Phone calls from the Harris County District Attorney are rarely a good thing. The probability that I'm going to like what Matt Anders has to say diminishes exponentially on Friday nights. When the conversation starts with the words "favor" and "friend", I know my night is destined for hell.
"Whatever you want will have to wait until tomorrow." I'm running ten minutes behind schedule, thanks to the moron who caused the three-car pileup on the Katy. Kassiopa Taylor is a stickler about punctuality. If I'm two seconds late for our date, I'll miss out on what I'm told is the hottest use of tassels on the planet. Nothing Matt could promise could make up for missing Kassie's tassels.
"The Mage of New Orleans is in town, Rick."
Intriguing, but this isn't New Orleans and I'm not a member of the Mages' Council. They tend to bar their fancy doors when hairy creatures with sharp fangs and short tempers come skulking around. Not that I'm bitter. I have no need for a bunch of pansy-ass magic users who hide behind incantations and wands when things get rough.
"Sorry, Matt. Call me in the morning."
"He has a job for you."
"Five times my normal rate." My rate alone is exorbitant. I don't, for one second, believe that Matt'll go for it. It's a quick way to get him off the phone so I can get going. The last man Kassiopa sent packing leapt off his ninth-story balcony.
Well, hell. Ms. Taylor is a walking cure for erectile dysfunction, but there are plenty of hot redheads in town. At five times my normal rate, even a two-hour case will make up for the lackluster month I've had. It'll get the mortgage company off my ass, and I can see about replenishing the pack's anorexic slush fund.
"Your office. Twenty minutes." I hang up on Matt and consider calling Kassiopa. Nah. Text is the way to go. She is a dream to look at, but her voice is worse than a drunken Warsah attempting a mating call. Guess I won't need those earplugs after all.
Matt paces the sidewalk outside the Criminal Justice Center like hellhounds are nipping at his heels. The relief that washes over his face when he spots me sends apprehension trickling down my spine. I should have gone for eight times my rate.
"Parking garage," he says, hand extended but not touching me. Smart man. Touching is a no-no. "This meeting never happened."
Of course not. Because nothing ever goes wrong when there are clandestine meetings involved. "What's going on?"
"The Mage needs a bodyguard for his daughter."
Okay, no. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk. A uniformed cop gives me a dirty look. I glare right back. Keep moving, bud. Plenty of concrete to go around.
I don't do bodyguard work. It's been rule numero uno since I got my PI license. I'd rather carry a silver tea tray and blister the fuck out of my hands than play babysitter for some sniveling, little rich kid. I don't have the patience for it, and I'm far too pretty for prison.
"Ten thousand a day plus expenses," Matt says.
Damn. The Mage's little brat must be a hellion. "What's the catch?"
"No one can know she's here." Matt rakes a hand through his girly hair. "I didn't even know he had a daughter until this afternoon. He's worked hard to keep her out of the spotlight."
Handcuffs, even enchanted ones, are relatively cheap. So are ball gags. For two hundred bucks, I could keep the brat locked up in one of the pack's safe houses and catch up on my reality TV. I can't cave that easy, though. If you give Matt a bit of slack, he'll tie a noose.
"I want to meet her first."
Matt flashes that oil-slick smile that got him elected three times in a row. "Sure. She's in the parking garage."
Despite the prestige of his position as Mage of New Orleans, Leo Vardan isn't much over fifty. His brat has to be a kid. Teenager at the oldest. Probably got caught hanging out with someone Daddy didn't approve of and is being shuffled out of town until the scandal blows over. She's likley spoiled as the milk in my fridge.
Giddy laughter echoes through the dark parking garage. The madness threaded through the tone raises my hackles. I instinctively move closer to Matt to protect the weaker animal. "Someone get loose or something?"
"We're almost there." Matt's nervous now. Rat bastard. Once this is over, I'll point out how painful it is to keep things from me.
"Astraea!" Leo Vardan's voice cracks like thunder. "Remain still."
More laughter. The lights around us flicker. Two bulbs burst. I don't have a chance to react to the pounding of feet on the concrete before a warm, squishy freight train slams into me. I hit the ground flat on my back. There's a cackling anchor on my chest and absolutely no air in my lungs. Spots dance in front of my eyes. It's too early for fireworks.
Small, hot hands slap my cheeks. At the first scrape of fingernails, I snatch up two thin wrists in one hand. The bones are fragile and creak with the slightest squeeze. The cackling stops.
"Sorry." The voice is feminine but too old for a teenager. She doesn't sound sorry, either. Something just out of touch with reality lingers in her tone. Hell. Just what I needed. Why do I always get the batshit ones?
The anchor on my chest shifts. Shining, long blonde hair obscures the woman's face. Great. A crazy Cousin Itt. As if I wasn't already screwed beyond belief.
"World's on fire. Feel the witch's ire. Burning and screaming all around. Fall like ashes to the ground."
She sings it like a nursery rhyme. I'm mostly tone deaf, and her voice isn't enough to send me running for the hills. It would be a pleasant, if fucking weird, song if not for the fact that I can smell burning hair. Matt stomps on the ends of my hair, shoots me an apologetic smile. As soon as I've dealt with the pyro, I'm going to set his pretty-boy hair on fire and see who is smiling then.
"Astraea, apologize to Aldric," Leo Vardan, the Mage of New Orleans, scolds. Scolds. His little bitch of a princess set me on fire, and he's scolding her like she just stepped on my foot or forgot to say 'please'.
The woman on my chest goes still. Too still. If it weren't for the pulse thundering under my fingers, it would be easy to mistake her for a zombie. She bobs her head once. "Sorry, Daddy. I wanted to play with the puppy."
Yeah. Like I said - the batshit ones. I draw them in like a magnet. If Princess tries that torch thing again, she's going to get an up-close view of this puppy's teeth.
"Here. Now." The bastard even snaps his fingers. Given how her father treats her, no wonder Princess has a thing for puppies.
Princess can't move, of course. Not while I have both her scrawny wrists in my hand. She tries to pull free, a half-hearted effort at best. I'm ready to turn her loose so she'll stop wriggling like a fish on top of me when the hair falls away from her face.
While it would be romantic and shit to say her beauty struck me dumb, it didn't. The purple-and-black bruises on her cheekbone sure as shit did. So did the matching split lip. And the finger marks on her pencil-thin neck.
Fate's a fickle bitch, you see. I was all set to tell Vardan where he could shove his money and his babysitting gig. Now I can't. I have a sinking feeling that Vardan's fingers will match the marks on Princess's throat. There's no way in hell I can send her back with that monster.
Vardan digs his fingers into her shoulder. She screeches as if he rammed a hot poker through her side. Makes me long for those earplugs or a long conversation with Kassie.
"Don't touch me," she begs, flinching away from him and closer to me. "Oh please, please, don't touch me."
Vardan doesn't back down. His daughter is pleading with him, honest-to-god tears in her eyes, and the bastard keeps grabbing for her. That's it. Vardan retreats when I surge to my feet. I keep my hands on Princess's wrists - she's got sharp little nails - and move her out of her father's grasp.
"Fifty thousand, and I don't call you until you're ready to take her home."
Vardan's smile makes Matt's look downright angelic. "Two hundred thousand, and I'll forget she ever existed."
"Daddy?" Princess - Astraea - shuffles closer. I don't want to have to hurt her, but I don't want her near her father. If he lays one hand on her, there's no guarantee I'll be able to control myself. I spent too many years watching loser boyfriend after loser boyfriend use my momma as a punching bag.
"The grownups are talking, Astraea," he snaps.
She stiffens. Throws her head back and straightens her shoulders. Yeah, she still looks like the losing half of a boxing match, but regal, too. Not hard to imagine she's the Mage's daughter.
"Your empire will fall," she proclaims. There's no trace of insanity in her declaration. No emotion at all in her voice, just an icy certainty. "Crumble around you like a castle made of sand, and I'll be the wave that sends it crashing to the ground."
"Astraea," Vardan tries to interrupt. She holds up a hand and, by some miracle, he falls silent.
"Your greediness has already cost you your heir. The next payment required will be your soul." Astraea's lips curl back in a snarl that would make any Shifter proud. "Black and oily and dark as midnight; I'll slurp it with a straw."
Okay. That's just creepy. Apparently Vardan believes so, too, because he takes a small step backward. From the shadows, three burly men dressed in black suits close ranks around him.
"Three hundred thousand. I will have someone deliver a box of her belongings." Vardan doesn't look at his child. "Kill her if you'd like. Her mother already believes she's dead."
"Three hundred thousand," I agree. What I don't mention is that if I'm forced to say in the garage for one more second, it won't be the pretty princess I kill.
Vardan snaps his fingers. Goon number one stalks forward and shoves a briefcase at me. I know I'm going to regret it, but I release the Princess's wrists. She doesn't attack me. It's progress, I guess.
The briefcase is full of cash. I can't count it all right then and there, but it looks right. I'm not going to quibble over a couple thousand dollars.
Not another word is spoken until Vardan's scent has dissipated. Briefcase in hand, I spin around to glare at Matt. The bloodsucker has a hell of a lot of explaining to do. He's the reason I don't trust vampires. I should have known better than to answer his call.
Astraea, the newest member of my ragtag pack, is plopped on the floor like a kid ready to play jacks. Matt crouches next to her, eyeing her as if she's an animal in a zoo. He ghosts a hand along her hair. She flinches away from the touch but, thank god, doesn't start screeching again.
"She's a void."
I'm not hip to all the new magic lingo. Most witches I've met are whiny barnacles. It took bribing a warlock into performing a repellent spell to lose the last one I made the mistake of taking home. That was the first and only time I let myself get fooled by magical breast enhancement. Once the illusion fades, so do a lot of other things. I'll work with them for the money, but I don't associate with them for fun.
"What's a void?"
Astraea fixes bloodshot, but lucid, blue eyes on me. Her smile is more mischief than malice. I hope that means she won't set my hair on fire again. "Sometimes, when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much, they…"
My growl shuts her up nicely.
Her smile turns bitter. "Sometimes when the most powerful mage in the South tries to make a baby with the most powerful witch in the area, things go kablooey."
"Kablooey?" Not the most technical term I've ever heard.
She waves a hand at her chest. "Kablooey."
"Magic doesn't work on her or around her. She likely has very little ability of her own," Matt clarifies. "I've never seen a void before. In theory, she should be able to absorb magic through skin-to-skin contact and redirect the energy."
"She's sitting right here," Astraea snidely reminds the vampire. Good girl.
Matt brushes a finger across her bruised cheek. There's a moment of blessed silence, and then she screams. And screams. Just as I'm about to knock her out before the cops come running and make my night even more of a crapfest, she launches herself in my arms and wraps herself around me like a chimpanzee.
"Sleep with devils, Matthias DuPont Anders, and you'll wake with hellfire in your veins." The manic laughter is back. "Crosses to bear, and oh, the bears you cross."
"Why is she doing this?" I ask, not expecting an answer. Matt's not real good about answering direct questions. He says it's the lawyer in him. It's more likely the asshole in him.
"I ate a seer once. Gave me hallucinations for a week."
"She's not a vampire." The undead make me tingle – and not in a pleasant way. This girl's only giving me a headache. And a backache.
"No, but she can absorb magic. Witches spend decades training, learning how to handle the magic. She may be able to process the energy, but if her system isn't designed to process the magic…"
"Kablooey." Of course. Just my luck. Astraea's heels are digging into the small of my back. It's almost as bad as the elbows digging into my shoulders. She's a bony little hellion. "Come on, Princess. Let's get the hell out of here."
Every attempt to put her on her feet only results in her digging those heels even deeper into my spine and squeezing my windpipe. All right. She's not heavy, and I did skip weightlifting this morning. Matt offers to take the briefcase. Yeah, right. I trust vampires as much as I trust lawyers. Lucky Matt gets the wrong end of both sticks.
"Hank ate a mouse again," Astraea informs me solemnly. She pulls back just enough press her nose against mine. My eyes cross for a moment before she shifts away. "He left the cheese in your bed. Traps tossed all willy-nilly, you never know what you're going to catch."
Hank, a bobcat-were, is one of only two feline Shifters in my pack. There are too few Shifters in the area to warrant separate packs. After a month solid of challenges, I united the dozen Shifters residing in the Houston-metro area.
I'm not worried about taking a non-Shifter into a house filled with weres. Members of my pack are well-trained; discipline is the first lesson learned. Besides, I'll make it clear that messing with her is the same as messing with me. No one dares mess with me.
"Jose wants to mate, but he likes bows in his tail. Big, pink bows with lots of lace and polka-dots. Confused kitties are silly."
No. They're a pain in the ass. Just like chatty voids. "Think you can shut up for a while, Princess?"
Her smile widens. Pink lips curl into something soft and seductive. It's almost enough to mask the bead of blood that wells from the cut on her bottom lip. Her eyelids droop to half-mast. "You know, if you want me to stop talking you could always…." She shakes her head swiftly. The siren smile is gone and mischief once again dances in her eyes. "Oops. Sorry. Not supposed to know that yet. It's a secret."
We make it to my truck without incident. I have no problem calling it a miracle. The suitcase of cash fits nicely beneath her feet once she's buckled into the passenger seat. As long as she doesn't set the damn thing on fire, we're golden.
"Aldric?" she asks, emphasizing the first half of a name I hate.
"Daddy didn't leave my suitcase."
Crappity-crap-crap. Our female Shifter is twice Astraea's size and proprietary as hell about her clothes. I don't mind a little light shopping, but I don't relish having to do so with a wacko at my side. There's no telling what she'll do if left alone. With a sigh, I pull into the nearest Wal-Mart parking lot.
"The big blue box houses many frustrations."
Truer words have never been spoken.