Fate's Edge

Chapter Six


AUDREY had a conscience. She was good at hiding her motivation, but Kaldar had practiced reading people for way too long to miss the subtle tightness in the corners of her mouth, the eyebrows creeping together, and the glimpse of sadness in her eyes. She felt guilty. Probably even ashamed, although of her own involvement or of her family's stupidity, he couldn't tell.
Kaldar pondered it, turning it over in his mind. Conscience was a virtue he tried very hard to avoid. True, there were things that were just not done: injuring a child, forcing a woman, torturing a dog. But beyond those basic rules, everything else was just a cumbersome guideline he strived to ignore. He supposed it made him amoral, and he was fine with that.
His world was clearly divided: on one side was the family. Family was everything. It was a shelter in the storm. A place where he would be welcome no matter what he'd done or would do. On the other side lay the rest of the world, like a ripe plum, ready for plucking. Between them ran the line of demarcation. When he crossed it to the family's side, he was a devoted brother, cousin, and uncle. When he crossed it to the other side, he became a villain.
The heist was the Callahan family's responsibility. Audrey was a Callahan, and she had stepped up to take it - that he understood. He would've done the same. But considering how much she loathed her family, he would've thought self-preservation would be a much stronger motivation for her. He'd misread her, and now it bugged him.
Audrey was a puzzle. He quietly examined the place, cataloging her possessions. A solid fridge, dented but clean. Same with the stove. Worn but plush furniture. The chair under Jack sported a very neatly sewn seam where something had torn the upholstery. He bet on the raccoon.
The three windows he could see were narrow, and each one had a heavy-duty shutter, lockable from the inside. A functional dagger hung on the wall between the kitchen cabinets. A small bow waited unstrung on the shelf above the plates, and below it a pair of yellow work boots, streaked with mud, sat on the floor.
Her three bookcases held an assortment of books, all well handled and shopworn. A dozen plastic horses each about six inches long sat on one of the shelves. A few had wings, and at least one sported a horn. On the top shelves, tucked away from raccoon paws, lived a collection of stuffed animals: a pink kitten, a panda, a frog with a yellow helmet marked with a star, a wolf. Daggers and stuffed frogs.
Her decorations made no sense: a blanket in a bright Southwestern style that clashed with everything, a Star Wars movie poster, some sort of potted flower, a scented candle, and a tomahawk. She was like a little magpie: if it struck her fancy, she brought it home.
He'd seen this before, in Cerise's husband, William. Kaldar's cousin Cerise was practically his sister, which made the changeling wolf his brother-in-law. The man was a trained, savage killer. He killed with no doubt or remorse and suffered no pangs of conscience after the deed was done. And then he went home and played with toys. His childhood had been pure shit. William had essentially grown up in a prison, barely disguised as a school. It was the fear of that same prison that had driven Jack to stow away on Kaldar's wyvern.
This house, with its sturdy walls, weapons, and fluffy pink kittens, didn't belong to an infantile, child-like woman. It belonged to an adult battered by life. She had survived it all, and now she was trying to recapture the childhood she'd never had.
Someone had hurt Audrey, and it had left lasting scars. Kaldar looked at her again. She was golden, not just pretty, but funny and vivid, like a ray of sunshine in the room. There was something good about Audrey, and at least some of it was real. Most women he'd come across in the Edge families that were down on their luck were like haggard dogs: bitter, vicious, devoid of any joy. But she was like a summer day.
What sort of twisted bastard would hurt her so much that she decided to live alone in the woods, in a house with foot-thick stone walls? This was her haven and her shelter. Pulling her out of this place would be next to impossible. Why, in fact it would be a challenge. And Kaldar loved challenges. They kept his life from being boring.
The way she sat now, leaning forward frowning, biting her pink bottom lip, her shirt dipping to reveal a hint of her cleavage . . . He wondered idly if he could get her to bend over a little farther . . .
"Just what are you staring at, exactly?"
Kaldar snapped back to reality. "You. You've been thinking hard for the last five minutes. It's not good for you to strain your pretty little head like that. I'm waiting for the steam to shoot out of your ears to relieve the pressure on your brain."
"Aha." Audrey glanced at Jack and George. "What you have here is a man who was caught gaping at my breasts, and now he's trying to cover it up with rudeness."
Kaldar lost it and laughed.
"Don't get any ideas," Audrey told him. "I'm helping you to get your bracelets back, and that's it. Most of Seamus's contacts are back East. He did unload some hot merchandise in the West before, but I have no idea where. He's a creature of habit. If a deal went well, he'd stick to that buyer like glue."
"He wouldn't have gone back East," Kaldar said. "Too hot with the Mirror and the Hand both hunting him down, looking for the diffusers." Judging by his actions so far, Seamus Callahan was a man with some talent but many flaws. He planned too much, he hustled too much, he lost both of his children and had chosen to save the wrong one. But even Seamus would know better than to run headfirst into a lion's maw.
Audrey tapped her nails on her glass. "So the question is, who around here would buy such a thing? It must have been somebody who understood the diffusers' true worth, because they paid over forty grand in Broken money for it." Audrey frowned. "How long ago did Alex go into rehab?"
"Three days," Kaldar said.
"So Seamus and Alex barely had time to make it to the rehab facility after that craziness with the Hand. Seamus would've gone through the Broken for sure, probably by plane. I doubt he could've flown in with a caseful of money. Too risky." Audrey rose.
"He would've had to fence the merchandise here," Kaldar said.
Audrey rose and headed to the fridge. "I need to see Gnome. He's the local fence, and he'll be our best bet."
"Does he live in the fridge?" Jack asked.
Heh. Of course, with Jack there was no way to tell if he was joking or being literal
"No." Audrey pulled out a large brown bottle. "But he loves beer. Especially AleSmith Speedway Stout. I keep a bottle for him. Just in case."
Kaldar squinted at the dark champagne-sized bottle filled with jet-black liquid. "Why is it black?"
"I don't know. Maybe because they put coffee in it." Audrey went to the door. "I won't be long."
"Nice try." Kaldar rose. "I'm coming with you."
"Gnome doesn't trust outsiders."
"What do you want to bet that I'll get him to talk?"
She narrowed her eyes. "You like betting a lot, don't you?"
Careful. "Even a perfect angel like me has to have some vices."
"Angel? Please." Audrey looked at George. "George, could you get a can of Pepsi out of the fridge for me?"
George extracted a can.
"Throw it."
The boy tossed it at her. Audrey caught it and shook it up. The can landed in front of Kaldar on the table. Audrey waved her beer bottle. "I bet you this stout you can't open it without foam spilling all over."
"I don't have to bet." Kaldar tapped the can and opened it. Foam rose and fell back down. "See?"
She gave him a suspicious look. "Mhhm."
Kaldar crossed the room and held the door open. "I can take that bottle."
She thrust the stout at him. "Why thank you, sir." Boom, a thousand-watt smile. She couldn't possibly be trying to con him - all the cards were already on the table. It must've been force of habit.
He raised his hand, shielding his eyes. "Smile . . . too . . . bright . . ."
"You're going to be a pain to work with, aren't you?"
"Oh, I don't know. I might grow on you."
She furrowed her pretty eyebrows. "Like a cancer?"
"Like a favorite vice."
"Don't count on it."
Audrey swept outside, and he nodded at the two boys. "On the double."
The two boys exited. A moment later, Ling the raccoon darted out and shot across the porch to Audrey's feet. Kaldar pulled the door shut, and they were off.
KALDAR climbed up a steep forest trail. Around him, the ancient forest shimmered with vibrant green. Giant spruces spread their branches. Emerald moss, sparkling with a dusting of tiny brilliant red flowers, sheathed gray boulders. Strange flowers, yellow, large, and shaped like three bells growing one within another, bordered the path. A weak haze hung above the forest floor, present even in the middle of the day. The whole place seemed ethereal, otherworldy, like a glimpse of some fairy kingdom in the fog.
Kaldar hid a grimace. He knew the Mire. He understood it - the ever-changing labyrinth of mud and water, the herbs, the flowers, the animals. This forest was different, sprawling atop rugged mountains that cut through the soil like the planet's bare bones.
Audrey kept moving with practiced quickness, stepping over roots protruding over the trail and pushing ferns and branches out of her way. She kept a brisk pace, but Kaldar didn't mind. From his vantage point, he had an excellent view of her shapely butt. It was a butt that deserved some scrutiny.
"If you're waiting for my behind to do a trick, you're out of luck," Audrey called over her shoulder.
"How the hell did you even know?" Did she have eyes on the back of her head?
"Woman's intuition," she told him.
"Aha, so it wouldn't be the fact that I stumbled twice in the last minute?"
"Not at all."
George cracked a smile. To the left, Jack laughed. The boy moved through the woods like a fish through water, climbing over boulders and fallen tree trunks with unnatural ease. The raccoon raced after him, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind.
"Does she always follow you around?"
"Ling the Merciless? Yes. I found her bleeding by my porch. She was so tiny then, she fit into a tissue box." Audrey glanced at the raccoon. "She follows me around now, and sometimes she brings me dead bugs because I'm a bad hunter, and she tries to feed me. If I hide, she'll find me."
As the path turned, the trees parted, revealing a long, wooded slope dropping far down. They were on the side of the mountain.
"They're prone to rabies, you know," Kaldar said. "And this one is out in the daylight all the time, too. That's not typical. Are you sure she isn't rabid?"
"This one has been taken to the vet to get shots."
"They can carry rabies for months before it ever manifests."
"Kaldar, leave my raccoon alone, or I will push you off this mountain and laugh while you try to grow wings." Audrey turned away and kept walking.
"How much farther?" Kaldar asked.
"Are you tuckered out already?"
"I bet I could beat you there."
"You're sure?" Kaldar grinned.
"No more bets."
"As you wish."
Audrey pointed up and left, where a cliff thrust out, bristling with ancient trees. "He lives around there. Another fifteen minutes, and you can rest your delicate footsies."
He let the footsies comment pass. "Why do they call him Gnome, anyway?"
"Because of his size, of course," Audrey said.
Fifteen minutes later, they emerged into a narrow clearing. A huge structure stood at the far end: a two-story ruin built of the same gray stone as the framework of Audrey's house. A collection of columns stretched out to the sky, each carved with some sort of battle scene, forming a precise rectangle, with two smaller squares at each end. A wooden house had been built within the stone skeleton, in some places inside it, in some places hanging over it, its walls and rooms protruding under odd angles. Windows of all shapes and sizes punctuated the wooden walls at random, as if some toddler had mixed several construction sets and thrown together a structure with his eyes closed. Moss and flowering vines climbed over the timbers, and some sort of small furry beast, with charcoal fur and a long tail with a puff on the end, scurried up the vines to the roof.
"Come on." Audrey headed toward the house.
"Anything I need to know about this Gnome?" Kaldar asked.
"He doesn't like outsiders much. Let me do the talking, and we'll be fine."
They approached the building. "Hey, Gnome! Gnooome!" Audrey turned to the boys. "Okay, kids, make some noise. He's hard of hearing sometimes. Gnoome!"
"Hello!" George yelled. "Hi!"
"Open the door!" Jack roared.
Kaldar put two fingers into his mouth. A piercing whistle rang through the forest. Jack stuck his finger into his ear and shook a bit.
A misshapen window swung open on the top floor. Someone moved in the gloom.
"Hey, Gnome!" Audrey waved.
"What do you want?" A male voice called out.
"I have a question I need to ask you!" Audrey called.
"I'm busy now."
"I brought payment." Audrey turned to Kaldar. "Show him the beer."
He raised the bottle.
"Is that Speedway Stout?"
"Yes, it is," Audrey confirmed.
The shadowy figure heaved a sigh. "All right. I'll be right down."
A cascade of thuds and banging echoed inside the house.
Kaldar leaned to Audrey. "Is he falling down the stairs?"
Audrey grimaced. "No, he just has . . . things. Many, many things."
Kaldar's imagination served up a hunchback gnome struggling to climb down the stairs among stacks of dirty pots. Why he'd imagined pots, he had no idea. Hopefully, they wouldn't have to climb in there to rescue the man.
A section of the wall slid aside. A huge man emerged into the sunlight. His oversized jean overalls barely enclosed his enormous frame. Thick defined muscle strained the sleeves of his white T-shirt. His hair was a reddish curly mess, and his face, with sunken eyes and a massive jaw, looked menacing enough to frighten away rabid wolves. He could've been sixty or eighty; with the Edgers, it was hard to tell. Some of them lived to a couple of hundred.
The giant ambled over to Audrey, towering a foot over her, and held out his shovel-sized hand. Beer. Right. Kaldar thrust the bottle into Gnome's hand. The giant bit the cork with his teeth, twisted the bottle, spat out the cork, and took a deep gulp.
"Good." Gnome peered at him. "I know her. I don't know you."
Kaldar opened his mouth.
"He's my fiance," Audrey said.
Gnome blinked. "Fiance?"
"Yep," Audrey confirmed.
"When's the wedding?" Gnome asked.
Kaldar stepped closer to Audrey and put his arm around her. She didn't stiffen; she even leaned into him a little. He caught a hint of her perfume again and grinned, squeezing her closer, as his hand slipped into her pocket. His fingers caught something metal and Kaldar pinned the object between his index and middle fingers and withdrew his hand. "Not for a while. We've been living in sin and enjoying every bit of it."
"And they are?" Gnome jerked his chin at the boys.
"My cousins," Kaldar said.
Gnome pondered the four of them for a long moment. "Okay, come."
Kaldar took a step forward, his arm around Audrey. Gnome held up his hand. "The changeling stays outside. I've got a lot of glass in there, and I don't want it broken."
Jack was a child, not a wild dog. Kaldar hid a growl. "Fine."
Gnome turned and went back into the house.
Audrey sank her elbow into his side.
"Ow," Kaldar winced.
"Keep your paws to yourself," she murmured, and followed Gnome.
"It was worth it," he called after her.
She turned around, her eyes indignant, punched her left palm with her right fist, and kept walking.
"I don't think she likes you," Jack said.
Kaldar ruffled his hair. "You have a lot to learn about women. Jack, Gnome doesn't want you inside."
Jack wrinkled his nose. "That's fine. He doesn't smell right anyway."
Ling tried to dart past them, following Audrey. Kaldar scooped the beast off the ground by the scruff of her neck. The raccoon snarled and raked the air with her claws. "Hold her." He held out Ling, and George stepped up to grab her. Kaldar hesitated. He'd expected Jack to take Ling. The little beast would scratch George bloody.
George's hands closed about the raccoon. Ling snorted and sat on his arm, perfectly calm.
They had to be the strangest children he'd ever come across. "Can either of you sense magic?"
"Yes," George nodded. "I feel it, and Jack smells it."
"If you sense a lot of magic coming, let Ling go and run to get Gaston. No waiting, no hesitation." His luck had held out - without realizing it, they'd landed the wyvern only half a mile from Audrey's house. He'd left Gaston there with instructions to be ready for takeoff at a moment's notice. It would take the kids less than fifteen minutes to get there. "Just run to Gaston as fast as you can."
"What, I don't get to fight?" Jack asked.
Kaldar appraised the indignant note in his voice. Now was the time for finesse. "We have Audrey with us. If people are coming to kill us, we may have to get out of here in a hurry, and the best way to keep Audrey safe is to load her onto the wyvern. Make sense?"
Jack thought about it. "Yes."
At the door, Audrey called, "Are you coming?"
"No, just breathing hard, love." He glanced at her and was rewarded by an outraged glare, followed by, "Oh, my God!"
Kaldar took a moment to look at both boys. "No heroics. Do exactly as you are told. The mission is our first priority."
"We understand," George said.
They took off for the trees. Kaldar glanced at the object he'd taken from Audrey's pocket. It was a simple gold cross on a chain. In the middle of the cross a tiny black stone winked at him. He wondered why she didn't wear it. Pretty Audrey, full of secrets like a puzzle box. Now he'd have to find an excuse to touch her again to put the cross back.
The boys reached the trees and melted into the brush. Kaldar slipped the cross and the chain between his fingers, turned, and caught up with Audrey. "You could've warned me he was a giant."
"And spoil the fun? Please."
Kaldar swiped a chunk of rock and wedged it between the door and the frame.
Audrey raised her eyebrows.
"For your raccoon," he told her. "In case of emergency, the kids will let her go. You said she always finds you, so she'll run right back here."
She gave him a long, suspicious stare that said plainly that she trusted him about as far as she could throw him. "I bet you scheme even when you sleep."
"That depends on who I'm sleeping with."
Audrey laughed and went inside. Somehow, it didn't seem like a "with him" kind of laugh. More like "at him." That's all right, love. You'll come to see my point of view.
Kaldar followed and found himself in a large room. Shelves occupied every available inch of wall space and cleaved the room in long rows, their content protected by glass. Some were filled with books; others held vials in a dozen shapes and sizes. Colored bottles, green, brown, and red, stood next to Weird gadgets and gears. To the right, two shelves contained teapots. Under them rested an army of aromatic candles, then a dozen sticks of deodorant, twenty bottles of assorted shampoo, kerosene lamps, Nintendo game systems, a Sony PlayStation, two or three hundred game cartridges and CDs, sun catchers, laptops, old toys, animal skulls, cowbells, Blu-ray movies, assorted metal parts from engines, and above it all a dried-up baby wyvern, mummified into a skeletal monstrosity, spread its dead wings, suspended from a ceiling by a cord. Each item had a tiny price tag. Not a speck of dust marred the place.
Charming. A pawnbroker's paradise.
Gnome took another long swallow from the bottle and strode between the shelves to a beautiful antique coffee table, surrounded by plush red chairs. He settled into one and indicated the other two with a sweep of his hand.
Audrey perched in a chair. Kaldar sat next to her.
"So what can I do you for?"
Audrey leaned forward with a charming smile. "You've done business with Seamus."
"Yeah." Gnome shrugged. "What of it?"
"If he had to unload a hot item on the West Coast, where would he go?"
"How hot?"
"The Hand wants it," Kaldar said.
Gnome grunted. "What the hell . . . Okay, what sort of item?"
"It's a gadget," Audrey said. "With military applications. He got at least forty grand for it."
"US currency?"
"Well, he didn't sell it to me, I can tell you that much. I won't touch anything the Hand wants. Isn't worth the risk. And if you and your fiance have any sense, you will leave this thing alone." Gnome rose and disappeared between the shelves.
"Fiance," Kaldar mouthed at Audrey and wagged his eyebrows.
She shrugged. "Don't get any ideas."
"Too late."
Oh, he had ideas, and if the circumstances were different, he would explain them to her. In a lot of detail. With practical demonstrations.
Gnome returned, carrying an enormous book, four feet tall and at least six inches thick. He pulled a book pedestal from behind the shelf and lowered the book onto it. "There are about ten people on the West Coast who would buy Hand-hot merchandise." He opened the book and flipped through the pages. "Of those, six could come up with forty grand on short notice. We can rule out Vadim Urkovski."
"Why?" Audrey asked.
"He got himself jailed in Sacramento for running a stoplight while roaring drunk, then punching a cop." Gnome grinned. "His wife refused to post bail. Apparently, he wasn't alone in the car. He'll get out of it, but it will take time."
"That leaves us with five," Kaldar said.
"That it does." Gnome flipped the old page. On it a large photograph showed a woman with flowing brown hair. "We can rule out Vicki as well. Seamus is superstitious. He once did a deal with her and got pinched right after. Wouldn't work with her since. So we're down to four." Gnome flipped another page. On it, a tall blond man in a pale fisherman sweater and jeans leaned against a Mercedes. "Kaleb Green. Operates near Seattle. Will buy anything for the right price."
"Too far," Audrey said. "Alex is in rehab in northern California, and Seamus wouldn't travel over a long distance with a lot of money."
Gnome turned the page. A woman in a bright skirt and a pale beige vest over a white blouse smiled into the camera. A pair of rose-tinted glasses perched on her nose. A layered necklace with large wooden and turquoise beads hung from her neck. There was something deeply predatory in her eyes. The outfit said hippy. The eyes said deepwater shark.
"Magdalene. She's near San Diego."
Audrey frowned. "She is a possibility. I never heard him mention her, but that's neither here nor there."
Gnome flipped a couple more pages. "Morell de Braose. He probably isn't your guy. He deals mainly in jewelry and art."
Jewelry. Like bracelets, for example. Kaldar leaned forward, focusing on the photo. The man on the page wore a pricey suit, that dark, expensive shade of gray that worked equally well for luxury suits or red-carpet gowns. He appeared to be in his early forties, blond, with a carefully trimmed beard on a youthful, tan face. He had the athletic build of a man who either belonged to or owned a gym and had copious leisure to attend it. Behind him, a luxurious office spread, all dark, polished furniture, decorated with antique statuettes and daggers with gilded hilts on the walls.
Audrey frowned.
"This is the man," Kaldar said.
"How do you know?" Gnome raised his furry eyebrows.
"A feeling I get."
Gnome rolled his eyes and lifted the page.
"Hold on." Audrey got up off her seat and leaned over the page. "He's right."
Audrey pointed to the picture. "See that marble statue of a half-naked woman? The one on the gold pedestal?"
"Yeah." Gnome squinted.
"That's Aurora by Ciniselli."
"And?" Kaldar asked.
Audrey turned to them with a look of triumph on her face. "I stole her. Eight years ago. Seamus sold her for ten grand. We needed money in a hurry, and I remember him saying the man he sold it to was good for quick cash in a pinch. It was a pain-in-the-ass heist, too. Took two weeks, and I got hit by a car at the end of it."
Now there was a story. Kaldar made a mental note to ask her about it later.
Gnome shrugged. "Hate to tell you, but he got ripped off. The statue Aurora has been appraised between thirty-five and fifty."
Audrey stared at the picture and swore.
KALDAR leaned back in his seat and hung one leg over the other. Audrey watched him out of the corner of her eye. The man was a chameleon, who changed personalities the way a teenage girl changed outfits, trying to find the right one before a big party.
Why was she still here? He had gotten what he wanted - they figured out where Seamus must have unloaded his merchandise. She should go, grab Ling, and disappear.
Audrey eyed Kaldar. Back at the house, when he spoke about his family, his eyes had turned merciless. A little of his true self had showed - that was the real man, ruthless and resolute. All the rest were just disguises.
Kaldar caught her glance and smiled. Yes, yes, you are a handsome devil. Emphasis on devil. He was flirting with her, either because he liked what he saw or, more likely, because he had decided it would be an easy way to keep her agreeable. He went from I'll walk over you to I can't take my eyes off your butt kind of quick.
A small annoying thought nagged at her. If she hadn't taken the job, none of this would've happened, and the Edge wouldn't be at risk. Which was stupid because had she not taken the job, her dad would've just found somebody else. She wasn't the only picklock in the Edge. Well, she was probably the best, but not the only one.
What was she thinking? Seamus wouldn't have had a prayer of breaking into that pyramid without her. The lock on the first door, which led to the passage, was easy enough, but some of the inner locks had taken her a full ten minutes each. Complicated locks weren't a problem, but if the tumblers were heavy, opening them took a lot of effort. The bolts and bars were the worst. Sliding an inch-wide bar by magic felt like trying to lift a truck. When she finally swung open the final door, her nose was bleeding and she had to lie down. She had made this whole burglary possible.
Okay, fine. Fine, but it didn't mean she had to run headfirst into the Hand's jaws to fix it. She might have pulled off the heist, but Seamus had put it together. It was Seamus's mess. He had dragged her into this predicament. Kaldar should've found him, not her.
In all of her twenty-three years, Audrey had never seen anyone die. Sure, there had been an occasional punch or a slap, but violence was never a part of her childhood. Well, not until Alex had sold her for some coke. That was not how her family had operated. They were thieves, yes, swindlers, yes, con artists, but they had always stayed away from murder. No matter what Kaldar said, she knew both the Hand and the Mirror had no compunction about killing left and right, cutting people down like weeds. The danger the Edge was in wasn't her problem unless she made it her problem. And Audrey didn't want to be a hero.
"So what do you know about this Morell de Braose?" Kaldar asked.
"That information would be extra." Gnome shook his bottle. "I'm out of stout, so I'll take cash."
Kaldar reached inside his hoodie and pulled out a gold coin. An Adrianglian doubloon. Five hundred dollars. Gnome's gaze fixed on the coin. Kaldar set the coin on its edge and spun it with a quick flick of his fingers. It whirled in place.
"I know de Braose owns a castle," Gnome said. "And six thousand acres of the Democracy of California to go with it. He came on the scene about twelve years go. Nobody knows where de Braose is from for sure, but he did away with the baron who owned the estate before him, killed off a few of his neighbors, and remodeled the castle. About a third of his land is in the Edge, and he pops back and forth across the Broken and the Weird at will. He likes the Broken's antiques, and he hobnobs with the bluebloods from the Weird."
Well, that was neither here nor there. How was Morell de Braose funded? Where was his castle? How many people did he employ? How did he make his money? Those would be the questions a competent thief would ask. She settled back to watch Kaldar. Here's your test. Let's see how good you are.
Kaldar appeared to be in no hurry. "How did he get his money?"
"There are rumors." Gnome shrugged. "People say he traffics in weapons, art, and other merchandise."
"Human merchandise?" Kaldar asked.
"Like I said, there are rumors, but every robber baron in California comes with those kinds of rumors. They're a lawless crowd. Anything goes. De Braose was never caught in the act, so I don't got anything concrete."
A slaver. Audrey fought a shudder. There was no worse scum in either world. They already had the Hand and the Mirror - apparently this mess wouldn't be complete without a robber baron/slaver in the mix.
"How big's his army?" Kaldar asked.
"Garrison's forty men, give or take. Plus a special guard. How many he can raise in a pinch is anybody's guess."
Too many. Way too many.
"Why such a large force? Is he ambitious?" Kaldar asked.
"He isn't land-greedy, if that's what you mean. De Braose holds art auctions once every few months," Gnome said. "He sells everything, outlawed automatics from the Weird, stolen art, weapons and medicine contraband from the Broken. These are invitation only; if you don't have an invitation and a million or two in liquid cash, you shouldn't bother even showing up. The army's there to make sure the guests arrive safely and depart safely. It's a big deal: the whole thing takes three or four days, and he throws banquets and balls as part of it."
"When is the next one?"
"In eight days. Trust me, you ain't getting in."
If Morell de Braose had bought those stupid amplifiers from her father, he'd sell them at the auction. They were too hot an item to hold on to indefinitely. Kaldar had to get into that auction, which sounded pretty much impossible. Well, good luck. It would be his problem and not hers.
"What about this special guard?"
Gnome grinned. "He's got himself twelve of the Republic of Texas's finest sharpshooters. A mercenary outfit called Eagle Eye. They don't miss. And if the guns don't get you, he also imported himself sixteen of Vinland's veekings. I've seen a picture once. They're all seven feet tall and carrying axes that would cut a tall tree down in one blow."
Kaldar kept playing with the coin. "Does he have any enemies?"
Gnome flipped the page, and the hippy woman looked back at them. That was some stare. It would give a seasoned murderer the creeps.
"Magdalene Moonflower."
Magdalene Moonflower, right. And that wasn't a fake name, not at all.
"She hates him. She'd be your best bet."
Kaldar rolled the coin across the table. Gnome swiped the little gold disk and grinned. "Pleasure doing business with you."
Ling shot between the shelves and leaped onto her lap.
Someone was coming. Audrey tensed. Kaldar rose to his feet. Gnome reached to the top of the nearest shelf and retrieved a shotgun.
Audrey got up and ran through the house to the window overlooking the forest. A moment and Kaldar joined her, standing too close. They scanned the woods.
Nothing. No movement troubled the Edge wilderness.
Behind them, the shotgun clanged as Gnome chambered a round.
A green human-shaped shadow detached from the gloom between the cypress branches, about twenty feet above ground.
Audrey caught her breath.
The shadow leaped. It flew thirty feet, its wide, tattered cloak flaring behind it, and landed at the top of a pine.
What the hell was that? "Why jump around in a cloak?" Audrey whispered.
"That's not a cloak," Kaldar said next to her, gently nudging her aside. "That's his wings. The Hand is here. We have to go. Now."
Another person appeared between the trees. He was unnaturally lean and painted in swirls of green and brown. The man looked at a cedar trunk and scrambled up the bark like he had suckers on his hands.
Gnome pulled a box of ammo off the shelf. "You go ahead. There's a door out back. I'm not going anywhere."
"Don't be a fool," Kaldar snapped. "You see that man in the cedar? That's a lesarde-class operative right there, and that over there is a boddus. Those two are never let off the chain because they're both so twisted by magic they're unstable. That means there is a Hand officer out there, pulling the strings, and they come with a commando unit, twelve operatives, maybe more. You stay here, you die."
"They aren't getting into my house." Gnome locked his teeth.
Idiot. Audrey thrust herself in front of him. "Gnome! Are you crazy? Come with us! All this stuff isn't worth your life."
He bared his teeth at her. "This stuff is my life. You two get the hell out of my house."
Something thumped on the roof and scrambled across it, fast, scratching the shingles. Oh God.
"Go!" Gnome growled. "Out the back door."
Kaldar's hand clamped around her wrist. "Come, Audrey."
She shook him off. "So you're just going to die here? Why?"
"Because I spent my life working my hide off for this house and everything with it," Gnome said. "That's fifty years of trading and bargaining right here. I know every single thing on these shelves, and the Hand ain't getting it. None of you are getting my shit, not you, not them."
"You stupid old fool!"
Gnome waved her off with an angry jerk of his hand.
Kaldar grabbed Audrey's hand and yanked her, pulling her with him through the house.
"Let go of me."
"He made his choice. You stay, you die with him."
"I said let go. You don't know where you're going."
He released her hand and she ran, zigzagging between the shelves, Kaldar a step behind. They passed the pedestal with the book still on it. It was still open to Magdalene Moonflower's portrait. If they survived this, she would be their next stop, and the Hand didn't need to know that. Audrey lunged for the book, nearly colliding with Kaldar.
"The page," he barked, bumping into her.
"I know!"
Audrey grabbed the book and ripped a handful of pages free. Kaldar ran his fingers along the seam, pulling little clumps of paper out, until no evidence of the pages remained, and shoved the pedestal. The giant volume crashed to the floor, closing. Audrey dashed to the back of the house, through a side room, and to the small door. Kaldar grabbed the handle and strained.
No dead bolt, only a keyhole. "Let me." Audrey pressed her palm against the keyhole and let her magic seep into the lock. Three, two . . .
The lock clicked. She pushed the handle and ran out into the open air. Ling sprinted into the forest, passing her.
Kaldar drew even. "Keep moving," the agent murmured. "Keep moving."
They scurried into the trees.
"Which way is the cliff?" he whispered.
What? Had he lost his mind? "Straight on."
"Lead the way."
She broke into a run.
Behind them, something clanged with a heavy metal thud. Audrey glanced over her shoulder. The metal shutters on the house were snapping closed one by one, locking it down. Anxiety squeezed her chest. She remembered when Gnome first showed her his "defense system." He was trapped within the house, like a sardine in a can.
She looked back again. People in green and brown converged from the grass and trees, climbing onto the house, one from the left, the other two from the right. A man crawled over the roof, moving on all fours. He raised his head. His eyes bored straight into her.
For a second she stopped in her tracks, frozen by the sudden fear. A strange, revolting feeling flooded Audrey, grasping her stomach and throat and crushing both. Nausea writhed through her. The tiny hairs on the backs of her arms rose.
The man opened his mouth. A long black tongue flailed among a forest of long, needle-thin fangs.
Magic washed over Audrey in a sickening miasma, clinging to her skin. Tiny jaws nibbled on her flesh, trying to worm their way inside. Audrey spun and dashed through the woods. Tree trunks flashed by. She ran like she had never run before in her life, all but flying over the forest floor, trying to get away from the awful magic. Her feet crushed undergrowth. The magic chased her. She could feel it flooding the woods behind her.
A shotgun barked, its fire like thunder: Boom! Boom!
A high-pitched shriek tore through the forest, spurring her on. Something had caught the full blast of Gnome's fire.
Glass shattered. Something thumped.
A hoarse howl lashed her ears, and she knew it was Gnome screaming his life out.
The trees ended, and she skidded to a stop on a carpet of brown pine needles. Ahead, the ground stopped, as if cut by a giant's knife. A vast blue-green valley stretched far below.
Kaldar shot out of the woods, and she caught him and spun him around.
"What now? They're coming."
Kaldar pulled his bag open and took out a small bronze sphere the size of a tennis ball. He squeezed its sides, lifted it to his mouth, and exhaled. The sphere buzzed like an angry beehive and unrolled into a metal wasp.
"Gaston," Kaldar said.
The wasp shivered. Thin golden membranes of twin wings rose from its back. With a faint whir, the insect took to the air and streaked away, behind the mountain.
Kaldar pulled a coin from his pocket. "Do you trust me?"
"Well, you're going to have to." He gripped her hand. "Whatever you see, hold still. If you move, it's over. Not a sound."
The coin in his hand turned white. A transparent shiver spread from the coin, sliding over his hand, his elbow, his shoulder, and rolling over her. She thrust her left hand into her pocket. The reassuring cold of Grandma's cross slid against her fingers.
The coin's magic swallowed them. Colors slid over the outer surface of the spell bubble and snapped together, mimicking the fallen log and the trees around them. They blended into the forest, invisible.
She'd heard about this. The mirror spell, the one that gave the Mirror its name. So Kaldar hadn't lied after all.
Tiny needles pricked her skin. Fear slid down her back like an ice cube melting along her spine. Audrey froze.
The foul magic caught up with them. It seeped through the mirror barrier and dug at her skin, trying to pry her open.
Kaldar squeezed her hand.
The bushes rustled.
A man stepped out into the clearing. He moved hunched forward, neck stretched out, as if he were a hunting dog who had somehow learned to walk upright and was tracking its prey. Green-and-gray camo paint swirled on his face. His long brown hair fell on his back in dozens of tiny braids. He was so close that if she took three steps, she could have touched him.
Heat streaked along her skin, and Audrey had the absurd feeling that she was about to burn alive. She could almost feel the tiny hairs on the backs of her arms curl from the heat. Kaldar's fingers pressed into her hand gently.
It's just like a regular job. You're just standing there, waiting for the security guard to pass before you open the door.
Breathe easy. Breathe easy. You don't want to get busted, do you?
The man pulled back his cloak, letting it slip off his shoulders. Muscle corded his nude upper body. His frame had no fat at all, and his tan skin hugged his bones, too tight, like a latex glove.
Audrey exhaled slowly through her nose. A familiar calm settled over her. She forced herself to relax muscle by muscle until she simply stood next to Kaldar, as if the two of them were on a date, watching the beautiful mountain view.
The Hand's agent turned, raising his arms, holding curved narrow knives in each fist. The flesh along his sides, right over his ribs, split.
The disgusting magic smoldered around her, threatening to burn her.
The skin over the man's ribs rose in two flaps, like fins on a fish. Spongy red tissue lay underneath, moist and veined with blood vessels.
Jesus Christ.
The magic slammed into her like an avalanche, overwhelming her senses. It slid against her skin, scraping it like the edge of a sharp blade, burning, hotter and hotter. Nausea came. Her stomach twisted. Acid washed her throat.
Breathe easy. Audrey held completely still, concentrating on inhaling and exhaling. Her heart slowed down.
The man turned left, then right, slowly. The red flesh on the man's sides fluttered like a fish's gills. He was smelling the air, Audrey realized. She glanced at Kaldar. The bastard was smiling, watching the Hand's monster like he was the biggest lollypop in a candy store.
All these people were crazy. The Hand, the Mirror, all of them.
The man took a step closer. Another.
They were face-to-face now, less than two feet from each other. She saw every detail of his face: wide overdeveloped jaw, large nose, and eyes so dark they were nearly black. Like staring into the beady button eyes of a shark: nothing but cold, merciless hunger.
The agent sucked the air into his lungs, his nostrils fluttering. He raised his foot. If he took another step, he would run right into them.
A pissed-off growl almost made her jerk. Audrey turned her head a fraction of an inch. To the right, two feet above them, Ling bared her small fangs on a tree branch.
The Hand's freak stared at the raccoon with his dead eyes.
Ling coughed and snarled, biting off sharp chitters. Stupid, stupid raccoon.
The man turned and took a step toward Ling. If he touched her raccoon, she would charge right into him.
Kaldar gripped her hand tighter.
She couldn't let him get Ling.
A long, piercing cry came from the right, behind the mountain.
The Hand's agent spun toward it, the raccoon forgotten.
Kaldar jerked a black gun from inside his sweatshirt. The spell around them tore like wrapping paper. Kaldar stepped behind the freak and squeezed the trigger. The gun spat thunder. Blood and chunks of bone sprayed, splattering her with tiny drops of human gore.
Her brain refused to process it, as if it were happening to someone else.
The agent spun around, his eyes wide, somehow still alive. Kaldar fired again, straight into his face. The freak stumbled, veering toward her, a gaping red hole where his forehead used to be. As if on autopilot, Audrey leaned back and kicked him in the chest. The Hand's agent tumbled over the edge and fell to the valley below. Her stomach lurched, and Audrey vomited into the grass and forced herself back upright. No time to waste.
The revolting magic still burned her. The Hand's agent was dead, but his magic ate at her, fracturing into a thousand tiny jaws that gnawed on her skin, trying to chew their way inside. She rubbed her arms, trying to wipe them off, and failed.
Wild ululating howls rocked the forest. The Hand was coming.
The gunshot had been too loud. "They know where we are."
Kaldar shook his head and glanced over the edge of the cliff. "It doesn't matter."
Audrey looked down, following his gaze, and every hair on the back of her neck stood on end. An enormous blue dragon circled the mountain, coming toward them, its massive wings held rigid as it glided. Huge, larger than a semi, it surfed the aerial current, majestic and unreal. A wicker cabin rested on its back. As she watched, its roof split in half. The two sides rose and opened, like the petals of an unfolding flower.
It was a wyvern, she realized. She'd only seen them twice, soaring high above in the clouds, on the rare excursions she'd made into the Weird.
There was no way it could land. There was no space . . .
Oh no. Kaldar expected them to jump.
The Hand's magic had gotten inside her somehow and begun mincing her insides into mush. She could actually see it in her head, her heart and lungs turning to wet clumps of red sludge. I must be going insane . . .
The wyvern was coming in too low. They would have a drop of at least twenty feet. Audrey glanced down. The treetops below were so far, the haze that clung to them looked blue from here. If they missed, they would fall for several seconds. She would know she was about to die.
Kaldar gripped her shoulders. "Audrey! Look at me. We can make it!"
The howls sounded closer. Another moment, and the dragon would be right under them. They had mere seconds.
"Ling!" she yelled.
The raccoon launched herself into the air. Audrey caught her and hugged Ling to her chest. She yanked a hair band out of her hair. "I bet you this hair band we can't land safely on the wyvern. Bet me."
Kaldar grinned an insane grin.
The first of the Hand's people broke into the open. She was tall with a long ponytail of blond hair and piercing light eyes that seemed to glow. Behind her, a dark-haired man charged out, broad, powerful, muscled like a bull. Black tattoos twisted around his throat.
Kaldar swiped the hair band from her fingers and gripped her hand. "It's a bet!"
Dear God, please don't let us die.
"Jump!" Kaldar barked.
Audrey sailed off the cliff, gripping his hand as tightly as she could. They plummeted through the air, weightless, then, suddenly, the cabin was there, and Audrey crashed down onto a pile of wicker boxes, Ling still clutched to her chest with her other arm. Kaldar fell next to her and rolled to his feet.
Up above, the blond woman thrust her hands out. A phantom wind stirred her hair, lifting her ponytail.
"Dive!" Kaldar screamed. "Dive now!"
The wyvern dropped, and Audrey's stomach dropped with it.
Magic shot from the woman in a whip of a blinding white lightning. It snaked toward them. Audrey hunched, shielding Ling with her arms.
The magic singed the air mere feet away and melted harmlessly into nothing.
Audrey exhaled.
The wyvern beat its wings, rising. Audrey let go of the raccoon. They were in the clear.
"The guy with white hair! I know him!" a voice said in a guttural snarl from the front cabin.
Audrey turned and saw a giant man next to the blond blueblood woman up on the cliff. He towered over her, his mane of white hair shifting in the wind.
"I see him," Kaldar said. "Karmash, Spider's lieutenant. I thought we killed the sonovabitch the last time."
"I'll fix that," the guttural voice barked.
"Not now, you won't. Steer, Gaston."
The dark-haired tattooed man next to the blueblood woman heaved something with his right arm. Huge muscles flexed as he hurled it at them. The dark object flew through the air, right at Audrey. She caught it by pure reflex and fell to her knees.
Bloodstained and slick with gore, Gnome's decapitated head stared at her with dead eyes.
HELENA watched the wyvern soar into the endless sky. They truly were beautiful creatures. If the sky could dream, it would dream of dragons.
A shot popped, like a firecracker. Magic whipped from her, her flash snapping into a glowing white barrier, shielding her and her team. A spark flared to the left - the bullet disintegrating, bitten in half by the flash shield. If not for her magic, it would've hit Sebastian in the face.
Helena held the barrier for a few seconds, but no more shots came. She let the magic die. She could resurrect the shield at any moment without pausing for conscious effort. Her bloodline stretched back over a thousand years. Magic was so deeply ingrained in her, its use was as instinctive as breathing.
"They are gone," Sebastian said next to her, his voice a deep, guttural growl.
And they had murdered her tracker, too. It would be a loss keenly felt. Sobat could find a drop of blood in a gallon of water. Taken down by surprise by a gun. How appallingly stupid. Sobat was more than capable of a low-grade flash shield, which would disrupt the flight of a bullet. Now they had to rely on Emily, and her talents were, while not bad per se, not on par with Sobat's. Inside, Helena grimaced. She hated to rely on second-best.
"No matter." Helena shrugged. "The book?"
Sebastian waved a clawed finger. Suzanne appeared, carrying the dead man's book.
The thin, petite tracker stepped forward. Wiry and always nervous, with reddish hair that looked odd with her bronze skin and hazel eyes, Emily reminded Helena of a skittish ermine. It had to be the combination of large wide eyes, always looking surprised, and round ears slightly protruding from her head.
"Find the page with the most recent scent signature on it."
Emily motioned downward at Suzanne. The two women knelt. Emily opened the book and leaned close, inhaling. She turned the page, sniffed it, turned the next one.
This would take a while. Helena looked away, into the distance. The wyvern all but melted into the blue.
Karmash cleared his throat. "M'lady?"
Sebastian bared his teeth.
"Yes?" Helena said.
"I recognized the man, m'lady. He is a mud rat from the Mire."
The Mire. The memory of Spider sitting in his wheelchair on the balcony flashed before her. That godforsaken clump of muddy water where mongrels dared to oppose the peers of the realm. They had cost the best agent the Hand ever had the use of his legs. Her emotions must've reflected on her face, because Karmash took a step back.
"Is he a Mar?" The name of the family left a foul taste on her tongue.
"He is. He killed the head of the second unit your uncle took to the swamp. His name is Kaldar."
The name blazed in her head.
Helena dropped by Emily. The agent shrank back.
"I know that you are trying to hurry because you think that they are escaping and time is short," Helena said. "I need you to slow down. Don't rush. Take all the time you need."
Emily blinked at her.
"Make sure there are no mistakes, even if it takes hours. Accuracy is more important. Do you understand?"
"Yes, m'lady."
Helena rose and fixed Karmash with her demon stare. The giant swallowed.
"Tell me more," Helena ordered. "Tell me everything."