IT was ruined. Audrey clenched her teeth. Everything she had worked for, everything she had tried to accomplish. All of it was ruined.
She took the turn too fast. The Honda careened, threatening to veer off the road. She gripped the wheel and steered it back into the lane. Why was it that every time things went well, someone showed up to shatter it all to pieces? Her father, her brother, this idiot. She was so mad, she had almost run over some blond child in the parking lot. He actually fell off his skateboard in his rush to avoid her. She'd stomped on the brakes so hard, she'd hurt herself. The boy had scrambled off before she had a chance to ask him if he was okay.
It was good that she had no superpowers because she would have burst into flames and left a trail of charred trees in her wake.
She didn't even ask "Denis" who he worked for. It wasn't the Hand - all of Louisiana's spies were so twisted by magic, none of them would make it through the boundary into the Broken. The more magic you had, the harder it was to travel into that world, and he seemed damned comfortable in it. Wasn't a Claw, either. He didn't look Egyptian.
She wasn't sure what nationality he did look like. Dark hair, honey-colored eyes - those she remembered very well - Caucasian features, but there was something else in there. Some Native blood, maybe? Whatever it was, he had an interesting face. Handsome. Really handsome. He used it well, too. He probably thought his smile was dashing.
For a moment, when he sat there and listened to her with that smile on his face, she almost thought he bought her naive Georgia peach act. She even pulled out her best "sweet tea" Southern for the occasion. But no. God alone knew what Alex had told him.
"That sonovabitch." She slapped the wheel with the heel of her hand. "That damn bastard." It wasn't enough he had screwed up her childhood. He kept screwing up her adult life, too. She'd moved across the bloody continent to escape her family. Wasn't far enough.
The Honda jumped over the roots and popped out into the driveway of her house. Audrey shut off the engine and jumped out. Her getaway bag waited in the closet, already packed. It was always packed. She ran across the lawn to the front door, unlocked it, and ducked inside.
She hoped Denis would buy her cold killer act. Either way, her life here was over, but extra time would be a great thing right about now. Even if he didn't, it would take him at least a few minutes to break free. He didn't seem the type to call for help. He'd want to get out all by himself, except that she made sure the zip ties on his hands were nice and snug. Eventually, he'd call for help, then there would be explanations, delays, and so on. By the time he was on her trail again, she would be long gone.
Audrey yanked the getaway bag out of the closet and pulled the zipper. "Ling!"
Money in a Ziploc bag, clothes, camping kit in another Ziploc bag: matches, Band-Aids, painkillers, wound disinfectant, antibiotic ointment.
"Ling the Merciless! Where are you?"
No answer. Where had that raccoon gotten off to? They didn't have time to waste.
Audrey threw the bag out onto the porch, grabbed Ling's carrier out of the bedroom, set it on the porch, added two full five-gallon gas cans - the less she stopped in places with people and cameras, the better - and went to grab the bow from the bedroom. The crossbow was already in the car, securely hidden under the tarp. She had briefly considered taking it out that morning, not sure if she would be expected to chauffeur Johanna around. She didn't want to answer awkward questions if the older woman had glanced into the backseat, but her paranoia had won, and she'd kept the crossbow where it always was.
Awkward questions. Ha!
Audrey swiped the bow and quiver from the shelf and marched onto the porch.
"Ling, I swear, if you don't appear this instant - "
A familiar figure stood by the car. Denis.
Audrey planted the arm of the bow into the porch boards and strung it in one swift movement. How the hell . . .
"Leave, or I will kill you."
He gave her a bright predatory grin. "Now, you know, I can't do that."
She notched the arrow and let it loose. The arrow sliced through the air with a long whine and buried itself at the man's feet.
"A warning shot. Just one. That's all you get."
He spread his arms. "Audrey, let's talk."
She notched the arrow, took aim, and shot. He spun out of the way. The arrow glanced off the door with a screech. Damn it, now I've dented the Honda's door.
"I'm beginning to suspect you don't like me."
"Really? What gave you that idea, I wonder?"
"You don't want to kill me. I'm your ticket out of this - "
She fired again.
" - mess. Could you stop shooting at me for a moment?"
"No." That last one had to have nicked his thigh. She plucked another arrow from the quiver.
He swiped the first arrow off the ground. "I bet you this arrow against the knife you took from me that I will make it onto your porch unharmed."
There were sixty feet between him and the porch, and she had a full quiver. "I'll take that bet."
He grinned. Clearly the man was some sort of deranged lunatic with a death wish. Audrey shot again. The arrow pierced the air, heading straight for the man's chest. At the last moment he jerked out of the missile's path with unnatural quickness, almost as if he had a rope attached to his waist and something had yanked him out of the way.
He took two steps forward.
"Oh no, you don't."
Missed, God damn it.
He put his left foot onto the first porch step. Panic swelled inside her, a feverish stupefying jitter that threatened to turn off her brain. Audrey stared past him at the line of arrows neatly puncturing his trail.
"My knife," he said.
"You cheated." It had to be magic.
"I did no such thing."
She pointed at the trail with the arrow in her hand. It shook in her hand. "Yes, you did."
"You are a lousy shot."
Audrey jerked the bow and fired an arrow point-blank into his chest. The string snapped in her fingers. The arrow went sideways. It was magic.
She pointed the bow at him. "Cheated."
In her head a tiny voice cried, Run, run away! He could be anyone. He could be the Hand, he could be a California robber baron. He could be a slaver. Run!
For all she knew, Alex had told him that she still had the West Egyptian box. Or worse, her brother had sold her to him, just like he had before. Audrey felt a phantom hand squeeze her throat. She would not be anyone's punching bag again. Never again.
He stepped onto the porch. "I'm still waiting for my knife."
She pulled the knife out. The beautiful black blade curved from her hand. "Come and take it if you can."
"If I can, huh." The man rolled his eyes and lunged for her.
She sliced across his arm, cutting the heavy fabric of the sweatshirt rolled up at his sleeves. Red stained his sleeve. Audrey reversed, sliced again, quick. Somehow she missed. His fingers clamped her wrist. She rammed her knuckles into his throat. He stumbled back and turned sideways, falling into some sort of fighting stance.
His left hand snaked out, too fast. A punch rocked her shoulder. He punched again, quick combination, left, right, left. She lunged into it, aiming to cut his forearm. If she bled him enough . . .
His fingers clamped her wrist like a steel vise. Audrey swung to punch, but he caught her other arm, stepped forward, and drove her back, tripping her. She knew exactly what he was doing; she just couldn't stop it. A moment, and he was on top of her, pinning her to the boards.
"Let's review," he said. "So far, you Tasered me, tied me to a chair, shot me, cut me, and punched me. Did I miss anything?"
She pushed against him, trying to throw him off, but he outweighed her by at least sixty pounds, and those pounds seemed to be made of steel because he wasn't budging.
"Have I hurt you in any way? Did I threaten you?"
She tried to kick him, but he clamped her leg with his thigh.
"Audrey, I just want to talk like two civilized people. If I let go, will you gouge my eyes out?"
His face was too close, and his eyes looked straight into hers. She searched his face for cruelty, anticipating a punch in the gut or a jab in the face, but found none. He was pissed off, but he didn't have that icy reptilian coldness she'd seen in Alex's drug dealer.
She was breathing hard, and he was, too. Time to end it before he got any ideas. Audrey jerked her head up and rammed her forehead into his nose.
"Damn it, woman, I said I just wanted to talk."
The accent broke through his words, and she caught it. "Louisiana." Oh crap.
"You're from Louisiana. You're the Hand."
"I'm from the Mire, in the Edge." The silver earring in his ear flowed into a single mirror drop. "And I work for the other side."
She strained, trying to jerk her arms free. "You're all the same."
The sound of someone clearing his throat made them both turn. A boy stepped out from behind the tree across the lawn. The stray ray of sun breaking through the cloud cover played on his blond hair. The skateboard punk from the parking lot.
What in the world . . .
The blond boy called out. "I'm terribly sorry, but is there any way we could grab that cage off the porch? We won't disturb your dalliance."
Another boy emerged carrying a fuzzy gray creature by the scruff of its neck. "You can keep making out," he called out. "We just want the cage. This raccoon is really hard to hold, and she doesn't like me."
They had Ling, and they thought that she and this idiot were getting hot and heavy on the porch. "Get off of me, you fool!" Audrey squirmed. "Get off, get off, get off!"
The man let go, and she rolled to her feet. "Let my raccoon go!"
The second boy looked at the man next to her. Audrey glanced at him, too. He was holding his knife. She hadn't seen him pick it up. The "dashing" smile was back, too.
"Tell him to release my raccoon."
An evil spark flared in his eyes. "Trade: raccoon for some answers."
"Fine," she ground out.
"Let the little beast go," he called. The boy dropped Ling, and she streaked across the lawn and hid behind Audrey's legs, hissing and spitting.
"My name is Kaldar, by the way," the man said.
"Not interested," Audrey told him. "This is strictly a business conversation. You step a hair out of line, and I will hurt you."
He tossed the bow to the ground. "With what? I took my knife back, and your bow is gone. You're out of weapons."
She headed for her door. "Oh, I have more inside. Don't you worry. I always have more."
AUDREY leaned against her kitchen counter, arms crossed. Kaldar sat on her love seat, as relaxed as he could get. Mr. Smooth Operator. The man was handsome, he knew it, but if he was waiting for an acknowledgment from her, he would be old and gray before he got it.
The boys had taken the chairs. The blond sat with an inborn elegance, back straight, one leg over another. A shockingly pretty kid. A few years, and he would be crushing hearts left and right. Of course, if he kept hanging out with that fool, he might not survive that long.
The brown-haired boy sat in the chair like it was a rock in the middle of a raging river, and he had to defend it from gators. As she watched, Ling snuck closer to him and showed him her teeth. The boy's eyes flashed amber. He hissed, and Ling beat a strategic retreat. A changeling. Well, at least Kaldar was telling the truth. The Louisianans murdered changelings on sight. Kaldar probably was Mirror, which didn't explain anything. The Mirror had no reason to get involved.
The four of them looked at one another. Inside Audrey, irritation fought with her sense of hospitality, but the South was too deeply ingrained into the core of her being, and it won.
"Would you like some iced tea?"
"Sweet?" Kaldar asked.
"Well, of course it's sweet. Who do you take me for?"
Kaldar arranged his face into an angelic expression. "I'd love a glass."
Wicked. That was the right way to describe him. Wicked to the core and full of himself. She had to get him out of her house. Audrey took out four glasses. The blond boy rose. "Please let me help."
"Sure. What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, George." She distributed the ice into the four glasses and poured tea into each one. "Did I hurt you in the parking lot?"
"No, m'lady. I fell, so I could put a tracker on your car."
Great. At least that explained how they had found her. She took two glasses, George took the other two, and they brought them to the table.
"Should I check it for poison?" Kaldar asked.
"I would," she told him. Waste your time, go ahead.
The blond boy passed a glass to the dark-haired boy. The changeling sniffed, took a sip, held it in his mouth, and swallowed. "It's clean."
"First you let one child get hit by my car, now you make the other one act as your human poison detector. You really have no conscience, do you?"
Kaldar leaned back. "I didn't ask him to check for poison. His brother asked him."
Audrey shook her head and turned to the changeling boy. "What's your name?"
"Jack, there are poisons that are tasteless and odorless, the kind that even a changeling can't detect. Next time, let Kaldar drink first. If he dies, no big loss."
Kaldar sighed. "Tell me about the heist."
Audrey shrugged. "My father needed money to put my asshole brother into rehab. Yet again. I agreed to help them for the last time. My father and I took a plane to Orlando and met Alex there. We crossed into the Weird through the Edge in Florida, broke into the pyramid, and nabbed the box. It was a plain wooden box, about a foot and a half long, a foot wide, eight inches tall. We took it, popped back into the Broken, and drove up I-95. When we reached Jacksonville, I left them and flew back to Seattle."
"Did you know who commissioned the heist?" Kaldar asked.
"No. I suspect it was the Hand. Am I right?"
Oh, Seamus. You moron. "I told my dad it was a bad idea. But no, he had stars in his eyes. They'd promised him a small mountain of gold, and he figured if he flipped it into US currency, he'd get a little over fifty grand. I take it his buyer double-crossed him?"
Kaldar reached into his bag and pulled out a small contraption of pale bronze-colored metal. A bowl, formed by several circular bands sat on a narrow stem, which widened into a base resembling tree roots. She'd seen high-end gadgets from the Weird before, and it had that polished look: beautiful, with an attention to detail that was usually paid only to fine jewelry. You could sell it to some art gallery in the Broken. They'd auction it off and never know what it was.
Kaldar squeezed the stem. A whisper of magic shivered through the air. The metal panels of the stem rose, revealing the insides of tiny, fine gears in a dozen of shades. The circular bands rose, turning slowly. A faint glow coalesced above them. Kaldar leaned closer and said, pronouncing the words with crisp exactness, "Adriana. Fountain."
The glow snapped into a ghostly three-dimensional image of a cobbled square with some sort of ruin in the center that might have been a fountain at some point but now was mostly a heap of broken marble. Flesh-colored remains dotted the scene. Alex's handiwork. He must've teleported out, and someone held on to him half a second too long.
The Hand didn't get their goods, which meant they would be hunting both her father and Alex. And her. Her heart skipped a beat.
"Is my father dead?" Audrey asked. Her voice came out flat. She wished she would've felt worry or fear. Something. But she felt nothing at all. A better daughter should've wondered if she shouldn't have left them alone, but she wasn't that daughter. You reap what you sow, Dad.
"I don't know," Kaldar said. "If he is, he lived long enough to deliver your brother to the rehab center and pay for it, which means he found another buyer."
"I have no idea who that would be." Audrey shrugged. "My involvement ended in Jacksonville."
"He didn't contact you?" Kaldar peered at her face. "Shouldn't you get some reward for this venture?"
"Ha! My reward was that I would be left alone to live my nice life, which you've ruined."
"Oh no, darling," Kaldar shook his head. "You ruined your own life when you took that job. Every Edger knows to keep the hell away from the Hand. This was a high-risk/ low-reward heist. There are much easier ways of getting money. Were you born yesterday?"
Just who does he think he is? "I'm not your darling. It was a family matter."
"When family insists on being stupid, you steer them away from it. It's not that difficult."
"You don't know me." Audrey crossed her arms. "You don't know my father. Don't come here and tell me how to live my life. You can't steer Seamus Callahan. You can only bargain with him."
He leaned back. "So the two of you did strike a bargain. He got forty thousand dollars. What did you get?"
"I got to never see my family again."
Kaldar frowned. "Come again?"
"I got to be cut off. Left in peace. I want nothing to do with them or with their stupid schemes. I don't have parents, and they don't have a daughter. That was my condition."
Kaldar reeled back a little. She could almost feel gears turning behind that pretty face.
"I've met your brother. If anyone should be cast off, it should be him."
"That's not how it works in our family. He is the heir, the pride and joy, who carries on the family name. I'm his younger sister." And she wasn't bitter about it. Not at all. "Anyway, my life is none of your business. Did you have any more questions about the heist? If not, you should go now. My patience is all worn down."
The moment he was out the door, she'd grab Ling and bail.
"I need to find out who bought the box."
"Where can I find your father?"
"No clue, either."
"Audrey, I really need your help." Kaldar smiled at her. Now there was a work of art. If she were just a girl and he were just a man, and they met at a party, that smile would've guaranteed him a date. The man was hot. There was no doubt. But right now, all it would get him was a solid punch in those even teeth.
Audrey laughed. "Aren't you sweet? Tell me, do girls usually throw their panties at you when you do that?"
He grinned wider, and she glimpsed the funny evil spark in his eyes. "Do men throw money when you do your little Southern belle?"
Pot calling the kettle black. "Men enjoy my 'sweet tea' Southern. Nobody here is enjoying that stupid grin on your ugly mug."
The kids snickered.
"You have no idea what you've gotten yourself into." The Mirror agent sat straighter. "Do you know what you've stolen?"
"It wasn't my job, and I wasn't paid to know." She waited for a jab. No good thief ever did a heist without knowing every detail, especially what and why. "We were paid to obtain the box and deliver it to the buyer."
He didn't say anything.
"The box had four seals on it, anyway," she said.
"Did you look in the box, Audrey?"
"I said it had four seals on it."
He just waited. Oh, for Christ's sake. "Of course I looked in the box."
He leaned to his gadget, whispered something, and nodded. "Did it look something like this?"
A pair of ghostly metal bracelets appeared above the table. At first glance they looked silver, but where silver leaned toward a gray shade, this metal blushed with warm tones of peach and pale pink. The wider part of each bracelet bent and flowed, thin and wide, like a ribbon. A smooth border tipped the edges, which otherwise would've been too sharp. At the other end, tiny pebbles of metal encrusted the narrow edge of each bracelet, seeded so close together, sometimes on top of each other, almost like barnacles on the bottom of the ship. The two bracelets together were an elegant piece of jewelry, unique and beautiful. She would wear them in an instant, with a flowing gown of pure white. But it was just jewelry. A hunk of metal, yet the Hand, the Mirror, and the Claws were after it, and now, curiosity was killing her. She had to know why.
"Yes, that's what we stole," Audrey said. "I don't see what all the fuss is about."
"It's a portable Gorleanean diffuser," Kaldar said.
"What is that?"
The blond boy, George, stirred. The kids had been so quiet, she had almost forgotten he and his brother were there at all. "A Gorleanean diffuser functions like a magic battery," the boy said. "You can charge it with a blast of magic, like flash, for example. It holds the magic for a while, but it starts leaking the charge into the environment right away. Also, they're huge. The size of a house."
"Not anymore." Kaldar nodded at the bracelets. "These hold only a very small amount of magic."
"What's the purpose of having one?" George leaned closer and peered at the bracelets. "Some sort of last resort in battle, when you overflash? To keep from dying?"
Kaldar drew his hand over his face. "You are too bright for your own good. That was the original plan, yes."
Audrey stared at the bracelets. She'd heard about flashing so much magic that your body gave out. But she had always thought that you simply passed out. "I never heard of people dying from flashing out."
"Our sister almost did," Jack said.
"You said it was the original plan?" George asked. "What is it used for now?"
"It holds just enough magic to help an augmented being cross through the boundary," Kaldar said.
The room was suddenly quiet. Audrey caught her breath. The Edge had two boundaries: the first with the Weird and the second with the Broken. The boundaries barred the passage between the worlds. If you didn't have enough magic, you couldn't cross from the Broken into the Edge without help. If you had too much magic, the crossing from the Weird into the Edge would leave you convulsing in pain. The threshold to leave the Edge and enter an opposing world was even higher. Most magic heavyweights couldn't make it into the Broken. The crossing killed them. And if people stayed too long out of their own world, the way back disappeared forever. The Edgers who moved to the Broken permanently lost their magic after a while. Some of them couldn't even see the Edge anymore.
George cleared his throat. "So does this mean that someone with strong magic, like a Hand agent, can cross into the Broken with these?"
"That's exactly what it means," Kaldar said.
Audrey put her fist against her mouth, thinking. No wonder the Hand wanted them. If they manufactured enough of these, they could send their goons into the Edge and into the Broken. The boundary had always shielded the Edgers from harm. Their magic was weaker than that of people in the Weird. If any magic-wielding creature could just pop back and forth, it was all over. Her imagination served up the Hand's agents trotting across the boundary, all spikes and tentacles and poisoned needles on twisted human bodies . . . Jesus Christ.
She sat down. She didn't know too much about the Hand or the Mirror and their politics, but she knew that both the Dukedom of Louisiana and Adrianglia were large and strong, while the Edge was tiny and defenseless.
"If the Hand obtains this . . ." Kaldar started.
She held up her hand. "Now you listen to me. This isn't my problem. I didn't make the thing, I didn't know what it was when I stole it, and I don't give a damn what the hell it does now. If you think I'll fall over myself in a rush to fight the Hand for it, you're crazy. Do you know what they're capable of?"
All mirth had vanished from Kaldar's face. Only grim determination remained. "The Hand took two-thirds of my family from me. I watched people I loved being slaughtered. I will do everything in my power to make the Hand pay. And if it means I have to knock you down and walk over you to get to them, I will."
He wasn't kidding. A slight touch of insanity flared in his eyes. Audrey felt a pang of the familiar fear.
"Don't sugarcoat it," she told him.
"I won't. The Hand will keep looking for the diffusers until they find them. I will find them first, and I need you to help me. If you do it willingly, the terms will be better for everyone."
"And if not, what? You will make me?"
"If I have to."
Fear squirmed through her. She clamped it down. "So there is no real difference between the Mirror and the Hand, is there?"
Kaldar held her gaze. "There is a woman in Adrianglia. Her name is Lady Nancy Virai. She isn't the most patient woman in the world, and some find her methods frightening. If I were to drag your ass over to her, she would extract the information from you. But if you told her everything you knew, you would likely walk away on your own two legs. If I delivered you to the Hand, they would get the same information out of you as well. Then they would rape you and torture you for the fun of it. If you were lucky, they would kill you afterward. But most likely they would wring every drop of pain from you and simply wait for you to die. Most of them aren't human anymore. They drink agony like fine wine. Run if you want - the Hand will find you. Sooner or later, your brother or your father will sell you out again, they will catch your scent, and you'll wake up with monsters standing over you. You have contacts in the Edge. Ask any of them if I'm lying."
Run if you want . . . Yeah, right. His eyes told her that she wouldn't get very far. He had no intention of letting her go. Just like before, when she was a child, technically she was given a choice, but practically things had been decided without her.
"It's not my mess," she told him.
"You stole the stupid things. You made this mess; you're in it up to your eyeballs."
"Audrey, weigh the odds."
She had. Audrey looked away. Her gaze snagged on the book of Greek myths she had been reading yesterday. Like Odysseus, she was stuck between Scylla and Charybdis: the Hand on one side and the Mirror on the other. Each would swallow her without a moment's hesitation.
She liked her place. It wasn't much, but it was so cozy and comfortable. She liked her old couch and reading her books with Ling curled by her feet. She just wanted to be left alone. That was all.
"You may not like my ugly mug," Kaldar said, "but as corny as it sounds, I am your best hope for survival. I've fought them, I've killed them, and I will do it again."
This had gone from bad to the end of the world in a hurry. "And if I help you?" Audrey asked.
"I can't promise that you will survive. But I promise that I will do everything I can to protect you, and if we succeed, the Mirror will see to it that you won't have to fear the Hand again."
"Is that code for 'the Mirror will kill me'?"
"No. It's code for they will do for you what they've done for my family. They will give you enough funds and space anywhere within Adrianglia to make a brand-new start in comfort."
He really did think she was born yesterday.
Her family finally screwed up so badly, they put the whole Edge at risk, and she was the one who had made it happen. She could deal with it, or she could walk away and be known as the girl who destroyed the Edge. It stretched like a ribbon from ocean to ocean, all across the continent. How many people lived in the Edge? It had to be thousands. Thieves and swindlers and conmen. Her people and their children. All at risk because of Seamus Callahan's greed and her daddy issues.
Audrey raised her head. "I will help you find where Seamus unloaded the diffusers. That's all. The moment you know your next target, I am out. Do we understand each other?"
Kaldar smiled, and this time his smile was savage. "Perfectly."