cover all five boroughs of New York City. Barely touching anything, yet sensing, feeling, absorbing the pulse of the city, finding the weak points, the delicate spots, the danger zones. And, finding them, narrowing in for the kill.
"All right, people, settle down."
The noise level hadn't been high to begin with, but the restless movements stilled almost immediately. It was Wednesday, and we were all gathered in the main conference room in the PUPI offices, which were on the seventh floor of a nondescript seven-story brick building uptown in Harlem. Outside I could hear the muffled sounds of traffic, trucks and buses and cabbies in their usual dance, sirens cutting in and out like a soprano having diva-fits in a cast of baritones. Seven of us: me, and Sharon, Pietr, Nifty, Nick, and our newest hire, Lou. And Benjamin Venec, our boss.
"After the past few weeks I had planned on spending time working on your defensive work, but"
"We've got a job? Do I get to?"
Venec scowled at the interruption. "No."
Nifty was getting itchy. Literally: he'd had a run-in with a molting Istiachi two weeks ago, which was unfortunate, since molting made them both pissy and toxic. He'd ended up with a bad rashstartlingly bright green against his black skinthat he was under strict orders not to scratch. He was also stuck on office duty until it healed, while we'd been out on a case, and that was really making his skin itch.
The first time I'd ever seen Nifty during our group interview/audition for this job, I'd thought "well-dressed jock" and assumed he was all bulk and no brain. Working with him for the past year had proved that assumption wrong: he was smart and surprisingly sophisticated. But right now, he was more like a petulant ten-year-old than a pro-quality athlete turned paranormal P.I.
"Why can't I " he started to ask again, his voice not quite whining, but getting awfully close.
"Because you're still contagious," Venec said, not even looking at him. "That's fine here, where we can protect ourselves, but letting you out among Nulls, who'd freak if they started coming over in sparkling green itches? Forget about it, Lawrence."
I hid a smile. Venec would not appreciate knowing how very much more like a parent than a boss he sounded, right then. Benjamin Venec was many, many things: smart, savvy, fierce, an utter bastard when it suited him, and hotter than hell, with dark eyes that I still couldn't identify the color of, because every time I looked into them I got seriously distracted, but he was absolutely not daddy material.
Nifty didn't have the same physicalor emotionalreaction I did to Benjamin Venec, but Venec was the Big Dog, so Nifty subsided, spreading his handsplate-size, and equally capable of pulling a pigskin out of the air or dragging a suspect to the groundflat on the conference room table to keep from rubbing at his arms or legs. Since I'd been right behind him when the Istiachi lifted its tail and sprayed, I was sympathetic. That could have been me, if my coworker hadn't massed twice my weight, and protected me from the attack.
It was funny, really. When I'd agreed to work for the mad Talent combination of Ian Stosser and Benjamin Venec, I never thought it would result in me facing down a foot-long land-squid and ducking toxic urine in order to get the skinny on a bank robbery.
J, my mentor, says I need to read more noir mysteries, to expand my expectations about this job. J still isn't really 100% behind my career choice, but he tries to be supportive. I'm not sure Dashiell Hammett wrote about Istiachi, myself. More Lovecraft's style. The land-squid were fatae, technically full and valued members of the Cosa Nostradamus, but you didn't invite them to Gathers, and certainly never to lunch.
"Besides," Venec went on. "I need you here to work on those files with Lou."
There was a faint snicker that sounded like it came from down the table, which meant Nick, which wasn't a surprise. Boy still didn't have an inch of self-preservation in him. Nifty glared around the table, and went back to sulking. Lou merely nodded her head, accepting both the assignment and the partnering.
Nick was one of the Original Five. He looked like your basic geek and okay, he was. But he had skills nobody else could match. Lou was new to our packshe'd come on board two months ago, when the cases started coming faster and Stosser decided we needed more hands. The oldest of us by a decade, she had actual experience, having worked for a Null P.I.'s office before, but the first time she went out into the field as an active PUPI.
Well. It had been spectacular, and not in a good way. Lou's control was fabulous under training conditions, and not so much in the real world. Now she worked the back office, making sure the research records were in order, the supplies properly kept, and we're never caught without proper background files. At that, she's a whiz. We didn't know how badly we needed an office manager until we had one in place.
Venec waited to see if anyone was going to make any other comments. We weren't. "After the backlog last week" The Big Dog held up a hand to keep anyone from trying to explain or protest. "Yah, I know. That job was a goddamned disaster, and we were all stressed. But not a single one of you filed paperwork all case, and then every damn one of you dumped it on Lou's desk Thursday afternoon. Tacky, people. She's already gone through her initiation."
"Ast mem!" Lou muttered, leaning back in her chair, and I tried not to crack a grin. My father might not have taught me much Spanish before handing me over to J, but I'd learned enough over the years to know what she'd saidand even if I hadn't understood the particular slang, her tone made it clear. The rest of my cohortsmiddle-class whitebread to the core, even Niftywere clueless.
"As I was saying, after the backlog of last week, I had wanted you all to do some skill-workSharon, you still need to work on your binding spells, and Pietr and Bonnie are due for a refresher course in ducking a tail."
How someone who could disappear as thoroughly as Pietr when he was stressed couldn't manage to shake a tail still amazed me. But it was true: for a ghost-boy, he stuck out like a sore thumb when he was focused on following someone.
My problem, according to Venec, was my hair.
I reached up and touched my short blond curls selfconsciously. I'd thought the blue streaks were kicky. Venec had informed me, in no uncertain terms, that they were distracting, and unprofessional. And, apparently, they made me easy to pick out of a crowd.
We weren't supposed to stand out; we were supposed to blend in, the better to find out things people didn't want known. Or, as he put it, "This isn't a peacock show, damn it."
He was right, okay, he was absolutely right. But I'd spent most of my life standing out, gleefully and with encouragement from my mentor, and this.
This drabbing down to dullness was hard.
Even as I let that thought slip, there was a mental touch of something, not quite sympathynever sympathybut a rough buck-up sort of pushback, and I sighed. Of course Venec would know I was indulging in self-pity.
There was no such thing as telepathy, beyond the pinga quick burst of information that was more visual than heard or seenbut about eight months ago we'd discovered that Venec and I could pick up each other's emotions, even thoughts.
Worse and weirder than that: our current kept getting tangled together without our willing it, something that was supposedly impossible. Magic didn't work that way.
The old texts, what Venec had been able to find, called it the Merge. It was rare, annoying, and not something either of us had wanted: We still didn't want it. But, like Nifty's rash, we had to deal with it and not let it interfere with the job.
I, at least, was dealing with it by total denial. So far, so good.
"You had wanted to give us a break?" Sharon asked, her coffee muga robin's-egg-blue color that matched her blond perfection, well, perfectlyhalfway to her lips. "Implying that you're not going to.or not able to?"
Sharon liked to have things nailed down definite-like, the better to tear them apart. She was probably our best in-field operative. That scalpel-sharp brain, matched to the fact that she looked like a 1940s movie goddess, cool and lush at the same time, made her a killer investigator: people got distracted, and then she zoomed in without mercy, finding exactly what they were trying to hide.
The fact that she had the ability to sense when they were actively lying was just icing on that cake.
"Not able to," Nifty said. As usual, he and Sharon were jockeying for lead dog spot, having to prove they were smarter, sharper, more alpha than the other. Then he ruined the superior attitude by scratching at his arm, making a face like a box turtle's, all scrunched up and sour. We all glared at him, and he stopped, shamefaced.
The rash spread by contact. Venec might be able to treat the infection, but I didn't want to be stuck under house arrest, too, because Nifty couldn't let it heal. If he wasn't careful, we were going to make him stay home.
"Not able to," Venec agreed, carefully not seeing Nifty's lapse so he didn't have to yell at him again. "Ian handed over two files this morning."
"Two?" I was surprised, yeah. It wasn't uncommon for us to have two jobs going, these days; the Council overall might still not officially recognize us, but word had gotten out that they'd use us in need, and so the ordinary members of the Cosa Nostradamus were calling. But two coming in on the same day? That meant Nifty's desk assignment wasn't make-work; there wasn't time or manpower to do that, even with Lou around.
"And where is Master Stosser, anyway?" Nick looked around like the boss might suddenly pop out of the woodworkand he might, actually.
Ian Stosser might be the genius behind PUPI, but lately he'd left more and more of the day-to-day stuff to his partner. Since Venec was better at that anyway I hadn't thought much about it. But Nick was right; Ian had been least-in-sight, recently.
"I'll worry about Ian," Venec said, his voice more of a growl than usual, reminding me why we called him Big Dog, other than the obvious PUPI pun. "You focus on what we pay you for. Two jobs. First's a break-in, up in Fieldston. Sharon, you and Nick take that one." He slid a plain brown folder across the table, and Sharon took it.
Ah, paperwork. Magiccurrent, in the modern parlanceruns in every human, but only a very small percentage of humans can actually manipulate it. Theyweare called Talent, and the ones who can't use it are, rather condescendingly, called Nulls. Magic makes a lot of things easier, yeah. One of the prices we pay for Talent, though, is that we don't interact well with things that run on current's kissing cousin, electricity. You find a Talent who carries a cell phone or a PDA, and doesn't have to replace it every other month, and I'll show you a Talent who can't use current worth a damn.
Okay, unfair. But even those of us who don't use current every day found anything more sophisticated than a debit card got fritzed pretty fast. I hadn't been able to carry an MP3 player since I was fourteen.
I've spent most of my life in openly Talented society, but some days I watch people using netbooks or smartphones, while we have to juggle paper and pen and memory, and I wonder if we really got the better part of the deal, after all.
"Where the hell is Fieldston?" Sharon asked, scanning the paperwork. "I swear, if we have to lug out to Long Island again."
"End of the 1 line, up in the Bronx," Nifty told her, capping the one-upmanship for the moment.
"Oh. Okay." She wasn't happy about heading all the way out there, but apparently so long as it didn't involve having to leave the city, she could deal with it. Shar was our only born-and-bred New YorkerI didn't count, having spent most of my teens in Bostonand sometimes that just shone through.
"Client's a Null, he owns a house up there, it got tossed last night and he thinks it was a Retriever. No idea why he thinks that, but if it is "
I couldn't stop myself from interrupting. "Venec, when was the last time someone actually pinned anything on an active Retriever?"
Retrievers were the cat burglars of the Cosa Nostradamus, Talent who naturally went invisible, like Pietr, only they controlled it, used it to get away with everything short of murder. If this guy'd been burgled by a Retriever, odds were that even if we could prove it, nobody would ever get the stuff back.