With her art and magic, Isa Romanchzyk has the power to create or destroy. In her tattoo shop, Nightmare Ink, Isa helps those in need by binding the power embedded in their Live Ink—the magical tattoos that can enhance the life of the wearer, or end it. But binding tattoos has earned Isa the contempt of her fellow artists—including her former lover Daniel.
When a friend comes to the shop with a tattoo on the verge of killing him, Isa can’t turn him away. For the first time in years, she works Live Ink—something she swore she’d never do again. But a broken vow soon becomes the least of her problems.
The real nightmare begins when she’s abducted and inked with a Living Tattoo against her will. Now, saddled with a powerful, amoral entity willing to do anything to win his freedom, Isa must fight to keep her Living Tattoo from consuming her completely...
Praise for the novels of Marcella Burnard:
“A huge hit!”—Night Owl Reviews
“Thrilling!”—USA Today bestselling author Susan Kearney
*RT Book Reviews
Marcella Burnard graduated from Cornish College of the Arts with the ever-practical degree in acting. She promptly made more money as a musician than as an actor, so it made sense that she switched to writing fiction for Berkley. Her first book, Enemy Within, won the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice award for Best Futuristic of 2010. The second book in the series, Enemy Games, released in 2011 followed by the novella, Enemy Mine, set in the same world in 2012. She currently lives with her husband and their cats aboard a sailboat on Puget Sound, and writes full time.
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Funny how longing for something you can’t have gets blown away in the first swirl of snowflakes heralding an oncoming blizzard. Or by something as innocuous as a cell phone buzzing in a pocket, like Isa Romanchzyk’s was doing as she stared at the thin strip of slate-colored sky above the brick and sandstone buildings outside of her tattoo shop.
She retrieved the phone.
Caller ID said “Corvane.” Detective Steve Corvane. Seattle Police Department.
“Steve. Please tell me this is a social call.”
“Sorry, Isa,” Steve said. He sounded strained. “Are you at the shop?”
“I’m sending a case your way. The guards are en route. I am, too.”
Uh-oh. “What have we got?”
“Live Ink going rogue on a two-hundred-eighty-pound lifer.”
Steve’s way of saying he’d sent a hardened criminal being driven insane by his Live Ink into the shop for evaluation and an involuntary bind of said Ink.
“Okay.” She locked the front door, flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED at midday, and turned off the neon OPEN sign.
“They’ll bring him to the basement door in the back alley,” Steve said. “He’s in a bad way. I put in a call to the paramedics.”
Misgiving drove a chill through her.
“I appreciate that. Headed downstairs,” she said, pausing in the threshold of the scratched, black metal door that separated the basement from the light and day-to-day life of the upper world.
Her piercing artist, Nathalie, had plastered the shop side of the door with fliers for indie bands Isa had never heard of until she’d hired the younger woman. The riot of color and block print had started peeling.
She clattered down the narrow concrete steps and into the brick and cement basement, where she’d built a room specifically for containing and grounding magic work.
“I’m ready,” she said into the cell phone.
“Thanks,” Steve said, relief in his raspy, outdoorsman’s voice. “I owe you.”
The line went dead.
Isa pocketed the phone, then unlocked and lifted the metal bar from the steel door set in the far basement wall. Once upon a time, it might have been a coal chute or a supply door of some kind. When she’d leased the place, the management company had said the door had been enlarged to accommodate fire codes during an earthquake retrofit. The entire building had the exposed steel I-beams to prove it had been updated to earthquake standards.
A strong gust of icy wind nudged the dull gray door. It creaked open on the grimy alley. Dark clouds turned the day to twilight at noon. Wind rattled in the open door. She shivered. A plastic water bottle clattered down the broken, pitted concrete.
She switched on the computer standing outside the thick, nonconductive metal door of the containment studio. Poking her head in through the open doorway, she checked the three security cameras bolted into the metal-lined ceiling. Ready lights winked as the system came online.
She’d searched long and hard to find a storefront with a basement that allowed for a huge metal cage that could be anchored into the earth. Then she’d brought nonreactive basalt blocks in to line the outside of the cage. Nathalie called the stone and metal room the “Magic Microwave.” It was a good concept, though the room contained and concentrated magic rather than ultra-short wave radiation.
Engines grumbling, the crunch of tires in potholes, and muffled screaming announced the prisoner’s arrival.
Isa flicked on the studio’s overhead lights, arranged the recliner bolted into the basalt blocks of the floor into a flat table, and swept a drape over it.
Footsteps pounded into the basement.
“Ms. Romanchzyk?” a male voice bellowed.
A man with thinning blond hair, hazel eyes, and a patch of freckles across his nose filled the doorway of the studio. He gripped his still holstered gun hard enough to turn his knuckles white. “Victor Talles from the Federal Detention Center. Detective Steve Corvane sent us.”
“He called,” she said, nodding. “He’s on his way, but I’m ready if you’re comfortable getting started.”
“I think we’d better.” He withdrew and said, “Bring him.”
Hard soles clattered on stone. A car door opened.
The muffled screams grew louder and shriller.
From the rattle of metal and the skid of rubber soles on concrete, it sounded like they had to drag the prisoner into the building. His cries, contained by the rock walls, resolved into a hoarse blend of pain and terror.
A sick shiver traced up her esophagus. She swallowed hard.
Two burly officers, one of them Victor, wrestled the handcuffed and shackled man into the studio.
Catching a glimpse of his face, Isa gasped. Her heart tripped into staccato triple time.
Red-tinged foam formed on the man’s lips. His eyes rolled back into his head. Only the bloodshot whites showed. Over his ribs on the left side, the prisoner’s orange jumpsuit bore a dark, wet stain.
His escort forced him to the table and clipped his steel manacle wires into the eyebolts embedded in the basalt floor. They tied down his legs in a similar fashion before they stepped back, breathing hard and wiping sweat from their faces. Their uniforms bore the stains of the prisoner’s blood.
The reek of his acrid terror and metallic blood tasted sharp on her tongue. She’d never seen, much less treated, someone so strung out on Ink.
A quiver of panic pinched her breath. “I need those paramedics.”
The door to the alley thudded closed.
“ETA five minutes,” Detective Corvane replied from the doorway. He had to yell to be heard above the shrieks reverberating around the room.
Warm relief spilled into her. Steve had recruited her to be his Live Ink consultant two years ago. She knew how he worked. She could count on him. The panic riding her diminished.
“Talles,” Steve said, gesturing at the studio door. “The monitor right outside the door is set up for live feed.”
The big guys backed out of the room as one.
“Steve, the tattoo’s already bleeding. Can you help me get this jumpsuit cut open?” she jerked her chin at the thrashing prisoner.
Steve tossed her a surprised look.
She’d never asked for help before.
He leaped into action, brandishing his pocketknife.
Isa grabbed a pair of gloves then tossed the box to him.
He caught it with one hand and fumbled for a pair of gloves.
She pulled on hers and grabbed her obsidian knife from her altar. Pulse fluttering in her veins, she mentally begged her long-gone teachers’ forgiveness for using a ritual knife for something as mundane as cutting fabric. She prayed she wouldn’t snap the volcanic glass blade.
The prisoner moaned. His body arched as if he sought to throw himself from the table.
Taking hold of his collar, she sliced through the fabric underneath, baring most of his torso.
Steve sawed open the arms, then went to work on the left waistband to give her better access.
“Damned glad to see you,” she told him. “Not happy about the circumstances.”
“Right there with you,” he grunted, affording her a brief, lopsided smile.
Isa focused on the prisoner.
Blood welled up in a pink froth from a hole in his left side. The wound exposed two red-smeared ribs. A whiff of charred meat hit her. As she watched, the flesh around the wound bubbled and cracked as if being burned. A green, gold, and red Ink dragon bared its sharp, gore-caked teeth and turned its head from where it had been tattooed across the man’s lower rib cage.
The tattoo looked her in the eye.
Seething rage slammed into her.
She rocked back on her heels and smelled her hair burning.
She looked up at Steve’s pale, pinched expression as he stared without comprehension at the man’s wounds.
“Go!” she bellowed, summoning power to shield. The man’s Live Ink was killing him—draining him of life and chewing its way free of his body as it did so. “It’s going critical!”
Even she heard the shrill note of terror in her voice. She’d never dealt with anything like this. Until now, she’d only heard about the possibility of Live Ink consuming its host.
Steve hesitated, concern in the frown he turned upon her.
“I can’t shield us both,” she said.
His gray eyes widened. He found his feet then and scrambled out, pulling the heavy metal door closed behind him.
The toneless clang of its closing reverberated around and around the stone studio.
Everyone outside would be safe.
Turning back, she reached deep within, tapping the core of magic that ran through her like a fathomless, shimmering river. Golden warmth and the scent of sage washed away the stench of blood and fear.
She raced for her equipment, sloshing binding ink onto her jeans in her haste to begin destroying the creature of magic and Ink tattooed across the man’s diaphragm.
On the heels of a rattling wheeze of a shriek, he suddenly fell silent.
Isa spun to stare at him.
He convulsed and then arched so hard against his bonds, she heard the dry-twig snap of bone breaking.
Her nerveless fingers opened. The crystal bottle of binding ink shattered at her feet.
The man’s tattoo ripped free of his body.
Hot droplets stinking of copper pennies and old meat slapped her face.
The magic-enlivened Ink resolved into a stylized Asian dragon. Needle-sharp teeth and claws. No wings. Hot, fetid breath.
Her patient’s body slumped lifeless to the table. Blood and binding ink mingled in puddles on the floor.
The dragon charged.
She’d shielded. Within the confines of a containment cage, no one’s stray magical construct should be able to touch her.
The thing breathed fire.
Isa smelled her cotton sweater scorching, but her shield shunted most of the assault harmlessly into the basalt floor. And while her attention focused on the breath attack, the creature hooked its claws deep into her thigh.
Desolation cascaded through her.
It wasn’t hers. It made her heart hurt nevertheless. She gasped at the dual pain of magic talons embedded in her leg and the creature’s sorrow shredding her heart.
For a long second, Isa stared into the dragon’s glittering gold eyes, stunned by the sheer beauty of the creature.
The gold dulled as the dragon absorbed the magic and life force that had gone into its creation.
Isa expected it to feed on her blood and life force then.
The dragon flexed its claws in her flesh as if preparing to do just that.
They shrieked in unison.
Inexplicably, the creature retracted its claws and let go.
Her shield collapsed. The power she’d used to form it snapped back at her like a stretched rubber band, bruising, stinging on more than a physical level. Her vision went fuzzy. She fell.
The noise rolled around inside her head as if waiting for her to place it, but for two long seconds, the ring of metal on metal made no sense.
Then it hit her.
Someone was breaching containment.
Panic shoved adrenaline through shock. She propped herself up on one forearm and reached as if she could bar the door from where she lay.
“No!” she shouted. “Don’t open the door!”
“Isa!” Steve roared. He bolted into the studio.
The dragon issued a cry.
Isa clapped her hands to her head to keep her skull from splintering.
The Ink of the dragon’s making, sucked dry of magic and life energy, exploded in a glittering rainbow of dust. Invisible now to anyone but another magic user, the dragon swarmed past Steve and out the door.
A frigid blast of dry air suggested that someone had opened the basement door again. The dragon was free.
Blanching, Steve stopped dead.
Even if he could no longer see the dragon, he’d clearly felt the magic brush past his definition of reality.
He glanced over his shoulder at the open door. When he turned his gray eyes back to her, dread colored his scowl.
“Something bad just happened, didn’t it?”
Isa closed her eyes at his understatement and dropped her head to rest on her forearm.
“Pattaja!” he hollered out the door. “Get the paramedics in here!”
His footsteps approached. She heard the shoosh of fabric as he crouched beside her. The heat of his hand hovered above her shoulder. Before he could touch her, the remnants of magic in her system arced between them. He pulled back and cleared his throat. “Are you okay?”
She lifted her head to meet his gaze. “I will be.”
He looked around, his eyes wild until they settled on the dead man on the table. “What happened?”
“His Ink killed him and then came for me.”
A pair of paramedics, snow melting on their coats, rushed into the studio, medical equipment Isa couldn’t identify in their hands. They went for to the man on her table, slowing as they ascertained that the corpse was beyond help.
They turned then to her.
Staring, Steve’s jaw flexed as if he’d braced himself. “A bit of magical Ink poked bloody holes in your leg?”
“It’s out there now. In the world.”
“Because I opened the door?”
“I heard you scream and saw you go down. I thought—” He broke off and blew out a shallow breath.
“Can you get the department’s magic trackers out after it? While the trail is fresh?”
“Good idea.” Steve nodded. “What happens if we don’t find it?”
“If I can’t find it and bind it, people die.”
Waiting amidst the shouting, the swearing, and, at one point, the football toss going on over the tops of far too many heads, Isa sat beside Steve’s desk. The state patrol had closed both floating bridges. The storm had dropped a foot of snow in the past three hours and turned the Seattle Police Department’s North Precinct into a three ring circus of police officers who couldn’t patrol the city.
Steve had propped her bandaged, throbbing left leg on a board laid across the top of a trash can and then gone in search of coffee. She doubted he’d find any worth drinking.
She leaned in and picked up the photo of Steve’s smiling parents and doe-eyed sister. Running a fingertip down the raised knot work on the frame, she smiled back. She liked Steve’s desk. It was peaceful. Something about it, either his penchant for tidiness or more likely the man himself, erected a wall of serenity.
She envied him the evidence of family, of connection. As much as Isa valued the peace Steve seemed to impart, however, she didn’t want to spend the day camped beside his desk.
Replacing the photo carefully, she sat back. She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose hard. The headache that had settled in behind her eyes refused to subside.
The desolation she’d picked up from the dragon lingered behind her sternum, hunched and uncomfortable. It resolved into homesickness.
Definitely not hers.
It had to have come either from the dragon or from the man it had killed, Mr. Kelli Solvang. She doubted a dead man could suffer homesickness. That left the dragon.
Why hadn’t it killed her?
She should be out there with Steve’s trackers searching for it. While the dragon wouldn’t be interested in people without magic, anyone with enough power to see the rogue Ink would be vulnerable once the thing got hungry for another dose of blood and magic.
Approaching footsteps alerted her to Steve’s return, hopefully with the coffee he’d promised.
“Isa. What happened?”
The fluid, warm baritone jolted awareness straight through her core. Her eyes flew open. She jerked upright. The move pulled over the trash can. Her left foot hit the floor. Pain stabbed through her leg, wringing a squeak of protest from her throat.
Tall, dark, and lithe Daniel Alvarez stood before her, his expensive-looking black suit crisp and perfect. Not a spot of lint. No beaded moisture to hint that he’d come in from the storm. No flakes of melting snow lingered in his gleaming black hair.
Graceless, pulse hammering in her ears, she struggled to her feet and rubbed suddenly damp palms on the sweat pants she’d managed to pull on over the thick bandage after the paramedics had cut her jeans from her wounded leg.
He smiled, crinkling the corners of his pale blue eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
“Detective Corvane called and left a convoluted message about prisoners and Live Ink. Are you going to answer my question?”
“What happened?” Isa repeated, trying to ignore feeling like a grubby five-year-old next to his polished good looks. “The police brought me a guy strung out on his Ink.”
“They waited too long and his tattoo killed him?” Daniel finished.
“The Ink escaped,” she said. “You needed to know.”
He stared at her, disbelief in the furrows between his brows. “Escaped?”
Hot blood rushed to her face. She could have prevented the escape. Should have.
Daniel took her by the shoulders.
Sparks showered through her blood.
“It tore through your circle?” Pity stretched his frown and strained his rich voice thin.
Poor little Isa, scraping the bottom of the magic barrel. Maybe she deserved his pity. She should have erected a circle before assessing the prisoner. She just wasn’t certain it would have changed anything if she had. The Ink had gone critical so fast.
Daniel’s power seeped into her. It took a very long time for his jagged, yellow and red energy to hit bottom inside.
“Either you’re spent or we’re mellowing,” he noted, meeting her gaze, humor in his own.
Isa’s breath caught. How she wished she could believe they’d become compatible. “Spent. The dragon attacked me . . .”
“You’re injured,” he said in the same instant, his voice sharpening. His grip tightened.
“It’s minor,” she protested.
“Magical attacks are never what they seem, Isa. Even you know that,” he snapped.
Maybe she wasn’t spent after all. At his words and the tone that suggested she might be an idiot, her own power, warm and golden, boiled up along with anger.
Where her power connected with his, the energies flared and ignited, draining them both. He released her and stepped back, his face impassive.
“Stop this and come work for me,” he said, smoothing out his voice with easy charm. “I care what happens to you.”
“Work for you?” she echoed in shock. Sure. Since they’d been students together at Weird Ink before their mentor, Triple J, had retired, Daniel had talked about the two of them having a place together. That had been before they’d become lovers and discovered that their respective powers were incompatible. Destructive, even. If he’d forgotten, the stinging sparks they’d just thrown at one another should have kicked him right in the memory.
How did that translate into working for him?
“I have more business than I can handle,” he said. His soothing tone suggested she was being unreasonable. “You have a unique and valuable skill set.”
“We can’t work together, Daniel,” Isa retorted. “My magic. Your magic. They don’t play well together, remember?”
“We worked together as apprentices.”
They hadn’t. Not really. He’d reveled in being in the spotlight, soaking up praise and attention. She’d lurked in the shadows. She still did.
“I have a shop, thanks.”
“One that barely makes enough money for you to eat,” he snapped. “In a filthy, run-down part of town that’s likely to collapse the next time a cement truck rumbles past.”
“I do fine.”
He raised an eyebrow. In a low voice, pitched only for her, he said, “How is it fine that you destroy what other artists create, Isa? It can’t be all you’re good for.”
“It saves lives.”
As if she hadn’t said a thing, he said, “How long would you ‘do fine’ if it became common knowledge that you don’t have a single tattoo? No one wants ink of any kind from someone who doesn’t have it.”
Her hands curled into fists. “You have no idea whether I have ink—”
“You forget I’ve seen and possessed every inch of that sweet body,” he interrupted.
Activity around them had quieted and slowed. Cops and their instincts? Or had their voices risen enough to be overheard?
“It’s been five years since you’ve seen anything other than my middle finger, Alvarez,” she said. “You have no idea what kind of ink I have.”
His jaw bunched. He closed his right hand around her biceps tight enough to bruise. “You will be mine. One way. Or another.”
“What?” Isa flinched and caught a faint whiff of sulfur. Ice tumbled down her innards as she stared at him. Someone—or something—else glared out at her from Daniel’s eyes.
“Mr. Alvarez,” Steve hailed in an easy-going, defuse-the-tension-at-all-costs tone of voice.
Every last hint of that something else in Daniel’s demeanor vanished. His grip loosened. His expression turned from cold stone to a warm, affable smile.
Confusion rocked her. Had she imagined that glimpse of—what? What had she seen? Could she trust her senses after watching a man’s Ink kill him on the table in her basement?
“We hadn’t meant to drag you out in this weather,” Steve went on, striding in behind her and plunking a paper cup filled with coffee on his desk.
A woman with her blond hair cut in a short bob, clad in a charcoal business suit and no nonsense black pumps, accompanied him, eying Daniel and then Isa.
“Since you’re here,” Steve said, filling the silence, “would you mind having a look at a few photographs for us? Do you know this man?”
Daniel released Isa to accept the printed photo Steve held out to him and then shook his head before handing the photo back. “No. I don’t. Do you have a photograph of his artwork from before this incident?”
The woman gave him a smaller photo.
“I’d need a better shot of the artwork before I could say anything about who might have done the work,” Daniel said. He shrugged and pasted a smile on his face.
To anyone else, it would look genuine. Isa knew better. Though the corners of his eyes crinkled as if the smile were real, his cool blue eyes didn’t warm the way they would if he’d meant it. The way they used to after the two of them had spent the night together.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help,” he said. “Come on, Isa. Let me get your coat. I’ll take you home.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Romanchzyk.” Steve laid on the “public relations” voice. “We need that statement. This is Anne Macquarie from the local branch of the Acts of Magic Bureau of Investigations office. She’ll be leading the joint task force investigating Mr. Solvang’s death.”
“Where’s your lawyer, Isa?” Daniel inquired.
“I’m a witness,” she countered. “Not a suspect.”
“That’s right,” Anne Macquarie responded, so quickly that it tripped Isa’s internal alarms.
She raised an eyebrow at Steve.
He wouldn’t meet her eye.
“I have a few questions for Ms. Romanchzyk,” the agent said. “Then I guarantee the department will see her home. We have a vested interest in her safety.”
Still uncertain about what she’d sensed in Daniel, Isa had no intention of getting into a car with him. She’d rather answer AMBI questions. Not that she’d let him know that. She needed the scraps of flat ink business he sometimes tossed her.
“I appreciate you coming in, Daniel,” Isa said. “I need to hunt down that dragon and find a way to contain it. If you have suggestions or if you hear anything . . .”
“I will contact you immediately,” he said, taking her hand. He lifted it to his lips in a gesture so old-fashioned she had to suppress a snort.
Isa didn’t like the anticipation that fluttered through her lower belly at the contact.
He released her and strode away without a backward glance.
Abruptly exhausted, she sank into her chair. She wrapped her arms around her ribs. It didn’t help. Nothing changed.
A man was still dead.
His tattoo had escaped her so-called containment studio.
Daniel still walked away.
The ache in her leg and in her head redoubled. “Got any whiskey for that coffee?”
“Not unless I raid the evidence room. You all right?” Steve asked.
Isa shot a look between the two of them. The detective and the AMBI agent. “You tell me.”
The agent planted her palms on Steve’s desk and leaned in. “Ms. Romanchzyk . . .” She stumbled over the name and paused.
“Romanchzyk,” Steve said, “rhymes with romantic.”
Isa rubbed her forehead.
“We keep an eye on Live Ink artists,” she said. “And it hasn’t escaped our notice that you seem to have contact with some interesting people. Gangs members. Criminals. Organized crime.”
“Precious few of the last,” Isa acknowledged, picking up her coffee and gulping a huge mouthful of the steaming liquid. After a close encounter with Daniel Alvarez, she needed the fortification. “Organized crime types don’t go to hacks for Live Ink. They can afford someone who knows what they’re doing. Ink rarely goes bad on those guys.”
“Not to mention the accountability of being the artist whose Live Ink tried to kill a mobster?” Steve interjected.
“Not to mention I serve the people who come through my door, no questions asked because I bind Live Ink,” Isa said. “That makes me neutral territory. Anyone who comes to see me while wearing Live Ink comes in knowing they’re losing control of what amounts to a loaded weapon.”
“I don’t question the service you provide, Ms. Romanchzyk,” Anne Macquarie said. “I question whether it puts you in contact with someone who might have paid you to delay saving a material witness in a federal organized crime case.”
Isa sat bolt upright and nearly spilled her coffee. “I didn’t know anything about your witness until he showed up bleeding in my studio. Hell, I was halfway across the room trying to get my gear when he died.”
“Why don’t we take care of your statement? We can address specific questions from there,” Steve said. He pulled out his chair, sat down, signed into his computer, and called up the forms. “Go ahead, Isa. Whenever you’re ready.”
She swallowed another swig of bitter coffee. The headache seemed to appreciate the influx of caffeine. She sketched the sequence of events.
Anne Macquarie stood behind Steve’s desk, frowning over Isa’s point-by-point recitation, until Isa crossed her arms and sat back in her chair.
“Do you know Nikolai Vladimirovich Vasilyev?” the agent demanded.
“The real estate guy who’s buying up vacant lots in Seattle?” Isa clarified, and then shrugged. “I know of him. From the news.”
“From the news,” Anne echoed.
Scowling, Isa waited for a follow-up question or accusation.
It didn’t come.
“If you’re suggesting that Mr. Solvang was turning against Vasilyev, I’ll ask if the whole Russian mob thing isn’t a little trite by now,” Isa said. She turned a frown on Steve. “Are we done here? I’d like to go home.”
“Any further questions?” Steve prompted the agent at his shoulder.
“Not at the moment,” Anne replied. Her tone implied something different. “Wait. Yes. Why do people get Living Tattoos? Criminals, specifically?”
Isa rose, gritting her teeth at the stabs of fire in her injured thigh. “Live Ink makes you more than you were. Your talents and your skills are augmented. You live longer.”
“How much longer?”
“We don’t know yet. The first people who received Living Tattoos fifty, sixty years ago are still alive. Two or three have died, but those were major car accidents,” Isa said. “Not only are the first Ink hosts not dying of old age, they’re aging really slowly.”
Steve got up and came around his desk to offer her an arm. His eyebrows climbed when she accepted the support.
“Are you saying they’re immortal?” Anne said.
“No. Live Ink hosts age; they just seem to do it in slow motion. The people studying Ink say it’s because Living Tattoos confer rapid healing,” Isa said. “If you have Ink, you don’t get sick. Not even common colds. Normal wear and tear on the human body doesn’t accumulate.”
Anne frowned. “Why not?”
“There are a lot of theories. Most focus on magic altering cellular structures in some subtle way. Frankly, most of it is over my head. And since it isn’t healthy for me to pry into my clients’ motives,” Isa said, “I don’t know why gang members and petty criminals favor Live Ink, unless it’s some kind of look-how-tough-I-am status symbol. I mean, we know honest people get Live Ink, too. The Living Tattoo registry proves it.”
“Hacks dodge the registration requirements,” Steve said, “and brag about it until my team and I track them down and put them out of business.”
Anne nodded. “I’ve seen your team’s numbers, Corvane. You do solid work. But it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got uncounted numbers of criminals running around this city with Live Ink.”
“If they start to lose control of that Ink, I destroy it,” Isa said.
“Like you destroyed Kelli Solvang?”
“His dragon killed him!” Isa snapped. “You have the photos to prove he’d had that Live Ink for years. This wasn’t integration failing. The question you should be asking is what happened to make that dragon go bad now? Find that out and you’ll know who murdered your witness.”
Isa spun on her heel to walk away. Tearing pain set fire to the nerves in her left leg. She gasped.
Steve took more of her weight. “Want some aspirin for that leg before we go? It’ll be a long trip. WSP has closed the roads. We’ll have to take my car.”
“What about the team tracking the dragon?”
He shook his head. “Lost the trail at the ship canal.”
“They’re still out there,” he said, escorting her into the elevator, “following a city snow plow. They’ll find it.”
The elevator doors closed on Agent Anne Macquarie’s stare.
Isa blew out an unsteady breath. “You might have warned me I’m a suspect.”
“You wouldn’t be going home if you were,” Steve noted. “Anne takes her job very seriously.”
“I’m not the enemy.”
“I know that, Ice,” Steve said. His use of the shortened version of her name suggested they were off the clock. “Anne has to consider all the angles.”
“His Ink killed him, Steve.”
The elevator landed in the garage. With a discordant ding, the doors opened. Steve led her into the numbing cold. She shivered.
“What made his Ink kill him?” Steve pressed as he directed her to a car against the far wall.
“I’d need more information before I could answer that. Who was the original artist? What had happened to the man in the days prior to his death? Was he intoxicated? Hopped up on drugs? One theory says that marked changes in a person’s mental health can unbalance symbiosis.”
“You’re talking psychotic break here?” he asked as he unlocked and opened the passenger door for her.
“Could be,” she said, flinching as she lifted her left leg into the car. “If he really was turning on some kind of organized crime boss, I hear that’s all kinds of incentive for a nervous breakdown.”
He shut the passenger door, went to grab something from the trunk, and rounded the vehicle to the driver’s side.
“Blanket,” he said, handing over a plastic-wrapped fleece. “Since we forgot your coat in the rush to get you out of the basement before the investigative team arrived.”
She ripped the blanket free and huddled into it.
He started the car.
“You might ask the ME for a toxicology report on Solvang,” she said.
“What are we looking for?”
Isa shrugged. “Something that would explain a breakdown that might alter his will and sense of self. When the lines of identity morph, the symbiotic balance between host and Ink unravels. That’s why so few artists want Live Ink of any size. Artists blur the lines of their identities in order to hook into the creative force.”
“Is that what you do?” he asked, shooting her a quick look as if he could see something like the creative impulse hanging over her head.
He eased the car out onto an eerily empty street. The wind-driven snow hammered against her window.
“I suppose, in a way, I do.”
“And that’s why you hide your ink? Everyone assumes you have Live Ink, but all your ink is flat because your concept of yourself is—what? Too fluid to support anything Living?”
She shifted, uncomfortable with his assumption that she had any ink at all and disliking the fact that she had to lie to him about the fact that she didn’t. In no way was she prepared to go into why. So she temporized. “Something like that. I need to know that whatever power answers me when I call is something I can trust.”
“Even though you could enhance your power with Live Ink?”
“You want to volunteer to go under the needle so I can enhance your skill as a detective? Or as a marksman?” she countered.
He recoiled. “I don’t need Ink to be good at what I do.”
“No, you don’t,” she agreed.
He awarded her a grin that kicked up her heart rate. “Nice.”
“I have no desire to have that kind of power tossed at my feet. Power I haven’t earned and learned to control is power that will destroy me.”
He glanced at her as if seeing her for the first time. “You aren’t the kid I busted for stealing seven or eight years ago.”
“Yes. I am,” Isa countered. “The difference is that when you arrested me, I was rebelling against my ability.”
“You wanted to be a normal kid?”
“Still do. Didn’t you?”
They rode in silence for several long minutes while she stared out the window at the whirl of white.
“Turns out overnight in jail wasn’t the place to learn normal.”
“I’ve heard that,” he said as they inched through the snow. The studded snow tires sounded like metal tractor rims on a cattle guard. “Tell you what. If it’s normal you’re looking for, let me buy you a latte.”
She hesitated, and realized she was already shaking her head. Whether to deny him or to deny the temptation of “normal” he dangled, she couldn’t say.
Steve’s smile faded. “I’m not going to grill you anymore. I swear.”
Grilling she could handle. The gleam of interest lighting his gray eyes and the sensual tug on her gut in response she couldn’t. “I have to close out the books.”
She cringed. Why hadn’t she led with the obvious? “The city’s shut down. What would be open?”
“Your books will still be there after coffee, Ice.”
But their working relationship would vanish, replaced by requests for information. All in the interests of “getting to know her better.” Questions she couldn’t face, much less answer.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” she said. “But I’m not normal. I can’t forget that. You can’t afford to let me forget that. If I’m going to figure out how to catch a dragon that shouldn’t exist in this world, we’ll need all of the odd I can muster.”
Doubt crinkled the skin between his brows. “If I hadn’t seen you turn down every invitation from every single male within ten miles of you since you broke it off with Daniel five years ago, I’d think it was just me. But it isn’t, is it, Ice? What happened? What did Alvarez do or say to put you off taking a chance with another guy?”
She gaped at him, at a loss for anything to say.
“You aren’t still in love with him, are you?”
“Good. He’s dangerous.”
She stared at Steve’s profile, unsettled by his observation echoing the warning still rumbling around her insides after facing Daniel in the precinct.
“Dangerous?” she said. “He’s ambitious . . .”
“He killed a man, Isa.”
The words dropped like stones into the depths of her. Of course, she’d heard the rumors—that Daniel had been dabbling in magic he shouldn’t have been—that he’d killed a man with Live Ink just to see if he could.
She tried to shake the rumors out of her head.
“Why are your instincts so off on this?” Steve demanded.
Because she didn’t want it to be true.
“He went on that goodwill artist’s tour of Eastern Europe over a year ago,” Steve went on. “Remember that?”
“It never happened.”
“But he sent me photos of—”
“Never happened,” Steve repeated. “Someone checked into his hotels. A few discreet inquiries got security camera images pulled from those hotels. It wasn’t Daniel Alvarez at any of them. We don’t know where he was or what he was doing for that year. Then that death occurred three months after he reappeared following this supposed tour.”
“How do you . . . ? You’re saying he murdered someone?”
“Why is he not in jail?”
Steve gripped the steering wheel so tightly the leather squeaked. “His lawyer is a snake. And we can’t pin it to him so it’ll stick. I know he did it, and I can’t prove it.”
“Why didn’t you call me in on the investigation? I might have—”
“We called Triple J,” he said.
Daniel’s mentor. Hers, too, for a few years after she’d come to Seattle. Before Nightmare Ink.
“I didn’t want you in that situation,” Steve added.
Investigating someone she’d kidded herself she’d fallen for. No. She had fallen for the easy, sexy smile Daniel had reserved for her. Beautiful, young women had come and gone at Weird Ink, the shop where the pair of them had apprenticed with Triple J. Daniel had ignored them all in favor of her.
She’d liked the feeling.
She’d let him seduce her. It had been so sweet, initially. His drive, his curiosity, and his art had fascinated her.
Then they’d discovered that their magic wasn’t compatible.
Daniel had stopped smiling.
His drive turned into pushing her into experiments with their magic that left her sick and shaking. Him, too. Yet he took each failure to blend their powers as a personal affront.
Through it all, he never spoke a harsh word to her. He never treated her with anything but thoughtful courtesy. But he also never let her out of his sight.
Until one bright, warm summer’s day, nine months after they’d started sleeping together. Isa and Daniel had gone to Weird Ink to find Triple J waiting for them in front of the shop.
“Go on in,” he’d said to Daniel. “Open up. Me and Ice are gonna take a walk.”
He’d walked her around the corner and handed her a check.
“Take it and clear out,” he’d said. “There’s bad stuff happening between you and Daniel. It’s gotta stop. So if you take this money, it comes with a condition. You go open your own shop in another part of town, and you break it off with Daniel. He’s distracted. I can’t have it. And you don’t need me. Not like he does.”
Isa closed her eyes on the burn of that memory and listened to the blizzard scratching at the roof of the police car.
“I’m sorry I dropped this on you,” Steve said. “I didn’t intend to tell you.”
She shrugged. What the hell had happened to the gentle, thoughtful young man she’d thought she loved? What had happened to her morals that she’d taken Triple J’s money and run from what felt like a family rejecting her?
She opened her eyes.
“It’s not coffee you need,” Steve noted.
“No, it’s not.”
“The offer is still open. I’ll even drink whiskey with you, though I wouldn’t have pegged you for a whiskey drinker.”
She had to get away from her memories and from Steve’s revelations. Isa dropped her chin to her chest, shoved her hands in her pockets, and muttered, “Maybe next time.”
“Sure,” Steve said, his voice flat. “Next time.”
Seattle hunkered down the next day to wait out the snow.
Isa refused to let the multiple puncture wounds in her thigh paralyze her. Entirely. Especially not when Troy texted that someone wanted a flat ink tattoo from her.
She hobbled through the snow to Nightmare Ink.
A tall, slender young man with neat black hair and dark eyes opened the shop door as if he’d been watching for her. He wore dress slacks, a crisp white shirt, and a navy sweater.
“Ria,” Isa said. “You look—”
“Like I belong in church with my grandmother?” he interrupted, smiling. “I will be shortly. Your coat. Allow me.”
As Ria took her jacket, Isa caught Troy Daschel, a flat ink artist leasing shop space from her, eyeing the pair of them from where he sat behind the reception desk. He rose and held out a hand. “Here. I’ll hang that up.”
“Gracias.” Ria gave Troy her coat, and eyed her. “I understand you are injured, señora. I am sorry to hear this. You are well enough to do a tattoo for me?”
“It’s nothing serious,” Isa said. “Come on back. We’ll get the paperwork filled out . . .”
“Already done,” Troy said over his shoulder as he hung her coat in the back hallway.
“Have a seat,” Isa said, leading Ria around the reception desk to her station. “What are we doing?”
He settled into the chair as she switched on her work light. His gaze on hers, Ria turned his face so the overhead lamp spotlighted his left cheekbone. The light caught the three ink teardrops tattooed there.
Isa’s heart bumped down her ribs to her toes.
Teardrop tattoos were supposed to represent a tally of the murders the wearer had committed. It didn’t stop thug wannabes and stars promoting an image from getting teardrops inked on their faces.
But Ria wasn’t a wannabe.
Isa didn’t know what the young gang leader and his gang did in Ballard. Didn’t want to know. It was enough that Ria had been her first customer at Nightmare Ink. He came to her when he wanted tattoos. He brought his people suffering Ink Madness to her for binding.
Still watching her, he put a hand in his pocket and brought forth a gold and onyx ring like the one he wore, like all of his people wore.
“Emilio,” he said. “Tragic, senseless waste. Stupid. His funeral is in two hours.”
Isa rubbed the heel of one hand up her forehead.
“A quarter of the Seattle Police Department is inspecting my basement, Ria,” she whispered. “Do you really want to advertise the fact that you killed one of your own people with cops crawling all over?”
His fist closed on the ring until his knuckles turned white. “Yes. I do. Think of the stories that will be told. Police watch while I get another tattoo for another tool that failed me. A powerful message to the rest of them. Do not tell me you won’t do it.”
Refusing to work on Ria wouldn’t change anything. She turned on her tattoo machine and drew the iridescent black outline of a fourth teardrop into the skin over his cheekbone.
As if she weren’t jabbing him repeatedly with needles, Ria didn’t move a muscle until she finished and handed him a mirror.
“Bueno,” he said, inspecting the work. “I will go to the funeral with a warning label written by your hand. You save lives.”
He rose and walked away.
Troy, working not four feet away from Isa’s station, shut off his tattoo machine and straightened.
At the reception desk, Ria pulled a couple of folded bills out of a pocket, counted off three, and tossed them to the counter.
With a glance back at her, he flicked something else to the countertop. It clinked, hollow and metallic as it hit and rolled.
A bullet casing.
Ria walked out into the snow without any hint that he noticed the cold.
Troy rocketed to the desk, scooped up the brass, and shook his head. “I’m going to strangle that skinny son of a bitch.”
“That’s evidence,” Isa said, holding out a hand. “And you just put your fingerprints on it.”
“Nah. It was on the news a day or so ago,” Troy said. “The kid he executed died of autoerotic asphyxiation. At least, that’s what it was made to look like. The bullet casing was just to rattle you.”
She clasped shaking hands. “Worked.”
“Let me get your coat,” Troy said. “You should get off that leg.”
No. She should take her mind off the moral conundrum inking teardrops on a psychopath represented.
Since she couldn’t manage the stairs to the basement studio where Steve and his unit were investigating Kelli Solvang’s death, she limped through the snow, around the building, to the open basement door, and hobbled in.
“Ma’am! Ma’am, you can’t be here! Crime scene investigation . . .” a young man in uniform said, attempting to bundle her out the door.
“Ow! Knock it off!” She planted her feet. “This is my place of business. Your investigation is in my studio, not out here.”
“Ma’am,” he countered, pinning her with a glare. “My job is to secure this investigation site. You’re a breach of security. Don’t make me arrest you.”
“My job is to make a new batch of binding ink so that the next time you guys send me someone strung out on magic, I can do something about it.”
He scowled and reached for the cuffs on his belt.
“Would you please check with Detective Corvane, at least?” she prodded. “I’ll wait right here, I swear.”
“You’ll do what he says?”
“No. Him I can argue to a standstill.”
The cop barked a laugh, stuck his head in the door of the studio, and asked for a word with Steve.
“Isa, I don’t have time . . .” Steve stomped out of the studio, his shoulders high and tight. He aborted his “don’t have time for this” declaration when he met her eye.
She lifted an eyebrow in challenge.
“You aren’t supposed to be moving around on that leg,” he amended.
“Nice save, Detective,” she noted.
Her bland tone had no appreciable impact on his scowl. “What is it you imagine you’ll talk me into letting you do?”
“Making a new batch of binding ink,” Isa said. “You and I don’t want me to be without.”
His shoulders climbed an inch higher.
“You’re right.” He sounded grudging. “But—”
“I don’t need in there,” she interrupted, tired of having to ask permission to work in her own shop. “Technically, I should be, but since everyone in the city who could arrest me for working minor magic in an unshielded location is in there with you, I’m comfortably certain you might overlook the infraction this time.”
“What do you need?”
“A few herbs, pigments, stuff I’m not willing to talk about, and my slow cooker back there.” She pointed at the darkest corner of the basement tucked up under the stairs.
His frown deepened. “Anything illegal?”
“Not unless someone’s outlawed sage or sweetgrass in the past twenty-four hours.”
“Not that I’m aware. No cracks about ignorance and bliss, now,” he cautioned her and the grinning cop who stood watching them. “And Isa,” Steve said, shifting his shoulders and settling them lower. “Get off that leg before you break open the wounds again. I really don’t have time to drive you to the emergency room. I’d ask Davis to take you.”
“Better than the AMBI,” she muttered.
“Yeah, they have more questions, too,” he called as he turned and stalked into the studio.
“Freaking yay,” she said, turning her back on the young cop’s smirk.
She shuffled to her scarred wooden workbench. A bare lightbulb illuminated shelves stacked with bottles of reagents charged for making magic ink. Isa stuffed the slow cooker full of ink ingredients, a dab of magic, and a liberal splash of high-test white rum.
Then, since most of Seattle PD’s Acts of Magic unit was in her studio expecting her to use unshielded magic, Isa brought up power for an experiment. Warmth shimmered inside her body in answer.
Halfway between normal and the otherworld existed a place where the two overlapped. She’d learned to access it years ago when she’d still lived with her adoptive mother, Ruth. Isa wanted to see if, in the marriage of magic and the mundane, she could pick up the escaped dragon’s trail.
Opening to another sense, she studied the basement, concentrating on the path from the studio to the alley door. The gold of her magic permeated the space, spillover from what she’d summoned to make ink, she assumed. But between the studio and the exit, a multicolored path twisted, evidence of people coming and going, unaware of their magic leaking out wherever they went. They’d erased every trace of the dragon’s escape.
Isa swore. She’d try again in the alley.
Shifting her other-sight to one side, she turned on the slow cooker and set the timer.
“Officer Davis?” she said as she limped for the door. “If you smell smoke? Don’t go in there.”
“Wait. What?” he yelped.
“I’ll be back to check on it tomorrow,” she said before stepping out into the crispy snow. “If it doesn’t blow up.”
“Ha-ha. Very funny!” he hollered from the doorway. “That was a joke, right?”
Isa waved and thought she caught a glimmer of green and gold magic at the corner. She followed. Until it vanished into the energy wash of people using the snow as an excuse to walk to restaurants, grocery stores, and other shops up and down the street.
Frustrating that she hadn’t been able to go with Steve’s tracking team. Between her injury and the blizzard, Steve had flat refused to let her go after the dragon.
In the twenty-four hours since Kelli Solvang’s death, Steve’d had his tracking team on the streets. They’d reported tantalizing traces of the creature, but nothing that persisted in the environment to allow them to follow it.
She needed a plan for what to do when it turned up.
A knock on her apartment door three hours later brought her out of her chair without thinking, which upset the dog sleeping hunched atop her stocking feet. Her injured quad cramped. She collapsed into the chair with a yelp of pain.
Gus barked once, then crowded against her legs, his snout on her knees asking if she was okay.
The door opened.
Steve stalked into the apartment, bristling with indignation. “What did I tell you about getting off that leg?”
“I am!” Gritting her teeth, Isa pressed her fingers deep into the muscle fibers in an uninjured spot.
Agent Anne Macquarie followed Steve through the door at a sedate pace, pausing to close it behind her.
Isa swallowed a curse. Of course the police had access to the apartment building, but she should have locked her apartment door. She’d left it unlocked because Nathalie had insisted on walking Gus in Isa’s stead. She’d even scooped the cat’s litter box.
The cramp receded. Something warm and wet trickled from at least one of the puncture wounds. Great.
“Agent Macquarie has some additional questions, if you’re up to it,” Steve said.
As if she could say no without him carting her to the ER. She gestured them into the apartment and shut her laptop. “Sure. What do you want to know?”
“I’m told you could have prevented that thing from escaping,” she said.
Gus rumbled a low growl.
Isa wound a hand in his collar and rubbed one of his ears to silence him. She scowled at the agent. “Been talking to Daniel, I take it?”
He was the only person who’d known she’d failed to cast a circle. What the hell was he doing? Trying to force her out of business? Did he really think she’d work for him if he managed to run her out of Nightmare Ink?
“Yes or no, Ms. Romanchzyk?” Anne pressed.
“True,” Isa said to spite her. “I could have prevented the creature’s escape.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“The ritual required to lock the creature inside a magic circle with me would have taken time your witness didn’t have,” she said.
“I may be at some fault, too,” Steve broke in.
They looked at him. The surprise written in Anne’s raised eyebrows mirrored Isa’s.
He shrugged. “I opened the studio door. If I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have gotten away.”
That was true, too.
Isa sighed. “The fact remains that a circle cast inside the studio would have contained the dragon whether you’d opened the door or blown down the entire room. That’s the point of casting one. However, Mr. Solvang was already bleeding and incoherent when the marshals brought him in. We were out of time before they got him through my door. I forewent the circle in the hopes of saving him.”
“So,” the agent said in a rippling tone that conveyed far too much satisfaction for Isa’s comfort. “Multiple procedural violations?”
Gus shifted against Isa’s hold on him, tags jingling. He growled again.
“Sure,” Isa said, using her free hand to press the dog’s haunches down. “Multiple procedural failures led to the dragon’s escape, but not to your witness’s death. In retrospect, nothing could have stopped that.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Mr. Solvang had bloody foam on his lips when he came in.”
Isa pinned her with what she hoped was a hard look. “He was already drowning in his own blood, Ms. Macquarie. How many procedural violations will you be racking up for the marshals who failed to recognize Ink Madness until it was too late?”
“My source suggests that Mr. Solvang could have been saved,” Anne persisted, brushing off the question.
“Who, precisely, is your source?” Isa demanded. “Daniel doesn’t bind Ink. He doesn’t know how.”
Confirmation of Daniel’s meddling in the case.
Gus whined a sharp complaint and twisted. The audible click of his teeth said her willful dog was losing patience with her hold on him. He tugged.
Isa didn’t dare release him. She suspected he intended to herd Anne out the door.
“Absolutely Daniel could do a bind,” Isa said, meeting the agent’s smug gaze, “right after he developed his own binding ink recipe, a ritual for binding, an inking method, and then pulled his ramrod definition of artiste out of his ass so he could do the work.”
“You’re the only person in the world—” she began.
Shoving her free hand in her pocket, Isa produced a handful of change and bit out, “Here’s a quarter.” She flipped the coin at the agent. It struck her gray lapel, rebounded, and hit the floor. “Make a phone call to the Live Ink Association. Ask them who in the US binds Live Ink. Come on back with questions about saving Mr. Solvang after you have that list of people who might actually be qualified to talk about what happened to your witness.”
The woman glared for several seconds before turning on her heel and stomping out of the apartment.
Isa expected her to slam the door.
It closed with a civilized, pointed click.
Isa let the still grumbling dog go.
Gus eased out from under the table, hackles raised.
Steve blew out a noisy breath. “You sure are a people person, aren’t you, Ice? Could you answer her questions without baiting her?”
“That woman gets on every last nerve I have,” Isa said. Thing is, she couldn’t put a finger on why. Did the agent’s bad attitude and loaded questions justify Isa’s snide responses?
“I gathered. She’s going to retaliate, you know. Hey, Gus. How are you, mutt?” Steve leaned over to scratch Augustus’s back when the dog, nose to the floor as if tracking Anne, wandered into range.
Gus’s tail and ears came up. He grinned at Steve.
Isa looked at him. “Retaliate how?”
“Search warrant on your customer files.”
She sat bolt upright and squeaked, “Based on what? She can’t take my computers, can she?”
“It’s common practice, Ice. Where are you going?” he demanded as she levered herself out of her chair.
“To hex my boxes.”
“Isa . . .”
“Those computers run my business, Steve,” she shrilled. “And there’s not a thing in them related to her case. If she takes them, she doesn’t get to keep her eyebrows.”
He nodded as if she’d confirmed his worst fears. “You did not just say that to the head of the Acts of Magic investigative unit.”
She sighed, subsided into the chair, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You know who comes through the doors of Nightmare Ink. It’s not all soccer moms and sailors.”
Steve drew in a slow breath that drew him up straighter. “You’re worried about the gangs.”
“And all of the other people in the shadows who make rare use of my services. If the AMBI takes my computers, the people we least want wandering the city with Ink going bad will avoid me,” she said. “They’ll go to the hacks.”
“And if the AMBI examines your files on-site, it’s clear that it’s just a fishing expedition,” Steve surmised. “All right. I’m making a phone call, but I can’t guarantee anything.”
“Not asking you to.”
“No booby traps?”
She shook her head.
“Good. It ruined my day to put you in jail when you were seventeen. I don’t ever want to have to do it again.” He walked away.