KALDAR squinted at Magdalene Moonflower's lair. The Center for Cognitive Enhancement and Well-being occupied a large three-story building in northern San Diego. The white stucco walls rose, interrupted by huge windows. The whole structure nearly floated off the pavement, sleek, modern, and somehow light, almost delicate. The salt-spiced wind blowing from the coast less than a mile away only strengthened the illusion.
He'd given Gaston a pocketful of money and sent him out on a fishing expedition with the locals. If Magdalene had dealings in the Edge, he would soon know all about it. But in the meantime, they had to approach her directly. The wheels of time never stopped turning; sooner or later, they would bring the Hand and the blond blueblood closer to them. The blonde troubled Kaldar. She wasn't on any of the Hand's rosters he had in his possession.
"Magdalene's building looks like an ivory tower," Audrey said next to him.
"Pretty much. You see it?"
She nodded. "Yeah."
Just beyond the tower, the boundary shimmered, cutting off a section of the building. A person with no magic would see only the tower. Kaldar and Audrey saw the tower and the long two-story-high rectangle of the rest of the building behind it. Magdalene operated halfway in the Edge.
"Clever," Audrey murmured.
"It is. The Edge Gobble."
"Yep." Audrey nodded.
The Edge wasn't a stable place. It shrank and expanded, sometimes forming bubbles in the Broken - holes in reality, invisible to those without magic. The Edgers called the bubbles the Edge Gobble. San Diego had more holes than a block of Swiss cheese, and this one was of a good size, at least as large as a football field. Normal passersby would just walk by it, completely unaware it existed.
"You think if you crashed a car into that hole, chunks of the building would fly out into the Broken?" Audrey asked.
"I don't know. They might bounce off the boundary back into the Edge."
"We should test that theory sometime."
Kaldar snuck a glance at her. Her clothes from yesterday had been too bloodstained to salvage, so after they had stolen a car, they drove to an outlet mall. He wore black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket. He'd thought she would choose something similar, but no. She came out in pale capris that molded to her behind in a very interesting way and a light, blue-green, teardrop blouse. The blouse tied at the clavicle with two cords, and the teardrop cutout fit perfectly between Audrey's breasts, promising a glimpse but never giving one. He was focusing way too hard on that teardrop, and it was screwing up his concentration.
Audrey's red hair gleamed in the sunlight. Her makeup was barely noticeable, except for her lipstick, which was a shade lighter than raspberry and gave him an absurd impression that her lips would taste sweet. Her face wore an easy, carefree expression, as if she skated through life completely unscathed and untouched by any tragedy. Considering that they had just buried Gnome - well, what was left of him - and she had cried her eyes out, her control was impressive.
"Admiring my blouse?" Audrey asked.
"It's a nice shade of sea foam. Goes well with your hair." A potato sack. He needed to put a potato sack over her, then it would be fine.
"Most men wouldn't know that sea foam is a color, let alone what it looks like."
Kaldar shrugged. "For one of my assignments, I had to be a butler to a blueblood noble. The Mirror put me through two months of intensive preparation. If you show me a gown made in the Weird in the past five years, I'll tell you in what year and what season it was made."
Audrey laughed. "Were you very proper as a butler?"
All the tears, all of the hurt, where did it all go? He had to give it to her: she hid it well. She had a lifetime to learn how to do it. He just had to pray it didn't boil out of her again under the pressure.
He slipped into a clipped, upper-class version of Adrianglian English. "I was simply a very competent butler. It was, after all, what my employer deserved. Would my lady care to cross the street?"
They crossed to the other side. "How shall we play this?" she asked.
"Straight." He held the glass door open for her.
"It's your show."
He fired a test shot. "Oh, come on, Audrey. You know I need you to pull this off."
She glanced at him. "Kaldar, I told you I'd help you. I still think it's a stupid plan."
"Ha! I'd rather give all my money to a snake-oil salesman."
They walked through the long lobby to the counter. Kaldar took a mental inventory of the place. Let's see, floor of gray tile streaked with softer brown, calming white walls, large, enhanced photographs in gallery frames: vast Arizona vistas, serene mountain lakes, tangled green forests. At the counter, a deathly pale young man looked up at them. His hair was long, brushed to the side in a ragged cut that probably cost an arm and a leg, and his clothes, designer khaki pants and a high-end olive shirt, would've set him back two weeks of a normal receptionist's pay.
The man smiled. "Hello. My name is Adam. How may I help you today?"
Audrey gave a tiny wave and smiled. "Hi!"
Adam's gaze snagged on her blouse. Kaldar hid a grin. At least he wasn't the only sucker out there. He brushed against Audrey, slipping the cross from her pocket, palmed it, and pulled a blank business card from his pocket, black on one side, white on the other. "Say, friend, do you have a pen?"
Adam produced a pen. Kaldar took it and wrote "Morell de Braose" on the card. "Do me a big favor and deliver this to Magdalene. We'll wait."
Adam retreated behind the door for a moment, then resumed his post behind the counter. Kaldar held the cross in his hand for luck. Just in case. Not that he doubted himself.
Two minutes later, the door opened, and another man stepped out, this one older, with a careful gaze of an Edger. He didn't just expect trouble; he knew with absolute certainty it was coming. "Come."
They followed him through the first door and out the other. A long hallway stretched between them, severed by the shimmer of the boundary. Kaldar stepped into it. Pressure clasped him, and, a moment later, magic bloomed inside him, surging through his veins in a welcome flood. Kaldar smiled. Audrey kept her pace. A few more steps and they were through, neither of them breathing hard.
The man kept walking. They followed him up the stairs and into a large rectangular room. Tall walls, white and pristine, rose sixteen feet high, adorned at the top with an elaborate white lattice that cascaded down, like rows of falling snowflakes. The tiled floor swirled with a dozen shades of beige and brown, supporting a long white rug shot through with streaks of gold. Clusters of white furniture sat here and there, chairs, small sofas, all overstuffed and soft. Eggshell and white planters hung from the lattice, containing emerald green plants, mimosa, and Edge vines dripping down to meet palms, carefully trimmed shrubs, and flowers growing in large planters on the floor. Finally, the ceiling of translucent glass sifted sunshine onto the entire scene, setting the lattice and walls aglow.
A woman rose from one of the chairs at their approach, closing her laptop as she got up, her long white skirt swirling around her legs. She wore a beige blouse and looked pretty much like her picture: about forty, narrow face framed by short brown hair, tan skin, rose-tinted glasses. Kaldar checked the eyes behind the rose-tinted glasses. Cold and hard. Predatory. Yep, Magdalene Moonflower in the flesh.
Magdalene held up his card. A small explosion of magic burst from her fingertips, sending a silver spark across the black surface, turning it into a silvery mirror. A moment, and the mirror faded back to black.
"An agent of the Mirror in my humble abode. Imagine that."
Kaldar executed a small bow.
"Cute. What is it you want, blueblood? And make it quick. I have an appointment later this evening, so if I have to kill you, I'll need to do it fast."
KILL you fast, blah-blah-blah. Audrey pretended to be preoccupied with a plant. Someone had a rather high opinion of herself. Magdalene called Kaldar a blueblood, and he didn't correct her, either. What was he playing at?
"The Mirror is interested in Morell de Braose," Kaldar said.
"Mhm." Magdalene flipped the card between her fingers, pretending to watch the light play on it. She was assessing Kaldar out of the corner of her eye, and the way she adjusted her pose, one hip out, shoulders back to put her breasts on display, meant she liked what she saw.
Not that anyone would blame her. Kaldar wore black Levi's and a black T-shirt that showed off his carved arms. His hair was doing this wild unkempt thing that made Audrey picture him just rolling out of bed. He'd grown a day's worth of stubble, which just made him look hotter. Magdalene was definitely pondering if she should take him for a test drive.
You're barking up the wrong tree, woman. Then again, if Magdalene promised to deliver what Kaldar wanted, he would sleep with her in a blink. He was a man, after all, and he'd do anything to get what he wanted. And that thought shouldn't have bothered her. Not at all.
"And what did Morell do to warrant the Mirror's attention?" Magdalene asked.
"Rumor has it, he bought the wrong item."
"Are there other interested parties?"
"The Hand, the Claws, the usual." Kaldar smiled, a quick, sly curving of lips. He was keeping eye contact, his shoulders squared, his body facing Magdalene. He was working her hard. Magdalene probably knew it, but she still enjoyed the attention.
The two of them might as well have forgotten that Audrey was even there. She felt a tiny pinch of jealousy. It shouldn't have mattered. She and Kaldar had nothing, would have nothing, even if he'd promised her the moon and delivered it on a silver platter. Men like Kaldar were fun to kiss but impossible to keep. Why in the world Audrey was annoyed because he was paying attention to this cobra in a white skirt she had no idea.
Magdalene smiled. "So Morell finally stumbled. Good to know. What do you want from me?"
Kaldar slipped a hint of confidentiality into his voice. "People say that Morell isn't universally loved."
"People say a lot of things."
"If someone who disliked Morell, a direct competitor of his, let's say, were to help us with information or assist us in gaining access to his person, well, such a person would benefit when Morell was brought down."
"Heh." Magdalene leaned forward. "Suppose I help you do this. Then what if you're captured and you give up my name? That might put me in an awkward position." She gave Kaldar another once-over. "As much as I might enjoy that under different circumstances . . ."
Audrey almost slapped her. For Heaven's sake, woman, have some dignity.
". . . I don't cherish having Morell's goons showing up at my doorstep."
"Is that a no?" Kaldar tilted his head. The light sparked off the silver earring in his ear. Mmm, that was exactly what he would look like after a wild night, raising his head from the sheets.
And now both of them were staring at him googly-eyed. Audrey returned her gaze to the plant. She'd have picked at it to keep herself occupied, except it was an Edge Mercy flower, and it would peel the skin off her fingertips.
"That's a maybe." Magdalene snapped out of her Kaldar-stupor and looked at the card again. "I'd like you to do a job for me. In return, I will give you an invitation to his auction. It's a foolproof way to get into Morell's castle. In fact, his guards will let you in through the front gate."
"I'm listening," Kaldar said.
"I have particular talents," Magdalene said. "In the Edge, they call people like me soothsayers."
Figured. Now the snake stare made sense.
"Everyone has problems," Magdalene said, her voice light. "Your boss is driving you mad, your job puts you under pressure, your hair is falling out, you're carrying an extra fifty pounds, and you suspect your wife is banging a used-car salesman. You're worn-out, so you come to me. Two nice employees walk you through that hallway, and you find yourself here."
Well, of course. A couple of Edgers could get almost anybody into the Edge through the boundary. They'd just feed their own magic into the person to get them through.
"You tell me about your problems, and after we chat for twenty minutes, you start feeling better. The longer we talk, the easier your life becomes. People think happiness is about money. It's not. It's all about perception. A doughnut-shop clerk who makes twenty grand a year is often more content than a boardroom desk jockey making two hundred thousand because the clerk appreciates every break he gets. Those who come to me focus only on the negatives, so I simply realign them to see their lives through rose-colored glasses."
"And they tell you all of their secrets in return." Audrey clamped her mouth shut. Oops.
Magdalene spared her a single look, as if seeing her for the first time. "Yes, they do."
You went to soothsayers at your own peril. They made you feel so good. But the next thing you knew, you had told them all about your affair with Bob down the street, and that time you lost your temper with your kids, and the twenty thousand dollars Aunt Hilda left you. Soothsayers traded in information. Most Edgers knew this.
"I've done well for myself over the years. But now I have a problem."
Magdalene took a remote off the nearest table and clicked it. A section of the wall slid aside, revealing a flat screen. Magdalene opened her laptop, typed something in a quick staccato, and the flat screen ignited, showing a smiling man in a suit. Early thirties, healthy tan, bright white teeth, salon-bleached hair. Handsome, but not overly. He had the kind of face that would make him a good vacuum salesman or a successful serial killer: open, honest, confident, and pleasant. Old ladies would judge him to be a "nice boy" and open their doors to him, no problem.
"Edward Yonker." Magdalene crossed her arms on her chest. "Also known as Ed Junior. He runs the Church of the Blessed. He's a prosperity preacher."
Kaldar nodded. "I see."
"Ed's like me, except his specialty is crowds. If he were a carnie, he'd be a sky grifter."
Audrey looked at the plant some more. She'd met a few tent-revival preachers, and none of them were any good. They'd preach hell, whip up the crowd into hysteria, pull off a couple of cheap tricks, then pass the collection plate around. Sky grifters - nothing but show.
"Ed's power isn't that impressive, so I didn't pay him much attention. Two years ago, he got himself a gadget from the Weird, and suddenly his church started growing. He's moved twice, and now he's got himself a nice new building. Ed's aiming for megachurch status, and he's moving in on my clients."
"Does he lift their burden as well?" Kaldar asked.
Magdalene grimaced. "Happiness is infectious. I teach them to be kinder and more compassionate, because that in turn makes people around them happier."
Audrey almost snorted. Magdalene Moonflower, the new Mother Teresa. Be kind to your fellow man and tell me about that impending business acquisition so I can call my stockbroker . . .
"Ed tells them it's okay to be a rich bastard. He tells them Jesus wants them to be happy." The soothsayer stared at the screen. "I've warned him before to stay away from my people and my client list. I had a girl working for me. A nice sweet girl, not too bright but very diligent. Very earnest. She had some trouble in her life, and, for whatever reason, she didn't come to me; she turned to his church instead."
No surprise, Audrey reflected. She had barely spent half an hour with the woman, and she'd rather have her teeth pulled than let Magdalene rummage in her head.
"Ed got his hooks into her. She stopped coming to work. The next time one of my people saw her, she was singing in Ed's choir. She's one of his Blessed Maidens now. He has these retreats." Magdalene spat the word like it was poison. "For his special contributors."
"So what is it that you want?" Kaldar asked.
"I want his gadget. Bring it to me, and I'll get you into Morell's castle."
Kaldar bowed. Magdalene held out her hand, and his lips brushed it lightly.
"We have a deal," Kaldar said.
THE moment she stepped outside Magdalene's lair, Audrey gulped the fresh air. Kaldar put a light hand on her back, trying to steer her across the street.
She stepped aside. "Kaldar, don't touch me with that hand."
Audrey crossed the street. "You touched Magdalene with it."
Kaldar chuckled. "It's not contagious."
"You have no guarantee of that."
They reached the Ford they had "borrowed" that morning from a used-car lot. "She really rubbed you the wrong way, huh?" Kaldar popped the locks open and held the door out for her. She went to sit down, and his hand brushed against her hip.
"I steal things. It makes people sad, but in the end they're just things. They are replaceable. She steals memories and secrets, and she ruins people who take her into their confidence. She's a snake."
"I thought a shark myself."
They got into the vehicle, and Kaldar started the engine.
"You're not serious about this?" she asked.
"I'm very serious."
"Kaldar, jobs like this take time. Did you forget that we have a homicidal blueblood on our trail?"
"She doesn't know where we went. We have a couple of days." He pulled out into the street.
"We need two weeks minimum to pull this off, and you know it."
"Well, we'll just have to do it fast."
She stared at him.
"I have a feeling Fate will be with me on this one," he told her.
"Mhm. She's sucker punched me twice since this job started. I'm due for a kiss. Why don't we go spy on Yonker? You might change your mind."
"What about the kids?"
"They are safe with the wyvern. Besides, Gaston should be back from talking to the locals by now. He'll keep them from doing anything stupid. They will be fine."
She shook her head. "That's your general approach to life, isn't it? Wing it, and it will be fine."
"Hey, it's worked so far."
"You are impossible," she told him.