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We were surrounded, outnumbered, and out of luck. I risked a glance at my partner, and saw the same desperation on his face. We needed to think of something, something brilliant, something fast.
Too late. There was a crack like thunder, lightning filling the entire room, and we both fell to the ground like someone slammed a two-by-four over our heads.
A deep male voice pronounced our doom. "You're dead. Also, stupid."
There really wasn't much to say to that. Of the four PUPIs in the room, Nick probably would have milked the death scene. Sharon would have argued her way into a second chance. Nifty wouldn't have been dead or stupid, probably.
Pietr and I lay on the floor and were dead. Also, stupid.
The deep voice continued. "Now. Can one of you surviving idiots tell me where your cohorts fucked up?"
The voice belonged to Benjamin Venec. Top-notch magical Talent, experienced private investigator, owner of a pair of gorgeously intense brown-black eyes, and, along with Ian Stosser, one half of the leadership of Private Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigations, also known as PUPI. Yeah, Puppy. The jokes just write themselves, and we'd already made most of them.
If we were PUPIs, though, Venec was Big Dog, and obedience school was in session. I loved my job, but this seriously was not my idea of how to start out a Monday morning, especially the Monday after my old college roommate's annual April Fool's Bacchanalia. My eyes felt like sandpaper, and I was cranky over more than getting killed. Even on a good day, I was emphatically not a morning person.
Since Venec had moved on to his next victims, I risked raising my face from the carpet to see who of the remaining three PUPIs was going to chime in first. What, as Venec was always asking, did the available evidence tell me? Nick's shoes needed polishing, and the way he was rocking back into his heels suggested he wasn't going to volunteer. Sharon had toed off her two-inch heels, and there was a run in her left hose. That was unlike her, and I wondered briefly what epic catastrophe had hit her wardrobe that morning. Also, she was humming under her breath. She only did that when she was stumped, and was trying to scramble for an answer.
That left only one person, but he was out of my line of sight.
His voice amused, our former college linebacker made the call. "They zigged when they should have zagged."
Pietr, his face still down on the carpet, made a rude noise. Venec kicked him in the ribs, gently, and he subsided. Dead puppies weren't supposed to talk back.
"Right," Venec said, his voice thick with disgust. "I stand corrected, you're all stupid. Dead bodies, off to the side. Sharon and Nick, you're up. Don't expect the attack to come in the same pattern. I'm not going to make it that easy for you."
Pietr rolled over and jumped to his feet with annoying agility. Show-off. I sat up slowly, feeling my back crack in protest. Venec reached down and hauled me to my feet without taking his attention off the rest of the team, like he had some kind of sonar that told him where I was. Maybe he did: Venec was occasionally scary like that.
Benjamin Venec. Not much scared me, but I was willing to admit that this particular Big Dog could unnerve me occasionally. His hand was dry and strong, his fingers wrapping around my wrist with a casual familiarity. I was so tired, I guess my control wasn't as strong as it usually was, and the touch sent sparksof the purely incendiary, nonmagical sortthrough my veins. Hoo-cha.
I took the lift, and ignored the sparks with the strength of months of self-denial and fierce rationalization. Unnerving, in the sexually charged way. We'd been doing a weird sort of dance since the first day on the job, me and the boss manwell, me anyway. Venec played everything close to the vest, and I had no idea if he felt it, too.
From across the room, Nick caught my eye, and gave me a slight but unmistakable smirk.
Yeah, Venec was undeniably hot, if you liked the brilliant, dark-eyed, moody, remote sort, and I knew damn well that he felt some of those sparks, too. I'd been around that block a time or two before, and I could tell when someone was reacting. He was also the boss, and that was more important than any fireworks show. I might be dead and stupid, but I wasn't dumb. A bed partner was easy enough to find. A good job? Lots tougher. Especially for someone with our
call them specialized skills. I wasn't going to risk that, not for anything.
"Move the chairs over here. Lawrence, shove the chest into the middle of the room. No, more to the left." Venec was barking orders like a B-grade movie director, resetting the stage for the next test. Nifty and Pietr lifted and toted, while Sharon paced around the edges, checking the layout as it emerged and trying to get one step ahead of whatever Venec was going to throw at them.
I snorted. Good luck with that. We were all damned good, but we were damned good because Venec taught us to be. He still knew shitloads more than we did all put together, with a decade more experience, and there was no way to predict the way his brain was going to jump.
Ian Stosser, Venec's business partner and the public face for PUPI, was widely acclaimed to be brilliant. For my money, though, I'd place the bet on Benjamin Venec. Ian was a flashy thinker, but my mentor always told me to watch the quiet ones.
"Pay attention," Venec said sharply, and I jerked a little, sure he was scolding me. But no, he was glaring at Nifty. Good. Nifty could use the occasional slap down to remind him he was only two-thirds as smart as he thought he was.
Everything was finally rearranged to the Big Dog's satisfaction. Out of the game, Pietr and I sat on the chairs now shoved against the far wall of the office conference room, while Nifty leaned against the wall like a bouncer on break, and we watched Venec put Sharon and Nick through their test.
Venec was re-creating a scenario we'd run into last week: lung-runners, illegal organ-leggers, working out of a warehouse on Staten Island. They'd been a mixed group, Null and Talent, operating off the gridliterallyso that law enforcement was having trouble finding them. The pirates used current to keep the tissue fresh until they found buyers, which was a particularly nasty bit of work, and exactly the kind of thing PUPI had been founded to track down: magic used in the commission of a crime.
The hospital the tissue had been stolen from had hired us on the recommendation of a Board member who was also a Talentour first "corporate" client.
We'd followed the traces of current they left behind, and confirmed the site, catching them with a half-dozen coolers filled with stolen human tissue. We had meant to alert the cops to come in and arrest them, but things got a little messy, and then they'd been tacky enough to try to kill us, rather than surrendering or running away. Venec took it personally when someone tried to kill us. Especially since the bastards got away. The fact that we'd recovered the coolers and gotten enough information to put the lung-runners on the radar for more traditional investigations was enough to get us paidbut not enough to avoid one of Venec's lecture/training sessions. "Fail better" was probably tattooed on his ass somewhere.
The good thing was that we were just as fanatical about learning as he was about drilling this stuff into our heads and reflexes. That had been one of the requirements to become a PUPIthe desire to learn how to do something new, and do it better, instead of following the worn track.
Sharon had put her shoes back on, and was kneeling by the foam chest that was standing in for the medical cooler of tissue. Nick had her back, the way he shouldgood boy. Nicky-boy was really good at his specialization, but sometimes a little flaky outside that, and I'd had to remind him more than once to keep his eye on the game.
Venec stepped forward and raised his left hand, indicating the show was about to start.
I wished deeply for a bucket of popcorn, because once you're dead, and not worrying about what's going to hit you next or how you're about to screw up, Venec's fun to watch. He has what my mentor calls an economy of motion that tells anyone paying attention just how damn good he is at manipulating current. No muss, no fuss, no showboaty waste of energy, just results. You can learn a lot by watching carefully.
The fact that he was hot like a hot thing was just a distracting plus. I'm a red-blooded twentysomething female who hadn't had a date, much less sex with another person, in three months thanks to the demands of this new job and all it was throwing at us. I might only be able to look, in Venec's case, but look I would, and appreciate.
The subject of my ruminations dropped his hand, and a wall of current-fire rose around Sharon and Nick, pushing them away from the cooler. They shifted fast, standing back-to-back. There was no heat, but the sparks were sharp and bright, crackling in the air as Venec directed them with just a flicker of a glance. I almost lost track of what he was saying, watching the neon-bright strands weave through the air.
Currentmagichad one aspect that people always seemed to forget: it was pretty.
It was also dangerous, and Sharon and Nick were giving the strands their full and complete attention. Just because Venec was controlling it didn't mean it couldn't hurt them, as per our prime example a few minutes before. My skin still itched from the bolt that had taken us out.
"All right," Venec said, his deep voice patient, but still rock-hard. "You're in the middle of a warehouse, the perps have outsmarted you and backed you against the wall, and your evidence is across the room. What are you going to do?"
The wall of fire was newPietr and I'd gotten hit from above, suddenly, in a literal rain of energybut it was the same question. What are you going to do? I leaned forward, waiting to see what bit of brilliance they came up with that had escaped us. I am, unabashedly, a geek about this sort of thing. We were inventing procedures as we wentmagic had been around forever, but paranormal investigations as a formal, scientific, proof-oriented gig was something newand I totally got off on it.
"Come on, people," Venec said, still patient. "Time's passing. Suspect's gonna flit on you."
"Let them flit," a new voice said.
The current-wall faded and flickered out, Venec's hand closing shut and pulling it back in a graceful movement, like a conductor halting the symphony, and we all turned to the door where the other Big Dog, our founder and public leader, leaned in the doorway. Where Venec was square-shouldered and dark, Ian Stosser looked like a beeswax candletall, skinny, and pale, topped with a long ponytail of orange-red hair that was too healthy-looking not to be natural. Today he was wearing a dark gray suit, tie still tied, which meant he'd been in a meeting and just gotten back.
"This had better be good, Ian," Venec said, but he wasn't even half as cranky as he sounded. Stosser wouldn't have interrupted unless it was important.
"We have a case."
That was important.
Our office was on the seventh floor of a seven-story building far enough uptown in Manhattan to be decidedly untrendy in a neighborhood nobody was going to mistake for Park Avenue. We didn't get so many visitors that we had to worry about appearances, and not being in midtown suited me just fine, although it was a hell of a commute for Sharon, coming up from Brooklyn. The Guys had used the correlating savings in rent to rent a second suite, once they knew we were going to stick around, and restructured our half of the floor into a warren of workrooms and meeting spaces that gave the illusion of privacy.
Location and privacy were important.
PUPI had a problem that most small start-ups didn't face: We were routinely tossing around a lot of current during training. Current, the source of our magic, ran alongside electricity like horses in a herd, and sometimes they did the dominance thing. When that happened.well, you learned to be careful, and work as far away from delicate electronics as you could.
Going out into the forest for privacy the way they used to in the Bad Old Days wasn't really feasible, thoughCentral Park was just as wired as SoHo these days, anyway, and having a bunch of twentysomethings spellcasting in public might raise an eyebrow or two. Or maybe not; this was New York City, after all. Venec liked to keep our training in the office, though, so the Guys had modified the wiring when they did the other renovations to make sure that we didn't short out the entire building's electrical system, no matter what we threw at it.
But while we did most of our training in the largest workroom, and almost all the casual gatherings in the break roomwhere, not coincidentally, the coffeemaker livedthe briefings were held in the smallest office at the far end of the hall where Ian Stosser now held court.
We didn't have many meetings heremaybe one a monthbut we'd already established a routine, doing a subtle push-and-shove to get at the three armchairs that fit in the space in front of Ian's desk. As usual, Nifty claimed the largest one, since he held on to the muscled bulk that had made him such a hot draft prospect in college. Sharon claimed the other on the basis of a short skirt not really suited for sitting on the floor, and Pietr ghosted into the third chair in that spooky way he had before anyone saw him moving.
Nick and I were relegated to sitting on the floor. Again. Thankfully I'd opted for black cargo pants and a black hip-length sweater today, in honor of the still-raw April weather outside. Spring in New York City was better than spring in Boston, but not by much. I tucked my legs up in front of me, elbows on my knees, and watched while Venec took his usual spot, holding up the wall behind Stosser's desk.